Five Years

A selfie of sorts.
A selfie of sorts.

April 13th marked the five year anniversary of  The Endless Further.  During this half-decade, I have posted a lot of poems but very few of my own.  Today, however,  the last day of National Poetry Month 2015, here is some poetry by yours truly.

silver lake

that summer morning when we sat
outside the café in silver lake
and talked over coffee
that turned cold too quickly

a soft gray haze lay over the hills
a breeze lifted her hair
then the sun, breaking through,
touched her hair to gold

I had already fallen under
the arch of her smile

she said
no one owes an artist anything
the world owes us all

a patron is someone
who supports your art
without fucking you

there was something discarnate
in how she subdued passion
with her intellect

she was all light and mystery
and like a brief song or warm coffee
it lasted only a short time
like a dream

whenever I think of her
I also think how dreams
parallel our reality

my dream is my nightmare
my nightmare is my dark journey

sometimes after such a journey
I awaken under some bodhi tree
in the light of the morning sun
with the world touched to gold

 

nuit de noel
(christmas eve)

you drove into three parked cars
one after another
because you were angry
that I was tired of your complaints
and bad behavior
and I wanted to leave

you don’t seem to understand
that you should have some regret
about what you did

rocking on your haunches by the fire

you should have stayed in paris
I should have stayed away

because one rose is as good as three
because a Saturn without rings is on your sign
not mine

and you think that pulling off the bark
Is caressing the tree

the girl as a future schizophrenia
straying on the pacific rim

pitching her dreams into the sea

 

san rio

nights in san rio
are like loose stars
swinging in dreams
the moon sings radiance
until the dawn

the music sambas
past midnight
and all your cares
fandango away
young girls tiptoe
through embraces
while old men
test their wives

well-lit boys
in search of adventure
gamble with their mananas
and everyone’s so at ease
dancing starlight
never counting the time
because

nights in san rio
are like loose stars
falling in slow motion
the moon sings celestial
until the dawn

© 2015 dmriley

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For What It’s Worth

The news this week has been heartbreaking: the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal over the weekend, leaving more than 4,300 people dead.

Baltimore: April 27, 2015 (AP)
Baltimore: April 27, 2015 (AP)

Then, Baltimore yesterday. I’m not sure if heartbreaking is the right word for what I felt, or gut-wrenching either – but it was painful to watch the footage on CNN. What I experienced was an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. It was almost like a repeat of the same footage I watched 23 years ago, practically to the day. The L.A. riots that followed the acquittal of police officers on trial for the savage beating of a black man named Rodney King began April 29, 1992.

The big difference between the L.A. riots and last night’s Baltimore riots after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a black man who died of a severe spinal cord injury after police arrested him, is that the violence, burning, and looting in 1992 was taking place right outside my door, or rather just miles from my door.

I’ll never forget going up on the roof of my apartment building, which has a spectacular view, on the following morning and gazing at all the fires still burning across the Los Angeles basin. The sky to the east was a solid wall of black smoke, as if hell’s darkest storm was moving in.

It’s senseless. The police blame it on “outside agitators” but they’ve been saying that as long as I can remember. I think clearly there were folks involved who were interested in civil disobedience for the hell of it. I don’t like to see cops injure suspects. I don’t like to see cops get injured themselves. It’s like Stephen Stills wrote in For What It’s Worth, about the 1966 Sunset Strip riots: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”

I shared this original poem once before on the blog, also at the end of April, and the end of National Poetry Month. Unfortunately, it seems an apropos time to share it again.

in the city of angels

Los Angeles: April 29, 1992
Los Angeles: April 29, 1992

el pueblo grande
boils and bubbles
like a brea pit
fear and anger
rise from the pitch
like hungry spirits

incendiary questions:
why’d the cops beat him?
how come they got off?

sacrificial fires are lit
on asphalt altars
the hungry spirits are fed

the night cries
no justice no peace

and when the smoke clears
in the char of morning days later
what is revealed?

only mammoth humanity
stuck in the tar

© 1992-2011 dmriley

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No Anger

In response to last week’s post Cancer Again (Naturally), a reader wrote in a comment, “Usually the prognosis is pretty grim once it [cancer] has metastasized.” I saw my oncologist the next day and it turns out that’s true.

