What is a Buddhist?

Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen was a leading Tibetan lama and a human rights activist. He founded the Gaden Shartse Thubten Dhargye Ling (“Land of Flourishing Dharma”), a center in Long Beach, CA for the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, in 1978.

gyeltsenI did not know him very well. I occasionally attended his dharma talks on Sunday mornings. He was very approachable. He often answered the phone at the center and you could engage him in a conversation. I always imagined that I could probably just show up any day and if he was available he would probably sit down with me and answer questions. I never did that. Long Beach is 30 miles away. It was a lousy excuse. I have always told people that for an opportunity to learn Buddha-dharma, you should be willing to travel as far as necessary. I should have practiced what I had preached.

He is gone now. He passed away in 2009. Fortunately we have audio tapes and videos of his teachings, and his books, although as far as I know he only published four. One of them is Mirror of Wisdom: Teachings on Emptiness. I was looking at it the other day and came across these words under the heading “What is a Buddhist”:

The Tibetan word for Buddhist is nang-pa, which literally means “one who is focused on inner reality.” This refers to someone who concentrates more on his or her inner world than on external phenomena. This is perhaps the most important point regarding Buddhist practice. Our primary goal is to subdue and transform our state of mind—our inner reality. In this way, we seek to improve all our actions of body and speech, but especially those of mind.”

The suffering within human beings cannot be transcended without the hard work of looking within and riding ourselves of delusions and attachments, work that heals and restores our original harmony with others and our environment.

I am afraid some people have the impression that Buddhism is all about transcending our mundane human existence to attain a supermundane state. It is to some extent understandable. In the past and even today, Buddha is presented as the “Perfect One,” superhuman, almost god-like, and the image that is predominate of a Buddhist is of the perfectly calm and uncommonly wise monk, who never craves for anything and never makes mistakes. But, that’s not it. A Buddhist, or a Buddha, is nothing more than an ordinary human being.

Another great teacher, Lama Anagarika Govinda, in A Living Buddhism for the West, put it this way:

The mere fact that the Buddha . . . led a full life in the world, with wife and child, and still attained enlightenment in that same life should teach us all not to obstruct our path through the enforced repression of normal human functions and capabilities. It is only through the fullness of experience and the living of a full human existence that we can attain to that turning within and transformation that alone can lead to the spontaneous experience of enlightenment.”

We talk a lot about emptiness, being a Buddhist is really about being full . . . a full human being.


Cecil the Lion, and the Story of Savari the Hunter and Kuan Yin

By now you must have heard about Cecil the Lion. But if you haven’t, here is a brief account of the facts:

cecilCecil was a 13 year old lion that roamed Zimbabwe’s Hwange national park. (See him on the left in an undated photo from by the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit – click to enlarge). Cecil was a popular cat, a favorite attraction for tourists visiting the park. Reportedly, a dentist from Minnesota paid $50,000 to a professional hunter for the opportunity to kill poor Cecil. They allegedly lured Cecil out of the sanctuary, shot and wounded him with an arrow. After they tracked him for 40 hours, they finished him off with a rifle, skinned him and removed his head.

Once the story hit the Internet, it went viral, and many were outraged. It is a sad fact that Americans regularly kill that lions, elephants, rhinos and other big game animals for “sport.” It’s sad that anyone does. I say if you’re going to shoot big game, use a camera.

I’m outraged, too. But there is little I can do other than add my voice to the protest by sharing this story with you, originally from the Tibetan biographies of the Eighty-Four Siddhas, who flourished between the seventh and eleventh century C.E. I’ve adapted it from Lama Anagarika Govinda’s version found in “Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness”:

Savari was a hunter who was very proud of his strength and his marksmanship. The only thing he did in life was to kill animals.

He was out hunting one day and he saw a stranger, also a hunter, approaching. He thought, “This guy has a lot of nerve hunting in my territory.” When the stranger drew up, Savari could not help but notice that he looked just like him. It was as if he were gazing into a mirror.

“Who are you?” Savari demanded.

“I am a hunter,” the stranger replied.

“And what is your name?”

“It is Savari.”

“How can that be? I am Savari. Where do you come from?”

“A far-away country.”

Savari didn’t like any of this. He decided to test the stranger.

“Can you kill more than one deer with a single arrow?”

The stranger said, “I can kill 300 with a single shot.”

