Everything will be changed

Those of us who watched the news this weekend were bombarded with images from Paris, where Friday terrorists launched an extremely deadly attack. One image, or video, that affected me deeply was the one below of a man playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on a piano just a few meters away from the Bataclan theater, one of the scenes of the attack.

The song’s message of non-duality and universal compassion is, I believe, the right message, the right response, in the wake of this horrific incident. It matches the spirit of non-violence that permeates Buddhism. The spirit of ahimsa (“do no harm”) is summarized in the famous admonition attributed to the Buddha, that with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.”

Victor Hugo, the French Romantic author known for his poetry and his novels, including Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), lived much of his life in the city of Paris. In 1882, he made a speech to the “Workingmen’s Congress.”  You may say Hugo was a dreamer, but he, too, was not the only one . . .

Have faith, then; and let us realize our equality as citizens, our fraternity as men, our liberty in intellectual power. Let us love not only those who love us, but those who love us not. Let us learn to wish to benefit all men. Then everything will be changed; truth will reveal itself, the beautiful will arise, the supreme law will be fulfilled, and the world shall enter upon a perpetual fete day. I say, therefore, have faith.”

I don’t feel that the faith Hugo speaks of is a religious faith, but a faith in humanity, a belief that the goodness in human beings will win out over the evil, faith in the power of compassion and reason.

As requested by the Mayor of Paris, the Eiffel Tower will be lit in the colors of the French flag (red white blue) and the motto of the City “Fluctuat nec Mergitur” will be projected onto the deck of the 1st floor (Trocadero side) from night fall Monday November 16 to 1:00 am and for three days (until Wednesday, November 18 included).

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Loving-Kindness Supports the World

A Thai monk I know once taught me the phrase lokopatthambhika metta or “loving-kindness supports the world.”

But how? It is difficult to imagine, for the world seems supported, or certainly permeated, by darkness, evil, hatred, violence. You might think it must be a optimist/pessimist kind of thing, you know, where the glass is either half empty or half full. That’s not it, though. It is a whole other way of thinking. It’s like when John and Yoko said war is over, if you want it.

If we want it, metta or loving-kindness can be an active force. The Tevigga Sutta says,

And he lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of loving-kindness, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, and everywhere, does he continue to pervade with a heart of loving-kindness, far-reaching, grown great, and beyond measure.”

One of the Buddha’s desires was that his disciples would truly care for other beings. The Buddha knew it is very easy to understand our own sufferings, but a real challenge to understand the sufferings of another person. He said that is the real meaning of sincerity – having empathy for the situations of others. And it is not just understanding their suffering, it’s also understanding their behavior. When we develop insight into behavior and identify with the emotions that drive behavior, it’s not so easy to judge and condemn.

But, back to the question, how does loving-kindness support the world? Perhaps we can get a clue from these words by the great teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti:

The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that for you the world is transformed.”

Loving-kindness supports the world through transformation.

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Loving-Kindness

I meant to post this piece before or on January 1st, but some things came up and I forgot about it. Not too late, though. The Chinese New Year is still ahead, and actually, any day can be the beginning of a new year, just as any day can be the first day of the rest of your life.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Vietnamese Zen teacher, suggests a practice of loving-kindness (metta) mediation for the first three days of the New Year. On the first day, we practice for ourselves. On the second day, we practice for people we love. On the third day, we practice for those who make us suffer.

Loving-kindness meditation originated in the Theravada tradition but is practiced in almost all Buddhist schools. It’s considered a very effective tool for calming the mind and dispelling anger and hatred.

The Dalai Lama offers a rather nice summary of the practice:

Just as compassion is the wish that all sentient beings be free of suffering, loving-kindness is the wish that all may enjoy happiness. As with compassion, when cultivating loving-kindness it is important to start by taking a specific individual as a focus of our meditation, and we then extend the scope of our concern further and further, to eventually encompass and embrace all sentient beings. Again, we begin by taking a neutral person, a person who inspires no strong feelings in us, as our object of meditation. We then extend this meditation to individual friends and family members and, ultimately, our particular enemies.

We must use a real individual as the focus of our meditation, and then enhance our compassion and loving-kindness toward that person so that we can really experience compassion and loving-kindness toward others. We work on one person at a time.”

