Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Mandala Of Compassion

The mandala is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional reality, the ultimate form being the fortress of the inner cosmos. This fortress exists within our minds, and is a fortress we must one day tear down.

The mandala is designed with a complicated series of designs and symbols, each with its own distinct meaning and history. Many mandala are based on the sacred geometry of the Buddha's form in the position of enlightenment. The sand mandala is made with sand, with is added in a small stream to form the individual symbols and designs. Typically, four monks will work at once on the sand mandala, one on each point of the four directions. A special tool is used to sift the sand and make the mandala. As the design takes shape, we begin to see the mandala in our minds. At the completion it is hard to believe it was ever sand. Looking at all the intricate designs, one might think it was a painting or print that would last forever. But it doesn't. We don't want them to destroy it. Afterall, it took them three days or more to make it. This is essence of wrong view.

With one stroke of the dorje, the mandala is scarred, and with it, the image in ours minds. You see, the sand is sand, was sand, and will be sand. The red sand was red sand, is red sand, and will be red sand. The blues, yellows, oranges, and all other colors of sands will remain as they are. The mandala is a formation of our mind, just as the only destruction that takes place is in our minds as well.

Nothing has changed!

Observe a mandala and find one piece of sand that no longer exists after the mandala has been "destroyed." We know this will not occur. The destruction of the mandala is similiar to the story of the monks viewing the waving flag. One monk says that the flag is moving. The other monk says that the wind is moving. Hui neng, the 6th Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, approaches them and says, "No, mind is moving."

We are all like the mandala. This body is something we have put together in our minds. Time is the same. Trees, wealth, status, language, furniture, science, art, highways; these are nothing but bits of sand that will one day be swept into the sea, just as the sand of the mandala was poured into the sea to the sounds of the Tibetan horn and chant. Better to listen to the sound and say goodbye.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Divine Messengers

In the Anguttara Nikaya, Buddha tells of the three Divine Messengers. A person of bad conduct in body, speech, and mind, when leaving the world, is reborn in a plane of misery, and appears before Lord Yama, the Lord of Death. Lord Yama asks the man if he saw the three divine messengers and the man says that he did not.
He asks, "Didn't You ever see a woman or a man, eighty, ninety, or a hundred, years old, frail, bent like a roof bracket, crooked, leaning on a stick?"
The man says, "Yes, Lord, I have seen this."
"Then King Yama says to Him: 'But, my good man, didn't it ever occur to you, an intelligent and mature person, "I too am subject to old age and cannot escape it. Let me now do noble deeds by body, speech, and mind"?'
"No, Lord, I could not do it. I was negligent.'
"Through negligence, my good man, you have failed to do noble deeds by body, speech, and mind. Well, you will be treated as befits your negligence... You alone have done that evil deed, and you will have to experience the fruit.'
Lord Yama continues with the other two divine messengers, sickness and death.
(Anguttattara Nikaya 3:35; I 138-40)1

