The Five Hundred Monkeys

monkeys3bThen there were these five hundred monkeys hanging out in some trees next to a large pool of water.  After night came down, the chief monkey saw the moon reflected in the water below him.  He asked all the others come over to his tree and join hands and tails to form a chain, so that he’d be able to lean out over the pool and grab the moon.  Well, that many monkeys in one tree was just too much and the branches broke and all five hundred of the primates fell into the water and drowned.

The point of the story you can plainly see.  As long as you are blinded by illusion, all that waits for you is suffering.  So don’t go mistaking a reflection for the real moon.

In Genjo-koan (“Realizing the Prime Point’), Dogen wrote, “Awakening is like the moon reflected on water.”

One meaning of this statement is that awakening or Buddhahood is not a destination to be reached in the remote future but a potential already inherent in life.  If we see it as something outside of ourselves, it’s an illusion.

Earlier in the essay Dogen says, “Those who greatly awaken to illusion are Buddhas.  Those greatly deluded amid awakening are sentient beings. Some people continue to awaken beyond awakening.  Some continue amid their illusion deeper into further illusion.”

Another Dogen work, Bussho (“Buddha Nature”), begins with a quote from the Nirvana Sutra: “All sentient beings have buddha nature.”  Some paragraphs later, he takes exception to this statement, asserting that it is incorrect to say that sentient beings “have” or “possess” buddha nature because sentient beings are buddha nature, indeed all reality is buddha nature.

Conventionally speaking, it is not wrong to say that all sentient beings have buddha nature because we can access it.  If we could not access it then we would not have it.  Accessing buddha nature means to develop this potential, nurture it.

Furthermore, we have something, what Buddhism provides, the means to actualize awakening, to make it a common experience, not an extraordinary event.

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The Moon in Water

Tuesday was Bodhi Day, a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment. I mentioned it only in passing because I wanted to focus on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death.

According to legend, after renouncing extreme asceticism, Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation beneath a Ficus religiosa tree until on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month (Jp. rohatsu) he attained enlightenment and became Buddha.

In early Buddhism, individuals could only achieve enlightenment after engaging in Buddhist practice over the course of many lifetimes. In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism came along centuries after the Buddha’s advent and said that because all people inherently posses Buddha-nature, enlightenment was attainable in this very lifetime.

There are several different accounts of what happened under the bodhi tree. Because the Buddha’s time is so remote to us, it is unlikely we will ever know the facts. Bodhi is the state of awakening.

Naturally, there is diverse opinion as to the nature of enlightenment. In his writing, the Genjokoan, Dogen, offers this beautiful explanation:

moonlight2bAttaining enlightenment is like the reflection of the moon on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. . . For all the breadth and vastness of its light, it rests upon a small patch of water. Both the whole moon and the sky in its entirety come to rest in a single dewdrop of grass, in a mere drop of water.

Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot obstruct enlightenment any more than the drop of dew obstructs the moon in the sky. *

The analogy of “the moon in water” appears frequently in Buddhist literature. It symbolizes emptiness. Enlightenment is empty, in that it is not a fixed state of mind or being. Nevertheless, we say that enlightenment reflects the true reality. It does not divide us because reality is non-dual, there is nothing to divide.

Nagarjuna called the undivided (advaya) being the true nature of reality. Advaya is a Sanskrit word that means ‘not-two:

The ultimately true nature of enlightenment and the ultimately true nature of all things are in truth but one reality, not two, not divided.” **

Another way to express this not-twoness is harmony. Enlightenment or bodhi is realizing the world of harmony that has always been present within and without you.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Waddell, Norman and ABE, Masao, trans. Shobogenzo Genjokoan. The Eastern Buddhist, 1972, 136

** Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987, 268

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The Rain Rained

Saturday night, the rain rained. That may not be a big deal where you live. Here, it’s a huge deal, especially since we have been in a drought for four years.

I stole “the rain rained” from one of my favorite crime fiction novels, Get Carter (aka Jack’s Return Home) by the late Ted Lewis, which was made into a pretty decent film in 1971 starring Michael Caine.  It’s the book’s opening line. I love it. What does rain do?  It doesn’t actually pour, does it? It certainly does not come down like cats and dogs. Rain rains. Simple.

IMG_3422b2So, it rained during the night when I was asleep and I missed it. But this morning, when I awoke, the sky was still wonderfully gray, the air cool and refreshing, and drops of rain were lingering on the leaves of trees and plants.

The 13th century Japanese Zen teacher, Dogen wrote in the Mountains and Water Sutra, “Even in a drop of water innumerable buddha lands appear.”

Dogen wrote about the rain in this famous waka poem,

As I listened
I became
the sound of rain
on the eaves.

In both of these, he is expressing nonduality, emptiness, and the mutual interpenetration of all things.

Did you know that a single drop of water weighing 0.1g contains about 3 billion trillion (3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) molecules?

A “buddha land” refers to the principle taught by the Tendai school of Buddhism, sanzen sekai or a billion worlds. According to the Dogen anthology, Moon in a Dewdrop, “This ‘universe’ is regarded as the realm influenced by one buddha’s teaching. Thus it is called a ‘buddha land.’” Tendai also contributed the concept of ichinen sanzen or the universe in a single thought.

If we understand about nonduality, then we know that ultimately there is no difference between molecules and human life. This way, Dogen or you or I, can become the rain.  And a single thought can contain the entire universe.

All things simultaneously interpenetrate into one another and this helps reveal to us the deep underlying harmony that permeates reality.

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A Few Notes for The Time Being

I read a nice article about novelist and Zen priest Ruth Ozeki yesterday. The piece, written by Terrence Petty of the AP, gives us a glimpse into Ozeki’s life story, her introduction to Zen, and a short description of her last novel A Tale For The Time Being, which was a finalist in 2013 for the Man Booker Prize. The title of her book comes from an essay by Dogen on time titled Uji, often translated as “The Time-Being.”

ruthozeki-2I don’t know Ruth Ozeki, but I know a little about her. For instance, as Petty points out, her “spiritual companion is a Zen master named Dogen. Dead for nearly 800 years, when you listen to Ozeki, you know he’s there.”

Sorry to say that I have not heard her or read her novels . . . yet. I do plan to start learning more about Ruth Ozeki by further exploring her “Web World” at Ozekiland.

I am not a Zen Buddhist, but that doesn’t stop me from being a big fan of Dogen, too. Fan is not the right word, but you know what I mean.

I wrote about Dogen just the other day, and quite a few other times, as well. You can read those posts by clicking here or on the name Dogen in the tag cloud on the sidebar.

I have an old notebook full of random notes and copied quotes about Buddhism and meditation; it dates from 2001 and there is one note that I didn’t really get at the time I jotted it down, but in recent years has stirred my murky depths of my mind.

bielefeldtThe notation is marked simply Bielefeldt –. I am sure it refers to Professor Carl Bielefeldt who “specializes in East Asian Buddhism, with particular emphasis on the intellectual history of the Zen tradition.” He’s also the author of Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation. I don’t recall reading that book, and I don’t believe I have ever attended a lecture given by him, but maybe I have. Perhaps I read it in article or interview, or heard on the Internet or television. Could be just something I heard someone say. It doesn’t matter. The note says,

According to Dogen, the practice of Zazen [meditation] was not of an ordinary human trying to be a Buddha, but a Buddha expressing himself as an ordinary person.”

Think about it.

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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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