Buddhaland BrooklynPosted: May 21, 2013 Filed under: Book Review, Buddha, Buddhism, humour, spirituality, Zen Buddhism | Tags: Alma Books, America, Book Review, Buddhaland Brooklyn, fiction, Japan, Lotus Sutra, Nichiren Shoshu, novel, Politics, Richard C. Morais, Temple Leave a comment
The Dharma Forum has been asked to review Buddhaland Brooklyn by Richard Morais. We welcome this opportunity and have created a page in our menu for our past reviews. Enjoy reading! And we hope to make this a feature of the future where we can preview Buddhist related books and films. There are two reviews here, the first by AndyDharma and the second by DharmaForum.
Buddhaland Brooklyn, the new novel by Richard C. Morais is a cracking good read, enjoyable from first to last. But, being a novel about Buddhists from East and West trying to get their act together to create a Buddhism that works in the modern world, it presses all the right hot-button issues without ever, to my mind, satisfactorily resolving them, although they are so resolved for the main character of the novel, Seido Oda. But then, having been a Buddhist for over 20 years myself and having seen close-up many of the shenanigans Western Buddhists can get up to in the internal – sometimes infernal – politics of trying to get a Buddhist tradition established in the West, I am deeply sceptical of happy endings such as the charming one this novel has. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind being in a group such as the fictional Headwater Sect that Seido Oda belongs to, a mish-mash of Japanese Zen, Nichiren and Pure Land traditions. Theirs is a simple, cut-down form of Buddhism that relies upon deep faith – especially faith in the Lotus Sutra – and an application of that faith in a willing engagement with others in the apparently mundane affairs of everyday life. Seido Oda, the narrator of the novel, is a priest in the Headwater Sect, and grows up in the Japanese temple his parents put him in as a child before being posted by the Sect to New York to help build and open a new temple built there by the American ‘Believers’. He takes the affairs of everyday life quite literally indeed, having a passionate affair with the young American lady who is his closest assistant in the New York temple project. But the Headwater Sect, like Japanese priests in general, appear to have a laid-back attitude to sex, not seeing strict celibacy as necessary in the priesthood, so no scandal or serious complications follow from this affair. In reality, in the West, scandalous, damaging sexual affairs between Buddhist monks and their disciples is fairly common, especially in the more puritanical of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, partly the result of unrealistic expectations on the part of Western Buddhists about ordination and partly due to the misunderstanding of the cultural norms and psychological dynamics of Western disciples on the part of Eastern priests/lamas/monks. Indeed, in the novel, Seido Oda’s affair helps him to grow up and to loosen up, and leads to him being able to better connect with, and understand, himself and his denial of his own past traumas and emotional needs, as well as helping him better understand his students and the cultural context of his surroundings in Brooklyn. But the novel is not really about sex. It is about the inevitable cultural clash that occurs when Eastern Buddhism comes to the West and the many difficulties of adjustment that follow. What emerges is, as always, something which is neither wholly East nor West, but an unexpected amalgam of the two. Whether you end up with a ‘pure’ Buddhism, however you want to define it, is another question entirely. Seido Oda thinks he has, but I’m not so sure. But then I’m just an incorrigible sceptic.
More to the point, Seido Oda has a passion for Japanese haiku and any novel that skilfully blends the immortal haiku of Basho and Issa into the narrative gets my vote anytime. Perhaps the perfection of haiku as a vehicle for truly great poetry is the greatest contribution of Japanese Buddhism to Buddhism in general, if not to world art. Anyway, Morais’ own writing style gets pleasantly poetic at times, especially in his descriptions of the natural environment of Japan that Oda grows up in and which helps to deepen his spirituality:
“The Buddha’s Elbow Waterfall stood in the forest, a white-water thrashing of stones that forced involuntary sighs, gulps and gurgles from the river. Sake-coloured froth turned at the water’s surface and sent a drunken spray into the air, moistening nearby mats of green moss. The river eventually settled and the exposed rocks in the lower pool jutted up, round and pert, like stone breasts” (p.30).
