Apr 212015

Some readers are familiar with the term “Buddhist modernism,” used by David J. McMahan in his book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism. This excellent book makes a significant contribution to the discourse on the process of modern Buddhism. However, there was one area which was not covered, an aspect of Buddhism that is a very potent force in present day dharma, which is the matter of faith; the kind of faith that is belief in supernatural beings who offer help and salvation to human beings.

I don’t intend to deal with the subject comprehensively in a blog post, rather I am going to offer a few snapshots together with some observations. Nonetheless, there are some questions I think readers could keep in mind as they read the material. When there is an apparent preoccupation on rebirth and karma, which could be considered more as matters of doctrine rather than superstition, is the  religion vs. philosophy debate concentrated on the right issues? Are we closing the gap between the two Buddhisms (“ethnic” and “convert”) or widening it? Do convert Buddhists have an accurate understanding of the role that supernatural beings play in the lives of the majority of the world’s Buddhists? Is faith-based Buddhism authentic dharma? Is there a place for faith in modern Buddhism? For prayer?

Courtyard and steps leading to the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai Temple

I once gave a series of talks to the Cal-Poly Buddhist Association. The faculty advisor, a Caucasian professor of Biological Sciences, was concerned that since many of the members of the club, almost all of whom were Chinese-American and went to Hsi Lai Temple, a predominately Pure Land temple in Hacienda Heights, they took the teachings on O-mi-tuo-fo (Amida Buddha) too literally. I devoted one of my talks to debunking Amida, the idea of faith in Buddhism, and so on. I thought I was pretty good, too. Clear, logical, and convincing. Immediately after the talk a young woman, an engineering student, stood up  and said, “Your talk was nice, but when I pray to O-mi-tuo-fo with sincerity, my prayers are answered.”

Another student got up and testified how he had strong faith that his earnest chanting of Amida Buddha’s name would result in his salvation and rebirth into the Pure Land. Someone else said pretty much the same thing only in relation to Kuan Yin. And so it went.

These young people were very different from the professor and me. They were born into their faith, whereas for the two of us, we had each rejected the faith of our parents and through a process of investigation and experimentation, made a conscious decision to become Buddhist. Our Buddhism had nothing to do with faith, prayer, or supernatural beings. Ours was a pragmatic approach to dharma, based on meditation and philosophical study. But we really were in the minority, for faith and prayer is precisely the orientation for the majority of Buddhists in the world today.

In his book, David. J. McMahan states,

Yet, as noted, while meditation has always been considered necessary to achieving awakening, only a small minority of Buddhists actually practice it in any serious way. The vast majority of Asian Buddhists have practiced the dharma through ethics, ritual, and service to the sangha.”

This, for Asian Buddhists, is changing, but on the whole McMahan’s assessment is valid. Furthermore, there has always been two kinds of Buddhism: one for the monks and the educated elite, and another one for the masses. The former has been meditation-based, while the latter, faith-based.

The ritual McMahan alludes to includes rites such as celebrating the Buddha’s birthday, alms giving, lighting incense at shrines, as well as a good deal of worship, directed at devas and/or celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. “Deva” means “deity.”  According to Buddhist cosmology, many devas were human and still retain human qualities, but they are essentially gods and they are worshiped by Buddhists because they are capable of rendering help to human beings in times of difficulty. For a good overview of deva worship in Theravada Buddhism, read “Worship of Devas” by A.G.S. Kariyawasam here.

Now that illiteracy in the world has been significantly reduced, the two Buddhisms mentioned above have morphed into a different two Buddhisms, described by Charles Presbish in the late 1970’s as “ethnic” and “convert.” Even though Prebish’s model is over 30 years old, I think it still stands.

I used to go to the same temple the students from Cal-Poly attended, Hsi Lai, which describes itself as “Pure Land/Ch’an.” There, the two Buddhisms would come together under one temple roof and for the most part remain separate, the twain never meeting. Ch’an at the temple was made up of an eclectic group of Caucasians and Chinese-Americans, while Pure Land was all Chinese.  On Sunday mornings, the Ch’an folks practiced qigong and meditation in a conference room, while in the main temple the Pure Land group chanted Amida Buddha’s name.

