Experience is the Ultimate Teacher

Although I devote no small amount of space on this blog to a discussion of Buddhist concepts, I have to say that overall, they are not that important. Not as important as practice, which is something I’ve said many times.

I haven’t delved much into the details of practice, which consists of meditation and/or the chanting of mantras, because I think it is a subject best handled through personal communication. You can’t learn meditation from reading words in a book or on an Internet page. It must be imparted to you from someone who has enough experience to guide you. It is also best learned through actual practice, doing it, so that you gain your own experience.

Unfortunately, too many Westerners try to approach Buddhism first through the concepts, as I have also noted a few times. Science, logic, and reason seem important to them, and when they are faced with ideas that are at variance with any of these three things, or does not conform to their preconceived ideas, they adopt a doubtful, pessimistic attitude, which I suspect is difficult to shake in the long run. Some will even form the opinion that mediation is some sort of dogma.

Buddhism is not about acquiring knowledge. It is about acquiring wisdom, and there’s a difference between the two. Buddhist wisdom or prajna, is not like a light bulb going off over your head, but is rather an intuitive feeling experienced only through meditation. It’s something that is subtle and difficult to explain satisfactorily. It has to be experienced.

Nowadays, folks throw up the Kalama Sutta and proclaim this as a “charter for free inquiry” and a license to judge everything according to science, logic, and reason. But I don’t think that’s what the Buddha was saying.

tnh-meditationThe Buddha does indeed state, “Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning . . .” He doesn’t say do not take these things into consideration, just don’t rely solely on them. Most importantly, he says “when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good . . .” In other words, you have to experience the teachings yourself to know. And while, reading can be an experience, what is actually referred to here is the experience of mindfulness, of meditation, practice.

You can give neither meditation nor Buddhism’s concepts a fair shot with a mind full of judgment, prejudice, and discrimination. In order to live a life of freedom, you must first free your mind.

The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment


Higgs boson and Nagarjuna’s no-God Particle

The universe may be finite. That what the science team at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator, have been thinking ever since they discovered the Higgs boson particle last year. And that could be bad news. Last week one of the team members, speaking at a science meeting in Boston, suggested that it is possible that tens of billions of years from now, another universe could come along and “slurp” ours up. Damn, and I had plans.

God Particle?
God Particle?

Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that scientists believe is what gives matter mass. The media has taken to calling it the “God Particle,” much to the chagrin of most physicists who say it has nothing at all to do with God or creation.

Speaking of which . . . Yesterday I tried twice to leave a comment on another blog and it never showed up. I don’t know if it was a glitch or if the blogger didn’t care for what I had to say, so I guess I’ll say it here.

The Buddha neither confirmed nor denied the existence of God as we understand that concept. In fact, the subject never came up. He had not heard of the God of Abraham and it seems that monotheism was unknown in India 2500 years ago. He was somewhat tolerant of the Indian gods, or devas, which Joseph Campbell described as like impersonal “bureaucrats” presiding over different aspects of nature and human activity. Yet, it is clear that the Buddha was pessimistic about the idea of relying on higher, holier beings for salvation or enlightenment.

Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher who has been called the “second Buddha,” felt that Buddha’s rejection of the God-idea was explicit. In his Hymn to the Inconceivable Buddha, translated by Chr. Lindtner, Nagarjuna states, “Just as the work of a magician is empty of substance, all the rest of the world — including a creator — has been said by You to be empty of substance . . .”

Nagarjuna demonstrated that the existence of a creator god is, as Hsueh-Li Cheng, says, “unintelligible.” Cheng, author of Empty Logic: Madhyamika Buddhism from Chinese sources, explains in this way,

Nagarjuna examined the meaning and possibility of “Something is made or produced by someone or something.” He pointed out that whenever we say “Something is made or produced by someone or something” either (1) x is made by itself, (2) x is made by another, (3) x is made by both, or (4) x is made from no cause at all. Yet none of these cases can be established, therefore the proposition cannot be established, and hence it makes no sense to say that the world was made by God.”

