Jun 252015
 

Holistic medicine is a still relatively new approach to healing in the West, and yet it has ancient roots – in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and even in the teachings of Hippocrates, the so-called father of medicine, who lived in the 4th century B.C. and emphasized the healing power of nature.  This approach to healing is called holistic because it looks at the whole person; joining all the different elements of the physical, mental, emotional, nutritional, social, and environmental into a whole system.

The term ‘holistic’ comes from the word ‘whole’, from the old English word ‘hale’, which means to be in good health, to be whole and healthy. The original meaning of ‘whole’ implied “keeping the original sense,” “that which has also survived,” and “to heal.” The prehistoric German root of whole is also the origin of ‘heal’, ‘health’, and ‘holy’. In addition, the word ‘wealth’ (‘weal’) has associations with words heal, health, holiness, and happiness.

To heal means to be whole and to be whole means to heal. To be wealthy is to be healthy and whole. To be holy is to heal and be whole. It is said that true happiness is only possible when we achieve complete wholeness and maximum health.

“Unbounded wholeness” is a concept in Dzogchen, a teaching traditional of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a rather complicated notion identified with Samantabhadra, one of the names of the Primordial Buddha. Professor Anne C. Klein, with Tenzin Wangyal, wrote a book on the subject, Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon, and the Logic of the Nonconceptual. In it, they offer this passage from The Great Profound Bliss Sutra:

Mind of mine, dwelling in the present
Uncontrived, uncoarsened, and untouched
Heart essence of all that is,
Dwells solely as wholeness unbounded.

We can find wholeness in the present because the present is always whole. The present may seem to have separate parts and dimensions but from the ultimate view, we find that it is indivisible. In the now, the past and future join the present to form a timeless reality. It is timeless when our mind is no longer tethered to the idea that the present must be divided into past, present and future.

A Healing Buddha mandala

A Healing Buddha mandala

The catalog of word forms above progressed in a circular motion, one definition leading into another and then back to the previous. A Buddhist symbol for wholeness is the mandala, which is often circular. Jung, in fact, called mandalas “archetypes of wholeness.” He saw the geometric pattern of the mandala as displaying a preexisting condition of consciousness. With this in mind, we might say that our journey to wholeness is a journey of rediscovery – uncovering the wholeness that has always been whole, and unbounded.

Jun 232015
 

Regular readers of this blog probably know by now that the title, The Endless Further, is borrowed from the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (see About). He was not a Buddhist. He was Hindu, and he believed in God. Nonetheless, he had great respect for the Buddha’s dharma, which does not include teachings about a supreme being. Tagore, also accepted many of the same concepts that Buddhism adheres to, although his understanding of them differed according to his religion and his own sense of things.

The way I use “Endless Further” is changed slightly from the way Tagore used it, and yet, I have not strayed too far from his intended meaning. For him, the spiritual work of an individual was to realize an oneness with God, or to awaken to the presence of God within. To have that realization was the same as becoming infinite.

“Infinite” was also Tagore’s understanding of the meaning of Nirvana. But, it was not, in his mind, a goal or the end of one’s effort.  Nor was it realized solely from the practice of austerities.  As Mohit Kumar Ray tells us in Studies on Rabindranath Tagore, he “never did set Nirvana as his goal. He has repeatedly and explicitly stated his faith in the great joy of release which can be attained within the innumerable bonds and ties of life instead of abdicating the earthly for the ethereal.”

Most religious philosophies concern themselves with a division between the “sacred” and the “profane.” Tagore did not see a division; instead, he beheld the two in a dynamic relationship. The sacred is manifested through the profane, and through the profane, it is possible to find the sacred. Renunciation is a state of mind. So, too, is Nirvana.

Each moment is new and ends in a new moment. We should not strive to attain Nirvana in some future moment. This is what Zen master Dogen meant when he declared that practice is not a means to Nirvana, it is Nirvana. Every activity no matter how mundane is Buddha activity (butsu-ji). Each moment is Nirvana, and infinite.

Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.”