I am going to start radiation treatments the first week in May, but while we might be able to get rid of the current tumor, sooner or later, it will spread somewhere else and if goes someplace where there are vital organs, well, let’s just say, it won’t be pretty.

A relative asked me if I was at least a little angry that the cancer “came back” (though it actually hadn’t left). He mentioned how novelist and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis vented at God when his wife died a painful death after her cancer, thought to be cured, returned. Lewis wrote a journal of his thoughts and feelings about his wife’s ordeal that he published as A Grief Observed in 1961. I have not read the book (not much of a Lewis fan), but previewed it at Google Books: “Meanwhile, where is God? . . . Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” (p6)

In the past, I have had some issues with anger management. When the liver cancer first appeared, I was angry. I was irritated. It was a major interruption in my life. I had other things I wanted to do than go on doctor’s appointments, sit around in waiting rooms, have people poke and prod me, etc. But I did my best to work through the anger, and its cousin, fear. And I wrote about that process here on The Endless Further.

After the transplant, I thought the cancer was gone. But it was merely in hiding, keeping a low profile, and now it’s active again, threatening to take my life. But I am not angry this time. No thought of anger has risen in my mind. No angry emotion has surfaced. I don’t believe in God, so getting angry with him would be like venting to a closed door. No sense in getting angry at the cancer, it could care less whether I like it or not.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva wrote that anger is our greatest enemy, capable of destroying all the good in our lives, and since it has no purpose, rather than getting angry at something or someone, it’s better to see whatever it is as assisting you in your spiritual development.

Viewing cancer as a spiritual friend is a tall order. I’m not quite there, but no anger is a good accomplishment.

Another reader in a comment to last week’s post, encouraged me to continue to share this part of my journey, and I think I will for the time being. However, for today, that’s all I have.

With all this going on, I have neglected National Poetry Month, which I like to celebrate each year. Anger can be a positive, motivating force when it is in response to the suffering of others or directed at injustice. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Cesar Vallejo’s poem is a meditation on that aspect of anger.

The Anger That Breaks The Man Into Children

Translated from Spanish by Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia

Three unidentified girls during the Spanish Civil War (photographer unknown)
Three unidentified girls during the Spanish Civil War (photographer unknown)

The anger that breaks the man into children,
that breaks the child into equal birds,
and the bird, afterward, into little eggs;
the anger of the poor
has one oil against two vinegars.

The anger that breaks the tree into leaves,
the leaf into unequal buds
and the bud, into telescopic grooves;
the anger of the poor
has two rivers against many seas.

The anger that breaks the good into doubts,
the doubt, into three similar arcs
and the arc, later on, into unforeseeable tombs;
the anger of the poor
has one steel against two daggers.

The anger that breaks the soul into bodies;
the body into dissimilar organs
and the organ, into octave thoughts;
the anger of the poor
has one central fire against two craters.

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The Buddhism of Faith

Some readers are familiar with the term “Buddhist modernism,” used by David J. McMahan in his book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism. This excellent book makes a significant contribution to the discourse on the process of modern Buddhism. However, there was one area which was not covered, an aspect of Buddhism that is a very potent force in present day dharma, which is the matter of faith; the kind of faith that is belief in supernatural beings who offer help and salvation to human beings.

I don’t intend to deal with the subject comprehensively in a blog post, rather I am going to offer a few snapshots together with some observations. Nonetheless, there are some questions I think readers could keep in mind as they read the material. When there is an apparent preoccupation on rebirth and karma, which could be considered more as matters of doctrine rather than superstition, is the  religion vs. philosophy debate concentrated on the right issues? Are we closing the gap between the two Buddhisms (“ethnic” and “convert”) or widening it? Do convert Buddhists have an accurate understanding of the role that supernatural beings play in the lives of the majority of the world’s Buddhists? Is faith-based Buddhism authentic dharma? Is there a place for faith in modern Buddhism? For prayer?

