Dec 222014

Winter is once more upon us. Here in Southern California, winter is a relative concept. And a capricious season, to the extreme. For instance the past week we had weather that was winterlike and very cozy.  But this week the temperatures are expected to be in the high 70s, hitting maybe 80 on Christmas Eve. Since I lived the early part of my life in the Midwest, I have a vague recollection of what winter is supposed to be, and today I like to celebrate that memory with poetry.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens’ poem The Snow Man is about winter, and it is also about nothing, not in a literal sense, though it can be read that way, particularly as the primary subject of winter very easily conjures up images of bleakness, nihilistic and natural emptiness. But according to William W. Bevis in his book, Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature, Stevens was writing about “meditative descriptions of nothing (Buddhist voidness), with the thing itself meditatively perceived . . .” The poem is indeed Buddhistic and Stevens was familiar with some Buddhist teaching, but it was more likely inspired and modeled after his mentor’s teachings. That mentor being a certain George Santayana.

For me, what Wallace means with “One must have a mind of winter” is something similar to the kind of mind described in the Diamond Sutra, a mind that is “unsupported.” This is an English equivalent to a Sanskrit word, apratishtita, that according to Mu Soeng in The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, “mirrors the core message of the Diamond Sutra.”

In the sutra, the Buddha tells Venerable Subhuti that a “Bodhisattva should have an unsupported mind, that is, a mind which is nowhere supported, with thoughts unsupported by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or mind-objects.”

A mind that is unsupported is “a mind not focusing on anything,” or “caught up in anything,” a mind that does not dwell anywhere. This is not our normal mind, or is it? Buddhism teaches that the quiet, unsupported mind, freed from all attachments and functioning harmoniously, is our natural mind, and that it is a state of mind cultivated, or rather, rediscovered only through meditation.

A meditative practice provides us with that “bare place” where for a short space in time, which is the timelessness of the present, we can be unsupported, not caught up in anything nor dwelling anywhere in particular, but entering into a disposition akin to Stevens’ mind of winter, as does the listener, standing in the silent, divestiture of winter, the white space of snow . . .

I’m afraid that further explanation may spoil the poem’s effect for first time readers. So now that I have given you a rough idea of how I interpret The Snow Man, here is the poem written in 1921 by one of the great modern American poets, a man who spent his most of his life working for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Snow Man

snowman3One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens

Dec 172014

December 18 marks the 144th anniversary of the birth of D. T. Suzuki, Japanese teacher, author, translator, and at one time the most famous Zen Buddhist in the world. The importance of Suzuki’s role in introducing Westerners to Zen, and Buddha-dharma in general, cannot be overstated.

Yet, the bright sheen that his image once radiated has lost some of its luster in recent years. Brian Victoria in his book Zen at War has accused Suzuki of complicity with Japanese nationalism during World War ll. Victoria has himself suffered some slings and arrows as the quality and methodology of his scholarship has been questioned by many and Kemmyo Taira Sato in “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War”, among others, has refuted Victoria’s account of Suzuki’s views on militarism.

Suzuki was not only an influential figure of his time, but a unique one, in that he was not an ordained Buddhist priest, but rather a professor of Buddhist philosophy.  As a result, while he had great influence outside the Zen tradition, his secular standing limited his influence within the tradition.  And by taking a more secular approach, eschewing some of the more metaphysical and ritualistic elements of Zen, and emphasizing the meditative aspect as well as the “special transmission” with “no dependence on words and letters,” he likely did more to shape the still-present form of Zen in the West than anyone else.

Suzuki Daisetsu Teitaro was born in 1870, into a samurai family. It was the era of the Meiji Restoration when the samurai class lost its privilege in Japanese society. His father, a physician, died when he was six, leaving his mother, a Jodo Shinshu believer, to raise him amid impoverished circumstances. By the time she passed away in 1890, Suzuki was already very interested in spirituality, gravitating toward Zen.

