Bhavana: Development

Walpola Rahula (1907–1997) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist bhikkhu, scholar and writer. When he became the Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in 1964, he also became the first bhikkhu to hold a professorship in the West. His introduction to Buddhism, What the Buddha Taught, is considered a modern Buddhist classic. In the book, Rahula writes,

The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which means ‘culture’ or ‘development’, i.e., mental culture or mental development.” [1]

I think Rhaula’s statement would also apply to the word “mindfulness.”

I don’t know what Rahula means by “original term,” but I do recall either reading or hearing that bhavana was the term most often used by the historical Buddha in reference to meditative discipline. According to Alan Sponberg, the term is “certainly the broadest in its semantic range.” [2]

Rahula called bhavana “mental culture.” Amadeo Sole-Leris wrote that bhavana is “to cultivate and develop the vast potential of the mind in order to overcome the unsatisfactory nature of the internal and external circumstances in which we find ourselves.” [3]   Someone else (I don’t remember who) called it “creative control of the mind.”

I like the word development because I feel it accurately describes the process. In Buddhist practice we develop our innate potential for well-being and happiness. We can also say that bhavana in all its various forms is a system for training the mind. Buddhism teaches that an undisciplined mind is disturbed by circumstances such as gain or by loss, comfort or hardship, and is attached to transient things, all of which invites suffering. We want to train the mind so that we can learn better how to use reason and wisdom to deal with life’s challenges, and so we can break the habit of seizing and clinging, and this brings freedom from suffering, insofar as we can accept sufferings as they come without losing inner peace.

The wild, untrained mind that we often dub “monkey mind,” can be pacified, the restless monkey brought under control. However, if we limit the broad range of practice bhavana covers to only the mind, then it is a poor substitute for what the Buddha taught.

What the Buddha sought to achieve personally was nothing less than total transformation of his entire being. That meant body as well as mind. I wonder if sometimes we don’t tend to focus on the mental health aspect of meditation and mindfulness and neglect the physical health side. Gautama Shakyamuni was called the Great Physician and his teachings the King of Medicines, not only for his psychology of mind. After the Buddha’s passing, a great tradition of healer-monks emerged, and this tradition is still upheld today in the system of Tibetan Medicine and healing.

Here is a wonderful explanation on the relationship between mind, body, and bhavana from Tulku Trondup, a prominent teaching in the area of Buddhist healing, that I found in his book Boundless Healing:

Mind and body are intimately connected, and the relationship of mind to body in meditation is very interesting. When we see the body as peaceful and beautiful, who or what is creating these feelings? The mind is. By creating peaceful feelings in the body, the mind is absorbed in those feelings. So although the body is the object to be healed, it also becomes the means of healing the mind – which is the ultimate goal of meditation.” [4]

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[1] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, 1974, 68

[2] Alan Sponberg, “Meditation in Fa-hsiang Buddhism”, Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, Ed. Peter N. Gregory, University of Hawaii Press, 1986, 19

[3] Amadeo Sole-Leris, Tranquility and Insight An Introduction to the Oldest Form of Buddhist Meditation, Shambhala, 1986, 21

[4] Tulku Thondup, Boundless Healing Meditation Exercises to Enlighten the Mind and Heal the Body, Shambhala, 2000, 12

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Joseph Campbell: Matters Fundamental to Ourselves

Today is the 111th anniversary of the birth of mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell. My thinking about Buddhism and religion in general was influenced greatly by his work. From Campbell, I learned that nearly all religious literature is pure mythology, and therefore, one should not take it literally. A simple idea, perhaps, but when you consider how many people in this modern age are literalists when it comes to religion and that they cause a lot of trouble for others because of it, you realize it is a great insight, and extraordinarily relevant.

The title of one of his books, Myths to Live By, suggests that we should not disregard myths, but rather try to understand what these stories are trying to tell us about living. Here, in his own words, from that book, is Campbell explaining the essence of religious mythology:

Joseph Campbell 1904-1987
Joseph Campbell 1904-1987

What I would suggest is that by comparing a number from different parts of the world and differing traditions, one might arrive at an understanding of their force, their source and possible sense. For they are not historical. That much is clear. They speak, therefore, not of outside events but of themes of the imagination. And since they exhibit features that are actually universal, they must in some way represent features of our general racial imagination, permanent features of the human spirit — or, as we say today, of the psyche. They are telling us, therefore, of matters fundamental to ourselves, enduring essential principles about which it would be good for us to know; about which, in fact, it will be necessary for us to know if our conscious minds are to be kept in touch with our own most secret, motivating depths. In short, these holy tales and their images are messages to the conscious mind from quarters of the spirit unknown to normal daylight consciousness, and if read as referring to events in the field of space and time — whether of the future, present, or past — they will have been misread and their force deflected, some secondary thing outside then taking to itself the reference of the symbol, some sanctified stick, stone, or animal, person, event, city, or social group.”