"Ixora [=Ishvara],an East Indian god," by William Hurd, 1781 (columbia.edu )
“Ixora [Ishvara],an East Indian god,” by William Hurd, 1781 (columbia.edu )
Nagarjuna identified the “creator god” as Isvara, the Indian “Supreme Lord.” We don’t know if he was familiar with the God of Abraham, but it doesn’t matter, for the principle is the same. As far as I understand it, if a god did not create the universe, then it cannot be a supreme being. Nagarjuna used his logic to advance further arguments against the very existence of God.

But he was equally as hard on Buddhist concepts. For instance, he demolished any idea that nirvana is a substantial thing (dharma), ultimate reality, or transcendental state. He says that nirvana is neither existent nor non-existent (bhava/abhava), or both, or not-both.  Nirvana is empty, and he says that

There is not the slightest difference between this world (samsara) and nirvana. There is not the slightest difference between nirvana and this world.”

Middle Way Verses, Ch. 25, V. 19 & 20

To some the word “God” refers to a personal, anthropomorphic being who created the universe, while to others it may refer to a non-personal nature and/or force that determines and governs all things. To me, neither side of that coin seems logical. Nevertheless, acceptance or belief in God is not the same thing to all people. My feeling is that regardless of how one appreciates God, or names it – God, ultimate reality, “ground of being”, Tao – at some point, there is a suggestion, a hint, of something outside of our lives involved. Buddhism teaches that when we seek happiness or salvation outside of our lives, or outside of this world, it only makes for greater suffering. That’s why I think it is simpler, smarter, and less confusing to just drop the whole idea. Discover Nagarjuna’s no-God particle.

So, Ananda, you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside yourselves. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves. “

Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 16



Life is a Carnival

“Life is a carnival,” sang The Band on a recording from their 4th album that featured horn arrangements by the great New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint. “Life is a carnival — believe it or not.”

Deep inside, I am a believer. So was the Buddha, and he said so.


Not in those words, of course. Actually, in his first dharma talk, the Buddha said that life is very un-carnival like, that life is suffering (dukkha). The first of the Four Noble Truths. With the other Truths, he said suffering has a cause, there is freedom from suffering, and then he laid out a path to obtain that freedom. Now, assuming that Buddha understood non-duality, and I think we can, then it is fair to say that he was implying that life is also not-suffering. It’s a bit of a stretch to get to the carnival bit, but I’m using that as a synonym for happiness, joy, and not-suffering.

This first discourse of the Buddha is found in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (“Wheel of Dhamma”). In this text, he calls the search for worldly pleasures, the Ignoble Quest, and naturally, the opposite of that is the Noble Quest. The sutta talks about “the renunciation of the Bodhisattva,” which in this case refers to Gautama before he became Buddha. The sutta says, “it occurred to the Buddha to renounce worldly life, and become a recluse.” Which he did, practicing extreme austerities, yet we know from this same text that that he came to realize that it was better to avoid extremes, whether it be severe austerity or indulgence in sensual pleasure. This became his Middle Way, the path between extremes.

Still, the Buddha and his bhikkhus lived what we would regard today as a rather austere life. That was another time and it’s not realistic to think that we must fare on the Way exactly as they did 2500 years ago. Besides, there is a deeper understanding of renunciation to consider.

I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “True renunciation is a state of mind. It does not necessarily mean that someone has to give up something.” Suffering, too, is largely a state of mind. When we recognize the inevitability of suffering, when we know that suffering is sometimes necessary, that in the long run the experience of suffering can contribute our growth and overall well being, that’s when we can truly transcend it. Not an easy task, at least I haven’t always found it easy. True renunciation is overthrowing the state of mind that acquiesces under the domination of suffering. It’s the inner revolution where we topple one state of mind and replace it with another, the liberated state of mind.

One who is free from the sufferings of existence, which are fixed in graspingness, is said to be liberated, and attains through infinite, immeasurable, countless ways, worldly and transcendental, showers of happiness and bliss.”

Kshayamati Sutra

The kind of happiness I’m talking about is not a temporary or limited happiness, but one that is deep and lasting. “Life is a carnival” doesn’t mean to view our existence as some sort of traveling amusement show. At the same time, it seems that there are many people in this world who see their life as a painful austerity that must be endured, and that is the crux of the malaise we call dukkha or suffering.

Speaking of carnivals (how’s this for a segue?), tomorrow in New Orleans life will be a carnival, with a capital C. Yep, it’s Mardi Gras once again. Or, Fat Tuesday, the day that immediately precedes Lent, for Catholics that annual season of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter. Since Catholics are expected to give something up for Lent, they decided to have one last day-long orgy of hedonism.

