Unbounded Wholeness

Holistic medicine is a still relatively new approach to healing in the West, and yet it has ancient roots – in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and even in the teachings of Hippocrates, the so-called father of medicine, who lived in the 4th century B.C. and emphasized the healing power of nature.  This approach to healing is called holistic because it looks at the whole person; joining all the different elements of the physical, mental, emotional, nutritional, social, and environmental into a whole system.

The term ‘holistic’ comes from the word ‘whole’, from the old English word ‘hale’, which means to be in good health, to be whole and healthy. The original meaning of ‘whole’ implied “keeping the original sense,” “that which has also survived,” and “to heal.” The prehistoric German root of whole is also the origin of ‘heal’, ‘health’, and ‘holy’. In addition, the word ‘wealth’ (‘weal’) has associations with words heal, health, holiness, and happiness.

To heal means to be whole and to be whole means to heal. To be wealthy is to be healthy and whole. To be holy is to heal and be whole. It is said that true happiness is only possible when we achieve complete wholeness and maximum health.

“Unbounded wholeness” is a concept in Dzogchen, a teaching traditional of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a rather complicated notion identified with Samantabhadra, one of the names of the Primordial Buddha. Professor Anne C. Klein, with Tenzin Wangyal, wrote a book on the subject, Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon, and the Logic of the Nonconceptual. In it, they offer this passage from The Great Profound Bliss Sutra:

Mind of mine, dwelling in the present
Uncontrived, uncoarsened, and untouched
Heart essence of all that is,
Dwells solely as wholeness unbounded.

We can find wholeness in the present because the present is always whole. The present may seem to have separate parts and dimensions but from the ultimate view, we find that it is indivisible. In the now, the past and future join the present to form a timeless reality. It is timeless when our mind is no longer tethered to the idea that the present must be divided into past, present and future.

A Healing Buddha mandala
A Healing Buddha mandala

The catalog of word forms above progressed in a circular motion, one definition leading into another and then back to the previous. A Buddhist symbol for wholeness is the mandala, which is often circular. Jung, in fact, called mandalas “archetypes of wholeness.” He saw the geometric pattern of the mandala as displaying a preexisting condition of consciousness. With this in mind, we might say that our journey to wholeness is a journey of rediscovery – uncovering the wholeness that has always been whole, and unbounded.

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Renunciation and Nirvana

Regular readers of this blog probably know by now that the title, The Endless Further, is borrowed from the Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (see About). He was not a Buddhist. He was Hindu, and he believed in God. Nonetheless, he had great respect for the Buddha’s dharma, which does not include teachings about a supreme being. Tagore, also accepted many of the same concepts that Buddhism adheres to, although his understanding of them differed according to his religion and his own sense of things.

The way I use “Endless Further” is changed slightly from the way Tagore used it, and yet, I have not strayed too far from his intended meaning. For him, the spiritual work of an individual was to realize an oneness with God, or to awaken to the presence of God within. To have that realization was the same as becoming infinite.

“Infinite” was also Tagore’s understanding of the meaning of Nirvana. But, it was not, in his mind, a goal or the end of one’s effort.  Nor was it realized solely from the practice of austerities.  As Mohit Kumar Ray tells us in Studies on Rabindranath Tagore, he “never did set Nirvana as his goal. He has repeatedly and explicitly stated his faith in the great joy of release which can be attained within the innumerable bonds and ties of life instead of abdicating the earthly for the ethereal.”

Most religious philosophies concern themselves with a division between the “sacred” and the “profane.” Tagore did not see a division; instead, he beheld the two in a dynamic relationship. The sacred is manifested through the profane, and through the profane, it is possible to find the sacred. Renunciation is a state of mind. So, too, is Nirvana.

Each moment is new and ends in a new moment. We should not strive to attain Nirvana in some future moment. This is what Zen master Dogen meant when he declared that practice is not a means to Nirvana, it is Nirvana. Every activity no matter how mundane is Buddha activity (butsu-ji). Each moment is Nirvana, and infinite.

Deliverance is not for me in renunciation. I feel the embrace of freedom in a thousand bonds of delight.”

Tagore, Gitanjali

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The Dual, the Non-Dual, and the Dominion Mandate

Maybe I’ll be there to shake your hand
Maybe I’ll be there to share the land
That they’ll be givin’ away
When we all live together

– The Guess Who

I can’t say that I am a big fan of the institution of the Pope, but then since I’m not Catholic, my opinion about the Bishops of Rome doesn’t count for much. I can say that I am glad to see the new guy, Francis, making efforts to drag his church into the 21st Century. You may have heard about his recent statements on climate change. What you may not know is that it is more than just a few remarks, it’s a 192-page document called an encyclical, which is a papal letter sent to all bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. In this document leaked to the public, he says climate change is real, he argues for a new, positive relationship between religion and science, and he criticizes those who are skeptical about climate change for being in “denial.”

