Wasted Days and Wasted Nights or Save America with a Sutra

This government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe that a minority of fanatical elected representatives have been able to wreak so much havoc, threatening to damage America’s credit, its reputation, send the economy back into a recession and imperil the global financial markets, simply in order to inflict a small wound in a President they don’t like.

The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives

At this hour (12AM PDT on Wednesday) with less than 24 hours before the deadline, it seems that House Speaker John Boehner might finally do what he could have done anytime during the past two weeks and put something on the floor of the House that would get some bipartisan support. Or maybe not. It changes every few hours.

After 16 wasted days and wasted nights, make no mistake about it, we’re at DEFCON 2.

But say a bill is passed, we’ll just end up going through all this again in a couple of months. How we can guard against the further dissolution of our precious republic?

Buddhism has an answer: Get a copy of the Sutra of Golden Light (there’s a link below), and read it aloud, in public. This sutra is supposed to protect countries, and if recited in public, it can rescue any country from any disaster. It worked in 660 CE, when the Baekje Kingdom of Korea threatened the Tang Dynasty of China. The sutra was read aloud in a court ceremony and the Tang Dynasty was protected. If enough of us do the same thing now, who knows . . ?

It’s absurd, of course. However, there are times when I wish some of the fantastic stuff in Buddhism were real, and this is one of those times. If I actually thought reading the sutra in public might end the shutdown and keep the country from going into default, I’d be down on the boulevard with a copy in my hand first thing in the morning. It’d be the bodhisattva thing to do. People are suffering from the shutdown, and if we go into default the suffering will only spread.

The Golden Light or Suvarnaprabhasa-sutra (the full title is “Golden Light of the Most Victorious Kings Sutra”) is not that well known today, but once it was a popular and influential Mahayana text.

A handscroll from 8th Century Japan, enshrined in one of the state-sponsored "Temples for the Protection of the State by the Golden Light (of the) Four Heavenly Kings"
A handscroll from 8th Century Japan, enshrined in one of the state-sponsored “Temples for the Protection of the State by the Golden Light (of the) Four Heavenly Kings”

In Japan, Buddhists really seized upon its central theme, as the ability to establish peace and security in the land, bring rain, and so on, could  make or break a religion. As a result, many Japanese Buddhists held the Golden Light Sutra on a par with the Lotus and Heart Sutras.

The Golden Light Sutra was highly esteemed in Tibet, as well. Today, some Tibetan lamas encourage followers to recite the sutra to end Chinese oppression in their land.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, head of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, states,

This text is very precious; it brings peace and happiness and is very powerful to stop violence. It gives incredible protection to the country from violence etc. By hearing this text, one’s karma gets purified.

This text increases success and, especially for leaders like kings or presidents, brings success in guiding in virtue, the path to happiness . . . In whichever country this is taught, the whole country benefits. The king of that country doesn’t get attacked and disease is eliminated, everyone is happy and the country becomes harmonious; there are no quarrels. The king gives religious freedom and is always protected by the devas. It is especially good to be read in places where there is a lot of fighting. As well, there is prosperity and rains come at the right time.”

According to Chapter 12 of the sutra, there existed a royal treatise called “Instructions concerning Divine Kings.” This treatise spells out the benefits that will come to a political leader, a country, and its citizens who uphold justice and commit themselves to leading ethical lives. Conversely, wherever justice is not upheld and ethical living is not the norm,

there will be three things: famine, thunderbolt, and death (by plague). After that there will be no [salvation] or strength in fruit or crop . . . Beings in those territories will become without prowess. Beings will become disease ridden, oppressed by various illnesses . . .”

Bad stuff. And while in our modern age we take some of the things we find in the sutras with a lot of salt, they often contain a ring of truth, and have relevance.

Now, back to the current political matter: In the history of this country perhaps only the Congressional anti-communist witch-hunts of the late 40s and early 50s match the shamefulness of the present situation. I cannot find words strong enough to condemn men and women who would put their ideologies and positions of power ahead of their responsibilities as representatives of the American people. Let us hope that Speaker Boehner can show us he does have the strength of character to do the right thing today.

The Sutra of Golden Light says,

When a leader does not perform the duty for which leadership had been conferred, he demolishes his own realm as an elephant tramples a lotus pond.”

For the Huntington Archive’s complete translation of the sutra, click here.

