It’s a Purple World

In Los Angeles, the Jacaranda trees are in bloom. The annual suffusion of the purple-blue flowers makes this my favorite time of the year. I posted the three photos here a few years ago, and I am re-posting them for the benefit of those who may not be familiar with these wonderful trees. You can find more Jacaranda photos at my photography website.

I’m not sure how many Jacaranda trees there are in Southern California, but I do know, for instance, that the city of Pasadena alone has over 3,500. Although there are 49 species of the tree. The Jacaranda mimosifolia or Blue Jacaranda in SoCal come from Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil and are a less blue than the native trees in those countries.

Jacarandas can reach 60 feet high.

The trees can make a real mess, but no one seems to mind. As soon as they bloom, the flowers begin to drop, covering the lawns, sidewalks, driveways and cars like lavender snow.

Like the sakura or cherry blossoms for the Japanese, the jacarandas to me represent the transient nature of life. They remind me of the phrase chen-k’ung miao-yu or “true emptiness, wondrous existence.”

“True emptiness” because all things are conditioned and transient, and thereby unreal, empty. “Wondrous existence” because life is beautiful, mysterious, and subtle.

According to the light of the profound realization of the silent void emerges the difference of great and small, followed by the consequences of good and evil, and the manifest appearance of phenomena with names and forms; so that the realms of desire, form, and formlessness in the ten directions are seen as clearly as a jewel held in the palm of an outstretched hand. Amidst this the dynamism of True Emptiness and Wondrous Existence permeates all things within the infinite universe.”

– Sot’aesan (1891-1943), founder of Won Buddhism

 More Jacaranda photos at davidriley.org

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The Path of Fearlessness

Back in January, I wrote a post than included this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm: “Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy.”

I was writing about a memorial concert for musician Lou Reed who died in October from liver cancer after receiving a transplant. I wrote, “As I face the same situation he [Reed] did, I think [the quote] should be my mantra.”

Some folks may have a natural sense of fearlessness. For others, like me, it is something that requires cultivation. I’ve had to get close to fear in order to let it go. I have learned that fearlessness is not necessarily synonymous with courage. It’s more a product of mindfulness, understanding how to live in the peace of the present moment.

abhaya-mudra2The Sanskrit word is abhaya. It means “not fearful,” “undaunted,” “security,” and “peace.” Fearlessness is represented by a hand gesture, the abhaya mudra that you see in paintings and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (right). The abhaya mudra is the “gesture of fearlessness and granting protection.”

Fearlessness is a virtue of the Bodhisattva’s practice of giving, and as Lama Anagarika Govinda points out in Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, much more than that:

Fearlessness is the quality of all Bodhisattvas and of all those who tread the Bodhisattva-Path. For them life has lost its horrors and suffering its sting, for they imbue this earthly existence with new meaning, instead of despising and cursing it for its imperfections, as many do, who in the teachings of the Buddha try to find a pretext for their own negative conception of the world.”

Fear is one of the most basic of human emotions. Fear can be positive when it protects us from danger. Fear can also be negative, a danger in itself. Negative fear can produce unhealthy emotional and psychological states. Fear is often irrational, for instance fear of death is natural enough, but fear of survival?

Fear of samsara (this world of suffering) has led some Buddhists to think only of escape, imaging nirvana to mean extinction, an end to the cycle of birth and death. The Mahayana branch of Buddhism teaches that samsara is nirvana.

Our fears originate in thoughts about the future, the worry that something unfortunate might happen to us . . . at some future time. The present moment, however, seems peaceful because it provides a certain sense of safety. Within the present moment, there is freedom from fear. Something unfortunate is not happening to us now.

Actually, the future never arrives; it is not real. From the ultimate view, time doesn’t exist. For the past, present, and future to be real they would have to exist independently. Past, present, and future is a continuum of thought-moments. In this sense, the present moment is timeless. What we’re talking about here is a quality of timelessness.

In Foundations, Lama Govinda quotes Krishnamurti:

As long as the mind is tethered to the idea that action must be divided into past, present and future, there is identification through time and therefore a continuity from which arises the fear of death, the fear of the loss of love. To understand timeless reality, timeless life, action must be complete. But you cannot be aware of this timeless reality by searching for it.”