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Insulting Buddhism

Several months ago I gave brief mention of a situation in Burma (Myanmar) where a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals were facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. (See the offending image here.)

Last week, a Burmese court sentenced bar manager Phil Blackwood, the bar’s Burmese owner Tun Thurein, and another manager Htut Ko Ko Lwina to 2½ years in prison with hard labor. When you consider all the stuff that gets posted on Facebook, an image of the Buddha wearing headphones seems pretty tame, and the sentence extreme. Indeed, putting those guys on trial in the first place strikes me as a travesty.

The case is part of a larger controversy over religious images that came to a dreadful head when Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper in France, was attacked by terrorists because of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad it published. I will not rehash the issues surrounding the controversy in this post, except to remind readers that teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad and even moderate Muslims find depictions of the Prophet offensive.

That is relevant because at one time, there was a ban on images of Buddha. The Buddha supposedly asked his followers not to collect or venerate his relics and not depict his image. His followers almost completely ignored his instructions regarding his relics, but for nearly 600 years, the only images used to represent the Buddha were a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf.

Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)
Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)

In the first century, the first images of the Buddha started to appear, and they typically showed Gautama standing or seated in a lotus position, and holding a begging bowl or making the gesture (mudra) of fearlessness. One of the areas where these representations began to emerge was Gandhara, and sculpture from that period displays a definite Greek influence.

Since then folks have been going crazy making Buddha images, and today it is a very big business.

If Buddha were around now, I think he would be inclined to take stuff like a Buddha with headphones in stride, perhaps even find it amusing.  I feel sure he would be outraged at the idea of imprisoning anyone for making such an image.  I also think he would have concerns about the commercialization of his image, and he would certainly be uncomfortable with the idea of worshiping his image. Of course, this is just conjecture on my part. What the historical Gautama thought, felt, actually taught, and what his life truly was, we shall never know,  because his time is so remote and his life story buried in myth, and as far as how he would think and act as a modern person, that is impossible to know.

Nonetheless, I doubt he ever held himself out as anything other than a common, mortal human being.  We say he was an extraordinary human being; he would simply say that he was “awake.” And while many Buddhist will deny that Buddha is worshiped, all objective observers know that worship of Buddha is a reality in some forms of Buddhism, especially among rank and file devotees.  Rather early on, the myth-making process that has shrouded his true story, elevated the Buddha from a mortal man to a being who was supermundane, “perfect,” and the line between human and god became extremely thin.

The Kathavathu, one of the seven books of the Pali Canon’s Abdidhamma, compiled during the reign of King Ashoka, and evidently produced in order to correct “various errors which had developed with regard to the Buddha,” discusses various views of the Buddhist schools existing at the time that promoted supernatural notions about the Buddha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha, writes,

Among the points dealt with in the Kathavathu was the idea that the Buddha had not really lived in the world of men, but in the ‘heaven of bliss’, appearing to men on earth in a specially created, temporary form to preach the Dhamma. Together with this virtual deification of the Buddha there went also a tendency to deny him normal human characteristics, and on the other hand to attribute to him unlimited magical power.”*

This elevation and immortalization of Buddha was carried over into the Mahayana canon, but today, I think many people tend to have an earthly, prosaic view that is much more realistic and proper. Ultimately, as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Concepts like ‘nirvana,’ ‘Buddha,’ ‘Pure Land,’ ‘Kingdom of God,’ and ‘Jesus,’ are just concepts; we have to be very careful. We should not start a war and destroy people for our concepts.” **

Now, if the government of Burma is so concerned about people insulting Buddhism then they would do something about those Buddhist extremists in their country who go around preaching hate and inciting violence against the Muslim minority there. Wouldn’t they?

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* Trevor Ling, The Buddha, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 170

** Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Penguin, 2000, 82

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Viewing Spring

As I post this, spring arrived some 55 minutes ago, at 3:45 PDT. Already the work of spring “is going on with joyful enthusiasm,” to borrow from John Muir. Even here in Southern California, where it was summer all winter, just knowing that the season has turned is a psychological effect, making the heart feel much lighter, and brighter.

