Nichiren and the Supreme Being

To deal with this subject properly, I feel a great deal of background information is required. However, as I suspect that this topic holds little to no interest for most readers, it’s been heavily edited. I hope it makes sense. I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while now and needed to get it out and done with.

All designations are meaningless when viewed from the ultimate truth. However, we cannot live in the ultimate at all times. In the several recent posts, I have used the terms “own-power” (jiriki) and “other-power” (tariki) which are relative terms that help us distinguish from two separate approaches to Buddhist practice, one where enlightenment is sought from without, and the other, where it is sought within.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Nichiren, the 13th century Japanese teacher who founded the sect that bears his name, hated Pure Land Buddhism. With a passion. He was not fond of the other Buddhist sects of his day either, his chief criticism being that they have “gone astray concerning the true object of worship.” (Kaimoku Sho/”Opening of the Eyes”)

Despite his severe criticism of Pure Land, Nichiren crafted a form of Buddhism that was nearly identical, the only differences being the chant and the central Buddha.

According to Nichiren, the True Object of Worship for Mappo (the Latter Day of the Law) is the Gohonzon, which usually refers to the hanging scrolls Nichiren inscribed, a sort of a dharma-mandala that depicts a scene from the Lotus Sutra entirely in Chinese and Siddham characters. The scene is commonly referred to as The Ceremony in the Air where the “historical” Shakyamuni Buddha, having revealed himself as original, eternal Shakyamuni Buddha who attained enlightenment in the unimaginably distant past, transfers the true teaching to the bodhisattvas who emerge from the earth.

The Gohonzon is presented variously as a picture of the Ceremony in the Air, symbolizing the Tendai principle of ichinen sanzen (three thousand realms in a single moment of thought), or as representing the enlightened life of the Buddha from the sutra, and, thereby, our innate Buddha nature. The Soka Gakkai explains that the Gohonzon, “was created by Nichiren as the physical embodiment, in the form of a mandala, of the eternal and intrinsic law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. The phrase “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo Nichiren” is written in bold characters down the center of the scroll.”

Regardless of the explanation, in modern Nichiren Buddhism, there is always the caveat that the Object of Worship is not separate from the life of the individual. Two famous quotes are often used to substantiate this point, one about never seeking the teachings of the Buddha outside yourself, the other says never seek the Gohonzon outside of yourself. Both quotes come from works that objective scholars doubt are authentic Nichiren writings. With this in mind, it seems there has been a concentrated effort to align Nichiren’s teachings with the jiriki approach, although that may not have been Nichiren’s original thinking.

There is perhaps another way of looking at the Object of Worship, one that is more in line with Other-power, and therefore, because Nichiren accepted all the tenants associated with tariki, a viewpoint that is quite reasonable to assume.

Early Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren (Gohonzon Shu)
Early Gohonzon inscribed by Nichiren (Gohonzon Shu)

In one sense, it is incorrect to say that Nichiren “created” the Gohonzon because he viewed it as a other-worldly thing that moved through him, not from him. For Nichiren, the Gohonzon has always existed. He claimed that previous Buddhist teachers such as Nagarjuna, Vasabhandu, and T’ien-t’ai knew of the supremacy of the Lotus Sutra, but as he says in Kanjin no Honzon Sho (“The True Object of Worship”),

[They] did not put Nam-myoho-renge-kyo into actual practice or establish the true object of worship . . . Now is when the Bodhisattvas of the Earth will appear in this country and establish the supreme object of worship on the earth which depicts Shakyamuni Buddha of the essential teaching attending the true Buddha. This object of worship has never appeared in India or China . . . Thus, the revelation of the true object of worship has been entrusted only to the Bodhisattvas of the Earth. They have been waiting for the right time to emerge from the earth and carry out the Lord Buddha’s command.”

The Gohonzon could be established only during the Latter Day of the Law, the degenerate age when faith and not understanding matters and other-power alone is potent, and only Nichiren as Jogyo, the leader of the Bodhisattvas of the Earth, the votary of the Lotus Sutra, could at last reveal its presence.

