No god but God

Westerners really don’t care about Islam because most are Christian or Jewish and there is not much about Islam that resonates with us.  Arabic culture is strange, so foreign.  But we can’t ignore it.  The extreme element within Islam is a force to be reckoned with in our world.  In America, we only used to hear about radical Islamic terrorism, now we’re feeling it.  Westerners have many misconceptions about Islam.  Our lack of understanding of Arabic culture, our disregard for the religion, and our treatment of Arab nations has cause a lot of chickens to come home to roost.

In the 1970s, a worldwide Islamic revival emerged.  I seem to remember hearing something about it back then.  But it had nothing to do with me, so I didn’t care about it.  Some elements of the revival morphed into terrorists.  After the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, I began to pay more attention.  In 1983 I had an encounter with a Lebanese neighbor who had just learned his brother had been killed in a missile attack.  An emotional evening to say the least.  By the 1990s I decided it might be useful to learn something about Islam, outside of what I had learned about it from reading books on the Knights Templar and the Crusades, most of them biased against the Muslim side.

Prayer in_Cairo 1865 (Artist: Jean-Leon Gerome)

One book I studied was Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet.  Armstrong is a former nun, author, scholar, and journalist, a leading commentator in the field of comparative religions.  In Muhammad, she not only presents a detailed biography of the Prophet but also gives readers an overview of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  She deals with the history of the three religions more comprehensively in another book, A History of God, which I read around the same period.  In my opinion, A History of God is a must-read for anyone interested in religion.  After I finished it, I felt I had a clearer understanding of how ‘God’ is a man-made concept.  I’m not sure that’s what Armstrong intended but that’s what I got.

Many Christians label Muhammad a ‘false prophet,’  mainly because he did not accept the divinity of Jesus.  I recall that Armstrong mentioning something about how Muhammad was jealous that God had spoken to the Jews and Christians but not to Muslims.  I don’t know if that is true, but assuming it is, one wonders if it wasn’t a prime motivation behind the ‘revelations’ he received from Allah, alone and without witnesses.

Armstrong says that Muhammad’s life is an example of “the perfect surrender (in Arabic, the word for “surrender” is islam) that every human being should make to the divine.”  He maintained that in order to have a perfect relationship with God, one should surrender to Him completely.

This message does resonate with me.  Even in Buddhism total surrender is essential.  You must surrender your ego, your ‘self,’ and simultaneously make a surrender to your Buddha-nature.

Another thing that has stayed with me is Armstrong’s comment that “His life was jihad: as we shall see, this word does not mean “holy war,” it means “struggle.”  We could say that in this, all life is jihad.

Muhammad taught that “God is One,” meaning the three religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity originate from the same period.  Begging to differ, Islamophobic folks claim that it’s not the same god at all.  Billy Graham’s website says, “Allah is not only a different name for god; the deity it designates is far more impersonal than the God of the Bible.”  The latter part of that statement may be accurate but the notion that Allah is a different name for God stems from rank ignorance.

As Wikipedia notes, Allah “is the Arabic word for God in Abrahamic religions.”   It may be the same God, but there are some big differences that people in the Middle East have taken rather personally over the centuries.

I have no use for any of the monotheistic religions.  That does not mean I am necessarily against them or hate the people who follow those paths.  But to me, the sameness of Christianity and Islam is more apparent than the dissimilarities between them.

When it comes to love and compassion, however, all religions seem to be in accord.  Here are two examples:

In the Book of Mark, New Testament, we read:

What commandment is the first of all?  Jesus answered, The first is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.  The second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

In the Quran (“the recitation)” we find these words (4:37):

[Worship] Allah…  and show kindness to parents, and to kindred, and orphans, and the needy, and to the neighbor that is a kinsman and the neighbor that is a stranger, and the companion by your side, and the wayfarer, and those whom your right hands possess. Surely, Allah loves not the proud and the boastful.

Love your neighbor, show kindness to others.  It’s a universal message.

This translation by Amaravati Sangha is from in the Buddhist Metta Sutta.

Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings: radiating kindness over the entire world, spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded…

The Islamic and Buddhist passages do not use the word “love,” but the thought of love is there.  Kindness is a quality of love.  All the religions agree that kindness should permeate our lives.  Hard to disagree with that, but to my mind, it shouldn’t be because a religious text tells us that’s what we should do, but rather on account of it being the best way to live.  Showing kindness to others is just the right thing to do.

