As I see it, we’ve been sucked into this debt ceiling crisis because some folks in Washington are more interested in demagoguery than discussion and quite a few of them don’t have a very good understanding of the spirit of democracy. As far as I’m concerned, all parties share the blame. I think they could get some valuable insight by taking a look at how the early Buddhist Sangha functioned as a democratic body.

During the Buddha’s time, or what we assume was his time, around 2500 BCE, the prevalent form of government in India was republican, although it was making way for monarchies. The Buddha’s father, rather than the rich and powerful king of legend, was probably the elected head of a tribal assembly, known as a sangha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha*, says that “Government by discussion was the keynote of the republics.” And it’s believed that the Buddha modeled, and obviously named, his assembly of spiritual seekers after this form of government.

Prof. Ling further notes that,

Certainly every member of the Sangha was regarded as having equality of rights in any deliberations concerning the life of the community . . . The Sangha has been described, also, as a ‘system of government formed by the Bhikkhus, for the Bhikkhus and of the Bhikkhus’**, and therefore a democracy.”

Ling points to the Buddha’s response to the controversy regarding the Vajjian confederacy, found in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta:

So long as the Vajji meet together in concord, and carry out in concord their affairs . . . so long may they be expected not to decline but to prosper.”

Prof. Ling calls attention to the word “concord.” He says “It is expressly stated that ‘concord’ or unanimity is essential for the proper functioning of the Sangha.” Some other translations use “harmony and unity.” Further on in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha relates the seven factors of non-decline for the Bhikkhus: regular assembly, concordant assembly, reasonable rules, respect for others, skillfulness at non-attachment, peaceful atmosphere, and mindfulness.

The spirit behind these factors should be integral to any kind of democratic assembly. It’s about mutual respect, listening to others, working together harmoniously. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree. Difference of opinion is only natural and should be encouraged. But, in the end, harmony and compromise must rule the day for any group of individuals to prosper.

What many of our elected officials tend to forget is that they are representatives, and as such, once they take office they serve everyone in their district, including those who didn’t vote for them and those with whom they disagree. They are not really in office to vote solely out of concern for their principles, they’re supposed to vote with a concern for the greater good of all. I don’t think anyone wants to see the interest on their credit card go up, or have any further damage inflicted upon our already weakened economy. We’d rather see them come to some sort of agreement, sooner than later.

When something like this happened in the early Sangha, when there was no hope of compromise, the dissenters would leave and form their own assembly: “The Buddhist method is one which allows minority views to be held, and not disregarded, but the price to be paid is the multiplication of bodies with different points of view . . .”

Unfortunately, when it’s a nation at stake, picking up your ball and going to play elsewhere is not an option. Actually, we did that once before. Didn’t work out too well. I think they call it the Civil War.

The only other option for the Sangha was to adopt the approach used by the Catholic Church and some others, totalitarianism. You know, brand the dissenters as heretics and condemn them to hell by excommunication or by sword. Fortunately, the early Sangha decided not to go that route.

Ling notes that this early Buddhist model of democracy,

[As] a prototype social organization of the future . . . [has] so to speak, a large practicality gap . . . The two major reasons against the idea of the whole of contemporary Indian society becoming a universal Buddhist sangha were, first, the existence of powerful monarchies, and second, the unreadiness of the mass of the people for participation in the kind of society envisaged in Buddhist teaching.”

The situation is not much different today. Still, our representatives, and we, the people, could benefit from some reflection on the principles discussed here.

* T. Ling, The Buddha, Great Britain, 1976

** G. De, Democracy in Early Buddhist Sangha, Calcutta, 1955


The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 5

I hope you are finding this commentary by the Dalai Lama to be of interest. Just to remind you, this is a verbatim transcript, so in places it is a bit redundant. As far as I can tell, when he gives teachings, the Dalai Lama speaks extemporaneously. I’ve included his asides along with short descriptions of the action taking place, which hopefully will give you a sense of the atmosphere.

This is a long section so I will cut to the chase and merely add that in this excerpt, the Dalai Lama discusses suffering and happiness, the Four Noble Truths, karma, and motivation.

The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part V

1st Day – Afternoon session

The second half of the day’s teachings were opened with sutra chanting in Japanese, led by Rev. Noriaki Ito, Abbot of Higashi Hongwanjii Temple in Los Angeles.

I would like to express my appreciation to the members of the Japanese Buddhist sangha for their wonderful recitation. I was not able to follow the meaning of the verses, though. [Laugher.]

