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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A Little Off the Beam

Valentine Davies (1905 – 1961) was a screenwriter, producer, and director. His best known work is a little story known as Miracle on 34th Street. According to IMDB, “[Davis] got the idea for the script whilst struggling through the Christmas shopping crowds, trying to find a present for his wife. The commercialism he saw made Davies wonder what the real Santa Claus would make of it all.”

George Seaton, another screenwriter and director, adapted Davies’ story and made it into a film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and eight-year old Natalie Wood.  It was released on May 2, 1947 and didn’t receive much notice. Today it is considered not only a classic holiday movie, but a classic film period. Davies received an Academy Award for Best Story.

Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street
Title page to my first edition Miracle on 34th Street

Later in 1947 Davies took Seaton’s screenplay, based on his own original story, and rewrote it as a novella.  It was published by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.

[Kris] had begun to realize that Doris and little Susan were but unhappy products of their times. They presented a real challenge to him – a sort of test-case for Santa Claus. If he could win them over, if he could get them to believe in him – then there was still hope. If not, Santa Claus and all he stood for were through.

“You know, Mrs. Walker,” he said, “for the past fifty years or so I’ve been more and more worried about Christmas. It seems we’re all so busy trying to beat the other fellow in making things go faster and look shinier and cost less, that Christmas and I are sort of getting lost in the shuffle.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Doris. “Christmas is still Christmas.”

“No,” said Mr. Kringle, shaking his head. “Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind. That’s what’s been changing. That’s why I’m glad I’m here, because maybe I can do something about it.”

In spite of herself, Doris was impressed by Kris’ warmth and kindness. She couldn’t help liking the old man, even if he was a little off the beam.

Of course, anyone who thinks he is Santa Claus is delusional.  But as Dr. Pierce says in the story, Kris’ “delusion is for good. He only wants to be friendly and helpful.”  In Buddhism, we don’t like to promote the idea of indulging delusions, but this story reminds me of the one about Bodhisattva Fukyo.  One day, Fukyo went walking around,  bowing to every person he met. As he bowed, he would say, “I deeply respect you.”  He was a little off the beam, too. He thought everyone he saw was a buddha.

The writing in Davies’ novella is lean and simple, similar to a children’s book.  The story centers around the question of whether Kris is the real Santa Claus or just a nice old man with whiskers and a few bats in his belfry. However, there is a more thoughtful subtext. Doris, a single mother raising Susan while employed at Macy’s, is disappointed when Fred Gayley, an attorney with whom she is falling in love, appears to have thrown away his future by defending Kris at his sanity hearing. Fred realizes that Doris has no faith in him.

“It’s not a question of having faith in you. You’re bound to lose this case – that’s just common sense!”

Fred rose quickly.

“Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to,” he replied. “And you’ve just got too much common sense.”

“It’s a good thing one of us has,” said Doris heatedly. “It’s rather an asset sometimes!”

“Can’t you get over being afraid?” Fred pleaded. “Can’t you let yourself believe in people like Kris – in fun and joy and love and all the other intangibles?”

Doris stiffened almost inperceptibly. She became the crisp, efficient Mrs. Walker again.

“You can’t pay the rent with intangibles,” she said.

“And you can’t live a life without them.”

In the film, instead of that last line, Fred says that “those intangibles are the only things worthwhile.” I think he also means they are the things most worth fighting for, and that’s why he works so hard to defend Kris.

You see, Fred knew that Kris was a Bodhisattva and that his mission was to awaken people – not to the reality of a symbolic holiday figure, or for that matter, some religious icon – Kris wanted to awaken them to the truth of intangible things, like the ones Fred listed above, and other intangibles such as kindness, hope, patience, and giving. Believing in Santa Claus, and even capturing the spirit of Christmas, is merely allegory for finding the only things worthwhile, those wonders that come from the heart.

