A Mind of Winter

Winter is once more upon us. Here in Southern California, winter is a relative concept. And a capricious season, to the extreme. For instance the past week we had weather that was winterlike and very cozy.  But this week the temperatures are expected to be in the high 70s, hitting maybe 80 on Christmas Eve. Since I lived the early part of my life in the Midwest, I have a vague recollection of what winter is supposed to be, and today I like to celebrate that memory with poetry.

Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens’ poem The Snow Man is about winter, and it is also about nothing, not in a literal sense, though it can be read that way, particularly as the primary subject of winter very easily conjures up images of bleakness, nihilistic and natural emptiness. But according to William W. Bevis in his book, Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature, Stevens was writing about “meditative descriptions of nothing (Buddhist voidness), with the thing itself meditatively perceived . . .” The poem is indeed Buddhistic and Stevens was familiar with some Buddhist teaching, but it was more likely inspired and modeled after his mentor’s teachings. That mentor being a certain George Santayana.

For me, what Wallace means with “One must have a mind of winter” is something similar to the kind of mind described in the Diamond Sutra, a mind that is “unsupported.” This is an English equivalent to a Sanskrit word, apratishtita, that according to Mu Soeng in The Diamond Sutra: Transforming the Way We Perceive the World, “mirrors the core message of the Diamond Sutra.”

In the sutra, the Buddha tells Venerable Subhuti that a “Bodhisattva should have an unsupported mind, that is, a mind which is nowhere supported, with thoughts unsupported by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or mind-objects.”

A mind that is unsupported is “a mind not focusing on anything,” or “caught up in anything,” a mind that does not dwell anywhere. This is not our normal mind, or is it? Buddhism teaches that the quiet, unsupported mind, freed from all attachments and functioning harmoniously, is our natural mind, and that it is a state of mind cultivated, or rather, rediscovered only through meditation.

A meditative practice provides us with that “bare place” where for a short space in time, which is the timelessness of the present, we can be unsupported, not caught up in anything nor dwelling anywhere in particular, but entering into a disposition akin to Stevens’ mind of winter, as does the listener, standing in the silent, divestiture of winter, the white space of snow . . .

I’m afraid that further explanation may spoil the poem’s effect for first time readers. So now that I have given you a rough idea of how I interpret The Snow Man, here is the poem written in 1921 by one of the great modern American poets, a man who spent his most of his life working for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Hartford, Connecticut.

The Snow Man

snowman3One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wallace Stevens


Journeys on the Silk Road, Journey to the Other Shore

journeys2It has taken me awhile but I’ve finally finished reading Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters. I received a free review copy from the publisher some months ago. The only reason it took me so long to read it is that I had a some other books to read first, and for once, I stuck to my plan, although I must say that I was constantly tempted to jump ahead to this one because I knew it would a ripping good yarn, as they used to say. And it is.

Journeys on the Silk Road tells the fascinating story of Aurel Stein, an archaeologist, who traveled along the Silk Road through India, Tibet, and China in search of relics for the British Museum. It details his various expeditions, the friendships made, the politics and intrigue encountered, and the artifacts he discoveried.

At the heart of the book is the account of Stein’s trek across the desert, accompanied by his faithful “sidekick” Chiang, a Chinese scholar, and a fox terrier named Dash, to the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas”, near Dunhuang, Western China in 1907. The cave contained nearly 40,000 scrolls. Stein purchased several thousand from the monk who opened the cave, for the middling sum of £130. Among these was a copy of the Diamond Sutra that turned out to be the world’s oldest printed book.

Stein took the scrolls back to England, but it was some years before anyone realized the significance of this particular copy of the Diamond Sutra, which is now on display at the British Museum.

Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters also relate the story of how the Diamond Sutra was printed, which is an incredible story in itself.  Not only is the cave scroll of the Diamond Sutra the world’s oldest printed text, but

diamond-sutra-frontispiece2The Diamond Sutra’s frontispiece is also the earliest known woodcut illustration in the world. The illustration is rich in detail and symbolism. The faces of the shaven-headed monks who surround the Buddha are drawn with such skill as to create individual portraits . . .

The Diamond Sutra of 868 was the product of a mature, sophisticated printing industry. Nothing like it existed in Europe.”

I have only one complaint about the book, and it’s a small one. The authors say that “Buddha Shakyamuni delivered the teaching known as the Diamond Sutra in a garden near the ancient Indian city of Sravasti.” The reality is that the Diamond Sutra was adapted from one of the larger Prajnaparamita sutras, which the Buddha had nothing to do with, as they were composed/compiled centuries after his passing.

That aside, you don’t have to be a Buddhist, interested in archeology or exploring, to enjoy this book. The authors are excellent story-tellers, and the story is so engrossing, that once started, I think anyone would have a tough time putting it down.

As a text, the Diamond Sutra is another kind of journey – a sometimes-confounding, paradoxical trip through the themes of change, emptiness, and the Bodhisattva path, an expedition that challenges our notions of self, others, our journey, and even, enlightenment – Diamond Wisdom, that cuts through ignorance, delusion, and attachment.

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha advises us to realize that our wayfaring has no real destination, that there is only the journey itself. As we set out on the path, we might think that we will eventually arrive at some destination, see a horizon called enlightenment. However, that horizon is just an illusion, a bubble in our minds, a dream.

MP407This teaching has been taught with a hidden meaning: This dharma is like a boat, once it carries a wayfarer across the sea of suffering to the other shore, it can be abandoned. So much more for that which is non-dharma.

– Diamond Sutra

The hidden part of the sutra, and really, the hidden teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, is that ultimately there is no other shore. There is only this shore, where we are right now, this very moment, which can be a shore at the edge of the sea of suffering, or can be the shore of nirvana, depending on how far our Diamond Wisdom has developed.

I beg the pardon of long-time readers if they feel that I am repeating myself as I state once again my feeling that enlightenment is not a destination, but a process, and once our wayfaring has led us to a plateau we might call enlightenment, another horizon appears before us, a further horizon, The Endless Further. Since this is more or less the theme of the blog, I feel it needs to be mentioned every so often.

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

– Ernest Hemingway


The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows

Many Buddhists are familiar with the Four Great Bodhisattva Vows. Some people seem to have the impression this is an almost exclusively Zen thing, but most of the Japanese traditions recite the Vows, as well as Korean and Chinese schools. In fact, the Vows are thought to have originated with the Chinese master Chih-i during the sixth century. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but apparently there was some form of Bodhisattva Vows in place during Chih-i’s time, although perhaps not as we know them today. It is recorded that a prince of the Ch’en dynasty, Yang Kuang, received from Chih-i the “Bodhisattva Vows” for lay practitioners along with a Buddhist name, Tsung-ch’ih P’u-sa (“Bodhisattva of Absolute Control”) in 591. [1. Denis C. Twitchett, The Cambridge History of China: Volume 3, Sui and T’ang China, 589-906 AD, Part One, Cambridge University Press, 1979]

The Four Great Bodhisattva Vows (Shi gu sei gan) are as follows:

Shu jo mu hen sei gan do
Bon no mu jin sei gan dan
Ho mon mu ryo sei gan gaku
Butsu do mu jo sei gan jo

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to end them all.
The Dharma Gates are infinite; I vow to enter them all.
The Buddha Way is unexcelled; I vow to attain it completely.

The last one is actually a vow to attain “complete, perfect enlightenment (Skt. anuttara samyak sambodhi). It is said that if a bodhisattva does not accomplish the first vow of saving all sentient beings, he or she can never complete the fourth vow of enlightenment. But, how is that possible? How can one save all living beings? In Taking the Path of Zen, the American Zen Buddhist Robert Aitken wrote, “Nobody fulfills these ‘Great Vows for All,’ but we vow to fulfill them as best we can. They are our path.” In other words, it’s doesn’t matter if we are unable to fulfill the Vows, what is important is that we capture the spirit behind them.

