It’s About Liberation

In his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Middle Way Treatise, Buddhapalita (470–550) stated that Nagarjuna‘s purpose for teaching pratitya-samutpada (dependent-arising) was to help all beings become liberated from suffering. Chandrakirti (600–c. 650) added a supplement to Buddhapalita’s commentary in which he reaffirmed Nagarjuna’s commitment to liberation. He said that Nagarjuna was not interested in debate or contention; rather he was only concerned about presenting teachings on reality. Chandrakirti further suggested if one guided by that understanding should expose the flaws in another’s views through the natural course of explaining the true aspect of all phenomena, there was no fault.

Nagarjuna stressed the importance of non-contentiousness (anupalambha). Buddha taught that the inclination to seize and cling was the chief source of conflict and suffering. One of the meanings, Nagarjuna gave to the Buddhist term upaya was “skillfulness of non-clinging.” That included being skillful at not clinging to views:

The wayfarer that can understand this does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.” *

This what Nagarjuna called “The State of Prajna-paramita” – the state of transcendent wisdom, freedom from conflict, the state of mind where all contention ceases. The term anupalambha, used here in the sense of “non-contentiousness”, literally means “non-observing, non-perception”, and refers to the absence of preferences and distinctions (see Seng-ts’an’s Verses on the Heart Mind).

To return to the point made by Buddhapalita and Chandrakirti, we can expand it to say that the purpose of any Buddhist teaching is liberation. The reason for discussing the true aspect of all phenomena is not to present an explanation of reality but to remove the causes for seizing and clinging.

In this way, pratitya-samutpada, the interdependency of all things, has a very practical application. In a recent book on a text by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), teacher of the First Dalai Lama, English monk Graham Woodhouse translates pratitya-samutpada as “dependent relativity.” He notes,

An object’s dependence on causes and conditions and its dependence on the viewpoint of the observer are just a couple of relationships included in the term dependent relativity. A deep acquaintance with these factors – which can be gained through meditation – will help us to handle our own temper and other’s unreliability with confidence.” **

Nonstop contention, antipathy toward the views of others, and discrimination against teachings and practices not one’s own, does nothing to relieve suffering. It only invites suffering. The diverse teachings of Buddhism are like rivers that flow into the one ocean we call “dharma.” With so many arteries feeding into this ocean, there is enough water to provide sustenance for all people and plenty of different tastes to savor.

I try to stay away from criticism on this blog, in favor of more constructive commentary. Occasionally, I do feel the need to point out something of concern, things that could use some light shed upon them, as I did in my post some months ago about Nichiren and the Soka Gakkai. One of my concerns in that case was exactly what I am talking about here, the tendency in the Nichiren tradition to criticize and dismiss other forms of Buddhism. And I felt I did that in the natural course of explaining dharma, in the manner discussed by Chandrakirti.

But I should also mention that I don’t consider this blog as a forum for me to explain anything, rather I am presenting and restating the explanations of others, teachers who have far more insight and wisdom that I possess. I have nothing particularly original to offer.

There are some on the scene today who might view the teachers whose work I mention frequently as purveyors of New-Agey Self-Help nonsense and Comfort-Food Buddhism. But much of what these folks dismiss are things that scientists and psychologists are proving with new research. For instance, BBC News reports a new study that “suggests being kind might actually be good for your mental health.”

Good mental health sounds like a key factor in relieving suffering. That’s why I am proud to fare on the way of liberation, and say, let’s have a little more kindness, and less contention.

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* K.Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass, 2002

** Graham Woodhouse and Losang Gyatso, Tsongkhapa’s Praise for Dependent Relativity, Wisdom Publications Inc, 2012


In Dreams

Mr._SandmanA candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper:
“Go to sleep, everything is alright”

And I’ll be happy in my dreams
Only in dreams
In beautiful dreams.

– Roy Orbison

Dreams. Lately I’ve had some doozys.

One that I remember in some detail was where I was in a Chinese prisoner of war camp, run by a Nazi commandant. The camp was coed. The women all lived in a house filled with dolls, and the men in a barracks. One man and woman, however, were secretly married and they kept their baby in a drawer in a table in the workhouse. The camp was going to have some kind of celebration or festival, and the married guy wanted to put a half-balloon, half-straw man underneath a merry-go-round to startle the commandant. I don’t remember what happened but after the festival was over, I was sharing a bagel with the commandant when all of the sudden a train roared out of nowhere and the commandant pushed me out of the way, saving my life. The next thing I knew a bunch of us were on a train (maybe the same one) and either I or someone else asked, “Where are we going?” and someone replied, “Nowhere, we’re just going.” Then I woke up.

