Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Recognizing what is Dhamma and what is not

It's easy to get caught up in the Buddhism discussions that proliferate across the Internet. So many different kinds of Buddhism. So many different opinions. So many opportunities to compare oneself with others, to disagree, to speak out, to set things straight. Who's right? Who's even listening? Does anyone actually hear the words of Dhamma amid the din? Are the words even there?

The Buddha gave a wonderful teaching on how to recognize the Dhamma, found here at Access to Insight. Worth noting: the Dhamma is to be recognized by its qualities.

The Buddha tells Mahapajapati Gotami (who, incidentally, was his foster mother and also the first Buddhist nun) what is not the Dhamma:
'These qualities lead to passion, not to dispassion;
to being fettered, not to being unfettered;
to accumulating, not to shedding;
to self-aggrandizement, not to modesty;
to discontent, not to contentment;
to entanglement, not to seclusion;
to laziness, not to aroused persistence;
to being burdensome, not to being unburdensome'

And what the Dhamma is:
'These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion;
to being unfettered, not to being fettered;
to shedding, not to accumulating;
to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement;
to contentment, not to discontent;
to seclusion, not to entanglement;
to aroused persistence, not to laziness;
to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome':

One wonderful thing about this teaching is that it tells us these are qualities that we may know. Also: These are qualities one discovers for oneself, with regard to one's own experience. That means the Dhamma is not a yardstick by which to measure others. Nor is it a weapon to be used in debates.

This creates a context for what it means to go for refuge in the Dhamma. It is a personal experience, dependent on causes and conditions, reflecting qualities that one discerns through direct knowledge.

When I start to get caught up in the discussion, when I feel misunderstood, or when I feel slighted, or when I feel smug, for example, then I can know: This is not the Dhamma, this is not the Teacher's instruction.

And in recognizing that, I can loosen my grip, understand what is going on, recognize the habit patterns at play. And smile. And then I can know: This is the Dhamma, this is the Teacher's instruction.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

If you can practice even when distracted ...

My Twitter friend @_karmadorje has been tweeting each of the Lojong mind-training slogans, which I think is a wonderful exercise. Although they are from a very specific tradition within this Jackson Pollock landscape called "Buddhism," the slogans speak across traditions and even well beyond Buddhism. They are often surprising, usually challenging, gentle and firm at the same time, like a wacky parent who really loves you even though he seems to say crazy stuff. But when you really listen, it makes sense.

Each slogan could be a blog post of its own. I like this one:

If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained.

According to tradition, when Atisha went to Tibet to bring the Dharma there, he decided to bring along his very annoying, very disagreeable Bengali tea boy, because he had heard the Tibetan people were so gentle and kind that he was afraid he would lose an opportunity for practice, being among such agreeable people. As it turned out, Atisha didn't need his Bengali tea boy.

Surprises are everywhere we turn. You'd think we'd know better, after all these years. But most of us don't. We sail along this daily life, bringing our expectations with us, often unconsciously. Maybe we think we've matured, maybe we think we've developed patience and wisdom. We pat ourselves on the back. And then it happens: The surprise.

That person at work says just the wrong thing at just the wrong moment, catching you off guard. And you snap back.

Or someone dings your door in the parking lot. Or the computer crashes before you've had a chance to save an hour's worth of work. Or you spill something on your clothes.

Sometimes the distractions are even more challenging. Your spouse is leaving you. A family member dies. You are in a serious accident.

You're dying.

It can be so easy to "practice" during times when there are no distractions. On retreats, in fact, that's exactly what we do: We seclude ourselves somewhere. We leave our phones at home. We observe noble silence. We might not even make eye contact for a period of many days. No distractions.

But the rubber hits the road in the real world, where distractions are the name of the game, where the baby cries at 3 a.m., where the telemarketer calls in the middle of dinner, where the electricity goes out just after dark and there are no candles or flashlights in the house. Where our spouse is upset, crying even, for whatever reason. Where total strangers walk up to us on the street and make incoherent demands. In this world, when our children are scared, or injured, and we're late, and we're out of money, and ... and ... how in the world are we supposed to practice then?

The truth is: If you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained.

Two things occur to me: We need our Bengali tea boy to fuel our practice in difficult times. What a wonderful thing it would be if we could recognize, in the midst of distraction, HERE, exactly right here and now, is my opportunity to practice.

And also: Training is vital. So we train when we are not distracted, just like an athlete does, developing lovingkindness and patience and determination and energy and generosity and all the other things we need in that moment when distraction rears its ugly, beautiful head.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Lessons from a reformed serial killer

So often, I have found myself inspired by the tale of Angulimala, the mass murderer who became an arahant.

The Angulimala Sutta (MN86) paints a portrait of a terrifying killer who slaughtered people and cut off their fingers, wearing them on a garland around his neck. It's hard to imagine a more miserable starting position from which to attain to awakening, and yet that's exactly what this tale conveys. At its core, this is a story of redemption, and that is the first lesson I took away from it: It's never too late. Whatever we have done in the past, whatever horrific state of mind might have occurred in the past, we can leave it behind. We can be compassionate, here and now. Our past mistakes don't need to hinder us from choosing kindness now.

If that were the only message from the Angulimala story to stick in my mind, it would be enough. But it's not. Again and again, bits and pieces of Angulimala's tale sometimes float to the surface of my mind as gentle reminders amid day-to-day life. Here are some of them:

"I have stopped." When the Buddha first encounters Angulimala, the killer can't catch him, even though the Buddha is walking normally and Angulimala is running as fast as he can. Angulimala calls out: "Stop, recluse!" And the Buddha says, "I have stopped."

