Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Other Shore... Leave your Boat at The Water

“As a Buddhist, how do you feel about……” someone began to ask me, thinking that being Buddhist, every opinion and idea of my worldview would conform to one Buddhist ideal, and thus the one could represent the many. Not only are there many philosophies and viewpoints within Buddhism itself, each individual only has a certain awareness of these philosophies that expand over time as awareness grows and wisdom is gained.

Accepting a viewpoint only because it is the viewpoint of our school of Buddhism or religion is untenable. Collecting beliefs based on tradition will leave one with a junk shop of empty meaning. If we do not understand the significance of the teaching, and if we cannot defend it to ourselves or others, then we should set it to the side. The Buddha himself warned against this practice, speaking of a line of blind men, each with an arm on the man in front, believing based on tradition that the man in front of him knew where he was going. Do not be blinded by faith and tradition.

Empiricism is at the heart of the Buddhist path. This examination is not done for us, but is done at the individual level. In other words, we cannot sit next to our teacher and gain insight. We must seek, and this seeking can take time. While examining one aspect of Buddhist thought, I found it to be against the grain with the remainder of the teachings. Perhaps this was just inexperience, or lack of insight, but this idea did not seem to coalesce with the basic philosophy. In time I learned that this aspect was a cultural one, a part of that people long before the introduction of Buddhism, now dispensed as a part of Buddhist teachings/religion, now not recognized as a part of culture. We must be careful not to adopt these cultural adaptations. They are all the more dangerous when they take the form of religious practices.

Outside of Buddhism, another example I could offer is the Judeo-Christian idea of Heaven. In my personal understanding, Heaven cannot exist along side of Hell for a being with a store of merit of compassion and loving-kindness. Such a being, fulfilling all necessary actions to reach heaven, will be there for eternity. This being has, over one lifetime or many, dedicated practice towards the alleviation of suffering of other beings, and it stands to reason that this being will have a strong motivation to help those who will suffer for an eternity in hell. A lifetime of peace is little good to a being dedicated to the welfare of others. For this bodhisattva, heaven would become hell, trapped for eternity without means to help those who suffer in hell, tortured every day of their existence. I, for one, would much rather give my up my chance in heaven and spend an eternity in hell, teachings others how to be mindful of pain and learn to alleviate the suffering of even that existence. In other words, for Heaven to be a place devoid of suffering, it would need to be a place full of self-oriented individuals. Satan or Yama, they are not exempt. [This all excludes the fact that other realms are beyond the understanding of man, but given that Heaven is written in worldly terms, I give myself permission to speak so here.]

Humanity has always fallen victim to certain predispositions, and no matter what efforts any religion or philosophy makes to circumvent these, they appear nonetheless. Buddha, like so many other leaders of his time, was very clear when he asked that none of the sangha make images of him, and so the sangha made images of his feet or of lotuses instead. It wasn’t long, however, before temples has full-fledged Buddha statues. Priests and monks will claim that Buddhists do not worship the Buddha, but one must take into consideration that in large populations, many will fall victim to the same predispositions of humanity, no matter the religion. It wasn’t long before laymen all over Asia were kneeling in front of Buddha asking for divine intervention, which remains in practice to this day. While deity worship is easy to notice, we must also be careful not to fall victim to the traps of multiple layers of conceptual thinking. It is easy, when delving into the midst of emptiness and impermanence, to become attached to a false sense of emptiness, into a world of illusion that we build up that is just as false as the conventional reality that we thought we had destroyed. We can become attached to our success and sense of achievement on the path.

For beginners, it is common to see their boats heavily fettered to the dock, attached by preconceived ideas of Buddhism, religious practices, teachings, methods, mantras, initiations, postures, etc. The words expounded by the Buddha would float lightly of the seas, but the religions of today, weighed down with identity, would quickly sink. The beginner who can stay away from this baggage will hold strong wind on their sail.

Those who have crossed the shore have not left the boat at the other side as the Buddha warned, but carry it over their heads like a beacon, bumping into each other in the forest.

“Look out! Student of This! Rinpoche coming through.”

“I studied This! Zen at This! Temple so you should move.”

“I have had initiations from many famous masters, so I should have the right of way.”

