Ripples

In the Bodhicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”, Shantideva wrote,

All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others.”

When human beings think of nothing but their own cares, they become selfish and small-minded. Self-cherishing is like a cold abyss in which a person flounders, numb, without real feeling.  Many people in our modern society have lost sensitivity. They feel isolated. Alone.

Buddhism teaches that we are not isolated.

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche says,

Throw a pebble into a pond. It sends a shiver across the surface of the water. Ripples merge into one another and create new ones. Everything is inextricably interrelated.”

The Buddha said that understanding the interdependent nature of phenomena was equal to understanding the dharma itself. He taught interdependency to demonstrate how selfishness stems from the false notion that we are independent and isolated from others, and how this is the root cause of suffering. The Buddha wanted to empower people. He wanted people to understand the causes of suffering so they could change those causes, change their lives, change the world . . .

Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence… Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation…

It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Robert F. Kennedy

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A Story of Three Women Who Crossed Many Mountains

She’s a model and an actress and she’s written a book. Not a string of words that tends to stir thoughts in my mind about great literature. But, today I’d like to tell you about a possible exception. I want to tell you about a new book. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve just put it on my list. The author’s name is Yangzom Brauen. I’d never heard of her before. It seems that she is a Swiss actress and model who’s been in a number of Swiss films and on a Swiss television series.  Maybe you’ve seen her in the handful of Hollywood films she’s made: Pandorum, Cargo, Movin’ In, Aeon Flux. I haven’t.

Yangzom Brauen is no Alpine Paris Hilton, though. Not even a Swiss Snooki. This model and actress is also a political activist, and a courageous one at that. On the left is a photo of her in 2001 being arrested in Moscow for protesting the choice of China to host Olympics in 2008. Moscow is one of the last places in the world I would want to get arrested. At the time, Brauen was serv­ing as pres­i­dent of Tibetan Youth Congress in Europe. Her father is a Swiss anthropologist and her mother, a Tibetan artist.

In 2009 she published a autobiography, Eisenvogel. Apparently, it’s more than just a biography, it’s the story of three generations of Tibetan woman: Brauen’s Tibetan grandmother, her Tibetan mother, and herself. By the way, her grandmother, who’s in her 90s, is a Buddhist nun.

The book was a bestseller in Germany and Switzerland and St. Martin’s Press is publishing it here in the U.S. on September 27, 2011. Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom (translated by Katy Darbyshire) is described as “A powerful, emotional memoir and an extraordinary portrait of three generations of Tibetan women whose lives are forever changed when Chairman Mao’s Red Army crushes Tibetan independence, sending a young mother and her six-year-old daughter on a treacherous journey across the snowy Himalayas toward freedom.”

If you go the Amazon page for the book, you’ll see she’s gotten some rave reviews from the likes of the Dalai Lama, Oliver Stone, Robert Thurman and others. I ran across an excerpt of Across Many Mountains and I liked what I read. Here’s the first paragraph:

It is late autumn and the wind whistles across the dry, rocky fields and meadows. As I step out of the house a fierce gust pushes me aside, so strong that I have to tilt my body into its force. Mola stands with her legs planted wide, buttressing herself against the gale.  Mola means grandmother in Tibetan. My grandmother is a ninety-one-year-old Buddhist nun. In the tradition of all Buddhist nuns, her now snow-white hair is cropped close to her scalp, and she wears only red, orange, and yellow. Her floor-length Tibetan chupa billows out like a sail, and it takes all her concentration to keep her balance. My grandmother wants to perform kora.  For Tibetans, kora means walking around a sacred place absorbed in prayer, a kind of pilgrimage that can encompass hundreds of miles or only a few yards.”

You can read the entire except here. And learn more about Yangzom Brauen at her website.

I like simple, evocative writing and that’s what I got from the except. Across Many Rivers has been out in the UK for several months and the comments on Amazon along with several advance reviews here have been somewhat negative about the writing. But you never know. I once judged a book by its cover and it turned out to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century (Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany).