Angulimala recognizes that the Buddha is a noble teacher not prone to telling lies, so he is inspired to ask the Buddha what he can possibly mean by claiming he has stopped when in fact he is still walking. And of course the answer snaps things right into focus:

Angulimala, I have stopped forever,
I abstain from violence toward living beings;
But you have no restraint toward things that live:
That is why I have stopped and you have not.

So often our world spins and spins, and we wonder, why does it have to be this way? And the answer is that we are the ones spinning. We have not stopped. So why not take a moment and just stop?

"By this truth, may you be well." On an alms round, the now Ven. Angulimala encounters a woman in labor, having great difficulty delivering a baby. This former killer, who had been bereft of compassion, sympathizes with the woman in her suffering. He seeks the Buddha's guidance.

At first the Buddha tells him to say to the woman: "Sister, since I was born, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well."

Angulimala tells the Buddha he's not comfortable saying such a thing, because he thinks it would be a lie. So the Buddha clarifies what he meant, telling Angulimala to say the following:

Sister, since I have been born with the noble birth, I do not recall that I have ever intentionally deprived a living being of life. By this truth, may you be well and may your infant be well.

When Angulimala recited these words to the woman, she and her baby both became well. The stanza is still recited as a traditional chant of protection. And it underscores the extreme letting go that occurs when the noble path is attained. It is good for oneself and also good for others.

"Bear it, brahmin! Bear it." On another alms round, someone throws a clod of dirt at Angulimala. Someone else throws a stick. Someone else throws a piece of pottery. Bleeding from his head, and with his bowl broken and robe torn, Angulimala goes to the Buddha. And the Buddha tells him:

Bear it, brahmin! Bear it, brahmin! You are experiencing here and now the result of deeds because of which you might have been tortured in hell for many years, for many hundreds of years, for many thousands of years.

Through force of habit, we experience again and again the results of the kamma (volitional action) that we perform here and now. We amplify the results through our habitual reactions. We turn away from it. We hate it. And we try to salve it with something that we think is better, but that's really just something else to cling to.

Our problem is that we don't bear with it. Sometimes we really can't bear it, because we have not cultivated the capacity to engage with that deep place of pain and sorrow and anger that so often we wish to hide from. And as long as we allow it to lie there, hidden, unexposed, avoided, it comes back again and again. Because we refuse to bear with it.

The Dhamma path is the practice of cultivating the capacity to engage directly with all of this. With equanimity and awareness, we can see things just as they are. We do not turn away.

I also find inspiring how Angulimala's tale shines across the centuries and still illuminates the path, in its own way. As Angulimala himself proclaimed:

Who once did live in negligence
And then is negligent no more,
He illuminates this world
Like a moon freed from a cloud.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Selflessly embracing this self

What is this fascination we have with the concept of some true, underlying nature? So often one encounters this notion of "returning to the source." What is this seemingly irresistible attraction that so many of us seem to have for a place, a time, or even a timeless, placeless something that somehow, finally, we can say is really me?

Ven. Thanissaro rips apart the idea in this new article, particularly in the section labeled, "No Innate Nature." He states that the idea of Buddha nature is "excess baggage on the path."

On the flip side of this coin, we find the type of perspective as apparently conveyed in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra. One exposition of the concept can be found here in a blog entry titled, "No nirvana without self."

So which one is it? Self? Or no self?

In the Dhamma, there should be no confusion. When we look closely, we can realize that the question itself is ill-conceived, unhelpful, and ultimately of no benefit. We have in the teachings the clear idea of "not-self," Anatta, which is that visceral reality that nothing in our experience can be regarded as me or mine. That means we can know very clearly what is not self. Yet in MN2 the Buddha also makes clear that it does no good to dwell on a conceptual understanding pegged to the notion, "I am not." Indeed, the Buddha calls that type of thinking "inappropriate attention."

"This is how he attends inappropriately: 'Was I in the past? Was I not in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what was I in the past? Shall I be in the future? Shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? Having been what, what shall I be in the future?' Or else he is inwardly perplexed about the immediate present: 'Am I? Am I not? What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?'

We can recognize that this deep wish we might feel to find an underlying "nature" may be a manifestation of identity view. And if we look closely, we might see that the nature of this desire is suffering, and also that it is an impermanent, changing phenomenon, arising and then passing away, then perhaps arising again.

The apparent dichotomy between what sometimes is termed the "positive" teaching and the "negative" teaching -- using either the "self" or "no-self" position as a teaching platform -- reflects the underlying weakness of teaching with words. The Buddha taught in different manners to different audiences, depending on the disposition he detected in his audience. From that perspective, regardless of one's tradition, one might understand how seemingly contradictory teachings can be handed down. But remember: The Buddha's teachings are to be put into practice. They are not intended to be used as the basis for cultivating disputes and arguments.

It can be confusing, if we spend too little time on the practice side of things. We might hear that, yes, we are the owners of our kamma, heirs to our kamma. We might hear that, yes, luminous is the mind. And conversely, we might hear that, no, there is no abiding self beyond these aggregates, beyond this All. And all of it is true. But none of it is true in the way we might conceive it is true. Our opinions, our beliefs, all of these mental formations are themselves entwined with this round of samsara. But this Dhamma path is the path of liberation through not-clinging.