Indeed, Morais’ description of the surrounding, whether it be in Japan or Brooklyn, seem to be stronger and more effective than his characterisations of people, some of whom hover perilously near to comic stereotyping. But his understanding of psychological dynamics helps to make the plot of the novel believable overall and those dynamics play out neatly towards the charming ending, where a contented Oda sits in Brooklyn watching the world go by and sees that enlightenment is “the ability to suffer what there is to suffer; it is the ability to enjoy what there is to enjoy” (p.276). Is it that simple? I don’t know, but I hope so. At least I had the ability to enjoy this enjoyable novel; that will do for me.
Buddhaland Brooklyn is fiction and that’s a shame. We enjoy the characters and the land so much that we want them to be true. The Headwater Sect is based on the Nichiren Shoshu, or another similar group of Buddhists from Japan. This is because their sole practice is reciting the Lotus Sutra. Interestingly, this leads their monk, Seido, and all the others characters in the monastery to feel free to engage in whatever activity that appeals to them, whilst remaining monks. Not surprisingly they hide some of their excesses, such as drinking sake, from the local community, but the Lotus Sutra has freed them into a consideration that the Buddha Nature is free, and so are all activities. He quotes (p.152):
“No affairs of life or work are in any way different from the ultimate reality.” Lotus Sutra
This is a very advanced view and requires the student to see emptiness before engaging in this way of life; before freeing themselves from the karmic restraints of controlled behaviour. As Padmasambhava said, “until you have realised emptiness directly you must maintain all your vows and behaviour utterly.”
The book is good and apart from the above slight criticisms, which are more wishful thinking than telling off, I thoroughly recommend this book for bedtime reading.
Here is an extract to judge the timeless quality of life in rural Japan conjured so effortlessly.
“I am reminded of the ancient poem by Iio Sõgi.”
“I cannot recall it.”
“However low one may be,
It is in holding oneself in sway
That is imperative.”
Senior Acolyte Fukuyama sighed in appreciation. “But still,” he finally said, “I prefer a bit of humour. Kobayashi Issa:
Tub to Tub
The whole journey –
Reverend Kawaguchi smiled. “Yes. This poem is very fine.”
In that moment – sitting under the cypress, the breeze sweeping yellow pollen across the river’s pooled surface, the air laced with the priests’ poetic murmurs – a belief within me took hold with such force that I involuntarily shivered. I was just a boy, true, but in the hellish aftermath of my family’s destruction I was visited by a conviction that a clearing filled with Tranquil Light was waiting for me somewhere, and that one day I would find my way to this clearing, this safe haven patiently awaiting my arrival. (p.31-32)
Seido’s struggles in Brooklyn are more difficult. He has been sent to New York to open their New Temple, a kindness to his teacher that he cannot refuse. Seido craves only the peace of Japan, but temple politics will not permit it and his karma must be fulfilled.
The children’s voices in Sant’ Andrea Park beckoned like birds in the forest around the Temple of Everlasting Prayer. An old man and woman rested on a park bench with their parcels, wheezing jokes as they watched the shoppers passing back and forth the intimate, earthy poetry of Brooklyn.
The tired woman finally dropped her white head on the shoulder of her husband’s peacoat. “Come on”, he said, squeezing her thigh. “Let’s get this stuff home. You’re tired.” It was good advice, and I decided to return home, too, in order to give thanks to the Buddha. But as I moved to leave the park, as I breathed in the air, the reality of where I stood finally hit me.
It was the Buddhaland. (p.262)
Buddhaland Brooklyn is published by Alma Publishing and is available from them at £12.99. Also available from Wisdom, Amazon and all good book stores.