A number of Japanese scholars whose books were translated into English or who wrote English books in the early part of the last century used the term “Supreme Being” as a translation of honzon or “object of worship”. The most notable example is Masaharu Anesaki’s Nichiren the Buddhist Prophet, in which Kanjin no Honzon Sho is rendered as “Spiritual Introspection of the Supreme Being”, and throughout the book refers to Nichiren’s scroll as the Supreme Being.

The question is, was this was intentional? Did Anesaki mean to refer to some sort of supreme being, or was this just an attempt to convey the concept of object of worship into a term that Westerners at the time could easily understand?

One Nichiren school, Nichiren Shu, even today translates Kanjin no Honzon Sho as “Spiritual Introspection of the Supreme Beings” (note how it is plural).

Japanese Civilization by Kishio Satomi, published in 1923, an introduction to Nichirenism, has a chapter entitled “The Supreme Being” (Hommon Honzon) . In Satomi’s explanation, the Sacred Title (Daimoku: Myo-Ho-Renge-Kyo) is considered as the religious subject, while the Supreme Being is considered as the religious object.

Satomi writes,

‘Hon’ means origin and ‘zon’ means augustness or supremacy. The innate supreme substance is the first definition, the second is the radical adoration, and the third is the genuine or natural respect. All these are slightly different expressions of the Supreme Being and its aspects.

There are two kinds of Supreme Beings in general. The one has the abstract principle as its religious object, while the other has a concrete idea of personality or person itself as its object of worship. In this connection, Nichiren has both simultaneously. According to [Nichiren], Buddha Shakyamuni is the only savior in the world, therefore we must have Him as our own object of worship.

Thus he founded two kinds of Supreme Being, the object of worship. . . the Buddha centric Supreme Being and the Law centric one.”

I should mention that “Buddha Shakyamuni” in this context does not mean the historical Buddha, but the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha revealed in the Lotus Sutra. The two are not quite the same.

Satomi continues,

However high and sublime the Supreme Being may be, if we ourselves do not enter the ideal of it, and do not realize in our own lives its principle and form, it is just an idol and our existence is worthless.”

According to Satomi, the Gohonzon includes all forms of worship, such as “demon-worship in the Mother of Demons, great mandala worship in Tendai, etc. . . god-man-worship in Shakyamuni. . . [worship of] the Four Great Devas. . . Sun-Goddess. . . Hachiman and ancestor worship. . . etc., etc.”

Satomi discusses the presence of both pantheistic and monotheistic elements in Mahayana Buddhism and concludes that none of the various schools have a foundation on which to “unite these opposite tendencies.”

Nichirenism is the answer to this problem. . . According to [Nichiren] thought, the Primeval or Fundamental Buddha, whose deep sense of His existence is explained in Chapter XVI in the Scripture, as we have mentioned already, is unique and sole God in the Universe, and all the beings and all the divines and sages are nothing but His distributive bodies.”

This explanation is in accord with Nichiren’s claim that all the native Shinto gods were merely manifestations of this primeval, fundamental, Eternal Buddha. This entity is then recognized as the “sole and highest existence.” And as I read it, the Eternal Buddha is the Gohonzon itself, the Gohonzon is the Eternal Buddha, not in a merely noumenal sense, but as a phenomenal reality.

What makes me feel that Anesaki and Satomi might have had the right idea about the Eternal Buddha as a Supreme Being? A Sanskrit term: svadi-devata.

Anesaki references Nichiren’s “Supreme Being” to this term.  I found svadi-devata in the Soothill Dictionary of Buddhist Terms. Evidently use of this term in Buddha-dharma is limited to the Nichiren tradition. Here is the definition: The especial honored one of the Nichiren sect, svadi-devata, the Supreme Being, whose mandala is considered as the symbol of the Buddha that as infinite, eternal, universal. . .”

“Daivata” is a variation of “devata”–daivata ganah, classes of divinities; sadaivata, together with the deities, Parama-daivata, highly devoted to the god, and so on. Devata refers to a more personal relationship with a deity, such as a guardian spirit, or more tightly focused upon a deity, and with sva pertaining to “own, etc.” It would seem that svadi-devata indicates a personal relationship with a deity or object of worship.

