Guest Post by Russ Riley

Today, the first ever guest post at The Endless Further.

My nephew, Russ Riley (left), is a student at Hastings College in Nebraska.  Last semester, he took a class on Buddhism, and naturally, to complete the course he was required to write a final paper.  I think it’s pretty good.  His teacher did, too.  Gave Russ an A-.  And I want to share it with you.

Now, since we live some 1500 miles apart from each other, I have not been much of an influence in Russ’ life.  So whatever interest he has in Buddhism is a result of his own spiritual journey.  Matter of fact, I don’t believe we had ever talked about Buddhism together until just recently.

Likewise, I gave him some guidance on the paper (after all, what good is having an uncle who is Buddhist if you can’t tap into his vast storehouse of wisdom), but I didn’t help him too much.  And it was his professor who suggested the theme of Jack Kerouac and the Beat movement and how jazz music relates to Buddhism. 

In any case, without further ado, here is one young man’s thoughts on some of the Dharma:

How You See Is What You Get

Russ Riley

The search for happiness can be a tough one, especially with the monotony of everyday life. When people are in our way and we have to be somewhere right now, it can be easy to forget what is actually happening right now. We can very easily get caught up in our thoughts and emotions and before we know it we’re stuck in a fit of anger and frustration: all because that car didn’t get out of my way, or because I didn’t deserve to stub my toe on that crack in the sidewalk. When we practice Buddhist philosophy we can come to an understanding that happiness is all around, and that our perception is what needs to change. In order to find true happiness we must let go of our expectations and live in the present moment.

Where am I? Here. What time is it? Now. This is something we don’t often think about with our Western mindsets. To Be Here Now means to live completely in the present moment. It means not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future, but thinking about the feelings and senses of the eternal present. It means thinking about the hardness of the chair you’re sitting in, the feeling of your breath flowing in and out across your lips, the breeze lightly brushing your skin. When we practice being in the present moment we are practicing one of the most important aspects of Buddhism. One person who was particularly good at this was Jack Kerouac, one of the most influential writers of the 1950’s. He was known for his spontaneous behavior and helping create a movement called the beat movement. His writing style was as spontaneous as the lifestyle he lived and wrote about, as he often typed on 120-foot long teletype paper. This style was called spontaneous prose, a much practiced stream of consciousness with a trail of untampered thoughts, one leading to the next. Kerouac developed this style so that the words on the page were his purest thoughts. It is quite clear that this writing style has many similarities to that of an improvised jazz solo, even more specifically, a bebop solo played by Charlie Parker. Phrases were well thought out, allowing breathing space for the reader, just like Parker’s solos, each passage based around a key idea. Both based in New York in the 50’s, they ended up crossing paths and Kerouac was blown away by Parker’s spontaneity and originality in his musical phrases. As the bebop movement grew, it became more than just music. It became a lifestyle, an image of these fast paced, high energy entertainers living a life free from all the worries and problems of the real world. A prime example of this lifestyle is the beat generation, which Kerouac wrote about and helped start. Being a ‘beat’ meant you were nonconforming and original, questioning social, religious, and political matters. It meant living in the moment, being in the now.

Kerouac has said that bebop and Parker in particular were very influential on his life and works. In fact, Kerouac was so moved by Charlie Parker that he wrote the following poem about him, comparing him to Buddha.

Charlie Parker looked like Buddha
Charlie Parker, who recently died
Laughing at a juggler on TV
After weeks of strain and sickness,
Was called the Perfect Musician.
And his expression on his face
Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
As the image of Buddha
Represented in the East, the lidded eyes
The expression that says “All Is Well”
This was what Charlie Parker
Says when he played All Is Well.
You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning
Like a hermit’s joy, or
Like the perfect cry of some wild gang
At a jam session
“Wail, Wop”
Charlie burst his lungs to reach the speed
Of what the speedsters wanted
And what they wanted
Was his eternal Slowdown.

Jack Kerouac thought Charlie Parker looked like Buddha. At the beginning of the poem, Kerouac refers to Parker as the Perfect Musician, similar to how a monk would call Buddha the Perfect Being. Kerouac, a man who practiced Zen Buddhism for part of his life, compares Parker’s face to Buddha. He also attributes a spiritual significance to his musical playing abilities. Kerouac praises Parker’s creative energy as if it were a spiritual force working towards a musical awakening. When he wrote about his writing style, spontaneous prose, he compared it to playing jazz music. In an excerpt from the book, Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, Kerouac describes his theory of composition: “PROCEDURE: Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.” This example of how the artistic visions of Kerouac and Parker crossed paths is perfect. They both had a thirst for spontaneity and originality. Kerouac saw the Zen in Charlie Parker’s approach to jazz in this new style called bebop. In this poem, Kerouac isn’t so much comparing Parker as a person to Buddha, but more so it’s a reference to how Charlie Parker’s playing makes him feel. All Is Well.

