Two Pairs of Sandals

I saw this photo of a man giving his sandals to a homeless girl in Rio de Janeiro on Facebook. It was in black and white with the caption: “The world is full of good people. If you can’t find one . . . be one!”

man-giving-sandalsI looked for the original and discovered that it’s been posted all over the Internet for several years, so likely you’ve seen it before. I hadn’t. One reason why I found it so interesting is that it reminded me of this story about Mahatma Gandhi:

In India, during those days, rail was the fastest and most affordable way to travel across the country. The British rail company would only stop at a station if white people were waiting, otherwise they would merely slow down so that non-whites had to run and hop aboard the still moving train.

One day as Gandhi scrambled on to a train, one of his sandals slipped off and landed on the track. With the train rolling, he was unable to retrieve it, so he took off his other sandal and threw it back along the track where it landed close to the first one.

Asked by a fellow passenger why he did that, Gandhi replied, “If some poor man finds one sandal, he will surely find the other and then he have a good pair he can use.”

We have to accept both the photo and the story with a certain amount of faith. I have not been able to find the original source of either. The photo might have been staged, or it might actually depict something quite different from what it’s supposed to be. As far as the Gandhi story is concerned, well, there are a lot of stories about the Mahatma and I doubt if half of them are true.

It doesn’t really matter. What is important is the positive messages they convey. In the Gandhi story, there are two points. One is about how compassion and kindness can become so deeply ingrained in someone that they instinctively, without a moment’s hesitation, think about the welfare of others. The second point is about non-attachment. If Gandhi had been attached to his shoes, the loss of one might have caused to give in to anger or some other negative emotion. Instead, he was calm about the loss of his shoe, and he turned his misfortune into possible good fortune for another person.

As I’ve mentioned many times, in Buddhism, compassion begins with bodhicitta, the thought or wish to awaken for the welfare of all living beings. Bodhicitta has two stages, intentional, or the aspiration, and active bodhicitta, the practical engagement or the performance of altruistic acts. The Gandhi story is an example of both. Even though he was not Buddhist, Gandhi certainly aspired to be altruistic, and through his practice of meditation, he had trained his mind so that the welfare of others was nearly always his first thought.

The Dalai Lama, at a teaching I attended in 2001, put it this way:

Bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or offering a prayer, but you can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.”

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Seeing

Today marks the 31st anniversary of the day I accepted the Precepts and officially became a Buddhist. Then, I was full of answers. Now, full of questions. I question, for instance, if it is necessary to become a “Buddhist.” I question the doctrines of karma and rebirth. And yet, I cannot help leaning toward a sort of Buddhist exceptionalism, and I am waiting, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for a rebirth of wonder.

During these 31 years I have been dedicated to a meditative practice, be it mantra or meditation, or both. I have been dedicated but not consistent. I am sure there are many meditation teachers who have nearly perfect practices. I am not one of them. I am too busy trying to be human to be perfect.

I don’t know how many of you practice meditation. I wouldn’t say that meditation is for everyone, unless they are Buddhist. Buddhism is a philosophy but more than that it is about the process of awakening, which is nearly impossible to describe, and according to Buddhism, impossible to undertake without meditation.

Buddhist Meditation, on the other hand, can be described, and although there are many variations, a good general description would be that it is a system for mind development. In turn, mind development can be described plainly as observing. The breath and the mind are the two most common objects for observation.

Another word for observation is seeing. T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i translated the Indian term for basic Buddhism meditation, samatha- vipassana (tranquility and insight) as “stopping and seeing” (chih-kuan), and said, “seeing (kuan) is observing, examining, introspecting . . . when the mind is seeing clearly it is seeing. The chief aim [of meditation] is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight and to be rid of illusion.”

This is stating things very simply. Yet, I believe that the historical Buddha’s approach to meditation was very simple, in the beginning. I feel he wanted to offer an alternative to the complex meditation techniques offered by the teachers of his day.

The Buddha said if you want to overcome suffering, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still and calm your mind. Just focus on your breath and be one with the timeless reality of now.

It is true that meditation is not enough. We must apply the awareness and wisdom we cultivate through meditation into our daily life. It’s also true that meditation won’t change the world. But it may change you, and me. And we have to be the change we want to see in the world. Gandhi didn’t really say that. What he said was,

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

In my experience, there are very few people who truly want to change their life. Oh, they will accept change if it comes easy to them and includes material benefits. Deep-seated change is too hard for most. Some people will never meditate because they are afraid of seeing too clearly the loneliness and pain of their life. When they try meditation, though, and stick with it, then they understand that observing also means seeing through our suffering, transcending it.

