dharma developments for 2013?

What will 2013 bring, especially for Buddhists and Buddhism in general? I hope it brings an increased awareness amongst Buddhists about the prospect of catastrophic climate change and how Buddhists can, indeed perhaps must, get involved in what is arguably the greatest challenge mankind has ever faced: the challenge of reducing the carbon emissions of mankind sufficiently to mitigate the worst effects of global warming and allow mankind, and all other living beings, a reasonable chance of making the necessary adaptations to the inevitable climate shifts without catastrophic losses of life and eco-systems. This seems to me to be a supreme field for bodhisattva activity, as anything that helps to achieve some reduction in carbon emissions or help make the switch to a low carbon society and economy will quite literally benefit all living beings. The urgency of the global warming crisis is such that all of us, especially all of us Buddhists, acting here and now to help deal with this climate emergency, will be engaging in something that will benefit not only this generation but all future generations. This is now a chance for Buddhism to become truly engage with one of the most urgent issues of our time. Many Buddhists from traditional forms of Buddhism realise this and are urging such action, and the book, A Buddhist response to the Climate Emergency, is a tremendously powerful statement by many of the most renowned Buddhist teachers of our time for such engagement by Buddhist worldwide. By far the best website I have come across for exploring the climate emergency further and looking at ways that Buddhists can help deal with it is the Ecological Buddhism website. 2012 was the year in which I started immersing myself in environmental campaigning as part of my bodhisattva field of work, and I hope that 2013 will see a deepening of my commitment, and a widening of my range of activities, in this area.

What is also clear about 2013 is that we will see an ever increasing engagement of Buddhism, especially the more recent and secularised forms of it, with the cutting edge of modern developments in science, technology and cultural innovations generally. Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of computing and the internet. What impresses me is the sheer range and variety of Buddhist websites, and the ever increasing sophistication of those websites. Truly the internet is now contributing significantly to a vast and deep transmission of the Dharma on a global scale and in a myriad of new ways. The challenge is how to marry the advantages of online educational technology for structured, easily accessible learning courses that have built-in interactivity and supported by media resources of all kinds with the advantages of the traditional fac-to-face oral transmissions and the supportive aspects of having a local sangha. Some Buddhist websites are making great progress in this area, but as usual there is much work still to do to fully exploit the potential of the internet for deepening Dharma study and practice. And, of course, there are dangers with an online approach to Dharma, dangers that require the use of mindfulness to keep them in check. But then again, these dangers are themselves an opportunity to deepen that very same mindfulness. I suspect that the use of the internet to spread the Dharma is just as big a challenge to traditional ways of Dharma transmission as the transfer of the original purely oral teachings of Buddha into a written form, and later on the mass production of the originally hand-written texts through the use of printing, an innovation that enabled the Dharma to spread quickly throughout the vastness of China. A good summary of some of the key issues concerning Buddhism and the internet is Sean Healey’s article. And by online, I mean not just desktop computers but also mobile phones and tablets. The proliferation of Buddhist apps for such devices may represent a quantum leap for the uptake of Buddhist ideas and practices on a mass level, if such apps gain traction and popularity. The development of such apps is very much discussed in detail by the techno-savvy guys at Buddhist Geeks.


But perhaps the most significant, if less obvious, way in which Buddhism may evolve in 2013 is through a subtle deepening of the engagement of traditional Buddhism with modern psychological research and practice. This has been going on for some years now and will no doubt continue. Buddhism is arguably a psychological world-view in itself, and certainly modern psychologists have recognised in Buddhism a rich source of ideas about human psychology. Modern psychology has a huge if often unacknowledged influence upon modern ways of thinking about the mind and thinking in general, so any engagement of Buddhism with modern psychology gives Buddhism a  chance to exert a wider influence upon society in general, although in the process Buddhism itself undeniably starts to become influenced by modern psychology itself. Certainly Buddhism has been mined by modern psychologists for ideas about how to introduce mindfulness training into health care settings, and this secular application of Buddhist principles is making substantial headway in clinical psychology, certainly in the US and the UK, and is a fascinating story in itself, as described very well by Vishvapani in his excellent blog on Buddhist issues. I would argue that the best Buddhist websites attempt to combine the best of online educational technology, itself heavily influenced by modern educational psychology research, with the most important aspects of Buddhist psychology to create new and innovative ways of transmitting the Dharma. But that is another fascinating story in itself.