This to me is a microcosmic representation of the state of Buddhism today, East and West. I could be wrong, but in America, I doubt if most meditation-based Buddhists have much knowledge about or have had interaction with faith-based Buddhism. There are many reasons for this, such as language, culture, location, and inclinations. For many of the same reasons, the faith-based “ethnic” Buddhists rarely venture out of their comfortable environment.  That’s what I have noticed in my experience, living in a metropolitan area where all the major Buddhist schools and nearly all ethnic traditions can be found.  I have made a point of sampling as many of these different tastes of dharma as I can.

Shakyamuni, Amida and Medicine Buddha in the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai

Shakyamuni, Amida, and Medicine Buddha in the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai

World-wide, the largest faith-based Buddhism, and indeed, the largest of any Buddhist branch, is Pure Land. This form of dharma is based on the notion of the Three Periods: the Former, Middle and Latter Days of the Dharma, which did not become a fully realized concept until the 5th century CE. The Former Day of the Dharma (Jp. Shoho) is the first thousand years after the historical Buddha’s advent, when people can attain enlightenment through their own effort and the teachings flourish. During the Middle (Zoho) Day, the second thousand years, the Dharma continues to spread but begins to lose its power. In the Latter Day (Mappo) Shakyamuni’s dharma is almost completely degenerated and the minds of Buddhist practitioners are so deluded that they can no longer liberate themselves through their own efforts, they must rely on the saving grace of some “other-power.”

This is Amida Buddha, an entirely mythical being who promises salvation and rebirth in his Pure Land for all those who take faith in him and chant his name. There is no significant daylight between this and, say, Christianity. And in Pure Land we find a real tension between their approach and the teachings of the historical Buddha, who obviously did not teach this kind of faith. Regarding this, Roger Corless, in his essay “Pure Land Piety” (included in the anthology Buddhist Spirituality) says,

Pure Land Buddhism, however, is not ambiguous. It speaks explicitly and often of reliance on Amita Buddha as “Other Power” . . . This has led some scholars to claim that Pure Land is not, or is not fully, Buddhist . . . charging that Pure Land Buddhism is a corruption of “true” Buddhism.”

I am sympathetic to this point of view, yet at the same time, given its noble history and fine tradition of scholarship, I feel it is a bit unfair to deny Pure Land full status as a branch of Buddhism.

The second largest faith-based Buddhism is Nichiren Buddhism. The Soka Gakkai describes their brand of faith, this way: “Faith means to believe in the Gohonzon, or the object of devotion.” The Gohonzon is the “mandala” inscribed by Nichiren (It used to be called “the object of worship”). Nichirenism is presented as the antithesis of “other-power” and Pure Land, however I have long felt that Nichiren originally intended to create a virtual carbon-copy of Pure Land and that his mandala actually represents a Supreme Being. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Apr 162015

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? This is an on-going debate. Most of us probably tend to fall on the philosophy side and we are uncomfortable with the idea of faith. Most scholars will say that when the historical Buddha used the Indian word shraddha, often translated as faith, he meant confidence, trust, and sincerity, not faith in the sense of belief, or dogma.

But many of the forms of Buddhism that evolved after the Buddha were faith-based, and today most Buddhists in the world do see dharma as a religion and accept the notion of salvation by faith. The faith they generate is toward deities, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, all mythological, many of which come very close to the Western conception of God.

The Sanskrit/Pali word for deity is deva. Sometimes devatta is used. Deva can mean god, God, divine, heavenly,  radiant, along with a number of other meanings, all of which point to the idea of a “higher, holier being.” These beings may not be immortal or omniscient, but they certainly are not human. “Celestial” is a good word.