‘Here are my beliefs,' they all cry, boats overhead.

With the name they also carry the ideas, methods, religious practices, and sometimes even mannerisms of their particular boat.

The forest has more boats than the water. We fall back into religious practice, seeking the form and method, like the baby looking for the womb. We do not continue to hold up our realities to question, but instead form other conventional realities that look less like what we left, and more like what we think a Buddhist world should look like. We become happy in our bubble for a time.

The world we have constructed is not emptiness but a shadow concealing ego, as religion takes form and root once again. We cannot believe that our path is the same path demarcated as 1000 others. What has ever worked this way? Can we truly believe that the highest levels of liberation will reveal themselves in this way, like a paved highway that we will all follow together? When Maitripa passed, Atisha mourned the loss, realizing that no other teacher in India truly understood the doctrine of Buddhist thought, around 1000 years ago. What would Atisha say today?

Do we change Buddhism? Of course not. We cannot. To change this course one would need to change humanity as a whole. Those that seek a path without distinction, without barriers, without form, without degree, will cast a light in the forest and those not blinded by their own beacon of tradition and faith will nod, gather a few words of advice, pass on a few, and be on their way. But do not pass on darkness, only light.


Thursday, March 23, 2006


It is not often that you find a film director who is also the head of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India. To have Neten Choklin Rinpoche be the director for the film about the life of Milarepa is a wonderful choice. This film, Milarepa:Revenge, has just finished screening at the Bangkok International Film Festival and may have other screening before finding itself onto video. I will leave an update at that time. I think it is safe to say the life of Milarepa will not be coming to a theatre near you... at least not in America.
Here is the synopsis:

Milarepa, Tibet's greatest meditation master, lived as a yogi at the end of the eleventh century. Born into affluence, Milarepa watched as their estate was stolen by an ambitious uncle. To avenge this injustice, Milarepa mastered the arts of black magic and assassinated his uncle's family and friends. Almost immediately Milarepa felt great remorse for his brutality and set out to undo his bad karma. Guided by a spiritual teacher named Marpa, Milarepa endured many physical hardships and mental challenges designed to purify his negative actions. Ultimately, after a series of strict cave retreats, Milarepa attained spiritual enlightenment. Soon after, disciples flocked to him requesting his teachings. Milarepa became a great teacher, a master at sharing his wisdom and insights, renowned for his unusual methods and ascetic lifestyle. One day Milarepa's closest disciple, Rechungpa, requested, “Milarepa, for the benefit of myself and all of your students and for those people fortunate enough to hear about you in the future, please tell us the story of your life.” And so the story begins...



Monday, March 20, 2006

Greatest Gift

"O monks, if people knew, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they would not eat without having given, nor would they allow the stain of [stinginess] to obsess them and take root in their minds. Even if it were their last morsel, their last mouthful, they would not eat without having shared it, if there were someone to share it with. But, monks, as people, do not know, as I know, the result of giving and sharing, they eat without having given, and the stain of [stinginess] obsesses them and takes root in their minds."

(Itivuttaka 26;18-19)

We give a dollar here and a few coins there or perhaps we send out a check once a month, but we are so unwilling to give our time and attention or dedicate too much of ourselves to the spirit of giving. Money? This can be a welcome gift under the proper circumstances, but this gift will not remove the burden of suffering from others. To feed a family for one night is charity, but we must ask if we are part of a greater system which perpetuates the suffering of that same family.

We, followers of the Dharma, members of the Mahasangha, all under the light of Buddha Gautama, have a gift to share that carries with it no price tag, no religious obligations for the receiver, no expectation of return, but only movement of a wheel of evolution towards the alleviation of suffering. What is this gift?

When the Buddha expounded the eight streams of merit, he began with the familiar Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. What followed were five precepts, vows to be followed by all Buddhists, as gifts to all beings, to free them from fear, lighten their burden, and lessen their shadow.

"There are further, monks, these five gifts- pristine, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated...."

