Castles Made of Sand

Building sand castles is an activity associated with summertime and the beach.  Most people think of it as a kid thing, but there are adults who engage in this pastime and sand castles can range from the very simple to the amazingly elaborate.

The term ‘sand castles’ can also refer to a notion or scheme that has little substance, or be a metaphor for the transitory nature of things.

kids at beachIn the Edward Conze edited anthology, Buddhist Texts through the Ages, published in 1954, Albert Waley translated this parable from the Yogacara Bhumi Sutra :

Some children were playing [on a beach].  They made castles of sand and each child defended his castle and said, “This one is mine .”  They kept their castles separate and would not allow any mistakes about which was whose.  When the castles were all finished, one child kicked over someone else’s and completely destroyed it.  The owner of the castle flew into a rage, pulled the other child’s hair, struck him with his fist and bawled out, “He has ruined my castle! Co and help me punish him as he deserves.  “me along all of us The others all came to his help.  They beat the child with a stick and then stamped on him as he lay on the ground. . .  Then they went on playing  in their sand-castles, each saying, “This is mine; no one else may have it. Keep away!  Don’t touch my castle!”

But evening came; it was getting dark and they all thought they ought to be going home.  No one cared what became of his castle.  One child stamped on his, another pushed his over with both his hands.  Then they turned away and went back, each to his home.

As Jimi Hendrix wrote, castles made of sand fall into the sea eventually . . . and so, everything we perceive is a castle of sand, impermanent, fleeting, transitory, and yet, even as we know this aspect of existence, we find it difficult to refrain from grasping, seizing, clinging . . . these tendencies are the causes of suffering; suffering is craving, produced by ignorance . . .

In the Samyutta-Nikaya III, the Buddha is reported to have said,

When boys or girls are playing with little sand castles, so long as they are not free from lust, desire, passion, feverish longing and craving for those little sand castles, just so long do they delight in them.  But . . . as soon as those boys and girls are free from lust, desire, passion, feverish longing and craving for those little sand castles, right away they scatter them, break them up, and cease to play with them.  In this way, you should scatter and demolish form, apply yourself to destroying attachments and cease clinging to objects of desire.”

All existence, said the Buddha, has the nature of impermanence, constant change . . . nothing is the same right now as it was a moment ago . . . understand this ‘truth’ is the first step toward understanding the true aspect of things, the way things really are . . . When we see reality as it truly is, then we are empowered to sever the binds of attachment and cease clinging . . .

And then, the wonderful Tibetan sand mandala . . .  The Sand Mandala is a tradition in Tibetan Buddhist tradition where mandalas are painstakingly made from millions of grains of colored sand . . . for hours on end, monks will bend over the mandala, placing one grain of sand after another, creating intricate symbolic patterns. It typically takes anywhere from 75 to 125 hours to create one of these mandalas . . . and when one is created, it is destroyed . . . swept up, handfuls of sand given away or thrown in a stream or river . . . gone . . . impermanent.

sandmandala-sweep

 

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A Continuous State of Creation

My last post featured remarks made by the Dalai Lama while giving a teaching on Nagarjuna’s “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” (Bodhicitta-vivarana), a work that researcher in Sanskrit and Nagarjuna scholar Chr. Lindtner describes as a “regrettably neglected text.”

Although, as the Dalai Lama mentioned, some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the text because Nagarjuna’s disciples, such as Buddhapalita, Bhavaviveka, or Chandrakirti, never referred to it in their treatises, the Dalai Lama, Lindtner, and others consider Awakening Mind to be an authentic Nagarjuna text.

kuanyin3819As the Sanskrit title, Bodhicitta-vivarana indicates, the central theme of the work is bodhicitta, the  “thought of awakening” or “awakening mind.”  Vivarana means description, exposition, commentary.  In this text, Nagarjuna discusses the development of bodhicitta and explains the concept of the two truths, relative and ultimate.  He also refutes assertions made by the Vaibhashika (Realist), Sautrantika (Sutra) and Chittamatrin (Mind Only) schools.

In verses 6-9, Nagarjuna analyzes karaka, a Sanskrit word that means acting, causing or “who or what does or produces or creates.”  As far as I am aware, there are but three translations, one by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, a French/English version by the Padmakara Translation Group , and Lindtner’s.  In the first two karaka is translated as “agent.”  Lindtner used “creator” and I have retained that word in this excerpt I’ve adapted from the three translations.

If the so-called self does not exist,
How can the so-called creator be permanent?
It there were ‘things’ then might one begin
Investigating their characteristics in the world.

Since a permanent creator cannot create things,
Whether gradually or instantaneously,
So both without and within,
There are no permanent things.

Why would a potent creator be dependent?
He would produce things all at once.
A creator who depends on something else
Is neither eternal nor efficacious.

If it were an entity, it would not be permanent
For entities are always momentary.
Thus, concerning entities that are impermanent,
A creator is refuted, for there is no such thing.