Tagore, Gitanjali

Jun 192015
 

Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand
Maybe I’ll be there to share the land
That they’ll be givin’ away
When we all live together

– The Guess Who

I can’t say that I am a big fan of the institution of the Pope, but then since I’m not Catholic, my opinion about the Bishops of Rome doesn’t count for much. I can say that I am glad to see the new guy, Francis, making efforts to drag his church into the 21st Century. You may have heard about his recent statements on climate change. What you may not know is that it is more than just a few remarks, it’s a 192-page document called an encyclical, which is a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. In this document leaked to the public, he says climate change is real, he argues for a new, positive relationship between religion and science, and he criticizes those who are skeptical about climate change for being in “denial.”

And, in what I think is a major step, he says that Christians have misinterpreted the Bible. According to Francis, the book of Genesis lays out “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” He says that these relationships have been broken and states “This rupture is sin,” which has “distorted our mandate to ‘have dominion’ over the earth. It’s too bad he didn’t reject the notion of “dominion.” If he had, it would have been truly revolutionary.

The so-called dominion mandate has been the focal point of criticism of the Christian approach to the environmental ethics. The critique is that it has enabled humans to view the earth as merely a tool for human needs. This notion of dominion created the Industrial Revolution and resulted in the wholesale devastation of our planet. There is nothing inherently wrong about using nature, but abusing it is another matter. The Industrial Revolution changed the world, but it would have been better if the changes had occurred in a more responsible manner.

I’d like to mention (and you knew I would) that the view of Eastern philosophy is completely opposite. Western religious philosophy established a dualism in separating human life from nature, and as you know, Buddhism and Taoism are based on non-dualism. In ancient Buddhist texts, there are very few instances where the intrinsic value of nature is directly addressed. However, the oneness of “man” and nature has been a major theme in Taoism from its earliest beginnings.

Yin-Yang, the Taoist symbol for non-duality

Yin-Yang, the Taoist symbol for non-duality

For the Taoist sage, the environment has always been in an intimate relationship with wisdom or what we Buddhist’s call enlightenment. The highest wisdom is the penetrating insight of the interdependency of all things, and this inter-connectedness is expressed in the sage’s identification between his true nature and nature itself. T’ien-t’ai Buddhism went even further when Chih-i declared that there is nothing in the entire universe that is not within the mind.

We don’t have dominion over the land, it is not our inheritance, or something we bequeath to our children. We participate in nature. We share the land. We are its caretakers only in the sense that we take care of each other.

One writer I’ve read says that the passage I quote below is Chuang Tzu’s attempt to “undermine the whole metaphysical debate: how can one know what is natural and what is human? How can one possible justify the claim that humans are part of nature or the contrary claim that they are not?”* To me, it is a bit simpler. Chuang Tzu is pointing to the non-dual nature of reality. On one hand, we know that things are physically separate, but on the other, everything is equal and one.

One who knows what nature is, and knows what it is that is human, has reached the peak of wisdom. Whoever knows about nature and humanity what nature does lives a life grounded in nature . . . However, there is a difficulty. Knowing is dependent on objects, but the objects of knowledge are transient and therefore uncertain. How can one know what we call nature is not really human, and what is human is not is not really nature?”

from Chapter Six “The Great and Honorable Teacher”

So, now the Pope has joined the chorus of those who call for urgent action on climate change. I wish he had gone further, but a small step in the right direction is better than nothing. Someone over at Fox News called him a Marxist and the “most dangerous man on earth.” Sorry deadhead, the most dangerous are those who just don’t get it, who refuse to understand the earth is a giant, living organism and we humans are the cancer threatening its existence – our existence.

Moving images, poignant words, and a classic song:

– – – – – – – – – –

* Perrenboom, R.P. “Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought. Ed. J. Baird Callicott , James McRae. SUNY Press, 2014. 152

Jun 152015
 

“Where y’at?”
Common New Orleans greeting

Some of you oldies out there surely remember the comedy group Firesign Theater. They put out a number of comedy albums in the late 60’s and early 70s. One of my favorite bits, from Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, was about a former child actor watching one of his movies on TV called “High School Madness”, a parody of the old Henry Aldrich movies that I used to watch as a kid. The actor played a character named Porgy Tirebiter. I can still recall the lyrics to the intro song, sung by the Android Sisters: “Porgy Tirebiter!/He’s a spy and a girl delighter,/Orgie Firefighter!/He’s just a student like you.”