Yet the Buddha does not advise a practice of turning our backs on all of this. Indeed, in that very same MN2, the Buddha advises us to attend to it. But to attend appropriately:

This is stress... This is the origination of stress... This is the cessation of stress... This is the way leading to the cessation of stress. As he attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts & practices.

This appropriate attention is itself an expression of inner renunciation. What a wonderful freedom it is, to recognize that we hold such-and-such belief, to see it for what it is. Maybe we believe there is some underlying Buddha nature. Aha! There is our belief. I see you! There's no need to beat ourselves up about our beliefs. Nor is there any reason to try to defend or justify them. They are what they are. And from experience we know that they will change from what they are today.

If we are to walk the path that the Buddha teaches, the Dhamma path, then we must be kind to ourselves, recognizing that the beliefs we hold are part of this heap of aggregates.

The Buddha gives a seemingly unrelated teaching in MN21:

"Suppose that a man were to come along carrying a hoe & a basket, saying, 'I will make this great earth be without earth.' He would dig here & there, scatter soil here & there, spit here & there, urinate here & there, saying, 'Be without earth. Be without earth.' Now, what do you think — would he make this great earth be without earth?"

"No, lord. Why is that? Because this great earth is deep & enormous. It can't easily be made to be without earth. The man would reap only a share of weariness & disappointment."

"In the same way, monks, there are these five aspects of speech by which others may address you: timely or untimely, true or false, affectionate or harsh, beneficial or unbeneficial, with a mind of good-will or with inner hate. ... In any event, you should train yourselves: 'Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic to that person's welfare, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading him with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with him, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will equal to the great earth — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.' That's how you should train yourselves.

With awareness imbued with good will equal to the great Earth. Abundant. Expansive. Immeasurable. Free from hostility. Free from ill will.

According to tradition, on the night the Bodhisatta was about to attain to perfect awakening, he was confronted by Mara. And the Bodhisatta reached down and touched the Earth.

Sometimes one hears of the distinction between self with a small 's' and Self with a big 'S', as if the concept of self can be ennobled if we hold it in just the right way. But regardless of how we conceptualize it, whenever we conceptualize it we have an opportunity to understand what is happening, here and now. With awareness, with equanimity, we can see things just as they are.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Fifth Precept one-month challenge

I recently had a short, friendly discussion with a Twitter friend regarding the Fifth Precept, rendered on Access to Insight as follows:

Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.

I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
Now, as my friend pointed out, this precept is understood differently in different traditions. So I wish to write here merely from my own perspective, based on the tradition that speaks most effectively to my own disposition. I do not wish to parse Pali, or try to argue in favor of one understanding over another. Let me be clear that I do not advocate prohibition, and I do not regard the precept as a moral absolute. I offer the following in humility and without judgement, in hopes that it is helpful.

As I understand them, the five precepts are training rules for our own benefit. They are not commandments. They are not laws. They are not factors by which to measure others. Their sole purpose is for oneself, to aid in creating the kamma (volitional action) in this present moment that is most conducive to awakening. That is all. If we judge others by the five precepts, we miss the point, in my opinion.

I think it's worth noting the other precepts, so that the Fifth Precept can be regarded in context. The other four (also from Access to Insight) are:

I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.

I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
The entire entry at the Access to Insight link noted above is worth reading. One thing that I notice about each of these precepts is that they each involve giving something up. This makes sense to me, since this is the path of liberation through not clinging. It is a path of letting go.

In that context, it makes sense to me to regard each one of these precepts as a challenge to be present in this very moment and mindful that I refrain from something. That I do not kill. That I do not steal. That I do not engage in sexual misconduct. That I do not lie. And with regard to alcohol? That I do not drink it. These are the training rules as I understand them. Naturally we may find that we do not always keep them perfectly. That is part of practice.

I am aware of the position, widely held, that when it comes to alcohol, the precept is not broken unless intoxication occurs. I believe there are some potential pitfalls in adopting that approach to training. One of them is that it raises the question, is "mindful drinking" a training rule that creates the kamma of letting go? Does "mindful drinking" support the path of liberation through not clinging?

Another pitfall I see is that this same approach doesn't seem to work with the other training rules. Mindful killing? Mindful stealing?

And, of course, it can be difficult to know when intoxication will occur with alcohol. It varies by person, by diet, by environmental factors, and from day to day for each individual. So the Fifth Precept becomes vague and difficult to follow if we take it to mean that we train by refraining from intoxication when we drink alcohol.

But separate from any kind of Buddhism or any interpretation of the precepts, I also notice that alcohol has a bizarre place in our society. It is everywhere. There is massive social pressure to drink alcohol. Toasts at weddings. Wine with dinner. Drinks with friends. Almost anybody with any social life will be offered alcohol, even pressured to have alcohol. It is deeply engrained in our society.

People have surprisingly strong opinions about alcohol consumption.

I also notice that alcohol is a contributing factor in many social ills. We can all understand the concept of dependent origination and nutriment, where certain factors must be present for other things to occur. When this is, that is. When this is not, that is not. Here are some of the things that would be removed from our lives if we stopped drinking: Fetal alcohol syndrome. Alcoholism. Drunking driving deaths.

And there are many studies that show a connection between alcohol use and violence. While it may be true that alcohol does not cause violence, we all know from personal experience that alcohol can lead people to loosen up and behave in ways they wouldn't normally behave. Alcohol can be a contributing factor in violence. Alcohol has an effect on the brain and the body. A meditator can be keenly aware of this.

