Spiritual Laws Du Jour and Tonight’s Big Numbers

Deepak Chopra is one of those guys who gets more than his fair share of criticism. Because he’s popular, he’s an easy target. There are folks who take exception to some of the things he says, especially in regards to science, but frankly I’ve heard Robert Thurman make some pretty wild claims too, and no one uses him for a punching bag. Not that I know of, anyway.

The way I look at it, Chopra provides a service. Because he is popular (and yes, a bit of a huckster), he’s sometimes used as a “talking head” on religious matters, and I think he offers a much needed alternative view. There may be some holes in his dissertations, but to me they seem consistent with the Buddhist view and Eastern philosophy in general, and I welcome almost any alternative to the spiritual dogma put out by the adherents of Abrahamic religions that dominate the media.

Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superguru!

I have never read any of Chopra’s book and maybe if I did, I might change my mind. His latest one, however, intrigues me. It’s called The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes (HarperOne; June 2011; Hardcover; $25.99; ISBN 9780062059666). Now, if you have read this blog recently, you might have gotten the idea that I am still a bit of a sucker for comics and superheroes. Well, sort of. I haven’t read a comic book in decades. It’s more like nostalgia.

Without even reading his book, I can guess Chopra suggests that it’s possible for us to be spiritual superheroes. A few years ago he was telling people about “The Way of the Wizard” and how “A wizard exists in all of us.” But I can’t come down on him for that. I am guilty of the same thing, as demonstrated by my post of May 10th, Be A Hero of The Mind. On one hand, these are just analogies, nothing to take too seriously either positive or negative. Still, it seems to me that being a mind-hero or a superhero of your own life is more than just some spiritual taffy. Didn’t the Buddha put it terms of a Noble Quest? In the end, isn’t all about being a champion and winning over ourselves?

By the way, when I was six or seven I created my own superhero character. His name was Captain Virtue. The first installment of his saga was entitled, “The Virtues of Captain Virtue.” Sure, it was redundant but this was also around the time I also wrote my first song, “Your Love Gives Me Heartburn.”

Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers with Philson Ahn and Constance Moore

Superhero movies are in very much in vogue these days. Especially since they can finally do the special effects justice. As I write this, they are showing an ad for the Green Lantern movie on TV. Coming in June. Last week, I caught up with Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The effects were spectacular. When I was growing up they were so hokey. If you want an idea of the kind of special effects folks my age had to put up with, check out Turner Classic Movies on Saturday mornings and watch an episode of the 1939 serial Buck Rogers (and stayed tuned for a Tarzan movie). I wasn’t around in 1939, but special effects had not advanced much by the time I was.

Back in my day, you might have been able to make a reasonably decent Green Lantern movie but there was no way you could do the Fantastic 4. Kids today who are into this stuff are so lucky. And while I’m at it, I just have to tip my hat once more to Stan Lee and all the other creative geniuses at Marvel Comics, who in the 1960’s not only came up with great superheroes but also great super-villains. I mean the idea of a being who goes around consuming worlds to get the energy he needs to sustain himself (Galactus), aided by a “herald” who travels the universe on a cosmic surfboard (The Silver Surfer) is just, well, the only word for it is cool. Maybe they are just comic books, but the characters and story lines are a match for anything I’ve read in “serious” science fiction.

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Tai Chi Truths

Most people think of tai chi as a form of gentle exercise, but technically, it’s a martial art. It’s also a way of meditation, and a way of life.

Tai is “great.” Chi does not mean “energy” or “life force” (ch’i, qi, ki) as one might expect, instead it refers to yin and yang (two polar forces in the universe) fused into the Great Ultimate, represented by the Tai-chi (taiji) symbol to the left. The Great Ultimate is fundamentally the Non-Ultimate, or the Ultimate of Non-being.

The health benefits of tai chi are pretty well documented now. Many studies have determined that tai chi has a positive effect on mental health, cardiovascular fitness, high blood pressure, muscle strength, flexibility and aerobic capacity. A new study by the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine in Daejeon, South Korea and the University of Exeter (UK), published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, concluded that while tai chi offers little help in easing the symptoms of cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, “tai chi, which combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements, may exert exercise-based general benefits for fall prevention and improvement of balance in older people as well as some meditative effects for improving psychological health.”

Here are the so-called Eight Truths of Tai Chi, translated by Waysun Liao* from “early manuscripts by unknown masters.” I don’t know if “truths” is the right word, for they are not facts, but rather principles, ones that apply not only to tai chi but also to meditation itself, and for that matter, daily living.

