Mar 262015
 

Today is the 111th anniversary of the birth of mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell. My thinking about Buddhism and religion in general was influenced greatly by his work. From Campbell, I learned that nearly all religious literature is pure mythology, and therefore, one should not take it literally. A simple idea, perhaps, but when you consider how many people in this modern age are literalists when it comes to religion and that they cause a lot of trouble for others because of it, you realize it is a great insight, and extraordinarily relevant.

The title of one of his books, Myths to Live By, suggests that we should not disregard myths, but rather try to understand what these stories are trying to tell us about living. Here, in his own words, from that book, is Campbell explaining the essence of religious mythology:

Joseph Campbell 1904-1987

Joseph Campbell 1904-1987

What I would suggest is that by comparing a number from different parts of the world and differing traditions, one might arrive at an understanding of their force, their source and possible sense. For they are not historical. That much is clear. They speak, therefore, not of outside events but of themes of the imagination. And since they exhibit features that are actually universal, they must in some way represent features of our general racial imagination, permanent features of the human spirit — or, as we say today, of the psyche. They are telling us, therefore, of matters fundamental to ourselves, enduring essential principles about which it would be good for us to know; about which, in fact, it will be necessary for us to know if our conscious minds are to be kept in touch with our own most secret, motivating depths. In short, these holy tales and their images are messages to the conscious mind from quarters of the spirit unknown to normal daylight consciousness, and if read as referring to events in the field of space and time — whether of the future, present, or past — they will have been misread and their force deflected, some secondary thing outside then taking to itself the reference of the symbol, some sanctified stick, stone, or animal, person, event, city, or social group.”

Mar 232015
 

Several months ago I gave brief mention of a situation in Burma (Myanmar) where a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals were facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. (See the offending image here.)

Last week, a Burmese court sentenced bar manager Phil Blackwood, the bar’s Burmese owner Tun Thurein, and another manager Htut Ko Ko Lwina to 2½ years in prison with hard labor. When you consider all the stuff that gets posted on Facebook, an image of the Buddha wearing headphones seems pretty tame, and the sentence extreme. Indeed, putting those guys on trial in the first place strikes me as a travesty.

The case is part of a larger controversy over religious images that came to a dreadful head when Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper in France, was attacked by terrorists because of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad it published. I will not rehash the issues surrounding the controversy in this post, except to remind readers that teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad and even moderate Muslims find depictions of the Prophet offensive.

That is relevant because at one time, there was a ban on images of Buddha. The Buddha supposedly asked his followers not to collect or venerate his relics and not depict his image. His followers almost completely ignored his instructions regarding his relics, but for nearly 600 years, the only images used to represent the Buddha were a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf.

Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)

Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)

In the first century, the first images of the Buddha started to appear, and they typically showed Gautama standing or seated in a lotus position, and holding a begging bowl or making the gesture (mudra) of fearlessness. One of the areas where these representations began to emerge was Gandhara, and sculpture from that period displays a definite Greek influence.

Since then folks have been going crazy making Buddha images, and today it is a very big business.

If Buddha were around now, I think he would be inclined to take stuff like a Buddha with headphones in stride, perhaps even find it amusing.  I feel sure he would be outraged at the idea of imprisoning anyone for making such an image.  I also think he would have concerns about the commercialization of his image, and he would certainly be uncomfortable with the idea of worshiping his image. Of course, this is just conjecture on my part. What the historical Gautama thought, felt, actually taught, and what his life truly was, we shall never know,  because his time is so remote and his life story buried in myth, and as far as how he would think and act as a modern person, that is impossible to know.

Nonetheless, I doubt he ever held himself out as anything other than a common, mortal human being.  We say he was an extraordinary human being; he would simply say that he was “awake.” And while many Buddhist will deny that Buddha is worshiped, all objective observers know that worship of Buddha is a reality in some forms of Buddhism, especially among rank and file devotees.  Rather early on, the myth-making process that has shrouded his true story, elevated the Buddha from a mortal man to a being who was supermundane, “perfect,” and the line between human and god became extremely thin.