I first learned loving-kindness meditation in a group setting and the format went like this:

You start by generating acceptance of yourself, removing all feelings of unworthiness. Then you send warm thoughts of loving-kindness to the person next to you. Then, to everyone in the room. Next, you send warm thoughts of loving-kindness to a friend or mentor, and next to an especially beloved friend and to the members of your family. After this, you send warm thoughts of loving-kindness to a neutral person, and then a hostile person, someone you have difficulty with. Lastly, you generate warm thoughts of loving-kindness to each living being in the world.

Acceptance of oneself can be difficult. Feelings of unworthiness or self-loathing are just as much a hindrance to our development of compassion as self-cherishing. When we cannot love ourselves, then how can we love others? Everyone at some time or another finds it difficult to love themselves. And it is especially hard, for obvious reasons, to feel loving-kindness toward a person whom we believe has harmed us and consider hostile. If we can master these two most difficult aspects of loving-kindness practice, then we have scored a major victory over anger and hatred.

This meditation is a very early Buddhist practice, formally known as Metta Bhavana. Metta, of course, is loving-kindness, or simply, love. Bhavana means ‘development’ or ‘cultivation.’ So this meditation is called “The Development of Loving-Kindness.”

Metta Bhavana also has a nice little Pali paritta or chant that accompanies it, which goes like this in English:

Seeing that all beings like myself
Have a desire for happiness
One should develop for all of them
Warm thoughts of Loving-Kindness

May I be every happy
And free from suffering
May all friends and enemies
Be ever happy too

May all beings in this city,
In this state, in other countries
And in all the universe
Be ever happy

May I be free from hatred
May I be free from suffering
May I be free from worry
May I live happily

May all beings in the universe
Be happy and free from suffering
May they always find good fortune
All beings have karma of their own

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about loving-kindness today. I just wanted to pass along Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion because I though it is a good one. So I will end with this thought from Nagarjuna:

Even offering three hundred bowls of food three times a day does not match the spiritual merit gained in one moment of love.”

‘Nuff said.

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Nagarjuna was badass

Someone on Reddit called Nagarjuna a badass. Damn right. He was. He kicked butt, philosophy speaking. As far as I’m concerned he was far superior to any Western philosopher. You can keep your Nietzsches and Rousseaus and all the rest, because they Kant compare.

badass-nagarjuna2Just what made Nagarjuna such a badass? One believer, Karl Jaspers said that in Nagarjuna’s philosophy “everything can be formulated negatively and positively . . . Not only is the opposition between true and false transcended but also the opposite of this opposition. In the end no definite statement is possible.”

Nagarjuna was a demolition expert. He blew-up all operations of thought, views, and statements by clarifying how everything is ultimately empty, and then he demolished emptiness with sunyata-sunyata, the emptiness of emptiness.

For those unfamiliar with Nagarjuna’s thinking, and even for some who are, it is easy to mistake emptiness for a negative or nihilistic philosophy. That is a superficial understanding. As Jaspers also wrote, “Emptiness permits the greatest openness, the greatest willingness to accept the things of the world as a starting point to make the great leap.”

And as Nagarjuna himself said,

Everything is in harmony for the person who is in harmony with emptiness; but nothing stands in harmony with the person who is not in harmony with emptiness.”

To understand Nagarjuna, it’s important to have an appreciation of his dialectical method, and a good grasp of the Two Truths. The latter is crucial, for without knowing the difference between the Conventional Truth and the Ultimate Truth, one can easily become lost.

Other than the Buddha himself, no other historical Buddhist figure is more revered than Nagarjuna, or as legendary. Throughout the centuries, he has been called a “second Buddha,” and almost all the Mahayana schools of China, Tibet, and Japan have regarded him as a paramount spiritual ancestor. He is considered the founder of the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, as well as the founder of eight other Buddhist schools.

We are in possession of very few facts concerning Nagarjuna’s historicity. Nearly all of his story is pure myth. The Buddhist historian, Kenneth Inada once wrote that Nagarjuna’s “veneration at times reached such ridiculous heights that his name was sanctified and stamped everywhere with reckless abandon . . .” If all the stories were believed, Nagarjuna was not only a great scholar, but also a tantric master, a magician, a scientist and physician, an alchemist. He is said to have built innumerable temples, written hundreds of books, and was abbot of the Nalanda monastic university. Certainly stories like the one in which he brought the world the Mahayana sutras by diving into the ocean and retrieving them from underwater dragons are not historically credible.

