Meaningful Life

Lama Govinda, whose book The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism is the definitive book on the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, and certainly one of the most important modern books about Buddhist practice, wrote this in another of his works,*

In Buddhism, the question was never raised as to whether life in itself has a meaning of its own or not: from the point of view of the Dharma this is a meaningless question. The important thing for the practice of Dharma is that each of us should give his own life an individual meaning. Just as in the hands of an inspired artist a worthless lump of clay can turn into a priceless work of art, so we too should try similarly to form the existing “clay” of our lives into something of value, instead of bewailing the worthlessness of life. Our life, and the world, have just as much “meaning” as we ascribe to them and put into them.”

No one and nothing can give your life meaning. You have to create it for yourself. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to develop your own life and discover its meaning. This is not an easy thing. There are times when the meaning of our life has to be forged like iron, or fought for by battling with ourselves. It’s not only ignorance about where the source for a meaningful life is found (within), but we must also deal with our arrogance, our fears, and habitual life tendencies.   

These are mental afflictions, and since we the change we are trying to forge within ourselves is so great, we can’t relax in the fight to win over ourselves.

I heard the Dalai Lama once say, “Those who battle against mental afflictions are true heroes.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Lama Anagarika Govinda, A Living Buddhist for the West, Shambhala, 1989


China the Unbeautiful


The photo on the right is of the roof of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet, founded by King Songtsan Gampo in 642. Atisha, the famous Buddhist master, taught there in the 11th century. The temple is considered the most sacred site in Tibetan Buddhism, a key destination for Buddhist pilgrims who journey to the capitol. Jokhang’s architectural style is a beautiful mix of Indian vihara, Chinese Tang Dynasty, and Nepalese designs. In 1966, during the Cultural revolution, thousands of Chinese youth attacked and sacked Jokhang and adjoining Ramoche temple. Thousands of Buddhist scriptures were looted and burned. But Jokhang survived.

Now, Chinese authorities are demolishing it.

I was alerted to this article by a post a reader of The Endless Further made on Reddit. The article states that “Chinese authorities are planning to destroy the ancient Buddhist capital of Lhasa, and replace it with a tourist city similar to Lijiang,” which was renamed “Shangri-La” to attract tourists.

It’s sad. It’s outrageous. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

In Feburary, Phagmo Dhondup, a Tibetan man in his 20s, met a friend at a restaurant in eastern Tibet. He reportedly told this friend, “If Tibet does not get its freedom and independence, China will annihilate Tibetan culture and tradition.”

Should independence ever come, it will surely be too late for Lhasa.

Later that day Phagmo Dhondup drank a bottle and a half of kerosene, went to the ancient Jhakhyung Monastery, doused himself with the remaining kerosene and set himself on fire.

There are plenty of reasons to have a beef with China: its abysmal record on human rights; it’s unfair economic policies, including the currency manipulation, a major reason for our growing trade deficit with that nation which in turn has caused the U.S. to hemorrhage millions of jobs; the conservative stance on multilateral environmental processes; piracy of Western products and theft of intellectual property – the list goes on and on . . .

Both in governmental policy and in business, China acts as though it does not have to play by the same rules others do. One particularly egregious practice is the way Chinese web service companies bombard servers with their hyper-aggressive spiders, hitting websites with thousands of requests per second, eating precious resources such as bandwidth. This has become such a problem on this blog, that I have had to ban the entire country of China.

The U.S., too, at times has acted as though we could play by different rules, and we have plenty of human rights abuses in our past, but we have learned better. In the 21st century, there is no excuse for ethnic cleansing or the destruction of an entire culture.

How a country with such a beautiful heritage became so ugly is something I know there are answers for, but nonetheless it baffles me.

Let China sleep, for when she awakes, she will shake the world.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Six decades ago, as Mao’s Communists seized power, the question in Washington was, ‘Who lost China?’ Now, as his capitalist descendants stand astride the world stage and Washington worries about decline, it seems to be, ‘Who lost America?'”

Eric Liu

Tibet’s recent history is that of a holocaust in which ideological conquest took the lives of 1.2 million Tibetans, one-sixth of the population; destroyed 6,250 monasteries, the repositories of 1,300 of higher Tibetan civilization; and decimated the forests and wildlife of a previously protected ecology the size of Western Europe.”

John Avedon, In Exile from the Land of Snows

Photo credit: Antoine Taveneaux


Flower Dharma

butterfly-dragonflyButterflies drink deep of the
Flowers, and the dragonflies
Dipping the surface of the
Water again and again.
I cry out to the Spring wind,
And the light and the passing hours,
We enjoy life such a little
While, why should men cross each other?