The Kathavathu, one of the seven books of the Pali Canon’s Abdidhamma, compiled during the reign of King Ashoka, and evidently produced in order to correct “various errors which had developed with regard to the Buddha,” discusses various views of the Buddhist schools existing at the time that promoted supernatural notions about the Buddha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha, writes,

Among the points dealt with in the Kathavathu was the idea that the Buddha had not really lived in the world of men, but in the ‘heaven of bliss’, appearing to men on earth in a specially created, temporary form to preach the Dhamma. Together with this virtual deification of the Buddha there went also a tendency to deny him normal human characteristics, and on the other hand to attribute to him unlimited magical power.”*

This elevation and immortalization of Buddha was carried over into the Mahayana canon, but today, I think many people tend to have an earthly, prosaic view that is much more realistic and proper. Ultimately, as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Concepts like ‘nirvana,’ ‘Buddha,’ ‘Pure Land,’ ‘Kingdom of God,’ and ‘Jesus,’ are just concepts; we have to be very careful. We should not start a war and destroy people for our concepts.” **

Now, if the government of Burma is so concerned about people insulting Buddhism then they would do something about those Buddhist extremists in their country who go around preaching hate and inciting violence against the Muslim minority there. Wouldn’t they?

– – – – – – – – – –

* Trevor Ling, The Buddha, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 170

** Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Penguin, 2000, 82

Mar 202015
 

As I post this, spring arrived some 55 minutes ago, at 3:45 PDT. Already the work of spring “is going on with joyful enthusiasm,” to borrow from John Muir. Even here in Southern California, where it was summer all winter, just knowing that the season has turned is a psychological effect, making the heart feel much lighter, and brighter.

Spring has always been particularly inspirational to poets. Today, I will share with you a spring poem by Tu Fu (Du Fu), one of the greatest of Chinese poets. He wrote the poem in 757, when he was captured by rebels during the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), a revolt against the Tang Dynasty the engulfed the land in a long, devastating war. Tu Fu uses the images of flowers and birds to convey the sufferings experienced by the people during the rebellion.

This is my own version of the poem, based on a literal rendering of the Chinese characters and several English translations.

IMG_3386b3Viewing Spring

In the torn country, hills and rivers remain,
Spring comes to cities, grass and trees flourish.
Wartime touches even flowers to shed tears;
Lonely birds feel regret in their startled hearts.
Battle fires have burned for three moons;
News from home is worth ten thousand coins.
This white head I scratch has become so thin
That my pin can barely hold the strands in place.

 Posted by at 4:37 pm
Mar 182015
 

“Some people call me an idiot, but I know who I am. I am The Killer.”
– Jerry Lee Lewis

Last weekend I watched all six episodes of The Jinx, HBO’s documentary on millionaire real estate heir Robert Durst. No doubt, you’ve heard about this guy in recent days. He is a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathleen; in 2003, he was acquitted of murder charges in Texas, despite that he admitted dismembering the victim; and Saturday in New Orleans he was arrested in connection with the 2000 execution-style murder of his friend Susan Berman here in Los Angeles. It’s an engrossing story, and in a warped sort of way, Durst is a highly interesting person.

What is it about killers that fascinates us so? Macbeth, Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Charles Manson, Hannibal Lecter, and my all-time favorite, Dexter Morgan – fictional or real, we love ‘em. Can’t get enough of their stories. Perhaps it is because they commit the foulest of all deeds, the taking of life. Whatever it may be, I am not going to try to analyze it here. Instead, I would like to recount for you briefly the story of the Buddha and a murderer named Angulimala.

The story of Angulimala (“finger garland,” or “necklace of fingers”) comes from the early sutras. Angulimala’s father was the Brahmin minister to the king of Kosala. The story goes that when Angulimala was born, a “constellation of thieves” appeared in the sky, prophesying he would become a robber.  And as it often happens in tales like this, the prophesy was fulfilled, in a manner of speaking.