“That’s pretty big talk. I’d like to see you back it up.”

kuan-yin-2015-2At that moment, the stranger magically created a herd of 500 deer. What Savari did not know what that the stranger was actually Kuan Yin who had taken Savari’s form because she felt pity for him.

The stranger then fired off an arrow and accomplished the feat he had boasted of with ease. “If you have any doubts about it, go fetch one of the deer.”

Savari went to the closet fallen deer but when he tried to lift it, he could not because it was too heavy. “Well,” said the stranger, “You must not be much of a hunter if you cannot lift one deer.”

This broke Savari’s pride completely and he went up to the stranger, fell on his knees, and begged the stranger to teach him.

Kuan Yin said, “If you want to learn this magic shooting art, you must first purify yourself for a month by not eating meat and by meditating on love and compassion toward all living things. Do that, and then I will return and share my secret.”

Savari did was he was instructed and a month later, he was a changed man but he had not yet realized it. When Kuan Yin returned, Savari ask to be shown the magic way of shooting.

Kuan Yin, still in the form of the stranger, drew an elaborate mandala, adorned it with flowers, and told Savari, who was accomplied by his wife, to look at the mandala carefully.

The husband and wife, who had seriously practiced meditation for a full month, were able to concentrate on the mandala with one-pointedness of mind, and as they did, the ground below them seemed to open up and reveal the bowels of the earth.

“What do you see?” asked Kuan Yin.

Savari and his wife were speechless, for they gazed upon the eight great hells and the agonizing suffering of innumerable living beings.

Kuan Yin asked again, “What do you see?”

As the husband and wife peered further they recognized two painfully contorted faces. And they cried out, “It is ourselves!”

They scrambled away from the mandala and Kuan Yin became herself and Savari and his wife implored her to teach them the way of liberation, and they forgot entirely about the magic way of shooting and the sport of hunting. After this, Savari devoted his time to meditation on loving-kindness and became one of the Eighty-Four Siddhas.

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you the moral of this story. But I will tell you that the tale was transformed into a well-known Zen fable about Shih-Kung and Ma-tsu, that was probably first presented to Western readers in D.T. Suzuki’s “Essays in Zen Buddhism” series published in the 1920s and ’30s.  Shih-Kung is a hunter who hates Buddhist monks.  One day he is confronted by Master Ma-tsu who convinces him to renounce hunting. Shih-Kung then becomes a monk and one version of the story has it that after Shih-kung became enlightened, whenever he was asked about the dharma, he would draw his bow and arrow and aim at the questioner.


The Path of Fearlessness

Back in January, I wrote a post than included this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm: “Fearlessness is not only possible, it is the ultimate joy.”

I was writing about a memorial concert for musician Lou Reed who died in October from liver cancer after receiving a transplant. I wrote, “As I face the same situation he [Reed] did, I think [the quote] should be my mantra.”

Some folks may have a natural sense of fearlessness. For others, like me, it is something that requires cultivation. I’ve had to get close to fear in order to let it go. I have learned that fearlessness is not necessarily synonymous with courage. It’s more a product of mindfulness, understanding how to live in the peace of the present moment.

abhaya-mudra2The Sanskrit word is abhaya. It means “not fearful,” “undaunted,” “security,” and “peace.” Fearlessness is represented by a hand gesture, the abhaya mudra that you see in paintings and statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (right). The abhaya mudra is the “gesture of fearlessness and granting protection.”

Fearlessness is a virtue of the Bodhisattva’s practice of giving, and as Lama Anagarika Govinda points out in Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, much more than that:

Fearlessness is the quality of all Bodhisattvas and of all those who tread the Bodhisattva-Path. For them life has lost its horrors and suffering its sting, for they imbue this earthly existence with new meaning, instead of despising and cursing it for its imperfections, as many do, who in the teachings of the Buddha try to find a pretext for their own negative conception of the world.”

Fear is one of the most basic of human emotions. Fear can be positive when it protects us from danger. Fear can also be negative, a danger in itself. Negative fear can produce unhealthy emotional and psychological states. Fear is often irrational, for instance fear of death is natural enough, but fear of survival?

Fear of samsara (this world of suffering) has led some Buddhists to think only of escape, imaging nirvana to mean extinction, an end to the cycle of birth and death. The Mahayana branch of Buddhism teaches that samsara is nirvana.