– Tu Fu (translated by Kenneth Rexroth)

In Southern California, we have flowers all year long. Still, springtime brings its special ones, like the wildflowers that decorate the sand dunes along the coast and the chaparral, and carpet the desert, and soon in the cities, the jacaranda trees will blossom in purple splendor. Occasionally, I see a butterfly, usually a Monarch, fluttering in the air, but for some reason butterflies seem rare these days, and I can’t remember when I last saw a dragonfly.

At least we have a multitude of flowers and in so many different colors. They represent not only beauty, but serenity and hope. Once, there was a language of flowers, called floriography. It was way of communication during the Victorian-era in which messages were sent, using a variety of flowers and floral arrangements as a code to express thoughts and feelings that could not be said with spoken words.The language of flowers is thought to be a dead language, but I think we still converse in it from time to time.

In this violent, sometimes ugly world, flowers brighten our hearts. Tu Fu’s line about why should men cross each other reminds me of Martin Richard, one of the victims of the Boston bombing, and the photograph where he holds a sign that reads “No more hurting people.”

We cannot hide from the suffering and sadness around us. It’s no good wishing it would go away. It won’t.

But we can appreciate the beauty of the world, especially the tender and delicate flowers of spring, and let them remind us of compassion and joy. We can even try to emulate them.

IMG_3686b2cFlowers need the sun for sustenance, to grown and carry out life’s activities.

Buddhism has often been compared to the sun, and we, human beings, to flowers, which rise up from the dirt of suffering to blossom and flourish in the garden of life. We need sustenance, too, to carry out life’s activities.

Be like the flowers and bend to the sun.

Put your heart in the sun and the sun in your heart.  


When God Moves To Another Star

Tagore in 1925 - note the Buddha statues in the background
Tagore in 1925 – note the Buddha statues in the background

Today is the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and philosopher whose phrase “the Endless Further” I borrowed for the title of this blog. Tagore was not a Buddhist per se, but he had great respect for the Buddha and his teachings. In Rabindranath Tagore His Life and Work, historian and translator Edward John Thompson, wrote, “He [Tagore] is almost more Buddhist than he is in sympathy with many forms of Hinduism that are most popular in his native Bengal.”

In The Religion of Man, Tagore wrote of our “constant struggle for a great Further.” This “further” is not mere knowledge, for as Tagore explained, “the further world of freedom awaits us there where we reach truth, not through feeling it by our senses or knowing it by our reason, but through the union of perfect sympathy.” By union, Tagore meant realizing the “eternal” within one’s own life. He called it an “inner inter-relationship.”

Although he often referred to God, Tagore’s God was different from our common conception. In The Religion of Man, he also talked about the “idea of the humanity of our God, or the divinity of Man the Eternal.” For Tagore, God was a “divine principle of unity,” the inner inter-relationship previously mentioned. Within this ideal of unity, we realize the infinite within life and appreciate the boundlessness of human love: “The unity becomes not a mere subjective idea, but an energizing truth. Whatever name may be given to it, and whatever form it symbolizes, the consciousness of this unity is spiritual, and our effort to be true to it is our religion.”

Tagore described his personal faith as “a poet’s religion.” I suspect he intended to mean that whatever one conceived as the Ultimate was ineffable and therefore expressible only through a language resembling poetry. The freedom mentioned above “is for expressing the infinite; it imposes limits in its works, not to keep them in permanence but to break them over and over again, and to reveal the endless in unending surprises.” As well, it is freedom from the bondage of suffering, or experiencing the infinite.

In experiencing the infinite, an individual is only realizing his or her own true nature, for we are already infinite in the sense that we participate in the timelessness of time. Our lives are moments in that time, and the space we occupy is a particle of infinite space. We are a part of the infinite, but we cannot be the whole of it, and whether we call the whole of everything – time, space, life – Ultimate Reality or give it the name of God, our journey to realize it will always remain incomplete.

In a story attributed to Tagore, a man goes searching for God, a search he has been on since the beginning of existence. Once in a while, he sees God on a faraway star, but by the time he reaches the star, God has moved to another star. This symbolizes the futility of searching for God or the Ultimate Reality outside of our lives, and trying to conceive God as a being or even as Being. The infinite is infinite, God is everywhere, as is Buddha, which is just a name for awakening, and the Ultimate is ultimately unknowable. Yet this does not negate the value of the journey, the searching.

In his collection of poetry, Gitanjali, Tagore wrote,

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said `Here art thou!’
The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt into tears of a thousand
streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’

Without the search, without wayfaring, we can never know ourselves, and least that much we can know. We search for unity with the infinite within ourselves. We maintain “the search, enjoy the very journey, the pilgrimage” understanding that it too is infinite, and will remain incomplete, never exhausted, and that the union we seek is a continuous coalesce.

The searching is our religion, and you can give it any name, call it God if you wish, but know that God is the Endless Further.