Now, I will resume our discussion where we left in the morning session.

We were talking about beginninglessness and the continuum of consciousness and also the continuum of the individual being, which is designated upon the basis of this beginningless continuum of consciousness or mind.

However, in the Buddhist schools of thought, as far as whether or not there is a possibility to an end of this continuum, all Buddhists schools converge on the point that it is beginningless. But, as far as whether or not there is a cessation or an end to the individual, which is designated in the continuum of consciousness, there are divergent opinions among the Buddhist thinkers on this point.

In any case, as human beings or as sentient beings, we all posses this fundamental fact of our own existence, which is the ability to discern or perceive things. And similarly, as human beings, we all have the natural capacity to experience pain and pleasure and the natural capacity for feelings. Within the realm of feeling or sensation, we can, generally speaking, distinguish between two principle forms: those types of feelings which are pleasure or joy, and those other types of experience that are undesirable in the sense that when they occur within us it creates a sense of disturbance or affliction.

So, as human beings, as sentient beings, we are all naturally drawn towards happiness. We wish happiness and we wish to overcome suffering. We would like to avoid suffering. That is a natural disposition we all have.

And within the sphere of joyful experience, or pain and pleasure, one could say there are certain types of experiences which may be uncomfortable or painful in the short term, but in the long run it could lead to greater experiences of joy and fulfillment. Within the category of pleasurable experience, there could be certain sorts of joyful states, which in the short run could, temporarily, lead to a sense of joy or pleasure, but in the long run, it could lead to dissatisfaction or suffering.

So, one could say that there are four types of sensation: ones that are joyful in the short term and also in the long term; ones that are joyful in the short term but lead to suffering in the long term; ones which are not only painful in the short term but also in the long term; and others which are temporarily painful but in the long term lead to more joyful or lasting happiness.

Whatever we feel in the nature of experience, if it is a painful experience, it is something we instinctively want to avoid. It is something that we do not desire. And if it is a joyful experience we are naturally drown toward it and it is something that we instinctively desire. So the point that I am making here is that, insofar as the basic disposition of wanting happiness and wishing to overcome suffering is concerned, it is something that is so fundamental to all of us as sentient beings, and each of us has a right to fulfill this basic aspiration. Not only do we wish to overcome suffering, but if there is any possibility at all of remaining in a state that is totally free of suffering, then it is natural that we seek such a goal.

Now it is crucial for us to think whether or not the attainment of such lasting states of freedom from suffering is possible, and it is something that can be understood only on the basis of examining where the root or the causes of happiness and suffering lie. It is only through causal analysis that one can address this question. So, when going through such a line of thinking, then the Buddhist teachings on the Four Noble Truths becomes immediately relevant to one’s question.

The procedure of the Four Noble Truths becomes established. That is, at the first stage one must recognize the nature of suffering, to define suffering as suffering. The second stage is to then seek where the suffering comes from, where does the principle source of suffering lie. And, when you find that, then the third stage is to investigate whether or not it is possible to bring about a cessation of suffering. Once you have gained real confidence about that, then the fourth stage is to search for the way, or path, by which one can attain the cessation of suffering.

Another fact of existence is that within the spectrum of reality you find that certain phenomena or certain facts – if their causes or origins have other opposing forces or antidotes and if through the development and enhancement of those opposing forces, can the origin of suffering be diminished? We know that such facts as suffering and pain, are in some sense, occasional, that they come into being as a result of certain conditions and they come into cessation as a result of certain causal positives.

At this point, all the lights on the stage go out, along with most of the lights of the hall. The audience beings to chuckle, but the Dalai Lama continues talking.

Let us take the example of physical illness, if there are opposing forces to the conditions that lead to certain symptoms, if there are antidotes or medications which can counteract the agents that cause the illness, then there is a real chance that one can bring about a cure for that particular illness. If there are no counter-forces or antidotes which counteract the agents that lead to illness, then it would mean that once we are sick there is no chance of a cure.

In fact, many of the tasks that we engage in our everyday lives, such as the plans that we have or projects we undertake – these everyday activities require a degree of comparison and investigation into the competition between different forces of opposing elements.

The lights come back on in the hall but not on the stage.

Earlier the lights were unequal and certain parts of the hall were quite dark, but now it’s completely qualitative. [Laugher.] Except for the stage. [More laugher.]

The Dalai Lama continues to speak in the dark for several minutes before all the lights are restored.