Our fears originate in thoughts about the future, the worry that something unfortunate might happen to us . . . at some future time. The present moment, however, seems peaceful because it provides a certain sense of safety. Within the present moment, there is freedom from fear. Something unfortunate is not happening to us now.

Actually, the future never arrives; it is not real. From the ultimate view, time doesn’t exist. For the past, present, and future to be real they would have to exist independently. Past, present, and future is a continuum of thought-moments. In this sense, the present moment is timeless. What we’re talking about here is a quality of timelessness.

In Foundations, Lama Govinda quotes Krishnamurti:

As long as the mind is tethered to the idea that action must be divided into past, present and future, there is identification through time and therefore a continuity from which arises the fear of death, the fear of the loss of love. To understand timeless reality, timeless life, action must be complete. But you cannot be aware of this timeless reality by searching for it.”

What Krishnamurti meant by timeless was “something that cannot be disturbed by circumstances, by thought or by human corruption.”  “Timeless reality” strikes me as an appropriate way to describe the present moment. If Krishnamurti had been Buddhist, he might have used the word emptiness.

In the Diamond Sutra, Subhuti asks the Buddha how to quiet his mind and fare on the bodhisattva path. He feels a need to search for the stillness in his mind and receive direction on how to proceed in the future, not realizing that what he seeks is already present. He poses this question in the second chapter, the remaining thirty chapters is just the Buddha answering this one question, and a single sentence in chapter 14 sums up his answer:

One should develop a mind that does not dwell anywhere.

In other words, cultivate a timeless mind. A mind that does not dwell anywhere is already quiet, and unafraid of the sufferings of the world. Because this timeless, quiet mind is undisturbed by thoughts of the future, it does not need to escape to some other place. Undaunted and peaceful, it becomes intimate with fear, and then recognizes that as the Heart Sutra tells us, within emptiness there is no fear.

This is the ultimate side of the problem. From the conventional side, it would be a mistake to dismiss the future and live unprepared. But the point is to be unattached to the idea of the future, and to control fear, not let it control us.

In a post last month, I quoted Shantideva, “Mind, be strong.” Fearlessness is another aspect of the patience Shantideva was discussing. The past is gone and the future does not arrive. The strength of fearlessness is the strength of the patience and equanimity that comes from quieting the mind. The path of fearlessness is the path of the Bodhisattva, and Bodhisattvas are joyful in the knowledge that suffering are nirvana.

– – – – – – – – – –

Sources: Thich Nhat Hanh, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, HarperOne, 2012, 6; Lama Anagarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1969, 270-272; Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known, HarperSanFrancisco, 2009, 9


Meaningful Life

Lama Govinda, whose book The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism is the definitive book on the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, and certainly one of the most important modern books about Buddhist practice, wrote this in another of his works,*

In Buddhism, the question was never raised as to whether life in itself has a meaning of its own or not: from the point of view of the Dharma this is a meaningless question. The important thing for the practice of Dharma is that each of us should give his own life an individual meaning. Just as in the hands of an inspired artist a worthless lump of clay can turn into a priceless work of art, so we too should try similarly to form the existing “clay” of our lives into something of value, instead of bewailing the worthlessness of life. Our life, and the world, have just as much “meaning” as we ascribe to them and put into them.”

No one and nothing can give your life meaning. You have to create it for yourself. The purpose of Buddhist practice is to develop your own life and discover its meaning. This is not an easy thing. There are times when the meaning of our life has to be forged like iron, or fought for by battling with ourselves. It’s not only ignorance about where the source for a meaningful life is found (within), but we must also deal with our arrogance, our fears, and habitual life tendencies.   

These are mental afflictions, and since we the change we are trying to forge within ourselves is so great, we can’t relax in the fight to win over ourselves.

I heard the Dalai Lama once say, “Those who battle against mental afflictions are true heroes.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Lama Anagarika Govinda, A Living Buddhist for the West, Shambhala, 1989


The Mantra of Light

In Monday’s post on Priest Myoe, mention was made of the Mantra of Light, and I thought it would be interesting to delve into this a little. Since people with differing backgrounds in Buddhism read this blog, I’ll start with a few basics.

The Mantra of Light was transmitted to Japan by Kukai of the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Shingon is an esoteric tradition that combines a number of different doctrines and philosophies and is a tough one to sum up in a few words. However, I think Junjiro Takakusa, managed to do just that in his book, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy:

Shingon or ‘true word’ is a translation of the Sanskrit ‘mantra’ which means a ‘mystic doctrine’ that cannot be expressed in ordinary words. The doctrine which has been expressed in the Buddha’s words should be distinguished from the ideal which was conceived in the Buddha’s mind but not expressed in words.”

