The Dharma of walking with Whitman…Posted: January 8, 2013 Filed under: spirituality | Tags: Dharma, England, Literature, Napoleon, Norman, Pevensey, Pevensey Castle, Roman, Walt Whitman Leave a comment
One of my favourite walks, which I make often, is to walk from my front door along the oldest route through my village, a route that takes me down Gallows Lane to the crossroads where the gallows stood, gallows where those sentenced to death at the courthouse in Pevensey ended up, as a public warning of the ultimate consequence of crime. From the crossroads I take the lane that leads to Pevensey itself, a lane that is still – just – a country lane, lined on one side by an ancient hedgerow containing mighty oak trees as well as myriads of wild flowers and herbs, and through the gaps in the hedgerow my eye can roam over the many miles of manicured fields and the hills beyond. The lane was the main Roman road to Revensey Castle, straddling the only ridge leading over the marshes towards what was then a tiny peninsula sticking out into a vast tidal bay. The Roman legions came this way, then over the centuries it was the main drovers road as cattle and sheep were driven to the market at Pevensey. The lane was also the main smuggler’s route for foreign contraband being run out of Pevensey to divers places inland. Then the lane peters out into Westham high street and I pass the Victorian and Edwardian townhouses, the few still surviving Tudor houses, and the Norman church, until I finally reach the West Gate of Pevensey Castle itself and pass through its Roman walls, walking on until I pass the Norman fort inside, from which I can gaze out across the English Channel nearby and see some of the Martello Towers on the beach which were built to repel an invasion from Napoleon that never came. Finally I pass through the East Gate of Pevensey Castle into Pevensey itself, with its own panoply of old buildings. Yes, the past is all around us, but never more apparent to me than on a walk like this, which connects me to centuries of history-making and landscape-making. On walks like this, I am reminded of T.S.Eliot‘s own walk through a historic landscape, in which he proclaimed “History is now and England”. All the while on my walk I am usually surrounded by a profusion of bird life, especially the sea-gulls ever patrolling for scraps, and the wonderful salty smell of the sea-breeze that whips off the Channel, bringing refreshing air which, through my breathing, connects me – I now realise – with all the life of the present presencing itself, not just here but everywhere. Sometimes, on such walks, I feel as if I were Walt Whitman when he throws himself on the green grass – just as I sometimes lie down on the green sward inside Pevensey Castle itself – and sings:
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.
Powerful Dharma, in my ever so ‘umble opinion…
reflections upon a day of Dharma retreatPosted: January 6, 2013 Filed under: Buddhism, meditation | Tags: Buddhism, Dharma, Meditation 4 Comments
I had the great good fortune of engaging in another retreat day today, with a great company of fellow retreaters, and under the expert guidance of a true Kadampa practitioner, one who is, for me, infinitely more authentic, and with far greater integrity and compassion, than the vast majority of so-called Kadampa teachers within the tradition that I was once so recently part of. Once again, as on the previous retreat day I attended, I was able to engage in plenty of meditation and share my feelings about it afterwards with others in the group in a totally egalitarian, compassionate, and non-judgemental atmosphere. It felt like being in a perfect Dharma centre, one that was open, tolerant, and free from any hierarchical boundaries. There was no need for deference, no need for submission to authoritative definitions of exactly what should be done and how, only a willingness to submit to normal rules of care and consideration for others within the group in the same way as we should anywhere else in society. There was no organisation to subscribe to, no pressure on people to do anything other than participate in any way they felt comfortable with. Any volunteering that needed doing happened spontaneously and enthusiastically without any need for people-management. The warmth and kindness in the room was palpable and the conversation very focussed on the Dharma. If only it could always be like this! But, on reflection, that it was like this today is enough. For every day like today is a confirmation of what is possible, of what a Buddhist sangha can be like, of how one can feel totally at home in a community freely coming together to study and practice Dharma without trying to impose limits on one another’s expression of that Dharma. It was very liberating to be with the band of Dharma practitioners I was part of today, a band which was quietly getting on with the business of enlightenment one meditation at a time. I am rejoicing in today for all it is worth, for the memory of such a day as today will be added to all those other positive memories I have that will help to ignite and sustain the bliss of loving-kindness within my heart that will one day hopefully blaze into the full radiance of spontaneous bodhichitta. I have nothing but gratitude for all those who helped make today such a special day of refuge in the Dharma.
The ultimate heresy?Posted: January 5, 2013 Filed under: spirituality, Uncategorized | Tags: Dharma, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, New Kadampa Tradition, NKT 10 Comments
Perhaps my time in the New Kadampa Tradition was all a complete waste of time? Sometimes this question comes up, leading to a complex mix of thoughts and feelings within my mind. Sometimes that mix used to be too disturbing for me to cope with and I would shut all the turbulence down and distract myself toward something else. But now the turbulence has subsided and I can look at the question and its subsequent though-train more calmly and with more interest. In one sense, yes, my time in the New Kadampa Tradition was a waste of time to the degree that I consciously or subconsciously developed an over-reliance upon the NKT as being the organisation that would lead me to enlightenment. Ironically, the more I practised NKT Dharma the more I realised the truth of what Geshe Kelsang Gyatso was saying, albeit often only the lines, that only my own inner Spiritual Guide could lead me to enlightenment, that only the wisdom inside my own mind could liberate me from suffering. As Geshe-la himself says: “if you realise your own mind you will become a Buddha; do not look for Buddhahood elsewhere”. And only I can do the actual realising of my own mind; the responsibility is totally mine,a nd my reliance upon Geshe-la is a reliance only on sincerely meditating and contemplating upon the pointers he gives, pointers which I still have to understand within the terms of my own experience, using my own intuition, reasoning, interpretations, etc. In that sense, none of my time within the NKT was wasted, as just putting Geshe-la’s advice into practice gradually empowered me to take ever more responsibility for my own spiritual progress.
