Where The Mind is Without Fear: Denison, Nimoy, and Avijit Roy

American Buddhist pioneer Ruth Denison has passed away at the age of 92. She suffered a massive stroke a few weeks ago and was in hospice care.

Denison by Robert Beatty
Denison by Robert Beatty

Ruth Schäfer was born in Germany, where she saw first hand the horror of the Nazis and then immediately after World War II suffered abuse from Russian soldiers in occupied Berlin. She soon left her homeland, came to America, and settled in Los Angeles. There she met Henry Dennison, an independently wealthy intellectual who stimulated an interest in Ruth for the burgeoning counter-culture and Eastern philosophy. Gatherings at their Hollywood Hills home included such people as Alan Watts, Lama Govinda, and Aldous Huxley

In 1960, they traveled to the East, spent time at Zen monasteries in Japan and eventually found themselves in Burma where they met lay Buddhist teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin and learned the art of vipassana or “insight” meditation. Ruth Denison was one of only four Westerners to receive permission to teach from Khin.

In 1977, she founded the Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center in Joshua Tree, California where she stayed until she suffered her stroke.

One of her students, Sandy Boucher, who has written extensively on women and Buddhism, authored a biography Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison, in which she writes that “Ruth brought a strongly female, body-centered approach to Buddhist practice, when this was seen as radical and subversive.” As I understand it, what Boucher means by “body-centered” is that Denison encouraged “deep exploration of our body sensations, with great penetration and subtlety.”

I had always meant to venture out to Joshua Tree and avail myself of an opportunity to meet and learn from this pioneer Buddhist teacher, but I never did. That was a mistake. All I can do now is offer a deep and solemn gassho . . .

Star Trek was definitely a part of the counter-culture that exploded during the 1960’s and you didn’t have to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy the program. I am sad to learn of the death of Leonard Nimoy. He passed away Friday at his home in Bel-Air at the age of 83 from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Because many of the Star Trek writers were of a certain frame of mind, traces of Eastern philosophy were occasionally woven into the scripts. Nimoy was Jewish by birth and I don’t know if he followed that faith or not, nor do I know the context he was speaking in when he made this remark: “I’m touched by the idea that when we do things that are useful and helpful — collecting these shards of spirituality — that we may be helping to bring about a healing.”

The LA Times described his Mr. Spock role as “transcendent.” I think it is safe to say that after Star Trek Leonard Nimoy lived well and prospered . . . If you ever come to Los Angeles, be sure to visit the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater at the Griffith Observatory.

Writer Avijit Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, were attacked by machete-wielding assailants Thursday while returning from a book fair in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Ahmed was seriously injured. Roy was hacked to death.

He was a engineer, writer and blogger. His website Mukto-Mona was “an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent.” [Wikipedia] Roy was also the author of a number of books and for his writings on human rights, philosophy, religion and science he received several death threats from Islamic extremists. One news report on his death described Roy as “the blogger who wouldn’t back down”.

Avijit Roy/Facebook
Avijit Roy/Facebook

The BBC writes, “Mr Roy’s followers argue that many of his secular ideas are in the tradition of the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, who died in 1941 and is often referred to as ‘Bengal’s Shakespeare’”. In the photo to the right, he holds one of Tagore’s books. Tagore coined the phrase “The Endless Further” that is used as the title of this blog, and no doubt were he around today he would have felt a deep kinship with Avijit Roy. I cannot do a complete profile of Roy here, so those who are interested in learning more, I suggest you follow some of the links embedded in this post.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

– Rabindranath Tagore

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Our Own Lives

I don’t know if you read Oliver Sacks’ op-ed last Thursday in the New York Times where he revealed that he has terminal liver cancer. The piece was of particular interest to me as someone who survived liver cancer via a liver transplant only 9 months ago and has lost 2 family members to the disease in the past 13 months.

I think it should be of interest to everyone because we are all terminal. To paraphrase the title of a humorous and ironic song by Hank Williams Sr., none of us will get out of this world alive.

Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert
Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert

I must confess that before this I was not too familiar with the life and work of Oliver Sacks, who is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine. I knew that his 1973 memoir Awakenings about his work with patients suffering from the sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, was made into a film with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, which I enjoyed. And that he wrote another book titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but I have read neither and had to go to Wikipedia to learn more about him.

It’s not necessary to know his life story to be moved by Sacks’ reflections. They are poignant and inspirational. The valuable takeaways for me were the appreciation he expresses for his life and the sense of detachment he has found. Both are indispensable to Buddhist practice, and even though some mistakenly think they are mutually exclusive, they are not.