And, in what I think is a major step, he says that Christians have misinterpreted the Bible. According to Francis, the book of Genesis lays out “three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” He says that these relationships have been broken and states “This rupture is sin,” which has “distorted our mandate to ‘have dominion’ over the earth. It’s too bad he didn’t reject the notion of “dominion.” If he had, it would have been truly revolutionary.

The so-called dominion mandate has been the focal point of criticism of the Christian approach to the environmental ethics. The critique is that it has enabled humans to view the earth as merely a tool for human needs. This notion of dominion created the Industrial Revolution and resulted in the wholesale devastation of our planet. There is nothing inherently wrong about using nature, but abusing it is another matter. The Industrial Revolution changed the world, but it would have been better if the changes had occurred in a more responsible manner.

I’d like to mention (and you knew I would) that the view of Eastern philosophy is completely opposite. Western religious philosophy established a dualism in separating human life from nature, and as you know, Buddhism and Taoism are based on non-dualism. In ancient Buddhist texts, there are very few instances where the intrinsic value of nature is directly addressed. However, the oneness of “man” and nature has been a major theme in Taoism from its earliest beginnings.

Yin-Yang, the Taoist symbol for non-duality
Yin-Yang, the Taoist symbol for non-duality

For the Taoist sage, the environment has always been in an intimate relationship with wisdom or what we Buddhist’s call enlightenment. The highest wisdom is the penetrating insight of the interdependency of all things, and this inter-connectedness is expressed in the sage’s identification between his true nature and nature itself. T’ien-t’ai Buddhism went even further when Chih-i declared that there is nothing in the entire universe that is not within the mind.

We don’t have dominion over the land, it is not our inheritance, or something we bequeath to our children. We participate in nature. We share the land. We are its caretakers only in the sense that we take care of each other.

One writer I’ve read says that the passage I quote below is Chuang Tzu’s attempt to “undermine the whole metaphysical debate: how can one know what is natural and what is human? How can one possible justify the claim that humans are part of nature or the contrary claim that they are not?”* To me, it is a bit simpler. Chuang Tzu is pointing to the non-dual nature of reality. On one hand, we know that things are physically separate, but on the other, everything is equal and one.

One who knows what nature is, and knows what it is that is human, has reached the peak of wisdom. Whoever knows about nature and humanity what nature does lives a life grounded in nature . . . However, there is a difficulty. Knowing is dependent on objects, but the objects of knowledge are transient and therefore uncertain. How can one know what we call nature is not really human, and what is human is not is not really nature?”

from Chapter Six “The Great and Honorable Teacher”

So, now the Pope has joined the chorus of those who call for urgent action on climate change. I wish he had gone further, but a small step in the right direction is better than nothing. Someone over at Fox News called him a Marxist and the “most dangerous man on earth.” Sorry deadhead, the most dangerous are those who just don’t get it, who refuse to understand the earth is a giant, living organism and we humans are the cancer threatening its existence – our existence.

Moving images, poignant words, and a classic song:

– – – – – – – – – –

* Perrenboom, R.P. “Beyond Naturalism: A Reconstruction of Daoist Environmental Ethics.” Environmental Philosophy in Asian Traditions of Thought. Ed. J. Baird Callicott , James McRae. SUNY Press, 2014. 152

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Where y’at?

“Where y’at?”
Common New Orleans greeting

Some of you oldies out there surely remember the comedy group Firesign Theater. They put out a number of comedy albums in the late 60’s and early 70s. One of my favorite bits, from Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, was about a former child actor watching one of his movies on TV called “High School Madness”, a parody of the old Henry Aldrich movies that I used to watch as a kid. The actor played a character named Porgy Tirebiter. I can still recall the lyrics to the intro song, sung by the Android Sisters: “Porgy Tirebiter!/He’s a spy and a girl delighter,/Orgie Firefighter!/He’s just a student like you.”

Firesign Theater albums had rather unusual titles, like the one above. Another LP was titled How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All. What was cool about that one was it had a sort of Zen ring to it.

Of course, everyone is somewhere. Relatively speaking. From the viewpoint of ultimate truth, however, nobody is anywhere.

Another title I am fond of, this time from a book, is Pema Chodron’s Start Where You Are. She’s a respected Buddhist teacher, nun and author, and her book is about Buddhist slogans or lojong and the meditation practice of tonglen (“giving and taking”). As the subtitle indicates, its also “A Guide to Compassionate Living.”