When we drink, even if we drink mindfully, we become participants in a pattern of social behavior that has demonstrable ill effects. When we drink socially, we feed this social habit, making it more likely that others around us also will drink. When we purchase alcohol, we support an industry that advertises the affirmative message, "drink responsibly," which is just another way of telling people to "drink." When we drink around our children, we teach them to drink. There is a ripple effect whenever we pick up a drink.

So I propose the following merely as an experiment, as an exercise in mindfulness: Give up drinking for one month, and see what happens. How about July?

For anyone who benefits from mindfulness training, this is an ideal time to take up this challenge, with summer holiday weekends at hand. Here are some things that one could be mindful of: What sensation arises in the body when I have the desire to drink? What sensation arises when I refrain from drinking? What emotion do I experience when I tell others that I do not wish to drink right now? What emotion do others seem to experience, and how do I react to that?

During the course of a month, there may be many opportunities to see what happens in one's own life when one decides not to drink. What pressures does one face? What sacrifices must one make? Are there any surprises? Some of these experiences might seem unpleasant in the moment when they are occurring. And this can be part of practice, too.

At the end of one month, take stock and see if there is anything you have learned about yourself or others.

Some might regard this as a pointless exercise, particularly if one is firmly established in the belief that one's own moderate drinking has no ill effects on oneself or others. One might think, what's the harm? Why worry about it? Why bother? For a person serious about mindfulness, however, such a reaction might awaken a curiosity about what would actually occur for oneself during the month in question.

If anybody actually tries this challenge, I would be interested in hearing about it. Feel free to use the Twitter hashtag #5precepts. I am proposing this solely for the purpose of practice. If you choose to try it, may you be successful for the benefit of all beings.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Stephen Batchelor

In this interview over at Buddhist Geeks, Stephen Batchelor (author of "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist") takes some time once again to share his self-described "secular" approach to Buddhism, an approach that has won him praise, blame, and book sales.

The entire Stephen Batchelor spectacle is fascinating, in some of the same ways that a house fire is fascinating. True, Mr. Batchelor brings a good deal of knowledge and study to the table, and his talks can be helpful in arriving at a better understanding of some elements of what the Buddha taught. But his propensity to create divisions and fuel disputes becomes a distraction. For example, Mr. Batchelor tells Vince Horn:

... there appears, in the Buddhist community, to be a fault line that demarcates two quite different camps. One, of what one might call the conservatives or the traditionalists who can’t quite imagine how you could have Buddhism without the doctrine of rebirth. And another camp, which would include, obviously, people like myself, who I would maybe portray as more liberal, more secular in orientation, who have exactly the opposite problem -- mainly, they cannot conceive of a Buddhist practice or at least an intelligible Buddhist practice, having to incorporate what looks to them, what looks to me, like an antiquated, pre-modern belief.

And we see here very clearly how muddled Mr. Batchelor's presentation can be. I believe it's no accident that he only uses the term "practice" in describing the "secular" orientation. The "conservatives," on the other hand, he portrays as clinging to doctrine.

Mr. Batchelor does an untidy job of muddling together two different sets of contrasting approaches:
1) Those who put great stock in concepts versus those who focus on how to live in this present moment; and
2) Those who believe in rebirth versus those who do not.

Mr. Batchelor ignores the fact that these are entirely unrelated sets. Belief or disbelief in rebirth is unrelated to whether one puts emphasis on concepts or on practice.

The fascinating thing about this is that Mr. Batchelor appears to be advocating for an approach that focuses on practice, not on concepts, yet he keeps on returning to concepts. His message appears to be that it doesn't matter if he can't bring himself to believe in rebirth; he can still be a Buddhist because he can still practice the Noble Eightfold Path. Strangely, however, Mr. Batchelor comes back again and again to concepts. He keeps on talking about how the rebirth notion defies "what we currently understand through the natural sciences," how it carries "a whole range of philosophical and psychological problems."

"Now, I really just do not understand what that could mean; it simply does not make sense to me," he says of the notion of rebirth. He labels it a "doctrine."


Personally, I would find Mr. Batchelor's presentation much more helpful if he could decide which approach he wants to take. Does he want to encourage the practice of living skillfully in this present moment? Or does he want to encourage debate about concepts?

There should be no confusion about the Dhamma. We can understand this very clearly: Mental formations are not self. They are impermanent. And their underlying nature is suffering. Of course we will probably have some opinion about rebirth. We believe it, or we don't believe it. Can we help it? Can we really flip a switch and decide what we want to believe? Do we have control over our convictions?

And even if we think we do, what do we think we're going to accomplish? If we organize our beliefs just right, will that somehow get us closer to some perceived goal?

Mr. Batchelor is right when he suggests that it is possible to practice regardless of one's beliefs or disbeliefs. How could it be otherwise? We can only start where we are. And we know that in some respects, any beliefs that we have are imperfect, and also subject to change and revision in the future as our understanding grows. There should be no confusion about this; this is a path of liberation through not clinging, including not clinging to our mental formations.

But there also should be no confusion about this: The notion of post-mortem rebirth is part and parcel of the Buddha's teachings we have received. The Pali texts are replete with clear, unambiguous examples of the Buddha describing the rebirth outcome of his disciples, or describing ghosts passing by who had been humans in a previous birth, or describing once-returners and non-returners. In these teachings, it seems very clear that the Buddha simply took it for granted that his listeners in those instances understood rebirth as a reality. Does that mean we can't practice if we can't bring ourselves to believe in rebirth? No. But does it mean that we need to rejigger Buddhism to fit our preconceived notions of reality? Mr. Batchelor seems to think so.