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“life is more true than reason will deceive”

It’s Columbus Day, when the banks and post offices are closed, and the government is shutdown (!?) in order to commemorate the anniversary of the arrival in the Americas of Christopher Columbus, who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and never copped to discovering a new land, but rather stubbornly maintained he had reached the East Indies he’d set out for, which is why he named the Indians “Indians.”

But today, I’d like to tip my hat to a man who discovered Somewhere he had never traveled gladly beyond, an epic explorer of language, that idiosyncratic navigator on the ocean of poesy – e.e. cummings. It is the 119th anniversary of his birth.

At one time, e.e. cummings was, next to Robert Frost, the most widely read poet in America. His “[in-just] spring” was the first poem I read that really suggested the possibilities of poetry to me. I think I was in the 3rd or 4th grade, and I loved the way the words were un-capitalized, run together, out of order, and arranged so unusually on the page. He has been a favorite ever since.

He wreaked havoc with the form of poetry and the structure of the sentence, he fractured spelling, ect&ect. His Influence on modern modern is immense

(an)d

since he was an irreverent kind of guy, it seems only fitting confronted as we are with the absurdity of government closed for a Federal Holiday in the midst of the Republican shutdown, to present a couple of his short poems on the subject of politics:

From Collected Poems:

economic secu
rity” is a cu
rious excu

se
(in

use among pu
rposive pu
nks) for pu

tting the arse
before the torse

From 1 X 1:

a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man

Cummings was not passionately political, however both during and following World War I, he was an outspoken pacifist, and in the 1920’s he was among the left-leaning literati of Paris’ Left Bank. By the 1930’s he became disillusioned with anything that smacked of socialism. He offered up a stark critique of the Soviet Union (calling it “Hell”) in EIMI, his 1931 prose account of a visit there. And although he shifted to the right, he was not flag-waver. He was at heart an iconoclast, a rebel poet driven to agitate against convention. A patriot, yes, but his patriotism was as unorthodox as his poetry.

In spite of the fact that his father was a Unitarian minister, or perhaps because of it, Cummings became more the ‘spiritual but not religious’ type. He almost certainly maintained a belief in some sort of God, yet as a staunch individualist, he was wary of organized religion. I don’t know if he had any encounters with Buddhism, but here is a final poem, also from 1 X 1, that has always struck me as having a somewhat Buddhist tone:

life is more true than reason will deceive
(more secret or than madness did reveal)
deeper is life than lose:higher than have
– but beauty is more each than living’s all

multiplied with infinity sans if
the mightiest meditations of mankind
cancelled are by one merely opening leaf
(beyond whose nearness there is no beyond)

or does some littler bird than eyes can learn
look up to silence and completely sing?
futures are obsolete;pasts are unborn
(here less than nothing’s more than everything)

death,as men call him,ends what they call men
– but beauty is more now than dying’s when

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Taming the Tiger: Choje Akong Rinpoche

As some of you already know, Choje Akong Rinpoche, 73, was killed this week in Chengdu, a town in southwest China. Although some news reports used the word “assassinated,” evidently the Rinpoche, his driver and his nephew, were all stabbed to death in an argument over money. Whether there is more to this or not will remain to be seen.

Akong_RinpocheAkong was a well-respected teacher, who co-founded the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West and put a great deal of energy into social activism and humanitarian efforts. He was not a monk but was recognized as a tulku, a reincarnated lama, which is the Tibetan translation of the Indian word guru, meaning “teacher.” Contrary to the popular perception, a lama is not always an ordained monk, but often are lay persons.

In 1959, Akong was among a group of 300 Tibetans who journeyed across the Himalayas to seek refuge in India. Only 13 members of the group survived. One of those survivors was the degenerate monk, Chogyam Trungpa. Both men were only 20 at the time. Some years later, the two settled in Britain and together they established Samye Ling in the Scottish lowlands, which as mentioned above was the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West.

Trungpa was installed as the head of the center, while Akong made beds and cleaned floors. But Trungpa had to leave Samye Ling in 1970 due to controversies over his predilection for underage girls and his drunken behavior. He renounced his monastic vows and split for the U.S. Akong took over in his stead and under his guidance the Samye Ling become a major Buddhist center with retreat facilities open to people of all faiths.