One thing I’ve never been able to reason out is why the three religious cultures in the Middle East just cannot transcend the hatred they feel for one another. While not all Muslims hate Jews and vice versa, there is obviously an underlying tension that frequently erupts in horrible violence.  Even within Muslims and Jews who live outside the Middle East, one can detect feelings of bitterness and distrust.

For the West, I feel it is indeed a case of chickens coming home to roost.  Historically, we haven’t made much of an effort to understand Middle Eastern culture, except on the Jewish side and that’s only because we feel an affinity with Judaism since they worship the ‘same God.’  Arab nations were abused by America’s foreign policy after World War II.  It’s not surprising they resent us.  And on the other side, it is truly regrettable that Israel’s leaders have an apartheid mentality and often treat Palestinians in the same brutal manner that Nazi’s treated the Jews in Germany.

There will always be those who don’t get it.  Just look at the Islamophobic Buddhists in Burma who have been waging a holy war against the Rohingya Muslims.

Kindness.  Why can’t we all show more kindness?

I think most of us feel that you can have little regard for someone’s belief and have love for that person. That’s one reason why it’s useful to have an objective understanding of different beliefs.  Enlightened by some knowledge, it is less easy to, say, to reject Islam on the basis of semantics.  To be a party to injecting misery into the world just because someone uses another name for the same god is just… I don’t know what word to use…  Whatever it is, this conflict has rocked our world and not in a good way and I can’t help but feel that these folks in the Middle East should just get over themselves.

Finally, another Islamic concept we do not understand very well is jihad.  To us in the West, jihad is a fear-word.  But as I said, in one sense all life is jihad.  As people of the earth we have universally inherited the great jihad:  the total revolution of heart and mind.  However, before we can set in train the transformation of our humanity, we must first couple with the stock of surrender, the conversion of lower self into a higher self.

And seek assistance through patience and prayer, and indeed, it is difficult except for the submissive.

Quran, Surah Al-Baqarah [2:45]

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A Brazen Buddha Melts. . .

People today want meditation without magic, mysticism, or religion.  It’s like some folks are attracted to Buddhism that doesn’t seem like Buddhism and/or they are completely turned-off by anything Religulous.  Maybe they just want to meditate.  But if you are doing any form of mindfulness, you are kinda practicing the Buddha’s teachings.  Personally, I feel that what people are looking for can be found within the context of Buddhism.  You don’t have to go “secular” or divorce yourself from the teachings.  I mean, unless, you really, really want to…

Way back I wrote about a small Chinese Buddhist school that had existed for about two hundred and seventy years when they were discovered during the 19th century.  I don’t think they’re still around.  Joseph Edkins described them in Chinese Buddhism (1893):

They are a kind of reformed Buddhists…  The name of the sect is Wu-wei-kiau, which, translated literally, means the “Do-nothing sect.”  The idea intended by it is, that religion consists, not in ceremonies and outward show, but in stillness, in a quiet, meditative life, and in an inward reverence for the all-pervading Buddha.  Buddha is believed in, but he is not worshipped.  There are temples, if they may be so called, but they are plain structures, destitute of images, and having in them only the common Chinese tablet to heaven, earth, king, parents, and teacher, as an object of reverence.

The use of wu-wei in the name refers to the Taoist/Buddhist term for “non-action,” meaning to take action in a more natural way without struggle or excessive effort.

The approach of the Wu-wei-kiau seems like a secular, modern one to me, like they were thinking outside the box.  They felt empowered to interpret Buddha-dharma their own way and yet they remained wayfarers on the Buddha path.  The Wu-wei-kiau didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

No one has to bow, wear robes, take vows, have an Asian name, sit in the traditional Asian posture, or believe in karma or rebirth.  At the same time, you don’t want to dismiss all that with a closed mind or eschew other aspects of Buddhism, particularly the teachings that don’t rely on abstract metaphysics.

I can’t help but feel that those who take a purely secular or clinical approach, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deprive themselves of considerable mind-nourishment.

In the Mo Ho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), meditation master Chih-i wrote,

If people rely exclusively on [meditation, or on only one teaching or practice] to attain understanding, then what was the reason for the Buddha to offer such a variety of teachings?  The heavens are not always clear; a doctor does not rely exclusively on powdered medicine; one does not always eat rice.