In any case, some 30 years ago I read In Exile From The Land of The Snows, John F. Avedon’s compelling, and I suspect still definitive, account of the Tibet story. I feel like its time for another one and Across Many Rivers looks promising to me. I thought I’d tell you about it, and about Yangzom Brauen. You know, just in case you’re interested . . .

2001 photo: Blick.ch/Keystone

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Killing Birth and Death

I thought there were a few things in Tuesday’s post that might raise questions in some reader’s minds. First, one might wonder if it is possible to be a “good” Buddhist if you do not totally buy into rebirth.

In Mahayana Buddhism, I’m not so sure that rebirth is presented as anything to “buy into.” Especially in the case of Nagarjuna. Here is someone who rejected assertions of both existence and non-existence, who saw all things as empty because they posses no intrinsic essence of their own, and realized that it was the tendency to find things to seize, to assert, to cling, that is the primary cause of suffering. It is difficult for me to accept that a person with such a mind would then take an absolute stand on rebirth, a theory that is really little more than rank speculation.

Rebirth has to be a metaphor. And for many other “Mahayanists” it must have been the same case. Jung might have classified rebirth as an archetype. We get confused by the translations and the layering on of our own prejudices and Western way of thinking.

I think many people misunderstand the significance of rebirth. They mistake it for an ultimate truth, when actually it belongs with the conventional truth. Teachings on rebirth are upaya or skillful means, preparatory teachings leading to the ultimate truth, which unfolds only when we free ourselves from thought constructions and “enter” into emptiness, which is neither existence nor non-existence.

We get a clue about this from K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna`s Philosophy, who notes that The Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sastra

points out that when one sees only the birth and endurance of things, then there arises the existence-view, and when one sees only the decay and death of things, there there arises the non-existence view.”

Both views, existence and non-existence, are regarded as extremes. Indeed, all views are extremes, and they are all empty. Ramanan says further that

all schools [of Buddhism] recognize the denial of views . . . and the denial of views means the denial of such view as are based on extremes, especially the extremes of externalism and negativism, both of which are traced back to the false sense of self.”

The cycle of birth and death (and rebirth) represents the continuous flow of reality in which nothing is created or destroyed, comes into existence or goes out of existence, and where neither being nor non-being are tenable, let alone the notion of self-being (svabhava). Looking at it this way, the principle of rebirth is a tool for us to use in breaking free of the notion of a self that persists eternally. Part of the key to understanding this is having a good grasp of what Buddhism means by “rebirth.” It requires some further explanation, but in short, its literal sense does not suggest that the same person is reborn.

I wonder, though, if the question of whether or not there is literal rebirth should such take up much of our time. I feel what’s more important is how birth and death plays out in our mind. Nagarjuna himself says,

The single instant of a snapping of the finger contains sixty “moments,’ and in every one of these moments there are phases of birth and death. It is by virtue of the birth of the continuity of these mental elements that is possible to know that this is the mind of greed, this is the mind of anger ect. The wayfarer comprehends the stream of birth and death of the mental elements like the flow of water or the flame of the lamp. This is known as the door to the comprehension of emptiness (sunyata).”

The challenge for us to go beyond our usual thinking processes. To think anew. To have a rebirth of thought. That’s what we really mean by putting an end to thought construction. We can’t put an end to thinking. But we can transform it, construct our thoughts differently. We can empty our mind, and open it.

If this is a subject that is of interest, you may want to check out this post from a few months back that suggests yet another practical and rational way of looking at rebirth.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt from a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh,

There is a classic Buddhist gatha:

All formations are impermanent.
They are subject to birth and death.
But remove the notions of birth and death,
and this silence is called great joy.

. . . It means you have to kill your notions of birth and death. As someone who practices the way of the Buddha, you have [a] sword . . .  which is sharp enough to remove wrong perceptions and cut through all notions, including those of birth and death . . .

The true practitioner understands real rebirth, real continuation . . .

Before you can answer the question, “What will happen to me after I die?” you need to answer another question, “What is happening to me in the present moment?” Examining this question is the essence of meditation. If we don’t know how to look deeply to what is happening to us in the here and the now, how can we know what will happen to us when we are dead?