breathing life into meditation…Posted: January 2, 2013 Filed under: Buddha, meditation, mindfulness, Uncategorized | Tags: Awareness, breath, Buddha, Buddhism, Dharma, Meditation 2 Comments
Yesterday I started to resume a daily meditation routine after several months of not being able to do so for various reasons, and one of my New Year resolutions was to do so assuming that I would have to start all over again, from the beginning, asasuming I was completely lacking in any real Dharma knowledge or skill (probably true anyway!). I tried to adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’. But where to begin? With what is most obvious, for me anyway: resting in the simple awareness of my breath. Afterwards, this led to the following contemplation:
We humans are, like all other phenomena, dependent-related phenomena, and the most important phenomena, both in terms of number and degree of dependency, are all those phenomena in the natural world, in our immediate eco-system, that we are interacting with, that we are inextricably linked with. An immediate example is the air itself, containing the vital oxygen that we breathe in continuously in order to fuel the chemical and physiological transformations within our bodies that sustain our life moment by moment. Even if one has no scientific knowledge at all, a phenomenological appreciation of the mere fact of breathing reveals one’s dependence upon the whole atmosphere around oneself, an atmosphere that appears to fill the whole of space, to be limitless, inexhaustible, and to have no boundaries, and that merely to hold one’s breath for long enough is to immediately create increasing physical distress which can only be alleviated by resuming breathing.
It is no coincidence that one of the most basic meditations in Buddhism is focussing and sustaining attention upon the breathing process, which is at the core of our embodiment within the natural world that is our life-support system’. Our breathing breathes life both into our meditation and generates awareness of our dependence upon ecological phenomena for our very awareness itself. By becoming more aware of the actual process of breathing we automatically become aware of awareness itself, which co-originates with the intake of air itself. Perhaps this union of in-breathed air with awareness is behind the long association of breath with spirit, pneuma, prana. But for me, the breath is proof of the embodiment of awareness within the ‘material’ or ‘physical’ world. even though awareness feels, especially in its reflexive mode, as being ‘non-material’, as transcending the material world, or as an emergent property of the material world, as somehow a phenomenon separate from the material world. The Buddha appears to have known that the breath is such a potent gateway to a deepening of mindfulness precisely because it is such an obvious and easy gateway towards a greater awareness of the myriad of ways in which the many mutually interacting, and mutually dependent, mental and physical sensations and processes that make up the human consciousness of the world. Just by following the breath deeper into its constituent and supportive physical processes and then going further into following all the subtle mental and emotional processes that are concomitant, or associated, with the breath, one can actually traverse the entire route to enlightenment, as outlined in the sattipattana sutta.
At no stage in the development of the breathing meditation could this dependence of the breath, and hence of our entire existence as a living being, upon the wider natural world, ever be forgotten, as the breath responds in every way to the condition of our environment. fresh air invigorates, stale air debilitates. breathing air in a room filled with fragrant incense and/or flowers can have a dramatic effect on the quality of meditation. Prehaps holy sites where much meditation, contemplation and prayer has gone on has air add qualities to the air that makes breathing the air there particularly powerful; not for nothing do we talk about the ‘atmosphere’ of a place or building. And, of course, we all breathe within the same atmosphere, we share the same air, so we are all connected to each other and all living beings through the air itself. By polluting the air in any way, we are harming all loving beings to some degree. And we are as humans, polluting the atmosphere in a colossal way through our collective carbon emissions with consequent colossal consequences for all living beings. A very natural way, therefore, to become more environmentally aware is simply to be more aware of our breath and its key role in all of our own life, both physical and mental, and in the life of all beings.
The Dharma of walking upon the hills…Posted: January 1, 2013 Filed under: Buddha, mindfulness | Tags: David Abram, Dharma, Present, South Downs, space, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, time 3 Comments
New Year’s day dawned bright and sunny, perfect for a walk upon the South Downs, from Willingdon to Jevington and back again. The air was mild, with a fresh breeze, and the visibility was near perfect, allowing breathtaking views across the Channel coast and towards the Weald, as well as along the rolling Downs itself. OK, just another walk, but this walk was different because it gave me an opportunity to contemplate what I have been reading about, namely the idea explored by David Abram in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous, that one of the ways to reconnect deeply with nature generally is to practice becoming mindful of how our awareness is embodied within, and inseparable from, the wider landscape and eco-system we are habitually interacting with, that even our sense of time and space is not the abstract absolute entities completely independent of nature that we ordinarily conceive them to be, but are in fact generated by, and embodied in, our actual experience of the natural world itself.