These beings are numerous, but how they are understood and the ways practice revolves around them can broadly categorized using the two terms “Other-power” (Ch. t’o-li; Jp. tariki) and “Own-Power” (Ch. tzu-li; Jp. jiriki). The origins of these terms are unclear and they are most often associated with Pure Land thought. In his essay, “Pure Land Peity,”* British scholar Roger Corless describes other-power this way: “The experience of . . . the theistic devotee is that one’s own power is insufficient to take one to liberation and so it is necessary to trust in the power of Another.” Own-power is the opposite, it is relying on one’s own efforts .

Corless further states,

Trust in a power greater than oneself is such a common motif in those systems which we call religions that it has sometimes been regarded as a sine qua non for identifying a system as a religion rather than, say, a philosophy. Since Buddhism often seems to be ambiguous on this point, it has got itself called, in English, a ‘religious-philosophy.’”

Ambiguous, too, is the exact nature of the other-power. Corless says that deities such as Amita Buddha “does not stand above the worshipper as an ontologically ‘Higher Power’.” This, however, does not match the reality in the minds of most theistic devotees, who tend to understand these deities as god-like, offering grace and eternal salvation.

Five Dhyani Buddhas

Five Dhyani Buddhas

This brings us to Dhyani Buddhas and Celestial Bodhisattvas.

Britannica.com: “Dhyani-Buddha, in Mahayana Buddhism, and particularly in Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism, any of a group of five “self-born” celestial buddhas who have always existed from the beginning of time. The five are usually identified as Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi.”

They represent five qualities of the Buddha. Dhyani is a form of dhyana meaning “meditation.” In terms of practice, these mythological Buddhas are used as objects of meditation. There is a vast array of celestial bodhisattvas, such as Avalokitesvara and Tara. In Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, practice with these celestial  beings is known as deity-yoga.

Deity-yoga deserves a lengthy explanation, but for now, let’s just say that the practice, performed in the context of sadhanas or rituals, has the practitioner centering his or her mind on the particular deity at hand and then visualizing that they, the practitioner, is a fully enlightened Buddha. I don’t care for using the word “deity” because of the connotation. The majority of tantric practitioners I’ve been with have a rational view of these beings, but there are those who misunderstand or are stuck in superstition.

The late Lama Tharchin Rinpoche was one of my favorite Tibetan teachers. I attended many of his teachings and empowerments. He had a great sense of humor, a wonderful smile, and although he was a proponent of so-called “crazy wisdom,” as far as I am aware, he never used that as an excuse to be irresponsible or to take advantage of his students. He always struck me as sort of a crazy, but wise, hippie.

There is a piece online by Lama Tharchin Rinpoche where he makes it clear that deity-yoga is not other-power but own-power. An excerpt reads:

Mahayoga sadhana is also called deity yoga. Maybe this is a good time for me to explain about deity yoga. I’ve noticed many people practicing deity yoga with the idea that the deity is outside or separate from themselves. This is not right and consequently, their practice is not conducive to wisdom and it even reinforces ignorance or becomes [egoism] . . .

Deity is synonymous with bodhicitta. Deity is a pure state of being that is beyond duality and not constricted by the forces of clinging and grasping. Since all beings have mind, they also have the nature of mind. Therefore, all beings are divine because their nature is pure.”

In other words, these deities are merely tools we can use to help activate our own inner power. They are archetypes, and to see them as being outside of our own lives is to grossly misunderstand the Buddha’s teachings.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s words encapsulate my attitude toward my Healing Buddha practice that I mentioned in the last post – except that the word or concept of “deity” never enters my mind. The Healing or Medicine Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru) is a celestial Buddha that is not only meditated upon, but also worshiped.  Obviously, worship does not interest me, and I am not concerned with the formalities of the practice. I study Healing Buddha teachings for encouragement they provide for wayfaring on the healing path and for the insights on subjects such suffering, emptiness, compassion, and nature of mind.

It is not necessary at all to use a Buddha or Bodhisattva as an object of meditation. I read some Tibetan and Japanese Healing Buddha literature and heard some teachings, and it resonated with me. It’s not superior to any other practice nor is it the whole of my practice, or the only thing I do to generate inner healing. When I chant the Healing Buddha mantra I am making a determination to be healthy. It helps keep my eye on the prize, so to speak, for I have a wandering eye and a monkey mind.

