Buddha’s Halo

Here’s photo of a rare ”Buddha’s halo” as it appears over Tianchi Lake (Heavenly Lake) in China:

Buddha's Halo

It’s actually a solar halo, formed by the refraction of light as it goes through ice crystals in the clouds. The phenomenon is only possible when sunlight, clouds or fog, and observers are all in a line, so it’s pretty rare.

Here’s another photo taken on the west side of the same lake, above Denggan Mountain.

Buddha's Halo



Miyamoto Musashi’s Nine Principles for Strategic Living

Ink Painting by Miyamoto Musashi

Miyamoto Musashi: the master swordsman, the incomparable strategist, and the ultimate loner, a ronin or masterless samurai, who roamed Japan, spending  many of his years living off the land.

Through rigorous training he made his body as hard as the steel of his blade and his mind as sharp as its edge. Yet, he knew the value of soft words, and as an artist, he could wield a gentle brush.

His Way was Heiho, the Way of Strategy, which he explained in The Book of Five Rings, a book on strategy, tactics, and philosophy still studied today, not only by martial artists, but throughout the business community, as it is considered a classic text on Japanese management.

To Musashi, strategy was the path to awakening. He said, “Having awakened to the the principles of strategy, I apply it to various arts and skills.”

These principles were crafted for warriors. We are all warriors and the battle we are engaged in is the battle to win over ourselves.

1. Do not think dishonestly.

2. The Way is in training.

3. Become acquainted with every art.

4. Know the ways of all professions.

5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.

6. Develop the ability to see the truth in all matters.

7. Learn to perceive those things which are not obvious.

8. Pay attention to even small things.

9. Do nothing which is of no use.


The Jewel of Sangha – Part I

I have more than a few thoughts on the subject of sangha. Too many to cram into one post, so I’m going to spread them out over a number of posts which may not be consecutive.

First, a little background:

Thich Nhat Hanh walking with sangha members

In the Buddha’s day, “sangha” was a common term used to describe various assemblies and groups, some of which were governing bodies. Sangha had the connotation of “collective” and “republic” and it appears that it was interchangeable with another term “ganas” meaning “flock, troop, multitude, number, tribe” etc.

It’s likely that the Shakya clan to which the Buddha belonged had a form of republican government, and that the Buddha’s father, instead of being a rich and powerful monarch as popularly described, was actually the elected head of the tribal council.

J.P. Sharma, in Republics of Ancient India says that in the tribal sanghas “each member of the assembly was called a ‘raja’ (ruler), but none had the individual power to mold the decisions of the assembly.”

The Buddha infused his sangha with this same spirit. He repeatedly told his disciples that “It is [not] I who leads the brotherhood” and that “the community is not dependent upon me.” The original sangha functioned as a small, mobile republic. You could even call it a form of collectivism, and certainly it was a community founded on the values of “sharing, participation, and fellowship.”

The community may have been centered around the Buddha as the founder and the teacher, but the sangha did not exist for the Buudha. Its purpose was to serve all the members of the community, and society as a whole.  A sangha should not exist for its own sake, as a sort of corporational person. The jewel of sangha is people. Sangha is about people.

The members of the Buddhist community were called Bhikkhus, which normally we see translated as “monk,” but they were not monks. The word bhikkhu means “sharesman.” The sangha members were sharesmen in two senses: they shared in the life of the community, and they received shares of food from the householders who supported them.

While based on the republican ideal of earlier sanghas, the Buddhist community was something entirely new in the way it introduced the very idea of community into the spiritual tradition of India, stressing the importance of human interaction. Prof. Trevor Ling writes,

One of the important achievements of early Buddhism was that it developed a new context for the spiritual quest. Traditionally, in India, the search for salvation from the evils of human existence meant a life of solitude. For the Buddhist it meant a life in the community. For a time, however, in the earliest period of Buddhist history, the old idea seems to have survived. So strong a hold did the Indian tradition of solitude have that even among Buddhists there were those who tried to practice the Buddha’s teaching by the old method and, as an ancient text [Khaggavisana Sutta] puts it, ‘fare lonely as rhinoceros.” But it was among the Buddhists that there soon emerged, for the first time in Indian history, an ordered community of those who were seeking for salvation from the human malaise as they saw it.

The sangha was not to be a community set apart from the larger community, either. The Buddha and his followers almost always stayed on the edge of cities and towns, and daily went into these places and interacted with ordinary people.

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This is a poem I wrote some years ago after listening to a tape of songs by Francoise Hardy.


is singing    a song of love
made from alien words
i am listening
“je vous désire”

the songs are songs
of nights     of tongues
thoughts dreamed by fire

i dream     i hear
the flowers sing
i question the sky    (i would
hold up the sky)    between
the sky and     my face

come into my heart
empty place    the unoccupied zone
come shivering     naked
i am alone

i dream that you are smiling
love is not dead     you say
without breathing

touched by the lips
on some far shore
passionate     sad

for love is an affection
the other limit
a hungry word
beyond the cry    of dawn


Why Samsara is Nirvana

I may have been unfair the other day in my post Sufferings are Nirvana with my characterization of the early Buddhist view, and that of present day Theravada, on nibbana. Richard, who blogs at My Buddha is Pink, pointed out in his thoughtful response that annihilation “is a mistaken translation . . . Nibbana is not annihilation, but really is an image of freedom because the underlying Pali root in the term ‘nibbana’ means ‘unbinding’.”