Suzuki attended the University of Tokyo, where he studied Chinese, Sanskrit, Pali, several European languages, and of course, philosophy and religion. It was around this time that he also began Zen training at Engaku-ji in Kamakura, where he eventually became a disciple of Shaku Soen, a great Zen master. Shaku Soen invited Suzuki to accompany him to the Parliament of Religions at the 1897 World Fair in Chicago and act as his translator. There he met Paul Carus and began to translate into Japanese Carus’ work The Gospel of Buddha. Suzuki lived in the United States and worked for Carus’ publishing company for ten years. It was here that he also met and married Beatrice Erskine Lane, a Radcliffe graduate and Theosophist.

Suzuki took up a professorship back in Japan, at Otani University in 1921.

Following the death in 1939 of his wife, Suzuki went into seclusion until the end of World War II. When he emerged in 1949, he went to Honolulu to attend the Second East-West Philosopher’s Conference and taught for a year at the University of Hawaii. He spent a year in California, then in 1951 he moved to New York and began teaching on Zen at Columbia University. Some of the notable people who were his students at that time included psychoanalysts Erich Fromm and Karen Horney and the composer John Cage.

suzuki-2014Suzuki retired from Columbia in 1957 and traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he taught and helped found the Cambridge Buddhist Society. Suzuki’s influence was perhaps most profound on those figures of the time who also wielded considerable influence, people such as Carl Jung, Thomas Merton, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and British dharma enthusiast Christmas Humphries, founder of the Buddhist Society.

While he is credited mostly with spreading Zen in the West, during the latter half of his life Sukuki was actually more interested in Jodo (Pure Land).

This is merely a snapshot of Suzuki’s life. For those who would like to learn more, I invite you to read A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered by Masao Abe. There is also a documentary available called A Zen Life. And I recommend the books by Suzuki himself: An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (with foreward by Carl Jung), Manual of Zen Buddhism, and Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist, to mention just three.

The latter work is one of the Suzuki books in my library. I am not sure I am agreement with him on every point he makes, yet at the same time it would be rather vain on my part to think that I know more about it than he did. Here is a short passage from the book:

A few more remarks about “Emptiness.”

Relativity [pratitya-samutpada or dependent arising] is an aspect of Reality and not Reality itself. Relativity is possible somewhere between two or more things, for this is the way that makes one get related to another.

A similar argument applies to movement. Movement is possible in time; without the concept of time there cannot be a movement of any sort. For a movement means an object going out of itself and becoming something else which is not itself. Without the background of time this becoming is unthinkable.

Therefore, Buddhist philosophy states that all these concepts, movement and relativity, must have their field of operation, and this field is designated by Buddhist philosophers as Emptiness (sunyata).

When Buddha talks about all things being transient, impermanent, and constantly changing, and therefore teaches that there is nothing in this world which is absolutely dependable and worth clinging to as the ultimate seat of security, he means that we must look somewhere else for things permanent (jo), bliss-imparting (raku), autonomous (ga), and absolutely free from defilements (jo). According to the Nirvana Sutra (of the Mahayana school), these four (jo-raku-ga-jo) are the qualities of Nirvana, and Nirvana is attained when we have knowledge, when the mind is freed from thirst (tanha), cravings (asava), and conditionality (sankhara). While Nirvana is often thought to be a negativistic idea the Mahayana followers have quite a different interpretation. For they include autonomy (ga, atman) as one of its qualities (guna), and autonomy is free will, something dynamic. Nirvana is another name for the Emptiness.

The term “emptiness” is apt to be misunderstood for various reasons. The hare or rabbit has no horns, the turtle has no hair growing on its back. This is one form of emptiness. The Buddhist sunyata does not mean absence.

A fire has been burning until now and there is no more of it. This is another kind of emptiness. Buddhist sunyata does not mean extinction.

The wall screens the room: on this side there is a table, and on the other side there is nothing, space is unoccupied. Buddhist sunyata does not mean vacancy.

D.T Suzuki died in 1966 in Tokyo at age 95.