Courtyard and steps leading to the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai Temple

I once gave a series of talks to the Cal-Poly Buddhist Association. The faculty advisor, a Caucasian professor of Biological Sciences, was concerned that since many of the members of the club, almost all of whom were Chinese-American and went to Hsi Lai Temple, a predominately Pure Land temple in Hacienda Heights, they took the teachings on O-mi-tuo-fo (Amida Buddha) too literally. I devoted one of my talks to debunking Amida, the idea of faith in Buddhism, and so on. I thought I was pretty good, too. Clear, logical, and convincing. Immediately after the talk a young woman, an engineering student, stood up  and said, “Your talk was nice, but when I pray to O-mi-tuo-fo with sincerity, my prayers are answered.”

Another student got up and testified how he had strong faith that his earnest chanting of Amida Buddha’s name would result in his salvation and rebirth into the Pure Land. Someone else said pretty much the same thing only in relation to Kuan Yin. And so it went.

These young people were very different from the professor and me. They were born into their faith, whereas for the two of us, we had each rejected the faith of our parents and through a process of investigation and experimentation, made a conscious decision to become Buddhist. Our Buddhism had nothing to do with faith, prayer, or supernatural beings. Ours was a pragmatic approach to dharma, based on meditation and philosophical study. But we really were in the minority, for faith and prayer is precisely the orientation for the majority of Buddhists in the world today.

In his book, David. J. McMahan states,

Yet, as noted, while meditation has always been considered necessary to achieving awakening, only a small minority of Buddhists actually practice it in any serious way. The vast majority of Asian Buddhists have practiced the dharma through ethics, ritual, and service to the sangha.”

This, for Asian Buddhists, is changing, but on the whole McMahan’s assessment is valid. Furthermore, there has always been two kinds of Buddhism: one for the monks and the educated elite, and another one for the masses. The former has been meditation-based, while the latter, faith-based.

The ritual McMahan alludes to includes rites such as celebrating the Buddha’s birthday, alms giving, lighting incense at shrines, as well as a good deal of worship, directed at devas and/or celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. “Deva” means “deity.”  According to Buddhist cosmology, many devas were human and still retain human qualities, but they are essentially gods and they are worshiped by Buddhists because they are capable of rendering help to human beings in times of difficulty. For a good overview of deva worship in Theravada Buddhism, read “Worship of Devas” by A.G.S. Kariyawasam here.

Now that illiteracy in the world has been significantly reduced, the two Buddhisms mentioned above have morphed into a different two Buddhisms, described by Charles Presbish in the late 1970’s as “ethnic” and “convert.” Even though Prebish’s model is over 30 years old, I think it still stands.

I used to go to the same temple the students from Cal-Poly attended, Hsi Lai, which describes itself as “Pure Land/Ch’an.” There, the two Buddhisms would come together under one temple roof and for the most part remain separate, the twain never meeting. Ch’an at the temple was made up of an eclectic group of Caucasians and Chinese-Americans, while Pure Land was all Chinese.  On Sunday mornings, the Ch’an folks practiced qigong and meditation in a conference room, while in the main temple the Pure Land group chanted Amida Buddha’s name.

This to me is a microcosmic representation of the state of Buddhism today, East and West. I could be wrong, but in America, I doubt if most meditation-based Buddhists have much knowledge about or have had interaction with faith-based Buddhism. There are many reasons for this, such as language, culture, location, and inclinations. For many of the same reasons, the faith-based “ethnic” Buddhists rarely venture out of their comfortable environment.  That’s what I have noticed in my experience, living in a metropolitan area where all the major Buddhist schools and nearly all ethnic traditions can be found.  I have made a point of sampling as many of these different tastes of dharma as I can.