Healing Buddha practice involves visualization, or practice before an image of the Healing Buddha, and the goal is to become a Healing Buddha oneself, to harness the healing energies within. I wrote in Monday’s post “I am the cancer.” Well, I am also the healing. I am the Healing Buddha.

I will write more about this later. In the meantime, this is the first of several posts dealing with the subject of deities in Buddhism. Next up is “The Buddhism of Faith,” followed by “Nichiren and the Supreme Being.” There may be posts on other subjects interspersed.

Finally, please remember that no matter where you are, what you are doing, whether it is rain or shine, cloudy or clear, regardless of what circumstances you find yourself in – it is a beautiful day. Enjoy it.

Apr 132015

In December, I started having knee pain. I didn’t think too much about it, even though the pain was intense at times. I’ve had intermittent knee problems for some years, and figured it was probably arthritis or age. It went away after about a week, but then it came roaring back in January – deep throbbing pain that would not go away. I went to a couple of orthopedic surgeons and a rheumatologist. They discovered a lesion in my left femur. Possible cancerous. Possibly not, said one orthopedic oncologist.

The only way to know for sure was to do a biopsy. Last Wednesday, they drilled a hole in my bone, went into the left femur, removed tissue from the lesion, and the pathologist on hand during the surgery declared it cancer. Metastasis, to be exact, cancer that spreads from one part of the body to other parts. We, meaning I and the doctors, thought all the cancer was removed when they took out my old liver and gave me a new one.  But, I’m not getting that easy.  There must have been some cancer cells hiding somewhere, perhaps in bone marrow.

Needless to say, having a hole drilled in your bone is extremely painful.  They put a rod in to prevent fractures and make the leg weight bearing. Still, it hurts like hell and pain medication does not provide total relief.

Next is to get with the oncologist I worked with before and decide how to start fighting this thing. From what I understand there are three modes of treatment: radiation, chemotherapy, amputation.

And two battlefronts: the external one, involving the treatments I just mentioned, along with any others that might be available, and there is the inner front, the battlefield of bodymind and spirit. In future posts, as I did before, I plan to share a few of the highlights of my wayfaring through these stages of cancer.

I do have mixed feelings about putting my personal business in front of the public. But, ancient Buddhist texts describe two kinds of illness: those of the unenlightened, and those of the enlightened. The latter are for the purpose of providing opportunities to teach. I would never claim to be enlightened (I can pretty much guarantee you I’m not), nor am I egotistic enough to think I have much of anything to teach anyone.  Yet, if sharing more of my healing journey can be of benefit to others, so be it.

My approach to inner healing is centered on the Healing Buddha (whose image appears in the new header above), and my way is a bit unorthodox. In Tibet, Medicine Buddha is among the Highest Yoga Tantra. I received a Medicine Buddha Empowerment from Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche in 2002, but I am not convinced that such empowerments are necessary.

In Teachings from the Medicine Buddha Retreat (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2009), Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that in Healing Buddha teachings, “The person has to practice Medicine Buddha and have a good heart, with a sincere wish to help others.”

That is the only requirement, and this sentiment fully captures the essence ofBuddhist practice. Just do it. Try to help others. All awakening stems from that.

Now, for some reason, the song, “Alone Again (Naturally)” has been in my head lately.  There are some nice versions available (Sarah Vaughn, Diana Krall) but I chose the original because I liked it when it was first released and it has a beat.  Since I started letting folks know about this new development, the most frequent response I have received from family and friends has been, “I am so sorry you have to go through this.”  I’m sorry about it, too. It’s a real drag, and I am very tired of the pain, but what can I do? I got it. It’s mine.  I own it. I have to heal it.  Actually, that makes it sound as if cancer were something completely external.  It’s not.  I am the cancer.  I have to heal myself.

I have to admit, though, there are times when I feel downhearted.  So, dear readers, here is about the only self-pitying you will get from me, and it will be over in three minutes and forty-two seconds:

Apr 062015

The meditation practiced by most people these days, known as “mindfulness,” is very simple and to some extent easy. I’ve always found that the real challenge is being consistent. Too often I approach my morning meditation with a begrudging attitude, as if the practice were something imposed on me, instead of something about which I should have a sense of eagerness.

