Eastern Mind, Western Mind

There is a difference between Eastern mind and Western mind and it is the same as the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning is defined as a “reasoning process in which the conclusion logically follows from the premises, and in which the conclusion has to be true if the premises are true. In inductive reasoning, on the contrary, there is no logical movement from premises to conclusion. The premises constitute good reasons for accepting the conclusion.” (csun.edu).

By the Western standard of reasoning much of Eastern philosophy is illogical because it strings together incoherent, irrelevant and unconnected thought to form conclusions, whereas we use what we consider to be logical thought. However, that thoughts are logical is not proof of their truth, and conversely, because something is illogical is not proof of falseness.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to approach an Eastern philosophy like Buddhism purely from a Western perspective. We are too analytical and you can’t get Buddha-dharma from analysis and study alone. This is a philosophy based on experience, specifically the meditative experience. What we gain intuitively from that and then translate into our daily lives is the prime point, and the philosophy, all the doctrine and concepts and terms, are just there as support.

That’s bad news to those, myself included, who have a tendency to philosophize first and practice second. But mindfulness practice is about moving away from the kind of thinking that prevents us from having a direct experience of reality as it truly is. To be frank, from the Buddhist point of view, thinking gets in the way. That’s why there are teachings about “no-thought” and admonitions about putting aside thought construction, and embracing the emptiness of mind.

Pure thought just is. It does not require proof nor does it, as pure thought, provide proof of anything, except that there is mental activity. But once we move away and start with conceptual thought, then it’s all about construction and fiddling around with the building blocks of appearance, symbols, meanings, referents, language, semantics, and so on. None of which zeros in on the kind of direct experience that Buddhism is ultimately concerned with.

Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation based on self-observation and introspection. It is interesting to note that neither observation nor introspection is thought. Actually, the two words are essentially the same as introspection is only the observation of subjective mental properties. Thought may lead a person to become aware of a particular thing, yet that awareness is not a module of thought, and cognition is the result of mere observation.

This is not to say that analytical or critical thinking should be discarded. On the contrary, it is encouraged, but it requires balance. There should be recognition that in the end the subject is beyond analysis and thinking. It’s a fine line. Doubt is natural, especially in the beginning years of one’s practice. However, it can easily turn into skepticism. A doubter is open to the possibility that the opposite of what he or she believes is true. A skeptic, on the other hand, can be a person who habitually doubts, indicating a narrower frame of mind. What was once healthy, then becomes unhealthy.

I’m also not suggesting that the Eastern approach is perfect and could not benefit from some Western influence. Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that Buddhism sprang from an Eastern mind and for us to understand it in any meaningful way requires that we be open to this different mode of thought.

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


John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

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The Gift We Give Ourselves Outright

Fifty years ago today, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States. I was eight years old.

I have a vague recollection of Eisenhower. He was some old guy who interrupted my cartoons one afternoon to make an announcement about something. It might have been important but I didn’t care. I wanted my cartoons.

All I remember from Kennedy’s inauguration is seeing him give the “Ask not what you can do for your country . . .” line on the evening news. I remember much more about the day he died. Some details of that afternoon, I will never forget.

Kennedy was young, so naturally I related. His coming on the scene as president coincided with my growing curiosity about the world outside of my home, neighborhood, and school, the world outside of cartoons that was often frighteningly real with heavy threats like the Bomb. But it was also shot with  heavy doses of optimism, vitality and purposefulness, which was the vantage point of youth as well as the tenor of Kennedy’s time as president.

There’s not much one can add about Kennedy’s legacy. However, I have always thought that the Peace Corps was his greatest contribution. What an incredible idea it was for the time, for any time: Volunteers who “travel overseas to make real differences in the lives of real people.” The Peace Corps is 50 years old this March 1st. According to their website, “The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.”

Yesterday, we saw the passing of Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps’ first director. Shriver was also responsible for starting VISTA, a domestic version of the Peace Corps; Head Start; the Job Corps; and Legal Services for the Poor. He was, as President Obama said, “one of the brightest lights of the greatest generation.”

The day John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president, he invited Robert Frost to read a poem at the event. It was the first time a poet had been asked to participate in a presidential inauguration. Frost was 87 years old, a famous and honored poet, the recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes.