Spring has always been particularly inspirational to poets. Today, I will share with you a spring poem by Tu Fu (Du Fu), one of the greatest of Chinese poets. He wrote the poem in 757, when he was captured by rebels during the An Lushan Rebellion (755-763), a revolt against the Tang Dynasty the engulfed the land in a long, devastating war. Tu Fu uses the images of flowers and birds to convey the sufferings experienced by the people during the rebellion.

This is my own version of the poem, based on a literal rendering of the Chinese characters and several English translations.

IMG_3386b3Viewing Spring

In the torn country, hills and rivers remain,
Spring comes to cities, grass and trees flourish.
Wartime touches even flowers to shed tears;
Lonely birds feel regret in their startled hearts.
Battle fires have burned for three moons;
News from home is worth ten thousand coins.
This white head I scratch has become so thin
That my pin can barely hold the strands in place.

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Killer Country

“Some people call me an idiot, but I know who I am. I am The Killer.”
– Jerry Lee Lewis

Last weekend I watched all six episodes of The Jinx, HBO’s documentary on millionaire real estate heir Robert Durst. No doubt, you’ve heard about this guy in recent days. He is a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathleen; in 2003, he was acquitted of murder charges in Texas, despite that he admitted dismembering the victim; and Saturday in New Orleans he was arrested in connection with the 2000 execution-style murder of his friend Susan Berman here in Los Angeles. It’s an engrossing story, and in a warped sort of way, Durst is a highly interesting person.

What is it about killers that fascinates us so? Macbeth, Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, Charles Manson, Hannibal Lecter, and my all-time favorite, Dexter Morgan – fictional or real, we love ‘em. Can’t get enough of their stories. Perhaps it is because they commit the foulest of all deeds, the taking of life. Whatever it may be, I am not going to try to analyze it here. Instead, I would like to recount for you briefly the story of the Buddha and a murderer named Angulimala.

The story of Angulimala (“finger garland,” or “necklace of fingers”) comes from the early sutras. Angulimala’s father was the Brahmin minister to the king of Kosala. The story goes that when Angulimala was born, a “constellation of thieves” appeared in the sky, prophesying he would become a robber.  And as it often happens in tales like this, the prophesy was fulfilled, in a manner of speaking.

Angulimala was sent to study in Taxila, in present day Pakistan, where one of the earliest universities in the world existed. He became the student of a Brahmin teacher and he excelled at his studies. Other students resented Angulimala’s brilliance and they made up stories that caused the teacher to believe Angulimala was evil. The teacher demanded that Angulimala provide him with a gift before he would be allowed to “graduate.” The gift the teacher requested was 1,000 fingers, each taken from a different victim. The teacher figured that that Angulimala would get himself killed during the course of collecting the fingers and thus he would be rid of this evil student.

Evidently, Angulimala had no problem accepting this grisly assignment. He became a highwayman, hiding in the forest and robbing travelers of their fingers. Unfortunately, the travelers died as a result of these holdups.

The people in the area asked the king of Kosala to capture Angulimala. Angulimala’s mother went out to find him and warn him that the king had vowed to hunt him down. The Buddha set out to find Angulimala, too. Buddha had divined that Angulimala had collected 999 fingers and needed only one more.

angulimala-buddhaWhen Angulimala saw the Buddha enter the forest, he rushed out to murder him and take his 1000th finger. He took out his sword, raised it and chased after the Buddha but could not catch him even though the Buddha was walking at a slow pace. Eventually, Angulimala became wore out and shouted for the Buddha to stop. Buddha turned and calmly said, “Angulimala, I have stopped for all time, forsaking violence; but you have not stopped, you have no restraint towards living beings; that is why I have stopped and you have not.” So moved was Angulimala by the words the Buddha spoke to him that he immediately renounced his murderous ways and became a bhikkhu.

The story is about the transformative power of compassion as well as the redemptive power of the Buddha’s teachings. Transformation is always possible. Any person, regardless of how many negative acts they have committed, can change and live a more positive life. Compassion is more powerful than punishment. Angulimala could have been captured, imprisoned or executed. Instead, he changed and thus was able to benefit far more beings than those he previously harmed. If you accept the doctrine of karma, there is also the notion that he was able to change his karma and improve his circumstance in future lives, so he would not come back to kill again.

Most importantly, we should always remember that every life matters. There is an old Buddhist saying that even a murderer loves his mother, meaning that every person, no matter how wretched and depraved, has some good in him or her somewhere. Even Charles Manson is entitled to the basic dignity of life.

It’s a safe bet that most people who know Robert Durst or know about him believe he is guilty of at least three murders. Whether he is or not, it doesn’t alter the fact that even Robert Durst has a Buddha-nature.

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