Back from the Brink and I Feel Fine

I have returned from my chemo treatment and I feel fine. It was not nearly as horrible and painful as I thought it would be. No after effects so far, except for a some slight pain in the groin area where they inserted the needle and a tube that went from my femoral artery to the aorta and then to the hepatic artery.

Now, the hospital stay itself was another matter. You’ve heard of General Hospital. Well, this place could be called General Confusion Hospital. Three different departments were overseeing my stay and treatment and none of them communicating with each other. I will spare you the gory details.

I may offer a longer post at a future date about this experience. But for now I will keep it short. No one gets much sleep in hospitals they say. That was true for me and although I feel good physically, I am pretty tired. And the idea of sleeping in my own bed tonight, that is long enough for my legs, and has the right number of pillows to support my head and back, seems like a slice of nirvana.

Actually, a lot of what I would have to say about the last three days is summed up in this post from June, Cultivating Appreciation for Suffering, which I wish I had printed out and taken with me to the hospital. I could have used the reminder.

Thank you so much for the thoughtful comments offering well-wishes and support sent in response to the last post. It means a lot to me.


My Front Pages

Yesterday, Sept. 25th, marked the 28th anniversary of the day I became a Buddhist. I received gojukai (“receiving the precept”), the equivalent of going for refuge in the Nichiren tradition, on a bright and warm Sunday morning in 1983 at Myoho-ji in Etiwanda, California. I do not mark the occasion as the day I took faith in Buddhism, but rather the day I made a determination to practice Buddhism.  Although, to be honest, at the time, I wasn’t too sure what I was doing.

The reason I put such a great emphasis on practice is because, and this may surprise some people, practice was the drumbeat of the Soka Gakkai. The motto was always: Practice first!

I wouldn’t try to tell anyone that my practice has been perfect. And I wouldn’t trust anyone who tried to tell me the same about their practice. I learned early on not to look for saints, or try to be one.

I call myself a Buddhist. It’s just a label but I’m proud to wear it. If asked to expand on that designation, I will say that in general I follow Mahayana Buddhism or that I am a non-sectarian Buddhist. Otherwise, I’m not too interested in labeling myself further.

Since leaving the tradition I joined all those years ago, I have thought that the non-sectarian approach was a very good thing, and perhaps even the wave of the future. I envisioned Buddhists of all stripes coming together, transcending sectarian differences, and fashioning a sort of holistic Buddhism here in the West.

It seems to me that we’re headed in the opposite direction. That’s why I don’t have much use for Engaged Buddhism, Integral Buddhism, Existential Buddhism, Secular Buddhism, Speculative Non-Buddhism, Humanistic Buddhism, Post-traditional Buddhism, Neo-Buddhism, Protestant Buddhism, True Buddhism, Rebel Buddhism, Consensus Buddhism, Practical Dharma, Living Dharma, Buddhist Geeks, Dharma Punx, etc. More labels. More “isms” to splinter the Buddha-dharma further.  It’s far too splintered already. Why is simply being a Buddhist not enough?

I think it’s great that Buddhism comes in many flavors. I just don’t feel it’s necessary to give each one a brand name.

I don’t see Buddhism as a faith, a religion, or psychotherapy, although I recognize it has elements of those things. I see Buddhism as a path, a Way (Ch. tao, Jp. do), something we do not have a category for in the West, something that inevitably embraces all the “isms” listed above, if you are open to it.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to provide an alternative to some trends that bothered me. I wanted to show people that there is a way to view Buddhism that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, ala Stephen Batchelor, and that it is possible to introduce change and innovation without redesigning the dharma-wheel. I didn’t intend to make a big splash, and I haven’t.

I also wanted to use the blog as an outlet for expression. In that regard, it has served its purpose. Nevertheless, as much as I have enjoyed blogging overall, occasionally it has been a chore, and it’s taken up time that should have been spent on other projects, or practicing Buddhism. Lately, I have not felt much like blogging.