But the NKT, an organisation Geshe-la created, and sanctioned, is what it is: an organisation. And arguably, spirituality cannot be ‘organised’, and no organisation can develop a definitive way for a teacher’s, any teacher’s, guidance to be understood and followed, precisely because no organisation can take on the responsibility of an individual to work out his or her own ‘salvation’. Organisations inevitably develop their own dynamic, their own purposes and agendas, which eventually deviate either partially or wholly from the spiritual goals of the individuals who owe some degree of allegiance to the organisation, and then those individuals have to cope with varying degrees of cognitive dissonance as they struggle to combine their spiritual path with the often purely worldly demands of an organisation bent only upon perpetuating and promoting itself regardless of what damage it may do to the integrity of the teacher and the teachings the organisation ostensibly supports. Krishnamurti understood this only too well, and he had the courage to dissolve the very organisation that was set up to promote his teachings and to gather disciples for him. Just read his dissolution speech! Now that is integrity! Perhaps Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, for the sake of his own teachings and the wisdom they contain, should dissolve the NKT and just tell all his disciples to get on with practising the Dharma without being diverted by the need to satisfy the demands of any ‘Dharma organisation’? Now there’s a thought! Enough to make an NKT groupie choke on his breakfast muesli! Just as well a ‘heretic’ like me does not feel the need to apply for re-entry into the ranks of the ‘pure ones’…
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.
Buddhist ideology: The Great EscapePosted: November 5, 2012 Filed under: spirituality | Tags: Buddhism, Dharma, Ken Jones 2 Comments
Following on from my last post in which I featured an article written by Ken Jones, one of the more articulate and profound commentators upon modern Buddhism, I would like to recommend a very erudite and informative book of his, called The new social face of Buddhism: a call to action (Wisdom Publications, 2003). There is much in this book that not only shows insight into Buddhism in general but also into the difficulties and dilemmas that Buddhism – especially the traditional forms of it coming from the East – faces in it attempt to not only integrate itself within Western societies but also deal with the challenges of modernity. But there are some issues within Buddhism that show up in any age and in any society, and one of them is the issue of ‘Buddhism as ideology’ and under this section Jones comments upon the phenomenon, that:
…virtually every Buddhist starts out as something of a Buddhist ideologue, for whom Buddhism is an idea that makes self and world more understandable, and that provides assurance, consolation, and self-identity. This helps to get started! However, there are plenty of warnings in the scriptures about getting stuck there for the rest of one’s life, such as this admonition from the Vimalakirti Sutra:
He who is attached to anything, even to liberation, is not interested in the Dharma but in the taint of desire… The Dharma is not a secure refuge. He who enjoys a secure refuge is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in a secure refuge…. The Dharma is not a society. He who seeks to associate through the Dharma is not interested in the Dharma, but is interested in association.
Similarly the Zen master Sengchen warned: “Do not search after the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.” Buddhism is a religion of ehi-passika, come and see, come and experiment for yourself.
What amazes me when I contemplate passages such as these is how much I suppressed my intuitive understanding of the need for creative experimentation in my search for inner truth in order to conform to the organisational needs of the Buddhist tradition I ‘belonged’ to, despite the increasing frustration I felt over the years about how those organisational needs were increasingly going in strange, and non-Buddhist directions without any open or transparent explanations of why that was happening. The mystery and the wonder is that I remained loyal to that tradition for so long despite my misgivings. Perhaps the simple answer is that I was attached to the ideological baggage that the tradition so amply provided by the truckload. The secondary gratification I was getting from just belonging to the tradition was greater than the unsatisfied but deeper, more primary need I had for Dharma wisdom, which is always a double-edged sword that cannot be defined and controlled by any organisation, even a Buddhist one, and certainly in the long-term undercuts any ideological underpinnings such an organisation may have. Anyway, whatever the answer, it is fascinating that I have, over the last nine months, found the freedom of Dharma study and practice outside of the organisation, outside of any Buddhist organisation, to be liberating and profoundly creative, even though it has been a sometimes lonely, and emotionally uncomfortable process. But I suspect that you can’t have your cake and eat it: the freedom to be a true Dharma seeker perhaps often comes at the cost of being an outsider, unable to accept, or be accepted by, any formal Buddhist organisation – and being an outsider, any kind of outsider, is often an emotionally or psychologically uncomfortable place to be. Crazy yogis in Himalayan caves and Dharma-nerds in suburbia perhaps have that in common…