Nichiren frequently used Indian terms and he knew Siddham. Clearly, he viewed the Gohonzon as more than a scroll or mandala.  It was the enlightened life of the Eternal Buddha Shakyamuni and therefore the ultimate reality.  Whether or not he saw it in terms of svadi-devata, a personal deity, is questionable but nonetheless within the realm of possibility.

Very little has been written in English about tantric influences on Nichiren’s thinking, but certainly Nichiren would had some Shingon influences, not to mention the fact that by this time Tendai, the school he trained in, had a distinct tantric flavor. It is also quite possible he was familiar with the tantric Vajra-sattva (“Diamond Being”) and this served as his model for the Supreme Being/Eternal Buddha.

Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta in Introduction to Tantric Buddhism writes,

Who is then the Vajra-sattva? He is the Being of adamantine substance—the ultimate principal as the unity of the universe . . . the fundamental departure of the Tantric Buddhists is that. . . it may have been sometimes described as a Being—sometimes as the personal God, the Lord Supreme.”

The characteristics that Nichiren ascribes to the Eternal Buddha in the Kanjin no Honzon Sho and elsewhere, are not drastically different from the descriptions given of the Vajra-sattva in Tantric literature.

Here is Anesaki’s translation of two excerpts of a Nichiren writing, Shoho Jisso, “The True Aspect of All Phenomena”:

I, Nichiren, a man born in the ages of the Latter Law, have nearly achieved the task of pioneership in propagating the Perfect Truth, the task assigned to the Bodhisattva of Superb Action (Vishishtachiritra) The eternal Buddhahood of Shakyamuni, as he revealed himself in the chapter on Life-duration, in accordance with his primeval entity, the Buddha Prabhutaratna, who appeared in the Heavenly Shrine . . .

In this document, the truths most precious to me are written down. Read, and read again; read into the letters and fix them into your mind ! Thus put faith in the Supreme Being, represented in a way unique in the whole world! Ever more strongly I advise you to be firm in faith, and to be under the protection of the threefold Buddhahood.”

Here are the same excerpts from the Soka Gakkai version, “The True Entity of Life”:

Although not worthy of the honor, Nichiren was nevertheless the first to spread the Mystic Law entrusted to Bodhisattva Jogyo for propagation in the Latter Day of the Law. Nichiren was also the first to inscribe the Gohonzon, which is the embodiment of the Buddha from the remote past as revealed in the Juryo chapter of the essential teaching . . .

In this letter, I have written my most important teachings. Grasp their meaning and make them part of your life. Believe in the Gohonzon, the supreme object of worship in the world. Forge strong faith and receive the protection of Shakyamuni, Taho and all the other Buddhas.”

 

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The Buddhism of Faith

Some readers are familiar with the term “Buddhist modernism,” used by David J. McMahan in his book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism. This excellent book makes a significant contribution to the discourse on the process of modern Buddhism. However, there was one area which was not covered, an aspect of Buddhism that is a very potent force in present day dharma, which is the matter of faith; the kind of faith that is belief in supernatural beings who offer help and salvation to human beings.

I don’t intend to deal with the subject comprehensively in a blog post, rather I am going to offer a few snapshots together with some observations. Nonetheless, there are some questions I think readers could keep in mind as they read the material. When there is an apparent preoccupation on rebirth and karma, which could be considered more as matters of doctrine rather than superstition, is the  religion vs. philosophy debate concentrated on the right issues? Are we closing the gap between the two Buddhisms (“ethnic” and “convert”) or widening it? Do convert Buddhists have an accurate understanding of the role that supernatural beings play in the lives of the majority of the world’s Buddhists? Is faith-based Buddhism authentic dharma? Is there a place for faith in modern Buddhism? For prayer?

