The Mummy Returns

My post on March 2nd about Kukai’s sokushin jobutsu would have had more context if today’s post had preceded it. I meant to post this piece the previous Friday, but the deaths of Ruth Denison, Leonard Nimoy, and Avijit Roy changed my plan, and then I forgot that I had not posted it.

In any case, a few weeks ago I blogged about the mummified remains found in Mongolia of a man thought to be about 200 years old whom researchers believe might be a Buddhist monk who died while meditating as he appears to be sitting in the lotus position. The connection between that, Kukai and his concept of sokushin jobutsu, is that there has been some speculation that the Mongolian mummy is an example of the Japanese practice known as sokushinbutsu or self-mummification, known to have occurred between the 12th and early 20th centuries. Twenty-four self-made mummies have been discovered in Yamagata Prefecture, all individuals who belonged to the Shingon sect, of which Kukai was the founder.

Statue and CT scan imageBefore going any further, let me lay some more mummy news on you: it has been widely reported that a 1000-year-old Buddhist statue after subjected to CT scans appears to contain the mummified remains of a Chinese monk. The scans also show scraps of paper with Chinese characters written on them where the mummy’s internal organs should have been. Some reports indicate the remains belong to Liu Quan, a meditation master, and it is thought that he, too, went thought the process of self-mummification.

The two recent mummies were found in Mongolia and China, so the connection to Japan might be that Kukai learned of the practice when he visited China and brought back with him. The similarity between the two terms, sokushinbutsu and sokushin jobutsu is obvious. Self-mummified Buddhists are traditionally considered to be “living Buddhas” and in Mongolian Buddhism it is maintained that that senior lamas whose bodies have been preserved are not really dead. Broadly speaking, we can say that becoming a Buddha with this body is like becoming a living Buddha.

I mentioned in the 3/2 post that soku means becoming, shin is mind/body, and butsu is buddha: become buddha mindbody. The term can also be interpreted as “attaining Buddhahood in this very existence.”

Kukai was not the only Japanese Buddhist to promote sokushin jobutsu. Saicho, Kukai’s one-time friend and counterpart, founder of Japanese Tendai, also used the term. Probably both men were introduced to the concept when they trained in China, and it may have originated in Indian Buddhism. Kukai used as a source for his treatise on the subject a work attributed to Nagarjuna, Aspiration to Enlightenment (thought to be apocryphal), which contains the phrase, “we can attain enlightenment in this very existence.” Saicho’s source was the fable in the Lotus Sutra of the Naga king’s daughter, who in a single moment becomes a buddha (unfortunately she must transform herself into a man first).

In the 13th century, Dogen, who established the Japanese Soto school of Zen after studying Caodong Ch’an in China, also taught a variation of this concept, sokushin zebutsu or “mind itself is buddha.” In his work “Sokushin-zebutsu” he wrote, “The mind correctly transmitted means that one mind is all dharmas and all dharmas are one mind.” As Dogen had been initially trained in Tendai, I see a correlation there with the philosophy of Tendai predecessor, T’ien-t’ai Chih-i of China and his i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen).

The difference between Kukai and Dogen is that the former, a tantric Buddhist tended to emphasize mystic experience as the way to become awakened in this life, while the latter focused on the more routine process of cultivation, the method of realizing buddha-mind, which is rigorous meditation practice.

Now, in some of these teachings, and in others where the idea of attaining enlightenment in one lifetime is floated, they don’t really mean one lifetime but three although I don’t recall exactly how that was worked out. However, in the modern application of all this, the point to focus on is that becoming a buddha is not realizing some supra-mundane state of being. Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty, said “The Way is your everyday mind.” The Way is Buddha, and our everyday mind, our everyday body, our everyday life, is Buddha.

I wrote about Dogen and sokushin zebutsu in a 2012 post, noting “This line of thought breaks down the traditional notion that it take many lifetimes to attain Buddhahood. It brings awakening into the present, into the here and now.”