In 1956, a Zen Buddhist and friend of Kerouac, Gary Snyder, suggested that Kerouac write a sutra. What he wrote became The Scripture of Golden Eternity. The work consists of 66 prose poems, which deal with the nature of our consciousness and the impermanence in everything. Mainly influenced by his Buddhist background, the title “scripture” alludes to his Catholic upbringing. In the first verse, he says:

Did I create that sky? Yes, for, if it was anything other than a
conception of my mind I wouldn’t have said “sky”-That is why I
am the golden eternity. There

are not two of us here, reader and writer, but one, one golden
eternity, On-Which-It-Is, That-Which-Everything-Is.

In this passage Jack Kerouac introduces another very important concept in Buddhism, which is, the oneness of everything and nothing. He believed that everything is a part of something greater. That we are all one essence functioning in a nonexistent and unimportant reality. Kerouac refers to himself as a divine being when calling himself the “golden eternity.” He also implies that others are part of this divine being when he says, “You are the golden eternity because there is no me and no you, only the golden eternity.” He is emphasizing the importance of the unity of humanity. I think the golden eternity refers to the realization of Buddhist philosophy, the principle that once one understands the endless mystery of everything and nothing, once one realizes we are all one energy, one can understand true happiness.

The problem in Western society today is that we are so focused on individualism and being different from others. We generally define ourselves by what we are not, instead of what we are. This creates a “this and them” mindset and only feeds our nasty egos. In the West we have our Golden Rule: Treat others how you want to be treated. But upon first inspection of this saying, it feeds the ego. It is based on you helping other people for personal benefit. I will act in a positive way towards you, so that the result is you acting positive towards me. I’m helping you with the intentions of getting help for myself. This should not be the case. We should be compassionate to others simply because it is the right thing to do. In Buddhism, it is said that every sentient being is the same energy. If you look close enough, smaller than atoms, protons, and electrons, there is just energy. If we think this way, it becomes obvious that we must not be harmful to others, because we are all the same. Not the same beings, but the same being.  Another more scientific way to look at it is to look at the four most common elements in the human body; hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Not only are they most common in human bodies, but every other living thing on Earth. Furthermore, these elements are among the most abundant in the universe, with hydrogen making up 75%, oxygen the third most abundant, followed by carbon, neon, iron, and nitrogen. The same elements that make up 96% of the human body make up more than 75% of our universe.

The idea that we are all one is an idea that was brought forth by Siddhartha Gautama himself. This teaching is described best in one of the earliest surviving Buddhist texts, the Vajracchedika Pranjaparamita Sutra, or the Diamond Sutra. It was discovered by Aurel Stein in 1907 in the Cave of the Thousand Buddhas. The complete history is unknown, but it is said to be an adaptation of another sutra, translated in 401 CE by Kumarajava, who translated many of the Buddhist sutras. The Diamond Sutra explains that a bodhisattva must abandon all concepts of “self,” he or she should get rid of all notions “other.” When a bodhisattva helps someone, he or she should not have the idea that someone is being helped. One must empty the mind of all concepts of discrimination. Buddha says that the ultimate truth cannot be expressed in words. He says no one can attain transient wisdom, and that the very idea of attainment is one that should be forgotten.

Another essential Buddhist concept deals with our perceptions.  Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Perception is very important for our well-being, for our peace. Perception should be free from emotion and ignorance, free from illusion. In Buddhism, knowledge is regarded as an obstacle to understanding.” He explains that if we hold something as truth, we need to be ready to abandon it or else when truth comes to knock at our door we will not open it. He gives a very good example: A man with a young son whom he loved very much was away on a business trip. While he was gone, bandits came and burned down his village and took his son. When the man returned he saw the destruction and panicked. He found a corpse of an infant whom he thought was his child. He held a cremation ceremony and carried his son’s ashes wherever he went. He loved his son more than anything. One night his real son escaped and came knocking on his door in the middle of the night. When the man asked who it was the boy told him it was his son. He man became angry and thought it was some boy making fun of him and yelled at him to go away. They never saw each other again (48). Knowledge is an obstacle to our understanding. Understanding means to throw away your knowledge. For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.