Courtyard and steps leading to the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai Temple

I once gave a series of talks to the Cal-Poly Buddhist Association. The faculty advisor, a Caucasian professor of Biological Sciences, was concerned that since many of the members of the club, almost all of whom were Chinese-American and went to Hsi Lai Temple, a predominately Pure Land temple in Hacienda Heights, they took the teachings on O-mi-tuo-fo (Amida Buddha) too literally. I devoted one of my talks to debunking Amida, the idea of faith in Buddhism, and so on. I thought I was pretty good, too. Clear, logical, and convincing. Immediately after the talk a young woman, an engineering student, stood up  and said, “Your talk was nice, but when I pray to O-mi-tuo-fo with sincerity, my prayers are answered.”

Another student got up and testified how he had strong faith that his earnest chanting of Amida Buddha’s name would result in his salvation and rebirth into the Pure Land. Someone else said pretty much the same thing only in relation to Kuan Yin. And so it went.

These young people were very different from the professor and me. They were born into their faith, whereas for the two of us, we had each rejected the faith of our parents and through a process of investigation and experimentation, made a conscious decision to become Buddhist. Our Buddhism had nothing to do with faith, prayer, or supernatural beings. Ours was a pragmatic approach to dharma, based on meditation and philosophical study. But we really were in the minority, for faith and prayer is precisely the orientation for the majority of Buddhists in the world today.

In his book, David. J. McMahan states,

Yet, as noted, while meditation has always been considered necessary to achieving awakening, only a small minority of Buddhists actually practice it in any serious way. The vast majority of Asian Buddhists have practiced the dharma through ethics, ritual, and service to the sangha.”

This, for Asian Buddhists, is changing, but on the whole McMahan’s assessment is valid. Furthermore, there has always been two kinds of Buddhism: one for the monks and the educated elite, and another one for the masses. The former has been meditation-based, while the latter, faith-based.

The ritual McMahan alludes to includes rites such as celebrating the Buddha’s birthday, alms giving, lighting incense at shrines, as well as a good deal of worship, directed at devas and/or celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. “Deva” means “deity.”  According to Buddhist cosmology, many devas were human and still retain human qualities, but they are essentially gods and they are worshiped by Buddhists because they are capable of rendering help to human beings in times of difficulty. For a good overview of deva worship in Theravada Buddhism, read “Worship of Devas” by A.G.S. Kariyawasam here.

Now that illiteracy in the world has been significantly reduced, the two Buddhisms mentioned above have morphed into a different two Buddhisms, described by Charles Presbish in the late 1970’s as “ethnic” and “convert.” Even though Prebish’s model is over 30 years old, I think it still stands.

I used to go to the same temple the students from Cal-Poly attended, Hsi Lai, which describes itself as “Pure Land/Ch’an.” There, the two Buddhisms would come together under one temple roof and for the most part remain separate, the twain never meeting. Ch’an at the temple was made up of an eclectic group of Caucasians and Chinese-Americans, while Pure Land was all Chinese.  On Sunday mornings, the Ch’an folks practiced qigong and meditation in a conference room, while in the main temple the Pure Land group chanted Amida Buddha’s name.

This to me is a microcosmic representation of the state of Buddhism today, East and West. I could be wrong, but in America, I doubt if most meditation-based Buddhists have much knowledge about or have had interaction with faith-based Buddhism. There are many reasons for this, such as language, culture, location, and inclinations. For many of the same reasons, the faith-based “ethnic” Buddhists rarely venture out of their comfortable environment.  That’s what I have noticed in my experience, living in a metropolitan area where all the major Buddhist schools and nearly all ethnic traditions can be found.  I have made a point of sampling as many of these different tastes of dharma as I can.

Shakyamuni, Amida and Medicine Buddha in the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai
Shakyamuni, Amida, and Medicine Buddha in the main shrine hall at Hsi Lai

World-wide, the largest faith-based Buddhism, and indeed, the largest of any Buddhist branch, is Pure Land. This form of dharma is based on the notion of the Three Periods: the Former, Middle and Latter Days of the Dharma, which did not become a fully realized concept until the 5th century CE. The Former Day of the Dharma (Jp. Shoho) is the first thousand years after the historical Buddha’s advent, when people can attain enlightenment through their own effort and the teachings flourish. During the Middle (Zoho) Day, the second thousand years, the Dharma continues to spread but begins to lose its power. In the Latter Day (Mappo) Shakyamuni’s dharma is almost completely degenerated and the minds of Buddhist practitioners are so deluded that they can no longer liberate themselves through their own efforts, they must rely on the saving grace of some “other-power.”

