Out of Steam

Last month marked the 7th anniversary of The Endless Further.  I guess that’s sort of an accomplishment, because I read somewhere that the average lifespan of a blog is 2.75 years.

As you may have noticed, blogging in the last year or so has really slowed down.  There is a simple explanation for that.  I’ve run out of steam.  When I started the blog, I had a few things to say.  Well, I’ve said them.  At least, three or four times already.

There’s also the physical stuff I’m going through: lymphedema and chronic bursitis.  I’ve been in constant pain (or at least, persistent soreness) for over two years.  It takes away my energy, and weakens my enthusiasm for such things as blogging.

This is not to say that I’m quitting or shutting down the blog.  But posting is going to be really slow from here on out.  I’ll post again when I’m inspired to, or when I think I have something new or important to say.  I will probably post more frequently on The Endless Further Facebook page.

I want to thank you for reading my blog.  If you have found it informative or encouraging, I am glad.  I’ve heard from a small number of folks who have said that’s been the case for them.

I received Buddhist precepts on September 25, 1983.  That’s nearly 34 years ago.  Since then, I won’t say I have been a perfect Buddhist or anyone’s role model, but I have learned a few things.  And the most important of what I’ve learned is this:

Buddhism holds the view that the highest life condition, what we call Buddhahood or awakening, is not a destination to be reached in the remote future, but a potential already inherent in life.  The aim of Buddhist practice is to tap into this Buddha-nature, to change our thinking and our life, and then, strive to understand the meaning of compassion, to understand another person’s problems.  As the Dalai Lama says, this is the purpose of existence, to help others remove the cause for their suffering.

Until next time, peace.

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Throwback Thursday: Bodhicitta, The Nectar of Immortality

The following is an edited version of a post published in 2014.

The Sanskrit word amrita means “immortality.”  In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

In Buddhism, amrita appears in different contexts: it might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts (samaya) “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is also the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.

It’s best to view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, represents spiritual nourishment; anything that helps sustain or nurtures wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.

The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,

“[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before.  It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”

Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist practice, because those who fare on the Bodhisattva Way practice not only for themselves, but also for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings.  Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,

“It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world; an inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”

Again, we should take “the nectar of immortality” as metaphor, for the non-fear of death.  Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the present.  As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes, and more importantly it weakens our ability to deal with what is happening now.  When we live for more than just ourselves, we develop courage, even without being aware of it, and acquire wisdom, through which we see that even death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, near the beginning of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we find these words:

“Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

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Throwback Thursday: “Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa”

This is an edited version of a post published in 2014

Gandhi’s relationships with women were complicated but I believe he operated from the conviction that men and women are completely equal.  He wrote,

Woman is the incarnation of ahimsaAhimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering.  Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure?  She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour?  But she forgets them in the joy of creation.

gandhi-womenWho, again, suffers daily so that her babe may wax from day to day?  Let her transfer that love to the whole of humanity, let her forget that she ever was or can be the object of man’s lust.  And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man as his mother, maker and silent leader.  It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world thirsting for that nectar.”

M.K. Gandhi

Photo: Gandhi with women workers, Greenfield Mill, England 1931

Ahimsa (Sanskrit: “not to injure”) means non-violence.  Do not harm.  An important principle in all the major Indian religions, and in fact, the phrase “do no harm” is often used for the Buddha’s first precept.

Historically, Buddhism has exhibited some extremely misogynistic tendencies and even today there remain issues in a few Buddhist schools regarding gender equality. Yet, Buddhism has also a tradition of revering women as uniquely awakened beings.  In Prajna-Paramita literature, Buddhas are not born from Nirvana but from the practice of Prajna-Paramita or Transcendent Wisdom.  Transcendent Wisdom is called the mother of all Buddhas.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the first step toward generating bodhicitta, the altruistic thought of awakening, is to recognize all sentient beings as one’s mother.  Based on the idea of infinite rebirth, at some point every sentient thing was one’s mother.

Women are seen as the symbol of compassion, personified by not only ‘mother beings’ but also such celestial beings as Kuan Yin, the ‘goddess of compassion.’

Some people maintain that women are naturally more empathetic than men, but there is research that suggests one gender does not experience more compassion than the other, rather each experiences compassion differently.

And so, the potential for what Gandhi called “infinite love” is universal, compassion is innate.  Gandhi’s words echo this famous guidance from the Buddha in the Metta Sutta:

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Quote: M.K. Gandhi, Women and Social Justice, Ahmedabad, Navjivan Publishing House, 1954, 26-27.

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Lola, the Goddess, and Extending the Eye Business

In several previous posts, I have mentioned the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter (aka The Naga Princess) from the Lotus Sutra, often cited as example of Buddhism championing gender equality.  I have never quite understood how that holds up because the girl must take a man’s form before she can attain enlightenment.  To me, the story still reinforces the notion of the male form as superior.

I think a better example of promoting the equality of women and men can be found in the Vimalakirti Sutra.  First, a little background:

Vimalakirti2Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (“Instructions of  Vimalakirti) is a Mahayana Buddhist sutra most likely composed in India approximately 100 CE and rendered into Chinese in 406 CE by the famous translator Kumarajiva.  It concerns Vimalakirti, a wealthy lay practitioner and bodhisattva whose wisdom is equal to that of the Buddha.  Because Vimalakirti is a layperson, the sutra emphasizes the equality of lay practitioners and ordained practitioners, and in the passage I am sharing with you, it also stresses the equality between men and women.

