A Constant Thought

Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school, said,

The Dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this world to search for the dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns.”

We can consider “Dharma” here to refer not only to the teachings of Buddhism but also to what we are all seeking, the ‘ultimate reality,’ truth, happiness or whatever you wish to call IT, and “this world and not in another” as referring to anything outside of this realm of existence, as well as anything outside of our life.

buddha-rilke-quoteLooking for IT outside of our life, as Hui-neng notes, is useless, and such a search will always be unsuccessful. And yet, this is exactly what most people do. They may convince themselves they have found IT through belief in a higher power or some purpose larger than themselves, but they have discovered only the equivalent of fool’s gold. The vain search to fill a spiritual vacuum or Void (not sunyata) by looking outside of our lives is a root cause of the political, religious, economic, and ecological crises in our world.

I’m thinking of the Boston Marathon bombing. When we eventually strip away the layers of factors, such as their fractured family history, their immigration experience, ethnic ties to Chechnya, the turn toward a stricter form of Islam, the radicalization, I think we will find the real motive behind the terrible actions of the two brothers is simply the search to find meaning for their lives. For disaffected and alienated young men, radical Islam seems to fill the Void. It offers a narrative for their outer-directed hunt, albeit a toxic narrative, one that offers up an ultimate object for their worship, and it’s not a God, but someone to hate, to resent, to want to destroy.

The irony here is that once people like these two brothers commit their crimes, often they too become objects of this twisted form of worship. Thank goodness, there have been few cries for vengeance in the past week. In this case, the overwhelming response has been a pulling together, a feeling of solidarity.

I think most people do have a sense of interconnectedness, but how deep it runs is a question, because far too often it only seems to arise in the wake of tragedy. I can’t help but feel that what the world really needs at this point is a massive spiritual awakening. We need to find a way to turn the outer-directed search around and instill within everyone a profound appreciation of the interconnectedness of all life. Is it possible? What a silly question. Of course not.

That should not stop us from trying. It’s a noble quest that I’ve always felt Buddhists should lead. Political institutions and ideologies, Western philosophy, and Abrahamic religions will not help, for they are part of the problem. Modern psychology and self-help programs are both a mixed bag, particularly with the latter since some promote the idea of a higher power.

Buddhism is not the only spiritual philosophy that is inner-directed, but perhaps the only one that is both inner-directed and teaches a comprehensive theory of interconnectedness.

Unfortunately, some people who are interested in Buddhism want to debate whether this interconnectedness was part of the understanding of the first Buddhists. It doesn’t matter. Interconnectedness was understood by the later Mahayana Buddhists, and even if it is a new layer of meaning that we modern dharma practitioners have added, that’s great, for it means that we are doing our job by helping the dharma evolve.

Then we have those who are fine with interconnectedness but have some gripe against karma, rebirth or ritual, or who oddly fear that a commitment to compassion and non-violence will blunt our critical acumen or blind us to the nature and origins of violence. Even as I find myself drawn into to such discussions occasionally, I feel they are largely a waste of time.

Regardless of their views on ancillary matters, the vast majority of Buddhists do agree about the inner-direction and few will deny interconnectedness altogether. It seems to me that we, and the world, would be better served if we got past our sectarian identities and petty disagreements and started talking more about the ways we could promote the values we have in common. 

Yet, here, too, is a rub. I’ve heard some folks express the mistaken belief that propagation in Buddhism is not allowed, inappropriate, or just wrong. This is not the case. Buddhism could not have spread throughout all of Asia without propagation. We, in the West, have benefited from propagation. As J. Gordon Melton, an American religious scholar and the founding director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, has noted, “Between 1917 and 1965 Asian religion changed, at least in one important aspect. It was motivated by a new missionary spirit.”* 

Well, it wasn’t really new, it just appeared so. In any case, it brought Buddha-dharma to our shores. I have seen how some modern Buddhists have abused that missionary spirit, while many others have ignored it. I’m not sure we really need to engage in the propagation of Buddhism per se, but as I said, certainly we could put more effort in promoting some of the ideals of Buddhism.

A mass awakening may not be possible, but small, incremental awakenings can happen. One person at a time, switching on the inner-light within themselves, and then helping another to do the same.

I watched the Boston inner-faith service Thursday on CNN. Afterward, the commentator talked about how every faith was represented. I found that curious. There were no Buddhist speakers. All of the faiths represented a version of the same outer-directed focus, with our President quoting 2 Timothy: 1-7: “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.”

It saddens me to think that so many people believe that power, love and self-discipline must be gifted to them from on high. Or that, as Rabbi Ronne Friedman indicated, citing Psalm 147, God will empower the brokenhearted with “strength and courage and restore to them and to all of us who grieve with them a sense of life’s goodness and purpose.”

What could be more empowering that finding all that within oneself? I can’t even imagine a reason to exist if you must rely on some higher power for everything that makes life meaningful.

And for Buddhists, I don’t understand why more of us do not have a sense of urgency, more of a spirit to share our good news, our sense of inner-directedness and interconnectedness with the world.