Angulimala was sent to study in Taxila, in present day Pakistan, where one of the earliest universities in the world existed. He became the student of a Brahmin teacher and he excelled at his studies. Other students resented Angulimala’s brilliance and they made up stories that caused the teacher to believe Angulimala was evil. The teacher demanded that Angulimala provide him with a gift before he would be allowed to “graduate.” The gift the teacher requested was 1,000 fingers, each taken from a different victim. The teacher figured that that Angulimala would get himself killed during the course of collecting the fingers and thus he would be rid of this evil student.

Evidently, Angulimala had no problem accepting this grisly assignment. He became a highwayman, hiding in the forest and robbing travelers of their fingers. Unfortunately, the travelers died as a result of these holdups.

The people in the area asked the king of Kosala to capture Angulimala. Angulimala’s mother went out to find him and warn him that the king had vowed to hunt him down. The Buddha set out to find Angulimala, too. Buddha had divined that Angulimala had collected 999 fingers and needed only one more.

angulimala-buddhaWhen Angulimala saw the Buddha enter the forest, he rushed out to murder him and take his 1000th finger. He took out his sword, raised it and chased after the Buddha but could not catch him even though the Buddha was walking at a slow pace. Eventually, Angulimala became wore out and shouted for the Buddha to stop. Buddha turned and calmly said, “Angulimala, I have stopped for all time, forsaking violence; but you have not stopped, you have no restraint towards living beings; that is why I have stopped and you have not.” So moved was Angulimala by the words the Buddha spoke to him that he immediately renounced his murderous ways and became a bhikkhu.

The story is about the transformative power of compassion as well as the redemptive power of the Buddha’s teachings. Transformation is always possible. Any person, regardless of how many negative acts they have committed, can change and live a more positive life. Compassion is more powerful than punishment. Angulimala could have been captured, imprisoned or executed. Instead, he changed and thus was able to benefit far more beings than those he previously harmed. If you accept the doctrine of karma, there is also the notion that he was able to change his karma and improve his circumstance in future lives, so he would not come back to kill again.

Most importantly, we should always remember that every life matters. There is an old Buddhist saying that even a murderer loves his mother, meaning that every person, no matter how wretched and depraved, has some good in him or her somewhere. Even Charles Manson is entitled to the basic dignity of life.

It’s a safe bet that most people who know Robert Durst or know about him believe he is guilty of at least three murders. Whether he is or not, it doesn’t alter the fact that even Robert Durst has a Buddha-nature.

Mar 122015
 

I read a nice article about novelist and Zen priest Ruth Ozeki yesterday. The piece, written by Terrence Petty of the AP, gives us a glimpse into Ozeki’s life story, her introduction to Zen, and a short description of her last novel A Tale For The Time Being, which was a finalist in 2013 for the Man Booker Prize. The title of her book comes from an essay by Dogen on time titled Uji, often translated as “The Time-Being.”

ruthozeki-2I don’t know Ruth Ozeki, but I know a little about her. For instance, as Petty points out, her “spiritual companion is a Zen master named Dogen. Dead for nearly 800 years, when you listen to Ozeki, you know he’s there.”

Sorry to say that I have not heard her or read her novels . . . yet. I do plan to start learning more about Ruth Ozeki by further exploring her “Web World” at Ozekiland.

I am not a Zen Buddhist, but that doesn’t stop me from being a big fan of Dogen, too. Fan is not the right word, but you know what I mean.

I wrote about Dogen just the other day, and quite a few other times, as well. You can read those posts by clicking here or on the name Dogen in the tag cloud on the sidebar.

I have an old notebook full of random notes and copied quotes about Buddhism and meditation; it dates from 2001 and there is one note that I didn’t really get at the time I jotted it down, but in recent years has stirred my murky depths of my mind.

bielefeldtThe notation is marked simply Bielefeldt –. I am sure it refers to Professor Carl Bielefeldt who “specializes in East Asian Buddhism, with particular emphasis on the intellectual history of the Zen tradition.” He’s also the author of Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation. I don’t recall reading that book, and I don’t believe I have ever attended a lecture given by him, but maybe I have. Perhaps I read it in article or interview, or heard on the Internet or television. Could be just something I heard someone say. It doesn’t matter. The note says,

According to Dogen, the practice of Zazen [meditation] was not of an ordinary human trying to be a Buddha, but a Buddha expressing himself as an ordinary person.”