This is Amida Buddha, an entirely mythical being who promises salvation and rebirth in his Pure Land for all those who take faith in him and chant his name. There is no significant daylight between this and, say, Christianity. And in Pure Land we find a real tension between their approach and the teachings of the historical Buddha, who obviously did not teach this kind of faith. Regarding this, Roger Corless, in his essay “Pure Land Piety” (included in the anthology Buddhist Spirituality) says,

Pure Land Buddhism, however, is not ambiguous. It speaks explicitly and often of reliance on Amita Buddha as “Other Power” . . . This has led some scholars to claim that Pure Land is not, or is not fully, Buddhist . . . charging that Pure Land Buddhism is a corruption of “true” Buddhism.”

I am sympathetic to this point of view, yet at the same time, given its noble history and fine tradition of scholarship, I feel it is a bit unfair to deny Pure Land full status as a branch of Buddhism.

The second largest faith-based Buddhism is Nichiren Buddhism. The Soka Gakkai describes their brand of faith, this way: “Faith means to believe in the Gohonzon, or the object of devotion.” The Gohonzon is the “mandala” inscribed by Nichiren (It used to be called “the object of worship”). Nichirenism is presented as the antithesis of “other-power” and Pure Land, however I have long felt that Nichiren originally intended to create a virtual carbon-copy of Pure Land and that his mandala actually represents a Supreme Being. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

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Deities

Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? This is an on-going debate. Most of us probably tend to fall on the philosophy side and we are uncomfortable with the idea of faith. Most scholars will say that when the historical Buddha used the Indian word shraddha, often translated as faith, he meant confidence, trust, and sincerity, not faith in the sense of belief, or dogma.

But many of the forms of Buddhism that evolved after the Buddha were faith-based, and today most Buddhists in the world do see dharma as a religion and accept the notion of salvation by faith. The faith they generate is toward deities, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, all mythological, many of which come very close to the Western conception of God.

The Sanskrit/Pali word for deity is deva. Sometimes devatta is used. Deva can mean god, God, divine, heavenly,  radiant, along with a number of other meanings, all of which point to the idea of a “higher, holier being.” These beings may not be immortal or omniscient, but they certainly are not human. “Celestial” is a good word.

These beings are numerous, but how they are understood and the ways practice revolves around them can broadly categorized using the two terms “Other-power” (Ch. t’o-li; Jp. tariki) and “Own-Power” (Ch. tzu-li; Jp. jiriki). The origins of these terms are unclear and they are most often associated with Pure Land thought. In his essay, “Pure Land Peity,”* British scholar Roger Corless describes other-power this way: “The experience of . . . the theistic devotee is that one’s own power is insufficient to take one to liberation and so it is necessary to trust in the power of Another.” Own-power is the opposite, it is relying on one’s own efforts .

Corless further states,

Trust in a power greater than oneself is such a common motif in those systems which we call religions that it has sometimes been regarded as a sine qua non for identifying a system as a religion rather than, say, a philosophy. Since Buddhism often seems to be ambiguous on this point, it has got itself called, in English, a ‘religious-philosophy.’”

Ambiguous, too, is the exact nature of the other-power. Corless says that deities such as Amita Buddha “does not stand above the worshipper as an ontologically ‘Higher Power’.” This, however, does not match the reality in the minds of most theistic devotees, who tend to understand these deities as god-like, offering grace and eternal salvation.

Five Dhyani Buddhas
Five Dhyani Buddhas

This brings us to Dhyani Buddhas and Celestial Bodhisattvas.

Britannica.com: “Dhyani-Buddha, in Mahayana Buddhism, and particularly in Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism, any of a group of five “self-born” celestial buddhas who have always existed from the beginning of time. The five are usually identified as Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi.”

They represent five qualities of the Buddha. Dhyani is a form of dhyana meaning “meditation.” In terms of practice, these mythological Buddhas are used as objects of meditation. There is a vast array of celestial bodhisattvas, such as Avalokitesvara and Tara. In Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, practice with these celestial  beings is known as deity-yoga.