Guarding knowledge is not a good way to understand, but throwing away what we hold as truth will help us better understand and become more aware. Kerouac wrote a verse in The Scripture of the Golden Eternity that expresses this concept very well. It states:

Stare deep into the world before you as if it were the void: innumerable holy ghosts, buddhies, and savior gods there hide, smiling. All the atoms emitting light inside wavehood, there is no personal separation of any of it. A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not: so rest and be assured. While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.

In the first line of this verse Kerouac is referring to meditation, seeing the world as it truly is, free from illusion, being totally aware. One will see good things and bad things, but underneath all of that is just energy. Understand that it is all emptiness, empty of any self that is intrinsic, permanent, and independent. He refers to atoms emitting light, saying there is no personal separation of any of it. All things are all interdependent. We are all one. When Kerouac says, “A hummingbird can come into a house and a hawk will not” he is implying that whether good or bad, change happens. One day it is cloudy, another day it is not, but do not worry about stuff happening, be happy. Think not of the future, nor of the past, but be here now. This attitude is where Zen and Beat align. Happiness is all around, you just have to perceive it as such. In the last line of this verse Kerouac means that when we are looking for truth, we may be confronted with what we think is not truth. When we let go of our previous knowledge, we can fully understand. The idea of light and dark can be compared to that of good and evil. The Buddhist understanding is that good and evil are not two separate things, but they are innate, inseparable aspects of life. The line “devoured by darkness” is referring to the fact that it can be very difficult to let go of what we hold as truth. In order to truly understand and perceive reality, we must be ready to abandon our truths. Without darkness, there is no light. Without light there can be no darkness.

Kerouac’s verse reminds me of a famous singer and song writer who became quite well known for his teachings of peace and love. His name was John Lennon and he wrote a song called Tomorrow Never Knows, which says, “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying, it is not dying. Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void, It is shining, it is shining.” The idea of this verse correlates with Kerouac’s Scripture verse quite well. In Zen, not knowing is an important concept. When we can lay down all our thoughts, let go of our preconceived notions and expectations, and surrender to the void, we can truly understand and see the light.

No matter who you are, where you are from, which religion you are a part of, you can practice Buddhism. We can all help the world be a more peaceful place by starving our ego and fueling our compassionate loving side. Abandon your views, let go of your judgments, be in the present moment and desire nothing. Buddhism is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. There are no rules and constrictions, just concepts to practice and apply to daily life. Be good to one another, for deep down, we are all the same energy. With these realizations we can find our Buddha nature and contribute to a more loving peaceful world. Happiness is everywhere as long as we remember where we are, and what time it is; as long as we remember to Be Here Now.

Work Cited
Camia, George -. “Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, & Zen Buddhism.” Roots Rock Boston. Roots Rock Boston, 3 Aug. 2009. Web. 19 May 2017.

Weekes, Henry, Mo Hafeez, Samuel Burnt, Tobias Berchtold, Richard Birch, and Ayush Joshi. “Bebop: Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, and the ‘Beat Generation’.” Wall of Sound Magazine. Wall of Sound Magazine, 10 Mar. 2015. Web. 19 May 2017.

Inc., Wolfram Research. “Abundance in the Universe of the Elements.” Abundance in the Universe for All the Elements in the Periodic Table. Wolfram Research Inc., n.d. Web. 19 May 2017.

Kerouac, Jack. The Scripture of the Golden Eternity. San Francisco: City Lights, 1994. Print.

Hanh, Thich Nhat, Rachel Neumann, and Mayumi Oda. Being Peace. Berkeley: Parallax, 1987. Print.

Riley, David. “Jack and the Buddhastalk.” The Endless Further. The Endless Further, 17 Sept. 2012. Web. 19 May 2017.

Riley, David. “Secrets of the Diamond Sutra.” The Endless Further. The Endless Further, 14 Sept. 2012. Web. 19 May 2017.

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The Blind Man and the Sun

After I prepared today’s post, I realized it is more or less a continuation of the theme of my last post.  I apologize if I am being redundant . . .

Su Shi (1037-1101), aka Su Dongpo was a writer, poet, artist, and calligrapher, of the Song Dynasty.  He often criticized the government in political essays, in particular he wrote against the government monopoly on the salt industry.  For this, he was sent into exile, banished to Huangzhou where he was assigned a modest government post with no pay.

Many of his essays were essentially parables, such as the one below.  “The Blind Man and the Sun”  was used by Albert Einstein to illustrate the average person’s understanding of his theory of relativity.