I am not convinced that annihilation or something on that order doesn’t figure in somewhere, however I will leave it for others to explain those teachings.

Statue of Nagarjuna at Samye Ling Monastery

I would like to share a few more thoughts on how nirvana is viewed in Mahayana, specifically in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka or Middle Way philosophy, as far as I understand it.

I should point out that Madhyamaka looks at everything through the lens of the Two Truths: the conventional or relative truth (vyavahara) and the ultimate or absolute truth (paramartha). What is valid from the standpoint of the relative truth of our everyday world is not necessarily valid from the ultimate side. In the final analysis, though, the relative and the ultimate are neither different, nor identical. Nor does one stand independently of the other.

The same can be said of samsara and nirvana. In Madhyamaka, samsara represents the world of birth and death, the world of suffering, while nirvana represents realization of the ultimate truth, without which freedom from the bondage (bandhana) of suffering is not possible.

As noted above, one sense of nirvana is that of “unbinding.” In the Madhyamaka-karika or “Roots Verses on the Middle Way,” Nagarjuna says, “If binding, would exist prior to one who is bound, there would be bondage, but that does not exist.”

Binding/bondage belongs to the relative truth. In the ultimate truth, if binding existed prior to the bondage of a sentient being, then it would have inherent existence.  Yet, ultimately, neither bondage nor anything else has inherent existence (Svabhava, own-being, self), and so release from bondage is not an inherently existent phenomenon either.

This is important because grasping onto the false idea of inherent existence is the primary cause for suffering. Nagarjuna felt that the term “nirvana” was useful for indicating spiritual release, but only if the term did not refer to something that could be an object for clinging. A few verses on, he says, “Those who grasp at the notion, ‘I will be free from grasping and Nirvana will be mine,’ have a great grasp on grasping.”

In The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Jay Garfield provides a good explanation of this:

It is [possible] to grasp after nirvana – to reify it as a state and to crave it as a phenomenon inherently different from samsara and as highly desirable since it is indeed characterized as liberation from suffering. But this grasping onto the end of grasping is itself a grasping and so precludes the attainment of nirvana. Nirvana requires, according to Nagarjuna, a complete cessation of grasping, including that onto nirvana itself. While that might seem paradoxical, it is not: To grasp onto something in this sense requires, inter alia, that one reify it. By refusing to reify liberation, in virtue of seeing it as the correlative of bondage, which itself is not inherently existent, it is possible to pursue the path to liberation without creating at the same time a huge obstacle on that path – the root delusion with regard to nirvana itself.

If things do not exist in themselves, then from the ultimate truth they are unreal, illusions. Nirvana, for Nagarjuna, if seen as something inherently existent, is only an illusion that will perpetuate more grasping, followed by more suffering.

There are no real distinctions in Madhyamaka philosophy because all things are considered empty of inherent existence or own-nature. For samsara and nirvana to be distinct from one another, they would have to be inherently existent things. But they are empty, and within this emptiness, they are without distinction.

Samsara and nirvana are only different in the relative sense, because they designate entirely different things. Again, in the ultimate sense, there is no difference, because of their emptiness. Everything is empty, including emptiness.

This many sound like theoretical nonsense, but it has a practical application. The aim of this thinking is to shatter all dualities and destroy all avenues for grasping. When we can get past dualistic thinking, that is, seeing only the distinctions, not recognizing the parity or the correspondence between things, then the world opens up for us. We then see the wholeness of life. We become whole. Being whole means to be healthy, and this sort of spiritual health translates into release from the things that bind us to suffering. It is freedom.

Frederick Streng has written,

This is a freedom which applies to every moment of existence, not to special moments of mystical escape to another level of being, nor to the freedom attained by priestly activity at a sacred time and place . . . To know things as they actually are, frees the mind of presuppositions and the emotions from attachments. Thus this freedom is also a purification process; it removes such evils as hated, fear, greed, or nimiety which accompany attachment.

Without suffering, one can never know release. As long as we see freedom as something separate from our suffering, we are grasping onto an object, inviting more suffering. Just as we are related to our karma, we are related to our suffering, and nirvana, our freedom, is also related to our suffering.

If we can understand that samsara “is” nirvana in this way, in each moment, and know that suffering, ultimately related to our goal, is the very tool that allows us to reach the goal, then I think, we are one step closer to where we want to be. Of course, we need take that extra step of realizing that the goal of freedom is ultimately empty, for as long as we live we will experience suffering in one form or another. The goal of complete release is an illusion. There is only the Endless Further.