Choje Akong Rinpoche was a Buddhist scholar who made a significant contribution to the spread of Tibetan Buddhist teachings in the West, and also as previously noted, a great humanitarian. In 1980, he founded an international organization, ROKPA, whose aim is to improve the quality of life of impoverished people around the world irrespective of their religion, nationality or cultural background. He also went on to establish more than 100 different charitable projects in Tibet.

In his book Taming the Tiger, Akong wrote,

Taming the TigerAlthough the varieties of suffering may be many, and its intensity and degree may change, there is only one effective way of freeing ourselves from the pain of our existence, and that is to accept it. We still deal with our daily life situations but we stop trying to make the whole world conform to our desires and projections. If we are old, we come to accept being old; if we are young, we accept that too whatever the situation, we simply accept it. Once this acceptance occurs, then to a large extent we are freed from the suffering. Once we are able to let it go, it just falls away from us.”

It may not seem like it at first glance, but this is a rather profound teaching. The idea of the acceptance of suffering is counter-intuitive to our basic thinking. No one wants suffering, let alone accept it. Our instinct is to resist, or even be in denial about a situation that brings suffering to us. However, resisting and lingering in a state of denial only worsen the unhappiness.

Acceptance is what is behind the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: suffering is an unpleasant fact, an inconvenient truth. A bit further in the book, Choje Akong Rinpoche points out that accepting the fact of suffering isn’t fatalism. It does not mean surrender or apathy. It is simply accepting the reality of human existence.

As Akong wrote, “Before we can tame the tiger we must first track it down.” The Buddha tracked the tiger to a place called desire (tanha) and found that the beast was none other than our own mind, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for a sense of self, craving to be free from suffering.

There’s a old Chinese proverb that says when you ride on the back of a tiger, it is hard to dismount. I would add that it is easier to dismount a tiger is that has been tamed, than one that is wild.

The practice of acceptance is an key step in taming our unruly mind that often wishes to run away from suffering. Once we can accept suffering, then we can even welcome it, appreciate it, and come to view a time of suffering as a time for reflection on life, and a time for growth.

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It’s a Mod, Mod, Mod, Mod Buddhist World

In recent years, there’s been an on-going debate, or perhaps it should be called a discussion, over whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. I always say that while Buddhism obviously embraces both religion and philosophy, it goes beyond them. It’s a path, a Way, and I think it is unique, which I suppose makes me a believer in Buddhist exceptionalism.

My attention was drawn yesterday to a 2007 interview in Tricycle with Robert Sharf, a professor at Berkeley. Sharf has some opinions about the religion vs. philosophy controversy, and evidently he has some issues with modern Buddhism that writer Andrew Cooper sums up this way:

Sharf’s critique of Buddhist modernism stems from a belief that we cannot reduce Buddhism to a simple set of propositions and practices without in some way distorting our sense of its wholeness and complexity. For Sharf, understanding a religious tradition demands not only familiarity with contemporary practice but also a willingness to enter into dialogue with what is historically past and culturally foreign. To participate in such a dialogue we need knowledge of the context in which the tradition is embedded and an ability to see past the presuppositions of our own time and place. Clearing the ground, as it were, for this dialogue with tradition is the job of critical scholarly practice in religious life.”

I couldn’t agree more. The only problem is that most people could care less about Buddhism’s historical past, and at best have only a passing interest in its cultural roots. They may not even be interested in becoming enlightened. They just want to meditate or chant, get some peace of mind, find a tool to help cope with problems, or experience just a small measure of happiness.

MPdfr2bSo what is to be done? Tell folks they can’t meditate unless they study Buddhist history? Insist that as a qualification for becoming a Buddhist, you must master all the teachings within the tradition you’ve associated yourself with? Naturally, that’s absurd. The right approach is a Middle Way approach, one that is accommodating to the needs of different individuals and their interests. Even so, Sharf’s point about understanding the context of Buddhism should be given some deliberation.

The logic of Buddha-dharma is Eastern, and therefore, contrasts, and at times, even conflicts with with Western logical thinking. Having a sense of the historical and culture context of Buddhism helps individuals navigate through this and reduces misunderstanding. It shouldn’t be mandatory, though. People should be able to feel they can come into Buddhism without being saddled with stuff they don’t want. We need to find better ways of presenting dharma in a Western context that doesn’t leave it diluted, detoured, or destroyed.