. . . I don’t care at all what happens to me when I die . .  When I walk, I want to enjoy every step I take. I want freedom and peace and joy in every step. So joy and peace and lightness are what I produce in that moment. I have inherited it and I pass it on to other people. If someone sees me walking this way and decides to walk mindfully for him or herself, then I am reborn in him or in her right away—that’s my continuation.

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The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 8

All of Nagarjuna’s works were written in verse, though I don’t know if you could say they are poetry per se, and certainly they are not as poetic as many of Shantideva’s verses. Nagarjuna was primarily a logistician and his dialectic is often described as a form of reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”), the method of pointing out the contradictory or absurd consequences of an opponents argument. Although, Nagarjuna maintained that “If I would make any proposition whatever, then by that I would have a logical error; but I do not make a proposition, therefore I am not in error.”

Karl Jaspers wrote, “Nagarjuna strives to think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable. He knows this and tries to unsay what he has said. Consequently he moves in self-negating operations of thought.” On the surface, it appears that Nagarjuna’s logic is rather negative, however, as many have pointed out, it would be a mistake to brand it as nihilism.

Here is more of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on one of Nagarjuna’s most famous works. In this transcript, I have only included those verses that were read aloud to the audience. If you would like to read the verses the Dalai Lama refers to, or the entire work, go here. It’s not the same translation as was used at the teachings, but the differences are minor.

The Free Tibet Network has reported that Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year old Buddhist monk died Monday  after setting himself on fire in protest against the continuing Chinese crackdown on Tibetan monks. According to witnesses, as he set himself ablaze, the monk shouted, “We Tibetan people want freedom,” “Long live the Dalai Lama” and “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.”

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part VIII

In the next two verses, the text defines what are the ten non-virtuous acts: violence, theft, adultery, lying, divisive speech, harsh words, idle talk, miserliness, maliciousness, and nihilistic views. It says there are ten bright paths of action and that the reversal of the virtuous actions are the ten negative actions.

In verse 10, Nagarjuna, in addition to the list of positive actions, gives a list of another six dharmas: three dharmas of avoidance and three dharmas of acceptance [not drinking liquor, maintaining a proper occupation, abandoning harm, being respectfully generous, honoring the worthy, and cultivating love].

The point of indentifying these as the dharma here is to insure that the individual does not give any opening to negative actions or engage in negative activity. These are said to be the 16 Paramitas [Perfections], the ten positive actions plus the six dharmas, the 16 Paramitas is aimed at attaining the elevated states of existence, which means higher forms of rebirth.

Given the adoptions of these positive actions are constituted by abstaining from their opposite forces, what is important is to abstain from these negative actions throughout one’s entire life. If not, at least avoid them as much as possible. Even in the event that we find ourselves engaging in these negative actions, what is important is that we insure that our thoughts are influenced by repentance, so that we won’t take pleasure in the commitment of these deeds, so that there is no degree of indifference, because if someone has no regard for what happens in engaging in these acts, to such a person it is said that there is not even a smell of a good, practicing Buddhist.

So in verses, 11, 12, and 13, the text emphasizes the fundamental point that dharma activity by nature must be a beneficial activity. Because the essence of dharma is to be of benefit to oneself and others. If it is an activity that involves inflicting pain on others or on oneself, such forms cannot be considered as being the dharma of liberation or dharma that leads to higher forms of rebirth. In these verses, the text defines that if in engaging in such physical austerities, pain is inflicted on oneself or others, then it is not dharma at all.

Whenever I give instructions in Buddhism, I always tell people that the entire teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in two principles: one is the cultivation of the view of the interdependent nature of reality, and two is adopting a form of behavior that is not harming others. Those two principles capture the entire essence of the Buddha’s teachings.

The next set of verses address the question that sometimes one might wonder how murder and stealing and telling lies can be said to be negative in the sense that they cause pain, because certain things, which are said to be negative, can also bring a degree of satisfaction to the individual. For example, someone who has committed a murder or someone who has stolen something might, for a short time, feel satisfaction. So one could argue that these actions may not always be negative.