Deity-yoga deserves a lengthy explanation, but for now, let’s just say that the practice, performed in the context of sadhanas or rituals, has the practitioner centering his or her mind on the particular deity at hand and then visualizing that they, the practitioner, is a fully enlightened Buddha. I don’t care for using the word “deity” because of the connotation. The majority of tantric practitioners I’ve been with have a rational view of these beings, but there are those who misunderstand or are stuck in superstition.

The late Lama Tharchin Rinpoche was one of my favorite Tibetan teachers. I attended many of his teachings and empowerments. He had a great sense of humor, a wonderful smile, and although he was a proponent of so-called “crazy wisdom,” as far as I am aware, he never used that as an excuse to be irresponsible or to take advantage of his students. He always struck me as sort of a crazy, but wise, hippie.

There is a piece online by Lama Tharchin Rinpoche where he makes it clear that deity-yoga is not other-power but own-power. An excerpt reads:

Mahayoga sadhana is also called deity yoga. Maybe this is a good time for me to explain about deity yoga. I’ve noticed many people practicing deity yoga with the idea that the deity is outside or separate from themselves. This is not right and consequently, their practice is not conducive to wisdom and it even reinforces ignorance or becomes [egoism] . . .

Deity is synonymous with bodhicitta. Deity is a pure state of being that is beyond duality and not constricted by the forces of clinging and grasping. Since all beings have mind, they also have the nature of mind. Therefore, all beings are divine because their nature is pure.”

In other words, these deities are merely tools we can use to help activate our own inner power. They are archetypes, and to see them as being outside of our own lives is to grossly misunderstand the Buddha’s teachings.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s words encapsulate my attitude toward my Healing Buddha practice that I mentioned in the last post – except that the word or concept of “deity” never enters my mind. The Healing or Medicine Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru) is a celestial Buddha that is not only meditated upon, but also worshiped.  Obviously, worship does not interest me, and I am not concerned with the formalities of the practice. I study Healing Buddha teachings for encouragement they provide for wayfaring on the healing path and for the insights on subjects such suffering, emptiness, compassion, and nature of mind.

It is not necessary at all to use a Buddha or Bodhisattva as an object of meditation. I read some Tibetan and Japanese Healing Buddha literature and heard some teachings, and it resonated with me. It’s not superior to any other practice nor is it the whole of my practice, or the only thing I do to generate inner healing. When I chant the Healing Buddha mantra I am making a determination to be healthy. It helps keep my eye on the prize, so to speak, for I have a wandering eye and a monkey mind.

Healing Buddha practice involves visualization, or practice before an image of the Healing Buddha, and the goal is to become a Healing Buddha oneself, to harness the healing energies within. I wrote in Monday’s post “I am the cancer.” Well, I am also the healing. I am the Healing Buddha.

I will write more about this later. In the meantime, this is the first of several posts dealing with the subject of deities in Buddhism. Next up is “The Buddhism of Faith,” followed by “Nichiren and the Supreme Being.” There may be posts on other subjects interspersed.

Finally, please remember that no matter where you are, what you are doing, whether it is rain or shine, cloudy or clear, regardless of what circumstances you find yourself in – it is a beautiful day. Enjoy it.

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A Little Off the Beam

Valentine Davies (1905 – 1961) was a screenwriter, producer, and director. His best known work is a little story known as Miracle on 34th Street. According to IMDB, “[Davis] got the idea for the script whilst struggling through the Christmas shopping crowds, trying to find a present for his wife. The commercialism he saw made Davies wonder what the real Santa Claus would make of it all.”

George Seaton, another screenwriter and director, adapted Davies’ story and made it into a film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and eight-year old Natalie Wood.  It was released on May 2, 1947 and didn’t receive much notice. Today it is considered not only a classic holiday movie, but a classic film period. Davies received an Academy Award for Best Story.

Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street
Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street

Later in 1947 Davies took Seaton’s screenplay, based on his own original story, and rewrote it as a novella.  It was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.

