Into The Mystic (Thanksgiving Edition)

William Blake once wrote, “The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.” A good sentiment to keep in mind as we in the United States pause for Thanksgiving today. Appreciation for our many benefits, and as well, our sorrows, is an important, and often overlooked, element in the Buddhist attitude.

Speaking of William Blake, today is also the 256th anniversary of his birth. To poetry lovers, Blake needs no introduction. He is one of the greatest poets in the English language, although he was relatively unknown during his lifetime. While he lived during the Romantic Age, Blake was, to my mind, a metaphysical poet, a mystic. Considered a bit of an eccentric for his nonconformist spirit, he was also a radical thinker who associated with likes of Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame) and Thomas Paine.

Blake’s metaphysical bent and prophetic utterances make him a child of Rumi, a father of Whitman, and grandfather to Ginsberg and many others. A consistent theme in his poetry is that what we think of as ‘divine’ should not be consigned only to the lofty clouds of some heavenly place, but rather the divine exists everywhere, in everything, especially in what we call ordinary.

Here is a poem that first appeared (as a graphic plate) in Songs of Experience (1794). It’s a perfect example of how Blake explored the relationship between the human and the divine.

The Human Abstract

 Pity would be no more,
 If we did not make somebody Poor:
 And Mercy no more could be,
 If all were as happy as we;

 And mutual fear brings peace;
 Till the selfish loves increase.
 Then Cruelty knits a snare,
 And spreads his baits with care.

 He sits down with holy fears,
 And waters the ground with tears:
 Then Humility takes its root
 Underneath his foot.

 Soon spreads the dismal shade
 Of Mystery over his head;
 And the Catterpillar and Fly,
 Feed on the Mystery.

 And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
 Ruddy and sweet to eat;
 And the Raven his nest has made
 In its thickest shade.

 The Gods of the earth and sea
 Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
 But their search was all in vain:
 There grows one in the Human Brain


Buddha’s Birthplace Found?

I ran across a number of articles on the Internet about a claim that scientists have confirmed the Buddha’s birthplace and discovered the earliest Buddhist shrine. This research, published in Antiquity Journal (accessible by subscription or pay per view only) may be significant. However the headlines are a bit misleading.

It is widely held that Lumbini in Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha, and where he lived until the age of 29. There are a couple of reasons why many believe this. First, according to Buddhist tradition, his mother Maya gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree in a garden at Lumbini. Secondly, there is a marker dating from the time of King Ashoka (304–232? BCE) proclaiming Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace. Up until now, almost all so-called hard evidence we have about the Buddha’s life dates from the Ashoka period. However, as in the case of the birthplace marker, none of it is conclusive. It only tells us that this what people who lived some 2 or 3 hundred years after the Buddha believed.

Today, Lumbini is a pilgrimage site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Recently, a team of archeologists uncovered the remains of a previously unknown timber structure in the Maya Devi Temple. Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation, said in a press conference Monday, “What’s interesting is we identified a roof tile … all around the edges of the temple and not in the center. This indicated something that was very special about the center of the temple. When we started excavating we found another early temple below.”

Within this new temple, they found ancient tree roots, evidence, they say, of a “tree shrine.” Coningham links this to the story about the Buddha’s mother holding the tree branch, which seems like quite a leap of faith for a scientist to make. Not to mention that it is possible that this inner structure has nothing to do with the Buddha. However, if all this is correct, and it is at least the earliest the earliest Buddhist shrine, if not the actual birthplace, it could push the Buddha’s birth back 100 or so years to 623 BCE. It might have significant implications for historians, although that’s not something to go into today.

If you are an Antiquity Journal subscriber or have some extra $ to spend, here is a link to the report. And, if not, you can read this article from



His stewardship cruelly cut short, he left a record incomplete to such a degree that historians are reluctant to call him a great president, yet none can argue that his legacy is not immense. While living, he was beloved for the way he inspired people across the world with his youth, his vitality and his optimism. Inspiration that is still potent. The uplifting power of his presence and the values he embodied gave hope that we might at last commit the nation to its sacred creed of equal rights for all. His vision sparked a determination to reach beyond our environment into space. His words challenged us to be of service to others. And with grace and style, he and his wife epitomized what it meant to be modern. Fifty years on, his life still matters, his idealism still resonates, and the scar left on our souls by his slaying is still tender.