We should also keep in mind that from the standpoint of the Mahayana doctrine of emptiness, a bodhisattva does not cling to the idea that there are beings at all, nor that there is anything such as “complete, perfect enlightenment.”

Subhuti, someone who gives rise to the supreme, perfect thought of awakening [annuttara-samyak-sambodhicitta] will resolve thusly: ‘I shall liberate all sentient beings,’ and then having liberated all sentient beings, he understands that in truth, not a single being has been liberated. Why is this? Subhuti, if a bodhisattva has the view of a self, a person, of sentient beings, a soul, then that is not a bodhisattva. And why not? Subhuti, there is no independently existing thing such as the supreme, prefect thought of awakening. Subhuti, what do you think? When the Buddha was with Dipankara Buddha, he had attained supreme, perfect enlightenment [annuttara-samyak-sambodhi]? No.”

– The Buddha in the Diamond Sutra

While there are not as many English variations of the Vows as there are sentient beings, there are quite a few. Perhaps the most interesting one is by Thich Nhat Hanh:

However innumerable beings are, I vow to meet them with kindness and interest.
However inexhaustible the states of suffering are, I vow to touch them with patience and love.
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to explore them deeply.
However incomparable the mystery of interbeing, I vow to surrender to it freely.

The hidden teaching within Mahayana Buddhism that it is more important to practice the Way of the Bodhisattva than it is to become a Buddha. The Way of the Bodhisattva is the Way of the Buddha. However, people often miss this point and think that enlightenment is the ultimate goal. There is no goal, there is only the path, and it is a path of compassion, and everything in Buddhism leads up to this one simple truth.

In a work attributed to Nagarjuna, The Transcendental Bodhicitta Treatise, it reads:

The essential nature of all Bodhisattvas is a great loving heart, and all living beings constitute the object of their love . . . They are like the beautiful lotus-flower, which rises up from the swamp, its blossoms unsullied by the mud. Their great hearts of compassion, which constitute the essence of their being, never leave suffering creatures behind in their journey. Their spiritual knowledge is in the emptiness of all things, but their work of salvation is never outside the world of suffering.”



Diamonds and Doubts

In Ian Fleming’s fourth James Bond thriller, Diamonds are Forever, M., the crusty chief of MI6, tells 007 that diamonds are “the hardest substance in the world. Last forever.”  Marilyn Monroe famously told us, through the lyrics of Leo Robin, “A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Malcolm Forbes once put the stones in their proper perspective when he stated, “Diamonds are nothing more than chunks of coal that stuck to their jobs.”

The Vajra symbol

Buddhism has its own take on this gem first worn as a jewel in India some 5,000 years ago. In Buddha-dharma, the diamond, or vajra, represents the highest level of transcendent wisdom or prajna-paramita. The English word “diamond,” by the way, comes from the ancient Greek adamas meaning “unbreakable.” Because diamonds are so hard that they cannot be broken, and they are so sharp that they can cut through almost anything, transcendent or diamond wisdom is said to cut through all delusions.

Vajra also represents Indra’s thunderbolt, however, it is with the connotation of diamond that the word is most commonly used in Buddhist texts. The diamond is the symbol of the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra or the “Diamond Cutter Transcendent Wisdom Sutra.”