A Buddhist teacher once gave a talk, and when he was finished he asked the people gathered around what they “practiced out of,” meaning what was their motivation for practice. He went around the room and received various answers and then came to the last person, a Japanese-American man. The teacher said to him, “Well, what do you practice out of?”


“No! Joy! You should practice out of great joy!”

The teacher was right. Whether it is silent meditation or chanting, we should approach our practice with joy, and appreciation. It is truly a wonderful thing that we have this great tool for transformation. When I win over my begrudging attitude, I can feel how appreciation is the key that opens the door to enthusiasm. And then, it’s much easier to carry that over into my daily life and cultivate a genuine joy for living.

To sit and meditate is easy. Joy, appreciation, and the rest of it is challenging. At least that has been my experience.

The late Geshe Gyeltsen (1923-2009), the marvelous Tibetan lama and human rights activist, who founded the Thubten Dhargye Ling (“Land of Flourishing Dharma”) center in Long Beach, CA, wrote in his book Mirror of Wisdom,

Geshe Gyeltsen

Geshe Gyeltsen

The great Indian master, Chandrakirti, says that all kinds of accomplishments follow from diligence, consistency and enthusiasm. If we apply ourselves correctly to the proper practice we will eventually reach our destination. He says that if we don’t have constant enthusiasm, even if we are very intelligent we are not going to achieve very much. Intelligence is like a drawing made on water but constant enthusiasm in our practice is like a carving made in rock—it remains for a much longer time.

So, whatever practice each of us does, big or small, if we do it consistently, over the course of time we will find great progress within ourselves. One of the examples used in Buddhist literature is that our enthusiasm should be constant, like the flow of a river.”

The river represents flowing water, which in turn is a symbol for continuity and consistency. Rivers flow freely. When they meet obstacles such as rocks, water flows over them and keeps flowing. Eventually, it wears away the rocks.

In this manner, water can be hard, but as it says in the Tao Te Ching, nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. The takeaway here is that enthusiasm should not be forced, it must come naturally. Practice, too, should not be too hard or rigid. And yet, one thing I have learned in my 30 years as a Buddhist, is that those times when you want to practice the least is usually when you really need to practice the most.

To have a practice that flows like a river is to find the middle way.

Many, many years ago in New Orleans, long before they built the Riverfront up, I used to sit on the rocks beneath the Café du Monde, the legendary coffeehouse that serves beignets and coffee with chicory, and I would watch the water of the Mississippi River flow past the city, moving down toward the Gulf of Mexico. I was enthralled with the way that muddy water never stopped flowing, how it was ever constant. Of course, all rivers are like that, but there is something different about the Mississippi, perhaps because it’s so wide . . . and it just keeps moving, and you wonder how long has it been like that, how long will it continue . . . it makes you feel like you’re in the presence of eternity.

Did you ever stand and shiver,
Just because you were lookin’ at a river?

– Ramblin’ Jack Elliott singing about the Mississippi in “912 Greens”

Apr 022015

Since it is now April, that means it is National Poetry Month, sponsored by Academy of American Poets who began this yearly celebration of poetry in 1996. It is the largest literary celebration in the world, with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, poets and poetry lovers joining together to laud and bring attention to this sublime form of literature.

NPM15_ForSite_FINAL_FINALEach year, the Academy of American Poets, along with award-winning designer Chip Kidd, commission a poster in celebration of National Poetry Month. This year’s poster (on the left) was designed by Roz Chast , a New Yorker cartoonist and 2014 National Book Award finalist. It’s based on a line of poetry from Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry.”

T. S. Eliot said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” That is not only a good description of poetry, but to my mind, it also describes Buddha-dharma. Poetry has been an integral part of Buddhist literature, many of the sutras have large sections of text composed in verse, and Buddhist poetry is nearly a genre of its own. So it seems fitting for a Buddhist blog to join the National Poetry Month celebration.  And, as in previous years, I will feature poetry in many of this month’s posts.

