A Brazen Buddha Melts. . .

People today want meditation without magic, mysticism, or religion.  It’s like some folks are attracted to Buddhism that doesn’t seem like Buddhism and/or they are completely turned-off by anything Religulous.  Maybe they just want to meditate.  But if you are doing any form of mindfulness, you are kinda practicing the Buddha’s teachings.  Personally, I feel that what people are looking for can be found within the context of Buddhism.  You don’t have to go “secular” or divorce yourself from the teachings.  I mean, unless, you really, really want to…

Way back I wrote about a small Chinese Buddhist school that had existed for about two hundred and seventy years when they were discovered during the 19th century.  I don’t think they’re still around.  Joseph Edkins described them in Chinese Buddhism (1893):

They are a kind of reformed Buddhists…  The name of the sect is Wu-wei-kiau, which, translated literally, means the “Do-nothing sect.”  The idea intended by it is, that religion consists, not in ceremonies and outward show, but in stillness, in a quiet, meditative life, and in an inward reverence for the all-pervading Buddha.  Buddha is believed in, but he is not worshipped.  There are temples, if they may be so called, but they are plain structures, destitute of images, and having in them only the common Chinese tablet to heaven, earth, king, parents, and teacher, as an object of reverence.

The use of wu-wei in the name refers to the Taoist/Buddhist term for “non-action,” meaning to take action in a more natural way without struggle or excessive effort.

The approach of the Wu-wei-kiau seems like a secular, modern one to me, like they were thinking outside the box.  They felt empowered to interpret Buddha-dharma their own way and yet they remained wayfarers on the Buddha path.  The Wu-wei-kiau didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

No one has to bow, wear robes, take vows, have an Asian name, sit in the traditional Asian posture, or believe in karma or rebirth.  At the same time, you don’t want to dismiss all that with a closed mind or eschew other aspects of Buddhism, particularly the teachings that don’t rely on abstract metaphysics.

I can’t help but feel that those who take a purely secular or clinical approach, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deprive themselves of considerable mind-nourishment.

In the Mo Ho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), meditation master Chih-i wrote,

If people rely exclusively on [meditation, or on only one teaching or practice] to attain understanding, then what was the reason for the Buddha to offer such a variety of teachings?  The heavens are not always clear; a doctor does not rely exclusively on powdered medicine; one does not always eat rice.

Anyway.  Here is a story Edkins relates in his book, about a time when some “foreign priests” came to visit Lo-tsu, the founder of the “Do-Nothing Sect.”  It might give us some more insight into the matter:

The foreign priest then asked him why he did not chant books of prayers.  He answered, “That the great doctrine is spontaneous, man’s nature is the same with heaven.  The true unwritten book is always rotating.  All heaven and earth are repeating words of truth.  The true book is not outside of man’s self. But the deceived are ignorant of this, and they therefore chant books of prayers.  The law that is invisible manifests itself spontaneously, and needs no book.  The flowing of water, the rushing of the winds, constitute a great chant.  Why, then, recite prayers from books?”

The founder of the Wu-wei religion was again asked why he did not worship images of Buddha.  He answered,

“A brazen Buddha melts, and a wooden Buddha burns, when exposed to the fire.  An earthen Buddha cannot save itself from water. It cannot save itself; then how can it save me?  In every particle of dust there is a kingdom ruled by Buddha.  In every temple the king of the law resides.  The mountains, the rivers, and the great earth form Buddha’s image. Why, then, carve or mould an image?”

. . . again he is asked why he does not burn incense?  He replies, “That ignorant men do not know that everyone has incense in himself. What is true incense?  It is self-government, wisdom, patience, mercy, freedom from doubts, and knowledge.  The pure doctrine of the Wu-wei is true incense, pervading all heaven and earth.  Incense is everywhere ascending.  That incense which is made by man, the smoke of fragrant woods, does not reach heaven.  The winds, clouds, and dew are true incense, always shedding itself forth through the successive seasons of the year.”

He was asked once more, “Why do you not light candles?”  He answered, “That the world is a candlestick.  Water is the oil.  The sky is an encircling shade.  The sun and moon are the flame lighting up the universe.  If there is light within me, it illumines all heaven and earth.  If my own nature be always bright, heaven will never become dark.  It will then be perceived that the king of the law is limitless.

That’s what I’m talking about…

I hate wearing robes and bowing but I like to chant.  I don’t worship Buddha images but I like having them around.  I don’t mind lighting candles and I enjoy the smell of incense, but I don’t think they are absolutely necessary.  I don’t consider myself reformed or particularly secular, just a Buddhist.


Dalai Lama Chanting Heart Sutra Mantra with Music

I’ve written about fifteen posts about the Heart Sutra, or some aspect of it.  You can find them here.  It’s been said that the Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell, containing only 632 characters in the traditional Chinese version, distilled from the voluminous Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra.