Shakyamuni, Amida and Medicine Buddha in the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai
Shakyamuni, Amida, and Medicine Buddha in the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai

World-wide, the largest faith-based Buddhism, and indeed, the largest of any Buddhist branch, is Pure Land. This form of dharma is based on the notion of the Three Periods: the Former, Middle and Latter Days of the Dharma, which did not become a fully realized concept until the 5th century CE. The Former Day of the Dharma (Jp. Shoho) is the first thousand years after the historical Buddha’s advent, when people can attain enlightenment through their own effort and the teachings flourish. During the Middle (Zoho) Day, the second thousand years, the Dharma continues to spread but begins to lose its power. In the Latter Day (Mappo) Shakyamuni’s dharma is almost completely degenerated and the minds of Buddhist practitioners are so deluded that they can no longer liberate themselves through their own efforts, they must rely on the saving grace of some “other-power.”

This is Amida Buddha, an entirely mythical being who promises salvation and rebirth in his Pure Land for all those who take faith in him and chant his name. There is no significant daylight between this and, say, Christianity. And in Pure Land we find a real tension between their approach and the teachings of the historical Buddha, who obviously did not teach this kind of faith. Regarding this, Roger Corless, in his essay “Pure Land Piety” (included in the anthology Buddhist Spirituality) says,

Pure Land Buddhism, however, is not ambiguous. It speaks explicitly and often of reliance on Amita Buddha as “Other Power” . . . This has led some scholars to claim that Pure Land is not, or is not fully, Buddhist . . . charging that Pure Land Buddhism is a corruption of “true” Buddhism.”

I am sympathetic to this point of view, yet at the same time, given its noble history and fine tradition of scholarship, I feel it is a bit unfair to deny Pure Land full status as a branch of Buddhism.

The second largest faith-based Buddhism is Nichiren Buddhism. The Soka Gakkai describes their brand of faith, this way: “Faith means to believe in the Gohonzon, or the object of devotion.” The Gohonzon is the “mandala” inscribed by Nichiren (It used to be called “the object of worship”). Nichirenism is presented as the antithesis of “other-power” and Pure Land, however I have long felt that Nichiren originally intended to create a virtual carbon-copy of Pure Land and that his mandala actually represents a Supreme Being. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

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Deities

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? This is an on-going debate. Most of us probably tend to fall on the philosophy side and we are uncomfortable with the idea of faith. Most scholars will say that when the historical Buddha used the Indian word shraddha, often translated as faith, he meant confidence, trust, and sincerity, not faith in the sense of belief, or dogma.

But many of the forms of Buddhism that evolved after the Buddha were faith-based, and today most Buddhists in the world do see dharma as a religion and accept the notion of salvation by faith. The faith they generate is toward deities, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, all mythological, many of which come very close to the Western conception of God.

The Sanskrit/Pali word for deity is deva. Sometimes devatta is used. Deva can mean god, God, divine, heavenly,  radiant, along with a number of other meanings, all of which point to the idea of a “higher, holier being.” These beings may not be immortal or omniscient, but they certainly are not human. “Celestial” is a good word.

These beings are numerous, but how they are understood and the ways practice revolves around them can broadly categorized using the two terms “Other-power” (Ch. t’o-li; Jp. tariki) and “Own-Power” (Ch. tzu-li; Jp. jiriki). The origins of these terms are unclear and they are most often associated with Pure Land thought. In his essay, “Pure Land Peity,”* British scholar Roger Corless describes other-power this way: “The experience of . . . the theistic devotee is that one’s own power is insufficient to take one to liberation and so it is necessary to trust in the power of Another.” Own-power is the opposite, it is relying on one’s own efforts .

Corless further states,

Trust in a power greater than oneself is such a common motif in those systems which we call religions that it has sometimes been regarded as a sine qua non for identifying a system as a religion rather than, say, a philosophy. Since Buddhism often seems to be ambiguous on this point, it has got itself called, in English, a ‘religious-philosophy.’”