It’s good to give something up every so often, but it’s good to have some fun, too. Here’s an opportunity to get in the carnival state of mind New Orleans style, with one of my favorite Mardi Gras songs as performed by Al “Carnival Time” Johnson:



Buddhism: Beyond Religion

A recent message on the Dalai Lama’s Facebook page has gotten some attention. It reads,

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

Well, religion has never been adequate, and Buddhism was never intended to be a religion. Buddha was not a religious figure. He wasn’t a god, a miracle worker, a faith healer, nor was he a prophet like Isaiah or Muhammad, or a law-bringer in the way Moses was – he was a meditation teacher, an itinerant philosopher. The spiritual tradition he belonged to, the sramanas, was not a religious movement, it was outside of religion, and it seems the Buddha was critical of the established religion of his day, with its reliance on ritual, incantations, and prophecies, and he rejected the authority of the priests.

The Buddha’s message was not religious, either. Buddha-dharma says, everyone has problems, and if you want to learn how to deal with your problems more effectively and perhaps even overcome the sufferings your problems bring, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still, and calm your mind. That’s not a particularly religious message. It’s a very practical message. After all, what is the best thing to do when we have a problem? Rush out willy-nilly, higgly-piggly, and try to affect a solution? No, it’s best to sit down, think the problem through, calmly, maybe analyze the causes for the problem, and then work out a solution. It’s the same principal in Buddha-dharma, only we are dealing with deeper levels of the mind.

Buddha was not concerned about the existence of gods, or speculation about how the world was made. He was concerned only with the question of how to solve human problems, how to relieve suffering.

The Buddha asked his followers not to worship him. He actually forbade them from revering his relics. That’s why for several centuries no representations of the Buddha were used, only images of a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, a Bodhi leaf, and so on. But humans being what they are just couldn’t help themselves . . .

As I see it, Buddha-dharma begins with the premise that religion is not adequate. Buddhism has always been beyond religion.

You are not, O Bhikkhus, to learn–to teach–the low arts of divination, spells, omens, astrology, sacrifices to gods, witchcraft, and quackery.”

– Vinaya Pitaka, S.B.E, Vol. XX

“Let him not use Atharva Vedic spells, nor things foretell from dreams or signs or stars; let not my follower predict from cries, cure barrenness nor practice quackery.”

– Sutta Nipata, IV., 14

“So, Ananda, you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside yourselves. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves.”

– Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 16


Outlines of Buddhist Meditation Part 1

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of meditation to the practice of Buddhism. It is the practice of Buddhism. In this presentation, the subject is only silent meditation. However, I think chanting can be considered a way of meditation, even though the Buddha did not encourage his followers in the practice of mantras, parittas (chanting verses and sutras for protection), or sutra recitation for devotion. It is meditation in the traditional sense that has always been the most common, and perhaps crucial, element in Buddha-dharma. Most of the definitions here are from Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Peter Gregory.

The Victory of Buddha by Abanindranath Tagore*

Each school or tradition of Buddhism makes exclusive claims about their own philosophy or practice. These claims must be taken with a large grain of salt. For instance, you might hear someone say, “The Buddha taught Zen.” That’s true to the extent that zen means meditation. But if one is implying that the Buddha taught Zen philosophy or “Zen meditation,” that’s stretching it a bit too much. You might  hear someone else claim that Buddha taught samatha-vipassana, or “insight meditation.” That’s not quite the case either.

Samatha-vipassana is meditation based on the jhanas (deep mental states or meditative absorptions). There are samatha jhanas and vipassana jhanas, with some difference in how each is approached. There are only occasional references to samatha and vipassana in the early sutras, and almost always they are mentioned together, indicating that these were not intended to be separate practices.

While there is some similarity between the four jhanas and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, jhanas are not mentioned in the oldest “scriptures” nor in the two most important meditation texts of early Buddhism, Anapanasati Sutta (“Discourse on the Mindfulness of Breath”) and Satipatthana Sutta (“The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness”). This has led some to believe they are later additions to Buddhist practice. Thich Nhat Hanh says that “from my own research, it seems the Four Jhanas . . . were not introduced into Buddhism until one hundred years after the Buddha’s passing.” I suspect this is the case for samatha-vipassana, too.

