You got to go back to Mother Earth

One person I greatly admire is David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist.  He is perhaps the most iconic environmental activist in North America, and in the last ten years or so, he and his foundation has worked to raise awareness and promote dialogue about the critical issue of global warming.

I ran across something on his blog the other day that I want to share with you.  In a post from January, he says,

We can’t just look at the world as a source of resources to exploit with little or no regard for the consequences.  When many indigenous people refer to the planet as “Mother Earth”, they are not speaking romantically, poetically or metaphorically.  They mean it literally.  We are of the Earth, every cell in our bodies formed by molecules derived from plants and animals, inflated by water, energized by sunlight captured through photosynthesis and ignited by atmospheric oxygen.”

feuerbach_gaea2Modern archaeological findings suggest that ancient peoples may have worshipped the earth as a living, female being.  She was part of the mythology in a number of cultures.  In Greek mythology, Mother Earth was a goddess called Gaia (“earth” or “land”) who represented the earth and was the mother of all life (Gaia, by Anselm Feuerbach, 1875 at right).  The Romans called her Terra.  The Hindus knew her as Parvati.  And Damp Mother Earth is the most ancient deity in Slavic mythology . . . As far as I am aware, Buddhism did not have a specific  “Mother Earth” deity, except for some cultural figures in various Asia countries that were independently incorporated into Buddha-dharma.

Nonetheless, Suzuki’s remarks are in line with the Buddhist concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) that maintains we are all inter-connected.  And when we talk about that we don’t mean just people, we are interconnected with the earth, the ocean, the sky, even the most distant stars – everything.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

You carry Mother Earth within you.  She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment . . . Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth . . . When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born . . . We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one.”

I imagine most of you are already on board with this thinking, but it is good to be reminded from time to time that we’ve got to go back to Mother Earth.

In 1951, blues singer Memphis Slim wrote a song called Mother Earth:

You may own a half a city even diamonds and pearls
You may buy that plane baby and fly all over this world
Don’t care how great you are, don’t care what you worth
When it all ends up you got to go back to mother earth

Now you know where Bob Dylan got the idea for his song, Gotta Serve Somebody.

In 1968, a band called Mother Earth recorded Slim’s song.  Here it is, featuring the vocals of the great but still to this day relatively unknown Tracy Nelson.

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The Silence of the Undisturbed Mind

You might have read that about fourteen days ago Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh spoke for the first time since suffering a stroke in November 2014. According to Plum Village, his community of practitioners in France, among his very first words were, “In, out; happy; thank you.”

As difficult as this time certainly must have been for Thay, as his followers call him, I am confident that he viewed his suffering as an opportunity to deepen his practice and further refine the art of ‘deep listening.’ When you cannot speak, what else is there but to listen?

In Buddhist terms, being silent has a deeper level of meaning than merely the absence of sound or a state where one does not talk. In his recent book, Silence, Thay writes,

TNH0921b2When we release our ideas, thoughts, and concepts, we make space for our true mind. Our true mind is silent of all words and all notions, and is so much vaster than limited mental constructs. Only when the ocean is calm and quiet can we see the moon reflected in it.

Silence is ultimately something that comes from the heart, not from any set of conditions outside us. Living from a place of silence doesn’t mean never talking, never engaging or doing things; it simply means that we are not disturbed inside; there isn’t constant internal chatter. If we’re truly silent, then no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can enjoy the sweet spaciousness of silence.”

It is the action of thought that moves us from silence to disturbance. Another word we could use for silence is quiescence, which indicates tranquility, being at rest. According to Buddhist teachings, when our mind is quiescent, our thoughts are not disturbed and our actions will not disturb others.

This means to look within ourselves and harmonize with the essence of life. When our mind constantly looks outward, this can cause it to be distracted and unsettled.

In the Hsin Hsin Ming (“Trust in Mind Inscription”) Seng-ts’an wrote,

When the mind abides undisturbed in the Way,
there is nothing that can offend,
and when  things no longer offend,
they ceases to exist in the old way.   

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The Mind-Field

Several years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh republished an earlier book under the title of Understanding Our Mind: 50 Verses on Buddhist Psychology. He interprets and comments on verses Vasubandhu composed on the nature of consciousness. Together with his brother, Asanga, Vasubandhu (fl. 4th century) was one of the principle founders of the Yogacara school, and is considered one the great Buddhist philosophers, revered in a number of Buddhist traditions.

Yogacara (“Yoga-practice”), along with the Madhyamaka, was one of the two major schools in early Mahayana Buddhism. This tradition, which emphasized philosophy and psychology, was also known as Consciousness Only (Vijnanavada) or Mind Only. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to it as Manifestation Only.