The piece is titled This Mind Itself. As I looked at the post earlier today, I couldn’t help but notice that the image I created for the piece bears some small resemblance to the image of the CT scan above.

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Attaining Buddhahood with this very body

Although there seems to be some debate as to whether or not Kukai (774-835), also known by his posthumous title Kobo Diashi, was ever ordained as a Buddhist priest or monk, there is no question that he is one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism.

Kukai
Kukai

Kukai was so inspired by the Mahavairocana Sutra that in 804 he took advantage of an opportunity to go on a government-sponsored trip to China in order to learn more about the text. There he encountered the Chen-yen (“Mantra” or “True Word”) school, an esoteric from of Buddhism, and he became the student of two masters, the Indian monk Prajna, and Hui-kuo, a tantric monk. Kukai received various initiations while in China, and returned to Japan carrying copies of important Buddhist sutras and commentaries. He eventually founded the Japanese version of Chen-yen, the Shingon sect, which is still around today.

A key feature of esoteric or tantric Buddhism (also known as Varjayana “Diamond Vehicle”) is the focus on the role the body plays in awakening the mind. As Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta notes in An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism, the tantric schools “hold that the body is the abode of all truth; it is the epitome of the the universe or, in other words, it is the microcosm, and as such embodies the truth of the whole universe.”

In his book, The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism: A Phenomenolgical Perspective of Kukai and Dogen, David E. Shaner coined the compound “bodymind” to express the non-duality of body and mind: “A close examination of the relation between body and mind in our lived prereflective experience reveals that there is no mediate relationship. We experience and live body and mind as one.”

It is this basic understanding that forms the core of Kukai’s teachings. He expressed the nonduality of bodymind with the term sokushin jobutsu, also the title of a work he composed in his middle forties, Sokushin jobutsu gi. Translated literally, the term is rendered “immediately (soku) mind (shin) become Buddha (jobutsu).” In later times, immediately would truly mean immediately, as in ichinen jobutsu (“buddhahood in a single moment”), but for Kukai it mean in this existence, this lifetime, more or less. Considering that traditionally enlightenment or Buddhahood is attained after many lifetimes, this idea was a bit radical to say the least.

Kukai was not alone in promoting this concept. Saicho, Kukai’s one-time friend and counter-part, who was founder of Japanese Tendai, also used the term. Probably both men were introduced to the concept while in China, and it may have originated in Indian Buddhism, as Kukai used as a source for his treatise a work attributed to Nagarjuna, Aspiration to Enlightenment (very likely apocryphal), that contains the phrase, “we can attain enlightenment in this very existence.” Saicho’s source was the fable from the Lotus Sutra of the Naga king’s daughter, who in a single moment becomes a buddha (unfortunately she must transform herself into a man first).

The Japanese word shin (from the Chinese xin) can mean “mind” or “heart,” and also “body.” For this reason, Kukai’s sokushin jobutsu is often translated as “attaining Buddhahood with this very body.” Yoshito S. Hakeda in Kukai: Major Works explains why:

Judging from the contents of the work by this title, the word ‘body (shin)’ clearly does not mean the body as opposed to the mind but stands for ‘existence’ or ‘body-mind-being’ The choice of the word ‘body’ over the normally expected mind underscores the basic character of Kukai’s religion: emphasis on direct religious experience through one’s total being and not merely through the intellect. Kukai required that any religious teaching withstand the test of actual meditation and of daily life.”

This forms an interesting connection to what I wrote in the last post in regard to the late Ruth Denison and her “body-centered” approach to meditation. When practicing meditation we are often very mindful of the mind, but less mindful of our body. And yet, most of us are aware that body and mind are one, and for that matter, it is not really possible to have any experience that is mind sans body, or vice versa. Denison learned the importance of body awareness in meditation from U Ba Khin who developed a “sweeping” method to focus on the deep interrelationship between mind and body.