And I would argue that the best of the newly emergent sanghas are those which recognise that traditional forms of Buddhism cannot be harmoniously transplanted to the West without an awareness of the particular psychological make-up of people within Western culture and the particular needs many people attracted to Dharma have of either psychotherapy of some kind or some help to understand what a basic positive psychological state is before they engage too deeply with advanced Buddhist practices. That is why I would recommend to all Buddhist practitioners works such as Toward a Psychology of Awakening by John Welwood and The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra by Rob Preece. Both Welwood and Preece are Buddhist practitioners of long-standing but are also qualified psychotherapists of long-standing, and their works point out the dangers of an uncritical acceptance of the psychological and emotional demands of certain traditional Buddhist principles and practices, dangers which can be avoided or overcome through a sensitive application of Western, non-Buddhists psychological and psychotherapeutic principles. I myself wish I had read these books before I had engaged too deeply with the New Kadampa Tradition of Buddhism, as these works enlighten me on some of the mistakes that both I and the management of the NKT have made with respect to managing conflict within the NKT centre I belonged to and the wider NKT in general. But such mistakes are not confined to the NKT. Many other Buddhist traditions have had similar traumatic lessons in conflict management, and many will continue to do so as long as the resources already within our culture for helping to deal with them are ignored or demeaned by those traditions because of a lack of humility about the limitations of traditional forms of Buddhist practice or Buddhist governance.

Anyway, we’ll see what 2013 brings. May you all have a very Happy New Year, filled with much peace and joy!

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 13,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

ending the year on a positive note…

Today was my last retreat day of the year, and what a profound one it was for me and, I think, for those with me as well. The true meaning of ‘positivity’ was very much the theme of the retreat day and certainly a very positive atmosphere was generated by us retreatants. The brief but complete retreat instructions given by the retreat facilitator was enough to launch us all on the interior quest for the source of positivity itself, a quest that is in itself a very positive movement of the mind given that the quest is dependent upon the conviction that such a source of positivity does actually exist within the mind. For me, that source of positivity is nothing less than the true nature of the mind itself, that “brightly shining mind” that Buddha talks about in the Pali Canon, that basic, intrinsic awareness that is naturally radiant like a sun, naturally positive, naturally loving and compassionate, naturally perfect in its clarity, naturally pure in its silent, still presence and naturally manifest whenever I allow myself to abide in the peace and tranquillity of the here and now. Today’s retreat once again brought that inner truth home to me and marked the perfect end to a year that at one point threatened to be an annus horribilis. Instead, the year has turned out to be a turning point for me, a liberation from the constraints of people trying to impose their interpretation of a ‘pure’ Buddhist view and practice upon me and my colleagues, and a discovery of how no practice can be ‘pure’ unless it succeeds in giving one access to the natural purity of the mind itself, a purity that can only be understood and verified by the direct experience of it in one’s own meditation practice, a practice that often follows its own natural path regardless of what the instructions of the ‘textbooks’ or ‘manuals’ of any tradition might stipulate as necessary or essential.