Nagarjuna and the Elixir of Invisibility

Update: This is a re-telling of an ancient legend from Buddhism patriarchal past, a time when attitudes about sex were quite different than they are today. It has been toned down from the original tale and retold in modern language with a lean towards satire. It’s mythological, part of the “Nagarjuna legend,” and completely implausible. It is not meant to condone or excuse sexual misconduct in any way.

Today’s post is a repeat from September of last year, with some revisions. It’s a story in which Nagarjuna learns how to become invisible, culled from a text that was translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva sometime in the early 5th century, and modified to fit what we call the “modern vernacular.” I’ve also added a few bad puns.

Sometime back, I said that Nagarjuna was a badass. If you don’t know this story, then you don’t know the half of it. Now, I don’t want to say that he was also a juvenile delinquent, but . . .

According to this account, Nagarjuna belonged to the Brahman caste. His teenage life was one of intense study, which he often found rather boring. One time he got together with three of his friends and he said to them, “Are you guys as bored as I am? Haven’t we learned just about every truth there is and uncovered every bit of wisdom to be uncovered? We could use some fun, you know? Let’s go find a alchemist and learn how to make ourselves invisible.” His friends thought it was a cool idea.

They found a alchemist, a certain Professor McGargle, and asked him to give them a formula for invisibility. As it turned out, this alchemist was more of huckster than anything else. He was such a slick salesman that, as they say, he could sell ice to Eskimos. And yet, he did have some skills in mixing up magic potions.

The alchemist Nagarjuna met bore an uncanny resemblance to W.C. Fields
The alchemist Nagarjuna met bore an uncanny resemblance to W.C. Fields

Although he realized that the four boys possessed practically every knowledge that was known, Professor McGargle still pegged them for suckers. After all, a sucker is reborn every minute. He figured that if he just gave them a magic formula, they would leave and never return, and then he wouldn’t make much money off them. So, he decided to prepare a formula in advance and call it “Professor McGargle’s Patented Magic Invisibility Elixir.”

He said, “Here you are, boys. This stuff is good for man and beast, guaranteed not only to enable invisibility, but it will also grow hair and remove warts! The first bottle’s free. Of course, if you run out and need some more, I will be obliged to pass on a small charge. The overhead in the alchemy business is pretty high, you know.”

Nagarjuna unscrewed the cap, took one sniff, and then read off to the alchemist each of the seventy ingredients in the elixir. McGargle was flabbergasted. He said, “Sufferin’ sciatica! How did you figure it out?” To which, Nagarjuna replied, “Nothing to it. I’m smarter than your average teenage Brahman.” McGargle thought to himself, “I gotta get a better elixir, or find dumber marks.”

Ancient painting of Nagarjuna and his friends climbing the palace stairs.

Nagarjuna and his friends, now in possession of the bottle of invisibility elixir and with the knowledge of how to make more, indulged themselves. They were getting into all kinds of mischief. Since they were invisible while engaging in their hijinks, they felt confident they wouldn’t get caught. Eventually, they started going over to the king’s palace whenever they wanted and having sex with the women in the king’s harem. This went on for about three months and then some of the women became pregnant. Evidently, these girls didn’t mind having lovers whom they couldn’t see.

The king was perplexed. His security was very tight and he thought it impossible for anyone to sneak in and fool around with his harem girls. He brought his advisers together and asked, “What the hell is going on here?”

One of the advisers said, “Your majesty, a few months ago there was a alchemist around town selling various magic elixirs. Personally, I thought he was little more than a snake-oil salesman, but you never know, he might have been the real deal. Perhaps he had a formula for invisibility that he sold to someone and they’ve been using it to get in and screw around with your girls.”

The king said, “Well, however they’re doing it, we have to get these guys. Any ideas?”

The adviser said, “Well, we can sprinkle some dirt around the doors and on the floor beneath the windows. If they are demons, there will no footprints and there’s not much we can do about it. But, if they are merely bewitched or using some magical potion, they are bound to leave footprints behind and we can catch them.”

“Sounds like a plan,” the king said, and he commanded that they put it in action.

The next night, a guard noticed the footprints and alerted the king who called out all the other guards and ordered them to storm the harem rooms waving their swords in every direction. Nagarjuna’s three friends were beheaded. Nagarjuna escaped by standing next to the king, as he knew no one would wield a sword anywhere near his head.  And that is how he cheated death and his karma.

Afterward, Nagarjuna “awoke to the truth that desire is the origin of suffering and the root of the crowd of calamities, and that from this comes moral ruin and bodily peril.” He resolved then to become a Buddhist and master all of the 80,000-dharma teachings.

From “A Youthful Adventure” in “The Chinese Life of Nagarjuna” by Roger Corless, Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Princeton, 1995