"Here, monks, a noble disciple gives up the destruction of life and abstains from it. By abstaining from the destruction of life, the noble disciple gives to immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression."
(Anguttara Nikaya 8:39;IV245-47)

This is a very large gift to beings everywhere. How few find the strength to do so. Too many find excuses to withhold this gift. In the Buddha's time, the monks lived on the alms collected door to door, from the charity of householders. They did not choose their meal. Surviving on only alms, it is true that they would have eaten meat. It is also true that in most parts of the world, even today, meat is a luxury eaten rarely and it is doubtful that it was handed out to monks regularly. The monks would have survived primarily on rice and grains from the kitchens of the householders. Many use the example of the alms of the Buddha's time as an excuse to eat meat. There is a fundamental difference in alms and choosing our food at the grocery store.
"But I didn't kill it!" we say. Oversimplifyng the laws of supply and demand and the inventory systems of major grocery store chains, imagine that there are 20 slots for steak on the shelf. If we purchase 1 steak, that steak will be replaced with a new steak. If we did not bring about the destruction of life of the cow of our steak, we have sealed the fate for the cow of the next steak down the line. This is so for each piece of meat we purchase. Demand will be met at the grocery store. We didn't kill the cow but we bring about the destruction of life nonetheless.
How can we claim to give when we take, and how can we find any peace in meditation knowing that any number of beings live in fear based on our appetites? Did the Buddha mean cows, chickens, ants, and cockroaches when he said immeasurable beings? Of course. Though not about the above topic, we see the Buddha define what a "being" is:

"To whatever extent there are beings, whether footless or with two feet, four feet, or many feet, whether having form or formless, whether percipient or nonpercipient, the Tathagata, the Arahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One is declared best among them."
(Anguttara Nikaya 4:34;II 34-35)

Sadly, many people will go to great lengths to build complex labyrinths of false logic to justify violating moral codes that they themselves stand for. I sat down for dinner in a restaurant with a woman from Peta (though she may not represent the organization as a whole) who spoke at length about the cruelty and insanity of hunting elephants and other majestic animals. She went from one animal to another, explaining how each suffered at the hands of man. A small voice of question started to whisper in the back of my mind. Every animal that she mentioned was cute and cuddly. Not once did she mention saving an animal that was no so majestic, like a cow, chicken, or pig. (Nor would it be logical to only save animals that are near extinction, for there are millions and millions and millions of humans, and we seem to value them to some degree)

And then our meals arrived. On her plate was the once majestic chest muscle of a chicken, seasoned and fried. I could only close my eyes. Removed from the scene of destruction of life, unattached from the original form, she could take the life of one and attempt to teach others not to take the life of another. One cannot teach from the grand podium of a hypocrite. "All creatures that are cute and cuddly should be protected and anything with feathers is for dinner!" is not going to inspire many people.

We all know the other four gifts:
2. Abstaining from taking what is not given
3. Abstaining from sexual misconduct
4. Abstaining from False Speech
5. Abstaining from intoxicants

When we uphold our five precepts, without a labyrinth of false logic, holding true to their meaning, we give the immeasurable beings freedom from fear. There is no greater gift we can give to the world. We are only 6% of the population ( but we can affect change. The West is only now becoming comfortable with the Buddhist ideas of peace, and we must share with them, through action, our idea of freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression. Peaceful minds will make peaceful communities, which make peaceful countries, which make peaceful worlds. As the sangha grows, the wheel thus turns again and the Pure Land comes into view. We all have the map...
Sutras from:
Bodhi, Bhikkhu In The Buddha's Words Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2005


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Flower and Weed Consciousness

In Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the two forms of consciousness in Buddhist psychology. Given that this concept will play a large part in many future posts, it should be touched on briefly. In the Buddhist system, the consciousness is divided into "mind consciousness" and "store consciousness." While one may fall into the habit of viewing the division from the Conscious/Subconscious perspective, it is important to realize that the two differ[future post].
Each memory, experience, perception, view, etc. is stored in the store consciousness in the form of a "mind seed" or "seed." These seeds manifest in the mind consciousness either as joy, happiness, and peace or anger, sorrow, and fear, depending on the quality of seed that we collect on the way.
For example, if our good friend is promoted to a new position and we harbor ill feelings of jealousy and we hold this feeling inside and begin to hate, this will form a strong seed that will one day manifest into the mind consciousness again as anger. The greatest danger is that, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, "any seed that manifests in our mind consciousness always returns to our store consciousness stronger." We sow the seeds for future suffering. A seed of joy becomes a flower and a seed of anger becomes a weed .

this diagragm illustrates why I took up music and not art.