As I said above, Nagarjuna is thought to have been a prolific writer, although it is doubtful that he composed all of the texts attributed to him. It was a custom in India (and China) to give credit to the founder of a school for the composition of texts authored by later followers. This was done as an act of homage to the teacher, not as an attempt to mislead anyone, and it may be that this is the case with Nagarjuna.

There is, however, scholarly consensus that a teacher named Nagarjuna did live, most likely in the 2nd century of the Common Era; and that he did write at least two works: Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra and Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way. Either one of these two texts alone is worthy enough to justify the great respect he is afforded.

Nagarjuna’s name is virtually synonymous with emptiness., but there is much more to his philosophy than that. Equally esteemed are his teachings on the Four Sublime States, also known as the Four Immeasurable Minds, mentioned in Monday’s post: equanimity (upekkha), loving-kindness (metta), compassion (karuna); and sympathetic joy (mudita).

Here is a passage on the subject of metta, translated by Thich Nhat Hanh from Etienne Lamotte’s French translation of Nagarjuna’s Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra. It’s found in Hanh’s book Teachings on Love (Parallax Press, 2009):

When we want beings in all directions to be happy, there arises in us the intention to love. This desire to love enters our feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness; and it becomes manifested in all our actions, speech, and other mental activities. Events that are neither mental nor physical arising after that are in accord with love and can in themselves be called love, as love is their root. These events determine our future actions, and they are directed by our will, which is now suffused with love. Will is the energy that drives our actions and speech. The same is true with regard to the arising of compassion, joy, and equanimity.”

I’ve devoted plenty of space on The Endless Further to discussions of Nagarjuna’s badass side, that is, the complex side. My simple explanations barely scratch the surface of his profundity. Labyrinthine as they may be in places, his teachings on emptiness, concepts and entities, ignorance, knowledge, and reality, all point to the very simple truth of love. Only when we give up forming attachments to unimportant things can we fix our mind on the one important matter of practicing compassion, of faring on the Bodhisattva Way. That, in my opinion, is the “great leap” that Karl Jaspers referred to, and considering this, we should know that compassion is not only the flip side, it is the raison d’être for emptiness.

Great compassion is the root of the Path of the Buddha.”

Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra

Nagarjuna was a revolutionary. A bold outlaw philosopher. Like Billy the Kid, his aim was true. Like Lenny Bruce, he was bad, he was the brother you never had.

Apologies to Messrs. Costello and Dylan.

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Changing bin Laden’s Poison into Medicine

Mahayana Buddhism posits an intermediate state of being, a period of time in-between death and rebirth. Its length differs by tradition, but commonly prayers and thoughts of loving-kindness are sent to the deceased who linger in that ku (empty) or bardo (transitional) state. You may not accept this notion, but that should not prevent you from sending Osama bin Laden your prayers and thoughts of loving-kindness.

As a way of developing abundant compassion, prayers for a monster can be very powerful, for you. When we practice loving-kindness meditation, one of the four types of persons we develop compassion toward is a “hostile” person. Someone with whom we are at odds , have difficulties about, who provokes our anger – bin Laden is certainly in that category. Sometimes practicing compassion should be a real challenge.

I saw a number of posts online yesterday that were a “Buddhist response” to bin Laden’s killing. This, I think, is an appropriate Buddhist response.

I also saw posts throughout the blogosphere that questioned the response of others, particularly those of the crowds in front of the White House and at Ground Zero Sunday night. My reaction was similar at first. I believe that life is precious, sacred. I believe that the murder of a murderer is still murder, whether carried out in an execution chamber or “in the field.” I believe it is inappropriate to rejoice at the death of another human being, no matter what that person may have done. What I saw reminded me of the rejoicing after the execution of Timothy McVeigh. That was not justice. It was vengeance.

However the more I watched the crowds Sunday, the more felt that this wasn’t self-righteousness or vengeance masquerading as justice, but rather a pure sense of joyfulness, the kind of feeling you would have after going through a long, arduous struggle and then suddenly realizing that you made it in one piece.