Delusions are plentiful and varied, and doubt is one. Doubt is an obstacle, a hindrance, a mental fetter, and the “prajna diamond” cuts off doubts. That’s one interpretation of the Diamond Sutra taught by Han Shan, the Chinese Buddhist scholar from the Ming Dynasty, [1. “The Diamond Cutter of Doubts,” translated by Lu K’uan Yu (Charles Luk), Ch’an and Zen Teaching Volume 1, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1993]

The full title Diamond Prajna-paramita indicates the teaching expounded in this sutra which aims at revealing the Buddha’s Diamond Mind. Moreover, this Diamond Mind was the fundamental mind of the Buddha in His practice, as a cause, resulting in His enlightenment, as an effect  . . . he taught Bodhisattavas to use the Diamond Mind as a cause in their practice so that they could enter the initial door of Mahayana. This is why he purposely taught them to cut off their doubts (about it).”

Doubt as it is used here does not refer to doubt about the dharma, but doubt about oneself, in particular, doubt regarding one’s own “diamond mind.” Chih-i said, “When doubt veils the mind, it is difficult to open any dharma doors.”

When we harbor doubts about ourselves, about our mind’s capacity to grow and learn, and find purpose, and happiness, we’re not able to progress very far in Buddhist practice, let alone in life. It’s important that we try to summon up confidence in the knowledge that our very mind is Buddha, that our mind has the potential to shine brightly like a diamond, and with that confidence we make it hard and resistant to suffering, and sharp, so that it can cut through our doubts and delusions.

One way to dealing with doubt is handle it in the same manner we deal with errant thoughts in meditation. When doubtful thoughts arise, simply label them as doubts, and then move on confidently. For as Norman Fischer paraphrases Dogen, [2. Dogen’s Time Being (Uji) 1, sweepingzen.com]

“So though people commonly have doubts about things that they can’t be entirely sure of, in fact, they can’t even tell whether a doubt that they had in the past, or even a doubt that they had a moment ago, is the same as the doubt that they have now.  And so, they should be doubtful about their doubting – not as certain of it as they so often seem to be.  Doubt is doubt for the time being.  Nothing more.  Doubt itself is time.”

I say that the time being is the perfect time to lay doubts about oneself aside and advance confidently along the Buddha Way.



Secrets of the Diamond Sutra

In an Huffington Post piece (I’ll include the link at the end of the post), Joyce Morgan summarizes the fascinating tale of Aurel Stein and his discovery of an ancient copy of the Diamond Sutra along with 40,000 other scrolls at the “Cave of the Thousand Buddhas” in 1907. It’s a story documented more fully in the book she co-authored with Conrad Walters, Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book.

That the Diamond Sutra (“Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra”) is, as described by the British Library, “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book” is hardly news. However, I don’t think the complete story of this discovery has been told before, and I look forward to reading the book by Morgan and Walters soon. And for anyone interested in this subject, I recommend Kogen Mizuno’s Buddhist Sutras: Origin, Development, Transmission, a comprehensive account of the history of Buddhist texts.

The complete history of the Diamond Sutra (also called the “Diamond Wisdom” and “Diamond Cutter”) is unknown. It appears to be an adaption of the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra, which I wrote about recently. The Diamond Sutra is thought to have been translated into Chinese in 401 CE by Kumarajava, who translated so many of the Buddhist sutras.

At the end of the Huffington Post piece, Morgan presents “4 Secrets of the Diamond Sutra” and I thought it might be interesting to expand upon them a little.

“The Diamond Sutra distills Buddhism’s central message that everything changes. It describes our fleeting world as a bubble in a stream.”

That’s certainly one of the themes of the Diamond Sutra, but there is much more. The Diamond Sutra, like the Heart Sutra, also based on the Maha Prajna-paramita, is an exposition on the Bodhisattva path. The sutra explains that a bodhisattva must abandon all concepts of “self,” “other,” “things,” and so on. When a bodhisattva helps another being, he or she should not have the idea that someone is being helped. In other words, one must rid the mind of all concepts and discrimination.

This is probably more the central theme of the sutra than the subject of impermanence. The Buddha explains that the ultimate truth cannot be expressed in words, and that no one attains Transcendent Wisdom (Prajna-paramita), and that, in fact, the very idea of attainment is a concept to be abandoned.