According to poet.org, “Kennedy asked if Frost planned to recite a new poem. If not, could he recite The Gift Outright, a poem Frost has called ‘a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse.’ Kennedy also requested changing the phrase in the last line to ‘such as she will become’ from ‘such as she would become.’ Frost agreed . . . As inauguration day approached, however, Frost surprised himself by composing a new poem, Dedication . . . which he planned to read as a preface to the poem Kennedy requested. But on the drive to the Capitol on January 20, 1961, Frost worried that the piece, typed on one of the hotel typewriters the night before, was difficult to read even in good light. When he stood to recite the poem, the wind and the bright reflection of sunlight off new fallen snow made the reading the poem impossible. He was able, however, to recite The Gift Outright from memory.”

Here is the poem Frost read that day:

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Robert Frost

The history recounted in this poem could be an analogy for the history of the human spirit. “Our land of living” could be the mind. And we, withholding our true natures from ourselves. Thinking that our mind controls us, instead of the other way around. Thinking we cannot control anything. We have trouble seeing that we find liberation in surrendering our desires, our preferences, our prejudices. Surrender, the gift we give ourselves. Westward, we walk on the path of awakening. To walk in this kind of surrender does not mean walking in defeat, but in confidence and with hope. Toward the burning horizon, where the Endless Further lies and all dualities, all possessions and all possessed, dissolve in the brightness and heat of the setting sun.

Photo: United Press International

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“Bodhisattvas are careful about causes”

Some individuals do not believe in a connection between succeeding events, and because they doubt it, they feel that causality is a specious concept. They maintain that there is only a string of events or phenomena and one is not caused by another. However, this only leads to the notion that events come out of nothing, by chance, and that being the case, control of events is not possible.

Buddhism teaches that there is causality. The word “cause” refers to any “thing” (dharma) or any part of any thing which produces an effect. The effect implies not only manifestation but also the relationship between the cause and the effect.

Any event is not caused by only one thing. There are innumerable aspects that play a part, many of which condition the production of any event. Causes and effects form complex chains, each link is the effect of combinations of causes, and a cause is also a combination of effects.

According to the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, avijja or ignorance is the cause of desire and clinging and creates dukkha or suffering. Ignorance is lack of knowledge or understanding. In Buddhism this is meant in the sense of a fundamental darkness within life. The Buddha taught that it also refers to ignorance of cause and effect and the way things really are.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

The purpose of practice is not to be reborn in paradise or Buddha-land after death. The purpose is to have peace for ourselves and others right now, while we are alive and breathing. Means and ends cannot be separated. Bodhisattvas are careful about causes, while ordinary people care more about effects, because bodhisattvas see that cause and effect are one. An enlightened person never says, ‘This is only a means.’ Based on the insight that means are ends, all activities and practices should be entered into mindfully and peacefully.

Human activities result in interaction between individuals. Some are peaceful and co-operative, while others are turbulent and conflicting. In conflict, the weaker individual is overcome by the stronger one, but conflict is always self-destructive. Discordant activities are caused by ignorance of the interdependent nature of all things. All life is activity, and to know that a higher quality of life is achieved through better co-operation with others is the antidote to conflict and disharmony.

An atom, a cell, an organ, our entire person is comprised of co-operative groups of single entities, and just as a healthy individual body is achieved when these entities work in harmony, together with other individuals we form a society that functions better, that is, there is increased welfare of all its members, when relationships are non-antagonistic and co-operative.  This simple truth opens the gate to real solutions to enduring problems.

Ultimately, we cannot say that there is ever an end to ignorance of cause and effect. If anyone could fully comprehend all the various elements and factors of causality, that person could predict the course of future events.

The idea is to understand as best we can, to be mindful of causality and interdependency so that we live with others peacefully. Whether or not it is possible to control events is a debate that I’m not sure we need by concerned with, for we do know with absolute certainty that we can control ourselves. By training our mind, practicing mindfulness, we can control the causes we make and that in turn will influence events. If we construct our lives and society based on causes that promote harmony and peace, then surely we need not fear anything the future can bring.

Seng-ts’an wrote in the Verses on the Faith-Mind:

One thing, all things;
move among and intermingle,
without distinction.
To live in this realization
is to be without anxiety about nonperfection.
To live in this faith is the road to nonduality,
because the nondual is one with the trusting mind.

Words!
The Way is beyond language,
for in it there is

no yesterday

no tomorrow

no today.

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Monks on Hollywood Boulevard

Don’t come to my part of Hollywood to eat unless you like Thai Food. I mean, really like it. Because that’s all we have now. Five solid blocks of Thai restaurants. I haven’t counted them but there must be at least 25. Maybe more. Don’t get me wrong, I like Thai food, but I like variety too. Taco Bell moved out several years ago. Maybe that was a public service. There’s a Thai place there now. Sizzler left last summer. The salad bar was pretty good. It’s standing empty at the present time, but I am laying odds as to what it turns into. And the last bastion of Americana, Daily Donuts (run by a Thai couple) has been replaced with, guess what?

