Throwback Thursday: Bodhicitta, The Nectar of Immortality

The following is an edited version of a post published in 2014.

The Sanskrit word amrita means “immortality.”  In traditional Indian mythology, amrita is the nectar or “sweet dew” of the gods that grants immortal life.

In Buddhism, amrita appears in different contexts: it might be water or food that is blessed through the act of chanting, or it may be a sacramental drink taken at the beginning of certain tantric rituals. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa called the precepts (samaya) “the amrita (nectar) of abundant nourishment,” and there is also the “Ocean of Amrita” a teaching by Padmasambhava, as well as a story about the Healing Buddha appearing before Padmasambhava to give him a cup of amrita that would prolong his life.

It’s best to view both the idea of immortality and amrita as metaphors. The latter, the nectar, represents spiritual nourishment; anything that helps sustain or nurtures wayfarers is amrita, sweet dew.

The purest and most potent amrita is bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the elixir of compassion. In his teaching “The Four Immeasurables and the Six Paramitas,” Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche states,

“[Bodhicitta] is very beneficial for oneself and for all others. So, when someone has bodhicitta, whatever he or she does, is like medicine or healing nectar (Skt. amrita) which brings calmness, peace, and the coolness discussed before.  It is very beneficial and is like a great and powerful medicine. It just flows out quite spontaneously and naturally from the presence of one’s bodhicitta. Take the supreme example of bodhicitta: when the Buddha taught, he led a very simple life and everything happened spontaneously around him. These far-reaching effects were a completely natural outflow of this very therapeutic healing, coming from the very pure motivation which he had. This is very special.”

Bodhicitta is not only the ultimate spiritual nourishment, it is raison d’ê·tre for Buddhist practice, because those who fare on the Bodhisattva Way practice not only for themselves, but also for the benefit of others. Bodhicitta is the aspiration to awaken for the sake of all living beings.  Nurturing bodhicitta is a cause that comes back to nurture us.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening,

“It is the nectar of immortality prepared for vanquishing death in the world; an inexhaustible elixir to end the world’s poverty.”

Again, we should take “the nectar of immortality” as metaphor, for the non-fear of death.  Fear of death is a negative state of mind, a fixation on the future that distracts us from living fully in the present.  As this fear tightens its grip on our mind and spirit, it weakens our ability to deal with death when the time for it comes, and more importantly it weakens our ability to deal with what is happening now.  When we live for more than just ourselves, we develop courage, even without being aware of it, and acquire wisdom, through which we see that even death is an opportunity for awakening.

Speaking of metaphors, near the beginning of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, we find these words:

“Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

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The Real Enemy and True Heroes

Mass shootings like the one in Oregon last week leave many of us with feelings of despair and frustration. Are we helpless to stop these incidents? They also lead to questions about guns and mental illness. Investigators have portrayed the Oregon shooter as an angry young man disconnected from others. How can prevent people like this from amassing stockpiles of weapons?

Frankly, angry and disconnected describes an awful lot of us, and from the Buddhist point of view, we all have mental health issues.

Buddhism teaches that all human sufferings stem from mental afflictions. We also call them delusions. The Sanskrit word is kleshas, meaning, “that which disturbs the mind from within.” A primary affliction is anger, also known as aversion or hatred.

Anger is a vengeful attitude toward one’s self, toward others, towards things that produce frustration, and towards frustration itself. Individuals who live in the realm of anger are obsessed with fault-finding, and while they may display a victim mentality, the truth is, as T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i put it, they are more “like a hawk sweeping the sky in search of prey.”

Dalai Lama6One of the most instructive and powerful Buddhist texts dealing with anger is the one I mentioned in a recent post, Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (or “Way of the Bodhisattva”). The Dalai Lama has given teachings on this work many times, in particular on the “Patience” chapter.* In 2001, I attended one of these teachings in Pasadena California and took copious notes.

Anger has lingering effects. The Dalai Lama said that when strong anger arises, all our normal senses of behavior are destroyed:

When one is under the domination of anger, those around us suffer also. Even friends and family suffer because they worry about our bad mood. Small outbursts of anger may seem to bring some satisfaction but there are long term negative effects. Anger [that arises when another person has harmed us] does not reverse. If we return the harm then the person responsible just becomes angrier and it becomes a vicious circle.”

The Dalai Lama pointed out that Shantideva identifies anger as “the real enemy, our inner enemy.” Anger is very powerful and comes from causes and conditions that we need to analyze so that we can prevent the causes from arising. He said, “The Buddhist way is to try and trace back the causes and counteract them.”

Here, I’d like to say that when we talk about causes and conditions, it is not just causes and conditions. It is also choices. I don’t accept that Shantideva or Buddhism in general is determinism. We have free will. Many of the causes were produced by actions we chose to undertake, and because mental afflictions disturb the mind from within, only we can chose whether or not to take the necessary actions to defeat them.  This should be empowering, for it tells us that we are not at the complete mercy of external forces.

