Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in the United States this week to give teachings and public talks in six cities, including Westminster here in Southern California.  He met privately with President Obama today.

1139bMonday, the Washington Post published an opinion by the Dalai Lama, “Why I’m Hopeful About the World’s Future”.  In the piece, he wrote, “It is not enough simply to pray. There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Also on Monday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, the Buddhist leader asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for victims of the deadliest mass shooting in US history:

“Yesterday, very serious tragedy, Orlando. So let us some silent prayer, OK . . . Although, one Buddhist monk grows quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.”  He added that serious action, such as non-violent conflict resolution was the key to affecting real change.  “Then on top of that, some prayer is OK, no harm.”

This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has expressed skepticism about the power of prayer.  Responding to the terror attacks in Paris last November, he said, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers.  I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying.  But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.  It is illogical.  God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

It is difficult to tell from brief remarks if there has been a significant change in the Dalai Lama’s thinking – as he says above he believes in praying, and in the past, he has often been enthusiastic about the idea of prayer (see this) – or whether the message is essentially that prayer alone is not sufficient.  I’ve long been skeptical about the value of prayer myself and feel torn about its inclusion in Buddhist practice.

The initial definition of prayer is “petition.”  Prayer comes from Latin prex or précis, meaning “to ask”, which, interestingly, has a Sanskrit root, pracch that also means “to ask.”

The Buddha did not teach his followers to pray, and it seems he was rather pessimistic about prayer.  He was critical of the religious rites of the Brahmins, rejecting the authority of the priestly class to stand as intermediaries between ordinary people and the “divine.” But at the same time, the Buddha did not admonish the people for their religious ideas and practices.  He did not endorse prayer; he did not openly oppose it either.  As usual, the Buddha took a middle path.  We are to assume that he did not adopt this position out of some kind of political correctness but rather it was an unfolding of wisdom.

I’ve used prayer to augment meditation, but more like reciting aloud the Four Bodhisattva Verses or verses from Shantideva.  Reciting the Metta Sutta or Heart Sutra can be forms of prayers.  Prayer is related to meditation but I don’t see it as equivalent.

DalaiLamaInMeditationMeditation is method-oriented.  The efficacy of the various ways of meditation is in calming the mind, realizing inner peace, and awakening our inherent inner potential for compassion and wisdom.  As the Dalai Lama said the other day, “Genuine peace must come from inner peace.”  Meditation is about change.  Within the framework of a non-theistic practice, I am not sure about the usefulness of prayer.

Prayer is not a necessary part of the process of mental exercise as taught in the [Buddhist] tradition. We discuss these matters in completely different terms . . . We don’t regard the Buddha as universal spirit, or self as universal self, or personal self. We don’t discuss things in those terms. We don’t have any power beyond dhamma. Dhamma means things as they really are . . . That genuine knowledge . . . can be used to improve our condition.”

– Wadawala Seelawimala, professor at the Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley

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What the Mind Carries

On September 10, 1950, exactly 65 years ago today, Beat nomad Neal Cassady composed a letter to future Beat chronicler Jack Kerouac. He wrote from the engine of a train and shared with his friend his thoughts about becoming more absorbed by the landscape and the people he saw, noting:

neal-jack-01cNow, eyeball kicks are among the world’s greatest, second to none actually in terms of abstract thought, because it is thru the way you handle these kicks that is what determines your particular conclusion (in abstraction in the mind) to each moments outlook . . .

One’s mind carries at all times the pressure of its own existence, and remembers previous eyeball views to recall what its previous life has been & feeding on this stuff, carries a heavy understanding of things it is capable of knowing & this knowing is blocked from coming out, because while one’s mind carries one’s life’s past constantly, it also carries before it all day the world which comes in thru the eyeball.” *

It was Cassady who, in a roundabout way, was responsible for stimulating Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism, but in 1950 I don’t think either of them knew much about it, and anyway Cassady never got into it like Kerouac did. Nevertheless, Cassady’s thinking in this passage seems to me rather dharmic.

Vision (“eyeball kicks”) is not free from conceptual or abstract thinking and how we think about what we see dictates to a large degree our view in each moment. This is true for the practice of mindfulness as well, because when we meditate we are not completely liberated from our senses.  Not to mention that meditation is “seeing” with the inner eyeball.

Additionally, we are not separated from the past or future while we are in the “present moment.” When discussing Buddhist meditation, particularly mindfulness, we are fond of saying that the aim is to let go of the past and have no anticipation for the future. Certainly, we wish to release our attachment to the past and not obsess about things to come, but actually the past is always present, and in each moment and with each thought we shape the future.

In meditation, we center ourselves in the present by focusing attention upon some object, often our breath. Nyanaponika Thera, in his book The Heart of Buddhism Meditation, wrote

If there is any further interest in the object, or if its impact on the senses is sufficiently strong, closer attention will be directed towards details . . . This will enable the mind to compare the present perception with similar ones recollected from this past . . . This stage marks a very important step in mental development . . . It also shows us the close and constant connection between the functions of memory and attention (or mindfulness), and will thereby explain why in Pali, the language of the [early] Buddhist scriptures, both these mental functions are expressed by the one word sati.”