According to Buddhism, the causal process of pain/pleasure or happiness/suffering is understood in terms of a particular kind of process. Of course, many of our experiences have their conditions in circumstances that are really immediate. However, in Buddhism, there is an appreciation of deeper underlying causes that make these immediate conditions to give rise to a certain form of experience, be it painful or joyful. And if these underlying causes are certain potentials or dispositions planted in the psyche of the individual as a result of certain deeds committed by the individual in the past, and these deeds may not be present right now but they retain their potency, retain their potential and this potential then causes immediate conditions to create either a joyful or painful experience.

Among deeds or actions – we are talking about karma now – of the individual, there might be certain types of actions or deeds that may not be potentials, may not be motivated, but occur in context of certain situations only and these may not be important. But there are many other types of actions which are motivated by certain forms of thought or intention, and these can be said to be very important, in the sense that they are motivated action. Because of these distinctions, the Buddhist scriptures mention certain types of actions, certain kinds of karma, which are definitely coming into fruition, certain types of karma that are not determined.

Given that it is on the basis of intensity and the nature of the motivation that makes a kind of action important or powerful, motivation becomes very crucial in determining the nature of the action. Therefore, when we talk about motivation, we are talking about virtuous states of mind that create virtuous actions and non-virtuous states of mind which create negative actions. Given the cardinal importance of insuring the outcome of motivation, it becomes central in Buddhist practice to target the disciplining of mind as the key objective in one’s religious life.

More to come soon . . .


Trust in Words

Like many Americans, I watched President Obama’s address to the nation Monday night about the debt ceiling crisis, and the Republican response. While there may have been some exaggerations in the President’s remarks, none really popped out at me. Perhaps that’s because of my liberal bias. I was pre-disposed to have a generally favorable view of what Obama was going to say. On the other hand, also due to my bias (at least I’m honest about it), and because after more than a few decades observing the American political scene, I have found that those on the right have a tendency to be less truthful, I was ready to play gotcha with John Boehner. And sure enough, he did not disappoint.

Boehner exaggerated when he claimed that last week’s “Cut, Cap, and Balance” Act passed the House passed “with bipartisan support.” Now, just a few hours earlier I had been watching “Hardball” with Chris Matthews when this subject came up and I remember an exchange between the host and  Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party supporter, in which it was revealed that only five Democrats voted in favor of the bill. That’s hardly what anyone would call “bipartisan.”

It reminded me of something by Chuang Tzu, the Taoist philosopher who is thought to have authored a seminal work of Chinese philosophy named after him. This is from the Burton Watson translation, found in The complete works of Chuang Tzu:

Let me tell you something else I have learned. In all human relations, if the two parties are living close to each other, they may form a bond through personal trust. But if they are far apart, they must use words to communicate their loyalty, and words must be transmitted by someone. To transmit words that are either pleasant to both parties or infuriating to both parties is one of the most difficult things in the world. Where both parties are pleased, there must be some exaggeration of the good points and where both parties are angered, there must be some exaggeration of the bad points. Anything that smacks of exaggeration is irresponsible. Where there is irresponsibility, no one will trust what is said, and when that happens, the man who is transmitting the words will be in danger. Therefore the aphorism says, ‘Transmit the established facts; do not transmit words of exaggeration.’ If you do that, you will probably come out all right.”

I don’t know what the real solution to our political deadlock is, but politicians speaking with words that can be trusted would be a great beginning.



Jung at Heart

Today is the birthday of Carl Gustav Jung, who if still alive would be 136 and no doubt one of the oldest people in the world. The famed psychologist is, as you may know, the subject of a famous song by Bob Dylan, in which the singer expresses the sentiment, “May you stay forever Jung.”

Which has no connection whatsoever to the Mott the Hoople song, “All The Jung Dudes.”

There is, however, a connection between Jung’s work and Buddhism. Jung himself once said, “The goal in psychotherapy is exactly the same as in Buddhism.” There are those who feel that Jung misunderstood Buddhist philosophy, but it is certainly clear, as Polly Young-Eisendrath writes in The Cambridge Companion to Jung: Second Edition, that

C. G. Jung was the first psychoanalyst to pay close and serious attention to Buddhism and to write commentary on his own careful readings of Buddhist texts . . .beginning with Jung’s 1939 “Foreword” to Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism . . . Jung wrote about and commented on writings from Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese sources. Bringing in both original insights and important questions, Jung’s essays formed an early backdrop for various conversations to develop between Western psychology and Buddhist practices.