Phenomenologically, the past and future can be seen not as separate facets of our experience connected by an infinitesimal small moment of present time, but as phenomena embodied in the presence of the landscape itself. The ground we walk upon feels like the past embodied; to go into the earth, by digging, mining, etc., is to go into our past, to go down through the layers of the history of the landscape and of the human race. The ground supports our walking just as the past provides the foundation for whatever we do in the present. Likewise, the horizon of our view prevents us from seeing what is beyond the horizon, but as we walk towards that horizon, we move towards the future into the space which is gradually disclosed as the horizon shifts. And hidden within the trees and plants of the landscape is the future of that landscape, that which will grow come the spring and summer, growing from the past that is the soil and the inner structure of the vegetation itself. Past and future merge into one another within the landscape to create a presence within the present, a presence in which the awareness is inseparable from the perceived and felt landscape. The many tumuli along the walk heightened this effect because they were such stark reminders of our ancestors literally become part of the landscape itself, ancestors now becoming the ground upon which we walk, our ancestral past pervading our present, a present which we can gain a wider perspective upon by being able to see further than normal just by being high up on the top of the Downs itself.
Being closer to the clouds and the birds, and having a 360 degree vision over a vast area, looking down upon the land below, is simultaneously a widening of inner vision, a deepening of the sense of time past and time future leading to one end, which is always that timeless moment which is the present felt as presence, as the landscape one is present within, with no feeling of separateness between self and the natural world itself. For me that is a precious kind of Dharma, and I like to think that the Buddha, wandering on his way from forest to hilltop and back again, was engaging in this kind of contemplation, or something similar to it, using his direct, raw immersion in the natural world, as an opportunity to see how all the mutually interacting dharmas of his awareness and the world around him, were all fused into the non-dual immediacy and presence of the spatial-temporal unity of just being-in-the-world in the here and now. Anyway, it was a grand walk and a grand way to start the New Year. And a Happy New Year to you all!
- David Abram: logos beyond words (gradscholars.wordpress.com)
dharma developments for 2013?Posted: December 31, 2012 Filed under: Buddha, Buddhism, mindfulness | Tags: Buddhism, China, Dharma, Psychology 2 Comments
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!
- Mankind Approaching ‘Carbon Cliff’, Report Warns (ipsnews.net)
- CO2 emissions rises mean dangerous climate change now almost certain (guardian.co.uk)
ending the year on a positive note…Posted: December 30, 2012 Filed under: Buddha, meditation | Tags: Buddha, Dharma, Guru, Meditation, Retreat (spiritual) Leave a comment
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”.
does the Heart Sutra have any heart?Posted: December 28, 2012 Filed under: Buddha, Tibetan Buddhism, Uncategorized | Tags: Buddha, Dharma, Heart Sutra, Mahayana Buddhism 1 Comment
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.
life beyond the End Times…Posted: November 30, 2012 Filed under: Buddha, spirituality | Tags: Buddha 1 Comment
Breaking new ground, starting afresh, turning over a new leaf, beginning all over again at the beginning…
There are so many ways to say the same thing: that I have returned to the place I started from and am finally beginning to know myself for the first time. And to begin to know others too for the first time. Beyond the trauma of defeat, failure, and betrayal, beyond all the anguish and fear, there is the new dawn of hope, the new sense of freedom as I step into new dimensions of experience or look at old ones with fresh eyes, free of the illusions so roughly stripped away from me. And new friendships too, with those whose friendship was tried and tested through the sufferings we have shared and supported each other through. It is so true that suffering has great meaning, although it is such a painful, bittersweet truth. Out of that suffering comes a letting-go of what has been found to be false and unreliable and a discovery of what is true and trustworthy. The death of my old life immediately gave birth to a new one that I never dreamt would already be so much better than the old. As Henrik Ibsen says, “Mind is the Masterbuilder” and Mind, despite my best attempts to sabotage it, has built anew amidst the ruins of my old life, built the Pure Land that now calls me to fresh endeavours on the bodhisattva path. Not for nothing did Buddha call someone stepping onto the Path a “stream-enterer”. Now, with this new “beginner’s mind”, I can go with the flow, go down towards that boundless ocean of wisdom. As T.S.Eliot would say “in my beginning is my end…in my end is my beginning”.