As a child, I looked at my life and realized that I lacked the discipline needed to make a great change in my life, whether physical, mental, or spiritual. I read stories of great warriors and their sensei, who honed their skills through brutal training or the wise monk who endured hours and hours of chores, sometimes in extreme heat, sometimes in extreme cold, waiting for the chance to learn the Dharma. I wondered when I would get my chance to have a teacher who would get my life in order and make me into what I wanted to be.
I was always getting upset. I upset way too easily. It has been so long now I can hardly remember, but only feel the shame in the way I acted.
When I didn't have to go to school, I could go on marathon runs of sleep. This usually followed the longest possible marathon of late night fun, or reading, or exploits within my imagination until 6 in the morning.
I read the works of many disciplines but lacked structure, organization, and order.
I wanted to train my body knowing that the sharp mind rests firmly on the solid frame, but there was always something to do.
School subjects were just easy enough that I could get by without studying.
I ate what I wanted, when I wanted.
I loved to drink soft drinks and they just didn't seem to make a cup big enough to satisfy my thirst.
And then my lifelong battle with migraines went from an annoyance to a full-time job. I began waking up every day with a migraine and by the time it went away, it was time for bed. When I woke up, the migraine was back. My health fell rapidly.
For a period of about 5-6 months I couldn't work at all, and could barely leave the house. I never really rid myself of a migraine at that point. The only variance was the degree of the pain and the amount of hope. Things had to change.
My first big change was to get my sleep pattern in order, which made me feel a little better.
The second, and a hard change, was to stop eating red meat. This brought about a surprising result. For my entire life, I had woken up each morning with a swollen face, hot, and with the start of a migraine. For the first time, the swelling and heat was gone! The migraine wasn't.
My sporadic studies and practice of Eastern healing like Qi gong and Taijiqong got a boost when I realized that I felt better. Yoga came into my life after it helped as well.
The initial change in migraine condition started when a dentist dislocated my jaw while trying to remove a wisdom tooth. At that point, another condition, TMJ and bruxism (or nighttime grinding of the teeth) became much worse. None of these changes, including 100 others that space doesn't allow, rid me of the migraines or the tension in my jaw. The only temporary relief came from meditation. It is sad that motivation of a spiritual nature was not enough in the beginning, but in a way, the migraine made it hard to do anything. In the end, they forced me to do the things I had always wanted to. Now I cannot live without yoga, Qigong, meditation, and the study of the Dharma, which alleviates my mind of worry.
While speaking with Westerners trying to grasp the concept of Buddhist suffering, I see that people tend to understand the concept, but don't seem to integrate it into their lives. Their own individual problems they see as independent, temporary, and short-term. Something will be along shortly to rid them of all of this and all will be better. When I suffered from one long migraine for 6 months, I had no such illusions. Suffering was present in my mind at every moment while I was awake and asleep. This, for me, was a gateway to understanding more hidden forms of suffering based on wrong views and actions.
From where I stand now, ankle deep in the water, I look out at the vast ocean and know that I have far to go. That journey is not so hard to bare any longer. That teacher that I wished for has always been with me in a form I didn't realize. The divine messengers in our lives take many forms. Some may be physical gurus in ochre robes, but others may be the trials and tribulations of life, such as migraines or things far greater than my problem, such as cancer. What is clear is that these are divine messengers and that the lessons are there for the taking. The vast ocean is there waiting for us to cleanse ourselves of our confused existence and rediscover the ocean of wisdom that is the root of our being.
Blessed be the divine messengers in our lives

1. Bodhi, Bhikkhu In The Buddha's Words Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2005

Sunday, January 22, 2006

La Vie de Bouddha

The primary source of information for this film seems to come from village stories and myths. Some elements that the village men tell in the film do not directly comply with that of the Sutras or traditional belief. The Western scholar in the film draws strange conclusions that make one ponder his intention for the documentary.
While standing on the edge of Vulture Peak, he points out that a full assembly of monks could not have sat there, given the small area of the peak. Contrary to his discovery, the sutras mention the Buddha and his assembly near Vulture Peak, but never does it state that the monks walked out onto the rock formation and listened. My guess would be that the scholar read a summary of a sutra, not a direct translation, and then formulated this idea from that watered-down source. Another moment occurs when Gotama is a boy and his parents attend the harvesting festival, which the scholar tells us depicts Gotama's family working in the fields, as they did every day, forgetting the most significant fact- they were attending a festival. He says that contrary to our current belief, the King of the Sakya people spent his days in the fields. Moments like this are throughout the film.
I would not recommend this film as an educational source, but it does have entertainment value. It can be warming to see the myths of Buddhism told from a people that have spun these tales for 2000 + years.
Overall, however, I was disappointed.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


I thought I would begin with my own initial experiences of "religion" and insight. I don't feel that I, growing up in the West, have ever adopted an "Eastern" viewpoint. There is a beauty to Eastern culture, running quite contrary to Western culture, that can grip someone who has lost faith in the materialist, reason-based, Western ideals. This sort of effect does not typically occur as a child but in adulthood.


The "Western" viewpoint takes root in childhood, as each child is taught a way to conceptualize their everyday experiences. Each individual child takes in an experience and compares it to their developing worldview. As far back as I can remember, I found that these two ideas rarely agreed. My individual experience of events did not agree with the socialization ideology of my region. There seemed to be another side of all things which no child or adult around me could see, almost like seeing an apparition that was invisible to all others.
I can remember as I progressed through early schooling, year to another, the children around me adopted new views, mannerism, thoughts, habits, and ideas. While there were small differences, the general structure of these changes was apparent. The gradual absorption of these habits, rituals, and mannerism did not seem to "download" and "start running" in me so well. Something within me seemed to be broken.
Facial expressions, hand gestures, ways of walking and talking, sounds, words, vocabulary... they all failed to work so well with me. It was as if my "Operating System" did not recognize these strange programs. I spent a great portion of my childhood trying to figure out what was broken and learn how to fix it as quickly as possible. I wanted to adapt to this environment and adapt these mannerism and learn how to coincide with those around me. Instead, the human experience, at all times, felt almost false.
I made attempts to understand this problem and I asked those around me if they had similar experiences or observations. I can still remember from very early childhood a particular girl's response to my inquiry:
"What the hell is wrong with you?"