IMG_3820d4He states that “According to the teachings of Manifestation Only Buddhism, our mind has eight aspects, or we can say, ‘eight consciousnesses.’ The first five are based in the physical senses . . . the sixth arises when our mind contacts an object of perception . . . [the seventh] gives rise to and is the support of the mind consciousness . . . The eighth, store consciousness (alayavijnana), is the ground, or base, of the other seven consciousnesses. “

The first fifteen verses in the book are about the store consciousness. which functions “to store or preserve all the ‘seeds’ (bija) of our experiences . . . Everything we have ever done, experienced, or perceived . . . The seeds planted by these actions, experiences, and perceptions are the ‘subject’ of consciousness.” The store consciousness also preserves the seeds themselves.

The first verse Thich Nhat Hanh presents is as follows:

Mind is a field
in which every kind of seed is sown.
The “mind-field” can also be called
“all the seeds.”

Thich Nhat Hanh comments:

Our mind is a field in which every kind of seed is sown seeds of compassion, joy, and hope, seeds of sorrow, fear, and difficulties. Every day our thoughts, words, and deeds plant new seeds in the field of our consciousness, and what these seeds generate becomes the substance of our life . . . There are wholesome and unwholesome seeds in our mind-field.”

The Chinese T’ien-t’ai (Celestial Terrace) sect viewed the mind in more metaphysical terms than the Mind Only school.  They saw it as a substance that permeates all individual minds, as well as the entire universe. They went beyond the Mind Only teachings to propose a 9th aspect, or layer, of mind – the amala consciousness. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This layer of mind lies beyond the level of the store consciousness and is said to be free from any influences from past experiences, and, as it is a pure consciousness, it is also far beyond any sense of self, any notion of ‘I’.

Chih-i, the de facto founder of T’ien-t’ai, equated the amala consciousness with “true nature,” or what call Buddha-nature. Tibetan Buddhism describes this same quality of mind as luminous or clear light.

The Mind Only school maintained that only mind was real, everything else was illusion. T’ien-t’ai accepted this but they were not so interested in the workings of the mind, or trying to explain what consciousness is, as they were in how to contemplate the mind. Since all reality is a product of mind, or at least identical to it, then mind, which is easily accessible, should be the primary object of contemplation.

Chih-i taught contemplating the mind as a two-pronged process where the practitioner calms and empties the mind while also realizing the quiescence and emptiness of all phenomena (chih; stopping), and through observing the mind ((kuan; insight or seeing) realizes its luminous expanse.

So, when Vasubandhu says “The mind is a field,” we can see that as pointing to the expansiveness of mind, the sweep or range of consciousness.

It is important to note that we have been looking at the mind from the standpoint of ultimate truth, but we live in the realm of relative truth, where the things we have said are mere illusions have a worldly function.  The purpose of the all this, then, is to guide us to an understanding of mind. Again, it is not so much to understand what it is, but rather to learn how we can become the master of our mind, instead of a slave to our normal state of consciousness which is always preoccupied with conflicting thoughts and sensory perceptions, constantly in pursuit of subjective experiences and external objects.

These concepts can serve as a foundation for the critical work of disengaging our thoughts from their object oriented focus and placing them squarely in the present, without thinking about the past or anticipating the future. In this way, we can realize emptiness and get a glimpse into the luminous nature of consciousness.

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Insulting Buddhism

Several months ago I gave brief mention of a situation in Burma (Myanmar) where a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals were facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. (See the offending image here.)

Last week, a Burmese court sentenced bar manager Phil Blackwood, the bar’s Burmese owner Tun Thurein, and another manager Htut Ko Ko Lwina to 2½ years in prison with hard labor. When you consider all the stuff that gets posted on Facebook, an image of the Buddha wearing headphones seems pretty tame, and the sentence extreme. Indeed, putting those guys on trial in the first place strikes me as a travesty.

The case is part of a larger controversy over religious images that came to a dreadful head when Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper in France, was attacked by terrorists because of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad it published. I will not rehash the issues surrounding the controversy in this post, except to remind readers that teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad and even moderate Muslims find depictions of the Prophet offensive.

That is relevant because at one time, there was a ban on images of Buddha. The Buddha supposedly asked his followers not to collect or venerate his relics and not depict his image. His followers almost completely ignored his instructions regarding his relics, but for nearly 600 years, the only images used to represent the Buddha were a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf.

Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)
Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)

In the first century, the first images of the Buddha started to appear, and they typically showed Gautama standing or seated in a lotus position, and holding a begging bowl or making the gesture (mudra) of fearlessness. One of the areas where these representations began to emerge was Gandhara, and sculpture from that period displays a definite Greek influence.