[Kris] had begun to realize that Doris and little Susan were but unhappy products of their times. They presented a real challenge to him – a sort of test-case for Santa Claus. If he could win them over, if he could get them to believe in him – then there was still hope. If not, Santa Claus and all he stood for were through.

“You know, Mrs. Walker,” he said, “for the past fifty years or so I’ve been more and more worried about Christmas. It seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less, that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Doris. “Christmas is still Christmas.”

“No,” said Mr. Kringle, shaking his head. “Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind. That’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, because maybe I can do something about it.”

In spite of herself, Doris was impressed by Kris’ warmth and kindness. She couldn’t help liking the old man, even if he was a little off the beam.

Of course, anyone who thinks he is Santa Claus is delusional.  But as Dr. Pierce says in the story, Kris’ “delusion is for good. He only wants to be friendly and helpful.”  In Buddhism, we don’t like to promote the idea of indulging delusions, but this story reminds me of the one about Bodhisattva Fukyo.  One day, Fukyo went walking around,  bowing to every person he met. As he bowed, he would say, “I deeply respect you.”  He was a little off the beam, too. He thought everyone he saw was a buddha.

The writing in Davies’ novella is lean and simple, similar to a children’s book.  The story centers around the question of whether Kris is the real Santa Claus or just a nice old man with whiskers and a few bats in his belfry. However, there is a more thoughtful subtext. Doris, a single mother raising Susan while employed at Macy’s, is disappointed when Fred Gayley, an attorney with whom she is falling in love, appears to have thrown away his future by defending Kris at his sanity hearing. Fred realizes that Doris has no faith in him.

“It’s not a question of having faith in you. You’re bound to lose this case – that’s just common sense!”

Fred rose quickly.

“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to,” he replied. “And you’ve just got too much common sense.”

“It’s a good thing one of us has,” said Doris heatedly. “It’s rather an asset sometimes!”

“Can’t you get over being afraid?” Fred pleaded. “Can’t you let yourself believe in people like Kris – in fun and joy and love and all the other intangibles?”

Doris stiffened almost inperceptibly. She became the crisp, efficient Mrs. Walker again.

“You can’t pay the rent with intangibles,” she said.

“And you can’t live a life without them.”

In the film, instead of that last line, Fred says that “those intangibles are the only things worthwhile.” I think he also means they are the things most worth fighting for, and that’s why he works so hard to defend Kris.

You see, Fred knew that Kris was a Bodhisattva and that his mission was to awaken people – not to the reality of a symbolic holiday figure, or for that matter, some religious icon – Kris wanted to awaken them to the truth of intangible things, like the ones Fred listed above, and other intangibles such as kindness, hope, patience, and giving. Believing in Santa Claus, and even capturing the spirit of Christmas, is merely allegory for finding the only things worthwhile, those wonders that come from the heart.

And when Doris and her daughter Susan and everyone else began to believe in themselves and in others, they gave up their doubtful ways, stopped being afraid, and life opened up for them, and when we do the same, the doors to life’s storehouse of treasures opens for us, and we learn that everything we want, everything we need, is all around us all the time, and that is the real miracle to be found on 34th or any other street.

In a 2013 interview, Thich Nhat Hanh said,

It is in my heart when I use [the word “miracle”] because . . . you are a miracle and everything you touch could be a miracle — the orange in your hand, the blue sky, the face of a child. Everything become a wonder. And, in fact, they are wonders of life that are available in the here and the now . . . And that is a miracle because you understand the nature of the suffering, and you are not trying to run away from suffering anymore, and you know how to make use of suffering in order to build peace and happiness.”

Well, to sum up, I say that if it leads you to those intangibles which are life’s greatest treasures, then being a little off the beam is a good use of common sense.

Happy Holidays to you all and thanks so much for reading The Endless Further.

MPX222

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Joseph Campbell and the Ramparts of Belief

“Belief gets in the way of learning.”
– Robert A. Heinlein

When I quoted the late Joseph Campbell in Monday’s post, I did not realize that today, 2 days later, we would be celebrating the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Few philosophers – in addition to a mythologist, writer and lecturer, he was a philosopher – outside of Buddhism have influenced me as much as Joseph Campbell. When I watched his dialogue with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth as it aired on PBS in 1987, it had a profound effect and certainly changed my life. It finally resolved for me the tension between the metaphysical aspects of religion and my rational mind.