Nagarjuna addresses that question by showing how all these actions are negative and lead to undesirable consequences with the individual, and he suggests that in verse 18 that “prior to all of these there is a bad rebirth,” suggesting that these negative actions – if the deeds are done with strong emotion, great intensity and cool, calculated motivation, then the karmic result of these acts leads to rebirth in lower states of existence, even if one is reborn as a human being, these acts lead to undesirable consequences. This is described in verses 14 through 19.

The last verse indicates that when you refrain from these negative actions, you can have positive results, if you abstain from murder, you will have a long life span. If you abstain from violence, you will not be an object of violence.

Verse 20 of the text summarizes what is meant by negative or non-virtuous actions, and positive or virtuous karma, in terms of negative or positive in the sense that an action leads to liberation or not.

The next several verses summarizes the definition of what is meant by negative action and what is positive action, on the basis of what kind of effect it produces. Those actions which produce happiness and positive rebirth are virtuous. There are three doors from which actions are committed: body, speech, and mind. The text says that the dharmas given here are to be committed in observance of the right kind of code of ethics for body, speech, and mind. Then it reads that if one engages in such a dharmic way of life, not only will one attain higher forms of existence in the next life, but within that life one will also gain results like happiness and less suffering.

Verse 24 explains that within the realm of enlightened states, there are more elevated states of existence corresponding to the levels of consciousness and subtlety of concentration. And also there are said to be four levels of concentration and formless realms, regardless of whether or not they exist in the objective world. However, it is true as we approach deeper into the more subtle levels of consciousness there is a degree of tranquility, a corresponding level of freedom from the conceptual restlessness that seems to dominate our minds in the ordinary states of existence. So, compared to thoughts of the individual in the realm of existence, those individuals abiding in the formless realms are said to be at a level where these is a degree of tranquility and freedom from the gross levels of affliction of the mind, delusions and so on.

Within the formless states there are different levels of subtlety. For example, in the scriptures, there is a mention of a formless state which is said to be infinite space. Then the next state is infinite consciousness, which is even more subtle than infinite space, and next is the state of non-observation of nothingness, that is said to be more subtle than the state of infinite consciousness. And the highest level of formless realms is sad to be the most subtle.

The point is that as a result of engaging in different forms of concentration and absorptive meditation states of mind, one can attain corresponding subtleties of consciousness.

In the Prajna Paramita [“Transcendent Wisdom”] Sutras, there is mention of different yanas or vehicles. There’s discussion of human vehicles and deva [“radiant ones”] vehicles and Brahma [in this context, the ultimate divine reality] vehicles. And all the practices within the cultivation of these form and formless realms are said to be the Brahma vehicle, referring to levels of tranquility. The practice of the ten virtuous actions and the six dharmas that we spoke of earlier can be said to be part of the human yana or vehicle. And corresponding to the diversity of conceptual qualification, there are diverse forms of yana or existence.

Do we have the questions ready? [The answer is no]. So in that case, I will continue to read from the text and you can prepare the questions for tomorrow. You can write down the questions on a piece of paper and give them to the usher and tomorrow we will deal with them in one of the sessions.

To be continued . . .

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Where’s The Man of Steel When You Need Him?

Lane: Clark, where you going?
Kent: This is a job for Superman… I mean, I’ve got to find him.

I don’t get political on this blog too often. But like most folks these days I have been shaking my head at the current situation. Especially the last two weeks. I’ve been around a while and I have never seen such an appalling lack of leadership in our nation’s capitol. This country is in a crisis and yet no one seems to be in charge. Congress is on vacation, and President Obama might as well be, too.

Last week President Obama said “There is something wrong with our politics.”

You think?

I think that it is time to stop stating the obvious and start laying out a solution.

One conclusion I’ve come to is that is it going to be a long road to the 2012 election. A very long road. Election night 2008 I was happy Obama won but I was happier the damn thing was over. That election was a painful austerity. It felt like the longest in the history of mankind.

Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll. This one is going to be even more excruciating.

In Thursday’s Republican debate Bachmann said, “People are looking for a champion, they want someone who has been fighting.” That’s right. But please note those words come from a woman who a few seconds later patted herself on the back for passage of the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, “so people could all purchase the light bulb of their choice.”

