The Buddhas of Mars

Monday, NASA’s rover on Mars, Curiosity, celebrated its one-year anniversary on the Red Planet. At this same time, there has been much talk about a mysterious finding Curiosity has sent back to Earth. Last week, the Mars mission’s project scientist, John P. Grotzinger, told NPR “This data is going to be one for the history books. It’s looking really good.” Evidently, Curiosity has its own Twitter account and it added fuel to the fire when it tweeted, “What did I discover on Mars? That rumors spread fast online. My team considers this whole mission ‘one for the history books.’ ”

When the discovery will be announced no one knows, but in meantime, as you can imagine, it has got a lot of people guessing what it might be. Some folks have suggested that perhaps Curiosity found the remains of Jimmy Hoffa. More seriously though, on Wednesday, at a conference in Rome, Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Charles Elachi said the rover might have found organic compounds on Mars. Curiosity’s primary mission is to collect organic compounds (if it finds any), which contain carbon, and that, of course, is an essential element for life. Such a find would suggest that molecular life might have existed on Mars millions of years ago.

The eminent Buddhologist, Ven. Dr. Jedi Ching-Kulreet, has stated his belief that the Mars rover has found relics of the Buddha. He recalls that back in 2004, NASA/JPL released a photo that shows a mysterious Buddha-like image among some Mars rocks:

No, I don’t see it either. It must be like the 3-D autostereogram painting that transfixed Mr. Pitt on Seinfeld.

Ven. Dr. Jedi Ching-Kulreet

But Ven. Dr. Ching-Kulreet says there is some evidence that Buddha went to Mars. Theoretical evidence, that is. He mentions that in 1922, on the night of December 22, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), founder of biodynamics, renowned scientist and respected philosopher, gave his annual lecture. However, instead of speaking on the topic of the Christmas Festival, as he had in previous years, Steiner delivered a talk in which he announced that “Buddha became a Redeemer and Savior for Mars as Christ Jesus had become for the Earth.”

It is a rather complicated story, involving not only Buddha and Jesus, but also St. Francis of Assisi, a guy named Christian Rosenkreutz, as well as something called the “Mystery of Golgotha.” If you are really bored, you can read the entire lecture here.

Rudolf Steiner

Steiner summed up his theory more succinctly in another lecture, “The Mission of Gautama Buddha on Mars”:

A Conference of the greatest and most advanced Individualities was called together by Christian Rosenkreutz. His most intimate pupil and friend, the great teacher Buddha, participated in these counsels and . . .  They decided Buddha should go to Mars and fix things . . . Buddha would dwell on Mars and there unfold his influence and activity. Buddha transferred his work to Mars in the year 1604.”

That’s pretty cool, especially when you consider by that time Buddha had been dead for over two thousand years. But, since we Buddhists are supposed to believe in rebirth and everything, I guess it’s not that fantastic.

According to Steiner, Mars was “the planet of war and conflict.” He maintained that “The souls on Mars were warlike, torn with strife.” You may ask yourself, as I did, how did Steiner know that Mars was warlike? There can be only one answer: he had been reading Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, has already begun to tell the true story of Mars (it’s real name is Barsoom) back in 1912, when he published A Princess of Mars. This book told the tale of John Carter, a Captain in the Confederate Army, who was mysteriously transported to Mars and discovered “a dying world of dry ocean beds where giant four-armed barbarians rule, of crumbling cities home to an advanced but decaying civilization, a world of strange beasts and savage combat, a world where love, honor and loyalty become the stuff of adventure. The world of Barsoom.”*

In the first book of the Mars series, Burroughs related how Carter met and fell in love with “the Princess of Mars,” Dejah Thoris (actually a Princess of Helium). This was recently the subject of a documentary motion picture entitled John Carter.

I read three or four of Burroughs’ Mars books one summer when I was about 12. I was already a major Tarzan fan (still am), and this Mars series was exciting stuff indeed. I remember how in one, perhaps The Warlord of Mars, an evil Martian scientist powered a spaceship with a human brain. Or maybe it was a Martian brain. Either way, it was pretty far out with lots of swordplay and, if memory serves, all the Martians were naked.

Now, thanks to high-level contacts I have in the government, I have obtained an advanced photo of Curiosity’s discovery:

Yes, it is a rock formation in the shape of the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris. It has an amazing resemblance to the paperback cover of one of the Mars series illustrated by the great artist Frank Frazetta. Ven. Dr. Ching-Kulreet will be disappointed, but Sci-Fi fans, and anyone who loves the work of ERB, will rejoice.

As extra special bonus for all of you who have stayed with this post thus far, I am pleased to present the original artwork for the lost 1919 John Carter novel, The Buddhas of Mars.