Anyway.  Here is a story Edkins relates in his book, about a time when some “foreign priests” came to visit Lo-tsu, the founder of the “Do-Nothing Sect.”  It might give us some more insight into the matter:

The foreign priest then asked him why he did not chant books of prayers.  He answered, “That the great doctrine is spontaneous, man’s nature is the same with heaven.  The true unwritten book is always rotating.  All heaven and earth are repeating words of truth.  The true book is not outside of man’s self. But the deceived are ignorant of this, and they therefore chant books of prayers.  The law that is invisible manifests itself spontaneously, and needs no book.  The flowing of water, the rushing of the winds, constitute a great chant.  Why, then, recite prayers from books?”

The founder of the Wu-wei religion was again asked why he did not worship images of Buddha.  He answered,

“A brazen Buddha melts, and a wooden Buddha burns, when exposed to the fire.  An earthen Buddha cannot save itself from water. It cannot save itself; then how can it save me?  In every particle of dust there is a kingdom ruled by Buddha.  In every temple the king of the law resides.  The mountains, the rivers, and the great earth form Buddha’s image. Why, then, carve or mould an image?”

. . . again he is asked why he does not burn incense?  He replies, “That ignorant men do not know that everyone has incense in himself. What is true incense?  It is self-government, wisdom, patience, mercy, freedom from doubts, and knowledge.  The pure doctrine of the Wu-wei is true incense, pervading all heaven and earth.  Incense is everywhere ascending.  That incense which is made by man, the smoke of fragrant woods, does not reach heaven.  The winds, clouds, and dew are true incense, always shedding itself forth through the successive seasons of the year.”

He was asked once more, “Why do you not light candles?”  He answered, “That the world is a candlestick.  Water is the oil.  The sky is an encircling shade.  The sun and moon are the flame lighting up the universe.  If there is light within me, it illumines all heaven and earth.  If my own nature be always bright, heaven will never become dark.  It will then be perceived that the king of the law is limitless.

That’s what I’m talking about…

I hate wearing robes and bowing but I like to chant.  I don’t worship Buddha images but I like having them around.  I don’t mind lighting candles and I enjoy the smell of incense, but I don’t think they are absolutely necessary.  I don’t consider myself reformed or particularly secular, just a Buddhist.

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Dalai Lama Chanting Heart Sutra Mantra with Music

I’ve written about fifteen posts about the Heart Sutra, or some aspect of it.  You can find them here.  It’s been said that the Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell, containing only 632 characters in the traditional Chinese version, distilled from the voluminous Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra.

It is recited daily in Buddhist homes and temples and monasteries all over the world.

Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Heart Sutra, “A wonderful gift.”  And Zen Teacher Norman Fischer writes that “The insight of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom as taught in the Heart Sutra, is the ultimate truth, transcending of all conventional truths.  It is the highest vision of the Buddha.”

Penetrate the true meaning of the Heart Sutra, and nothing will be the same again, says Karl Brunnhölzl at Lion’s Roar.

The mantra at the end encapsulates the teachings of the Heart Sutra.

tadyatha [om] gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

I translate it as:  tadyatha gone gone gone beyond gone far beyond be set upon awakening.

If I do say so myself, I think this translation is perfect for chanting in English.  However, when I recite the sutra itself, I usually do it in Japanese.

In his book, The Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama notes,

“We can interpret this mantra metaphorically to read “Go to the other shore,” which is to say, abandon the shore of samsara [suffering], unenlightened existence, which has been our home since beginningless time, and cross to the other shore of final nirvana and complete liberation.”

Here, then, is the Dalai Lama reciting the Heart Sutra mantra accompanied by some ambient music I put together.  I hope it will meet with your approval.

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Buddha’s Relics

A pair of articles published recently by the Chinese Cultural Relics journal reports the discovery of an ancient box that may have contained remains of the historical Buddha.   Most experts believe Gautama Siddhartha Shakyamuni lived and died approximately 2500 years ago.

Did this once contain Buddha’s remains? [Getty]
The box is made of sandalwood, gold, and silver.  Archaeologists believe that the box many contain a skull bone of the Buddha.  In addition to the box, a collection of 260 6ft high statues were also uncovered.