Well, this is Thai Town after all, but it’s also kind of overkill, if you ask me. And no one has. The epicenter is a strip mall where the aforementioned donut shop was, and there used to be a handy Laundromat, too. Now it is a strip mall with a Thai massage parlor, a Thai perfume shop, Thai insurance, Thai restaurants and valet parking.

One Saturday a month, people gather in the morning at the Thailand Plaza next door (it’s not really a plaza, just a Thai grocery store with a Thai nightclub above it) to offer food to monks from the various Thai temples around town. Not being that intimate with Theravada or Thailand, one time as I watched the rite, I asked a Thai guy who looked like he might speak English, “What do you call this ceremony where you offer food to the monks?” He replied, “We call it offering food to the monks.”

Actually it’s called Tak Bat which means “alms giving”. By offering rice, soft drinks, cakes and so on, people are doing good deeds or Tham Bun. This is a daily ritual in most Theravada countries. I don’t know about Mahayana. I don’t recall ever seeing Mahayana monks do this, although I have see them receive offerings in a temple setting. The alms giving/receiving, of course, is a tradition that dates back to the Buddha’s time.

The ceremony is very short, only about an hour. The people show up, set up their tables, and wait. Then the monks show up and they wait until everyone is there and then they begin their procession, holding their alms bowls, accompanied by someone with a shopping cart for the overflow. After the food has been distributed, one of the monks gives a short talk, followed by some brief chanting, and then everyone goes home. Short and sweet.

Here some photos I took from this month’s Tak Bat with a link to the full set at the bottom. Saturday was nice and warm. It climbed up to 80 in the afternoon. Some monks came in from as far away as Riverside, and there were monks from Wat Thai in North Hollywood there, as well as Dharma Vijaya over on Crenshaw.

“Did you hear the one about the two monks from Laos . . .”

“Hey, dude! How ya doin’?”

Dancing while the monks are talking is usually frowned upon.

I wasn’t the only one snapping pics.

You can see the rest of the photos here.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. A good time to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy and the principle of non-violence:

Nonviolent resistance is also an internal matter. It not only avoids external violence or external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. And so at the center of our movement stood the philosophy of love. The attitude that the only way to ultimately change humanity and make for the society that we all long for is to keep love at the center of our lives.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
June 4, 1957

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Heroes

Daniel Hernandez with President Obama

Watching President Obama the other night say to Daniel Hernandez, “I’m sorry. You may deny it, but we have decided you are a hero,” and then seeing the young intern play down his new-found status yet again in a CNN interview, got me thinking a bit about what constitutes a true hero and while I probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, I will say it anyway . . . but first let me go ‘round the mulberry bush a few times . . .

Super-heroes on film have come a long way, baby. A few nights ago I watched, finally, Iron Man, the 2008 film with Robert Downey Jr. I rarely go to movies in theaters, mainly because they are too damn loud, so I wait for the movies I want to see to come on cable, where I can control the volume. In the case of Iron Man, it seemed to take forever. Anyway, it was all right, not quite as good as I had been led to believe, though. Of course, the real stars of these movies are the special effects.

I’m not into comic books much these days. But I was once. I envy the kids today who are into comics and who get to see these films at a time in their lives when they can really appreciate the mega-coolness of flying and displaying super powers. Back in the day, my day, special effects were primitive, and in retrospect, pretty lame.

Take the first appearance of Superman on film: In the 1948 serial starring Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel, the flying business was accomplished by switching to animation. Very obvious. Apparently, they had tried to suspend Alyn with hidden wires, but the wires wouldn’t stay hidden. When Superman came to television, in the series starring George Reeves, they had him lie on a board “filmed in front of aerial footage on back-projection screen, or against a neutral background which would provide a matte which would be optically combined with a swish-pan or aerial shot” (Wikipedia). The board was obvious, too. Even to a five-year old like me. But I loved the Superman show anyway.

I remember crying on my mother’s bed the day they took Superman off the air, prompted possibly by George Reeve’s suicide, information about which my parents withheld from me. Instead of The Adventures of Superman, they had some show with big kids performing acts of contortion while bunched together in the center of a room while weird music played in the background. I think the show was called American Bandstand.