Firesign Theater albums had rather unusual titles, like the one above. Another LP was titled How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All. What was cool about that one was it had a sort of Zen ring to it.

Of course, everyone is somewhere. Relatively speaking. From the viewpoint of ultimate truth, however, nobody is anywhere.

Another title I am fond of, this time from a book, is Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are. She’s a respected Buddhist teacher, nun and author, and her book is about Buddhist slogans or lojong and the meditation practice of tonglen (“giving and taking”). As the subtitle indicates, its also “A Guide to Compassionate Living.”

I like this passage from Chapter 6:

Pema Chodron

Pema Chodron

Start where you are. This is very important. Tonglen practice (and all meditation practice) is not about later, when you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect. You may be the most violent person in the world— that’s a fine place to start. That’s a very rich place to start —juicy, smelly. You might be the most depressed person in the world, the most addicted person in the world, the most jealous person in the world. You might think that there are no others on the planet who hate themselves as much as you do. All of that is a good place to start. Just where you are— that’s the place to start.”

Many of us have already started, but very few are actually where we want to be. So, sometimes it’s a matter of re-starting from where we are. It’s important to keep in mind that as we shouldn’t judge others, we shouldn’t judge ourselves, either. In Buddhism there are no judgments, only lessons. If we are less than perfect, that is quite all right. The journey to mindfulness or awakening does not require that we be anything other than what we are right now, and the only place we need to be is where we are.

Now, to be able to start where you are, you have to be somewhere to begin with.  Again, the ultimate truth offers us a slightly different perspective, but then it kind of circles around.  First, the ultimate truth asks that we let go of the idea of being anywhere, and going anywhere. The Buddha called his path a “pathless path.” That’s because it is not a route or course that is laid out like a bicycle path or a road. The path does not lead us away from where we are, it leads us to within where we are. To walk the path, though, we must be able to see reality ‘as it is,’ which is the ordinary reality, and here’s the twist, the ordinary is the true nature of reality – the reality of where we are, where we start and restart from.  In other words, it’s where y’at.

Jun 102015
 

It has been exactly 156 days since I last mentioned Bob Dylan on this blog. By mentioning him today, I have corrected that horrible omission. I had to do it, it was haunting me.

But don’t ask me what I think about his latest album of “standards,” Shadows in the Night, because I really don’t know how I feel about it. Mixed feelings, says it best . . . and with that, ’nuff said about it.

In a Bob Dylan related mention, today is 105th birthday of Howlin’ Wolf (1910-1976) born Chester Arthur Burnett, who was the great Chicago blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player from White Station Mississippi. One of the true giants and pioneers of blues music. Lord knows Bob stole a lot from was heavily influenced by the man. Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer, Sam Lay, even played on Bob’s Highway 61 Revisited.

I’d also like to mention something that is totally unrelated to Bob Dylan or Howlin’ Wolf: today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973). If you recognize that name at all, it is probably from the film Bridge on River Kwai (1957), in which he played the commandant of the prison camp, Colonel Saito. That performance earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Early Hayakawa and as Col. Saito

Early Hayakawa and as Col. Saito

Hayakawa was a prolific actor, appearing in over 100 films, many of them silent, many of them Japanese productions. No doubt you have seen him in his other English language movies, such as Swiss Family Robinson, Tokyo Joe, The Geisha Boy, House of Bamboo, and Hell to Eternity.

Several years ago, when Turner Classic Movies had a month long Asian film festival, I watched some of his early work, including a couple of silents. According to Stephen Gong, Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media, “Hayakawa’s acting inspiration, his unique approach, which he attributed to Zen Buddhism, brought to the silent screen an acting style characterized by intuition, naturalness and the eradication of conscious effort. In Zen this is termed the state of muga—an absence of self-awareness. Contemporary critics hailed it as a “repressed” method of acting (and as such suitably ‘Oriental’).”

IMBD says, “The popularity of Hayakawa rivaled that of Caucausian male movie stars in the decade of the 1910s, and he became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.”

zen-hayakawaHayakawa was also a producer, author, martial artist and ordained Zen priest. He lived much of his life in Los Angeles, but after his wife, Tsuru Aoki, died in 1961, he went back to Japan, and wrote his autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way: To Peace, Happiness and Tranquility, and that’s when he became a Zen priest.