The inscription on the box states that two monks collected the Buddha’s cremated remains over a span of 20 years and buried them in the temple in 1013 CE:

“The monks Yunjiang and Zhiming of the Lotus School, who belonged to the Manjusri Temple of the Longxing Monastery in Jingzhou Prefecture, gathered more than 2,000 pieces of [the cremated remains of the Buddha] as well as the Buddha’s teeth and bones, and buried them in the Manjusri Hall of this temple.

” In order to promote Buddhism, they wanted to collect relics of the Buddha.  To reach this goal, both of them practiced the instruction of Buddhism during every moment of their lives for more than 20 years.”

That, to me, is the most interesting part of the story, that the two monks used their search for the Buddha’s relics as a way to practice, and promote Buddha-dharma.   The reference in the inscription to the “Lotus School” leads me to believe the two monks probably belonged to the T’ien-t’ai sect, which was widely known as the Lotus School.  However, online research of Manjusri Temple and Longxing Monastery did not reveal what sect to which the monastery, built in 586 CE, belonged.

Buddha’s relics are called sarira (“body” or “relics”).  I remember reading years ago how the Buddha expressly forbade his disciples to collect and worship his relics, and yet, there is an early sutta in which he gives precise instructions on how veneration of his relics should be carried out.

According to legend, the Buddha’s remains were to go only to his family, the Shakya clan.  But six other clans and a king also wanted the relics.  To avoid fighting, the relics were divided into ten portions, “eight from the body relics, one from the ashes of Buddha’s cremation pyre and one from the pot used to divide the relics, which he kept for himself.”

I doubt anyone will ever be able to confirm that the relics are the Buddha’s, but then I don’t know much about this kind of stuff.  But I have seen a relic of the Buddha myself.  Or what is purportedly a Buddha relic.  Here in Southern California, in the museum at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights,  a teeny tiny fragment of the Buddha’s bone is on display.  I mean it is so tiny that you have to look it using a special magnifying viewer, and even then, it’s underwhelming.  And of course, there are “relics” all over Asia.  Check out Wikipedia’s page on Relics Associated with the Buddha .

Now, those of us who practice Buddha-dharma should know we do not need to go anywhere to find a relic of Buddha.

All sentient beings have been endowed with the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics.

–  Tsung-mi (780-841)

On one hand, we are ordinary.  On the other hand, we are not.  This other hand is the hand that is the flesh and bone of Buddha.  We are the Buddha’s true relics.  When we open our box and unpack ourselves, we find the Buddha, his teachings and practice living within us.

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Prepare to Die

Are you prepared to die?

The ancient samurai of Japan would prepare for death each day of their life.  The first line in the core text of bushido (”way of the warrior”), the Hagakure reads, “The way of the warrior is found in death.”

There is another line about when faced with life or death, the samurai should always choose death.  I don’t believe this is meant to say that death is to be desired, or that death is preferable to life, but merely that we should always be prepared for death, and unpacking it a bit further, that when we are confronted with hard choices, we should not be fearful of taking the most difficult option.

Being a samurai, a warrior, meant facing death on a constant basis.  Each day could be the last.  It is no different for us.  Each day could be our last, we could be hit by a car or…

Tao and Buddha-dharma practitioners endeavor to train and tame their unruly minds.  Pull the mind back into itself rather than focus on the external.  Death is a metaphor for facing the unknown, the difficult, the unavoidable.  Death is non-attachment.

We can love life and cherish it while at the same time be unattached to the “things” of life.  This detachment helps us to prepare for face ordeals.  An unshakable mind, that holds on to only itself, is prepared, when suffering arrives, to see suffering as a materialization of the Noble Truths.  Suffering, especially physical death is a natural phenomenon, a natural aspect of life.

Some methods early Buddhists had to prepare for death was to meditate on death, meditate next to a corpse, or spend a night meditating in a cemetery.  For us, it is enough perhaps to train our minds so that we are not afraid to think about death or talk about it.  We can also reflect on death, and meditate on impermanence, which is a powerful anti-dote to self-cherishing and attachment.

We should be aware that from the moment we are born the process of old age, sickness and death begins.  Of course, as we reflect on this subtle aspect of impermanence, we should also keep in mind what Dogen said in Genjo Koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”),

[It] is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death.  Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth.  It is an unshakable teaching in Buddha’s discourse that death does not turn into birth.  Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.

Birth is an expression complete this moment.  Death is an expression complete this moment.  They are like winter and spring.  You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

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