Actually, Nagarjuna’s objections have more to do with the basic idea of creation, than with the notion of a creator.  Buddhism does not offer a creation theory.  The world is beginningless (anavaragra).  This is one of the problems with using the term dependent origination for pratitya-samutpada in that it conveys a sense of creation or beginning.  Lama Govinda suggests another way to look at it: “The world is in a continuous state of creation, of becoming, and therefore, in a continuous state of destruction of all that has been created.”

Nagarjuna neither confirms nor denies the existence of a supreme being; however, according to Hsueh-Li Cheng in Empty Logic: Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese Sources, he does maintain that

God’s existence as creator of the world is unintelligible.  Nagarjuna presented several arguments to show that creation, making, production, or origination are ultimately empty, and that creator, maker, producer and originator, are not genuine names referring to reality.  Accordingly, it is unintelligible to assert the existence of God as the creator or maker of the universe.”

For Nagarjuna, “God” meant Isvara, the Divine Lord, but his questioning can apply to any so-called supreme being: how can a being exist out of itself, out of nothingness or “nowhere”?  He rejects the idea that things can come into existence from nothingness, or be created from self or from another, or from both, or without a cause.  Nagarjuna is also pessimistic about a “first cause,”  which is essentially an effect without a cause, because the “becoming” of all things is dependent on mutual causes and conditions.

For us, the matter of creation/creator is not the ultimate question.  For us, the critical matters at hand are:  The sufferings of life and death.  Daily life.  How to fare on the way of the bodhisattva.  How to find some peace.

Tranquil PondIn verse 70 of Awakening Mind, Nagarjuna wrote,

A happy mind is tranquil;
A tranquil mind is not confused;
To have no confusion is to know the truth;
By realizing truth one attains freedom.

– – – – – – – – – –

Geshe Thupten Jinpa, A Commentary on the Awakening Mind, 2006
Master of Wisdom, Writings of the Buddhist Master Nagarjuna, translations by Christian Lindtner, Dharma Publishing, 1986
Bodhichitta-vivarana translation by the Padmakara Translation Group (according to the commentary written by Dagpo Gomchen Ngawang Drakpa
Lama Govinda, Creative meditation and multi-dimensional consciousness, Theosophical Publishing House, 1976
Hsueh-li Cheng, Empty Logic: M?dhyamika Buddhism from Chinese Sources, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1991

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The Dharma of Transformation

Last week, on Wednesday August 10, in Thiksey Ladakh India, Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, gave teachings on “A Commentary on the Awakening Mind” (Bodhichittavivarana) by Nagarjuna and Atisha ‘s “A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment” (Bodhipathapradipa).

At this session, the Dalai Lama made a some comments I thought were shareworthy.  They concern the term ‘dharma.’

dharma-chinese2b[Image: Chinese character for dharma, fa]

Dharma is a key Buddhist term layered with multiple meanings.  The original Indian definition referred to ‘duty’, and ‘law.’  In Buddhism, we often see dharma translated as ‘law,’ meaning a natural order or ultimate principle of the universe.  The Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms by Soothill and Hodous provides more definitions: “(1) thing, object, appearance; (2) characteristic, attribute, predicate; (3) the substantial bearer of the substratum of the simple element of conscious life; (4) element of conscious life; (5) nirvana, i.e. dharma par excellence; (6) the absolute, the truly real; (7) the teaching [of the] Buddha.”

Here is what the Dalai Lama said about dharma:

Since you’ve gathered here to listen to a Buddhist discourse, you should understand that the word ‘Dharma’ refers to making a spiritual transformation within ourselves by putting the teaching into practice . . .  You can’t expect to make such transformation just on the basis of wishes or prayers.  It will only come about by integrating the teaching within ourselves.  The source of our problems is our disturbing emotions.  Since we all want to be happy and avoid suffering we need to know what needs to be abandoned and what needs to be cultivated in order to fulfill these aspirations.  To bring about a transformation we need to apply the teaching within ourselves and in order to do that we need to listen and learn what’s involved . . .”

In this way, we can add another layer of meaning to the term and say that dharma is transformation.  Not merely arbitrary change, but rather change according to Buddha’s dharma, which is directed at the task of inner transformation.   The dharma that supports a revolution of body, mind and spirit, is not difficult to find.  Dharma is all around us, or as Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school, said,

The dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this world to search for the dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns.”

Read the article about the Dalai Lama’s teaching session, with more excerpts, on the Dalai Lama’s website here.

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Lola, the Goddess, and Extending the Eye Business

In several previous posts, I have mentioned the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter (aka The Naga Princess) from the Lotus Sutra, often cited as example of Buddhism championing gender equality.  I have never quite understood how that holds up because the girl must take a man’s form before she can attain enlightenment.  To me, the story still reinforces the notion of the male form as superior.

I think a better example of promoting the equality of women and men can be found in the Vimalakirti Sutra.  First, a little background:

Vimalakirti2Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (“Instructions of  Vimalakirti) is a Mahayana Buddhist sutra most likely composed in India approximately 100 CE and rendered into Chinese in 406 CE by the famous translator Kumarajiva.  It concerns Vimalakirti, a wealthy lay practitioner and bodhisattva whose wisdom is equal to that of the Buddha.  Because Vimalakirti is a layperson, the sutra emphasizes the equality of lay practitioners and ordained practitioners, and in the passage I am sharing with you, it also stresses the equality between men and women.