Ambiguous, too, is the exact nature of the other-power. Corless says that deities such as Amita Buddha “does not stand above the worshipper as an ontologically ‘Higher Power’.” This, however, does not match the reality in the minds of most theistic devotees, who tend to understand these deities as god-like, offering grace and eternal salvation.

Five Dhyani Buddhas
Five Dhyani Buddhas

This brings us to Dhyani Buddhas and Celestial Bodhisattvas.

Britannica.com: “Dhyani-Buddha, in Mahayana Buddhism, and particularly in Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism, any of a group of five “self-born” celestial buddhas who have always existed from the beginning of time. The five are usually identified as Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi.”

They represent five qualities of the Buddha. Dhyani is a form of dhyana meaning “meditation.” In terms of practice, these mythological Buddhas are used as objects of meditation. There is a vast array of celestial bodhisattvas, such as Avalokitesvara and Tara. In Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, practice with these celestial  beings is known as deity-yoga.

Deity-yoga deserves a lengthy explanation, but for now, let’s just say that the practice, performed in the context of sadhanas or rituals, has the practitioner centering his or her mind on the particular deity at hand and then visualizing that they, the practitioner, is a fully enlightened Buddha. I don’t care for using the word “deity” because of the connotation. The majority of tantric practitioners I’ve been with have a rational view of these beings, but there are those who misunderstand or are stuck in superstition.

The late Lama Tharchin Rinpoche was one of my favorite Tibetan teachers. I attended many of his teachings and empowerments. He had a great sense of humor, a wonderful smile, and although he was a proponent of so-called “crazy wisdom,” as far as I am aware, he never used that as an excuse to be irresponsible or to take advantage of his students. He always struck me as sort of a crazy, but wise, hippie.

There is a piece online by Lama Tharchin Rinpoche where he makes it clear that deity-yoga is not other-power but own-power. An excerpt reads:

Mahayoga sadhana is also called deity yoga. Maybe this is a good time for me to explain about deity yoga. I’ve noticed many people practicing deity yoga with the idea that the deity is outside or separate from themselves. This is not right and consequently, their practice is not conducive to wisdom and it even reinforces ignorance or becomes [egoism] . . .

Deity is synonymous with bodhicitta. Deity is a pure state of being that is beyond duality and not constricted by the forces of clinging and grasping. Since all beings have mind, they also have the nature of mind. Therefore, all beings are divine because their nature is pure.”

In other words, these deities are merely tools we can use to help activate our own inner power. They are archetypes, and to see them as being outside of our own lives is to grossly misunderstand the Buddha’s teachings.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s words encapsulate my attitude toward my Healing Buddha practice that I mentioned in the last post – except that the word or concept of “deity” never enters my mind. The Healing or Medicine Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru) is a celestial Buddha that is not only meditated upon, but also worshiped.  Obviously, worship does not interest me, and I am not concerned with the formalities of the practice. I study Healing Buddha teachings for encouragement they provide for wayfaring on the healing path and for the insights on subjects such suffering, emptiness, compassion, and nature of mind.

It is not necessary at all to use a Buddha or Bodhisattva as an object of meditation. I read some Tibetan and Japanese Healing Buddha literature and heard some teachings, and it resonated with me. It’s not superior to any other practice nor is it the whole of my practice, or the only thing I do to generate inner healing. When I chant the Healing Buddha mantra I am making a determination to be healthy. It helps keep my eye on the prize, so to speak, for I have a wandering eye and a monkey mind.

Healing Buddha practice involves visualization, or practice before an image of the Healing Buddha, and the goal is to become a Healing Buddha oneself, to harness the healing energies within. I wrote in Monday’s post “I am the cancer.” Well, I am also the healing. I am the Healing Buddha.

I will write more about this later. In the meantime, this is the first of several posts dealing with the subject of deities in Buddhism. Next up is “The Buddhism of Faith,” followed by “Nichiren and the Supreme Being.” There may be posts on other subjects interspersed.

Finally, please remember that no matter where you are, what you are doing, whether it is rain or shine, cloudy or clear, regardless of what circumstances you find yourself in – it is a beautiful day. Enjoy it.

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