Sharf places the bulk of his criticism of Buddhist modernism with the Buddhism of a hundred or so years ago, when it was first introduced to the West. I get the impression that he feels the major players at that time, both Eastern and Western, mishandled some of the dharma and their flawed take remains embedded with Western Buddhism today.

I agree with much of what Sharf has to say, for instance that “There is also a kind of arrogance in claiming that Buddhism is not so much a religion as it is the path to the truth behind all religions.” It’s not. All religious philosophies do not point to One truth. They are not all the same, nor all they all equal. Buddhism does not lead to the same truth as Christianity. Although there are points where they may intersect, Buddhism and Christianity are entirely different paths. I’m not sure I’d call it arrogance. Seems more like confusion to me.

On the other hand, I disagree with a number of his comments about attempts to make Buddhism compatible with science, but I also realize that it’s not important for Buddhism to be compatible with science.

On a slightly different subject, he says that “[When] we downplay ritual, we risk weakening our bonds to community and tradition. That’s a pretty major loss.” Not really. The sangha during the Buddha’s time had a terrific sense of community, and very little ritual. Most Buddhist ritualism came long after the Buddha departed the scene.

One important point Sharf makes is about the emphasis on “experience,” such as kensho, satori, realizing high states of attainment like sotapatti, or “stream entry” – experiences we can place under the heading of “sudden enlightenment.” Even though many of these concepts date back to early Buddhism, the modern preoccupation with them is a dangerous trend because it gives people the impression that meditation is a quick fix. When they find out it isn’t, they often give up. Frequently, I hear people say that meditation is boring. Yeah, it is. And hard, too. However, the point of meditation is not to have some attainment but to change yourself, to cultivate (bhavana) a better person. When people give up because it’s not easy, they miss out on the real the benefit of practice that could have been theirs.

According to Sharf, when “primacy is given to individual spiritual experience”, something is lost. Here I think he is talking about experience in a different context than that discussed in the above paragraph. And what gets lost? He says, “The sangha gets lost! The community gets lost.” Personally, I don’t feel that Buddhism is really about community. It’s about the teachings, the dharma, and the ultimate transformation of the individual who practices dharma.

lampsThis is why the Buddha taught “enlightenment by one’s own efforts” and advised his followers to “be lamps unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon any external help.” Practice must include others, but not necessarily in any organized sense, rather more in the way that one person lights a lamp within themselves, and then helps the next person light their lamp.

I’m not suggesting that community isn’t helpful, even essential, for it is difficult to maintain a practice without the camaraderie and mutual encouragement found in a sangha.

Things do get lost in modern Buddhism. Michael McGhee, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Liverpool University, who has weighed into this discussion of religion vs. philosophy with a more recent article, “Is Buddhism a religion?” makes a point about the effort to de- mythologize or secularize Buddhism that I feel is worth calling to your attention:

But it is one thing to seek to liberate Buddhist practice from unsustainable or unbelievable worldviews and another to reduce it to a mere technique, even one that is therapeutic. The usual culprit is the calming technique that makes it easier to carry out the bombing run or makes one a more sharply predatory capitalist. The reason one might want to say that meditation has been reduced to a technique is that it has lost its essential rootedness as a practice of ethical preparation.”

In my experience, ethics is an aspect of dharma that too often falls by the wayside in favor of other topics. I especially wonder about the more secular Buddhists (I don’t know if “Secular Buddhism” really exists off the Internet), and with behavioral medicine programs such as Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which I have no experience with – I wonder to what extent, if any, ethics in all the various forms of modern Buddhism is de-emphasized.

Because ethics is a synonym for morality, it has a negative connotation for many people. After all, one of the motivations for some to seek out Buddhism is frustration over the excessive moralizing of their previous religion. But we should never lose sight of the fact that Buddhism was among the first spiritual teachings in India to place an emphasis on moral conduct. It is not enough, the Buddha maintained, to merely practice meditation and reject materialism; one should also strive to lead a moral, upright life.

Ethics (sila) is one of the three pillars of Buddhism; the other two being meditation (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna). When ethics is left out, the dharma becomes lopsided.

Meditation helps balance the mind so that the influence of the roots of unwholesome mental states are counteracted. Wisdom is knowing the right thing to do, understanding the value of virtuous acts and the folly of non-virtuous ones. That, at least, is their most basic operations.