A Buddhism for our times: a work in progress or pie in the sky?Posted: August 9, 2012 Filed under: Buddha, Buddhism, spirituality, Theravada Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism | Tags: Buddhism, modernity, secular, Theravada, zen 4 Comments
An absolutely fascinating public debate took place recently between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt regarding the evolving nature of religion and religious truth in our time, and the debate contains many stimulating insights into the nature of modern Buddhism and the attempts of Buddhism to entrench itself in the West. The debate had great meaning and especial poignancy for me in the light of the traumatic experiences I and some of my dharma colleagues have been through recently, but it also gave me lots of clues about how to develop my dharma practice in the future and confirms me in my growing conviction that dharma practice has to be protected from the tendency of religious organisations, even Buddhist ones, to periodically become fossilised and over-rigid in their attempts to maintain doctrinal purity and hierarchical authority, destroying the creative tension of debate, even dissent, that is an essential part of keeping any tradition fresh, alive and dynamic. Better still, ways of practising dharma outside of any dependence or over-reliance upon an organisational or institutional structure may need to be developed and/or encouraged.
To give a flavour of the debate, here is some of what Stephen Batchelor said:
I think we have to do more than just modify or reform some of the existing Asian Buddhist traditions, although that is of course something that has been happening now for the last fifty years or so: in other words, the modification of Theravada Buddhism or early Buddhism into the vipassana and the mindfulness movements, certain ways in which Zen Buddhism has been transformed into a practice that Christians and Buddhists alike are engaged in. I think we need a rather more radical rethinking of the dharma, what the Buddha taught, and what is that all about, and can we imagine it in a way that enables the wisdom of this tradition to speak in a language that addresses our circumstances, our condition today? I think, and again I feel I am probably very close to Don here, that Buddhism needs to be rethought from the ground up. We somehow, perhaps, are in such a different situation to that in which Buddhism has traditionally worked in Asia, that we might in a way have to start all over again. That can sound very threatening to someone who is invested in certain traditional Buddhist beliefs, but personally I find it very liberating. I think it brings the imagination, creativity into the scope of our practice as Buddhists and leads us obviously into an unknown. I don’t know where these ideas will go, how they will evolve or develop – or not. I just don’t know. I am concerned therefore that the Buddhist tradition somehow engages in a dialogue with modernity, not just a dialogue with other religions, but begins to somehow get to grips with the secular world, secular culture of which we are a part.
Later on Batchelor says:
I think that we have to distinguish between a living tradition and a dying tradition. A living tradition surely is one that is in constant ongoing conversation with its own past, which is a phrase I picked up in the writing of the American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who also says that traditions are “continuities of conflict”. I feel it is only when there is conflict that in a way the religious and spiritual life really comes alive. The danger that we can also see, particularly with certain more fundamentalist forms of religion, is that dialogue, conversation, conflict, interpretation, tend to be suppressed. And there I think a deadening begins to set in. So I feel that although I may be criticised for taking too great a liberty with certain Buddhist texts and traditions, I feel that, in the bigger picture, I am trying to keep alive an animated discussion, a discourse and language that will allow the tradition to breathe afresh.
And to really put the cat amongst the pigeons, this question was put to Stephen Batchelor: “Is a lot of Buddhism’s teaching about happiness a way of trying to promote itself in the West? I just wondered if you could comment on that.”
To which Stephen Batchelor replied:
Well, I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly. I think a great parallel with how Buddhism is presented as being about happiness is that its very first teaching is to embrace suffering and dukkha – the first truth. And the parallel with this is that if one really wishes to live a life fully and abundantly, that requires us to be entirely honest and forthright with the reality of the world as it is, rather than in some imagined perfected future. So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life. And that to me, in other words the question of meaning and fulfilment, is more important than whether I feel happy or not. One could argue it’s better to live a happy life with the accent on fulfilment and meaning rather than on the feeling of happiness.