I tried to find his book on the Internet so that I could share a pithy or inspiring quote from it with you. The only thing I found (besides a pic of the cover) was this: “All my life has been a journey. But my journey differs from the journeys of most men.”

Well, everyone’s life is a journey and each journey is different, unique to each individual. So here’s something truly profound from that great WWII film Bridge on River Kwai directed by David Lean and in addition to Hayakawa staring William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins. In the movie, Colonel Saito forces the British POWs to construct a railway bridge for the Japanese to use. At one point, the Colonel tells the prisoners “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

Today’s post has been a bit of play, but I hope also informative. Another piece of information: You’ve probably heard the words spoken by Colonel Saito many times before. It’s an old proverb that first appeared in James Howell’s Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish way back in 1659.

Jun 082015
 

Several years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh republished an earlier book under the title of Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology. He interprets and comments on verses Vasubandhu composed on the nature of consciousness. Together with his brother, Asanga, Vasubandhu (fl. 4th century) was one of the principle founders of the Yogacara school, and is considered one the great Buddhist philosophers, revered in a number of Buddhist traditions.

Yogacara (“Yoga-practice”), along with the Madhyamaka, was one of the two major schools in early Mahayana Buddhism. This tradition, which emphasized philosophy and psychology, was also known as Consciousness Only (Vijnanavada) or Mind Only. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to it as Manifestation Only.

IMG_3820d4He states that “According to the teachings of Manifestation Only Buddhism, our mind has eight aspects, or we can say, ‘eight consciousnesses.’ The first five are based in the physical senses . . . the sixth arises when our mind contacts an object of perception . . . [the seventh] gives rise to and is the support of the mind consciousness . . . The eighth, store consciousness (alayavijnana), is the ground, or base, of the other seven consciousnesses. “

The first fifteen verses in the book are about the store consciousness. which functions “to store or preserve all the ‘seeds’ (bija) of our experiences . . . Everything we have ever done, experienced, or perceived . . . The seeds planted by these actions, experiences, and perceptions are the ‘subject’ of consciousness.” The store consciousness also preserves the seeds themselves.

The first verse Thich Nhat Hanh presents is as follows:

Mind is a field
in which every kind of seed is sown.
The “mind-field” can also be called
“all the seeds.”

Thich Nhat Hanh comments:

Our mind is a field in which every kind of seed is sown seeds of compassion, joy, and hope, seeds of sorrow, fear, and difficulties. Every day our thoughts, words, and deeds plant new seeds in the field of our consciousness, and what these seeds generate becomes the substance of our life . . . There are wholesome and unwholesome seeds in our mind-field.”

The Chinese T’ien-t’ai (Celestial Terrace) sect viewed the mind in more metaphysical terms than the Mind Only school.  They saw it as a substance that permeates all individual minds, as well as the entire universe. They went beyond the Mind Only teachings to propose a 9th aspect, or layer, of mind – the amala consciousness. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This layer of mind lies beyond the level of the store consciousness and is said to be free from any influences from past experiences, and, as it is a pure consciousness, it is also far beyond any sense of self, any notion of ‘I’.

Chih-i, the de facto founder of T’ien-t’ai, equated the amala consciousness with “true nature,” or what call Buddha-nature. Tibetan Buddhism describes this same quality of mind as luminous or clear light.

The Mind Only school maintained that only mind was real, everything else was illusion. T’ien-t’ai accepted this but they were not so interested in the workings of the mind, or trying to explain what consciousness is, as they were in how to contemplate the mind. Since all reality is a product of mind, or at least identical to it, then mind, which is easily accessible, should be the primary object of contemplation.

Chih-i taught contemplating the mind as a two-pronged process where the practitioner calms and empties the mind while also realizing the quiescence and emptiness of all phenomena (chih; stopping), and through observing the mind ((kuan; insight or seeing) realizes its luminous expanse.

So, when Vasubandhu says “The mind is a field,” we can see that as pointing to the expansiveness of mind, the sweep or range of consciousness.