Think about it.

Mar 102015
 

My post on March 2nd about Kukai’s sokushin jobutsu would have had more context if today’s post had preceded it. I meant to post this piece the previous Friday, but the deaths of Ruth Denison, Leonard Nimoy, and Avijit Roy changed my plan, and then I forgot that I had not posted it.

In any case, a few weeks ago I blogged about the mummified remains found in Mongolia of a man thought to be about 200 years old whom researchers believe might be a Buddhist monk who died while meditating as he appears to be sitting in the lotus position. The connection between that, Kukai and his concept of sokushin jobutsu, is that there has been some speculation that the Mongolian mummy is an example of the Japanese practice known as sokushinbutsu or self-mummification, known to have occurred between the 12th and early 20th centuries. Twenty-four self-made mummies have been discovered in Yamagata Prefecture, all individuals who belonged to the Shingon sect, of which Kukai was the founder.

Statue and CT scan imageBefore going any further, let me lay some more mummy news on you: it has been widely reported that a 1000-year-old Buddhist statue after subjected to CT scans appears to contain the mummified remains of a Chinese monk. The scans also show scraps of paper with Chinese characters written on them where the mummy’s internal organs should have been. Some reports indicate the remains belong to Liu Quan, a meditation master, and it is thought that he, too, went thought the process of self-mummification.

The two recent mummies were found in Mongolia and China, so the connection to Japan might be that Kukai learned of the practice when he visited China and brought back with him. The similarity between the two terms, sokushinbutsu and sokushin jobutsu is obvious. Self-mummified Buddhists are traditionally considered to be “living Buddhas” and in Mongolian Buddhism it is maintained that that senior lamas whose bodies have been preserved are not really dead. Broadly speaking, we can say that becoming a Buddha with this body is like becoming a living Buddha.

I mentioned in the 3/2 post that soku means becoming, shin is mind/body, and butsu is buddha: become buddha mindbody. The term can also be interpreted as “attaining Buddhahood in this very existence.”

Kukai was not the only Japanese Buddhist to promote sokushin jobutsu. Saicho, Kukai’s one-time friend and counterpart, founder of Japanese Tendai, also used the term. Probably both men were introduced to the concept when they trained in China, and it may have originated in Indian Buddhism. Kukai used as a source for his treatise on the subject a work attributed to Nagarjuna, Aspiration to Enlightenment (thought to be apocryphal), which contains the phrase, “we can attain enlightenment in this very existence.” Saicho’s source was the fable in the Lotus Sutra of the Naga king’s daughter, who in a single moment becomes a buddha (unfortunately she must transform herself into a man first).

In the 13th century, Dogen, who established the Japanese Soto school of Zen after studying Caodong Ch’an in China, also taught a variation of this concept, sokushin zebutsu or “mind itself is buddha.” In his work “Sokushin-zebutsu” he wrote, “The mind correctly transmitted means that one mind is all dharmas and all dharmas are one mind.” As Dogen had been initially trained in Tendai, I see a correlation there with the philosophy of Tendai predecessor, T’ien-t’ai Chih-i of China and his i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen).

The difference between Kukai and Dogen is that the former, a tantric Buddhist tended to emphasize mystic experience as the way to become awakened in this life, while the latter focused on the more routine process of cultivation, the method of realizing buddha-mind, which is rigorous meditation practice.

Now, in some of these teachings, and in others where the idea of attaining enlightenment in one lifetime is floated, they don’t really mean one lifetime but three although I don’t recall exactly how that was worked out. However, in the modern application of all this, the point to focus on is that becoming a buddha is not realizing some supra-mundane state of being. Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty, said “The Way is your everyday mind.” The Way is Buddha, and our everyday mind, our everyday body, our everyday life, is Buddha.