Yes, let’s not use a more efficient light bulb, one that uses 1/5 of the energy of the traditional bulb, and saves the country $12.5 billion annually, because that’s an intrusion by big government. Sometimes I wonder what planet these people hail from.

The first time I saw Barack Obama was on the Larry King Show in 2006. I wasn’t all that impressed. He seemed like a very conventional politician with very conventional ideas. I still feel that way to some extent.

Other’s don’t. Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), said Wednesday that Obama’s was “the most anti-business and I consider anti-American administration in my lifetime.”

That’s just bad form if you ask me. You know, I didn’t agree with any of Bush’s policies but I didn’t call him anti-American. A moron, maybe. A liar and a cheat. But I never questioned his patriotism.

Obama’s really under the gun right now. He’s getting it from both the right and the left. I’m a bit frustrated with the Prez, too. Up to now, I’ve liked his style. It’s almost Zen-like. He seems to lead like a Taoist sage would, using wu-wei or non-action, avoiding confrontation, speaking carefully and thoughtfully. A nice change of pace from the previous 8 years.

But as admirable as that approach is, it doesn’t seem to be working very well. I really have no idea what goes on in his head. Sometimes I have to wonder, though, if he isn’t in a state of deep denial. Something akin to that was suggested by Ron Reagan Thursday on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews,

. . . we are in a place right now where we really need a sort of transformative leader, and that was the sort of leader that President Obama promised he would be. He talked about being a transformative president. But once he got into office, we seem to discover now that temperamentally he is unwilling to break the furniture, tip over the system that already exists here, and really get down to the brass tacks of reforming the system that we all agree is broken. He just doesn’t seem to want to do that. And you get the feeling that what we really elected was a kind of center-right politician . . .

He doesn’t seem to understand that he’s dealing with people who want nothing more than his destruction – with people who are not trying to help the American economy, at least not for the next year or so. They want the American economy to suffer for the next year so that it will hurt him. That’s the kind of game they’re playing . . . He needs to call these people out. He needs to identify them and he needs to identify their tactics and their strategy as well.

The President talks a lot about tough choices, but he doesn’t seem to want to get tough himself. Perhaps the President could learn something from one of the greatest tough guys that ever lived, Japan’s most famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi.

Musashi (c. 1584–1645) was a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wrote The Book of Five Rings, a book on strategy, tactics, and philosophy still studied today, not only by martial artists, but also throughout the business and political world. It’s considered a classic text on the subjects of leadership and management.

Mushash understood wu-wei, and he also understood that sometimes you gotta fight the fight. This is from the translation by Hidy Ochiai in A Way to Victory:

Whether a general of a foot soldier, a samurai must always carry two swords . . .

Understanding how to use each weapon correctly is crucial, as one must apply each weapon in the appropriate time and situation . . .

When you and your opponent are dragging on the fight in a particular posture, each knowing the other’s intentions, it is important that you completely change tactics in order to open the door to victory . . .

When there is no clear sign of an end to the combat between you and your opponent, you should immediately change your tactics by adopting a new and unexpected technique in order to overwhelm him.

It’s not a good idea to rely just on one sword, or one strategy. Obama doesn’t need to go after his opponents with a “ferocious personal assault,” as was reported earlier in the week. It’s not necessary to sink to their level. But it’s just common sense that if compromise and conciliation aren’t working, another approach needs to be employed.

If the President can’t change tactics, at least he could try to recapture the spirit of Obama in 2008. By the time the election was over, I was impressed with Barack Obama. I found him inspiring. His campaign was exciting. Some of his speeches, especially the one on race, were not only masterful, they were historic.

I didn’t expect Obama to be Superman, but I did expect to get a little more than I seem to be getting.  And frankly, I am not interested in seeing Obama fight for his job. I want to see him fight for our jobs.

We do need a champion. We need the Barack Obama of 2008 back again, that guy who convinced us that yes, we can, the man who said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Then what are we waiting for?

Along with some of my nutty theories, I’m also kind of proud of the fact that I can still recite this intro word for word.


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