This is very much a discussion about what is comfortable. Mr. Batchelor appears to argue that there needs to be a new Buddhism for the secular, Western world. Give us a Buddhism that fits with our modern sensibilities. Give us a Buddhism that bolsters our current mental formations.

"I honestly don’t think the Buddha was interested in the nature of reality," Batchelor says. And implicit in that statement is the assumption that there must be some "reality" out there, separate from this heap of aggregates, separate from this All that the Buddha so clearly describes. And that is a perilous proposition indeed.

One thing that Mr. Batchelor gets absolutely right is that "atheism" is an accurate word to use in describing disbelief in an abiding self. Although most often "atheism" refers to a lack of belief in God, Mr. Batchelor correctly perceives that any concept of God necessitates a concept of self. And so, while acknowledging that beliefs are not the point, Mr. Batchelor takes a firm stance with regard to his own personal beliefs. He is an atheist. That's just the way he is.

One gets the sense that we should take seriously the way Mr. Batchelor portrays his message (as his latest book title suggests), namely, as a confession. Is this all just about Mr. Batchelor's personal struggles with his own belief systems? Has he put on display his own effort to reconcile his hopes, his dreams, his expectations with a tradition that he views as judgmental of him? And thus he feels compelled to confess in order to arrive at some inner peace in his struggle? Is that what this is about?

A confession, after all, is a very personal thing.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A few thoughts about "The Buddha" on PBS

Tomorrow is the last day to watch "The Buddha" on the PBS website, This program is truly an event. Much of it is beautiful. It does seem to me, however, that it would be difficult for a person unfamiliar with the Buddhadhamma to discern the Dhamma in the program. The presentation is a blend of nuggets of wisdom, along with platitudes derived from the personal viewpoints of the participants, mixed together with selected historical details (with some glaring omissions).

Striking to me was the absence of individuals crucial to the life story of the Buddha. Most notably, there's no mention of Ananda, the Buddha's personal attendant who is credited with having such an astonishing memory that he was able to recall entire suttas in the Buddha's own words.

We hear in the program how the Buddha named his son "Rahula," rendered "ball and chain" in the words of one of the program's participants. But we hear nothing about Rahula's later going-forth, and the tender, one-on-one instruction that Rahula later received from his own father. Such as retold here.

Perhaps the most egregious historical inaccuracy is the program's suggestion that right from the start, the Buddha took the revolutionary step (for the time) of ordaining women. Left out of the storytelling is, again, an important figure from the Buddha's own family, Mahapajapati, who raised him as if she were his own mother, who begged him later to allow women into the community monks, and who at first was denied.

It's such a curious thing, the way the Buddha is treated in the program. In some respects, he is put up on a pedestal and seperated out of normal human interactions. If nothing else, from a purely cinematic point of view, the program could have made much more effective use of these "window characters" in the Buddha's life to give us a look at the man through the eyes of those who knew him best. That also would have reinforced the notion of inter-connectedness. This was an opportunity lost.

I'm not sure what kind of impression of Buddhism a person would have after watching the program, but I don't think it would be a very accurate impression of the Buddhadhamma. Part of the reason for this is the apparent lack of discernment in selecting comments and summaries of Dhamma to include from the participants. For example, near the end of the program, poet Jane Hirshfield offers this comment, and it is presented in a way that could be taken as a summary of the Dhamma:

"Everyday life around us is already so implausible and so glorious, that what need for further miracles? And that's the teaching of the Buddha. That's the miraculous teaching of the Buddha."

What does that mean exactly? In general, I think Hirshfield's comment includes a valid point, namely, that it's crucial to recognize things just as they are, right here and now, rather than to seek after miracles. Yet, like so much else in the program, this is presented as a happy platitude, as a viewpoint, as if the Buddha doled out scraps of advice fortune-cookie style. How do you apply this is your life? What practical application can this idea have?

In some cases, the program presents a wonderful Dhamma teaching, but then undercuts it with commentary from somebody who doesn't seem to appreciate its meaning. For example, the program offers a rendering of something that can be found here.

"When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn't, that isn't. From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that."

But then the program offers an interpretation from astrophysicist Trihn Xuan Thuan, who says, in part:

"Everything is connected to everything else. ... Our happiness depends on their happiness as well. How can we be happy if we're the only one happy in an island of happiness in an ocean of misery? Of course that's not possible."

And his comment has really nothing at all to do with what the sutta is talking about. Indeed, his comments fly in the face of other sutta teachings that describe how monks are happy-minded in the midst of suffering, how we must be an island, how the truest happiness is not conditioned by anything in this world.

In many respects, "The Buddha" is a wonderful program and a great service, but it does not appear to convey very well what the Buddha actually taught.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

May Bill Maher be happy, be peaceful, be liberated

A somewhat different perspective on this blog entry by Bill Maher over at The Huffington Post. The comedian has been catching some flack for getting Buddhism wrong. And undoubtedly, he got it wrong. But reading his words more closely, I find it very hard to feel offended.

A snippet:
"Christianity is for rubes. Buddhism is for actors.