It is recited daily in Buddhist homes and temples and monasteries all over the world.

Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Heart Sutra, “A wonderful gift.”  And Zen Teacher Norman Fischer writes that “The insight of prajnaparamita, the perfection of wisdom as taught in the Heart Sutra, is the ultimate truth, transcending of all conventional truths.  It is the highest vision of the Buddha.”

Penetrate the true meaning of the Heart Sutra, and nothing will be the same again, says Karl Brunnhölzl at Lion’s Roar.

The mantra at the end encapsulates the teachings of the Heart Sutra.

tadyatha [om] gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

I translate it as:  tadyatha gone gone gone beyond gone far beyond be set upon awakening.

If I do say so myself, I think this translation is perfect for chanting in English.  However, when I recite the sutra itself, I usually do it in Japanese.

In his book, The Essence of the Heart Sutra, the Dalai Lama notes,

“We can interpret this mantra metaphorically to read “Go to the other shore,” which is to say, abandon the shore of samsara [suffering], unenlightened existence, which has been our home since beginningless time, and cross to the other shore of final nirvana and complete liberation.”

Here, then, is the Dalai Lama reciting the Heart Sutra mantra accompanied by some ambient music I put together.  I hope it will meet with your approval.


Buddha’s Relics

A pair of articles published recently by the Chinese Cultural Relics journal reports the discovery of an ancient box that may have contained remains of the historical Buddha.   Most experts believe Gautama Siddhartha Shakyamuni lived and died approximately 2500 years ago.

Did this once contain Buddha’s remains? [Getty]
The box is made of sandalwood, gold, and silver.  Archaeologists believe that the box many contain a skull bone of the Buddha.  In addition to the box, a collection of 260 6ft high statues were also uncovered.

The inscription on the box states that two monks collected the Buddha’s cremated remains over a span of 20 years and buried them in the temple in 1013 CE:

“The monks Yunjiang and Zhiming of the Lotus School, who belonged to the Manjusri Temple of the Longxing Monastery in Jingzhou Prefecture, gathered more than 2,000 pieces of [the cremated remains of the Buddha] as well as the Buddha’s teeth and bones, and buried them in the Manjusri Hall of this temple.

” In order to promote Buddhism, they wanted to collect relics of the Buddha.  To reach this goal, both of them practiced the instruction of Buddhism during every moment of their lives for more than 20 years.”

That, to me, is the most interesting part of the story, that the two monks used their search for the Buddha’s relics as a way to practice, and promote Buddha-dharma.   The reference in the inscription to the “Lotus School” leads me to believe the two monks probably belonged to the T’ien-t’ai sect, which was widely known as the Lotus School.  However, online research of Manjusri Temple and Longxing Monastery did not reveal what sect to which the monastery, built in 586 CE, belonged.

Buddha’s relics are called sarira (“body” or “relics”).  I remember reading years ago how the Buddha expressly forbade his disciples to collect and worship his relics, and yet, there is an early sutta in which he gives precise instructions on how veneration of his relics should be carried out.

According to legend, the Buddha’s remains were to go only to his family, the Shakya clan.  But six other clans and a king also wanted the relics.  To avoid fighting, the relics were divided into ten portions, “eight from the body relics, one from the ashes of Buddha’s cremation pyre and one from the pot used to divide the relics, which he kept for himself.”

I doubt anyone will ever be able to confirm that the relics are the Buddha’s, but then I don’t know much about this kind of stuff.  But I have seen a relic of the Buddha myself.  Or what is purportedly a Buddha relic.  Here in Southern California, in the museum at Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights,  a teeny tiny fragment of the Buddha’s bone is on display.  I mean it is so tiny that you have to look it using a special magnifying viewer, and even then, it’s underwhelming.  And of course, there are “relics” all over Asia.  Check out Wikipedia’s page on Relics Associated with the Buddha .

Now, those of us who practice Buddha-dharma should know we do not need to go anywhere to find a relic of Buddha.

All sentient beings have been endowed with the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics.

–  Tsung-mi (780-841)

On one hand, we are ordinary.  On the other hand, we are not.  This other hand is the hand that is the flesh and bone of Buddha.  We are the Buddha’s true relics.  When we open our box and unpack ourselves, we find the Buddha, his teachings and practice living within us.


Prepare to Die

Are you prepared to die?

The ancient samurai of Japan would prepare for death each day of their life.  The first line in the core text of bushido (”way of the warrior”), the Hagakure reads, “The way of the warrior is found in death.”