That is enough for today. It is after midnight and I need to post this and then go to bed. I have changed a lot in 31 years. One thing that’s changed is I am beginning to agree with the Dalai Lama that “Sleep is the best meditation.”

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Remembering the Rendezvous with Rama

Today is the 65th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as the Mahatma or “Great Soul.” One of the most important and remarkable figures of the 20th Century, Gandhi is perhaps best remembered for the way he led India to independence through the use of non-violent civil disobedience, and in so doing, inspired civil rights and freedom movements around the world.

Gandhi was a deeply spiritual man. Prayer and meditation were as important to his strategy as were fasting and marching. In Buddhism, prayer is not a central part of the practice. The Buddha was a bit pessimistic about the so-called power of prayer. Yet, there is a correlation between the purest form of prayer and meditation. With that in mind, today I offer a short sketch of Gandhi’s evening prayer service and some brief thoughts of his on prayer, meditation, and mantra.

gandhi-3bI am unsure of the source of this description of Gandhi during evening prayer. I saved it off my old website on Buddhist Meditation. I believe it is by Eknath Easwaran.

The sun had set when we got back from his regular evening walk. Hurricane lanterns were lit; Gandhi settled down at the base of a neem tree as ashramites and the rest of us huddled in. I managed to get a seat close by, where I could fix my whole heart on him.

Some hymns were sung, a Japanese monk opened with a Buddhist chant, a British lady began one of Gandhi’s favorite hymns, John Henry Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light,” and then Gandhi’s secretary began reciting the second chapter of the Gita. Then it happened . . . Not that I can describe it very easily. Gandhi’s eyes closed; his body went stock still, his eyes closed in deep concentration, as if absorbed in the words; it seemed as though centuries had rolled away and I was seeing the Buddha in a living person. I saw what we had almost forgotten was possible in the modern world: a man had conquered himself . . .

I believe I found these quotes at gandhi.org.

Gandhi on Prayer and Meditation*

I do not forbid the use of images in prayer. I only prefer the worship of the formless . . .

Prayer is no flight of eloquence; it is no lip-homage. It springs from the heart. If, therefore, we achieve that purity of the heart when it is ’emptied of all but love’, if we keep all the chords in proper tune, they ‘trembling pass in music out of sight’. Prayer needs no speech. It is itself independent of any sensuous effort. I have not the slightest doubt that prayer is an unfailing means of cleaning the heart of passions. But it must be combined with the utmost humility.

Even if your mind wanders in meditation, you should keep up the practice. You should retire to a secluded spot, sit in the correct posture and try to keep out all thoughts. Even if they continue to come, you should nevertheless complete the meditation. Gradually the mind will come under control.

On Mantra**

First, mantra should come from the heart. To install mantra in the heart requires infinite patience. It might take ages. But the effort is worthwhile. However, one’s mantra cannot be heartfelt unless one has cultivated the virtues of truth, honesty and purity within and without. This does not mean that one should give up reciting on the ground that one has not the requisite purity. For recitation of mantra is also a means for acquiring purity.

For one who has experienced peace and is in quest of it, mantra will certainly prove to be a philosopher’s stone. The [divine nature] has been given a thousand names, which only means that it can be called by any name and that its qualities are infinite.

In 1933, Nichidatsu Fujii, a Nichiren priest and later founder of the Nipponzan-Myohoji order (well-known for their Peace Pagodas) visited the ashram in Wardha, where he lived for some time and taught Gandhi how to chant Namo-Myoho-Renge-Kyo while beating a drum. This is likely the “Buddhist chant” mentioned above. Although, Gandhi liked this chant, it is difficult for me to believe he would have had much regard for Nichiren’s extremist philosophy.

The mantra that Gandhi chanted throughout his life and which had the most meaning to him was Om Sri Rama Jaya Rama, Jaya, Jaya Rama (Om Victory to Rama, victory, victory to Rama.)

In a talk he gave some nine months before he was assassinated, Gandhi said, “Even if I am killed, I will not give up repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully.”

Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu, held by some to be a supreme being. Rahim is derived from al-Rahim, an Arabic word meaning “The Merciful.”

Indeed, when Gandhi was shot, the last words on his lips are reported to be either “Rama, Rama,” “He Ram” (“Oh God”), or “Rama Rahim,” according to different accounts.

———————

* K.L. Seshagiri Rao, Mahatma Gandhi And Comparative Religion, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1990

** mkgandhi.org

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