"And it really is outdated in some ways - the 'Life sucks, and then you die' philosophy was useful when Buddha came up with it around 500 B.C., because back then life pretty much sucked, and then you died - but now we have medicine, and plenty of food, and iPhones, and James Cameron movies - our life isn't all about suffering anymore. And when we do suffer, instead of accepting it we try to alleviate it."
It's striking how easily Mr. Maher sweeps this question of suffering, of dukkha, right under the rug. Why suffer? Just alleviate. Yet it must be obvious to anybody who has come face-to-face with life's realities that "alleviation" is just another word for denial, aversion to suffering, the desire to remain ignorant, the desire to get rid of that which is not wanted. At best, "alleviation" is a temporary fix. At worst, it is suffering itself, pure addiction, a blind devotion to the impossible pursuit of just feeling okay about everything.

Who can escape old age, sickness and death? These must be accepted, because sooner or later, the drugs wear off, the face of reality shows itself, the end comes in short breaths, fading breaths. We can try to alleviate right up until the end, but we cannot alleviate the fading away that inevitably shadows every living, breathing moment.

The wonderful teaching of the Buddha that Mr. Maher has overlooked is that this suffering has an end, and there is a way to the eradication of suffering. Ironically, that path includes seeing things as they are, which Mr. Maher unfortunately appears to describe as "acceptance," a position he rejects:
"Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life - I don't want to learn to not want, that's what people in prison have to do. Buddhism teaches suffering is inevitable. The only thing that's inevitable is that if you have fake boobs and hair extensions, Tiger Woods will try to f--- you."
Prison. Mr. Maher imagines that this samsara does not constitute a kind of prison, where we are caged in by deep-rooted habits of greed, hate and delusion. Why do we want? We want because we perceive lack. What do we lack in this world of medicine, abundant food, iPhones and James Cameron movies? Perhaps we don't have the ability to know the basis of our wants, the underlying nature of our desires, of that insatiable appetite that we learn to live with, that we strive to alleviate. That is what Mr. Maher chooses to accept. A path that leads to more suffering.

Mr. Maher is right, but in a way he apparently has not yet understood: Craving for things outside ourselves is what makes life life. There are so many things about that statement that are true.
In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and thoughts there is the world, the origin of the world, the ending of the world and the path leading to the ending of the world.
-AN 4.45
The whole concept of "outside ourselves" points in the wrong direction, away from what needs to be done here and now.

Of course there are things that we want. When we observe our experience, we realize that these wants are present. They rise and pass away. They are not-self. They are simply wants. And the fact of the matter is that some wants can help us along the path. And here is one of them:
May all be well and secure,
May all beings be happy!
Whatever living creatures there be,
Without exception, weak or strong,
Long, huge or middle-sized,
Or short, minute or bulky,
Whether visible or invisible,
And those living far or near,
The born and those seeking birth,
May all beings be happy!

- Metta Sutta

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Emptiness and Jesus

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

This striking utterance from Jesus left untranslated in Matthew 27:46 is a keystone passage that can bring one right up to engagement with the undesired, the unwanted, the things we usually try to avoid. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me?

There has been an effort among some to reject even these very words as a false translation, arguing that σαβαχθανί (sabacthani) can mean "leave" in the sense of abandoning, or "leave" in the sense of sparing. And little wonder. This apparent despair expressed by Jesus, this questioning of God, raises challenging issues for those with certain fixed views about Jesus.

A more reasonable explanation of Jesus' words is that they reference Psalm 22, which opens with the very same phrase:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?

The psalm goes even further than that, mirroring occurances later retold in the New Testament passion story. The psalm speaks of being mocked, being insulted. "I am poured out like water," verse 14 begins, mirroring the New Testament story of a soldier piercing Jesus with a spear, and water pouring from the wound.

"They have pierced my hands and my feet," verse 16 reads. "They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing," verse 18 reads, mirroring again the New Testament description, in which those who attended the crucifixion cast lots for Jesus' clothes.

There are several possible conclusions from this. One could conclude that Psalm 22 was prophetic. One could conclude that the similarities are pure coincidence. Or one could conclude that the authors of the New Testament passion stories lifted details from Psalm 22 and inserted them into the narrative, without regard for whether those things actually occurred.

Another possible conclusion is that the story portrays Jesus bringing Psalm 22 to mind as he died, which would make sense, since the psalm is a hymn of praise. And here's a compelling idea: Why can't the words convey both despair and jubilation simultaneously? An expression of the death of self-identity, and an expresson of joy for that taste of nibbana?

The concept of emptiness is widely associated with Buddhism, and more specifically the notion of sunyata is associated with Mahayana schools. But this notion of the empty nature of all phenomena goes right back to classical Buddhism, with the core notions of anicca (impermanence) and anatta (not-self). These are not mere concepts, but visceral experiences. One experiences impermanence and knows it directly. One expriences the not-self nature of phenomena and knows it directly. Theories just don't cut it.

Fascinating to consider the Biblical story of Jesus' death on the cross in this light, as an illustration of the death of self-identity view, the extinguishing of sakkāya-diṭṭhi. As a sunyata moment. And its manner: for the benefit of all beings.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Where is the conflict?

The Tittha Sutta contains the wonderful tale of blind people trying to describe an elephant. One touches a leg and argues that an elephant is like a tree. One touches an ear and argues that an elephant is like a basket. And so on.

So it is with those of us with fixed views convinced that we are right. We cannot abide the person who has a different experience of the elephant. As the Buddha taught:

They don't know what is beneficial and what is harmful. They don't know what is the Dhamma and what is non-Dhamma. Not knowing what is beneficial and what is harmful, not knowing what is Dhamma and what is non-Dhamma, they live arguing, quarreling, and disputing, wounding one another with weapons of the mouth, saying, 'The Dhamma is like this, it's not like that. The Dhamma's not like that, it's like this.'