Gary Snyder said he was “probably the most culturally significant Japanese person in international terms, in all of history.”

Dec 112014

Buddha-nature is a fundamental dharma and a number of sutras discuss its universality, yet none of them actually use the term, “Buddha-nature.”

The Surangama Sutra, for instance, expounds the principle of Buddha-nature in terms of “pure” mind and uses the metaphor of light.

The Buddha said, Ananda and all of you should know . . . that living beings, since the time without beginning, have been subject continuously to birth and death because they do not know the permanent True Mind whose substance is, by nature, pure and bright.”

Later, the Buddha explains that living beings have lost sight of the light, the original brightness, even though it shines within them all day long, and because they remain unaware of it, they make the mistake of “entering the various destinies.”

The Buddha also talks about meditation, in particular a samadhi he equates with awakening and Buddha-nature, known by different names such as Prajna-paramita and Buddha-nature itself.

The Surangama’s overall point is how to make people recognize their Buddha-nature. How much can you see of the Buddha-nature inside of you?

Essentially, the sutra is a teaching for the Buddha’s cousin, Ananda; it is his sutra. The title, “Surangama,” means “indestructible.” Because the light is always shining within us, whether we see it or not, it is, in a sense, indestructible or unyielding. When we are able to see our Buddha-nature, and don’t lose sight of it, the light becomes the basis for the way we live and act out our life, and then this becomes our own indestructible sutra.

Not only is the purpose of meditation to cultivate a peaceful mind and rest our minds in the now, it is also a tool to help open our eyes to our Buddha-nature.  When the Buddha said to his disciples “be a lamp unto yourself,” he was telling them not to seek the light outside of their own lives, look within. In This Light in Oneself, Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote,

One has to be a light to oneself; this light is the law. There is no other law. All the other laws are made by thought and so are fragmentary and contradictory. To be a light to oneself is not to follow the light of another, however reasonable, logical, historical, and however convincing.

You cannot be a light to yourself if you are in the dark shadows of authority, of dogma, of conclusion. Morality is not put together by thought; it is not the outcome of environmental pressure, it is not of yesterday, of tradition.

Freedom is to be a light to oneself; then it not an abstraction, a thing conjured up by thought.”

So, don’t lose sight of your light.

Dec 082014

River_Buddha2bToday is Bodhi Day, which in Mahayana Buddhism is set aside for commemorating the day the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautauma (Shakyamuni), attained enlightenment. From what I have seen it is predominately the Japanese Buddhist traditions that observe this day, known as Rohatsu, literally “eighth day of the twelfth month.” In the Tendai sect, the celebration is called Jodo-e or “completing the path to becoming a Buddha (through attaining enlightenment) [Jodo but with different characters means “pure land.”].

There are different accounts of what supposedly happened that morning when the Buddha was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree on the bank of the Nairanjana River, most of them portray the event as some mind-blowing, almost psychedelic experience. I doubt that was the case. Regardless, all the accounts agree that what happened was a result of meditation.

Here is what the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki had to say about Bodhi Day, the Buddha’s enlightenment and meditation in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

I am very glad to be here on the day Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bo tree. When he attained enlightenment under the Bo tree, he said, “It is wonderful to see Buddha nature in everything and in each individual!” What he meant was that when we practice zazen [meditation] we have Buddha nature, and each of us is Buddha himself. By practice he did not mean just to sit under the Bo tree, or to sit in the cross-legged posture. It is true that this posture is the basic one or original way for us, but actually what Buddha meant was that mountains, trees, flowing water, flowers and plants–everything as it is–is the way Buddha is. It means everything is taking Buddha’s activity, each thing in its own way.

But the way each thing exists is not to be understood by itself in its own realm of consciousness. What we see or what we hear is just a part, or a limited idea, of what we actually are. But when we just are–each just existing in his own way –we are expressing Buddha himself. In other words, when we practice something such as Zazen, then there is Buddha’s way or Buddha nature. When we ask what Buddha nature is, it vanishes; but when we just practice zazen, we have full understanding of it. The only way to understand Buddha nature is just to practice zazen, just to be here as we are. So what Buddha meant by Buddha nature was to be there as he was, beyond the realm of consciousness.”