Vimalakirti pretends to be sick so that other followers and bodhisattvas will gather around him and he will have an opportunity to instruct them on some finer points of the dharma.  It just so happens that a goddess lives in his house, and when she appears, Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, starts to question her.  Here is one of their exchanges that I have adapted from the translations by Robert Thurman and Burton Watson:

Shariputra: Goddess, Why don’t you change out of your female body?

[Poor Shariputra sure seems dense in some these sutras.  Here he assumes that any woman would naturally want to change into a man if she could, since Buddhism at that time often put forth the notion that woman could not become enlightened.]

Goddess: For the past twelve years, I have been trying to take on female form, but with no luck.  What is there to change?  If a magician were to make a woman by magic, would you ask her, “Why don’t you change out of your female body?”

Shariputra: No!  She would not real, so what would there be to change?

Goddess: Yes, all things are unreal.  So why have you asked me to change my unreal female body?

Then with her mystical power, she transformed herself into Shariputra and turned Shariputra into her.  The goddess asked Shariputra if he could change back to his own form.

Shariputra, now transformed into the goddess, said:  I do not know why I have turned into a goddess.  I do not know what to transform!

Goddess: Shariputra, if you can change out of this female body, then all women should also be able to turn into men.  Shariputra, who is not a woman, appears in a woman’s body.  And the same is true of all women, although they appear in women’s bodies, they are not women.  Therefore the Buddha teaches that all things are neither male nor female.”

The goddess changed Shariputra back to his original male body, and she returned to her original form.

Goddess: Shariputra, where is your female body now?

Shariputra: The form of a woman neither exists nor is non-existent.

Goddess: Well, now you understand.  All things are fundamentally neither existing nor non-existent, and that which neither exists nor is non-existent is the teaching of the Buddha.

Before the rise of Mahayana, all the Buddhist schools held that neither lay people nor women could achieve awakening.  Even within the Mahayana branch, while there was a significant focus on lay practitioners, there were still instances of misogyny that remain unabated.  However, it was inevitable that there would be a move away from that attitude, for the Mahayana’s concept of emptiness destroyed all concepts, all views.  It only makes sense that empiness destroys gender, too.  Gender differences belong to the relative world.

So, we have this example where the Vimalakirti teaches not only equality between lay people and ‘clergy’, but also emphasizes that within emptiness there is equality of women and men.

Shariputra cannot yet see the full truth because he still clings to relative distinctions.

Another way to look at it is that emptiness does not destroy things as much as it renders them conditional and relative.  According to Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra, to see things in this way is to extend our vision, use our eye of wisdom.  He called it the teaching of the emptiness of beginninglessness.

But then in The Precious Garland Nagarjuna said “may all women be reborn as males.”

Which may, or may not, be the reason why Ray Davies said,

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola
La-la-la-la Lola

– – – – – – – – – –

“extending the eye business” from Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans, Grove Press edition 1981, p. 95

image: Vimalakirti Bodhisattva debating Manjusri Bodhisattva. Dunhuang, Mogao Caves, China, Tang Dynasty.

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Democracy in America

Born on this day in 1805 was Alexis de Tocqueville, the French statesman who wrote Democracy in America following a nine month visit to the United States in 1831-32.  The young country he found on his trip, the democracy still in its infancy, continues to flourish, and his book, published in 1840, remains an influential book about the United States.

tocquevilleOur contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people.  They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.  Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again.  A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”

It does not satisfy me, either.  Even in the process of selecting our ‘master’, we do not shake off dependence, for we rely on others to lead us.  Democracy is a participatory system.  It demands involvement and awareness on the part of its citizens.  Our current state of affairs is one of the consequences of too little intellectual participation.

I’m not the only one who can’t get no satisfaction.  In this year’s selection process, people on both sides are dissatisfied with their choice.  Choice may be an illusion. When the alternatives for selection are forced by external powers, choice does not exist.  Too often we don’t get to choose the best of the best, rather we choose what is handed to us.

Simultaneously, it seems that fate has taken a hand this time around, and the differences between the two alternatives seems startlingly clear.  Although, this too, may be a mirage.

Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”  This implies that democracy is the best simply because it works better.  Hillarie Belloc remarked that the “use of such language connotes that the user of it is fatigued by the effort of thought.”  He went on to say “The institution ‘works’ in proportion as it satisfies that political sense which perfect democracy would . . .”*

Because in democracy, the people are sovereign, we should never be satisfied and always strive to be greater collectively than we are.  A greater democracy means a greater community of people.  On the individual level, we can stay involved by thinking and studying about democracy.  I wish more Americans felt the need to think past the political slogans, read more of the news as opposed to just listening to it, and then, read beyond the headlines.

For Tocqueville, civic and professional associations (people coming together) and participation in the public sphere were the vital components of any true democracy.  Democracy doesn’t ‘work’; we, the people, make it work.  But only, when we are involved in it, only when we put our mind to it.

Democracy in America, what a quandary . . .

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

Alexis de Tocqueville

– – – – – – – – – –

Hilarie Belloc, The French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1966, 3

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