I wrote about Dogen and sokushin zebutsu in a 2012 post, noting “This line of thought breaks down the traditional notion that it take many lifetimes to attain Buddhahood. It brings awakening into the present, into the here and now.”

The piece is titled This Mind Itself. As I looked at the post earlier today, I couldn’t help but notice that the image I created for the piece bears some small resemblance to the image of the CT scan above.

Mar 052015
 

There are about 250,000 Buddhist monks in Thailand. Today, I would like to bring to your attention just one of those bhikkhus. His name is Phrakru Pitak Nanthakthun and he engages in a practice that is a little out of the ordinary. He ordains trees.

A paper at the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale informs us:

Particularly over the course of the 1990s, monks in Thailand have started to take an active role in protecting the environment. Known informally as environmentalist, or ecology monks (phra nak anuraksa), this small but visible percentage of Thai Buddhist monastics feel compelled to address environmental issues as part of their religious duty to help relieve suffering . . .

Ceremonies such as tree ordination rituals (buat ton mai), in which trees are blessed and wrapped in saffron robes to signify their sacred status, are part of a larger effort to foster a conservation ethic rooted in Buddhist principles and bolstered by Buddhist practices.”

Photo: BBC

Photo: BBC

Although he is not the only “ecology monk”, Phrakru Pitak Nanthakthun was recently the subject of a BBC article that is getting some attention. He has been ordaining trees for a quarter of a century. You might think it seems like a silly thing to do or you might be a nitpicker like me who bristles a bit at the idea of ordination of any kind in Buddhism (since the Buddha didn’t actually “ordain” bhikkhus), but when you consider that trees have Buddha-natures (yes, they do), it’s hard not to view the tree ordinations as a beautiful activity.

The PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly did a piece on Forest Monks in 2010 and this exchange gives us a glimpse into what it means to ordain a tree:

Lucky Severson, correspondent: To protect to the forests, one monk did something radical, just as they are doing here now. He started tying orange robes around trees, in effect ordaining the trees.

Professor Susan Darlington (Hampshire College): He was called crazy, and a national newspapers called for him to disrobe from the sangha [community or order], that this was not appropriate behavior for a monk, he’s misusing the religion. But meanwhile other monks began to do tree ordinations as well. “You can’t ordain a tree. What does that mean?” So people started debating, what does it mean to ordain a tree?

Severson: To the monks, it meant making the forests sacred, off limits to exploitation.

I encourage you to follow the links embedded in this post to learn more. Read the short BBC article and watch a video about Phrakru Pitak Nanthakthun here, and you can read Darlington’s 1998 essay “The Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand,” here.

And you might also like to read my 2012 post Even Plants and Trees have Buddha-nature.

A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust—each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed with cause and effect and with the function to manifest and the wisdom to realize its Buddha nature.”

Chan-jan, the ninth patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school

Mar 022015
 

Although there seems to be some debate as to whether or not Kukai (774-835), also known by his posthumous title Kobo Diashi, was ever ordained as a Buddhist priest or monk, there is no question that he is one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism.

Kukai

Kukai

Kukai was so inspired by the Mahavairocana Sutra that in 804 he took advantage of an opportunity to go on a government-sponsored trip to China in order to learn more about the text. There he encountered the Chen-yen (“Mantra” or “True Word”) school, an esoteric from of Buddhism, and he became the student of two masters, the Indian monk Prajna, and Hui-kuo, a tantric monk. Kukai received various initiations while in China, and returned to Japan carrying copies of important Buddhist sutras and commentaries. He eventually founded the Japanese version of Chen-yen, the Shingon sect, which is still around today.

A key feature of esoteric or tantric Buddhism (also known as Varjayana “Diamond Vehicle”) is the focus on the role the body plays in awakening the mind. As Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta notes in An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism, the tantric schools “hold that the body is the abode of all truth; it is the epitome of the the universe or, in other words, it is the microcosm, and as such embodies the truth of the whole universe.”