Vimalakirti pretends to be sick so that other followers and bodhisattvas will gather around him and he will have an opportunity to instruct them on some finer points of the dharma.  It just so happens that a goddess lives in his house, and when she appears, Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, starts to question her.  Here is one of their exchanges that I have adapted from the translations by Robert Thurman and Burton Watson:

Shariputra: Goddess, Why don’t you change out of your female body?

[Poor Shariputra sure seems dense in some these sutras.  Here he assumes that any woman would naturally want to change into a man if she could, since Buddhism at that time often put forth the notion that woman could not become enlightened.]

Goddess: For the past twelve years, I have been trying to take on female form, but with no luck.  What is there to change?  If a magician were to make a woman by magic, would you ask her, “Why don’t you change out of your female body?”

Shariputra: No!  She would not real, so what would there be to change?

Goddess: Yes, all things are unreal.  So why have you asked me to change my unreal female body?

Then with her mystical power, she transformed herself into Shariputra and turned Shariputra into her.  The goddess asked Shariputra if he could change back to his own form.

Shariputra, now transformed into the goddess, said:  I do not know why I have turned into a goddess.  I do not know what to transform!

Goddess: Shariputra, if you can change out of this female body, then all women should also be able to turn into men.  Shariputra, who is not a woman, appears in a woman’s body.  And the same is true of all women, although they appear in women’s bodies, they are not women.  Therefore the Buddha teaches that all things are neither male nor female.”

The goddess changed Shariputra back to his original male body, and she returned to her original form.

Goddess: Shariputra, where is your female body now?

Shariputra: The form of a woman neither exists nor is non-existent.

Goddess: Well, now you understand.  All things are fundamentally neither existing nor non-existent, and that which neither exists nor is non-existent is the teaching of the Buddha.

Before the rise of Mahayana, all the Buddhist schools held that neither lay people nor women could achieve awakening.  Even within the Mahayana branch, while there was a significant focus on lay practitioners, there were still instances of misogyny that remain unabated.  However, it was inevitable that there would be a move away from that attitude, for the Mahayana’s concept of emptiness destroyed all concepts, all views.  It only makes sense that empiness destroys gender, too.  Gender differences belong to the relative world.

So, we have this example where the Vimalakirti teaches not only equality between lay people and ‘clergy’, but also emphasizes that within emptiness there is equality of women and men.

Shariputra cannot yet see the full truth because he still clings to relative distinctions.

Another way to look at it is that emptiness does not destroy things as much as it renders them conditional and relative.  According to Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra, to see things in this way is to extend our vision, use our eye of wisdom.  He called it the teaching of the emptiness of beginninglessness.

But then in The Precious Garland Nagarjuna said “may all women be reborn as males.”

Which may, or may not, be the reason why Ray Davies said,

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola
La-la-la-la Lola

– – – – – – – – – –

“extending the eye business” from Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans, Grove Press edition 1981, p. 95

image: Vimalakirti Bodhisattva debating Manjusri Bodhisattva. Dunhuang, Mogao Caves, China, Tang Dynasty.

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Democracy in America

Born on this day in 1805 was Alexis de Tocqueville, the French statesman who wrote Democracy in America following a nine month visit to the United States in 1831-32.  The young country he found on his trip, the democracy still in its infancy, continues to flourish, and his book, published in 1840, remains an influential book about the United States.

tocquevilleOur contemporaries are constantly excited by two conflicting passions; they want to be led, and they wish to remain free: as they cannot destroy either one or the other of these contrary propensities, they strive to satisfy them both at once. They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people.  They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite: they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians.  Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain.

By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again.  A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”

It does not satisfy me, either.  Even in the process of selecting our ‘master’, we do not shake off dependence, for we rely on others to lead us.  Democracy is a participatory system.  It demands involvement and awareness on the part of its citizens.  Our current state of affairs is one of the consequences of too little intellectual participation.

I’m not the only one who can’t get no satisfaction.  In this year’s selection process, people on both sides are dissatisfied with their choice.  Choice may be an illusion. When the alternatives for selection are forced by external powers, choice does not exist.  Too often we don’t get to choose the best of the best, rather we choose what is handed to us.

Simultaneously, it seems that fate has taken a hand this time around, and the differences between the two alternatives seems startlingly clear.  Although, this too, may be a mirage.

Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”  This implies that democracy is the best simply because it works better.  Hillarie Belloc remarked that the “use of such language connotes that the user of it is fatigued by the effort of thought.”  He went on to say “The institution ‘works’ in proportion as it satisfies that political sense which perfect democracy would . . .”*

Because in democracy, the people are sovereign, we should never be satisfied and always strive to be greater collectively than we are.  A greater democracy means a greater community of people.  On the individual level, we can stay involved by thinking and studying about democracy.  I wish more Americans felt the need to think past the political slogans, read more of the news as opposed to just listening to it, and then, read beyond the headlines.

For Tocqueville, civic and professional associations (people coming together) and participation in the public sphere were the vital components of any true democracy.  Democracy doesn’t ‘work’; we, the people, make it work.  But only, when we are involved in it, only when we put our mind to it.

Democracy in America, what a quandary . . .

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.

Alexis de Tocqueville

– – – – – – – – – –

Hilarie Belloc, The French Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1966, 3

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