Mondo bizzaro.

I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “Don’t put too much confidence in dreams.”

I’m not sure what he meant by that, but I took it literally. Many people do place great significance on interpreting and analyzing dreams. Freud was one. Edgar Cayce was another. Some people think both were quacks. I know that things we see or experience in our wakened state often suggest the dreams we dream, but I’ve always felt that trying to attach any importance to them is like being on that train in my dream, a ride to nowhere. To me, dreams are just surreal mind movies.

In Buddhism, there are various takes on dreams and their significance. Contradictory takes to some extent, and a lot of them based on superstition and myth. For instance, in the story of the Buddha’s birth, his mother was said to have dreamed of a white elephant entering her womb. She told her husband, King Suddhodana, about it and he sent for some wise men to interpret the dream. They concluded that the dream foretold the future greatness of her soon-to-be born son. Yet, in the Sutta Nipata, (IV., 14), the Buddha advises his followers not to “foretell things from dreams or signs or stars . . . nor practice quackery.”

Dreams are produced by the mind; some believe they are linked to the unconsciousness. The Buddha taught that actually all things are created by the mind, and since the mind is riddled with illusion, waking reality is little more than a dream. As the Rashtrapala Sutra tell us,

This world is all illusion, wrapped in a dream, with no self,
no being – all things are like a mirage or the moon reflected in water.”

The notion of the world wrapped in a dream is a metaphor for ordinary deluded consciousness. A person who wakes up from the dream is a Buddha, an awakened one. However, it is not wisdom that rouses us from sleep; it is suffering. One account of the Buddha’s awakening says that the first thing he realized when he awoke was the truth of suffering.

Suffering gives us the impetus to practice, while wisdom comes as a result of practice. Waking from a dream is what one Buddhist teacher has called the theme of the meditation path.

Life is a dream not in the sense that our perceived reality is a complete illusion like in a fantasy, but rather that our perceptions, our senses, and our ordinary disposition deceive and confuse us as to the true nature of reality. Thought constructions and feelings give rise to suffering.

When we do wake up and see the true reality, we should understand that in the ultimate sense there is no intrinsic difference between our “dreams” and “awakening.” As Zen Master Dogen noted in Muchu Setsumu (“On the Dream within a Dream”), “Therefore, all things, both in a dream state and in an awakened one, are manifestations of the Truth.”

Each merely reflects a different aspect of the same reality. Two sides of the same coin.

I think what the Dalai Lama was implying when he said don’t put too much confidence in dreams, is that we would be better off placing our confidence in dharma, in practice, in the potential of awakening that is always present within the mind. In the practice of Buddhism, the great challenge is to practice in the face of great difficulty and to develop a deep confidence to meet whatever happens in our lives. This means also to have confidence in our mind, for while it is the source of delusion and suffering, it is also the starting place for wisdom and awakening. Instead of trying to fathom the things produced by the mind, it is far better to fathom the mind itself.

Buddhas of the past were just people who understood the mind.”

– Son (Zen) Master Chinul


Out of the Halls of Vapor and Light

“But I still hear them walking in the trees; not speaking. Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills . . .”

– Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

September 11: the day the world changed. Some might say that is an exaggeration, that many of the consequences we associate with the 2001 attacks would have taken place anyway. Regardless, the day stands as a dark symbol of how our world has been transformed in so many ways. And none of it seems for the better.

Last year, as the United Stated commemorated the day, for the first time no special security alert was issued. However our embassy in Cairo was mobbed by protesters angry over a disgusting film that mocked Islam. In Benghazi, our consulate was attacked by terrorists. Four Americans died and another bloody symbol was born.

On this September 11th, I would like to focus on another form of symbolism, a different sort of event, one that took place 120 years ago. It was on this date in 1893 that the World Parliament of Religions convened in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Held over the course of 17 days, the Parliament was organized by a “wide spectrum of Protestant and Unitarian leaders, many of whom sought to demonstrate that the world’s religions affirmed the unity of humankind and that Christianity, ultimately, had the unique capacity to embrace this unity.” *

It was also first formal meeting between representatives of Eastern and Western religions and spiritual traditions. And, as far as I know, the first time teachers in the Japanese Buddhist traditions of Zen, Tendai, and Shingon had come to the West.