Tomorrow, I go into the hospital for several days to receive chemotherapy treatment. When I return, I will put up a post informing anyone who is interested how it went. Sometime after that, I may resume regular blogging, but maybe not. Who knows?

I am not looking forward to this treatment (understatement of the year). This past week, I have revved up my meditation and chanting, and tried to get myself into a peaceful and confident state of mind, but without a great deal of success. I thought maybe my practice was too rusty. Maybe I was not determined enough, not trying hard enough. I couldn’t stop obsessing on my suffering.

Then, Saturday, I read this post at Ben Harper’s blog, One Time, One Meeting. It was one of those V-8 moments. All along, I had been missing one critical ingredient. So focused was I on my own suffering (or the prospect of it) that I had forgotten about the suffering of others. You can read the comment I left in which I explain to Ben how his post turned me around.

The two most important things I have learned in my 28 years as a Buddhist is that to find the real value of Buddhism you must practice, and that means practice for oneself and others. After all these years, I still need to improve in both departments, but I’m trying, and being a “lifetime beginner”, I am still learning.


In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
In the instant that I preach
My pathway led by confusion boats
Mutiny from stern to bow
Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now

– Bob Dylan

Joan Osborne and Jackson Brown sing “My Back Pages”:


Autumn Evening

The first evening of Autumn: beautiful twilight but I missed seeing the satellite flash across the southern sky. This view is Northwest, toward Malibu and the Pacific Ocean.

Surprised By Evening

There is unknown dust that is near us,
Waves breaking on shores just over the hill,
Trees full of birds that we have never seen,
Nets drawn down with dark fish.

The evening arrives; we look up and it is there,
It has come through the nets of the stars,
Through the tissues of the grasses,
Walking quietly over the asylums of the waters.

The day shall never end we think;
We have hair that seems born for the daylight;
But, at last, the quiet waters of the night will rise,
And our skin shall see far off, as it does under water.

Robert Bly


The Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna Part 12

For the sake of some readers, I thought it might facilitate understanding to provide a bit of background to today’s presentation of the Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna.

He refers to the 12-link chain of Dependent Origination (pratitya-samutpada). This doctrine is one of Buddhism’s core concepts, thought to have been taught by the historical Buddha himself. It describes the way existence characterized by suffering comes into being. Essentially, it is the Buddhist conception of how Samsara, the world of birth and death, the mundane world we live in, “works.”

Dependent Origination is envisioned as a chain of causes and conditions with 12 links: the fundamental state of being is (1) ignorance, which gives rise to (2) volition, which conditions (3) consciousness, which is joined to (4) name-form (the psycho-physical entity); then the (5) six-senses are activated, and they come into (6) contact with objects of desire, and as a result, (7) feeling, (8) craving, and (9) grasping arise; all of these factors cause and further condition the (10) becoming of life; and all that is becoming is subject to (11) birth, (12) old age and death.

According to Dependent Origination, all persons are interrelated through these causes and conditions, so there is no independent self-being or self-essence to be seized.

Early Buddhism accepted the selflessness of the person but not of phenomena since they promoted the idea of “dharmas” (or things) as pieces of existence that were atom-like particles. While there was some difference of opinion within the Madhyamaka school and Mahayana early on, in general the Mahayana branch of Buddhism acknowledges the selflessness, or emptiness, or both the person and phenomena.

The Dalai Lama launches into a discussion of the degrees of subtlety of these two selflessnesses or emptinesses. As far as I understand this discussion proceeds within the context of consciousness, which in Madhyamaka consists of three levels: gross (or coarse), subtle, and extremely subtle. Gross consciousness is limited to the senses. Subtle consciousness is cognition and the mind dealing with concepts, forming judgments, etc. Extremely subtle consciousness is nonconceptual in nature and is said to be “clear light”.