It is highly unlikely that the Buddha spoke the words Suzuki attributes to him, of course, but it doesn’t matter. The spirit of the words is what is important.

For many of us, each December 8 comes with a touch of sadness, for on this date in 1980, 34 years ago, John Lennon was shot to death outside his apartment building in New York City.

Turn off your mind, relax
And float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

That love is all
And love is everyone
It is knowing
It is knowing

That ignorance and hate
May mourn the dead
It is believing
It is believing

But listen to the
Color of your dreams
It is not living
It is not living

Or play the game
Existence to the end
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

Dec 052014

According to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hahn’s condition remains stable. As I reported several weeks ago, he experienced a severe brain hemorrhage on November 11 and has been hospitalized ever since. Evidently, the hemorrhage has slightly reduced in size, and while edema is still present, it has not worsened.

The latest press release states, “Thay continues to rest peacefully with the ticking clock on his pillow, and we sense that he is relying on his deep awareness of breathing, rooted in Store Consciousness, to guide his healing process.”

Thich Nhat Hahn had been invited to participate in an event organized by the Global Freedom Network, on December 2 at the Vatican. Leaders of the world’s major religions came together to sign a common declaration condemning slavery and to “call on the United Nations to end human trafficking and slavery globally.”

Thay was represented by a delegation of 22 monks and nuns. His prepared speech read by Sister Chan Khong, his first ordained monastic disciple.  An excerpt:

In this age of globalisation, what happens to one of us, happens to us all. We are all interconnected, and we are all co-responsible. But even with the greatest good will, if we are swept away by our daily concerns for material needs or emotional comforts, we will be too busy to realise our common aspiration. Contemplation must go together with action. Without a spiritual practice we will abandon our dream.”

In November, Walk Free, a partner of The Global Freedom Network, released a report saying “Slavery still grips tens of millions worldwide.” 35.8 million to be exact, a shocking number. Slavery in defined as “the systematic deprivation of a person’s liberty, and abuse of their body for personal or commercial exploitation.”

Tomorrow, December 6, will mark the 149th anniversary of the ratification by the states of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States of America. Although President Lincoln’s 1863 final Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves held by the Confederate States, it and the previous proclamations were but first steps in the process of freeing all slaves.

Just as the Emancipation Proclamations are important human rights documents, so too are the poems by a woman named Phillis Wheatley, and one in particular, from 1772, a poem that “provides readers with an emotional appeal of slavery, forcing readers to evaluate their views on the institution of slavery.” * When she composed the poem, Wheatley was herself a slave.

She was born in Africa, captured and sold into slavery as a child. In 1761, she was purchased by John Wheatley of Boston. He soon recognized Wheatley’s intelligence and she was taught to read and write by his 18 year-old daughter, Mary.

Phillis Wheatley became well known for her poetry, and was not only the second published African-American poet but also the first published African-American woman.

In October 1772, she was asked to write a poem for William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, who had just been appointed secretary of state for the colonies. The poem is entitled “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” and the 3rd verse reads,

phillis-wheatleyShould you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Phillis Wheatley was freed on October 18, 1773.

You can read the entire poem and more of Wheatley’s work at the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Phillis Wheatley herself at Biography and Wikipedia.

And make sure you go Global Freedom Network to sign the declaration to end slavery once and for all.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Phillis Wheatley Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) Jamie Baldwin and David Townsend Candidates, Master of Arts in English Education Department of English & Theatre University of North Carolina, Pembroke

Dec 022014

Over the past few days in Los Angeles we have been experiencing a very rare natural phenomena, something called “rain.” Water droplets that fall from the sky. Imagine that.