There is another line about when faced with life or death, the samurai should always choose death.  I don’t believe this is meant to say that death is to be desired, or that death is preferable to life, but merely that we should always be prepared for death, and unpacking it a bit further, that when we are confronted with hard choices, we should not be fearful of taking the most difficult option.

Being a samurai, a warrior, meant facing death on a constant basis.  Each day could be the last.  It is no different for us.  Each day could be our last, we could be hit by a car or…

Tao and Buddha-dharma practitioners endeavor to train and tame their unruly minds.  Pull the mind back into itself rather than focus on the external.  Death is a metaphor for facing the unknown, the difficult, the unavoidable.  Death is non-attachment.

We can love life and cherish it while at the same time be unattached to the “things” of life.  This detachment helps us to prepare for face ordeals.  An unshakable mind, that holds on to only itself, is prepared, when suffering arrives, to see suffering as a materialization of the Noble Truths.  Suffering, especially physical death is a natural phenomenon, a natural aspect of life.

Some methods early Buddhists had to prepare for death was to meditate on death, meditate next to a corpse, or spend a night meditating in a cemetery.  For us, it is enough perhaps to train our minds so that we are not afraid to think about death or talk about it.  We can also reflect on death, and meditate on impermanence, which is a powerful anti-dote to self-cherishing and attachment.

We should be aware that from the moment we are born the process of old age, sickness and death begins.  Of course, as we reflect on this subtle aspect of impermanence, we should also keep in mind what Dogen said in Genjo Koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”),

[It] is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death.  Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth.  It is an unshakable teaching in Buddha’s discourse that death does not turn into birth.  Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.

Birth is an expression complete this moment.  Death is an expression complete this moment.  They are like winter and spring.  You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.


The Ringing of Subtle Wisdom

I was rereading the introduction to Tao : a new way of thinking by the late Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hawaii, Chung-yuan Chang.  He was discussing the meaning of Tao when he noted that “In Chinese art, the soundless is more primordial than sound.”  I suppose that is correct, in the beginning there would be silence before sound…

In any case, he goes on to quote Heidegger (On The Way to Language):

The soundless gathering call by which Saying moves the world-relation on its way, we call the ringing of stillness.

Chung-yuan Chang comments, “It is this ringing of stillness that opens the mind of man to Eastern aesthetics… Thus, the question remains: How does one attain Tao?”  The Buddhist might ask, How does one attain enlightenment?

Chung-yuan Chang goes on to quote Chapter 38 of the Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

The highest attainment is free from attainment.
Therefore, there is attainment.
The lowest attainment is never free from attainment.
Therefore, there is no attainment.

Following this, he shares these words from the 4th century Buddhist philosopher, Shen Chao:

You may conceive of attainment as that which is able to be attained.  Therefore, there is attainment.  However, I consider attainment as nothing to be attained.  Therefore, attainment is achieved though non-attainment…  Subtle wisdom lies beyond things…”

Lao Tzu suggested that we understand Tao (and Buddhahood) by not understanding it, one of those paradoxical statements that Taoism and Zen (heavily influenced by Taoism) are well-known for.  Thing is, we shouldn’t be looking for attainment in the first place but rather “subtle wisdom.”  Attainment is an established ideal, while acquiring subtle wisdom is a practical process we call The Way.

The English word “subtle” corresponds with the Chinese character miao, which means “wonderful, mystic, clever, and subtle.”  Of these meanings, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i preferred “subtle.”  Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, states, “For Chih-i the word ‘subtle’ symbolized and summarized that which is beyond conceptual understanding and thus it is the word most appropriate to describe reality, which is ultimately indescribable.”

[Image: Chinese character “miao”]

Reality is that which is genuine, original or natural, as opposed to that which is artificial and illusory.  We are not trying to achieve something so much as we are trying to see through something.  We’re trying to see through the real and into the Real.

That’s why the Tao Te Ching says, “The Tao that can be told is not the infinite Tao,” and why the Heart Sutra says, “Within emptiness… there is no attainment with nothing to attain.”  And yet, the Heart Sutra also says that all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas practice in the way of Transcendental Wisdom and “awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.”  Huh?

Lama Govinda explains that is means “Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not enlightened by fixed teaching but by an intuitive process that is spontaneous and natural.”

Introspection or meditation is the observation of subjective mental qualities.  It is not thought.  However, it is probably as far from thought as we can get.  Wayfarers should want to cultivate a mind that that does not seize and cling to things,  an open mind, a mind not fixed or locked, unreceptive to new ideas, lacking flexibility.  This may seem to be a very simple thing but actually it is quite difficult to realize on a ongoing basis.

Finally Chung-yuan Chang quotes Heidegger quoting Nietzsche:

Our thinking should have a vigorous fragrance, like a wheat field on a summer’s night.

If fragrance had a sound, it would be the ringing of subtle wisdom.