1987 was a largely pre-cable time and the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) still dominated the television landscape. After The Power of Myth aired, a TV executive, with CBS as I recall, said that if the program had been broadcast on one of the major networks instead of PBS, it would have changed the face of religion in America.

Campbell’s central thesis in this program was relatively simple:

“From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be ‘misunderstood mythology’, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact . . .”

In other words, religious stories are just stories, myths, and not history. If more people understood and appreciated this, we could spare the world from much trouble, and free ourselves from the bondage of dogma. Some have taken this message to heart, but there are others who dismiss it as something that undermines their faith.

Faith is a concept used by different persons to designate very diverse attitudes, but most often, we find faith reduced to belief coupled with the misunderstanding that belief makes what is believed fact. Any attempt to clear up this confusion is viewed as a threat, and this insecurity is the cause of most religious controversy and conflict.

Campbell did not articulate his view as such, but the principle underlying his philosophy was essentially the same as Nagarjuna’s Middle Way teachings on the emptiness of views, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan* explains in this way,

The Middle Way is to see things as they are, to recognize the possibility of determining things differently from different standpoints and to recognize that these determinations cannot be seized as absolutes. This is the way that realizes the relativity of specific views and of determinate entities. This becomes practically the central point in the philosophy of Nagarjuna.”

Faith is not belief about experiences but something inferred from them, and various things can be inferred from any one experience. Even while we may acknowledge the fact that faith/belief does not make what is believed fact, faith/belief can greatly influence attitudes and produce undesirable, unbeneficial, and even dangerous actions. A case in point would be the Louisiana teacher who taught her students that the universe was created by God 6,000 years ago and that that both the Big Bang theory and evolution are false. She gave her class a test in which the only correct answers were those based on this literal interpretation of the Bible. When one student gave different answers and then stated he was Buddhist and didn’t believe in God, the teacher reportedly told the rest of the class that Buddhism was “stupid.”

The student’s parents successfully sued the school, with the presiding judge in the U.S. District Court ruling that “School Officials shall not denigrate any particular faith, or lack thereof, or single out any student for disfavor or criticism because of his or her particular faith or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

This case is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, for we know all too well how religious intolerance can lead to violence and war.

Campbell said

We have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Both sides are wrong. Campbell further explained that

Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images . . .”

Buddhism has its share of misunderstandings about mythology. Some tend to dismiss concepts they see as supernatural or metaphysical and fail to appreciate the real messages they convey, while others insist that certain beliefs, such as karma and rebirth, must be taken literally, missing the point that if these ideas are regarded as metaphor, it does not undermine Buddhism’s core philosophy. Then, in addition, there are those who also mistake belief for fact and contend that the sutras and the theology surrounding the sutras are historical and adopt an absolutist stand that their Buddhism alone is true.

Religious philosophy is a system of ideas. It uses words and symbols to refer to what lies beyond the full scope of our knowledge. The nature of God is a continuous debate, and yet, assuming there were a super-awakened being that created the universe, the mind of such a being would be so vast and impenetrable that no one on this earth could possibly know it, let alone claim the ability to interpret His or Her will.

Religion does has practical value when it is practiced without undue attachment to belief and the blindness of faith. In Monday’s post, Joseph Campbell pointed out that yoga means to “join” or to “yoke.” In The Power of Myth, he explained, “The word ‘religion’ means religio, linking back.”  We can say then that yoga and religion have essentially the same meaning, and the same ultimate aim, which is to enter the zone of pure consciousness awake. When we awaken from slumber each morning, we wipe the sand or sleep (rheum) from our eyes. To be awake in the religious sense means to wipe away the sand of dogma from our minds and then go into the world and make our stand not on the ramparts of belief but before the gates of wisdom.

[You] have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God.'”

– Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

The wayfarer that can understand this [the emptiness of views] does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.”

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra

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

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