The only pure, qualified teacher, or guru, that can ultimately be depended upon is the inner voice that one hears in the depths of one’s meditation, within the sutra that is one’s open heart, open to the wisdom that naturally flows when the dam of delusions is removed, if only temporarily. The ‘outer’ guru is invaluable as a pointer towards the ‘inner’ guru, as the person who introduces one to the nature of one’s own inner guru and the path that leads towards it. I remain grateful for, and devoted towards, the immense kindness of my outer guru for that essential introduction, and that outer guru is, for me, now, inseparable from the inner guru that I have ‘discovered’, or, perhaps more accurately, ‘uncovered’. And given that new-found inseparability of outer and inner guru, the institutional framework within which the outer guru supposedly operates becomes not only irrelevant for me but also seen as merely the temporary stage for the outer guru to act upon. When the outer guru leaves the stage, the stage itself is useless; even worse, the stage itself can become an obstacle to genuine transmission of the Dharma if those who run the stage treat the stage itself as being the outer guru and promote it to others as such. The real stage for the outer guru is always the stage of the disciple’s heart; there is where the real drama of Dharma transmission takes place, and it is there that a tradition lives and continues on across the generations, not on any outer stage, however well advertised it may be by a PR agency or a brand marketing strategy. “All the world’s a stage”, as Shakespeare says, but the stage of the heart constructed in meditation is the only one that matters as far as seeing the performance of one’s inner guru is concerned. But of course that is only my view, perhaps a ‘heretical’ one, typical for one so ‘impure’ as I. But on days such as today, it is a view that helps to give me access to all the ‘positivity’ that I could wish for. And it is days such as today that I live for and benefit from for, as a poet once said, on such days, “one burning hour throws light a thousand ways”.

is the Heart Sutra real?

There are innumerable commentaries upon the Heart Sutra, which, although very short, nevertheless inspires countless people to add their gloss upon the sutra, sometimes at enormous length! The fact that the sutra keeps generating new commentaries is testament to the enduring charisma of the sutra. Some of the commentaries that I have studied and am still studying are:

the heart sutra: the womb of buddhas. Translation & commentary by Red Pine. Counterpoint, 2004.

An Arrow to the Heart: a commentary on the Heart Sutra, by Ken McLeod. Trafford Publishing, 2007.

Infinite Circle: teachings in Zen, by Bernie Glassman. Shambala, 2003.

The Heart Sutra Explained: Indian & Tibetan Commentaries. By Donald S.Lopez, Jr. University of New York, 1988.

Heart of Wisdom: an explanation of the Heart Sutra, by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. Tharpa, 2005.

All these commentaries use different approaches towards an explication of the sutra, and all of them are of great value, although it is clear to me that none should be venerated as containing a definitive reading of the text. Nor perhaps, in these post-modern times, should we seek such a definitive reading. After all, post-modern Western philosophy has, as one of its enduring themes, the notion that we should understand that no text is capable of a single definitive meaning anyway as each and every reading of a text is just an interpretation, a deconstruction limited by the perspective of the one deconstructing the text; a literal reading of a text is both absurd and impossible. The cultural, linguistic, and historical context within which a text is read is what helps to generate the meanings derived from that text. That does not make all interpretations equal and merely relative, just that it is more difficult to treat any particular reading as ‘authoritative’ relative to other readings. Generating a blind faith in one reading as being ‘authoritative’ without any critical comparison with any other readings, or any deep appreciation of the context in which that reading evolved,  just leads to dogmatism and a narrowing of view, and just doesn’t cut the mustard in the modern world of considered intellectual criticism.

And, from the point of view of one’s own Buddhist practice, which the Heart Sutra is supposed to facilitate, it is one’s own reading of the text that ultimately matters, a reading that inevitably is influenced by whatever other readings of the text one has studied; indeed, it could be argued that one’s own reading of the sutra is  influenced by all the other texts one has ever read, studied or listened to! One brings all of one’s life to the sutra, and, if the sutra comes alive in one’s consciousness, then the sutra bleeds out into all of one’s life, and into one’s readings of all other texts. Indeed, the Heart Sutra could perhaps be viewed as a meta-text, one that tries to say something about all texts and their relation to reality. The sutra could also be treated as a hyper-reality, trying to say something about all realities and the relationship they have with each other. Or perhaps the sutra is not trying to say anything at all but rather trying to evoke questions that each of us can try to answer from our own experience, questions about the paradoxical, ambiguous, nebulous dream-like nature of the relationship between our conscious experience of  reality and ‘reality’ itself, whatever that is! Perhaps the sutra is saying that nothing, or everything, is neither real, nor not-real; that what is most problematic of all is the notion of ‘reality’ itself. Go figure…