We have made great advances since that terrible November day, but those who would assassinate hope with the weapons of obstructionism and who denigrate the courage to care with rancorous words ever persist in their efforts to impede our forward progress. In as much as they will not easily lay down their arms, we cannot relax in our effort to reply to his spirit and fight the fight for peace and equality.

In so doing, we should not give credence to the suggestion that imperfection nullifies character, or that achievement is the only measure of greatness. Great figures are made of many traits, and they are many-sided. Those who have left the most indelible stamps on the pages of history are those who inspired others to greatness, and that is his living legacy, as consistent and enduring as the flame that burns at Arlington. It is a call to greatness, an appeal to aspire to a higher purpose, an invitation to hope and dream, a mandate to leave such a legacy ourselves, that when we depart this world we have left it a better place than it was when we arrived.


Who is it that hears, sees and understands?

Bassui Tokusho Zenji was born on this day in 1327. He was a priest in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism whose teachings attracted a large number of followers despite his eccentric lifestyle.

When Bassui was young, he was concerned with such questions as “What is this thing called a soul?” and “Who is it that hears, sees and understands?” At age twenty he began training at Jifukuji Temple where he studied with a Zen master named Oko. He was ordained as a priest some nine years later, although he had reservations about taking that step. Bassui was not comfortable with the formal and ritualistic aspect of Zen. For much of his life he traveled from hermitage to hermitage, preferring the life of a wanderer to that of residing in a monastery.

He earned such a reputation as a great teacher that during the last ten years of his life, it was not possible for him to live as he liked. He settled in one place, Enzan, and founded the temple Kogaku-an, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.

It’s said that when he died, Bassui was sitting in meditation with his students and he turned to them at the last moment and shouted, “Look directly! What is this? Look in this manner and you won’t be fooled.”

Arthur Braverman, who has translated Bassui’s dharma talks, Enzanwadeigassui-shu (“A Collection of Mud and Water from Enzan”, or simply Mud And Water), tells us that “According to Bassui, all the teachings [Bassui’s] can be reduced to a single precept: Seeing into one’s original nature is Buddhahood.

Here are excerpts from Bassui’s dharma talk on “One Mind”:

“If you would free yourself of the sufferings of the Six Realms, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realization of your own Mind. Now what is this Mind? It is the true nature of all sentient beings, that which existed before our parents were born and hence before our own birth, and which presently exists, unchangeable and eternal. So it is called one’s Face before one’s parents were born. This Mind is intrinsically pure. When we are born it is not newly created, and when we die it does not perish. It has no distinction of male or female, nor has it any coloration of good or bad. It cannot be compared with anything, so it is called Buddha-nature. Yet countless thoughts issue from this Self-nature as waves arise in the ocean or as images are reflected in a mirror . . .

What is termed Zazen [meditation] is no more than looking into one’s own mind. It is better to search your own mind devotedly than to read and recite innumerable sutras and dharani every day for countless years. Such endeavors, which are but formalities, produce some merit, but this merit expires and again you must experience the suffering of the Three Evil Paths. Because searching one’s own mind leads ultimately to enlightenment, this practice is a prerequisite to becoming a Buddha. No matter whether you have committed either the ten evil deeds or the five deadly sins, still if you turn back your mind and enlighten yourself, you are a Buddha instantly. But do not commit sins and expect to be saved by enlightenment. [Neither enlightenment] nor a Buddha nor a Patriarch can save a person who, deluding himself, goes down evil ways . . .

[One] who realizes that his own Mind is Buddha frees himself instantly from the sufferings arising from [ignorance of the law of] ceaseless change of birth-and-death. If a Buddha could prevent it, do you think he would allow even one sentient being to fall into hell? Without Self-Realization one cannot understand such things as these . . .

What kind of master is it that this very moment sees colors with the eyes and hears voices with the ears, that now raises the hands and moves the feet? We know these are functions of our own mind, but no one knows precisely how they are performed. It may be asserted that behind these actions there is no entity, yet it is obvious they are being performed spontaneously. Conversely, it may be maintained that these are the acts of some entity; still the entity is invisible. If one regards this question as unfathomable, all attempts to reason [out an answer] will cease and one will be at a loss to know what to do. In this propitious state deepen and deepen the yearning, tirelessly, to the extreme. When the profound questioning penetrates to the very bottom, and that bottom is broken open, not the slightest doubt will remain that your own Mind is itself Buddha, the Void-universe. There will then be no anxiety about life or death, no truth to search for.