Unfortunately, I am not permitted to offer any excerpts from the book. Suffice to say, though, Gautama was not the only Buddha on Mars – there was a whole bunch of them! Were they good Buddhas or evil Buddhas? Did they fight on the side of John Carter and his love, Dejah Thoris, or were they the gods of the evil Rajaks, a crossbred race of Red/Green Martians? Well, it’s not for me to say. All I can tell you is that this is a Mars that never was . . .

——————

* Description of Barsoom from Tarzan.org, the official Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. website.

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Free from Desire

You’ve probably seen this comic panel around, especially on Facebook. The questioner here really has a double problem: not only does he have to contend with the desire to be free from desire, but what does he do about the desire to have his question answered?

It illustrates the conundrum we encounter when we take things so literally. I’ve heard many people ask this question about desire. One of the first things we learn about Buddhism is the idea that suffering is caused by desire (tanha) and that the way to overcome suffering is to eliminate desire.

Even if it were possible to eliminate all desire, including the desire to be free from desire, what would we have? Not a Buddha, and not a human being, and we should remember that a Buddha is nothing more than a human being who has awakened. The human element is crucial. Indeed, as a Japanese Buddhist once said, the real meaning of the historical Buddha’s appearance in this world lay in his behavior as a human being.

A Taoist text, The Book on Purity and Stillness, [1. As in Buddhism, it was a Taoist practice to produce texts and assigned their authorship to important teachers. The t’ai shang ch’ing-ching ching or “The Classic Book on Purity and Stillness” is attributed to Tai-shang Lao-chun, a deified personification of Lao-tzu, the founder of Taoism, where he is seen as the embodiment of Tao itself. However, it was likely composed by a number of anonymous authors early in the Common Era. Quotes from the text in this post are from Cultivating Stillness, Eva Wong, Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992] states,

If you are able to control desire, then the mind will be still. Clear the mind and the spirit will be pure. Accordingly, the six cravings will not emerge and the three poisons will disappear.” [2. The six cravings refer to those that arise from the six senses; the three poisons are greed, ignorance, and anger.]

Chapter 8, “The Three Obstructions”

When we understand non-duality, then we see that desire is not the problem so much as it is our attachment to desire, or rather the way in which desire controls our mind, body, and speech. So, it is really a matter of controlling desire, and the best tool we have for that is meditation.

The commentary on the text says, “Desires are egotistical cravings.” Craving is our thirst (trsna) for self-gratification. It stems from the false notion that we have a self that needs to be gratified, fed, pleasured and so on. The still mind recognizes both the emptiness of self and the emptiness of the thought of desire. Stillness means to abide in wu-chi, the state of emptiness. (Actually, wu-chi refers to the primordial state of emptiness which is said to have existed before the universe was created, so it’s really a return to that state.) Nagarjuna, in his Treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, wrote, “With the realization of emptiness, the heart becomes full and contented. No more does it have a desire to seek gratification. It is then that the mind has realized its true essence.”

Our mind is like a pond of muddy water constantly rippled by a strong wind. Meditation helps the mind lay still when the winds of desire blow. It also has the function of clearing the mind, and the commentary says, “Clearing the mind is like removing residue from water.” Yet in nature, even the clearest water has some reside within it. Without desire and imperfections, we would have no opportunity, or reason, to practice meditation. To be free from all desire would be unnatural.

All of this is difficult, as we already know. Meditation is neither a weather machine that stops wind from blowing, nor an instant purifier. For some people controlling desire and cravings is rather easy. However, most of us have to struggle against the winds of desire, and sometimes no matter what we do, we just seem to dig ourselves deeper into the mud. That is why Shunryu Suzuki once said, “We should find the truth in this world, through our difficulties, through our suffering. This is the basic teaching of Buddhism.” [3. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Weatherhill, Inc., 1970]

Practice, like life itself, is hard. For those of us who fare on the Buddha Way, what else is there?

Chapter 8 in the text on Purity and Stillness concludes with a quote,

The sages say:
Meditating in a thatched monastery is better than living in a grand building,
Slay the three guards and ascend to the ten regions.
Shun jade, jewelry, and guests with golden horses,
And bury your fancy poetry and clothing in the mountain wilderness.

——————–

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Haters gonna hate?

I can’t tell you how sick and tired I am of the petulant children of the Middle East. In years past, I was equally disgusted with folks in Northern Ireland, where at least I have some sort of link through heredity. But in the case of the Middle East, I have no real interest in that part of the world, no particular appreciation for their culture, and it’s not my Holy Land. So, when I get fed up with hearing about how these people cannot get along with other, there’s a part of me that just doesn’t give a damn.

During the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I gave up on watching CNN, which offered nothing but round the clock coverage from Gaza for the better part of a week. MSNBC is not much better. Here it is weeks after the election and they are still raking Mitt Romney over the coals. And forget about Fox. If I want fantasy, I figure I can always tune into the Sci-Fi channel.