[Sati is a Pali word we translate as “mindfulness.”]

We can take this further to say that meditation involves not only the recollection of past perceptions but also past experiences. I think at times some folks are so focused on “letting go,” another phrase we are very fond of, that it becomes escapism.  Perhaps we need to let go of this idea of letting go. Without the past there is no present, so we have to deal with it to develop ourselves. And rather than letting go of sufferings we should embrace them, for without suffering we could never know happiness.

I was making up all kinds of sayings as I went along. I was started on my new life with my new equipment: a regular Don Quixote of tenderness. In the morning I felt exhilarated and meditated first thing and made up a little prayer: ‘I bless you, all living things, I bless you in the endless past, I bless you in the endless present, I bless you in the endless future, amen.’”

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

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* Neal Cassady, The First Third, City Lights Books, 1971, 196

Graphic based on the 1952 photo taken by Carolyn Cassady

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Like the Flow of a River

The meditation practiced by most people these days, known as “mindfulness,” is very simple and to some extent easy. I’ve always found that the real challenge is being consistent. Too often I approach my morning meditation with a begrudging attitude, as if the practice were something imposed on me, instead of something about which I should have a sense of eagerness.

A Buddhist teacher once gave a talk, and when he was finished he asked the people gathered around what they “practiced out of,” meaning what was their motivation for practice. He went around the room and received various answers and then came to the last person, a Japanese-American man. The teacher said to him, “Well, what do you practice out of?”

“Desperation?”

“No! Joy! You should practice out of great joy!”

The teacher was right. We should approach our practice with joy, and appreciation. It is truly a wonderful thing that we have this great tool for transformation. When I win over my begrudging attitude, I can feel how appreciation is the key that opens the door to enthusiasm. And then, it’s much easier to carry that enthusiasm over into my daily life and cultivate a genuine joy for living.

To sit and meditate is relatively easy. Joy, appreciation, and the rest of it is challenging. At least that has been my experience.

The late Geshe Gyeltsen (1923-2009), the marvelous Tibetan lama and human rights activist who founded the Thubten Dhargye Ling (“Land of Flourishing Dharma”) center in Long Beach, CA, wrote in his book Mirror of Wisdom,

Geshe Gyeltsen
Geshe Gyeltsen

The great Indian master, Chandrakirti, says that all kinds of accomplishments follow from diligence, consistency and enthusiasm. If we apply ourselves correctly to the proper practice we will eventually reach our destination. He says that if we don’t have constant enthusiasm, even if we are very intelligent we are not going to achieve very much. Intelligence is like a drawing made on water but constant enthusiasm in our practice is like a carving made in rock—it remains for a much longer time.

So, whatever practice each of us does, big or small, if we do it consistently, over the course of time we will find great progress within ourselves. One of the examples used in Buddhist literature is that our enthusiasm should be constant, like the flow of a river.”

The river represents flowing water, which in turn is a symbol for continuity and consistency. Rivers flow freely. When they meet obstacles such as rocks, water flows over them and keeps flowing. Eventually, it wears away the rocks.

In this manner, water can be hard, but as it says in the Tao Te Ching, nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. The takeaway here is that enthusiasm should not be forced, it must come naturally. Practice, too, should not be too hard or rigid. And yet, one thing I have learned in my 30 years as a Buddhist, is that those times when you want to practice the least is usually when you really need to practice the most.

To have a practice that flows like a river is to find the middle way.

Many, many years ago in New Orleans, long before they built the Riverfront up, I used to sit on the rocks beneath the Café du Monde, the legendary coffeehouse that serves beignets and coffee with chicory, and I would watch the water of the Mississippi River flow past the city, moving down toward the Gulf of Mexico. I was enthralled with the way that muddy water never stopped flowing, how it was ever constant. Of course, all rivers are like that, but there is something different about the Mississippi, perhaps because it’s so wide . . . and it just keeps moving, and you wonder how long has it been like that, how long will it continue . . . it makes you feel like you’re in the presence of eternity.

Did you ever stand and shiver,
Just because you were lookin’ at a river?

– Ramblin’ Jack Elliott singing about the Mississippi in “912 Greens”

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Bhavana: Development

Walpola Rahula (1907–1997) was a Sri Lankan Buddhist bhikkhu, scholar and writer. When he became the Professor of History and Religions at Northwestern University in 1964, he also became the first bhikkhu to hold a professorship in the West. His introduction to Buddhism, What the Buddha Taught, is considered a modern Buddhist classic. In the book, Rahula writes,

The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which means ‘culture’ or ‘development’, i.e., mental culture or mental development.” [1]

I think Rhaula’s statement would also apply to the word “mindfulness.”