What Krishnamurti meant by timeless was “something that cannot be disturbed by circumstances, by thought or by human corruption.”  “Timeless reality” strikes me as an appropriate way to describe the present moment. If Krishnamurti had been Buddhist, he might have used the word emptiness.

In the Diamond Sutra, Subhuti asks the Buddha how to quiet his mind and fare on the bodhisattva path. He feels a need to search for the stillness in his mind and receive direction on how to proceed in the future, not realizing that what he seeks is already present. He poses this question in the second chapter, the remaining thirty chapters is just the Buddha answering this one question, and a single sentence in chapter 14 sums up his answer:

One should develop a mind that does not dwell anywhere.

In other words, cultivate a timeless mind. A mind that does not dwell anywhere is already quiet, and unafraid of the sufferings of the world. Because this timeless, quiet mind is undisturbed by thoughts of the future, it does not need to escape to some other place. Undaunted and peaceful, it becomes intimate with fear, and then recognizes that as the Heart Sutra tells us, within emptiness there is no fear.

This is the ultimate side of the problem. From the conventional side, it would be a mistake to dismiss the future and live unprepared. But the point is to be unattached to the idea of the future, and to control fear, not let it control us.

In a post last month, I quoted Shantideva, “Mind, be strong.” Fearlessness is another aspect of the patience Shantideva was discussing. The past is gone and the future does not arrive. The strength of fearlessness is the strength of the patience and equanimity that comes from quieting the mind. The path of fearlessness is the path of the Bodhisattva, and Bodhisattvas are joyful in the knowledge that suffering are nirvana.

– – – – – – – – – –

Sources: Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, HarperOne, 2012, 6; Lama Anagarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1969, 270-272; Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known, HarperSanFrancisco, 2009, 9

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The Death Penalty: A Compendium of Quotes

You may have heard about the botched execution earlier this week in Oklahoma. Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer and rapist, was scheduled to die by lethal injection. For the first time, Oklahoma used a new, three-drug cocktail. Witnesses to the execution have said that after the drugs were administered, Lockett thrashed on the gurney, writhed, convulsed, and groaned for a full 43 minutes before he died of a heart attack.

As a result, Oklahoma declined to carry out the execution of another convicted murderer and rapist, Charles Warner, scheduled for later in the day.

The incident has reignited the debated over the death penalty. Some for argue that Lockett, who kidnapped, beat, gang raped and shot a 19-year-old girl, and then stood by while his friends buried her alive, got what he deserved despite the complications. Others maintain that regardless of the heinous nature of a crime, the death penalty is inhumane.

While there is no consensus on this issue within Buddhism, there are many, including myself, who believe that the death penalty is inconsistent with Buddhist teachings. I would imagine that the majority of my readers share reservations about the death penalty, so I’m not going to offer an argument today against it. Rather, I thought it would be interesting to present a compilation of quotes I put together some years ago. Most are Buddhist, but I have included some non-Buddhist statements against the death penalty as well.

“Putting away the killing of living things, Gotama the recluse holds aloof from the destruction of life. He has laid the cudgel and the sword aside, and ashamed of roughness, and full of mercy, he dwells compassionate and kind to all creatures that have life.’ It is thus that the unconverted man, when speaking in praise of the Tathâgata, might speak.”

– The Brahma-gala Sutta

“O! Bhikkhus, even if robbers cut your limbs one after another with a two handled saw, if your mind be defiled on account of that, you have not done the duty in my dispensation. Even then you should train thus: Our minds will not change, we will not utter evil words. We will abide compassionate with thoughts of loving kindness not angry. We will pervade that person with thoughts of loving kindness. With that same sign, grown great and developed extensively, I pervade and abide. Bhikkhus, you should train thus.”

– The Kakacuupamasutta of the Majjhima Nikaya

“Now when Prince Janasandha came of age, and had returned from Takkasila, where he had been educated in all accomplishments, the king gave a general pardon to all prisoners, and gave him the viceroyalty. Afterwards when his father died, he became king, and then he caused to be built six almonries . . . There day by day he used to distribute six hundred pieces of money and stirred up all India with his almsgiving: the prison doors he opened for good and all, the places of execution he destroyed . . . ”

– The Janasandha-Jataka

“O King, out of compassion you should always keep your mind focused upon altruism, even for all those beings who have committed the most serious crimes.