Why do we find ourselves so affixed to views? So identified with them? A common caricature of the Christian is the evangelizer who tries to persuade everyone else to hold to his own views: God is like this. Hell is like this. The human condition is like this. And of course there are some unfortunate Christians who do this, but where is the teaching presented that we must conform our viewpoints to some standard in order to have salvation in the Christian sense? Such a view is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Rather, we are told that by grace is one saved, through faith, and it is the gift of God.

Essentially, the Christian must presume that it makes no difference whether his particular viewpoint is right or wrong. It's completely beside the point! The crucial issue in Christianity is the relationship vis-à-vis the risen Christ. And even an uneducated child can be in such a relationship -- indeed, Jesus seems to emphasize that it is easier for a child than an adult in Matthew 19:14.

And classical Buddhists can be just as divisive, clinging to views and justifying this behavior with the label "Right View." But obviously, samma ditthi must be understood as much more than merely holding certain viewpoints.

What is the answer? To see the elephant in its completeness, the blind man must gain sight. We must open our wisdom eye and behold things as they really are. Until that time, we must assume that our view is imperfect.

Where is the conflict between Christianity and Dhamma practice? The more I look, the less conflict I discern. We all come to this moment with idiosyncrasies and viewpoints, and of course we know that we're subject to error and misunderstanding. Chief among them is our abiding concept of self -- which for the habitual Christian is always bound together with an abiding concept of God. This is crucial to understand: Any concept of God reflects an underlying assumption about self. There is no way around this. And so the Christian path is the path of reconciliation with God -- that means reconciliation of self and God, and this is a process of daily commitment and practice, not an intellectual game.

The person on the Dhamma path engages with what presents in this very moment, be it boundless despair or abiding faith or joy or pain or anything at all. For the habitual Christian, there will be that indescribable something which we might label "the experience of God," and regardless of what we label it, we know that it is a real experience we have had. Even if our understanding of it is imprefect. How to engage with that? The pat answer you'll get from some people is: reject it. It's based on wrong view.

And that is indeed one possible answer, but from the perspective of practice, it's not a very helpful one. It can be very convenient to walk down the aversive path of rejecting all of that stuff we were taught as children, all the stuff that we couldn't understand, or that turned us off, or that merely confused, or that evaded heartfelt questions. It can be very convenient to latch onto a different path that seems more rational, or more comfortable, or a better fit for us personally. And look what happens in that process: the underlying habit of clinging to views persists and grows stronger.

And the elephant is still in the room.

Let us take the Buddha's admonition seriously. What is beneficial? What is harmful? And that means beneficial to liberation, versus harmful to liberation. Clearly, clinging to views is not beneficial. So let us hold our views lightly. That applies equally to the habitual Christian as well as to anybody else.

When we set aside our views and regard them as impermanent, changing phenomena, subject to arising and passing away, as not-self, not me, not mine, then we understand: the path of practice has nothing to do with whether we have a correct understanding of God or God's absence. Through not-clinging, there is no conflict. And then we can appreciate that this little piece of elephant we touch might not be the same as the little piece of elephant our neighbor touches. And that can awaken empathy, because we realize we are the same.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Once while the Blessed One was expounding the Dhamma, surrounded by a large number of bhikkhus, he sneezed. The bhikkhus made a loud noise, saying: "Long life to you, Lord; long life to you, Lord." The noise interrupted the talk on the Dhamma. Then the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus thus: "Bhikkhus, when 'Long life to you' is said to someone who sneezes, may he live or die because of that?"

"No, Lord."

"Bhikkhus, 'Long life to you' is not to be said to someone who sneezes; whoever does so commits an offence of wrongdoing."

So then, when bhikkhus sneezed and householders said "Long life to you, Lord," they were embarrassed and did not answer. People disapproved, and they murmured and protested: "How can these monks, these sons of the Sakyans, not answer when 'Long life to you' is said to them?"

Bhikkhus told this to the Blessed One. He said: "Bhikkhus, householders are accustomed to such superstitions. I allow you, when they say 'Long life to you,' to reply 'May you live long.'"

—Cullavagga 5:33, as retold by Ven. Nanamoli

Habits are hard to break. Social conventions are hard to change. Long-held assumptions linger beneath the surface, unexamined, rolling along just as so many things tend to do in this samsara.

This passage from the Vinaya collection suggests that an appropriate response is one that does not hinder Dhamma understanding. Out of compassion and wisdom, the Buddha advised the monks to speak with these householders in the customary way.

In those unguarded moments when a person speaks or writes from his or her perspective of past experiences and habits, we need to be careful before we turn things into a confrontation of beliefs. There is a proper time and place and manner of speaking and interacting with others. In the Abhayarajakumara Sutta, the Buddha explains the characteristics of wise speech in more detail.

When we talk about the Dhamma with another person, we need to exercise this type of caution, particularly if there is the potential for bitter disagreement. We might think that we are right, and we might think that the other person is wrong, but what is the proper time to bring things to a head? Particularly in print, or on the Internet, where our words linger and are seen by many different people at many different times, we will do well to consider before we write: What will be the likely effect of my words? This starts with understanding. In my opinion, if we do not first listen and understand what the other person is saying, then we cannot know whether the Dhamma words we offer are beneficial.