the vultures of the Heart Sutra

The action of the Heart Sutra, in some translations, occurs at a specific place, Massed Vultures Mountain in Rajagriha. This is deeply significant in a way that is hard for us urban sophisticates brought up within an alphabetic writing culture in which time and place – indeed, the whole of nature –  can be abstracted completely from a philosophical text, something incomprehensible to people brought up in a purely oral culture, such as the original disciples of Buddha’s time were. The Heart Sutra, written long after the Buddha’s time, is harking back not only to the actual time of Buddha’s teaching but also to an actual place, a place which is wild, untamed, entirely natural, and containing animals that can evoke fear and/or disgust – namely, vultures. And just as vultures are an intrinsic part of those cultures that facilitate ‘sky-burials’, in which human corpses are fed to vultures in order to strip the decaying flesh from the bones, so the Heart Sutra is an attempt to strip the decaying flesh of the ossified conceptual framework of some abidhamma traditions of Buddhism from the bones of unmediated, direct perceptual experience of the here and now itself so that the raw, wild, completely spontaneous, open and creative nature of sensate experience can be reclaimed as the non-logical, ineffable phenomenon that it truly is. Normal experience is anything but ‘normal’; normality and conventionality is imposed on experience post hoc by a conceptual mind that seeks to ‘explain’ or ‘justify’ the original moment of experience, that seeks to establish the ‘reality’, the ‘truth’, or the ‘essential meaning’ of that original moment of experience. We are invited by the Heart Sutra to become vultures, to rip the decaying scales of our conceptuality from our eyes (especially those philosophical concepts acquired from a sclerotic abidhamma tradition), so that our perception is cleared and we once again see what Buddha in the Udana section of the Pali Canon, instructs Bahiya to see:

In the seen, there is only the seen,
in the heard, there is only the heard,
in the sensed, there is only the sensed,
in the cognized, there is only the cognized.
Thus you should see that
indeed there is no thing here;
this, Bahiya, is how you should train yourself.
Since, Bahiya, there is for you
in the seen, only the seen,
in the heard, only the heard,
in the sensed, only the sensed,
in the cognized, only the cognized,
and you see that there is no thing here,
you will therefore see that
indeed there is no thing there.
As you see that there is no thing there,
you will see that
you are therefore located neither in the world of this,
nor in the world of that,
nor in any place
betwixt the two.
This alone is the end of suffering.” (ud. 1.10)

does the Heart Sutra have any heart?

One of the creative endeavours I have established for myself in 2013 is to do an intensive study of the Heart Sutra, one of the most revered, and perhaps the most studied, of all the sutras of Mahayana Buddhism. It is short, very punchy, and very readable, especially when read out loud (and I suspect the sutra was designed to be read out loud for maximum effect, echoing the original oral culture of  Buddha’s own time, nearly 1,000 years before the sutra was written). The sutra flows, is easily memorised, and has a very direct, personal, earthy style, free from rhetorical flourishes and technical wizardry. But precisely because the sutra is short and sweet, it is enigmatic, mysterious, revelling in paradox and ambiguity, and in flouting the conventions of logic and reasoned argument. Hence the numerous commentaries on the sutra, most of which strive to pin down the sutra, attempting an exhaustive and comprehensive definition of its meaning and attempting to fit the sutra seamlessly into the overall logical structure of Buddhist teachings and praxis as laid out by the tradition in which the commentary is written. The commentaries are often indeed very useful in helping to explicate the sutra, especially when they provide some of the background context within which the sutra was written (and there is a huge context that needs to be understood and appreciated), but none of the commentaries can truly provide the definitive reading precisely because the sutra is itself designed to undercut any such definitive reading  Why? Because, for me anyway, the sutra points towards the indefinable openness of  direct experience itself in all its raw, sensual, wild immediacy. The sutra is playfully but deliberately subversive, rebellious, teasing and provocative. Yes, one can read anything one likes into the sutra and impose on it any logical structure you like, but it can always be read afresh by each new generation of students of the sutra precisely because it can have such a powerful effect upon the reader, an effect that has to be understood and assimilated by the reader himself/herself through a deeper understanding of the reader’s self rather than through consulting supposedly authoritative commentaries on the sutra. Appealing to authority is no use ultimately in gaining a true understanding for oneself of the power of the sutra when it becomes a living reality in one’s awareness, just as appealing to authority is no use in gaining an ultimate appreciation of what the true meaning of the Buddha’s teachings is for oneself.