How to integrate body awareness into a meditation practice is not a difficult subject, but one that needs to be dealt with another time. For now, these words by Kukai provide the perfect summation:

The Buddha Dharma is nowhere remote. It is in our mind; it is close to us. The element of original enlightenment is nowhere external. If not within our body, where can it be found?”

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December 8: Bodhi Day, Sad Day

River_Buddha2bToday is Bodhi Day, which in Mahayana Buddhism is set aside for commemorating the day the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautauma (Shakyamuni), attained enlightenment. From what I have seen it is predominately the Japanese Buddhist traditions that observe this day, known as Rohatsu, literally “eighth day of the twelfth month.” In the Tendai sect, the celebration is called Jodo-e or “completing the path to becoming a Buddha (through attaining enlightenment) [Jodo but with different characters means “pure land.”].

There are different accounts of what supposedly happened that morning when the Buddha was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree on the bank of the Nairanjana River, most of them portray the event as some mind-blowing, almost psychedelic experience. I doubt that was the case. Regardless, all the accounts agree that what happened was a result of meditation.

Here is what the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki had to say about Bodhi Day, the Buddha’s enlightenment and meditation in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

I am very glad to be here on the day Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bo tree. When he attained enlightenment under the Bo tree, he said, “It is wonderful to see Buddha nature in everything and in each individual!” What he meant was that when we practice zazen [meditation] we have Buddha nature, and each of us is Buddha himself. By practice he did not mean just to sit under the Bo tree, or to sit in the cross-legged posture. It is true that this posture is the basic one or original way for us, but actually what Buddha meant was that mountains, trees, flowing water, flowers and plants–everything as it is–is the way Buddha is. It means everything is taking Buddha’s activity, each thing in its own way.

But the way each thing exists is not to be understood by itself in its own realm of consciousness. What we see or what we hear is just a part, or a limited idea, of what we actually are. But when we just are–each just existing in his own way –we are expressing Buddha himself. In other words, when we practice something such as Zazen, then there is Buddha’s way or Buddha nature. When we ask what Buddha nature is, it vanishes; but when we just practice zazen, we have full understanding of it. The only way to understand Buddha nature is just to practice zazen, just to be here as we are. So what Buddha meant by Buddha nature was to be there as he was, beyond the realm of consciousness.”

It is highly unlikely that the Buddha spoke the words Suzuki attributes to him, of course, but it doesn’t matter. The spirit of the words is what is important.

For many of us, each December 8 comes with a touch of sadness, for on this date in 1980, 34 years ago, John Lennon was shot to death outside his apartment building in New York City.

Turn off your mind, relax
And float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

That love is all
And love is everyone
It is knowing
It is knowing

That ignorance and hate
May mourn the dead
It is believing
It is believing

But listen to the
Color of your dreams
It is not living
It is not living

Or play the game
Existence to the end
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

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Expecting Realization

As many of you know, Dogen was a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist, the founder of Soto Zen. I am not a Zen Buddhist, yet I am. Just like I am a Tibetan Buddhist, but then I’m not.  But you don’t have to Zen to be familiar with his Shobogenzo, “Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma”, a collection of ninety-five essays on the dharma. Lessen known, outside of the Zen tradition, is the Shinji Shobogenzo, essentially a collection of 300 koans. A koan can be a story, dialogue, question, or statement, they are often paradoxical, and often an object of meditation.

chinese-bamboo1dOne koan goes like this:

A student once asked the Zen master Tsui Wei, “What is the essence of Buddha-dharma.” They happened to be in the lecture hall where there were other monks around. Tsui Wei said, “I’ll tell you later on, when there is no one is around.”

In the afternoon, when the two were finally alone, Tsui Wei, “Now that we are by ourselves, I can tell you the essence of Buddha-dharma.” Tsui Wei took the student outside and pointed at the bamboo growing in the garden. “See?” said Tsui Wei. “Here is a tall bamboo. And over there, a short one.”