I also noticed that the rejoicing crowds were young. Just kids on 9/11. They grew up with the specter of terrorism hovering above their heads. Everyone has felt it. 9/11 changed the lives of nearly every person on this planet. The threat terrorism poses has made us paranoid, fearful, weary.

Last night, Thomas Friedman of NY Times said on CNN:

You know, our day is not September 11. Our day is the Fourth of July . . . I mean, we’re not the people who are exporting fear. You know, we’re the people about hope, freedom, opportunity. And we need to get back to that. I think President Obama has done a good job of getting us back to that in many ways.

But this idea as I say that everything is about national security and homeland security and these huge bureaucracies that have been created. Are they here forever? Is this it? Are we taking off our shoes and our belts and our clothes forever? At what point do we say, “You know what? We’ve got to accept a little more insecurity in our life so we can — we can live like Americans again.”

False or not, in the last two days many people have felt a renewed sense of security. They’ve grasped onto a little piece of hope that they are closer to living like Americans again. It’s produced feelings of joy and gratitude. Personally, I don’t feel like begrudging them that.

We should remember that as part of loving-kindness practice, we try to cultivate four qualities of love: friendliness (metta), compassion (karuna), appreciative joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkha). Those are the qualities I saw in the crowds Sunday night. As an example, consider equanimity in the way it is described by Gil Fronsdal, a teacher for the Insight Meditation Center:

While some may think of equanimity as dry neutrality or cool aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will.

I suspect that the people in those crowds were not actually rejoicing at a human being’s death, so much as they were celebrating a moment of hope, experiencing some long-sought closure. For the first time in a long while, many people feel that they don’t have to strain their eyes so hard in order to catch a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

President Obama in the Situation Room monitoring the operation in real time

At first I questioned President Obama’s statements that justice had been done. That it was a good day for America. So what does justice mean here? In this case perhaps it’s a form of restorative justice in the sense that bin Laden’s death has helped to heal us, helped to make us a bit more whole.

One of the doctrines that Buddhism teaches is hendoku-iyaku or “changing poison into medicine.” 9/11 shocked and traumatized the world and I think there is no question than that bin Laden was the mastermind of that plot. If his death then contributes something positive to the world, even for a short time – if his poison becomes medicine that helps to heal the world – then isn’t that a good thing?

This event is an opportunity to cultivate the qualities that have been mentioned here. Sometimes great good comes in response to great evil, but it is up to us to make it happen.

I think it is also important to keep in mind that karma means action, and as a teacher once told me years ago, all karma is volitional. Whether you accept the doctrine of karma or doubt it, it remains a fact that people often choose their own fate. It has nothing to do with any sort of divine retribution. No one who sets out to be a terrorist can expect to live a long life. Therefore, the person most responsible for Osama bin Laden’s violent death was the man himself. He created his own karma, just as you and I do. Just remember that bodhisattvas vow to have compassion for all people, including those who bring suffering down upon others.

There has been a lot of rejoicing in the world as of late. The uprising in Egypt was a somewhat joyful revolution. In protesting against their country’s leadership, the people of Egypt also managed to celebrate their own sense of who they are. Over the weekend, Britons celebrated something I considered silly and trivial. They made a big production out of a simple wedding ceremony. But now I feel that I should have been happy for them, glad that they found some joy, and I am glad that a day or two later, many other people found some joy, too, and some hope. Hope and joy are often in short supply.

In his poem, “Letter from Li Po”, Conrad Aiken wrote:

Song with the wind will change, but is still song
and pierces to the rightness in the wrong
or makes the wrong a rightness, a delight.

Finally, I don’t see this as “an eye for an eye” kind of thing. Not with this president. I don’t believe President Obama is a man who would cavalierly make a decision that might result in the death of any living being or give in to feelings of revenge. I suspect he weighed the moral questions. Carefully. I can trust a guy like that.

It’s not for me to tell you who to send loving-kindness to, or how to view justice, and I’m certainly not trying to make an excuse for killing. I’m just saying . . . that Buddhism offers us some different ways to view this event . . . and maybe President Obama was right . . . maybe justice was done. Maybe it was a good day for America.

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