In his book, The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism: A Phenomenolgical Perspective of Kukai and Dogen, David E. Shaner coined the compound “bodymind” to express the non-duality of body and mind: “A close examination of the relation between body and mind in our lived prereflective experience reveals that there is no mediate relationship. We experience and live body and mind as one.”

It is this basic understanding that forms the core of Kukai’s teachings. He expressed the nonduality of bodymind with the term sokushin jobutsu, also the title of a work he composed in his middle forties, Sokushin jobutsu gi. Translated literally, the term is rendered “immediately (soku) mind (shin) become Buddha (jobutsu).” In later times, immediately would truly mean immediately, as in ichinen jobutsu (“buddhahood in a single moment”), but for Kukai it mean in this existence, this lifetime, more or less. Considering that traditionally enlightenment or Buddhahood is attained after many lifetimes, this idea was a bit radical to say the least.

Kukai was not alone in promoting this concept. Saicho, Kukai’s one-time friend and counter-part, who was founder of Japanese Tendai, also used the term. Probably both men were introduced to the concept while in China, and it may have originated in Indian Buddhism, as Kukai used as a source for his treatise a work attributed to Nagarjuna, Aspiration to Enlightenment (very likely apocryphal), that contains the phrase, “we can attain enlightenment in this very existence.” Saicho’s source was the fable from the Lotus Sutra of the Naga king’s daughter, who in a single moment becomes a buddha (unfortunately she must transform herself into a man first).

The Japanese word shin (from the Chinese xin) can mean “mind” or “heart,” and also “body.” For this reason, Kukai’s sokushin jobutsu is often translated as “attaining Buddhahood with this very body.” Yoshito S. Hakeda in Kukai: Major Works explains why:

Judging from the contents of the work by this title, the word ‘body (shin)’ clearly does not mean the body as opposed to the mind but stands for ‘existence’ or ‘body-mind-being’ The choice of the word ‘body’ over the normally expected mind underscores the basic character of Kukai’s religion: emphasis on direct religious experience through one’s total being and not merely through the intellect. Kukai required that any religious teaching withstand the test of actual meditation and of daily life.”

This forms an interesting connection to what I wrote in the last post in regard to the late Ruth Denison and her “body-centered” approach to meditation. When practicing meditation we are often very mindful of the mind, but less mindful of our body. And yet, most of us are aware that body and mind are one, and for that matter, it is not really possible to have any experience that is mind sans body, or vice versa. Denison learned the importance of body awareness in meditation from U Ba Khin who developed a “sweeping” method to focus on the deep interrelationship between mind and body.

How to integrate body awareness into a meditation practice is not a difficult subject, but one that needs to be dealt with another time. For now, these words by Kukai provide the perfect summation:

The Buddha Dharma is nowhere remote. It is in our mind; it is close to us. The element of original enlightenment is nowhere external. If not within our body, where can it be found?”

Feb 272015
 

American Buddhist pioneer Ruth Denison has passed away at the age of 92. She suffered a massive stroke a few weeks ago and was in hospice care.

Denison by Robert Beatty

Denison by Robert Beatty

Ruth Schäfer was born in Germany, where she saw first hand the horror of the Nazis and then immediately after World War II suffered abuse from Russian soldiers in occupied Berlin. She soon left her homeland, came to America, and settled in Los Angeles. There she met Henry Dennison, an independently wealthy intellectual who stimulated an interest in Ruth for the burgeoning counter-culture and Eastern philosophy. Gatherings at their Hollywood Hills home included such people as Alan Watts, Lama Govinda, and Aldous Huxley

In 1960, they traveled to the East, spent time at Zen monasteries in Japan and eventually found themselves in Burma where they met lay Buddhist teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin and learned the art of vipassana or “insight” meditation. Ruth Denison was one of only four Westerners to receive permission to teach from Khin.

In 1977, she founded the Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center in Joshua Tree, California where she stayed until she suffered her stroke.