Now that makes you think, doesn’t it? But I do recommend reading the transcript of the whole debate and Stephen Batchelor’s statement distributed before the debate itself. I promise you, it’s compelling stuff!
non, je ne regrete rien…Posted: June 10, 2012 Filed under: Buddha, Buddhism, spirituality, Uncategorized | Tags: Beatitudes, Buddha, Pure Land, spiritual guide, William Wordsworth 2 Comments
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
But to be young was very heaven…
William Wordsworth, writing about his first reaction to the outbreak of the French Revolution
Back in 1993, when I first entered the tribe of the Enkaytees, still then in its dawn-time, everything in the heavenly world the tribe’s Spiritual Guide had created was new and fresh and his disciples were full of innocent enthusiasm, willing to work body and soul for the spreading of his doctrine throughout the world. That generation was truly blessed, able to live in his holy presence and hear his actual words. For me, travelling to the city of Enkiti in the frozen (or rainy, or both!) north was like a holy pilgrimage, and hearing him teach felt, so I imagined, like it must have felt hearing Jesus teach his Beatitudes in his Sermon on the Mount. His words were truths echoing within the heart’s faint memory of a wisdom it thought completely lost. But much of that generation has gone now, disappearing into the merciless maw of history, either dead, in their dotage, or sidelined and purged by the various ‘scandals’, ‘palace coups’, and changing of the guards that have occurred over the years. The history of the Enkaytree tribe has been rewritten many times, and will be rewritten many times again in the future to airbrush out all the darker pages of its past, and the tribe’s identity as defined by the city of Enkiti will continue on in this world. But it will endure crippled by its unacknowledged shadow-self , its public reputation increasingly degraded as the years go by. The tribe I knew in its glorious beginning does not now exist. It has changed, changed utterly and now, to quote W.B.Yeats, ” a terrrible beauty is born”. The autocratic, bureaucratic leviathan that the tribe has become is now utterly different from the open, tolerant, spontaneous, creative, organic movement it once was. The new order the tribal chieftains wish to impose without debate upon all its fiefdoms amounts to nothing less than a constitutional coup d’etat, a crushing of all local autonomy and democracy and the creation of one vast legal entity in which everything is controlled from the top-down. The city of Enkiti will eventually be the new Rome, exerting papal-like authority outwards across a global empire of faith.
But faith is a deeply personal, heartfelt feeling that is ultimately free from any external law or rules. And faith in a Spiritual Guide, once it has taken root and become integrated with faith in one’s own spiritual potential through the realisation that reliance upon a spiritual guide is the mirror image of the discovery and cultivation of one’s inner wisdom, is something that cannot be taken away from one no matter how damning the condemnation of one is from either the spiritual guide’s supposed colleagues or even the spiritual guide himself. Faith can survive even betrayal and disillusionment, because faith is a purity that comes from within, from one’s own heart, and that faith can never die. Once faith has created a vision of the Pure Land within the mind, that faith is a pure seed that does not ultimately need watering from outside oneself. Only the life-giving water of one’s own spiritual practice is necessary, a practice that can be continued outside any institutional framework or organisational arrangement if necessary. The solitary wandering yogis and yoginis of India and Tibet proved that; even the life of the Buddha himself, wandering the dusty roads of India as a beggar wearing rags and sleeping in the wilderness of forests, proved that. It is in the nature of samsara anyway that ultimately no friend or organisation – no matter how spiritual they purport to be – can be relied upon as a totally pure refuge; only a purity that is born from within can be totally relied upon. Already that inner Spiritual Guide has provided me with a new tribe, one without chieftains, without any formal hierarchy or set of rules, one that joyously meets in harmony and the spiritual communion of deep meditation, and one that accepts the teachings of the outer Spiritual Guide we all grew up with without needing to apply them any more within the constraints of an autocratic, hierarchical organisation. I do not regret one single moment of having been in the tribe of the Enkaytees and I cherish every word of the teachings of the Spiritual Guide of that tribe. But I, and many others, have now outgrown the need to be a part of that tribe because we now know there is a vast world of opportunity beyond the tribal boundaries and with the teachings and our faith as refuge, we can step out confidently into that brave new world. We have grown up, even if the tribe has not, not yet anyway. Non, je ne regrete rien…