Back to special effects – Nowadays, even though you know they are using computer animation, it’s so good and seamless that it’s rather easy to forget about it, and with the films since the 1978 Superman with Christopher Reeve, “you’ll believe a man can fly”.

The latest super-hero opus, Green Hornet, is poised to open big this weekend. The Green Hornet is not a super-hero per se, because he doesn’t have any super-powers, so he’s more of a masked vigilante.  He got his start as a 1930’s radio series, co-created by Frank Striker, the creator of the Lone Ranger and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. In the 1960’s, cashing in on the success of the campy Batman TV series, Green Hornet was turned into a weekly half-hour show staring Van Williams as the title character and Bruce Lee as his sidekick and chauffeur, Kato. The show didn’t last very long, only one season, 26 episodes. Williams later left acting and became a reserve officer with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s department, and unless you have been living on Mars for the last half-century, you know what became of Bruce Lee.

According to fellow actor Robert Ito, Lee hated the role of Kato because he “thought it was so subservient”. Nonetheless, it opened many a door for him.

Today, Bruce Lee is real life hero to many. Even Mao Zedong said so. According to a recent article in the Daily China in 1974 “While watching Fist of Fury for the first time, Mao dissolved in tears” and called out “Bruce Lee is a hero!”

Whether or not Lee saw himself in that light, I don’t know. I think he was humble enough that he might have been somewhat embarrassed by the designation, but on the other hand, no doubt he recognized the need for more ethic role-models and probably would not have discouraged it.

Our fascination with super-heroes is an example of how our sense of what constitutes a hero is often out of balance. We expect heroes to be larger than life. In the past, those hailed as heroes usually fit a particular ethnic model. For instance in the first forty or so years after WWII, many people knew about soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of the war, but few knew anything of the 442nd, the Japanese-American unit that became the most highly decorated regiment in the entire history of the United States. Thank goodness, we bestow the mantle of hero more equally now.

Christopher Reeve "Superman"

Christopher Reeve, who in real life faced one of the most daunting challenges imaginable, once said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

A hero is someone who displays courage. And there are many ways to do that. We don’t just find heroes in the midst of extraordinary events, in fact, the real heroes of this world are quite ordinary and they display their courage in everyday situations. Raising a family, getting along with co-workers, spouses, schoolmates. Fighting cancer. Donating time and energy to causes. Touching the lives of others.

In Tibet, the word “bodhisattva” is translated as jangchub sempa or “enlightening mind-hero.” Korean Zen teacher, Mu Soeng, calls this “an articulation of the bodhisattva as a new type of spiritual hero.” Bodhi means “wake” but while sattva can mean “sentient being” Donald S. Lopez has pointed out that it can also mean “mind” and “intention.” Commenting on the Tibetan “mind-hero”, he says, “This suggests that they were cognizant of both the second and third meanings of sattva mentioned above and felt that both should be incorporated into the Tibetan translation with the resulting meaning being, “one who is heroic in his or her intention to achieve enlightenment.”

To achieve enlightenment may sound like a lofty goal, but I am someone who feels that enlightenment consists of little more than living a life of compassion, ethics and wisdom. Perfect, supreme enlightenment is for super heroes. It’s the seemingly mundane accomplishments of everyday mind-heroes that really count for something. For a person struggling with depression, just getting up to face another day might be a great act of courage on his or her part. For someone with cancer, it might be just making it through another chemo session. For someone else it might be not taking a drink, or being honest with another, or showing tenderness . . .

When someone acts as Daniel Hernandez did, to extend help to another without pause, without thinking about it, no matter how small that altruistic act may be, then perhaps we do ascend to super-hero status. We can be – we are – the Supermen and Green Hornets of daily life. It doesn’t really even take courage, for had Hernandez or anyone else stopped to think about it, they might not have leaped into the fray. What it takes is simply holding others in your mind, seeing their welfare as being equal to yours, and knowing that we are dependent upon each other and that the happiness of others is the same as happiness for yourself. Then you can’t help but respond. You don’t stop to think about it.

A hero doesn’t have to fly in the air, bend steel in his or her bare hands. Heroes definitely do not have to kick anybody’s ass, unless it’s their own, for true heroes of the mind know that ultimately the battle we are fighting is with ourselves. Nor do we need to wear masks or capes . . . but we do need to wear the uniform of compassion and display the power of wisdom.

David Bowie got all his coolest moves from Bruce Lee

Green Hornet: Think about this, Kato. We’ve been completely wasting our potential. This city needs our help. We could be heroes!

David Bowie: We could be heroes just for one day.

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