Buddhism teaches that human life is precious, and that is reason enough to be grateful for the blessing of life. When you face death and survive, appreciation for life seems to blossom naturally. It is a shame to wait until you have a crisis for it to unfold.

In regards to detachment, Sacks writes,

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment . . .”

That is the kind of detachment Buddhism encourages us to develop, but again, while there is still time to watch the news, pay attention to the world, to argue, to forgive, love and cry. We form attachments to so many things – desire, material possessions, even our own sufferings – and it is vital that we learn to let go. As Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness.”

There is not much more to say about the piece. It is called “My Own Life.” It could have been titled “Our Own Lives,” as it speaks to and for us all. Please read it. Here is the link:

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer February 19, 2015

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Theories About Everything

Young British actor Eddie Redmayne won an Best Actor Oscar last night for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything. I haven’t seen it yet, but I figured that playing a guy with severe ALS required some acting chops, so I was not surprised that Redmayne won, he probably deserved it.

Redmayne with Hawking
Redmayne with Hawking

The Theory of Everything was not the only biopic nominated this year. So was American Sniper, a film about Chris Kyle, an American sniper. Unlike Hawking, I do not have a theory of everything, but I have a theory about everything, (well, nearly everything) and one of my theories is that if you took a poll more Americans could identify who Chris Kyle is than Stephen Hawking. I could be wrong, but as I am living in a country where many folks actually believe the President is a secret Muslim and Communist, I kind of doubt it.

I have not seen American Sniper either but I have certainly heard a lot about it and about Chris Kyle. Some folks regard him as a hero; others see him as a “hate-filled killer.” According to The Guardian:

In his memoir, Kyle reportedly described killing as “fun”, something he “loved”; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a ‘bad guy’. ‘I hate the damn savages,’ he wrote. ‘I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.’ He bragged about murdering looters during Hurricane Katrina, though that was never substantiated.”

Real nice guy, huh? American Sniper has been criticized for inaccuracies (like connecting Iraq with 9/11) and painting a distorted picture of Kyle. To be fair, almost all biographical or historical films distort reality, often in order to tell the story in a compressed amount of time, and sometimes for other reasons. Selma, the movie about the famous march led by Dr. Martin Luther King, has also faced some criticism for how it has depicted history (mainly the relationship between King and LBJ).

What I find most interesting, especially considering that Hollywood has such a liberal bias, that a film about an alleged racist received five Academy Award nominations, while the film about a man who gave his life fighting racism received only two. I don’t think it has much to do with the quality of the films, because let’s face it, Clint Eastwood is no Orson Welles. It must be show business . . .

Is there anybody here who thinks that following the orders
Takes away the blame?
Is there anybody here who wouldn’t mind a murder by another name?
Is there anybody here whose pride is on the line?
With the honor of the brave and the courage of the blind?

I wanna see him, I wanna wish him luck
I wanna shake his hand, wanna call his name
Put a medal on the man

Phil Ochs, Is There Anybody Here

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God is Suffering

Suffering (dukkha) is a core concept in Buddhism that I have blogged about many times, almost always using words from Buddhist teachers past and present to support or amplify my comments. Today, I’ll start out with some words about suffering from a non-Buddhist source.  The following was written by American aid worker Kayla Mueller to her father on his birthday in 2011, some two years before terrorists captured her after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria:

Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love . . . I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

This resonated deeply with me, as did her story.  Kayla Mueller’s life was stamped with service to others.  If you visit her Wikipedia page, I think you will be amazed to see all the different organizations she managed to work with as an activist and humanitarian during her short 26 years.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once said, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.” I do not share Mueller’s belief in God, and I don’t necessarily agree with Campbell because I feel the word ‘God’ carries with it too much baggage (superstition, associations, subjective feelings, etc.) to be very useful. However, going with the idea of metaphor here, I am inclined to interpret Mueller’s words as “God is suffering,” or certainly, “Life is suffering,” the Buddha’s famous words, which should not be taken as a negative or pessimistic statement.

In terms of Buddhist practice, suffering has three aspects: understanding and acceptance of suffering, endurance of suffering, relieving suffering.

Shantideva
Shantideva

Suffering is a universal truth of existence and there is relief from suffering but no real end to it. If there were an end of suffering, it would mean an end to life. Shantideva, in Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, says, “For the Buddha said that all fears and immeasurable sufferings arise from the mind only.” So, what we mean by an end to suffering is actually to transform the negative elements of the mind that produce suffering. These negative mental elements or afflictions have as their cause the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to change poison into medicine, sufferings into Nirvana.

Once we have acknowledged the truth of suffering and its inevitability (we will face suffering no matter what), we can then prepare for the endurance of suffering, and how we endure suffering determines much about the quality of our life condition.