The blind man had never seen the sun.  He would ask people what the sun was like.  One person told him, “It’s shape is like a copper platter.”  The blind man struck a copper platter and listened to the sound.  Some days afterward, he heard the sound of a bell and he thought it was the sun.  Someone else said, “Sunlight is like a candle.  The blind man felt a candle, and concluded the sun was the same shape as the sun.  Later  he held a flute in his hand and thought it was a sun.

The sun is quite different from a bell or a flute, but the blind man could not tell their difference because he had never seen the sun.  Truth is harder to see than the sun, and when people do not know it they are exactly like the blind man. Even if you do your best to explain by analogies and examples, it is still like the analogy of the copper platter and the candle. From what is said of the copper platter, one imagines a bell, and from what is said about a candle, one imagines something else.  In this way, one gets ever further and further away from the truth.  Those who speak about the Way (Tao) will give it a name according to what they happen to see, or imagine what it is like without seeing it.  These are mistakes in the effort to understand the Way.

The Tao Te Ching begins with these words, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”

This applies to not only the Tao but also Buddha-dharma, God, the absolute truth –  because we feel compelled to try and capture with concepts and words things that are ultimately ineffable, we lead ourselves into error.  Concepts, names and so on are mere labels, conventional designations, and they are empty.

Blindness can also be used as a metaphor for the inability to see the truth or things as they truly are.  This kind of blindness is not caused by diseases of the eye.  Often, the primary cause is ignorance.  To be “visually impaired” in this way can also be a choice.  I’m sure most of you remember the line in John Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever, “Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see . . .”

Sometimes it takes great effort to open our eyes and see.

– – – – – – – – – –

Parable of “The Blind Man and the Sun” adapted from the version by Lin Yutang in The Wisdom of China and India, The Modern Library, 1942

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Not Everyone Wants It

Happy Bodhi Day.

In December 1969 John Lennon and Yoko Ono launched a media campaign for peace by renting billboards in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Helsinki displaying the message: WAR IS OVER! If You Want It.

This was the same message as the Buddha’s, who said in so many words, “Suffering is over, if you want it.”

The problem is that not everyone wants it. That is not to say that we can’t do something. It’s ordinary people who are the victims in this world.  It’s ordinary people who can raise the consciousness of others and turn the world around.

John and Yoko’s “slogan” was also used as the refrain for the song Happy Xmas, recorded on October 28, 1971 in New York city. 

Happy Xmas Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message – the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that somebody’s doing it to them, and that they have no control, then they have no control.”

John Lennon, 1980 quoted in “All We Are Saying” by David Sheff

Today, on the 35th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder, a picture is worth much more than further words.

war-is-over2

 

 

 

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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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Through a pair of glasses, darkly

Last week, Yoko Ono weighed in on the U.S. gun control debate when she tweeted a picture of the blood-stained glasses her husband, John Lennon, was wearing the night he was assassinated by a crazed stalker. The tweet was in commemoration, for lack of a better word, of their 44th wedding anniversary.

The photo stands on its own, a picture worth more than a thousand words. No doubt sensing that, Ono simply added, “Over 1,057,000 people have been killed by guns in the USA since John Lennon was shot and killed on 8 Dec 1980.”

I don’t know the exact number but there have been close to 1,280 gun deaths in the United States since Sandy Hook. And that incident was a little over 90 days ago. It’s insane.

Last week we also witnessed the incredible cowardice of the U.S. Senate when they stripped the assault weapons ban, a core element of President Obama’s agenda to curb gun violence, from proposed gun control legislation. No wonder that according to this month’s Gallup poll Congress has only a 13 percent approval rating. But since Congress cannot even do anything to help the economy, it is not surprising that they continue to act in a gutless manner on this issue, too.

This country needs sensible gun control. Congress needs to act responsibly. There are times, and this is one of them, when we have to force them to be responsible to us, the citizens they represent. If you feel strongly about gun control, you need to tell your Representative and Senator how you feel. Call them. Let your voice be heard. The number is 202-224-3121.

If you don`t know who your senator or member of Congress is, then go to www.house.gov and enter your zip code to find your congressional representative and www.senate.gov to find your senator.

If we, the people, don’t take action, then the words below are true.

(Image credit: @yokoono/Twitter)
(Image credit: @yokoono/Twitter)

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,
They slither while they pass, they slip away across the universe.
Pools of sorrow waves of joy are drifting through my opened mind,
Possessing and caressing me.

Jai guru deva om
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world.
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world.

– John Lennon

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