I like this passage from Chapter 6:

Pema Chodron
Pema Chodron

Start where you are. This is very important. Tonglen practice (and all meditation practice) is not about later, when you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect. You may be the most violent person in the world— that’s a fine place to start. That’s a very rich place to start —juicy, smelly. You might be the most depressed person in the world, the most addicted person in the world, the most jealous person in the world. You might think that there are no others on the planet who hate themselves as much as you do. All of that is a good place to start. Just where you are— that’s the place to start.”

Many of us have already started, but very few are actually where we want to be. So, sometimes it’s a matter of re-starting from where we are. It’s important to keep in mind that as we shouldn’t judge others, we shouldn’t judge ourselves, either. In Buddhism there are no judgments, only lessons. If we are less than perfect, that is quite all right. The journey to mindfulness or awakening does not require that we be anything other than what we are right now, and the only place we need to be is where we are.

Now, to be able to start where you are, you have to be somewhere to begin with.  Again, the ultimate truth offers us a slightly different perspective, but then it kind of circles around.  First, the ultimate truth asks that we let go of the idea of being anywhere, and going anywhere. The Buddha called his path a “pathless path.” That’s because it is not a route or course that is laid out like a bicycle path or a road. The path does not lead us away from where we are, it leads us to within where we are. To walk the path, though, we must be able to see reality ‘as it is,’ which is the ordinary reality, and here’s the twist, the ordinary is the true nature of reality – the reality of where we are, where we start and restart from.  In other words, it’s where y’at.

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Mentioned By Name

It has been exactly 156 days since I last mentioned Bob Dylan on this blog. By mentioning him today, I have corrected that horrible omission. I had to do it, it was haunting me.

But don’t ask me what I think about his latest album of “standards,” Shadows in the Night, because I really don’t know how I feel about it. Mixed feelings, says it best . . . and with that, ’nuff said about it.

In a Bob Dylan related mention, today is 105th birthday of Howlin’ Wolf (1910-1976) born Chester Arthur Burnett, who was the great Chicago blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player from White Station Mississippi. One of the true giants and pioneers of blues music. Lord knows Bob stole a lot from was heavily influenced by the man. Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer, Sam Lay, even played on Bob’s Highway 61 Revisited.

I’d also like to mention something that is totally unrelated to Bob Dylan or Howlin’ Wolf: today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973). If you recognize that name at all, it is probably from the film Bridge on River Kwai (1957), in which he played the commandant of the prison camp, Colonel Saito. That performance earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Early Hayakawa and as Col. Saito
Early Hayakawa and as Col. Saito

Hayakawa was a prolific actor, appearing in over 100 films, many of them silent, many of them Japanese productions. No doubt you have seen him in his other English language movies, such as Swiss Family Robinson, Tokyo Joe, The Geisha Boy, House of Bamboo, and Hell to Eternity.

Several years ago, when Turner Classic Movies had a month long Asian film festival, I watched some of his early work, including a couple of silents. According to Stephen Gong, Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media, “Hayakawa’s acting inspiration, his unique approach, which he attributed to Zen Buddhism, brought to the silent screen an acting style characterized by intuition, naturalness and the eradication of conscious effort. In Zen this is termed the state of muga—an absence of self-awareness. Contemporary critics hailed it as a “repressed” method of acting (and as such suitably ‘Oriental’).”

IMBD says, “The popularity of Hayakawa rivaled that of Caucausian male movie stars in the decade of the 1910s, and he became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.”

zen-hayakawaHayakawa was also a producer, author, martial artist and ordained Zen priest. He lived much of his life in Los Angeles, but after his wife, Tsuru Aoki, died in 1961, he went back to Japan, and wrote his autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way: To Peace, Happiness and Tranquility, and that’s when he became a Zen priest.

I tried to find his book on the Internet so that I could share a pithy or inspiring quote from it with you. The only thing I found (besides a pic of the cover) was this: “All my life has been a journey. But my journey differs from the journeys of most men.”

Well, everyone’s life is a journey and each journey is different, unique to each individual. So here’s something truly profound from that great WWII film Bridge on River Kwai directed by David Lean and in addition to Hayakawa staring William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins. In the movie, Colonel Saito forces the British POWs to construct a railway bridge for the Japanese to use. At one point, the Colonel tells the prisoners “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

Today’s post has been a bit of play, but I hope also informative. Another piece of information: You’ve probably heard the words spoken by Colonel Saito many times before. It’s an old proverb that first appeared in James Howell’s Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish way back in 1659.

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