The Eight Truths of T’ai Chi

1. Do not be concerned with form. Do not be concerned with the ways in which form manifests.

2. Your entire body should be transparent and empty. Let inside and outside fuse.

3. Learn to ignore external objects. Allow your mind to guide you, and act spontaneously, in accordance with the movement.

4. The sun sets on the western mountain. The cliff thrusts forward, suspended in space. See the ocean in its vastness and the sky in its immensity.

5. The tiger’s roar is deep and mighty. The monkey’s cry is high and shrill. So should you refine your spirit, cultivating the positive and the negative.

6. The water of spring is clear, like fine crystal. The water of the pond lies still and placid. Your mind should be as the water and your spirit like the spring.

7. The river roars. The stormy ocean boils. Make your ch’i like these natural wonders.

8. Seek perfection sincerely. Establish life. When you have settled the spirit, you may cultivate the ch’i.

* Waysun Liao, T’ai Chi Classics (Random House, 1977)

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True Emptiness, Wondrous Existence

Life is good and to be enjoyed.

The individual self is one with nature, an integral part of the vast universe. The Buddhist quest is to realize our “greater self” and to obtain liberation from the “lesser self”, the self of ego, self-cherishing and clinging. The view from the greater self is like the view from the top of mountain. It’s hard not to be enthralled with the vista. The lesser self is like standing on the land below in the fog. The view is limited.

To me, this is what is meant by the phrase chen-k’ung miao-yu (Jp. shinku-myou) or “true emptiness, wondrous existence.”

Chen-k’ung or “true emptiness”, refers to the realm of thought, the mind that realizes the emptiness of all things. It’s a state of mind that, free from attachments, is likened to space – it’s non-obstructive, open, infinite. Miao-yu, “wondrous existence”, says Buddhist scholar Ng Yu-kwan, “would imply an affirmative but non-attaching attitude toward the dharmas [things] in the world.” In other words, emptiness does not deny or reject existence, rather it offers us insight into the mystery of existence, it’s inexplicableness, and the glorious interdependency of everything.

Chih-i interpreted the word miao as “subtle.” Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, states, “For Chih-I the word ‘subtle’ symbolized and summarized that which is beyond conceptual understanding and thus it is the word most appropriate to describe reality, which is ultimately indescribable.”

This is similar to what is expressed in the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be known is not the infinite Tao.
The name that can be named is not the infinite name.
The unnamable is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is mother to ten thousand things.
Those without constant desire see into its subtlety.
Those with constant desire, only see its limit.
These two have the same origin
But are given different designations.
We call them both mysteries.
Deepness within deepness:
The gate to all subtleties.

It may sound strange but you should be pleased to know that things are empty, for it is what makes existence truly wondrous.

In The Heart of Understanding, Thich Nhat Hanh, commenting on the maxim “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” from the Heart Sutra, says,

‘Emptiness’ means empty of a separate self. It is full of everything, full of life. The word ‘emptiness’ should not scare us. It is a wonderful word. To be empty does not mean to be nonexistent.”

When one has attained this understanding of the oneness of true emptiness and wondrous existence and is liberated from thought processes that form attachments, our saha or mundane world is transformed into a world of ten thousand wonders.

The message today then is that letting go of attachments does not mean that we cease enjoying life and seeing emptiness does not mean to depreciate beauty.

Because, as Han-shan Te-ch’ing said, “so-called existence is called ‘wondrous existence’ because the illusory existence is fundamentally non-existent”, we can see the world around us clearly, without veils of desires and attachment before our eyes, or as if we were standing on a mountain above the fog, and that enables us to embrace what we see and what is enjoyable about life from a profoundly higher level of appreciation.

Life is good and to be enjoyed.

Enjoy being a laughing, smiling, happy Buddha all day.

 

 

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The Reincarnation of Paul Revere’s Horse

The title of this post comes from a line in a Bob Dylan song. I don’t know if Bob believes in reincarnation or not. I rather doubt it, since he has fairly conventional religious views. But who knows? Shirley MacLaine definitely believes in reincarnation. Buddhists probably shouldn’t because it’s not really a Buddhist concept. Buddhism teaches rebirth.

Reincarnation is the theory that the same person will be reborn in successive bodies. The core teachings of Buddhism say nothing about this. Reincarnation found its way into Buddhism through the assimilation of folklore and native beliefs. Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul or a self that can transmigrate. So, rebirth is different from reincarnation. What Buddhism is talking about is a continuum of consciousness. The difference may seem slight, but its there.

Still, some people may wonder if then rebirth isn’t also just another supernatural belief we should cast off. The funny thing is, I don’t think of rebirth as being supernatural. It seems rather scientific to me.