We begin life with a relatively empty field. By the time we have gained control over our consciousness and have become aware of the patterning of all things and the fact that within pleasure seems to hide a bit of pain, we have already sown many seeds that have manifested as weeds, over and over.....and over. Of course, we have had our share of flowers, but as in the unkept garden, the weeds have dominion. It seems a little unfair that our first steps in the spiritual life are about 10,000 steps behind, but each of the steps is a teacher. Each weed that you pull will teach you not to plant another weed seed. Each flower will guide you to plant another flower seed. When we mindfully live in joy, happiness, and peace, we gather our flower seeds and grow strong roots. When we mindfully navigate difficult experiences we prevent the weed from being planted. When we mindfully intercept these seeds as they manifest into the mind consciousness, we design our garden.
And so we sit in meditation and we strengthen our power to concentrate so that we may strengthen our power to mindfully navigate our field of consciousness and bring forth the threefold flower garden.

Nhat Hanh, Thich Touching Peace: Berkeley:Paralax Press 1992


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Try... Try.. Again

Most are familiar with the story of Nan-yueh's mirror, in which Master Nan-yueh observed that Ma-tsu was meditating diligently towards enlightenment and the Master then began to grind a stone. Ma-tsu became annoyed and asked why his master was doing this. The master replied, "I am polishing the stone to make a mirror out of it."
We can see that no matter the diligence, skill, and no matter how fine the cloth he uses to polish the stone, that surface can never reflect an image, just as meditation alone will not bring about enlightenment. Buddhism contains powerful techniques to unlock and discard the conventional construction of reality that we have built around our sense of self, but the application of these techniques must at all times be used with discerning wisdom.
The pain medication Tylenol cannot cure infection no matter the dosage, and might actually bring harm to the body instead. The most powerful drug is useless when used for the wrong ailment. Diligence misapplied is useless.
One fine example of this occurred during the holidays a few years back when I went to visit my mother. We went to a bulk grocer, which was the size of a warehouse, with a very large parking lot. After buying our food and waiting in the long holiday line we went to my mother's car and she used her remote control to attempt to open the trunk of her car to load the groceries. The trunk didn't open. Due to severe arthritis her hands are very fragile and I was asked to try. No change. She explained that the battery in the remote was weak and possibly needed changing. Fumbling through her purse she found the replacement battery. With shaking hands from the cold winter wind, I used a coin from my pocket, twisting and turning against the plastic, but could not get the case to open. Too many failed attempts in the past had worn away the edges of the groove making it very hard to open the battery cover. Using a slightly larger coin, with shaking hands and clattering teeth, I managed to open the cover, replace the battery, and close it once again... loosely. No change. It was shortly thereafter that a trunk was noticed, about three rows down, on a car of the same make and model. The trunk was wide open and had been for some time. Three people had been standing at the wrong car for twenty minutes, approaching one problem after another with diligence that bore the fruit of foolishness and laughter. A quick look inside of that car would demonstrate why the remote had failed to work. We jumped right to the problem itself without looking for the root cause. If we had succeeded in opening the trunk of the wrong car, matters would have been far worse.
Life will give us daily problems. The spiritual path will disguise our problems in many different packages, forms and feelings. We cannot blindly apply the techniques we learn as a generic cure-all, but must use discerning wisdom and be on guard for tricks of the mind. Like water, the mind wants to seek the path of least resistance. This path seems to lead to one of two extremes, in an exaggerated sense of self or in the nihilist path. We must tread the Madhyamaka, the middle way, the waist-high water, and keep our eyes on the sun. These two extremes and one thousand other poisons will descend on us quietly, through back doors or through whispers in ours ears. Like the mind that lingers off during meditation, we gently gain control and bring it back.
Diligence, patience, and hard work are pillars of spiritual practice but must be applied correctly or will be like Nan-yueh's mirror; all grind and no shine. The water is worth treading.

"Then the image of great Shakyamuni
just dawning in mind, heals me well,
as moon-rays heal the pain of fever.