The legacy of this conference is perhaps negligible. As Richard H. Seager has written, the Parliament was an event “quickly banished from our collective memory.” ** Yet, the meeting of the twain between East and West makes it significant.

Japanese delegation.

The Japanese Buddhist delegation consisted of Soyen Shaku  (Zen), Ashitsu Jitsuzen (Tendai), Tori Horyu (Shingon), Yatsubuchi Banryu (Jodo Shinshu), and two laymen, Hirai Kinzo and Noguchi Zenshiro. I believe the only other Buddhist in attendance was H. Dharmapala, representing Sri Lanka.

All the members of the Japanese delegation were nationalists who were sympathetic towards Japan’s growing military madness, except Hirai Kinzo, who unfortunately wasted his speech at the conference trying to explain the Japanese position toward Christianity and defending  persecution of Christians during the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

For me, the most interesting presentations delivered by the Japanese Buddhists were from Soyen Shaku,  a 33 year old Roshi in the Rinzai tradition.  He prepared a speech, “The Law of Cause and Effect, as Taught by Buddha” translated into English by one of his students, a young man named D. T. Suzuki and delivered by one of the event organizers, John Henry Barrows on the 8th day of the conference, Sept. 18. Another eight days later on Sept. 26, Soyen Shaku presented another speech, this one entitled “Arbitration Instead of War.”

Soyen Shaku’s relationship with war was complicated. Some ten years after the conference, he served as a chaplain to the Japanese army during the Russo-Japanese War, and seemingly gave his full support to the aims of that conflict. The shift from advocating “universal brotherhood” to the adoption of a position that justified war from a Buddhist viewpoint is troubling. But also a subject for another post.

It is reasonable to assume that his words from “Arbitration Instead of War” in 1893  were sincere, and taken in that spirit they seem especially fitting for this September 11 in 2013:

Why does war take place? Is there no alternative but to appeal to swords? What excuse can there be? Why should men fight and kill each other over things that do not concern them? The nature of war is not acceptable at all. And why? Because it is only the ambition of a few men disturbing the social peace, the social order, against the course of truth. How great a story of dreadful wars and battles that have been fought in the world does history tell us? The perusal of those barbarous records is enough to make the blood of those who love truth, peace, and fraternity tingle and shut the book with a crying sigh!

And now we have international law which has been very successful in protecting the nations from each other and has done a great deal toward arbitration instead of war. But can we hope that this system shall be carried out on a more and more enlarged scale, so that the world will be blessed with the everlasting, glorious, bright sunshine of peace and love instead of the gloomy, cloudy weather of bloodshed, battles, and wars?

And what is gained by war? Nothing; it only means the oppression of the weak by the strong; it simply means the fighting among brothers and the shedding of human blood. The stronger gains nothing while the weaker loses everything. We very often say that we are brothers, but what a troublesome brotherhood it is where one has to be armed well against the other . . .

We are not born to fight one against another. We are born to enlighten our wisdom and cultivate our virtues according to the guidance of truth. And, happily, we see the movement toward the abolition of war and the establishment of a peace-making society . . . It is the duty of religion and of truth to attain this beautiful project of brotherhood, and is it not our duty to become the nucleus and motive power of this great plan? It is, and we must be that nucleus and power.

We must not make any distinction between race and race, between civilization and civilization, between creed and creed, and between faith and faith. You must not say “go away” because we are not Christians. You must not say ” go away because we are yellow people. All beings on the universe are in the bosom of truth. We are all sisters and brothers; we are sons and daughters of truth, and let us understand one another much better and be true sons and daughters of truth. Truth be praised!”

From Walter R. Houghton, ed., Neely’s History of The Parliament of Religions and Religious Congresses at the World’s Columbian Exposition, F. T. Neely, Chicago, 1894

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* At the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, The Pluralism Project, Harvard University.

** Richard H. Seager, The World’s Parliament of Religions: The East/West Encounter, Chicago, 1893 (Religion in North America), Indiana University Press, 2009.