It is important to note that we have been looking at the mind from the standpoint of ultimate truth, but we live in the realm of relative truth, where the things we have said are mere illusions have a worldly function.  The purpose of the all this, then, is to guide us to an understanding of mind. Again, it is not so much to understand what it is, but rather to learn how we can become the master of our mind, instead of a slave to our normal state of consciousness which is always preoccupied with conflicting thoughts and sensory perceptions, constantly in pursuit of subjective experiences and external objects.

These concepts can serve as a foundation for the critical work of disengaging our thoughts from their object oriented focus and placing them squarely in the present, without thinking about the past or anticipating the future. In this way, we can realize emptiness and get a glimpse into the luminous nature of consciousness.

Jun 042015
 

I saw a commercial on TV the other day that said,

Financial noise is everywhere. Tune it out with intentional investing from Invesco. And separate knowledge from noise.”

noise1 I thought this is close to what we’re trying to do with meditation and dharma. Noise is everywhere. It’s spiritually deafening at times. The kind of noise I mean is desire, illusion, attachment, stress, worry, anticipation, disappointment, fun, sorrow – noise is all the stuff we deal with in daily life. But we can tune out all that noise, turn off the static.

The commercial mentions knowledge, but we’re not too interested in that. I saw something recently, and dash if I can find it now when I need it, but I think it was the Buddha who said that when some practitioners encounter obstacles, they revert to intellectual comprehension. He meant that empirical and theoretical knowledge is not the best path for wayfarers. We want to travel on the way of Transcendent Wisdom (Prajna-Paramita), which “goes beyond” knowledge. In the Diamond Sutra, Transcendent Wisdom is likened to a diamond blade that cuts through all the noise to reveal the true aspect of all phenomena.

And that’s why, in the sutra the Buddha says,

Subhuti, this teaching should be known as the Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom – this is how you should receive and hold it. And why? Because the diamond of transcendent wisdom has the capacity to cut through illusions and go beyond to the further shore. Yet, this teaching the Buddha has called the diamond of transcendent wisdom is not really the diamond of transcendent wisdom. ‘Diamond of transcendent wisdom’ is just the name given to it.”

We can receive and hold the teaching, but it will not help us to go beyond if we cling to it. Use it, but don’t grasp it. In the Zen tradition, which was significantly influenced by Taoism, this was known as “not-knowing.” In The Diamond Sutra Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, Mu Soeng explains

Not-knowing is the intuitive wisdom where one understands information to be just that – mere information – and tries to penetrate to the heart of the mystery that language and information are trying to convey . . . The not-knowing approach is not a philosophical or intellectual entertainment; it is a doorway to liberation.” (p.64)

I didn’t have a clue to what intentional investing was so I Googled it. The company describes it this way: “At Invesco, all of our people and all of our resources are dedicated to helping investors achieve their financial objectives. It’s a philosophy we call Intentional Investing.”

At Buddha-dharma all our bodhisattvas and all of our teachings are dedicated to helping people achieve liberation through Transcendent Wisdom. It’s a philosophy we call bodhicitta or intentional cultivation.

Jun 012015
 

That ‘Old Philosopher’ and poet of Ancient China, Lao Tzu said, “The acceptable and the unacceptable are both acceptable.”

This means to take life as it is. Sounds simple. Well, it is easy to accept the acceptable, but to accept what is unacceptable seems counter-intuitive to normal way of thinking. What is unacceptable is undesirable, unsatisfactory, intolerable, unreasonable – why would we want to embrace that?

If we look at it from a psychological point of view, it is important to be in touch with our negativity. We cannot overcome anger, sadness or other bad feelings unless we deal with them. Buddhism teaches that suffering comes from our thoughts and feelings, so it seems rather obvious that denial is not a strategy we want to employ. We can expand this to cover just about everything else in life.

Early Buddhists developed a meditation practice designed to help us accept the unacceptable. It is called Kammatthana, a Pali word that means “basis of meditation” or “place of work”. These are meditation subjects suited to individual temperaments and inclinations.

Buddhaghosa, in his epic meditation text Visuddhi-magga (“Path of Purification”) listed 40 kammatthanas, and they range from subjects such as the non-existence of a permanent self and the idea of friendliness to some really unacceptable ones like the impurity and wretchedness of life and a the idea of a corpse in a state of decomposition.