The correlations between Jung’s work and Eastern philosophy (he was interested in Hindu Yoga, particularly Vendanta, both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and Taoism, especially the I Ching) is too vast a subject to handle in a blog post. My own feeling is that while he was occasionally off the mark, in general Jung’s interpretation of Eastern philosophy was, if nothing else, interesting. For example, his take on several core concepts, such as karma, that he saw as archetypes. In “Psychological Commentary on Kundalini Yoga,” Jung wrote,

There is a rich world of archetypal images in the unconscious mind, and the archetypes are conditions, laws or categories of creative fantasy, and therefore might be called the psychological equivalent of the samskara.”

Samskaras are generally regarded as “karmic formations” or karma-formed states. In Buddhism, samskara is the the fourth skandha (aggregate) and the second link in the twelve Nidanas (links), the chain of dependent arising.

Today is quite a day for birthdays: Mick Jagger (68!), Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Dorothy Hamill, Susan George, Helen Mirren (unforgettable as Jane Tennison in the “Prime Suspect” series), Dobie Gray (song “Drift Away”), Bobby Hebb (song “Sunny”), Brenton Wood (song “Gimme Little Sign”), Darlene Love (song “He’s a Rebel”), film director Stanley Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove”, “2001”, “A Clockwork Orange”), director Blake Edwards (“The Pink Panther”), comedian Gracie Allen (Burns and Allen), author Robert Graves (“I, Claudius”), Irish English novelist Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”), Pearl Buck (“The Good Earth”), George Bernard Shaw (“Pygmalion”) and Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, who wrote the following, entitled Cantares or “Songs [Machado’s Testament]”:

All goes, and all remains,

but our task is to go,
to go creating roads
roads through the sea.

My songs never chased
after glory to remain
in human memory.
I love the subtle worlds
weightless and charming,
worlds like soap-bubbles.

I like to see them, daubed
with sunlight and scarlet,
quiver, under a blue sky,
suddenly and burst…

I never chased glory.

Traveller, the road is only
your footprint, and no more;
traveller, there’s no road,
the road is your travelling.

Going becomes the road
and if you look back
you will see a path
none can tread again.

Traveller, every track
leaves its wake on the sea…

Once in this place
where bushes now have thorns
the sound of a poet’s cry was heard
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line…

The poet died far from home.
Shrouded by dust of a neighbouring land.
At his parting they heard him cry:
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line…

When the goldfinch can’t sing,
when the poet’s a wanderer,
when nothing aids our prayer.
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line.


Understanding Buddha-nature

In Japanese Buddhism one of the terms used to convey the concept of enlightenment is jobutsu, which means “to become a Buddha” or “to uncover one’s Buddha-nature.” Jo means “to open” or “uncovering” and butsu means Buddha. In a word, Jobutsu sums up Buddha-nature. It means uncovering one’s potential. This is why we say that all people inherently posses Buddha-nature, because all people have potential or the capacity to realize wisdom and overcome sufferings.

Although the concept of Buddha-nature developed from Indian Mahayana thought, there is no exact Sanskrit term for it. The term “Buddha-nature” or fo xing originated in Chinese Buddhism. The Sanskrit term that most closely matches Buddha-nature is buddha-dhatu, which is regarded as both the nature (dhatu/dharmata) and the cause (dhatu/hetu) of Buddhahood.

The history of Buddha-nature is long and complicated, but I believe I can summarize its development, insofar as I understand the concept, with the following quotes. First, from Hui-ssu of the T’ien-t’ai school:

The Mind is the same as the Mind of Pure Self, Nature, True Thusness, Dharma-body, Tathagata-Womb, Dharma-realm, and Dharma-nature.”

Hui-ssu’s student, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i later elaborated:

If one contemplates the Mind to be Buddha Nature and practices the Eightfold Noble Path, then one is capable of [attaining enlightenment]. With the understanding that all dharmas (things) originate from the Mind, [then] the Mind is the Buddha Nature.”

So, the expression “Buddha-nature” embraces many different Buddhist concepts and unifies them into a single term, which is identified with the mind. This understanding was not unique to the T’ien-t’ai tradition, for instance Ma-Tsu of the Ch’an school and Dogen of the Zen school, among others, held that “Mind is Buddha.”

Now, what is a Buddha? For that, I’ll borrow the Dalai Lama’s description from Part 3 of my transcript of his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland: “a state that is said to be where all the positive aspects of our psyche or nature have been effective.” Buddha is a state of mind or a condition of life, attained when human beings overcome the negative aspects of psyche and human nature, or we could say when the positive aspects become more powerful than the negative ones.