Anyway, I thought CNN’s coverage of the situation was excessive. I suppose I resent how the players in that part of the world can so easily hold the rest of us hostage to their drama. I wonder, too, about the  enormous focus on terrorism and its agents. I know that on one hand they pose a real danger, but on the other, aren’t we just giving them what they want more than anything: attention?

I don’t know if many others feel the same way, but I have found one, Jonathan Freedland, who wrote in the Guardian:

Israelis and Palestinians seem fated to keep bleeding, locked in a battle that drags on and on, perhaps till the end of time?

And through it all is the weariness: of those living – and dying – in the conflict most of all, but also of those drawn into it somehow. I feel it myself, a deep fatigue with this struggle, with the actions of both sides and, sometimes especially, with their cheerleaders abroad.

So yes, I’m weary of those who get so much more exercised, so much more excited, by deaths in Gaza than they do by deaths in, say, Syria.”

Weariness aside, there are a few things in Freedland’s post, and other similar articles I’ve read recently, that bother me. For one thing, I wonder when people are going to get excited (not quite the right word) by deaths in Burma, Columbia, Somali, Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, Papua, and Tibet? All places outside the Middle East where military conflicts, or repression, are ongoing, some for decades now.

Secondly, I feel it’s easy to blame political leaders. To some extent, leaders are reflections of the people they represent. Here in the U.S., everyone hates Congress but we keep choosing the same folks to represent us. Until we change, Congress will not change. The same principle holds for the Middle East. The people need to change.

An Israeli spokesman said “We don’t hate Arabs.” I don’t believe that for a moment. These people, both Arab and Israeli, are bred to hate.

When I lived in New Orleans, I saw firsthand how prejudice against blacks was handed down through generations. It started at the dinner table or on the church steps after Sunday worship. The adults would make “coon” jokes or some other disparaging remarks about blacks, and the kids would pick up on those thoughts and feelings and adopt them. It was very natural. But I didn’t think like that. I was from the North and grew up in an environment that was supportive of the civil right movement. If I suggested to any of my friends who were born and raised in the South that they were prejudiced, they’d deny it. Their state of denial was as deep-seated as their bigotry was.

No one has to stick with negative attitudes. When a person becomes an adult and is exposed to information that dismantles prejudice, and they refuse to accept it, then hate becomes a choice. People can stop hating and stop passing hatred on to their children.

False beliefs cause some individuals to think there is a fundamental difference between themselves and others. However, the differences they see are superficial, illusory: ethnicity, religion, nationality, political affiliation, language – all are inconsequential in the larger view. Fear, too, has a role to play. People hold on to hate because they fear they have something to lose.

In Buddhism, we call this lack of understanding “ignorance.” It may take thousands of years before all people can dispel the ignorance that binds them to hate and prejudice. Understanding by a single person can help move us toward that future time. Making a choice not to hate by a single person can make a difference.

“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.”

– Anne Frank, victim of the Holocaust

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For Thanksgiving: Gratitude and Love

The holiday known as Thanksgiving has its origins in the harvest feast, when folks would gather together and offer grateful prayers at the end of harvest time. For many years the day was centered around feasting upon a slaughtered turkey. Nowadays the holiday seems to be focused on activities conducted the day after Thanksgiving, which has been given the ominous sounding name of Black Friday, in which people ritualistically camp out days beforehand at places called Best Buy and Walmart so that they may be among the first to trample and shove their way into the store and exercise most vulgar displays of consumerism.

Well, the original idea of giving thanks is a good one, and actually should be practiced each day of the year. Being thankful every day is a challenge, though. For many people, myself included, it’s much easier to find things to complain about every day, and that’s because we often take the good stuff in our lives for granted.

Thankfulness is not a word that you see very often in Buddhist literature, traditional or contemporary. There is a Pali word, however, which comes close: “katannuta”. It’s loosely translated as “gratitude,” while the literal meaning is “recognizing what has been done.” But we shouldn’t limit this term to just the past. We should have gratitude, or a real sense of appreciation, for everything, bad and good, in our lives both past and present. Why gratitude for the bad things? Because they teach us. We can learn from the bad as well as the good.

Here are some words by the Dalai Lama on the subject of gratitude. They come from his book “A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night”, teachings he gave on Shantideva’s “A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life”.

A good heart is the source of all happiness and joy, and we can all be good-hearted if we make an effort. But better still is to have bodhichitta [the thought of awakening], which is a good heart imbued with wisdom. It is the strong desire to attain enlightenment in order to deliver all beings from suffering and bring them to Buddhahood. This thought of helping others is rooted in compassion, which grows from a feeling of gratitude and love for beings, who are afflicted by suffering.