There’s also a reference to Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas. In early Buddhism these were considered as different stages of the path. The Sravaka or “voice-hearers” are disciples. This is the level of “stream entry”; they have entered the stream that flows to nirvana.  Pratyeka-buddhas are private or lone buddhas, who realize awakening on an individual or solitary basis. In Mayahana, Sravaka and Pratyeka-buddhas are viewed more as separate vehicles or ways, and are contrasted with the Bodhisattva, which is considered to be a higher path. The Bodhisattva vehicle also has various levels or stages (bhumi).

With that out of the way, we wrap up the morning session of the second day of the teachings.

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

June 5-8, 1997

Part XII

Verse 31 reads:

Depending upon a mirror,
the reflection of one’s face
is seen, but it does not
ultimately exist at all.

In verse 35, The Precious Garland argues that without the existence of the physical and mental aggregates, the natural sense of “I” cannot arise. In the next verses, Nagarjuna explains why:

With these three phases mutually causing each other,
the circle of samsara whirls around,
like the circle (formed by a whirling torch)
without beginning, middle or end.

But that (samsaric process) is not attained from itself,
from something else, or from both; nor is it attained in the three times.
Therefore, (for one who knows this) the fixation on “I” ceases,
and hence also karma and birth.

[The three times: past, present, and future]

True understand of no-self of person requires a deep understanding of phenomena. This is because the natural thought of “I” or “I am” cannot arise independently of the physical and mental aggregates. Therefore, what Nagarjuna is suggesting is that so long as one subscribes to a belief in selfhood, there is no possibility of arriving at true insight into emptiness.

This passage seems to reinforce the Madhyamaka-Prasangika [a sub-school of the Madhyamaka; also refers to the ‘reductio ad absurdum’ argumentation used by the Madhyamaka schools]. So far as the true selflessness is concerned there is no real difference in terms of subtlety. The difference really lies in the difference of the object in which the two selves are presented, no-self of person is the emptiness of the person. No-self of phenomena is the emptiness of phenomena. So far as the selfhood that is being negated, there is no real difference between selfhood of person and selfhood of phenomena. And this difference reinforces the Madhyamaka position against, or in contrast, to other interpretations of Nagarjuna, where there is an acceptance of the real substantive difference between the no-self of person and the no-self of phenomena, in that the no-self of person is understood in terms of negation of self as a substantial reality rather than self as devoid of intrinsic reality and there is no-self of phenomena  – it is posited differently. So it seems that this passage from The Precious Garland supports the Prasangika, in as far as the two selves are concerned, there is no difference in subtlety.

Of course, there are very important commentators of Nagarjuna, such as Bhavavineka, a Madhyamaka philosopher who read Nagarjuna in a different way.  For example, Bhavavineka accepts that there is no real substantive difference between no-self of person and no-self of phenomena, but there is a difference in subtlety. There is also a difference of subtlety of the two forms of grasping – grasping at selfhood of person and grasping at selfhood of phenomena – given that one of the implications of that kind of position is to accept that the root of unenlightened existence, the root of samsara, is really the grasping at the selfhood of the person, not the selfhood of phenomena. Therefore, in order to obtain liberation from samsara, we need to gain insight into the no-self of phenomena. According to Bhavavineka, it is perceived that the insight into the no-self of phenomena is more related to the attainment of omniscient states, than attainment of liberation from samsara.

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Layers of Emptiness

I had intended to post another installment of the Dalai Lama’s commentary on The Precious Garland today, but I thought I would slip this in beforehand because it has some relevance. I read on Brad Warner’s blog that Nishijima Roshi in his translation of Nagarjuna’s “Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” (Mulamadhyamaka-karika), uses “the balanced state” for the Sanskrit word shunyata, which most of us know as “emptiness.” Some people may find it confounding. I like it.

Apparently, Nishijima is quite aware that “emptiness is the accepted translation of shunyata” but he feels it does not convey Nagarjuna’s full meaning. I think “the balanced state” is consistent with Nagarjuna’s conception of shunyata, or sunyata. But it doesn’t capture the full scope of the concept either. No one phrase or word can. I do feel that it gets a bit confusing to use a variety of different words for any single Buddhist term, but that is a personal preference. Emptiness seems good enough, as long as we understand that when we use that word in a Buddhist context, it has several layers of meaning.