One of her students, Sandy Boucher, who has written extensively on women and Buddhism, authored a biography Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison, in which she writes that “Ruth brought a strongly female, body-centered approach to Buddhist practice, when this was seen as radical and subversive.” As I understand it, what Boucher means by “body-centered” is that Denison encouraged “deep exploration of our body sensations, with great penetration and subtlety.”

I had always meant to venture out to Joshua Tree and avail myself of an opportunity to meet and learn from this pioneer Buddhist teacher, but I never did. That was a mistake. All I can do now is offer a deep and solemn gassho . . .

Star Trek was definitely a part of the counter-culture that exploded during the 1960’s and you didn’t have to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy the program. I am sad to learn of the death of Leonard Nimoy. He passed away Friday at his home in Bel-Air at the age of 83 from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Because many of the Star Trek writers were of a certain frame of mind, traces of Eastern philosophy were occasionally woven into the scripts. Nimoy was Jewish by birth and I don’t know if he followed that faith or not, nor do I know the context he was speaking in when he made this remark: “I’m touched by the idea that when we do things that are useful and helpful — collecting these shards of spirituality — that we may be helping to bring about a healing.”

The LA Times described his Mr. Spock role as “transcendent.” I think it is safe to say that after Star Trek Leonard Nimoy lived well and prospered . . . If you ever come to Los Angeles, be sure to visit the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater at the Griffith Observatory.

Writer Avijit Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, were attacked by machete-wielding assailants Thursday while returning from a book fair in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Ahmed was seriously injured. Roy was hacked to death.

He was a engineer, writer and blogger. His website Mukto-Mona was “an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent.” [Wikipedia] Roy was also the author of a number of books and for his writings on human rights, philosophy, religion and science he received several death threats from Islamic extremists. One news report on his death described Roy as “the blogger who wouldn’t back down”.

Avijit Roy/Facebook

Avijit Roy/Facebook

The BBC writes, “Mr Roy’s followers argue that many of his secular ideas are in the tradition of the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, who died in 1941 and is often referred to as ‘Bengal’s Shakespeare’”. In the photo to the right, he holds one of Tagore’s books. Tagore coined the phrase “The Endless Further” that is used as the title of this blog, and no doubt were he around today he would have felt a deep kinship with Avijit Roy. I cannot do a complete profile of Roy here, so those who are interested in learning more, I suggest you follow some of the links embedded in this post.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

– Rabindranath Tagore

Feb 262015
 

I don’t know if you read Oliver Sacks’ op-ed last Thursday in the New York Times where he revealed that he has terminal liver cancer. The piece was of particular interest to me as someone who survived liver cancer via a liver transplant only 9 months ago and has lost 2 family members to the disease in the past 13 months.

I think it should be of interest to everyone because we are all terminal. To paraphrase the title of a humorous and ironic song by Hank Williams Sr., none of us will get out of this world alive.

Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert

Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert

I must confess that before this I was not too familiar with the life and work of Oliver Sacks, who is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine. I knew that his 1973 memoir Awakenings about his work with patients suffering from the sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, was made into a film with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, which I enjoyed. And that he wrote another book titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but I have read neither and had to go to Wikipedia to learn more about him.

It’s not necessary to know his life story to be moved by Sacks’ reflections. They are poignant and inspirational. The valuable takeaways for me were the appreciation he expresses for his life and the sense of detachment he has found. Both are indispensable to Buddhist practice, and even though some mistakenly think they are mutually exclusive, they are not.

Buddhism teaches that human life is precious, and that is reason enough to be grateful for the blessing of life. When you face death and survive, appreciation for life seems to blossom naturally. It is a shame to wait until you have a crisis for it to unfold.

In regards to detachment, Sacks writes,

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment . . .”

That is the kind of detachment Buddhism encourages us to develop, but again, while there is still time to watch the news, pay attention to the world, to argue, to forgive, love and cry. We form attachments to so many things – desire, material possessions, even our own sufferings – and it is vital that we learn to let go. As Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness.”

There is not much more to say about the piece. It is called “My Own Life.” It could have been titled “Our Own Lives,” as it speaks to and for us all. Please read it. Here is the link:

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer February 19, 2015