Smatterings of Violence Followed by Polyphonic Interlude

burma-violenceIn the news:

Fresh sectarian violence broke out in north-western Burma Saturday when police refused to hand over a Muslim man accused of raping a Buddhist woman. Buddhist mobs burnt dozens of Muslim-owned houses and shops. The radical monk Wirathu, who calls himself the “Bin Laden of Buddhism,” claimed on his Facebook page that hundreds of people took part in the riot.

Last month, A Burmese court sentenced 25 Buddhists up to 15 years in prison for murder during a night of rioting, burning and killing in central Burma. A day earlier, a Muslim was handed a life sentence for murdering one of 43 people killed in March also in central Burma. In June, another Muslim man, 48-year-old Ne Win, whose attack on a Buddhist woman set off sectarian rioting in north-east Burma was sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Also last month, in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist mob attacked a mosque in Sri Lanka’s capital and at least 12 people were injured, the latest in Buddhist violence against Muslims there.

Violence and mob action on the part of Buddhists in Burma and Sri Lanka is reprehensible. I believe that Buddhists around the world who share this view could do a lot more to stem the tide of this violence by speaking out against it. The force of Buddhist public opinion could be a tremendous force for good. However, aside from a few token comments here and there, the world Buddhist community has remained largely silent.

In the United States, we don’t really have any sectarian violence, just the regular senseless kind: In Spencer, Oklahoma, a Buddhist monk, Weera Chulsuwan, 66, also known as “Tony the Monk,” was nearly beaten to death by two teenagers last Friday. Evidently the two youths thought Chulsuwan had money, unaware I guess that Buddhist monks are not known for carrying around large sums of dough. Chulsuwan received 15 blows to the head and face, and for over 24 hours was in and out of consciousness. In the moments following the attack, he managed to crawl several feet from his yard to his home and then had to charge his phone battery before he could call 911. He has been a monk for 30 years. The two teenagers were still at large.

Here’s something about about Tibet that is refreshingly non-violent. The UK’s Daily Mail reports that “The Rolling Stones were a huge hit when they headlined Glastonbury this summer, but an even older group were the festival’s surprise stars.” The reference is to the Gyuto Monks of Tibet who have been together for 600 years, and like the Stones, not always with the same line-up, although that may depend on your point of view about reincarnation. In any case, The Stones have only been around a mere 50 years.

gyuto-monksThe Gyuto Tantric Monastic University is a major tantric institution belonging to the Gelug tradition. Jetsun Kunga Dhondup, a disciple of the First Dalai Lama, founded the Gyuto Order in 1475. Nearly 1000 monks lived at the monastery in 1950 when Tibet was invaded by the Chinese army. In 1959, only some 60 or so were able to flee with the Dalai Lama to India.

Gyuto monks are known for their distinctive style of chanting, often referred as “overtone” but is actually polyphonic. An individual monk sings what sounds like an entire chord as opposed to a single note. A sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall brought the monks worldwide fame in 1973. This was followed by a series of recordings by David Lewiston in 1974. Since then they’d made a number of recordings, and have toured often, once in America with the Grateful Dead.

I should also mention that these guys have really deep voices. Enjoy this short taste of the Gyuto Tantric Choir:


Welcome to Electric Buddhaland

Here’s something I read yesterday at the San Francisco Chronicle:

ZenPayroll, which gives small businesses a simple system for processing payrolls, is now processing more than $100 million a year, the company said last week. Also recently: Startup Zendrive, which plans to use smartphone sensors to “take back the joy of driving,” raised $1.5 million from high-profile investors, including Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin.

Elsewhere in startup-land, there’s Zendesk (customer support), Zenefits (payroll, benefits and human resources), and Zenfolio (video hosting). Also Zendorse, Zendeals, Zencoder, ZenCash and, perhaps the crassest appropriation of a religion that eschews written texts, Zen SEO.

Those are just tech companies. There are 657 live trademarks containing the word “Zen,” according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.”

There are a number of reasons that Zen is an attractive business name. Zen is very popular, probably the most “fashionable” form of Buddhism in the West. The word Zen is short, pithy, and starts with a Z. Both Z and Q are letters that intrigue consumers the way the color red does. Zen comes with a set of images: simplicity, nothingness, style. And, Zen teachers and writers have, inadvertently I think, made Zen into something that is perceived to be outside or separate from Buddhism itself. Zen is Buddhism, but then it’s not, it’s Zen. Zen has instant name recognition and I doubt you’ll find anyone naming their payroll system BuddhistPayroll.