 The Buddha of the Lotus Sutra says,

This is my constant thought: How can I cause all living beings to gain entry to the unsurpassed Way and quickly realize awakening?”

And this is my constant thought: If we Buddhists don’t radicalize the alienated, the disaffected, and all others to this peaceful, inner-revolution, who will?

P.S. This song came on the radio as I was reading the final draft. It seemed to fit.

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*Melton, J. Gordon (2004). “How New is New?” Bromley, David G. & Hammond, Phillip E. (Eds). The Future of New Religious Movements. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.


Shining Through Suffering

Like everyone, I experience brief periods of depression from time to time, but I don’t think I have ever felt as blue as I have this past week. Not in a long while anyway. It’s not just the death of my cat. I’ve dealt with the death of loved ones before. I’ve counseled people who have suffered the loss of loved ones. Tara’s death has served as the catalyst for bringing up a multitude of  . . . stuff. Feelings about my life, where it’s going, where it’s been, etcetera  and etcetera.

I haven’t been able to focus on much of anything. Haven’t felt like focusing. At the same time, I haven’t felt like engaging in self-pity, feeling sorry for myself. Let’s just say, I’ve had better weeks.

Somewhat perversely, there may be nothing more effective for taking you out of the depths of your own suffering as witnessing the sufferings of others.

I’ve been watching the Casey Anthony trial off and on. Today I thought I would tune in for a moment or two to see what was happening and there was George Anthony testifying yet again. I have a lot of empathy for George and Cindy Anthony. To lose your only grandchild like that and then to have your own daughter accused and possibility guilty of murdering her – their pain must be excruciating.

Today, George Anthony testified that he was so grief-stricken over the loss of his granddaughter Caylee that he wanted to kill himself. In a statement that mirrors my own feelings about Tara, my cat, he said, “I believe I failed her.”

From the outside, George Anthony looks like a tough guy. A hardened ex-cop. But earlier in the day, he broke down while on the stand. As he wept, the judge asked if he need to take a break and he replied no, that he wanted to continue. He said, “I need to have something inside me to get through this.”

My first thought was “You already have something inside.” Yet, as soon as the thought appeared, it seemed insufficient. We hear it all the time: the answer is inside you. The truth is within. How many times I have written something similar to that just this month. After a while, it begins to sound trite I suppose . . . and insufficient.

For some reason I thought of This Light in Oneself by Jiddu Krishnamurti. I got it off the bookshelf and turned to the section from which the book gets its title:

Most of us, if we are at all aware of our inward confusion [want clarity]. Let us see if we can come upon this clarity, so that your mind and your heart are very clear, undisturbed, with no problems and no fear. It would be immensely worthwhile to see if one could be a light to oneself.”

I wondered, how is it possible to see a inner light when everything inside you is ablaze with the flames of incessant suffering?

To do that requires meditation . . . We are going to see for ourselves if we can come upon the state of mind that is always in meditation. To lay the foundation for that meditation one must understand what living is, living and dying. The understanding of life and the extraordinary meaning of death is meditation. It is not searching out some deep mystical experience, not a constant repetition of a series of words . . . That only makes the mind quiet, but it also makes it rather dull, stupid, mesmerized. You might just a well take a tranquilizer . . .

But Jiddu, I’d like to take a tranquilizer. I wish I could get my hands on some. I’d like to tranquilize myself for about a month.

We all want to accept someone who promises something, because we have no light in ourselves. But nobody can give you the light: no guru, no teacher, no savior, no one.

So, I guess pills are not the answer either.

He tells us not to accept authority, to follow no one, that there is no path. I’m not sure if I am familiar with Krishnamurti enough to know if he means this is same way that the Heart Sutra does, or if he is speaking literally. Either way, it still feels insufficient.

But It will always be insufficient, because the truth of this light in oneself is a lonely truth. In the end, we are left to our devices. Meditation is but a tool, not a tranquilizer that makes everything wonderful after we take it. Only we ourselves can make meditation work for us. It would much easier if there really was a God to absolve all our sins or a celestial Buddha in a Pure Land whose name we could chant with the confidence that after we die, we’ll be in paradise.

Yet, the fact is that it is by oneself that we must do the work of grinding through the hard karma and the jagged emotions that belong to us alone. This lonely truth doesn’t condemn us to loneliness, however.

We stand-alone but we are not solitary. We’re not talking about cutting ourselves off from others, living in a forest as a recluse or residing safely behind monastery walls. If we experience loneliness, it is only because we are forgetting how we are interconnected with everyone and everything around us.

We are standing in the real world where real suffering takes place and it’s much harder to cross over suffering here. We can’t hide. No one can take away our sufferings. No one can give us the light. But I think that when we get that light to shine in this place, it shines brighter because it reflects all the lights shining within others.

Elsewhere in the book, Krishnamurti says,

We are going together to investigate what it means to be a light to oneself, and see how extraordinarily important it is to have this light.”

We are going together . . .