Buddhaghosa wrote, “When the mind is familiar with the perception of foulness, then even divine objects do not tempt a person to greed.”

I have never meditated on the idea of a rotting corpse, and I don’t I ever shall. But I do get the intention behind it.

The first step in accepting the unacceptable is recognizing that to divide things into acceptable and unacceptable, good and bad, and so on, is dualistic thinking. That is not as simple as it sounds, either.  It is difficult to undo thought patterns that are nearly habitual. A way to break down this wall of duality that might be more helpful than corpse contemplation might be to just do away with the idea of unacceptable, tear down the concept of foulness.

To give you an example, one of the most unacceptable things in life is illness. Definitely one of the worst problems we can have. In his book, Ultimate Healing, Lama Zopa Rinpoche advises us that “To transform our problems into happiness, we have to learn to see them as pleasant.”

He goes on to say that to see problems as problems, illness as illness, unacceptable as unacceptable has many disadvantages and that we can turn it around if we meditate on the benefits of problems, which is probably a more difficult notion to hold in the mind than the idea of a corpse.

I don’t think I need to discuss the various ways in which embracing the unacceptable is beneficial. If you open your mind, they will come to you. When it comes to thoughts and emotions, we must be willing to experience even our negative thoughts and emotions fully. We can’t allow ourselves to reject them as invalid. Everything is valid. Whatever arises in our life is acceptable. Take life as it is.

May 292015
 

According to Thailand’s foreign minister the number of migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an “alarming level.” Migrants desperately fleeing their home countries have been landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. During the past month, over 3,000 people have been rescued by fishermen or have washed ashore, and the UN estimates that several thousand more are still be at sea, abandoned by human smugglers.

Friday, during the opening of an Asean conference in Bangkok aimed at tackling the issue, Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn called for governments in the region to address the root causes of the crisis. Both he and the UN singled out Burma, also known as Myanmar, as the country most responsible for the situation.

Most of the migrants are Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burmese persecution, while many others are economic migrants from Bangladesh seeking job in other countries.

At the conference, Htin Linn, the head of the Myanmar delegation, refused to accept any responsibility, while in Yangon, Burma’s largest city, over three hundred protesters, including scores of extremist Buddhist monks, took to the streets to deny that the boat people are Rohingya Muslims. Demonstrators wore shirts and held signs with messages such as “Boat People are not Myanmar, Stop Blaming Myanmar” and “There is no Rohingya in Myanmar.”

Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)

Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)

Meanwhile in an interview before a visit to Australia next week with The Australian newspaper, the Dalai Lama urged fellow a Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out: “It’s very sad . . . I met her two times, first in London and then the Czech Republic. I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”

Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue has disappointed many of her admirers around the world.

I would hope that if the Dalai Lama, as head of a Mahayana Buddhist sect, feels confident about pressing Suu Kyi, a follower of Theravada Buddhism, to take some action, he would also feel confident about calling on Theravadins in Burma and Sri Lanka to do something about the Buddhist extremism on the rise in both of those countries.

In an article published Thursday at Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, Theravada Buddhism’s Muslim Problem, Iselin Frydenlund, a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and Susan Hayward, Interim Director of the Religion and Peace building program at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote that the problem “requires an intra-Buddhist debate on Buddhist principles, religious pluralism, and human rights.” They also maintain that joint statements crafted at local summits between Buddhist and Muslims “carry far more weight than any human rights group’s condemnation of the role of religious leaders in creating intolerance and mistrust.”

This may be true, but joint condemnation or at least some rather loud vocalization from fellow Buddhists would carry some weight as well. In my opinion, Buddhists worldwide have been far too quiet.

May 262015
 

I’ve read a lot in the Buddhist Blogosphere recently on the subject of ethics, as part of the on-going discussion about the secularization of “mindfulness.” The concern for some folks is that as Buddhist meditation moves further into the secular mainstream, it has lost its original ethical component.

I share the concern, to some extent, but don’t know enough about the various secular applications of Buddhist meditation to feel confident about wading very far into the discussion. However, I do like to think I am competent to say a few words about “Buddhist ethics.”