Traditionally there are two methods for developing this sort of care and gratitude. One is to reflect on the fact that all beings have at some time in the succession of their lives been our parents, or at least close friends, so that we naturally feel grateful to them and wish to take on their suffering in exchange for our happiness. The other method is to understand that others suffer in the same way as we do, to see that we are all equal, and to reflect on what is wrong with egotism and on the advantages of altruism. We can use whichever of these two methods suits us best or practice them both together. In either case, it is necessary first to understand what we call suffering . . .

Our own sufferings, though not felt by others, are certainly hard for us to bear. So it is natural that we should try to protect ourselves from suffering. Similarly, others’ pain, even if we do not feel it, is no less unbearable for them. But as we are related to all other beings, as we owe them our gratitude and they help us in our practice, let us try to dispel their suffering as well as ours. All beings equally want to be happy, so why should we be the only ones to get happiness? Why should we be protected from suffering and others not be?

94.

So I will dispel the pain of others,
Since pain it is, just like my own.
And others I will aid and benefit,
For they are living beings, just like me.

May you have a wonderful Thanksgiving every day!

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Presidents, Big Buddhas and Secret Buddhas

AP/Carolyn Kaster

I could be wrong about this, but I believe Barack Obama is the first sitting U.S. President to visit a Buddhist temple. Yesterday, accompanied by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the President made his first stop in Thailand at Wat Pho Royal Monastery in Bangkok. Now this didn’t amount to much more than a photo op, but some of the photos are pretty cool, like this one on the right.

That’s one big Buddha: 150 feet long, 50 feet high.

This was not Obama’s first visit to a Buddhist site. In 2010, he toured Kotoku-in, a Jodo (Pure Land) temple in Kamakura, Japan, where another big Buddha statue is located, the “Daibutsu” statue of Amida. It was actually the President’s second visit there, the first he made when he was 6 years old.

AP/Charles Dharapak

Sad to say, but I don’t expect a whole lot from the President’s historic visit to Burma. As I write this he has just arrived and is only spending six hours in the country, meeting naturally with Aung San Suu Kyi, and I’m sure that neither will have anything significant to say about the violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, and particularly not about the persecution of the latter group, which is to be expected I suppose, since the purpose of the visit is to encourage the Burmese government to continue democratic reforms. Yet there does seem to me to be some linkage.

Suu Kyi has been criticized regarding her “silence” on the issue. But, to be fair, a lot of people have been silent about this thing. I have yet to see very many Buddhists step out and suggest that Burmese Buddhists need to stop persecuting the Rohingyas. For her part, Suu Kyi recently said that the Burmese government should send troops to the Rakhine State to bring peace to that violence-stricken area. I don’t quite get that since the troops are among those who have been mistreating these poor Rohingya people.

I must sound rather pessimistic today. But I am also disheartened about our country’s lack of attention to the Tibet issue. Sunday, to protest repressive Chinese rule a 24-year old Tibetan man set himself on fire, on Saturday it was a cab driver and mother of two, last week a Western monk, and four more people the week before that. You don’t see any of this reported in the mainstream news media. No one in Washington is talking about it. I don’t see how the U.S. expects to have credibility on human rights abuses when we are so selective about the ones we denounce. If Burma or Tibet were in the Middle East you can bet Anderson Cooper would be all over it like a fly on dog doodoo.

You know, every President since George H.W. Bush has met with the Dalai Lama, and has sung his praises, but when it comes time to vocally support his cause, they have been practically mute.

Beyond occasional meetings with the Dalai Lama, connections between the U.S. Presidency and Buddhism belong pretty much to the realm of imagination. Case in point: Earlier this year, Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha by Suneel Dhand was published by Mindstir Media. The author, a physician in Florida, imagined a scenario where Jefferson had a secret Buddhist adviser and all these years later the adviser’s letters are discovered. It’s not as far fetched as it may sound, for Buddhists have been known to show up in the strangest places. Godfrey de Bouillon, for instance, the Frankish knight who was one of the leaders of the First Crusade and who became the first ruler of the “Kingdom of Jerusalem,” had a Buddhist adviser.

As far as I know there is no evidence of any real connection between Thomas Jefferson and Buddhism. But we do know that Jefferson had rather complex views on the subject of religion. In fact, some folks question whether he can be rightfully called a Christian since he did not believe in the Holy Trinity of orthodox Christianity and questioned the divinity of Jesus.

Confusion about Jefferson’s religious beliefs stem no doubt from his reluctance to discuss them publicly. He felt that religion was a private matter, and so his public remarks on the subject are few in number. However, in a letter to a Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, dated August 6, 1816, he did say this:

I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I am satisfied that yours must be an excellent religion to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be judged.”

Good words.

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