At around this same time I began to notice that things that others derived a sense of pleasure from did not bring about that same effect in me, or at least on the same apparent scale. I also began to feel like life was some little trick, like a donkey following a carrot held out in front of him with a stick... a carrot he will never reach, but keeps walking nonetheless. When someone in class would offer me a piece of candy, I would eat it, and leave the experience worse off. At that moment, the candy had brought about a craving for candy which could not be satisfied by one piece. The horror of it all was that when I would attempt to satisfy this craving by purchasing a treasure room full of candy and walking down the candy-buffet, I also found myself worse off. I would eat too much candy and feel sick, tired, and get a headache. Was there no solution? Was there no middle ground?
I also had the same observance with sleep. I either had way too much, or more often, very little. I was later diagnosed with a sleep cycle disorder, a disorder in which my brain is constantly on, and when I reach deep stages of sleep, my mind is ripped from it with thought, and therefore true rest is unattainable. I was told that 8 hours of sleep for me was equivalent to only about 4 or 5 for someone else. Basically I lack restful sleep and so I never find that perfect balance and attain a "perfect night of sleep" where I awake refreshed.
I began to feel that there was a hidden taint to all things pleasurable and that happiness was an impossibility.


Another event which sticks out in my mind was when a person from another country looked at a river and called it a stream. I corrected them and told them it was a river, but then wondered how I knew so. I begin to try to find the point where a river ends. At what size, depth, width, or rate of flow does a stream end and a river begin? Can there be such a place? There was no actual point of change so how could I know one from the other?
This moment shook me and everything in the world lost much of it's form. Did anything exist? I couldn't even prove to myself that a river existed!
I found some relief when I looked at my own body. There I found a shell, in the form of skin and it was easy to say what was my body and what was someone else's body. But I made the mistake of listening during biology class. I found out that cells constantly die and new cells are formed. The food we eat becomes muscle, sinew, bone, hair, and perhaps even fuels an individual thought. I am food, I realized... but I am also not food. I was something else. Where was I? I started to feel like the river.
What connected the me of now with the me of then? If every cell in the human body has been replaced within 7 years, what part of me is me? My thoughts? Even those change!
Another vivid memory is looking in the mirror as a child and feeling no connection to the face. The sight perception has not thought of, "I am looking at myself." It was a face but I had the experience as if I was looking at a picture of someone else's face. It didn't belong. I also had a similar experience with my name. I had a daydream in which I was outside of the vessel in which my name held firm and had no grasp of how it had been assigned to me, what it was, and where it was. It was as if the concept of NAME short-circuited.
Things really became confusing when a new experience began. I was in the middle of speaking with someone when I lost the anchor with myself and began to drift from that state of mind. For a moment, I could sense and feel the micro-calculations that went into every word and within every sentence, and how each word was meant not only to express an idea, but to establish a concept of ME within that person's mind, but in the manner that I wanted it to be so. I could see that all human conversation, in my mind, had a hidden agenda. But with that sub-process stopped, there was no source of words and the conversation stopped in mid-sentence. From there I went out of normal experience and began to lose the concept of subject and object, of the normal flow of time, and there was a silence in my mind that was, for the first time, deafening. The hundreds of tiny thoughts were gone. Everything that IS, was not IS anymore. I had a sense that I needed to pull out further. Now I would define it as if I were still in a defiled state and had to unattach further. With that came a sense of longing for the sensual, defiled, unhappy world. The world made no sense, people made no sense, but that was where I wanted to be, and I wanted to experience that world with the tiny sufferings of each moment. The experience faded.
Those moments were to occur and still do occur, but each time that hold I have on pulling myself back gets weaker. The desire to return to "this" is less.
With not one soul around me to speak of these things, I began to look to mentors or guides within religion. I found no answer. Those held in regard within the church that I was brought to by my parents seemed as lost as I was. The worst thought was that I felt that they didn't sense this other shore and had no desire to get there. They seemed attached to their words in the way that I was, in establishing myself within someone else, and dispensing my own agenda.