I suspect the writer of the Heart Sutra understood the essentially private, personal nature of dharma realisations, and therefore the impossibility of ever translating that mystery into a definitive conceptual explication of the meaning of Dharma itself. The Heart Sutra contains a multiplicity of meanings, on a multitude of levels, precisely because it plays with, and subverts,  the very idea of anything containing an essential meaning at all. Direct, unmediated experience itself, within the here and now, is open to infinite meanings, and that openness defies all attempts at closure by conceptual explanations that are created after the initial moment of experience itself. The heart of the Heart Sutra is empty of all meaning precisely because it is so full of meanings. The form of the Heart Sutra points towards what is not within its form, towards what is not in any form, just as any form contains everything that appears not to be in that form. The emptiness of a form allows it to contain everything, to be full in a way that it may not initially appear to be. A form may appear to be just a part of the world, but it can be experienced as containing all the parts of the world; it is, to ‘enlightened’ vision the world appearing as that form. William Blake himself would, I think, have understood the sutra and these words of his are, for me,  a perfect commentary on the mystical vision at the heart of the sutra:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

winds of change…

2012 has been an epic year for me for the obvious reason that Maitreya Buddhist Centre in Bexhill broke apart as a result of the extreme stresses placed upon it by the  decisions of NKT management, all of which were bizarre in the extreme and were not defended in any coherent or rational way by the NKT. But then 2012 was  an epic year of tremendous change throughout the NKT, as witnessed by the strange, mysterious transfer of  Tharpaland from its Scottish base in the Forest of Ae to its new base in Schloss Sommerswalde in Germany. The sale of the Scottish Tharpaland was publicly defended by the NKT on the basis that nearby wind farm projects within 5 miles of  Tharpaland would disturb the meditative concentration of NKT people engaged in retreat at Tharpaland, and a series of so-called ‘scientific’ research studies were done by the NKT to supposedly ‘prove’ this. Needless to say, the studies were without the slightest scientific validity,  which explains why they were not published in any peer-reviewed scientific journal, and anyway this reason for moving Tharpaland is fatally undermined by the fact that the new Tharpaland base in Germany is only 4 miles away from a wind farm, and is also in the German state of Brandenburg, which has over 3,000 wind turbines;  indeed, more wind turbines per capita than any other area in the world! As usual, the real reason for the sale of the Scottish Tharpaland is never given by the NKT, despite the fact that this place was where Geshe Kelsang Gyatso himself did several years of retreat there, making the site a very blessed place for many NKT followers and presumably the site was one that worked very well as a retreat centre for many years.

Furthermore, the fact that the NKT settled its court case in New Zealand over the aborted purchase of Highden Manor by paying the damages awarded against it, damages that apparently amounted to $1 million, was never made public by the NKT. This gross incompetence on the part of NKT management has cost the NKT charity dear, but NKT disciples have no opportunity to question the NKT managers on this gross waste of charity money, or indeed to question the NKT on anything that goes on behind the closed doors of NKT head office.  Perhaps the MPs who are asking why the RSPCA have spent over £325,000 of charity money on legal fees in prosecuting a hunt for illegally killing a fox ought to ask hard questions of the NKT about squandering so much charity money on a aborted attempt to purchase property in New Zealand, breaking New Zealand law in the process. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “there is something rotten in the state of the NKT”, but just quite what is causing the rot or how far it has spread, and how much further it has to go, is anyone’s guess. Certainly the NKT management will never tell you…

But that is, as they say, history. And when traditions, especially Tibetan Buddhist ones, become ossified and sclerotic once the spiritual impetus of their founders fade away, then history tells us that new lineages form as students and disciples break away from institutional rigidity to establish new, initially smaller study groups that revel in renewed creative endeavours and freedom of practice. That I can definitely verify from my own personal  experience during 2012, and it is what gives me hope and energy for 2013.