Today, something from Jack Kerouac, whom many people consider a Buddhist writer, although his interest in Buddhism lasted only a few years, from 1953-57. During that time, he was, in his own uniquely Beat fashion, a rather dedicated Buddhist, and a number of his novels, particularly The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, are infused with Buddhist philosophy.

I don’t recall who it was, but one of his fellow Beats once suggested to Kerouac that he should write his own sutra. And so, he did. The Scripture of the Golden Eternity contains 66 prose poems and was first published in 1960. Here is perhaps the most famous of those poems:


Stare deep into the world before you as if it were the void: innumerable holy ghosts, buddhies, and savior gods there hide, smiling. All the atoms emitting light inside wavehood, there is no personal separation of any of it. A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not: so rest and be assured. While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.

Mar 302015

Walpola Rahula (1907–1997) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist bhikkhu, scholar and writer. When he became the Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in 1964, he also became the first bhikkhu to hold a professorship in the West. His introduction to Buddhism, What the Buddha Taught, is considered a modern Buddhist classic. In the book, Rahula writes,

The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which means ‘culture’ or ‘development’, i.e., mental culture or mental development.” [1]

I think Rhaula’s statement would also apply to the word “mindfulness.”

I don’t know what Rahula means by “original term,” but I do recall either reading or hearing that bhavana was the term most often used by the historical Buddha in reference to meditative discipline. According to Alan Sponberg, the term is “certainly the broadest in its semantic range.” [2]

Rahula called bhavana “mental culture.” Amadeo Sole-Leris wrote that bhavana is “to cultivate and develop the vast potential of the mind in order to overcome the unsatisfactory nature of the internal and external circumstances in which we find ourselves.” [3]   Someone else (I don’t remember who) called it “creative control of the mind.”

I like the word development because I feel it accurately describes the process. In Buddhist practice we develop our innate potential for well-being and happiness. We can also say that bhavana in all its various forms is a system for training the mind. Buddhism teaches that an undisciplined mind is disturbed by circumstances such as gain or by loss, comfort or hardship, and is attached to transient things, all of which invites suffering. We want to train the mind so that we can learn better how to use reason and wisdom to deal with life’s challenges, and so we can break the habit of seizing and clinging, and this brings freedom from suffering, insofar as we can accept sufferings as they come without losing inner peace.

The wild, untrained mind that we often dub “monkey mind,” can be pacified, the restless monkey brought under control. However, if we limit the broad range of practice bhavana covers to only the mind, then it is a poor substitute for what the Buddha taught.

What the Buddha sought to achieve personally was nothing less than total transformation of his entire being. That meant body as well as mind. I wonder if sometimes we don’t tend to focus on the mental health aspect of meditation and mindfulness and neglect the physical health side. Gautama Shakyamuni was called the Great Physician and his teachings the King of Medicines, not only for his psychology of mind. After the Buddha’s passing, a great tradition of healer-monks emerged, and this tradition is still upheld today in the system of Tibetan Medicine and healing.

Here is a wonderful explanation on the relationship between mind, body, and bhavana from Tulku Trondup, a prominent teaching in the area of Buddhist healing, that I found in his book Boundless Healing:

Mind and body are intimately connected, and the relationship of mind to body in meditation is very interesting. When we see the body as peaceful and beautiful, who or what is creating these feelings? The mind is. By creating peaceful feelings in the body, the mind is absorbed in those feelings. So although the body is the object to be healed, it also becomes the means of healing the mind – which is the ultimate goal of meditation.” [4]

– – – – – – – – – –

[1] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, 1974, 68

[2] Alan Sponberg, “Meditation in Fa-hsiang Buddhism”, Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, Ed. Peter N. Gregory, University of Hawaii Press, 1986, 19

[3] Amadeo Sole-Leris, Tranquility and Insight An Introduction to the Oldest Form of Buddhist Meditation, Shambhala, 1986, 21

[4] Tulku Thondup, Boundless Healing Meditation Exercises to Enlighten the Mind and Heal the Body, Shambhala, 2000, 12

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.