And when Doris and her daughter Susan and everyone else began to believe in themselves and in others, they gave up their doubtful ways, stopped being afraid, and life opened up for them, and when we do the same, the doors to life’s storehouse of treasures opens for us, and we learn that everything we want, everything we need, is all around us all the time, and that is the real miracle to be found on 34th or any other street.

In a 2013 interview, Thich Nhat Hanh said,

It is in my heart when I use [the word “miracle”] because . . . you are a miracle and everything you touch could be a miracle — the orange in your hand, the blue sky, the face of a child. Everything become a wonder. And, in fact, they are wonders of life that are available in the here and the now . . . And that is a miracle because you understand the nature of the suffering, and you are not trying to run away from suffering anymore, and you know how to make use of suffering in order to build peace and happiness.”

Well, to sum up, I say that if it leads you to those intangibles which are life’s greatest treasures, then being a little off the beam is a good use of common sense.

Happy Holidays to you all and thanks so much for reading The Endless Further.

MPX222

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Thich Nhat Hanh, Slavery, and Phillis Wheatley the Slave-Poet

According to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hahn’s condition remains stable. As I reported several weeks ago, he experienced a severe brain hemorrhage on November 11 and has been hospitalized ever since. Evidently, the hemorrhage has slightly reduced in size, and while edema is still present, it has not worsened.

The latest press release states, “Thay continues to rest peacefully with the ticking clock on his pillow, and we sense that he is relying on his deep awareness of breathing, rooted in Store Consciousness, to guide his healing process.”

Thich Nhat Hahn had been invited to participate in an event organized by the Global Freedom Network, on December 2 at the Vatican. Leaders of the world’s major religions came together to sign a common declaration condemning slavery and to “call on the United Nations to end human trafficking and slavery globally.”

Thay was represented by a delegation of 22 monks and nuns. His prepared speech read by Sister Chan Khong, his first ordained monastic disciple.  An excerpt:

In this age of globalisation, what happens to one of us, happens to us all. We are all interconnected, and we are all co-responsible. But even with the greatest good will, if we are swept away by our daily concerns for material needs or emotional comforts, we will be too busy to realise our common aspiration. Contemplation must go together with action. Without a spiritual practice we will abandon our dream.”

In November, Walk Free, a partner of The Global Freedom Network, released a report saying “Slavery still grips tens of millions worldwide.” 35.8 million to be exact, a shocking number. Slavery in defined as “the systematic deprivation of a person’s liberty, and abuse of their body for personal or commercial exploitation.”

Tomorrow, December 6, will mark the 149th anniversary of the ratification by the states of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States of America. Although President Lincoln’s 1863 final Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves held by the Confederate States, it and the previous proclamations were but first steps in the process of freeing all slaves.

Just as the Emancipation Proclamations are important human rights documents, so too are the poems by a woman named Phillis Wheatley, and one in particular, from 1772, a poem that “provides readers with an emotional appeal of slavery, forcing readers to evaluate their views on the institution of slavery.” * When she composed the poem, Wheatley was herself a slave.

She was born in Africa, captured and sold into slavery as a child. In 1761, she was purchased by John Wheatley of Boston. He soon recognized Wheatley’s intelligence and she was taught to read and write by his 18 year-old daughter, Mary.

Phillis Wheatley became well known for her poetry, and was not only the second published African-American poet but also the first published African-American woman.

In October 1772, she was asked to write a poem for William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, who had just been appointed secretary of state for the colonies. The poem is entitled “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” and the 3rd verse reads,

phillis-wheatleyShould you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Phillis Wheatley was freed on October 18, 1773.

You can read the entire poem and more of Wheatley’s work at the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Phillis Wheatley herself at Biography and Wikipedia.

And make sure you go Global Freedom Network to sign the declaration to end slavery once and for all.

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* Phillis Wheatley Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) Jamie Baldwin and David Townsend Candidates, Master of Arts in English Education Department of English & Theatre University of North Carolina, Pembroke

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