Asian Philosophy and Asian viewpoints had always made more sense. There was not the same sense of "foreign" in their worldview/experience as there was where I lived. Yet even this worldview failed to address many experiences that I felt ran contrary to the way it was stated that "things were."
In college I began to be fascinated by Buddhism. It was interesting that in all my childhood reading of Asian culture, philosophy, and art that I had never had the thought to read a book specifically on an Asian religion. Much of it had to do with a belief planted in my mind that other religions were impure and that it was a sin to embrace them. Though I doubted that this was correct, it somehow diverted my attention.
After reading the words of the Buddha and learning of Buddhist philosophy, I begin to finally feel that I had mentors in this world. Here is someone who had been through similar experiences and doubted the validity of the current worldview of reality. I had the same experience with Daoism and later Hinduism. After some time I began to read Buddhist works more and more. I did not define myself as Buddhist, but said that "we appear to be walking the same path."
Much of this, I think, was driven by ego. The revelations that Buddha made to many people, that shocked people, and woke them from their waking dream, was nothing new to me. The satisfaction I had was in the way the Buddha and others could express this experience, far beyond any way that I had attempted. One thing had to be clear to myself and to others: I had discovered these things for myself.


It is hard to predict where a path will lead. This ignorance and holding to ego held me into Buddhism long enough to learn deeper aspects of this reality and to further my experience. Instead of feeling like the sun within this galaxy, large and grand, I began to feel like one grain of sand on the River Ganges. I was humbled by thoughts and experience far beyond anything I had ever experienced and realized that "I am nothing special."
Since that time, many beliefs have had an effect on me and brought about change, but Buddhism has been the deepest river for me. I stopped trying to prove myself and prove to people that I wasn't some "Westerner turned yogi." I just wanted to learn and progress. It was no longer an insult to ego to call myself a Buddhist.


Lately, I haven't been so attached to these names and labels. Enlightened experience is individual. Since childhood I have felt that people should take individual responsibility for their education, both spiritual and material. Those that have come before and have awakened did so in a state outside of the convenient sections of the bookstore or with any silly names. Each individual constructed their worldview through individual experience and therefore the means to transcend ignorance will be individual and unique. The one true source for one might not be so for another. Others may need no religion at all. (a topic in the works for a future posting)
My bookshelf holds more books on Buddhism, mainly Tibetan and Chan, but it also holds works of many faiths and religions. That is the easiest way to describe my path, my jñana-marga.
I once finished yoga and began to meditate. A thought entered my mind, "Am I practicing Hindu meditation or Buddhist meditation. The ignorance of this concept, of the name defining the method, opened me up even further to this idea of individual experience. As the Buddha said, "Be lamps unto yourself."

Friday, January 06, 2006

Circle Opens

In the Heart Sutra (Skrt: Prajñāpāramitā Hridaya Sūtra) , Avalokiteshvara tells us that Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form. We know that Buddhanature (Skrt: Buddha-dhatu) is not Buddhanature, but only a word, a way to point to something outside the continuum of conceptual thought. The Buddha did not find Buddhanature nor did he create Buddhism. This state is not a monopoly of the Buddhist follower, keeping itself at arms distance until one takes a set of vows. If this nature is within anyone, it is possible that any tradition could tap this source.
I have witnessed amusing faces of shock when others discover that I, a Buddhist, study works such as the Bhagavad Gita. Aren't these two religions against each other; one believing in atman, the other in anatman? It must be remembered that Siddhartha studied the Vedic traditions in the beginning of his journey to enlightenment. These traditions provided mental concentration and inner wisdom which enabled him to reach the awareness of anatman, which the Vedic tradition, in his view, had no grasp of. That is where the two religions branch greatly. Until we reach this final stage, the debate over atman or anatman is of little consequence. We all pull our heavy carts, bearing heavy loads in our daily lives as we seek to uncover our inner nature.
At one time I worked with a man who had at one time, been a heavy drug user. In his mind, the Lord (Yahweh, GOD) provided the strength to rescue him from his addiction and put him on a straight path.
The sad element of this story is that he did not cure himself of addiction, but instead substituted one for another. Faith and religious practice became his new addiction. Religion requires us to trascend this base, fundamental, and crude way of thinking and go further inward. Every step of the path is beset with tricks and dead ends. Attachment to spiritual traditions is one of these. "I am a Chan Buddhist so I don't understand these Tibetan guys," I once heard. This idea of difference, of greater or lesser, brings us in the wrong direction and bears the wrong fruit within our minds. The major difference of our traditions are superficial in the early, mundane stages. As I said before, the major differences only occur at a point very far ahead, when we will have already trascended this unskillful idea of labeling our path.
For convienience I call this a "Buddhist blog" to identify the major path that I take. However, I will always turn a warm ear to the words of a noble son or daughter of any faith or religion. In the final stages of our journey, there are no Buddhists, Hindus, or Christians.
I will see you somewhere on the mountain.