In a dream you may stray and lose your way home. You ask someone to show you how to return or you pray to God or Buddhas to help you, but still you can’t get home. Once you rouse yourself from your dream-state, however, you find that you are in your own bed and realize that the only way you could have gotten home was to awaken yourself. This (kind of spiritual awakening] is called “return to the origin” or “rebirth in paradise.” It is the kind of inner realization that can be achieved with some training. Virtually all who like Zazen and make an effort in practice, be they laymen or monks, can experience to this degree. But even such [partial] awakening cannot be attained except through the practice of Zazen. You would be making a serious error, however, were you to assume that this was true enlightenment in which there is no doubt about the nature of reality. You would be like a man who having found copper gives up the desire for gold.

Upon such realization question yourself even more intensely in this wise: “My body is like a phantom, like bubbles on a stream. My mind, looking into itself, is as formless as empty-space, yet somewhere within sounds are perceived. Who is hearing?” Should you question yourself in this wise with profound absorption, never slackening the intensity of your effort, your rational mind eventually will exhaust itself and only questioning at the deepest level will remain. Finally you will lose awareness of your own body. Your long-held conceptions and notions will perish, after absolute questioning, in the way that every drop of water vanishes from a tub broken open at the bottom, and perfect enlightenment will follow like flowers suddenly blooming on withered trees.

With such realization you achieve true emancipation . . .

If you don’t come to realization in this present life, when will you? Once you have died you won’t be able to avoid a long period of suffering in the Three Evil Paths. What is obstructing realization? Nothing but your own half-hearted desire for truth. Think of this and exert yourself to the utmost.”


More from my Dalai Lama notebooks

I’ve been leafing through notes I’ve taken at the various Dalai Lama teachings I’ve attended. This is from May 2001 and the text being discussed is Shantideva’s “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”:

“If you wish to overcome hatred you must cultivate loving-kindness just as you turn on heat to dispel cold or turn on a light to illuminate darkness.

In itself the mind is neutral and can take either the form of mental affliction or insight into true reality.

Samsara has a powerful antidote and the power of this antidote can be increased infinitely.

Dharmakaya is the state when we are free from mental afflictions plus their propensities and imprints.

When the mind is free from mental afflictions, the mind can then permeate and perceive both conventional and ultimate truth simultaneously. This is rupakaya.

[Trikaya or Three Bodies of the Buddha: Dharmakaya or truth body, the principle of enlightenment; Sambhogakaya or body of perfect enjoyment, Buddha as an eternal archetype; Nirmanakaya (also rupakaya) or physical body, the body of the historical Buddha. Tibetan and Vajrayana schools add a fourth body, Svabhavikakaya or essential nature body, the inseparability of the first three kayas.]

There is no explanation of the Four Kayas of the Buddha in the Pali canon.

We who recite the Heart Sutra should accept the Buddha as the embodiment of the Four Kayas, which is the object of ultimate realization. Bodhicitta [‘thought of awakening’] is the aspiration to attain the four Buddha bodies for the welfare of all beings. When bodhicitta arises, all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva.

If you have insight into emptiness but no bodhicitta, you will not realize full awakening. If you have no insight into emptiness but have bodhicitta, you are on the way no matter what. Bodhicitta is a benefit both temporary and long term. You should practice bodhicitta as an antidote to pride. It is also powerful when you are depressed.

Bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or offering a prayer, but you can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.

To develop compassion first cultivate a sense of closeness to all sentient beings, then a real empathy with them. A practice that is very powerful for cultivating compassion is seeing others as your mother, who symbolizes the one who has shown you the greatest kindness.

It is important to have some understanding of what kind of sufferings you wish others to be free from. The wish to free oneself from suffering is true renunciation. To wish others to be free is true compassion.

Bodhicitta has two elements: 1) closeness to others and 2) understanding of suffering.

To achieve the kind of liberation we are talking about requires great courage.

Three elements to attain Buddhahood: 1) bodhicitta, the heart of the practice, 2) compassion, and 3) understanding of emptiness (through tranquil abiding and penetrative insight).

The purpose of the Buddha’s teaching is to transform negative aspects of the mind and mind training.

Both the Buddha and Nagarjuna had unobstructed vision. One should think that in their presence, ‘I have nothing to hide, I have no guilty conscience.'”

I will post more from this teaching in a future post. I hope you find the offering beneficial, and thanks for visiting The Endless Further.