Verse 8 in the chapter on Patience reads,

Therefore, I should eradicate
the fuel of this enemy,
for this enemy has no other function
than to harm me.

According to Shantideva, the practice of patience is the most effective antidote to anger. It involves cultivating tolerance and compassion, but it also requires an ability to endure hardship and maintain a strong determination to remove the causes of anger.

What happens in society is a reflection of what happens in the minds of those who live in that society.  Because of this, we are not helpless to stop gun violence and societal anger.

I believe that Buddhism rejects the notion of helplessness. If there were not a possibility of rational hope for human beings in the face of suffering, the Buddha would not have taught the Four Noble Truths, in which he said, “Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way that leads to the cessation of suffering . . .”

We change the world by changing ourselves and it can have a ripple effect. We are only helpless when we become hopeless, and because we can change, there is always hope.

As the Dalai Lama noted, in itself the mind is neutral and can take either the form of mental affliction or insight into true reality. It is up to each one of us to decide in which direction our minds will move.

Shantideva wrote,

Since my mind is not physical,
no one can destroy it.

And the Dalai Lama said,

We are changing our natural habitual patterns and since what we are changing is so monumental, there can be no relaxing in the battle against mental afflictions. Those who battle mental afflictions are true heroes.”

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* A 1993 teaching given by the Dalai Lama on the “Patience” chapter in Shantideva’s Guide was published as Healing Anger The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective

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Confidence, Patience and Courage

The title of the 7th chapter in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (“Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) is Virya-paramita. As it is used here, paramita means perfection or completion, referring to the progressive stages of practice that allow one to cross over the sea of suffering to the other shore of nirvana. Virya is often translated as energy, zeal, enthusiasm, or strength, while the Tibetan rendering of this Sanskrit word corresponds with “heroic perseverance.”

Buddha001dAll of these meanings are relevant to Shantideva’s message in this chapter, however I am partial to the last two because I feel that one of the prime points he makes is about the strength or courage it takes to ‘hang tough’ through life’s challenges. One translation of the opening verse reads, “Thus with patience I will bravely persevere.”

Patience is an adjunct to courage, as is confidence. The word that matches confidence here is mana, usually translated as pride. It also means arrogance and conceit. Shantideva discusses both the negative and positive aspects of the word, so in the constructive sense, confidence seems more appropriate.

Confidence is trusting the path, a determination to persevere through whatever challenges we may face, and having conviction about the benefits of the altruistic way. It is also self-confidence – not our ego but our self worth, and confidence about the preciousness of all life.

In verse 49 of the 7th chapter, Shantideva says ,

Self-confidence should be applied to virtuous actions, delusions and my ability to overcome them. ‘I alone should do it’ expresses self-confidence with regard to action.”

“I alone should do it” means looking within to ‘see’ your Buddha-nature and trusting yourself, and not relying of things outside of your own life. Believing in our own potential is how Shantideva says that we gain confidence to overcome problems.

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No Anger

In response to last week’s post Cancer Again (Naturally), a reader wrote in a comment, “Usually the prognosis is pretty grim once it [cancer] has metastasized.” I saw my oncologist the next day and it turns out that’s true.

I am going to start radiation treatments the first week in May, but while we might be able to get rid of the current tumor, sooner or later, it will spread somewhere else and if goes someplace where there are vital organs, well, let’s just say, it won’t be pretty.

A relative asked me if I was at least a little angry that the cancer “came back” (though it actually hadn’t left). He mentioned how novelist and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis vented at God when his wife died a painful death after her cancer, thought to be cured, returned. Lewis wrote a journal of his thoughts and feelings about his wife’s ordeal that he published as A Grief Observed in 1961. I have not read the book (not much of a Lewis fan), but previewed it at Google Books: “Meanwhile, where is God? . . . Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” (p6)

In the past, I have had some issues with anger management. When the liver cancer first appeared, I was angry. I was irritated. It was a major interruption in my life. I had other things I wanted to do than go on doctor’s appointments, sit around in waiting rooms, have people poke and prod me, etc. But I did my best to work through the anger, and its cousin, fear. And I wrote about that process here on The Endless Further.

After the transplant, I thought the cancer was gone. But it was merely in hiding, keeping a low profile, and now it’s active again, threatening to take my life. But I am not angry this time. No thought of anger has risen in my mind. No angry emotion has surfaced. I don’t believe in God, so getting angry with him would be like venting to a closed door. No sense in getting angry at the cancer, it could care less whether I like it or not.

In A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva wrote that anger is our greatest enemy, capable of destroying all the good in our lives, and since it has no purpose, rather than getting angry at something or someone, it’s better to see whatever it is as assisting you in your spiritual development.