Though that good system is thus marvelous,
Inexpert persons get totally confused
In every respect, as if they were
Tangled up in jungle grasses.

Having understood this problem,
I schooled myself in writings of skilled sages,
Studying with manifold exertions,
Seeking Your intent again and again.

And I studied numerous treatises
Of the Buddhist and the non-Buddhist schools,
Yet unremittingly my intellect
Was still tormented in the trap of doubt.

So I went to the night-lily garden of Nagarjuna's works,
Prophesied to elucidate correctly
The art of Your final Vehicle,
Free of the extremes of being and nothing.

There I saw, by the kindness of the Mentor,
All illuminated by garlands of white light
The true eloquence of the glorious Chandra moon,
Whose expanding orb of taintless wisdom
Courses freely in the sky of Scripture,
Dispels the darkness of extreme hearts,
Eclipses constellations of false truths;
And then my mind at last obtained relief!"
-Praise of Buddha Shakyamuni for His Teaching of Relativity: The Short Essence of Eloquence
Lama Tsong Khapa

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

One Finger From the Fishbowl

How strange that many people spend an entire lifetime contemplating which t.v. actor is dating which movie star and which phone has Bluetooth (whatever that is), or which pair of jeans make them look fat, but spend not a second on questions such as, "What happens between material cause and material effect" or "Where is my mind?" I asked a bilingual co-worker, half-joking, if she sneezed in Spanish or English. Realizing that a thing as simple as a sneeze lies outside of the Subject-Object mind of language, it can actually be the first taste of what lies beyond the curtains we have put over our true minds, a taste of the ineffable. From where do thoughts arise? An easy way to see how the mind fools us is with the movement of the finger. We all know that the impulse to move the finger comes from the mind.
Being that simple, use your mind to bend your finger.... Sounds simple enough. I don't ask you to simply bend your finger. That impulse appears to occur within the finger itself. I ask you to use a thought and make your finger move. It is, after all, YOUR finger. When you are thinking words and thoughts to yourself, you will find that the thinking seems to come from the inside the skull, and that is where the thought to move the finger should originate. It is your mind, and noone else's. If you can't control your finger, what can you control?
There is a very good reason why the thought to move the finger does not originate with a conscious thought such as "Hey, finger... get moving!" Imagine that we rest our hand on a red-hot stovetop burner. If the hand must wait for the conscious thought- "This burner is quite hot. I must remove my hand now," -to move, we would all walk around with toasted hands. Nature has decided that it is best for us not to control everything consciously, but let some things run from the more primitive, mammalian, instinctive brain- a brain that might just save your life with quick instinct and reaction.
The problem is that this "routing" that takes place for the finger and that simplifies things is that it also has a large effect on our cognitive mind, therefore on how we see the world and frame our reality. [I hope to gradually introduce more cognitive science as a way to understand the difficulties of the spiritual path from the Western perspective]
We all have formed a very silly view of the world, with a "reality" far from anything close to true logic. We always run the chance that the cognitive brain will "misfire" when we trust in it. Logic can be seen as the fish in the fishbowl, declaring that the earth is round and only holds about 2 gallons of water. When the mind is defiled, any sight or sound, cognized thought or theory, will also be defiled. Our skull is a fishbowl.
The method of cognition is what we must restructure to break this fishbowl, one neural network at a time. Do not be concerned with the mechanism or processes too greatly for this only serves to further bind the mind to the illusions of form, feeling, and mental volitions that have been secured. The path out of this maze was found long ago.
What is truly amazing is that the ascetics of many of the world's traditions understood the illusory nature of conventional reality and found a way to awaken the mind to the ultimate nature without understanding the quantum world or neuroscience. Even today, where science remains in the field of the observer, the ascetic stands alone. As an observer, duality is always present and theory can never unify with being. The scientist himself can be the great new discovery as man learns how to explore newfound knowledge within the power of the mind. While I enjoy reading papers by Einstein, Schrodinger, and Heisenberg, there was another man who spoke of the relativity of time that I prefer to spend more time with, who can not only speak of theory, but help to "crack the bowl." His name: Nagarjuna (no Nobel Prize)