I don’t know what Rahula means by “original term,” but I do recall either reading or hearing that bhavana was the term most often used by the historical Buddha in reference to meditative discipline. According to Alan Sponberg, the term is “certainly the broadest in its semantic range.” [2]

Rahula called bhavana “mental culture.” Amadeo Sole-Leris wrote that bhavana is “to cultivate and develop the vast potential of the mind in order to overcome the unsatisfactory nature of the internal and external circumstances in which we find ourselves.” [3]   Someone else (I don’t remember who) called it “creative control of the mind.”

I like the word development because I feel it accurately describes the process. In Buddhist practice we develop our innate potential for well-being and happiness. We can also say that bhavana in all its various forms is a system for training the mind. Buddhism teaches that an undisciplined mind is disturbed by circumstances such as gain or by loss, comfort or hardship, and is attached to transient things, all of which invites suffering. We want to train the mind so that we can learn better how to use reason and wisdom to deal with life’s challenges, and so we can break the habit of seizing and clinging, and this brings freedom from suffering, insofar as we can accept sufferings as they come without losing inner peace.

The wild, untrained mind that we often dub “monkey mind,” can be pacified, the restless monkey brought under control. However, if we limit the broad range of practice bhavana covers to only the mind, then it is a poor substitute for what the Buddha taught.

What the Buddha sought to achieve personally was nothing less than total transformation of his entire being. That meant body as well as mind. I wonder if sometimes we don’t tend to focus on the mental health aspect of meditation and mindfulness and neglect the physical health side. Gautama Shakyamuni was called the Great Physician and his teachings the King of Medicines, not only for his psychology of mind. After the Buddha’s passing, a great tradition of healer-monks emerged, and this tradition is still upheld today in the system of Tibetan Medicine and healing.

Here is a wonderful explanation on the relationship between mind, body, and bhavana from Tulku Trondup, a prominent teaching in the area of Buddhist healing, that I found in his book Boundless Healing:

Mind and body are intimately connected, and the relationship of mind to body in meditation is very interesting. When we see the body as peaceful and beautiful, who or what is creating these feelings? The mind is. By creating peaceful feelings in the body, the mind is absorbed in those feelings. So although the body is the object to be healed, it also becomes the means of healing the mind – which is the ultimate goal of meditation.” [4]

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[1] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press, 1974, 68

[2] Alan Sponberg, “Meditation in Fa-hsiang Buddhism”, Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, Ed. Peter N. Gregory, University of Hawaii Press, 1986, 19

[3] Amadeo Sole-Leris, Tranquility and Insight An Introduction to the Oldest Form of Buddhist Meditation, Shambhala, 1986, 21

[4] Tulku Thondup, Boundless Healing Meditation Exercises to Enlighten the Mind and Heal the Body, Shambhala, 2000, 12

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Mindfulness Can Cure the Dreaded Berry Berry Disease (and Cooties)

Unlike some folks, I like the idea of corporate mindfulness.  Anything that helps foster more responsible capitalism should be encouraged. Take Forbes, for instance. A business publication founded back in 1917. They’ve jumped on the Mindfulness bandwagon. Just in the last month they’ve published articles such as Does Practicing Mindfulness Really Make For More Effective Leadership?, Meditation Isn’t Just Mind Medicine, It’s Also Good For Your Heart, and The Mindfulness Craze.

Speaking of the Mindfulness craze, I’m just wondering . . . Are you having a mindful day? Did you know that mindful meals are healthier? Are you running mindfully or practicing mindful walking? Do you know how to conduct a mindful job search?  Or, if you are already employed, are you being a mindful employee? Are you a parent? Do you know about mindful parenting? Do you have the mindfulness app for your Smartphone or iPhone?

mindfully

I could go on and on . . . and on!

You know what I find truly irritating? It’s when people use the term “mindful meditation,” for if “mindful” meant exactly what it is supposed to mean, then I think “mindful meditation” would be redundant. Wouldn’t it?

So, this begs the question, are we using mindful/mindfulness properly? In the proper context? One thing I know – we sure as hell are overusing it.

Mindfulness stands for the Pali word sati and the Sanskirt smrti, both of which mean “memory,” “recollection,” “remembering.” These terms signify the recalling of past events, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve with meditation. An instruction that I’ve often given, one I borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh I think, is to sit with “no thought of the past, no anticipation of the future, just be in the now.”

Buddhist scholar John Dunne says “It is not really about memory in any very direct way; it is really the facet of mind that keeps the mind from wandering.” The Buddha used the word sati/smrti in the sense of “moment-to-moment awareness of present events.”

How did we get started with mindfulness in the first place? In 1881, T.W. Rhys Davids was the first to use “mindfulness” in his translations of suttas from the Digha and Majjhima Nikayas. It’s all his fault.

When we meditate we are trying to be mindful of the “present moment,” to use another term we’ve beaten to death like a dead horse. (?)

But, the real point I’d like to make is – oops, sorry, have to save it for another post. The mindfulness app on my phone just went off. Gentle bells alerting me it is time to be mindful . . . Oh joy, joy. I feel so special being ever so mindfully mindful.

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