Since then folks have been going crazy making Buddha images, and today it is a very big business.

If Buddha were around now, I think he would be inclined to take stuff like a Buddha with headphones in stride, perhaps even find it amusing.  I feel sure he would be outraged at the idea of imprisoning anyone for making such an image.  I also think he would have concerns about the commercialization of his image, and he would certainly be uncomfortable with the idea of worshiping his image. Of course, this is just conjecture on my part. What the historical Gautama thought, felt, actually taught, and what his life truly was, we shall never know,  because his time is so remote and his life story buried in myth, and as far as how he would think and act as a modern person, that is impossible to know.

Nonetheless, I doubt he ever held himself out as anything other than a common, mortal human being.  We say he was an extraordinary human being; he would simply say that he was “awake.” And while many Buddhist will deny that Buddha is worshiped, all objective observers know that worship of Buddha is a reality in some forms of Buddhism, especially among rank and file devotees.  Rather early on, the myth-making process that has shrouded his true story, elevated the Buddha from a mortal man to a being who was supermundane, “perfect,” and the line between human and god became extremely thin.

The Kathavathu, one of the seven books of the Pali Canon’s Abdidhamma, compiled during the reign of King Ashoka, and evidently produced in order to correct “various errors which had developed with regard to the Buddha,” discusses various views of the Buddhist schools existing at the time that promoted supernatural notions about the Buddha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha, writes,

Among the points dealt with in the Kathavathu was the idea that the Buddha had not really lived in the world of men, but in the ‘heaven of bliss’, appearing to men on earth in a specially created, temporary form to preach the Dhamma. Together with this virtual deification of the Buddha there went also a tendency to deny him normal human characteristics, and on the other hand to attribute to him unlimited magical power.”*

This elevation and immortalization of Buddha was carried over into the Mahayana canon, but today, I think many people tend to have an earthly, prosaic view that is much more realistic and proper. Ultimately, as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Concepts like ‘nirvana,’ ‘Buddha,’ ‘Pure Land,’ ‘Kingdom of God,’ and ‘Jesus,’ are just concepts; we have to be very careful. We should not start a war and destroy people for our concepts.” **

Now, if the government of Burma is so concerned about people insulting Buddhism then they would do something about those Buddhist extremists in their country who go around preaching hate and inciting violence against the Muslim minority there. Wouldn’t they?

– – – – – – – – – –

* Trevor Ling, The Buddha, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 170

** Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Penguin, 2000, 82

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Waking Up

It has been a while since I have passed on any updates about Thich Nhat Hanh’s condition. The latest from Plum Village, is a message dated January 3rd: “In the last three weeks Thay has gradually emerged into wakefulness, and has his eyes open for much of the day, to the point where the doctors can now say that he is no longer in a coma.”

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and you may be aware of the connection between Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh. It was partly through his interaction with the Vietnamese Zen teacher, that Dr. King was persuaded to take a public stand in opposition to the war in Vietnam.

MLK-TNHIn June 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh sent King a letter to explain why monks in Vietnam were self-immolating in opposition to the war and to urge King to add his voice in protest against the widening conflict. He wrote in part,

I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself can not remain silent . . . You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too — to use Karl Barth’s expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life and Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists, and many more, are not going to favour the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam.”

Dr. King and Thay first met during the latter’s visit to the United States in 1966. On January 25, 1967 King wrote a letter to The Nobel Institute in Norway, nominating “this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam” for the Nobel Peace Prize. Less than four months later, on April 4th, 1967 – exactly one year before he was assassinated – Dr. King, speaking at Riverside Church in New York City to the group Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, delivered one of his greatest speeches titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, his first public denouncement of U.S. involvement in Vietnam:

The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.

And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

That was a crucial moment in Dr. King’s crusade, and some historians believe it may have the action that sealed his fate.  Without a doubt, opossing the war cost him many political allies, including President Johnson.

At the end of his letter to King, Thich Nhat Hanh says that he was writing as a person in communion with the great humanists of the world “whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all human kind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.”

That enemy is ignorance (advidya), which Buddhism describes as a state of mis-knowing, a fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world. Shantideva in the Bodicaryavatara (“Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) tells us that the power and the degree of damage this internal enemy can exact upon us is what makes it our foremost adversary.

Awakening is the counter-agent that removes the infection of ignorance from our minds. Even someone as socially conscious as Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “wake up” to the horror of the Vietnam War. Likewise we must continually awaken, and continually remember, as the great humanists of the world have, what was phrased so well by Dr. King himself, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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