Be gentle.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The delusion of self and other

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
—1 Corinthians 12:27

On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.
—John 14:20

There is the distinction between the ideal of "liberation" in the Buddhadhamma and the ideal of "salvation" in the Christian tradition. Both point to a kind of freedom, but the emphasis is different.

When we speak of liberation, we mean freedom from greed, hate and delusion. It is something to be attained, through skillful kamma. And this highest nibbana is not something that any saviour can win on our behalf.

When we speak of salvation, we mean freedom from the tethers of sin. It is something that cannot be attained, regardless of how skillful our actions might be. It is available only through the grace of God, when our old self literally dies and we are born anew, and described in Romans 6:4 -- "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." And this highest salvation is something that only the Saviour can win on our behalf.

The argument sometimes is made that this Christian conception of salvation directly defies the Dhamma understanding of kamma, that is, volitional action that produces consequences. After all, if a sinful man need only repent and "accept Jesus" in order for all his sins to be washed away, where is the effect of kamma to be found?

The question itself is an oversimplification of the Christian understanding of salvation, which is predicated on a deep, complete annihilation of the old self in the rebirth in relationship with Christ. A similar transition can be found in the story of Angulimala, the serial killer whom the Buddha converted. Later, as a venerable monk, Angulimala proclaims: "Since I was born with the noble birth, I have never purposely deprived a living being of life."

The deeper issue raised in this dichotomy between "liberation" attained by oneself and "salvation" bestowed by another is the core delusion of self-identity view, sakkaya-ditthi. Who is doing the saving? The habitual Christian will answer, it is Jesus. The Buddhist, not understanding, might object that the Christian thereby abdicates responsibility for his own kamma and falls short of the requisite right view (samma ditthi) necessary even to take a few steps along the noble path. And the Christian, not understanding, might object that the Buddhist builds himself up as a false God, idolizing his own ability to effect that supreme victory over death.

All of these objections are based on ego, on conceptions of self-identity view. They must be completely set aside to arrive at a deeper understanding of the path of practice. And indeed we find in the Christian tradition it is based once again on selflessnes, as Jesus instructs: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:37-39)

There is a transformation at work in these practices, a transformation to eradicate the delusion of self and other, to eradicate hatred, to radiate lovingkindness. If the habitual Christian is to make any sense of the Buddhadhamma, it must be recognized that the goals of salvation and liberation are identical: that supreme deathlessness. Then the question of "me," the question of where the line is drawn between self and Christ, simply doesn't arise, because it's not relevant.

"You have been given fullness in Christ." (Colossians 2:10) With this victory, what need be said of the self? Such a concept is unnecessary. And indeed shades of kamma are hidden in plain view in the Christian teachings, such as when we are told: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:40)

Saturday, February 13, 2010


And just as in the night, at the moment of dawn, the morning star shines forth, bright and brilliant, even so, whatever grounds there are for making merit productive of a future birth, all these do not equal a sixteenth part of the mind-release of loving-kindness. The mind-release of loving-kindness surpasses them and shines forth, bright and brilliant.
—Itivuttaka 27, translated by John D. Ireland

And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.
—2 Peter 1:19

I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.
—Revelation 22:16

Where water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing:
There the stars do not shine,
the sun is not visible,
the moon does not appear,
darkness is not found.
And when a sage,
a brahman through sagacity,
has known [this] for himself,
then from form & formless,
from (pleasure) & pain,
he is freed.

—Bahiya Sutta

This blog is an exploration, nothing more. It is not intended to persuade anyone that Buddhism is right, or that Christianity is right, or that they somehow are equivalent. It has nothing whatever to do with the distracting intellectual gamesmanship of trying to justify one point of view or another. It's much more basic than that.

This blog is about fundamental practice. Recognizing the reality that this heap of aggregates we call the "self" is bound up in long-held habits and reactions, viewpoints and predilections, the question arises: How to engage with the stubborn disposition that is present in this moment, and that seems to persist? How to start where we are?

In western cultures predominated by Christianity, many of us have grown up from childhood with the concept of "God." In the Buddha's Dhamma, there appears to be no place for such a being as ostensibly conceived in Christianity, that is, a saviour. Instead, we are instructed to work out our own salvation with diligence, we are the owners of our kamma.

And that is the crux. Because as Christians we are taught that there is nothing we can do to win salvation for ourselves. Rather, in the words of Paul, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God." (Ephesians 2:8)

Yet at its core, we also find among those who seem to advance far along the Christian path an inspiring self-abnegation, a lovingkindness in action that appears to manifest the Dhamma ideal of selfless love, without clinging. Can this be anatta in action, a practice of anatta cultivated through devotion (saddha) to that which is beyond understanding, that God?

It is not a question that deserves a yes or no answer, in my view, because at this stage we cannot know the intricacies of the workings of kamma. Put another way, this question is relevant only for oneself, not to ask of our perceptions of others, or of Christians in general, or of the faith as some object of analysis in a theoretical sense. From a purely practical point of view, can the habitual Christian hope to cultivate that supreme right view as described in the Buddhadhamma? Can the habitual Christian follow the path of morality, concentration and wisdom? Can the habitual Christian arrive at a direct understanding of the not-self nature of all phenomena? Of its impermanent nature? Of its suffering nature? Is it a possibility?

More to the point, is the Buddhadhamma to be found at all in Christian teachings and practice?

May this exploration benefit all beings. May all beings be happy, be liberated, and be peaceful.