In Healing Anger, the Dalai Lama writes,

[Shantideva observes] that pain and suffering are natural facts of existence and that denying this truth can cause additional misery. He then goes on to argue that if we could internalize this fundamental truth of our existence, we would derive enormous benefit in our day-to-day life. For one thing, we would see suffering as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Shantideva implies that a person who is capable of responding to suffering in this way can voluntarily accept the pain and hardship involved in seeking a higher purpose.”

This higher purpose is idealized in the form of the bodhisattva who works for the liberation of all beings. These altruistic heroes take on sufferings willingly, they even assume the sufferings of others, and they endure with great courage. The bodhisattva resolves:

I take upon myself the burden of all suffering. I am determined to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair.”*

The courage of the bodhisattva may inspire us, but the idea of consenting to suffer is difficult to accept.  However, as the Dalai Lama mentions, suffering has a beneficial side.  When we realize that our existence is conditioned and characterized by suffering, then we see there is a possibility of not only personal but also universal liberation. Suffering stimulates our thoughts and motivates us toward liberation. The mind can change its poison into healing medicine, our negative thoughts can be transformed into wisdom, and what seems unbearable in the beginning, becomes easier to bear.

Even when the wise are suffering, their minds are serene; for when war is waged against mental afflictions, many injuries are inflicted in the battle.”

Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, Chapter Six “The Perfection of Patience,” Verse 19

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* From the Vajradhvaja Sutra and Aksayamati-nirdesa. Read an expanded excerpt here.

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The Buddhist Barrister, Cleaning Windows

One of the first books I read about Buddhism was The Buddhist Way of Life by Christmas Humphreys. I still have the copy I purchased at a small bookstore in Omaha Nebraska in 1969. The author was an important figure in Western Buddhism at one time and he was born on this day in 1901.

220px-Christmas-humphreysHumphreys (who passed away in 1983) was a British lawyer, writer and poet, and founder of an organization that later became the Buddhist Society of London, one of the oldest Buddhist groups outside Asia. Like many Western Buddhists of that time, he started off with Theosophy. During the 1920s when he attended Cambridge, he joined the Cambridge Lodge of the Theosophical Society, eventually becoming its President. His attention shifted to Buddhism after some interaction with W.T. Rhys Davids, the famous scholar of Pali and founder of the Pali Text Society and attending some lectures by early British Buddhists Allan Bennett (Ananda Metteya) and Francis Payne.

Then, as now, most lay Buddhists need day jobs, and for Humphreys that meant criminal law. He had a long and celebrated career in which he worked primarily as a prosecutor. He handled over 200 murder cases, including a number of landmark cases, and he was involved in the Tokyo war crimes trial and the 1950 trial of a nuclear spy named Klaus Fuchs. Later, Humphreys became a judge at the Old Bailey.

Humphreys with Suzuki and Edward Conze
Humphreys with Suzuki and Edward Conze

Christmas Humphreys knew most of the leading Buddhists of his time; he collaborated on translations with D.T. Suzuki, and Alan Watts was his protégé. He was prolific, he either authored or edited several dozen about Buddhism, and while his particular focus was Zen, the books he produced covered the entire field of Buddha-dharma.

What I was looking for when I bought The Buddhist Way of Life was a good introductory book. For me, it was not very useful in that regard. It is subtitled “An Invitation for Western Readers.” Maybe I was too young (16) to grasp it, or perhaps what I needed (but had not been written yet) was Buddhism for Dummies.  Nonetheless,  several thoughts presented on the first two pages formed impressions about Buddhism that are still with me today.

First is that Buddhism is not a religion per se but “a system of doctrine and practice built up by the followers of the Buddha about what they believed to be his teaching,” and secondly that “We do not know precisely what [the Buddha] taught.” And thirdly:

How do we contact Reality? Not with the intellect. The thinking, rational, daily mind for ever functions in duality, in the relative. By it we learn a great deal about the universe and the ‘matter’ – which has now been found to have, as the Buddha said, no real existence – of which it is composed. But this knowledge is entirely ‘about it and about’; it concerns the forms in which life is expressed, the garments of Reality; the life, the essence, the thing itself it can never know. The scientist, the philosopher, the psychologist, and all who work with the five senses and thought may fill the world with libraries of their invention and discovery; they will not, for they cannot, know.”

This “direct way” of the Buddhist is found in the practice of meditation and it is an intuitive way that cannot be fared by the intellect alone.

Well, here is gassho to another Western Buddhist pioneer, a man who helped many people open and enter the dharma door to Buddhism, and one of those persons was been Van Morrison who mentions Humphreys in this song from his 1982 album Beautiful Vision:

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