Whoever said it never rains in Southern California, didn’t know the half of it. I mean, it used to rain, every now and then.  We actually had some winters that were extremely rainy, but that was in the past. We’ve been in a severe drought for the last four years.  When it began to drizzle on Sunday, it was only the second time it has rained since April, and I think, only the 3rd cloudy day since then, too. In SoCal the weather is the same every damn day: relentless sunshine.

But, now . . . rain . . . lovely, beautiful, wonderful, nurturing rain. And when it comes to water falling from the sky, no one summed it up any better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who said, “The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”

rain3In Buddhism, the word rain is vassa or vutthi. Rain was essential for crops in India during the Buddha’s time, and they usually got plenty of it.  Rain in India can last for several weeks or a month. Not only was rain important agriculturally, but it was also critical for the sustenance of human life. Still is.

In the Samyutta Nikaya, Buddha says,

Rain sustains both slack and bold, as a mother nourishes her only child. The life of all earthbound creatures is sustained by the falling of the rain.”

The rain retreat was an important event in the year for the Buddhists, as they were generally nomadic, and it gave the bhikkhus an opportunity to rest, study, and concentrate on meditation.

Rain was equally important as a metaphor. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha compares himself and his teachings to rain. This famous passages appears in the “Medicinal Herbs” chapter. The Buddha describes how rain falls equally

everywhere at the same time, its moisture reaching every part. The grasses, trees, forests and medicinal herbs – those of small roots, small stalks, small branches and small leaves, those of medium-sized roots, medium-sized stalks, medium-sized branches, medium-sized leaves or those of large roots, large stalks, large branches, and large leaves, and also all the trees, whether great or small, according to their size, small, medium, or large, all receive a portion of it. From the rain of the one cloud each according to its nature grows, blossoms, and bears fruit.”

Then the Buddha describes himself as like a great cloud “having appeared in the world, for the sake of all living beings,” contemplating all things equally, and sending down the Dharma rain, filling all the world, enriching all people, and in pouring out this rain, empowering all who receive it to become Buddhas.

It’s wonderful allegory that reminds us that everyone has Buddha-nature, and while the dharma rain falls equally and has but one taste, each person absorbs the rain and is nourished by it according to their own capacity. That is how it should be. In this way, universality and individually are two but not two.

Thus, like Longfellow, I say, let it rain. Another American poet, and a much better one, Langston Hughes said,

Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby.”

This is not quite a lullaby, but this tune sung by Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, is just about the best rain song ever.


Nov 302014

Last March, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made a finding that supports Einstein’s last untested prediction about the Theory of General Relativity. According to Einstein, even in the void of space-time, empty of stars and galaxies, ripples known as gravitational waves can move across space in much the same way that ripples spread across the surface of a pond. Until recently, there was only indirect evidence that gravitational waves existed.  In their press release JPL stated that they

[H]ave acquired the first direct evidence that gravitational waves rippled through our infant universe during an explosive period of growth called inflation. This is the strongest confirmation yet of cosmic inflation theories, which say the universe expanded by 100 trillion trillion times, in less than the blink of an eye.

The findings were made with the help of NASA-developed detector technology on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation.”

The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope that measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)

The Dark Sector Lab at the South Pole that houses the BICEP2 telescope, which measured the polarization of cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. (Harvard)

This supports the Inflationary Universe theory, hypothesized in the 1980s by Alan Gult, who held that the initial expansion of the universe was caused by a repulsive form of gravity. “Cosmic inflation” suggests that after The Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light (at .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds, to be precise).

It’s a pretty big deal. According to Time, it means that gravity should no longer be seen as a force, “but rather as the warping of ‘spacetime,’ an amalgam of those two formerly independent concepts,” This aspect of Einstein’s theory “also predicted that violent events should trigger gravitational waves, which would set spacetime rippling, like a vat of cosmic jello.”

Actually, Einstein was skeptical of the idea of a Big Bang. He favored the concept of a static universe as opposed to an expanding one. But when American astronomer Edwin Hubble showed how galaxies recede from the Milky Way, and that distant galaxies recede faster than those nearby, Einstein changed his mind.