This is the basic idea behind all Shingon teachings. This school uses various mantras, mandalas, meditations, and rituals in their practice. It can safely be said that Shingon is related to Tantric Buddhism or the Vajrayana branch. Today, Shingon is a rather small school in Japan, but it had a tremendous influence on Japanese Buddhism at one time. Kukai (774-834), the founder of Japanese Shingon, is one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism.

Now, let’s take a look at mantra itself. The Sanskrit word “mantra” is comprised of the root “man” from manas or mind and “tra” meaning instrument or tool. Literally, then, an “instrument of mind.” Lama Govinda, who wrote an extremely valuable book on the subject of mantra, The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, defines the word as “to protect the mind.” He says further:

Mantras are not ‘spells’ . . . [They] do not act on account of their own ‘magic’ nature, but only through the mind that experiences them. They do not posses any power of their own; they are only the means for concentrating already existing forces – just as a magnifying glass, though it does not contain any heat of its own, is able to concentrate the rays of the sun and to transform their mild warmth into incandescent heat . . .

Their ‘secret’ is not something that is hidden intentionally, but something that has to be acquired by self-disciple, concentration, inner experience, and insight.

This may not be exactly what mantra has meant to Shingon Buddhists historically, but I think it is a good contemporary understanding.

So, the Mantra of Light: om amogha vairocana mahamudra manipadma jvala pravarttaya hum. (Japanese: On abokya beiroshano makabodara mani handoma jimbara harabaritaya un.)

Some readers may be able to pick out a few of the Sanskrit words: Om, the seed syllable of the universe; amogha, spotless, without a tinge of impurity; vairocana, the celestial buddha who represents the bliss body of the historical Buddha; mahamudra, the great seal or symbol of the Buddha; manipadma, jewel and lotus; and hum, a seed syllable with no literal meaning but quite a few associations that is frequently the last syllable of a mantra.

John Stevens (Sacred Calligraphy of the East) translated the mantra as “Infallible brilliance of the great mudra! Creating the radiance of the Jewel and the Lotus.” Professor Mark Unno (Shingon Refractions: Myoe and the Mantra of Light) has it as “Praise be to the flawless, all-pervasive illumination of the great mudra. Turn over to me the jewel, lotus, and radiant light.”

The mantra comes from the Amoghapasakalparaja-sutra or “Sutra of the Mantra of the Unfailing Rope Snare of the Buddha Vairocana’s Great Baptism.” Although, as I mentioned above, the mantra was brought to Japan by Kukai, apparently he did not practice it, and the mantra was not popular until it was championed by Myoe  in the 13th century.

The earth and sand of the Mantra of Light constitute the great secret dharma of all Buddhas. The Mantra of Light spreads through the world and protects all people, lay and ordained.

– Myoe

The Mantra of Light in Siddham script.

Profession Unno, who translated the quote from Myoe, writes:

The first existing references to this practice, which originated in India in the early history of Mahayana Buddhism, can be found in a Chinese translation made by Bodhiruci, a monk of northern Indian birth of the sixth century . . .

The same scriptural translation contains a curious reference to sand: One can transfer the power of [celestial] buddhas . . .  to the sand by chanting the mantra and infusing grains of sand with its power. Furthermore, this sand has the power to cure illnesses, if, for example, its grains are simply placed near the head of the bedridden. Even after people have died, one can sprinkle sand on their corpses or graves, and the power of the mantra will then reach the deceased, purify their karma, and lead them to birth in the Pure Land . . .

The practice of sprinkling the sand of the bodies of deceased persons is called dosha-kaji or “blessing of sacred sand.”

Obviously, this seems to belie Lama Govinda’s assertion that mantras are not magic spells. Nonetheless, as is the case with all mantras, emptiness is the mantra’s foundation. All beings and things are equally empty of any “own-being” or “thingness,” and that being the case, all beings and things are thereby equal. This ties in with Myoe’s concept, discussed in Monday’s post, that beings and inanimate objects are identical or non-differentiated from each other. This applies to mantras as well, which can be viewed as being identical to the person employing the mantra, and/or the person, celestial being, or mandala receiving the mantra.