Generate compassion particularly for those who have committed the foul deed of murderer; those who have fallen into ruin are deserving of a great person’s compassion.”

– Nagarjuna, The Precious Garland

“This king governs without decapitation or corporal punishments. Criminals are simply fined, lightly or heavily, according to the circumstances. Even in cases of repeated attempts at wicked rebellion, they only have their right hands cut off . . . Throughout the country the people do not kill any living creature . . .”

– Fa-Hsien (337?-422?), a monk who was an early Chinese pilgrim to India, writing of a compassionate Buddhist king

“The national laws of the five regions of India prescribe no cangue, beatings or prison. Those who are guilty are fined in accordance with the degree of the offence committed. There is no capital punishment.”

– Hye Ch’o, an eighth-century Korean monk, who also made a pilgrimage to India, describing Buddhist kings in central India who ruled without a death penalty. In Korea in 1036, Buddhists monks actually succeeded in getting the death penalty abolished

“My overriding belief is that is always possible for criminals to improve and that by its very finality the death penalty contradicts this. Therefore, I support those organizations and individuals who are trying to bring an end to the use of the death penalty.”

“The death penalty fulfills a preventive function, but it is also very clearly a form of revenge. It is an especially severe form of punishment because it is so final. The human life is ended and the executed person is deprived of the opportunity to change, to restore the harm done or compensate for it.”

“Criminals, people who commit crimes, usually society rejects these people. They are also part of our society. Give them some form of punishment to say they were wrong, but show them they are part of society and can change. Show them compassion.”

– The Dalai Lama

Q: What are your views on capital punishment? Suppose someone has killed ten children. Why should he be allowed to live on?

A: Ten people are dead; now you want another one, you want eleven. A person who has killed ten children is a sick person. Of course we want to lock him up to prevent him killing more, but that is a sick person, and we have to find ways to help that person. Killing him does not help him, and does not help us . . . Therefore, looking at him, we can see in the light of interbeing the other elements that have produced him. That is how your understanding arises in yourself, and then you see that that person is there for you to help, and not to punish. Of course you have to lock him up for the safety of other children, but locking him up is not the only thing you can do. We can do other things to help him. Punishing is not the only thing, we can do much better.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

“Within Buddhism, there are ten fundamental precepts, and the first precept is ‘I am reverential and mindful of all life. I am not violent. I do not kill.’ And that pretty well sums it up.”

– Venerable Kobutsu Shindo, Rinzai Zen Priest

Non-Buddhist:

“I do not think God approves the death penalty for any crime – rape and murder included. Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God.”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

“What you do to these men [on California’s Death Row], you do to God.”

– Mother Theresa

“I am passionately opposed to the death penalty for anyone . . . I think, myself, that it is an obscenity . . .”

– Desmond Tutu

“The death sentence is a barbaric act . . . [It is] a reflection of the animal instinct still in human beings.”

– Nelson Mandela

“We do not wish to have the suffering of the servants of God avenged by the infliction of precisely similar injuries in the way of retaliation . . . Not, of course, that we object to the removal from these wicked men of the liberty to perpetrate further crimes, but our desire is rather justice be satisfied without taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any particular; and that, by such coercive measures as may be in accordance with the laws, they be drawn from their insane frenzy to the quietness of men in their sound judgment, or compelled to give up mischievous violence and betake themselves to some useful labor.”

– St. Augustine (354-430)

“I cannot in all conscience agree to anyone being sent to the gallows. God alone can take life because He alone gives it . . .”

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

“Look, examine, reflect. You hold capital punishment up as an example. Why? Because of what it teaches. And just what is it that you wish to teach by means of this example? That thou shalt not kill. And how do you teach that “thou shalt not kill”? By killing.

I have examined the death penalty under each of its two aspects: as a direct action, and as an indirect one. What does it come down to? Nothing but something horrible and useless, nothing but a way of shedding blood that is called a crime when an individual commits it, but is (sadly) called “justice” when society brings it about. Make no mistake, you lawmakers and judges, in the eyes of God as in those of conscience, what is a crime when individuals do it is no less an offense when society commits the deed.”

– Victor Hugo

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