Sunya, a Sanskrit word, literally means “zero” or “nothing.” In some cases, this gives the mistaken impression that sunyata means “nothingness”, but it doesn’t. Not quite. Wikipedia says, “Sunya comes from the root svi, meaning swollen, plus –ta -ness, therefore hollow ( – ness).” For this reason, sometimes “void” or “voidness” is used.

Nishijima is not out on a limb all by himself with “the balanced state.” Dr. Venkata Ramanan, in his work, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, uses a number of definations for sunyata: as “devoidness”; “as the essential (mundane as well as ultimate) nature of things”; “as criticism that lays bare the truth of things”; “as non-substantiality, nonultimacy, conditionness, and relativity of things”; “as the indeterminate, unconditioned, undivided, unutterable nature of reality”; “as Nirvana”; “as samata (sameness)”; and “as harmony, integration, non-exclusivness.”

And they are all correct.

Another term Ramanan uses in association with sunyata, one that seems similar to Nishijima’s “balanced state”, is “the undivided being.” Ramanan writes,

The ultimate nature of man is the undivided being: In regard to the nature and destiny of the human individual, this has the profound significance that man as a specific, determinate individual is not absolutely confined to his determinate nature. As an individual, man is essentially related to the rest of the world. He is also not apart from the indeterminate reality which is the ultimate ground of his very being. and in his ultimate nature man is himself the indeterminate, unconditioned reality, the undivided being. The ultimate meaning of the sense of lack, the sense of devoidness (sunyata), which is the thirst for the real [dharmaisana or ‘seeking, longing’], Nagarjuna would say, lies in the realization of this real nature of oneself.”

Since I have not read Nishijima’s work, which I gather will be published soon, I have no real idea of how he envisions “the balanced state” as sunyata, but judging merely from the words themselves, it seems that realizing this “undivided being” fully would put one in a state of balance, and as well, on The Middle Way, the balanced path, which Nagarjuna also equates with sunyata.

The most basic meaning of sunyata, however, is in the context of “svabhava-sunya” or the emptiness (absence) of self-being. In tomorrow’s post, the Dalai Lama will talk about the emptiness of self and phenomena. The Buddha in his teachings only went so far as to posit the emptiness of self. It was Nagarjuna and the Mahayana who later extended sunyata to include all phenomena.

Nishijima’s “balanced state” coincides with one other layer of meaning Nagarjuna has for sunyata, that of samata or “sameness.”


Samata: The ultimate nature of things. The svabhava-sunyata, is also called samata (sameness) to mean the essential sameness of things in their true nature . . . The bodhisattva who comprehends the essential sameness of all beings as well as of their constituent elements holds his mind ‘in balance’ and fares with equanimity of mind.”

I have always thought of sunyata or emptiness as being the great equalizer. It equalizes all people, all races, all nationalities, all concepts – everything is equally empty. Naturally, this is meant in the ultimate sense. In the mundane or conventional sense, there are of course differences between people and things. The point is that from the higher ground of transcendent wisdom, sunyata renders these differences as incidental, or actually, meaningless. Sunyata pulls the rug out from everything that can be an object to seize and cling to, and in this way, emptiness is a tool to sever the attachments born from fundamental ignorance.

There is more to say on this subject, but this will suffice for now. Sunyata is a complex term. I also like the idea of emptiness as “openness.” We cannot fit all the things in the world into nice, neat compact little boxes. Reality is open, like space, and to approach this openness, we need to be open to numerous layers of emptiness. I suppose you could say that to understand sunyata, one needs an “empty” mind.

Ramanan quotes Nagarjuna from the Treatise on the Prajna-paramita Sutra:

The samata [sameness] of all things is not made by anyone . . . not even by the Buddha. Whether there are the Buddhas or there are not the Buddhas, the true nature of all things remains eternally sunya. This svabhava-sunyata [emptiness of self-being] is itself Nirvana.”