In his essay Yui Butsu Yo Butsu, “On ‘Each Buddha on His Own, Together with All Buddhas’,” Dogen wrote,

Buddha-dharma cannot be known by ordinary people. This is why since ancient times no ordinary person has realized Buddha-dharma . . . Because Buddha realized awakening all by himself, he said that each Buddha on his own, together with all Buddhas, has been able to fully realize It.

When you realize awakening, you do not think “This is awakening just as I expected.” Even if you think it is, awakening always differs from your expectation. Awakening is not like your conception of it. Therefore, you cannot realize awakening as you previously conceived. In Buddha-dharma you do not know how awakening has come as it has. This is something to reflect upon: What you think one way or another before your realization of awakening is not an aid to realization.

Now, I am sure you understand the story about the bamboo.

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White Light, Clear Light

Never having had a near death experience, I am not sure what to think about them. I am inclined to believe that they are mostly in the nature of hallucination. However, a panel of psychiatrists at the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDs) 2014 Conference held this past weekend in Newport Beach, Ca., stressed that while “there are people who have hallucinations and need certain treatments to function well and live healthy lives, near death experiences (NDEs) should not necessarily be lumped in with such hallucinations.”

People who have near-death experiences often report seeing a white light. Last year, researchers at the University of Michigan discovered some scientific evidence to explain this phenomenon. Evidently, the brain continues to function for up to 30 seconds after blood flow stops, and this electrical activity may account for the appearance of “light.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, it’s thought that certain practitioners also experience a white light or the “clear” luminosity of emptiness at the moment of death. Robert Thurman, in his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, describes clear light as “transparency,” for it is “the subtlest light that illuminates the profoundest reality of the universe . . . It is an inconceivable light, beyond the duality of bright and dark, a light of the self-luminosity of all things.”

The Dalai Lama, during a 1991 teaching in New York, explained clear light this way,

I don’t think that in the term clear light should be taken literally. It is sort of metaphoric. This could have its roots in our terminology of mental will. According to Buddhism, all consciousness or all cognitive mental events are said to be in the nature of clarity and luminosity. So it is from that point of view that the choice of the term light is used. Clear light is the most subtle level of mind, which can be seen as the basis or the source from which eventual experience or realization of Buddhahood, Buddha’s wisdom might come about, therefore it is called clear light.”

As an extremely subtle level of mind, the concept of clear light is akin to the notion of Buddha-nature, the purest state of mind in which one is able to apprehend the true nature of reality, a state of mind that is stable enough to withstand the vicissitudes of most mental afflictions, a mind imbued with a deep sense of compassion.

According to Buddhist teachings, the moment of death presents the greatest opportunity for realizing wisdom and healing, and that the scope for spiritual healing is not limited by death but can actually continue after death. Of course, it would be foolish and wasteful to wait until then to realize an enlightening state of mind. This is why Buddhism emphasizes the present moment, because awakening is always possible, always near at hand.

However, even though sudden flashes of clear light are available in the timeless reality of now, it requires effort, and time, to experience them, and once experienced it is not a fait accompli, a done deal, irreversible, requiring no further endeavor on our part. As I have said many times here, and you may know that it is the theme of The Endless Further, awakening is a continuous process, for if there is such a thing, how could it be anything else?  Awakening or enlightenment, cannot be defined, so how can it be a destination, an end point?  It is an ceaseless journey that takes place only though living, in daily life.  As Krishnamurti said, awakening means to be a light unto oneself, and in that way then, we are the clear light.

Here’s some guys who were clear light, too. Straight from L.A. circa 1966, a long-forgotten, unheralded psychedelic rock band named Clear Light:

Sand

See the sand
Lying by . . .
The ocean!
Golden sun
In metal sky
. . . Burning!
Shimmering heat lies heavy . . .
. . . Lies in
Grass brown search
For cooling air
Dying, dying with you!
Harshness flees,
Colors fade,
Night falls!
Quiet winds
Search silver sands
. . . Wandering!

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