Looking at existence just in terms of the cycle of birth and death, we know everything that is born will eventually become old and sick and then die away. On that, there is no question. What happens next is debatable. Yet, it would appear from the way nature and the universe behaves that things are recycled. Leaves fall to the ground to become compost that helps other plants to grow and it’s also food for worms and the worms become food for ants and beetles, and so it goes in a continuous cycle.

The universe itself continuously recycles energy and mass at both the subatomic and macro-atomic level. Atoms, molecules, planets, suns, and even galaxies are destroyed and the energies are dispersed to be reassembled in other forms. Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics called this “the Cosmic Dance”:

The exploration of the subatomic world in the twentieth century has revealed the intrinsically dynamic nature of matter. It has shown that the constituents of atoms, the subatomic particles, are dynamic patterns which do not exist as isolated entities, but as integral parts of an inseparable network of interactions. These interactions involve a ceaseless flow of energy manifesting itself as particles are created and destroyed without end in a continual variation of energy patterns . . . The whole universe is thus engaged in endless motion and activity; in a continual cosmic dance of energy.”

Here we also have science revealing patterns of interdependency, consistent with the Buddhist concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada). Additionally, science tells us that new matter and energy are created about every trillion years. So, evidently what we see as birth and death is not birth and death at all, it is only the transformation of matter and energy. It’s recycling.

Some years ago, Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok of Cambridge University unveiled the “cyclic universe theory” which suggests, “that space and time may not have begun in a big bang, but may have always existed in an endless cycle of expansion and rebirth.”* The beginningless beginning . . .

I don’t feel that it’s deal breaker if existence does not unfold exactly as Buddha-dharma has laid out. It’s the overall principle that is important. Nor, do I believe it is out of the realm of possibilities that the recycling of energy may not also apply to living beings. For these reasons, I am reluctant to dismiss rebirth as just some supernatural notion that deserves no attention or contemplation.

Yet, I think people make too much of the question of rebirth. People shouldn’t feel that, well, if I practice Buddhism then I will be expected to believe in this “supernatural” stuff. But if you keep your mind open, then it’s possible that you might perceive deeper meanings about the inevitability of change and life manifesting itself in interrelated patterns within cycles of  time and nature.

Birth and death are just cycles of life and Buddhism says that throughout these cycles, nothing is created and nothing is destroyed. It’s just life, flowing . . .

This teaches us the humility of our mutual dependence as well as the universality of our true nature and the freedom from that most deadly of all illusions, the illusion of a permanent, separate ego. Whatever resists transformation condemns itself to death. There is no death for those who accept the law of transformation.”

Lama Anagarika Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous

Bob Dylan, Tombstone Blues

* princeton.edu

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Vesak 2011

Although Vesak (Pali: Vesakha; Sanskrit: Vaisakha) is often called the “Buddha’s Birthday”, it’s actually three celebrations rolled into one: the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni (Sage of the Shakyas), and of course, as the Buddha.

The date for Vesak differs according to tradition and country, but generally it’s held on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which would be today. So happy Vesak day to everyone.

Of course, no one knows for sure when the Buddha was born or when he died, or even if there actually was such a person. Sometimes I am inclined to believe that the Buddha’s story was crafted from that of Mahavira, who was the real architect of Jainism as we know it today, or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe there actually were two guys with nearly identical backgrounds who arrived on the Indian spiritual scene at basically the same time with very similar teachings. Maybe they’re both myths. It’s likely we’ll never know.

As far as Buddhism goes, it doesn’t matter. Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Because the Buddha is portrayed as a human being and not a god, his awakening represents the potential for awakening that exists within every human being. It’s not important whether one particular person was the first to awaken. Plenty of others awakened after him, and we can too. That potential is like a seed and when it sprouts in anyone, that person is, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.”

Tsung-mi (780-841), regarded as both a patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master, composed a work entitled Yuan Jen or “On the Original Nature of Human Beings.” It’s often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings. In this piece, he wrote,

All sentient beings posses the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.”

For Buddhists, then, the Buddha is the personification of all our ideals and values. He attained the highest spiritual achievement, but the same is never beyond our own reach. To me, Vesak is about commemorating that potential for Buddhahood. We are really celebrating ourselves. We are him and he is us. His day is our day.

The term ‘all Buddhas’ means Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni Buddha is synonymous with one’s very mind being Buddha. At that very moment when all the Buddhas of past, present, and future have become, do become, and will become Buddha, without fail, They become Shakyamuni Buddha. This is what “Your very mind is Buddha” means.

– Dogen, On ‘Your Very Mind Is Buddha’ (Soku Shin Ze Butsu)

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