“Jack Kerouac was so influenced by the Diamond Sutra that he studied it daily for years and attempted his own rendition.”

Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo, circa 1956

The great American novelist said it his favorite sutra. In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac makes four specific references to the Diamond Sutra, two of them reiterating the sutra’s theme of “without holding in mind any conceptions” and “ ‘Make no formed conceptions about the realness of existence nor about the unrealness of existence,’ or words like that.” There’s numerous allusions to the sutra with phrases like “shining diamond,” “diamond cutter,” etc. Kerouac’s Some of the Dharma, a book of notes and poems on Buddhism, is filled with references to the Diamond Sutra, as are many of his letters to friends.

References to the sutra can also be found in the opening section of another novel, Desolation Angels, where Kerouac describes his time spent on Desolation Peak in Washington State as a fire lookout. Then in Chapter 84, there appears to be an excerpt of his “rendition” (A Paraphrase of the Diamond Sutra). Raphael, by the way, is Gregory Corso:

Meanwhile Raphael has been reading the Diamondcutter of the Wise Vow (Diamond Sutra) that I paraphrased on Desolation, has it on his lap.

“Do you understand it Raphael? There you’ll find everything there is to know.”

“I know what you mean. Yes I understand it.”

Finally I read sections of it to the party to take their minds off the girl jealousies—:

“Subhuti, living ones who know, in teaching meaning to others, should first be free themselves from all the frustrating desires aroused by beautiful sights, pleasant sounds, sweet tastes, fragrance, soft tangibles, and tempting thoughts. In their practice of generosity, they should not be blindly influenced by any of these intriguing shows. And why? Because, if in their practice of generosity they are not blindly influenced by such things they will pass through a bliss and merit that is beyond calculation and beyond imagining. What think you, Subhuti? Is it possible to calculate the distance of space in the eastern skies? No, blissful awakener! It is impossible to calculate the distance of space in the eastern skies. Subhuti, is it possible to calculate the limits of space in the northern, southern, and western skies? Or to any of the four corners of the universe, or above or below or within? No, honored of the worlds! Subhuti, it is equally impossible to calculate the bliss and merit through which the living ones who know will pass, who practice generosity not blindly influenced by any of these judgments of the realness of the feeling of existence. This truth should be taught in the beginning and to everybody”…

They all listen intently… nevertheless there’s something
in the room I’m not in on… pearls come in clams.
The world will be saved by what I see
Universal perfect courtesy—
Orion in the fresh space of heaven
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven—

“Brevity is one reason for the Diamond Sutra’s popularity. It can be recited in 40 minutes.”

Well, it’s not as short of the Heart Sutra, of course. Some nice Chinese chanting of the Diamond Sutra at the end of this post.

“The Diamond Sutra of 868 A.D. is printed on paper, a material unknown in the West for another couple centuries.”

Not only that, but as Kogen Mizuno explains:

The world’s oldest extant examples of printing are dharani, or magical incantations, printed in Japan between 764 and 770 . . . These dharani were printed almost seven hundred years before the European development of movable type, with which the Gutenberg Bible is traditionally credited . . . Although Confucian writings seem to have been printed not long after the Diamond Wisdom Sutra, it was not until the beginning of the Sung dynasty that printing of the massive Tripitaka was undertaken (about one hundred years after the Diamond Wisdom Sutra). Though it would be another seven decades before the Chinese developed practical movable type, the earliest Tripitaka appeared nearly five centuries before Gutenberg Bible.”

Here is the Huffington Post piece on the Diamond Sutra.

This requires some patience, and about 43 minutes and 21 seconds: Diamond Sutra chanting in Chinese. It’s not the most beautiful Chinese chanting of this sutra that I’ve heard, but it’s the only authentic Chinese Buddhist version I could find on YouTube. If you listen carefully, you will hear what appears to be 2 or 3 part harmony.