Now, I don’t think it’s necessary for modern science and Buddhism to agree, or that science should prove Buddhism, but intersections between the two are always interesting. Here, we have a case where Buddhism and science both agree in some respects and disagree in others.

In The Big Bang theory, the entirety of space was contained in a single point of space and this was the beginning of the universe. Buddhism, however, says that there is no beginning (and therefore definitely no creation) because causes have no beginning.

The first line of Chapter One in Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way reads, “Nothing exists that has arisen from itself, from another, from both, or from a non-cause.”

This does not negate the idea of a Big Bang, only qualifies it somewhat. The Big Bang could not have caused itself, nor could some being have caused it, or is it possible that a Big Bang was a combination of the two – there had to have been some prior cause, and as I understand it, this means The Big Bang must have been an effect. Still, Buddhism discusses the beginning of things in terms of consciousness, which is the real “creator” of all things, and consciousness has no beginning. So, in pondering all this, we should keep in mind the distinction between the ultimate and relative truth.

The other key notion in the Big Bang theory is that of an expanding universe. Here dharma and science seem to agree. In his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA in 1997, the Dalai Lama stated

So through this analysis of the causal origin of mental phenomena, then the question arises if there is a beginning point of whether the chain of causation goes on infinitely. If we were to choose the first option, which is to say that there must be a beginning at some point, then this immediately throws up conceptual problems about the status of the first cause – whether that first cause comes into being relatively or if it comes into being through self-causation. So, it throws up all sorts of conceptual problems.

The Buddhist option is to choose the second option of accepting the infinity of the causation. Although one could, in a conventional sense, accept or talk about origin or a beginning point of some particular object, like the objects of everyday life, but in a deeper sense, consciousness or mental phenomena are beginningless in terms of their continuum. And since this is the case, according to Buddhism, the continuum of the individual or person can said to be beginningless, because being or person is designated upon the continuum of consciousness or designated upon the phenomena that makes that person a knower or experiencer or agent. Since the basis, which is the continuum of consciousness is beginningless, therefore the continuum of the individual being is also said to be beginningless. However, when we conceptualize it in individual situations, we can say that, in a conventional sense, there is a beginning and there is an end.

Obviously, there are differences between individual beings and universes, but I think the infinity of the continuum would be the same.  And again, from the Buddhist perspective, there must have been something prior, a previous cause existing before all of space was condensed into a single point that apparently exploded into our ever-expanding universe.

Likewise, there were prior points posted on this blog before I posted the single point that began this post, and therefor, today’s offering reflects the infinity of the continuum and therefore cannot be contained in a single end point . . .

Nov 262014

I am thinking of the events of the past couple of nights and I am also thinking about how one day old Chuang Tzu said,

Zhuangzi2Let me share with you something I have learned. In all human relationships, if there are two parties living close to one another, they may establish a degree of personal trust. However, if they are distant, they must use words to communicate their thoughts and feelings.

One of the most difficult things in life is to be able to communicate effectively, without emotion, truthfully. When two parties are communicating, for both to be pleased they need to exaggerate some of the good points. To anger both parties, there must be some exaggeration of bad points. And yet, it is irresponsible to engage in exaggeration. When there is exaggeration, there can be no trust. When there is no trust the party who transmits the exaggeration might face some danger.

This is why there is a saying, “Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.” If you do that, you will probably find some justice.

Nov 232014

In Sanskrit, the word amrita means “immortality.” In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

Within Buddhism amrita appears in different contexts: it might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts or samaya “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.

We can view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, representing spiritual nourishment. Therefore, anything that helps sustain or nurture wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.

The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,

[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before. It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”

Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is the foundation of the raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist cultivation, because in the Bodhisattva Way, we practice not just for ourselves but also, and perhaps most importantly, for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings. Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us. In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,

It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world;
An inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”

I like to think that Shantideva is using “the nectar of immortality” metaphorically to mean the non-fear of death. Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the now. As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes. When we live for more than just ourselves, we acquire a kind of courage, even without being aware of it, and of course, wisdom through which we see that death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, I am reading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a wonderful book that I will perhaps write about in more detail later. Near the beginning of the book, Kundera has these great lines:

Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

And so ends my small offering of nectar for the mind and ambrosia for the heart.