Because Buddha-nature is the potential we possess to elevate our condition of life, it acts as a cause for Buddhahood. Everything arises from causes. Suffering has a cause. That’s one of the Buddha’s first teachings. The primary cause for suffering is ignorance. If suffering has a cause, then whatever is the opposite of suffering must also be caused, and this opposite thing is jobutsu-tokudatsu, “to become a buddha and obtain liberation” from suffering, which is also called nirvana. It’s cause is Buddha-nature, or you could call it nirvana-nature. The name is not important.

Both suffering and nirvana are innate within living beings. The potential for suffering is always present. Likewise, the potential to overcome suffering is also present, and it is in this way I feel Buddha-nature is best understood: as potential. We have the potential to experience wisdom and happiness, just as we have the potential to experience suffering. The concept of Buddha-nature is empowering, because it reminds us that we don’t have to remain in a state of ignorance and delusion, that we have the capacity, the ability to overcome our sufferings.

It’s easy to get stuck on the extravagant language often used in Buddhist literature. If we take some of the elaborate and fantastical descriptions of Buddha-nature literally, we might get the idea that it’s an entity or some sort of mystical force, or that becoming a Buddha entails the acquisition of something new, something outside of our lives. That would be a mistaken impression. All we are talking about is uncovering our human potential. We have to be able to see beyond the poetry and mythology, or, if you will, read between the lines. Then, when we can view subjects such as Buddha-nature through a more prosaic lens, they make perfect sense.

Of course, this is just my take on things. But I’m not the only one with this view of Buddha-nature. Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When he woke up at the foot of the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha Shakyamuni said, “How strange—all beings possess in themselves the capacity to understand, the capacity to love, the capacity to be free. Everyone has that capacity, but everyone allows himself or herself to be carried away on the ocean of suffering. How strange.” This is what the Buddha declared at the moment of his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. He noticed that what we are looking for, day and night, is already there within oneself. What is beautiful, what is true, what is good, is already there in oneself. We can call it the Buddha-nature, the Buddhahood, the awakened nature, the true freedom, which is the foundation for all peace and happiness. This wonderful thing is in us, and a real teacher is someone who can help you to touch that thing in yourself, who helps give birth, to bring about the real teacher which already exists in yourself.

Here too, we should avoid a literal interpetation. No one actually knows what the Buddha said when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree. Thich Nhat Hanh is speaking metaphorically. Likewise, when we talk about “the true freedom” this does not mean one can ever escape suffering. Even buddhas experience suffering, because the potential for suffering is innate, just like the capacity for Buddhahood. Suffering does not magically disappear when you turn on the enlightenment switch. Yet we can experience freedom from the oppressive effects of suffering. We can take away the power suffering has to dominate our lives. That’s what “true freedom” means to me.

I should also mention that in the T’ien-t’ai traditon, Buddha-nature, Buddha, and Buddhahood, being three designations for the same state of mind, is “all-embracing” in that there is no duality, or discrimination in the ultimate sense. They “embrace” the negative aspects as well as the positive things. For example, a Buddha can also posses an “evil nature.”

In Thursday’s post, I mentioned that many people have some difficulty with Buddha-nature. To some, it is nothing more than another version of the God concept. I can understand to some extent how people could have that impression, but I think nothing could be further from the truth.

God has nothing to do with it. The only purpose the idea of God has in any discussion of Buddhist philosophy is to provide a contrast, which seems to be necessary because we (those of us in the West) have been indoctrinated with this concept and it is not easily dispelled. The ancient Buddhist philosophers, including the Buddha himself, had never heard of the God of Abraham or Jehovah, and it is very clear that the early Buddhists rejected the atman and absolute Brahman of the Upanishads. As the Theravada scholar Nyanaponika Thera, a Westerner, in his essay “Buddhism and the God-idea”, notes,

From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings. On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality.”

Along these lines, I am also inclined to reject the idea of “Protestant Buddhism” when it is defined as the widespread pollution of Buddhism by Judeo-Christian ideas. While there is no question that the early Westerns scholars and translators used Christian terms – such as “sin” which technically would have no place in Buddhism since it refers to a transgression against God – the notion that the infusion of Christianity into Buddhism is so pervasive that it has changed or perverted the dharma is, I think, rather dubious. But that’s another subject for another time.

The message today is simply that understanding Buddha-nature means to know that Buddhahood or enlightenment is our capacity to achieve our highest potential, and it is a potential already inherent in life. By observing the mind, we can perceive this potential and realize it, thereby awakening our Buddha-nature.