Buddhism and Jainism were the first Indian spiritual paths to contain a strong moral element. The Buddhist take was that as suffering was produced by ignorance (avidya), it was necessary to destroy ignorance in order to bring an end to suffering. The state of no-suffering was called awakening, and the Buddha taught that one could not awaken merely through intuition, mystical ritual, or the practice of austerities as other Indian systems had previously maintained. For the Buddha, a progressive advancement in the practice of moral conduct was essential.

An emphasis on morality in other spiritualities, particularly those in the West, often led to moralizing, almost universally viewed as preaching moral values in “a self-righteous or tiresome way.” Buddhism was able to avoid this by focusing on karma (no need to judge or condemn because wrongdoing inevitably results in karmic retribution) and through promoting bhavana or self-development (as one progresses in awakening, ethical behavior arises in an organic way).

Buddhism and Jainism are very similar, and this is the case with Buddhism and Taoism, too. For many, Taoism appears to lack a moral vision, especially when compared to the ethical teachings of the other major Chinese path, Confucianism.

In Mystics and Zen Masters, Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who was an ardent student of Eastern philosophy, questioned whether Taoist quietism and “non-action” (wu-wei) didn’t play right into the hands of the totalitarian Chinese communists:

“Theirs is a way of ‘non-action,’ which is falsely interpreted as pure quietism when in reality it is a policy of non-interference and an abstention from useless and artificial action. Taoism is not complete non-action but rather non-activism.” ( 54)

I’m not sure how Merton felt about it, but there are those who feel that ethics in Buddhism should be expressed as social and political action, and since Buddha-dharma seems deficient in this regard, to them it means Buddhism is “absent”. I can’t help but feel this point of view stems from a fundamental misapprehension about the nature of Buddhist dharma.

Like Taoism, Buddhism has never been a social action movement. Buddhism is self-help.  As odious and “bourgeois” as that may sound to some, it is nonetheless dead-on. As I pointed out in my March 30th post, bhavana or “self-development” is the word frequently used by the Buddha for meditation. If, because of one’s self-development, a choice is made to engage in social action, it is highly commendable. But it is not the prime point of Buddhism’s ethical thrust.

In The Tao of the West, J.J. Clarke offers an excellent explanation for how Taoism conveys the moral ideal:

sage001bTaoism teaches an ‘ethics’ of ‘self-cultivation’ . . . At the heart of this is the idea of the sage who, through mirroring and cultivating himself in the way of nature, the dao, exemplifies but does not specify in law-like terms the way for others; like an artist, his self-creative activity should inspire rather than be imitated.” (95)

You can replace the word “sage” with Buddha or Bodhisattva and arrive at the heart of Buddhism. Imitate means to “take or follow as a model. Inspire means “fill (someone) with the urge or ability to do or feel something.” It seems to me that inspiration must come from a deeper place in one’s being than imitation.

I recently came across a blog post by a fellow who has had a somewhat high profile in Buddhist circles in recent years and he was explaining why he was quitting his blog and stepping away from Buddhism. The reasons he gave included the notions mentioned above: a “bourgeois” mindset, Buddhist absenteeism concerning social action, the self-help/feel-good-about-yourself focus. I’ve seen this often, people get very involved in dharma for a short time and then they burn out. I think now I understand why this happens. They’ve learned the teachings and learned from them, but they haven’t been deeply inspired.

The kind of inspiration I’m referring to should stimulate within us a genuine eagerness to be an example to others of how to live ethically and with compassion. There’s no need to teach ethics or preach morality, yet it is important that we find ways to inspire these values.

But first, we have to be a good example for ourselves.  Like it or not, it is difficult to inspire others if you don’t feel inspired yourself, or you are uncomfortable about your own life. So, again, it all comes down to one’s personal development. Our first and foremost task is to win over ourselves.

This may sound pompous and/or self-serving, but I cannot imagine ever turning back, stepping back, or quitting the dharma because I am inspired. What’s more, I am continually inspired.

Q: Do practitioners inspire their own minds or do others induce their inspiration?

A: It has nothing to do with self and others, it is just a matter of inspiration of the mind through response to an inner sense of contact with truth.

Chih-i, Mo Ho Chih Kuan (tr. Thomas Cleary)