Viewing cancer as a spiritual friend is a tall order. I’m not quite there, but no anger is a good accomplishment.

Another reader in a comment to last week’s post, encouraged me to continue to share this part of my journey, and I think I will for the time being. However, for today, that’s all I have.

With all this going on, I have neglected National Poetry Month, which I like to celebrate each year. Anger can be a positive, motivating force when it is in response to the suffering of others or directed at injustice. Set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Cesar Vallejo’s poem is a meditation on that aspect of anger.

The Anger That Breaks The Man Into Children

Translated from Spanish by Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia

Three unidentified girls during the Spanish Civil War (photographer unknown)
Three unidentified girls during the Spanish Civil War (photographer unknown)

The anger that breaks the man into children,
that breaks the child into equal birds,
and the bird, afterward, into little eggs;
the anger of the poor
has one oil against two vinegars.

The anger that breaks the tree into leaves,
the leaf into unequal buds
and the bud, into telescopic grooves;
the anger of the poor
has two rivers against many seas.

The anger that breaks the good into doubts,
the doubt, into three similar arcs
and the arc, later on, into unforeseeable tombs;
the anger of the poor
has one steel against two daggers.

The anger that breaks the soul into bodies;
the body into dissimilar organs
and the organ, into octave thoughts;
the anger of the poor
has one central fire against two craters.

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God is Suffering

Suffering (dukkha) is a core concept in Buddhism that I have blogged about many times, almost always using words from Buddhist teachers past and present to support or amplify my comments. Today, I’ll start out with some words about suffering from a non-Buddhist source.  The following was written by American aid worker Kayla Mueller to her father on his birthday in 2011, some two years before terrorists captured her after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria:

Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love . . . I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

This resonated deeply with me, as did her story.  Kayla Mueller’s life was stamped with service to others.  If you visit her Wikipedia page, I think you will be amazed to see all the different organizations she managed to work with as an activist and humanitarian during her short 26 years.

Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, once said, “God is a metaphor for that which transcends all levels of intellectual thought.” I do not share Mueller’s belief in God, and I don’t necessarily agree with Campbell because I feel the word ‘God’ carries with it too much baggage (superstition, associations, subjective feelings, etc.) to be very useful. However, going with the idea of metaphor here, I am inclined to interpret Mueller’s words as “God is suffering,” or certainly, “Life is suffering,” the Buddha’s famous words, which should not be taken as a negative or pessimistic statement.

In terms of Buddhist practice, suffering has three aspects: understanding and acceptance of suffering, endurance of suffering, relieving suffering.

Shantideva
Shantideva

Suffering is a universal truth of existence and there is relief from suffering but no real end to it. If there were an end of suffering, it would mean an end to life. Shantideva, in Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, says, “For the Buddha said that all fears and immeasurable sufferings arise from the mind only.” So, what we mean by an end to suffering is actually to transform the negative elements of the mind that produce suffering. These negative mental elements or afflictions have as their cause the three poisons of greed, anger and ignorance. The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to change poison into medicine, sufferings into Nirvana.

Once we have acknowledged the truth of suffering and its inevitability (we will face suffering no matter what), we can then prepare for the endurance of suffering, and how we endure suffering determines much about the quality of our life condition.

In Healing Anger, the Dalai Lama writes,

[Shantideva observes] that pain and suffering are natural facts of existence and that denying this truth can cause additional misery. He then goes on to argue that if we could internalize this fundamental truth of our existence, we would derive enormous benefit in our day-to-day life. For one thing, we would see suffering as a catalyst for spiritual growth. Shantideva implies that a person who is capable of responding to suffering in this way can voluntarily accept the pain and hardship involved in seeking a higher purpose.”

This higher purpose is idealized in the form of the bodhisattva who works for the liberation of all beings. These altruistic heroes take on sufferings willingly, they even assume the sufferings of others, and they endure with great courage. The bodhisattva resolves:

I take upon myself the burden of all suffering. I am determined to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble . . . I am not afraid . . . nor do I despair.”*

The courage of the bodhisattva may inspire us, but the idea of consenting to suffer is difficult to accept.  However, as the Dalai Lama mentions, suffering has a beneficial side.  When we realize that our existence is conditioned and characterized by suffering, then we see there is a possibility of not only personal but also universal liberation. Suffering stimulates our thoughts and motivates us toward liberation. The mind can change its poison into healing medicine, our negative thoughts can be transformed into wisdom, and what seems unbearable in the beginning, becomes easier to bear.

Even when the wise are suffering, their minds are serene; for when war is waged against mental afflictions, many injuries are inflicted in the battle.”

Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, Chapter Six “The Perfection of Patience,” Verse 19

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* From the Vajradhvaja Sutra and Aksayamati-nirdesa. Read an expanded excerpt here.

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