Since the Buddhist sutras are not historical documents, it is impossible to prove anything about what the Buddha may have taught. Nonetheless, my feeling is that the practice taught in the earliest days of Buddhism was sati, or mindfulness, and certainly mindfulness is the starting point for most all of the various forms of Buddhist meditation that followed.

Sati (Sanskrit: smrti) originally meant “memory”, specifically memorizing Vedic scriptures. The Buddha used it in the context of “awareness.” Mindfulness meditation consists of watching the breath, cultivating mindfulness or attention to the present moment.

It seems that the Buddha never used any of the terms usually translated as “meditation.” In addition to sati, the other term used most frequently in the early sutras is bhavana, meaning, “to be, become; cultivate, develop, increase; to produce; to practice.” Bhavana is a broad term that according to Alan Sponberg, in TOCM, “can refer to any form of spiritual cultivation or practice.” However, as Walpola Rahula, in What the Buddha Taught, points out, “The word meditation is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which . . .  properly speaking, is mental culture in the full sense of the term.”

Here are several other terms frequently used in discussions on Buddhist meditation:

Samatha-vipassana – “concentration and insight”, these are actually two separate forms of meditation, which were rarely practiced in tandem until the Chinese T’ien-t’ai school. The Theravada school largely contends that samatha is dispensable. Samatha means “calming” or “tranquility,” while vipassana is “insight” or “clear-seeing.” In Chinese, samatha-vipassana is rendered as chih-kuan, which T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i described as “stopping and seeing.” In Japanese, it is shikan.

Samadhi – a term commonly translated as “meditation.” Sponberg, says, “With the etymological sense of ‘bringing or putting together,’ this term most often refers to a state of mental concentration, usually the result of some particular technique or practice.”

Dhyana – a Sanskrit term that corresponds to the Pali jhana, “to think closely [upon an object].” Dhyana is also frequently used to mean “meditation,” and in Chinese it is translated as ch’an, and in Japanese, zen.

Basic Zen meditation (Jp. zazen) commonly begins with the practice mindfulness of breath (more about Zen in the next post). Modern vipassana or “insight meditation” is “based on the traditional practice of mindfulness (P. sati) as taught in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta” (Gregory). The Satipatthana Sutta and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta explain how to practice mindfulness using points other than the breath as objects of meditation (the body, sensations, the mind, etc.)

Of the original 13 schools of Buddhism, Theravada is the only one alive today. I could be wrong but I believe that the first non-sutra meditation instructions in this tradition were those produced in the 4th or 5th Century by Buddhaghosa, who wrote Visuddhimagga or “The Path of Purification” which is not only a comprehensive meditation manual but also an in-depth treatise on the whole of Theravada doctrine.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Over the centuries, meditation became a lost art in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia. As I recall the story told by Rick Fields in his book, How The Swans Came To The Lake, in the late 1800’s, the Sri Lankan born bhikkhu Anagarika Dharmapala (David Hewavitarne) traveled throughout India, Sri Lanka, and Burma and he could not find one Buddhist who could teach him how to practice meditation. Eventually, he had to rely on the Visuddhimagga and a 17th or 18th century meditation manual translated into English as Manual of a Mystic in 1906 by F.L. Woodward.

The revival of meditation in the Theravada tradition didn’t get started until the latter half of the last century, through the efforts of Mahasi Sayadaw and S. N. Goenka in Burma, along with their Western followers, and this is more or less the Insight Meditation (Vipassana) movement of today.

The tradition of meditation has remained strong in the Mahayana countries of China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan, and that will be the focus of the next post. I should probably remind readers that in the history of Buddhist meditation, until recent years, it was primarily the ordained members of the Sangha who practiced and not the lay members, due to social, economic, and educational reasons.

As the title states this is just a brief overview. I am more than willing to stand corrected on anything I’ve written, however I think what I’ve shared here is largely accurate. And I hope there are some people who will find it helpful.

I’m going to add a page with some simple instructions on Mindfulness meditation. So, those of you who would interested in that, please check back.

*Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. This painting was used as the frontispiece to ‘Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists’ by Sister Nivedita and Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1st edition, 1913