Nov 212014

About a year and a half ago, the Washington Post noted:

Sociologists say that we are increasingly divided over religion’s place in public life but that when it comes to language, Americans are moving in one direction: toward a new vernacular. We’re no longer “religious.” We’re “holy.” We’re “faithful.” We’re “spiritual.”

I’ve begun to notice that “nonduality” has become a key word in this new vernacular.

SANDAn example is an organization I recently became aware of called Science and Nonduality. They have a cool acronym (SAND) and a cool logo. According to their website, “The mission of Science and Nonduality (SAND) is to forge a new paradigm in spirituality, one that is not dictated by religious dogma, but rather is based on timeless wisdom traditions of the world, informed by cutting-edge science, and grounded in direct experience.”

Last month SAND held a conference in San Jose California that featured a bunch of participants I’ve never heard of before. But they’re having a “retreat”called “The Sutras of Science” at Esalen in February that will feature Deepak Chopra and Robert Thurman, among others.

It seems rather obvious to me that they are using Nonduality as a substitute for the word “religion.” You notice in the mission statement above they mention religious dogma, and this is a group that seems informed by Eastern philosophy which to my mind is rather non-dogmatic. I think we sometimes have a tendency to overlay our issues with Western religion onto Eastern spirituality, and that’s a shame.

Several of the speakers at the SAND 2014 conference are described as “nonduality teachers.” I wasn’t aware that nonduality had become a field all its own. I guess I haven’t been paying attention.  I wonder if the pay for nonduality teachers is good. If so, I’d like to give it a try. I think I’d qualify.

Nonduality has been around quite a while.  Although Chinese philosophy has always had a non-dual view, what we think of as nondualism more or less got its start with the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna and his teaching on the two truths.  In Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, he calls nonduality (advaya) “the gate of security, the destruction of false views; the path walked by all buddhas, the ‘dharma of no-self-nature.’”

nondual-hotdog-72On the SAND website they write, “nonduality is the philosophical, spiritual, and scientific understanding of non-separation and fundamental oneness. Our starting point is the statement ‘we are all one’.” This is true, and yet I wonder if they understand that this “oneness” belongs to the relative truth. In his Treatise on The Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna says,

All things enter the non-dual dharma. Although things are not two, they are not one either.”

They do, however, posses one nature: they “are in truth sunya (empty).” For Nagarjuna, the non-dual dharma is like space (akasa) in that it is “completely unobstructive.”

I also occasionally see folks write something like this: “The message of nonduality is that the true nature of reality is non-dual.” Well, that is certainally part of the message and nonduality is an aspect of the true nature of reality, but not the whole thing. What I mean is that often people take nonduality to be the ultimate truth.

Actually, duality and nonduality both belong to the realm of relative truth. Neither-duality-nor-nonduality is the ultimate truth. In other words, the ultimate truth is neither extreme, it is the middle. Here’s one reason why Nagarjuna’s philosophy is called Madhyamaka or Middle Way.

Let’s take the example of a coin. The point is not that we have one and only one coin. The point is that the coin has two sides. As K. Venkata Ramanan points out in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy,

The extinction of ignorance does not leave us in a blank; it is not an act separate from the arising of knowledge. The two are simultaneous; they are two different sides of the same act, two phases of one principle. [Nagarjuna’s treatise] observes that in their ultimate nature there is no difference between ignorance and knowledge, even as there is no difference in the ultimate truth between the world of the determinate and Nirvana, the unconditioned reality.”

The ultimate truth is not emptiness because ultimately emptiness is empty. The ultimate truth is not nonduality because duality and nonduality are merely two sides of one thing. So what is this one thing? If we have to name it, let us name is Nirvana. And yet, Nagarjuna reminds us that “Nirvana is not any one thing.” This is the Middle Way.