The Sanskrit word sila literally means “behavior,” and the real benefit to be derived from meditation and wisdom is a change in behavior, or in the Buddha’s words, “to avoid negative actions, and do actions that are good.” Thus, ethics in Buddhism is the result of meditation and wisdom, and without it, neither dharma nor practice is complete.

Well, that is more than enough for now. I hope I offered some thoughts worthy of your consideration, and thanks for reading The Endless Further.

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Thinking about No-thinking

“No-thought” is a concept rooted in emptiness philosophy. It is often misunderstood, not to mention misused. As a result, a misapprehension some detractors of Buddhism have is that it implies or endorses anti-intellectualism, which to me indicates a rather shallow understanding of Buddha-dharma.

Commonly associated with Ch’an/Zen, “no thought” (Ch. wu-nien; Jp. mumen) is a term that appears in Chinese translations of at least two Indian works, the Tathagatajnanamudrasamadhi and the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra*, so its origins seem to predate Chinese Buddhism. It is rendered in Sanskrit as a-manana, “not-thinking,”

IMG_3820d4Heinrich Dumoulin** points out that no-thought or non-thinking “denotes the non-clinging of the mind. The mind that does not adhere to anything is free and pure.” As usual, we need to be remember that this is said in the context of the ultimate truth. Conventionally speaking, it is impossible to find a mind that does not seize and cling to something.

So rather than a mind that is literally empty, one that excludes all thinking and conceptualization, “no-thought” or “no-mind” (Ch. wu-hsin) actually refers to an open mind, a mind not fixed or locked, unreceptive to new ideas, lacking flexibility. Alan Watts described it as “a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club.”

A natural mind, or the mind’s original nature. After all, we do not start out in life locked into specific ideas. We begin life not knowing anything, and really, open to all possibilities. “No-thought” represents a return to the purity of the child-like mind.

We also use this term or variations of it when we talk about meditation. We often describe mindfulness as no thinking, stopping of all thought. But that’s not quite correct. We can’t stop thought. We can, however, narrow its focus, and that’s all we are trying to accomplish with mindfulness. Simply narrow the scope of our thinking to our breath and the present moment for a relatively short period of time in order to calm the mind.

Recent studies have indicated that this sort of “no-thinking” in meditation is actually good for thinking. For instance, earlier this year researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara studied 48 undergraduates who were required to take either a course in nutrition or in meditation. At the end of a two week period, the students were given a GRE (Graduate Record Examination; standardized tests for graduate school application). The researchers found that the scores of the meditation-trained group improved, while the scores of the nutrition-trained group did not, suggesting that meditation aids in improving cognitive functioning.

To sum up, Buddhism values the mind, and thinking. There is no hostility toward intelligent thought. The fact of the matter is that thinking is absolutely crucial, and practical, as the Dalai Lama explained during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland in 1997, when he talked about the

three qualifications that are recommended on the part of the student in Santideva’s  ‘Four-hundred Verses on the Middle Way’, where he defines three principle characteristics that are necessary on the part of the student listening to the teachings.

One is open-mindedness. The second is intelligence, in the sense that one is able to employ his or her critical faculties. The third is that a person should have a good degree of enthusiasm and commitment.

If you lack the first qualification of objectivity, then you will be swayed by your prejudices and certain preconceptions that you may have and this would then color your judgment and you won’t be able to really appreciate what is being taught. Also, you won’t be able to engage in discourse.

The second qualification of intelligence is vitally important . . . one should be able to apply a critical faculty to be able to judge what are the definite true meaning of the texts and what are conditional, to what degree what is said explicitly in this text is contextual, relative to a particular context and cannot be applied universally across the board, or to what extent there is a deeper underlying subject matter that is being taught . . .

Without a critical faculty, one may not be able to judge the validity of what is being taught to you, especially when one comes across a teacher who either out of ignorance or pride or certain prejudices gives a teaching that is not in the true spirit of the Buddhist teachings. Then if you lack this critical ability to determine the validity of the teachings, there is a real danger of being led astray.”

– – – – – – – – – –

* Yün-Hua jan, Patterns of Chinese Assimilation of Buddhist Thought: A Comparative Study of No-Thought (Wu-Nien) in Indian and Chinese Texts, Journal of Oriental Studies, v.24 n.1 (1986)

** Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Buddhism: a History: India and China, World Wisdom, Inc, 2005

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