The merging of Zen/Buddhism with business seems to be a growing trend. I recently saw mention of a Buddhist podcast titled, “Meditation to Get Ahead.” Not sure what is meant by “get ahead,” but I think I have a clue. A recent Buddhist conference offered sessions called “Eat Me If You Wish: The Dharma of Uncertainty in Business” and “The Transmission of Mind and the Passing of Lineage via the Web.” To be fair, there were some more traditional topics covered at the conference, but those two in particular stood out to me.

Like Instant Karma, Electric Buddha’s gonna get you.

There’s also a growing market for Buddhist apps. One, “Equanimity”, a meditation timer, might be useful. But I have doubts about an android app called “Buddhist Meditation Trainer” (“your personal trainer for relaxing and enlightening meditation”) and “buddhify”, a mobile mindfulness meditation app that “increases wellbeing by teaching you mindfulness & meditation on the go.” I also have reservations about concepts such as “Contemplative Technologies” and “ReWiring Meditation for the Digital Age,” and “online sanghas.”

Guess I’m just not geek enough for the brave new world, but then geekhood is nothing I thought any regular person would want to aspire to.

As I’ve noted previously, using Eastern philosophy as key to business strategy is not new. But as I see more of this focus on Buddhism and business, I feel increasingly uneasy about it. Technology, too. Now there is nothing wrong with mixing dharma with technology, however, it seems that some folks, and they are usually newer folks to Buddhism, seem to feel that Buddhism can be technology, or maybe it’s that technology can be Buddhism. But I don’t think dharma can be reduced to an app. Or that you can have a deep, meaningful Buddhist experience via the Web. I’m afraid it’s rather delusional.

And there is something absolutely wrong-headed about turning any sort of religion or spirituality into a purely business opportunity. Spiritual hucksterism is one of the oldest professions, and people of this ilk are a dime a dozen.

Here’s an example that has been bugging me since I first saw it in June. A Buddhist meditation teacher promoting a “one-day coaching intensive workshop for anyone interested in creating an online teaching business” to be held next week in Seattle and November in NYC. At this workshop, you can “learn to teach online from four experienced teachers.” This is a truly wonderful opportunity because “Most people are waiting for someone to model the best way to claim online territory as a teacher.”

And what will you learn?

In 12 hours, you will learn: How to package and brand your offering, How to construct your offering (Webinars? Newsletter? Classes? 5-Week course? Year-long immersion?), How to market your offering,  How to choose the right platform to deliver your content, How to process online payments smoothly and securely, How to build community methodically and consistently, How to deliver your offering in an authentic and powerful way, How to create additional sources of passive income, How to manage the entire process from inception to launch, Where to find additional resources like designers, developers and virtual assistants. You will leave with: An action plan, A realistic and dynamic budget, A network of new connections to rely on as you build your business”

What missing here? What about how to help others? That is really the only reason why someone should want to teach dharma or meditation, or anything else for that matter. People certainly need to earn a living, but to embark upon the path of teaching only to make money is a blueprint for disaster, not for the teacher so much, but for the students defrauded by these predators.

Here’s some other things missing from this workshop: How to inspire. How to say committed. How to uphold values and maintain an ethical standard. How to nurture and encourage diversity. How to create a climate of trust, encourage students to learn from their mistakes, how to stimulate critical thinking . . . I feel these are just a few of the things a teacher would need to  know whether he or she plans to teach Buddhism, secular meditation, or any other spiritual path.

Of course, few of these positive, substantive qualities can be transmitted in any meaningful way in a 12-hour course. Or via the Web. And when we start talking about the Passing of Lineage over the Web – yikes!

Aw, go buddhify yourself.
Aw, go buddhify yourself.

Is this the future? Are we going to nurture a generation of spiritual hucksters? Is the emerging face of Buddhism one that thinks dharma and lineage can be transmitted with an app, a podcast?

I don’t think it’s that bad. I hope not. But it could be.

If the future of Buddhism is hucksterism and dharma as impersonal technology, then I say gimme that ole time religion, it was good enough for Buddha, it’s good enough for me.

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Photos: Electric Buddha from the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India, photographer unknown; young monk, copyright AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh