Monday, July 27, 2015

Red Pine on the Three levels of Wisdom

Red Pine (1943-present): Mr. Prajna

Buddhists distinguish three levels of prajna, or wisdom. The first level is mundane wisdom, which views what is impermanent as permanent, what is impure as pure, and what has no self as having a self. This form of wisdom is common to the beings of every world, and despite its erroneous nature, it is by this means that most beings live out their lives.

The second level of prajna is metaphysical wisdom, which views what appears to be permanent as impermanent, what appears to be pure as impure, and what appears to have a self as having no self. This is the higher wisdom of those who cultivate meditation and philosophy and is characteristic of such early Buddhist sects as the Sarvastivadins. Despite providing its possessors with insight into a higher reality, such wisdom remains rooted in dialectics and does not result in enlightenment. At best it leads to an end of passion and no further rebirth.

The third level of prajna is transcendent wisdom, which views all things, whether mundane or metaphysical, as neither permanent nor impermanent, as neither pure nor impure, as neither having a self nor not having a self, as inconceivable and inexpressible.

While mundane wisdom and metaphysical wisdom result in attachment to views, and thus knowledge, transcendent wisdom remains free of views because it is based on the insight that all things, both objects and dharmas, are empty of anything self-existent.

Thus, nothing can be characterized as permanent, pure, or having a self. And yet, neither can anything be characterized as impertnanent, impure, or lacking a self. This is because there is nothing to which we might point and say, "This is permanent or impermanent, this is pure or impure, this has a self or does not have a self." Such ineffable wisdom was not unknown among early Buddhists, but, if the written record is any indication, it did not attract much attention until such scriptures as the Heart Sutra began to appear four or five hundred years after the Buddha's Nirvana.

To distinguish this third level of prajna from mundane and metaphysical wisdom, it was called prajna-paramita. According to early commentators, there were two possible derivations, and thus meanings, for paramita. InPrajnaparamita scriptures like the Diamond Sutra, it is evident from usage elsewhere in the same text that the author derived paramita from parama, meaning "highest point," and that paramita means "perfection." Thus, prajna-paramita means "perfection of wisdom.'' But we can also deduce from the use of para in the mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra that the author of this text interpreted the word paramita as a combination of para, meaning "beyond," and ita, meaning "gone," and read the m after para as an accusative case ending.

Thus, according to this interpretation, paramita means "what has gone beyond" or "what is transcendent" or, according to Chinese translators and commentators, "what leads us to the other shore." Also, because ita here is feminine, paramita means "she who has gone beyond" or "she who leads us to the other shore," the "she" in this case referring to Prajnaparamita, the personified Goddess of Wisdom.

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘The Heart Sutra: Translation and Commentary’ by Red Pine, published by Wisdom Publications. Red Pine (pen-name of Bill Porter) is a translator and interpreter of Chinese texts, primarily Taoist and Buddhist, including poetry and sutras.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #7

Dhammapada, Verses 15 & 16:

The evil-doer grieves here and hereafter;
He grieves in both worlds.
He laments and is afflicted,
Recollecting his own impure deeds.

The doer of good rejoices here and hereafter;
He rejoices in both worlds.
He rejoices and exults,
Recollecting his own pure deeds.

Can a wrong-doer ever be completely happy? Some would argue that if he or she gets away with their wrong actions, a person will indeed be content. However, this presumes that happiness follows evil actions solely dependent upon not being punished or found out. But what of one’s own mind, one’s sense of right & wrong? In verses 15 & 16 it is not the outer effects of one’s action (karma) that is being referred to, but the inner effects.

In verse 15, Buddha suggests that the evil-doer grieves both now and in the future due to their own recollections of their wrong deeds. But, in Buddhist understanding, what exactly is an ‘evil-doer?’ Buddhist ethics are centred upon the five precepts which are: to avoid killing sentient beings, to avoid stealing, to avoid sexual misconduct, to avoid lying, and to avoid taking intoxicants. These precepts are based on the Buddhist principles of wisdom & compassion. Buddha suggests that if we live wisely & compassionately, we will avoid the above actions. Living thus is to live in balance with the interconnectedness of our lives together; we all wish to live, keep our possessions, have faithful sexual partners, know truth & to not be mistreated by drunkards. It works both ways, of course – if we all keep these precepts, we’re all happy and avoid some major suffering… and grief.

From the Buddhist perspective, if we are awakened to our true nature, we naturally avoid the evil actions described above. Being awakened, we are at one with all beings & life itself; there is no harm left in us. However, if we’re not awakened – and I guess you’re not, dear, reader, if you feel the need to read this meagre article – then precepts can help us to live in a better relationship with those around us. And, if we don’t do keep them, then at least at some level of consciousness, perhaps the subconscious if not the conscious, regret & grief will be follow. Who amongst us, if we’re truly honest about it, has never regretted our words & actions, even our thoughts?

To do good releases the mind from dwelling on evil, selfish actions. Instead, the person who’s actions are pure is free from the regrets that otherwise haunt the mind. To know that one has not killed another sentient being, stolen another’s belongings, had inappropriate or abusive sex, told lies or lost one’s mindfulness through intoxication results in a happier, more contented mind. A person having done such good can rejoice in their actions (karma), knowing that they are sowing the seeds of future well-being for both themselves and those that they interact with, especially those close to them. It’s time to take pleasure in our good, positive actions: there’s no other time to do so but now. Let’s be good & glad, not bad & sad!


The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Ajahn Sucitto on Karma

Ajahn Sucitto (1949-present): Mr. Karma
What is ‘kamma,’ and what does it have to do with Awakening? Well, as a word, ‘kamma’ is the Pali language version of the Sanskrit term ‘karma,’ which has slipped into colloquial English as meaning something like a person’s fate or destiny. Taken in this way, the notion can support a passive acceptance of circumstances: if something goes wrong, one can say ‘it was my karma,’ meaning that it had to happen. Where the idea really goes astray is when it is used to condone actions, as in ‘it’s my karma to be a thief.’ If karma meant this, it would rob us of responsibility for our lives. Furthermore, there would be no way in which we could guide ourselves out of our circumstances or past history: which is what Awakening is about. However, ‘kamma’ in the way the Buddha taught it means skilful or unskilful action – something that we do now. It’s the active aspect of a cause and effect process known as kamma-vipaka, in which vipaka or ‘old kamma’ means the effect, the result of previous actions. And, for the most part, we get bound up with the results of our actions.
However, as ‘action,’ kamma supports choice. We can choose what actions we undertake. Cause and effect governs the activities of volcanoes, plants and planetary systems, but kamma relates specifically to beings who can exercise choice over what they cause – which means you and me. Also, not everything that we experience is because of past kamma (other than that of being born). So if you’re sick or caught up in an earthquake, it’s not necessarily because of you did bad things in a previous life. Instead, kamma centres on your current intention or ‘volition’ (cetana). The teachings on kamma therefore encourage a sense of responsibility for action; the responsibility to give attention to the many conscious and half-conscious choices we make in terms of what we do. What this means is that in this present moment we do have a choice as to how the future pans out: whether we will feel joyful and at ease with ourselves, or anxious and depressed depends on our actions now. And similarly, through our actions now, we can be liberated from the past, present and future. That’s what Awakening to kamma brings about.


The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘Kamma and the End of Kamma’ by Ajahn Sucitto, which can be downloaded for free from here. Ajahn Sucitto was abbot of Cittaviveka Buddhist Monastery in England between 1992 and 2014 and has been a Buddhist monk since 1976, having studied with Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Sumedho.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Soyen Shaku on Non-Ego

Soyen Shaku ( 宗演, 1860 – 1919) 

A favorite parable used by Buddhists to illustrate the unreality of soul or self (I take these two meaning the same thing), is that of the house. The house is composed of the roof, walls, posts, floor, windows, and so forth. Now, take each one of these apart, and we have no such thing as a house, which appeared to have a permanent actuality a while ago. The house did not have any independent existence outside the material whose combination only in a certain form makes it possible. From the beginning there was no house-soul or house-ego, which willed according to its own will to manifest itself in such and such way by combining the roofs, walls, et cetera. The house came into existence only after all these component parts were brought together. If the house-soul insisted that "I am a thing by itself, distinct from any of you, members of my being, and therefore I shall abide here forever even when you, component parts, are disorganized. I will go up to heaven and enjoy my reward there, for I have sheltered so many worthy people under my roof,” this soul would be the most appropriate object of laughter and derision. But are we not standing in a similar situation when we speak of our eternal self dwelling within us and departing after death in its heavenward course?
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According to Buddhism, the question why we must not discriminate between friends and foes is answered by the doctrine of non-ego, as above explained at some length. Therefore, the Buddhists declare: Regulate your thoughts and deeds according to the feeling of oneness, and you will find a most wondrous spiritual truth driven home to your hearts. You are not necessarily thinking of the welfare and interest of others, much less of your own; but, singularly enough, what you aspire and practise is naturally conducive to the promotion of the general happiness, of others as well as of yourselves. In such an enlightened mind as has realized this most homely and yet most ennobling truth, there is no distinction to be made between friend and enemy, lover and hater. He is filled with loving-kindness and brotherly-heartedness. And such a one is called by Buddhists a Bodhisattva, which translated means "intelligence-being," or "one who has realized wisdom."

Soyen Shaku was a Zen master well known for his efforts in bringing Zen to the West, and was abbot of both Kenchō-ji and Engaku-ji temples in KamakuraJapan. He taught both Nyogen Senzaki and D.T. Suzuki, also famous for promoting Zen abroad. The above is an extract from ‘Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot’ translated into English by D.T. Suzuki, which can be freely downloaded from here.
See also:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Buddha Space & Grief

Grief comes to us all. Perhaps a family member, a partner, a child, a friend or a pet has left you in past few years. Perhaps more than one. This author has lived long enough to see a number of the above loved ones pass away, the most recent being my beloved grandmother. The sense of loss, once the numbness had dissipated somewhat, was heart-wrenching. A deeply-loved woman by all in her family, her departure, though not entirely unexpected, came earlier than any of us expected. This happened six months ago, and though the waves of grief are becoming less frequent & less strong, they still come, sweeping away thoughts & emotions in the wake, drowning them in an ocean of sadness. But, if we’re wise, we learn how to not drown in this ocean. That way we insult a loved-one’s memory rather than honour it.

Being awake to the current moment, to what we might call the 'buddha space' that underlies our every experience, can definitely help with the grieving process. Trying to overcome feelings of grief with doctrinal thoughts such as, “Well, she’ll get reborn again,” or, “She’s in heaven now,” or even, “As everything is not self, nobody died anyway” don’t really help. At best, they’re platitudes used to alleviate some of the sorrow, at worst they’re unfeeling dogmas used to bury uncomfortable feelings. Being attentive to our grief is a much more pragmatic approach, however, giving it the space in which to express itself. Everything in life, including grief, needs to live out its natural life-cycle; being ‘born,’ existing, and then dying away. Suppressing or denying negative emotions simply hides them in the unconscious, from where they can wreak untold damage later on.

Of course, if we are simply aware of grief, allowing it full expression, it’s possible that it may overwhelm us, and then it can harm us just as if it had been buried away in the unconscious, the main difference being that we will often be aware of why we feel so sad. However, we will still suffer, perhaps even enter a depression, hurting those around us and possibly harming relationships, both private & professional. Being awake to our buddha space can allow our grief to be fully expressed but not to the extent that we get lost in it. This is because being awake to this spacious buddha-nature both allows a powerful emotion like grief the opportunity to be fully lived and does so in the peaceful, calm & compassionate space of our innate “buddha-ness.” All this may sound fine, you might think, but something more practical or concrete is needed to back up such a claim. With this in mind, the reader is invited to try out the following meditation to see yourself.

This is a three part meditation to explore, understand & deal with negative feelings at least a little bit better. It’s probably best to do each part several times in turn before moving on to doing all three.
Part I: First, we need to establish the peaceful base (or, ‘buddha space’) which will be used as the stable foundation upon which any observations can be built. In a quiet environment, close your eyes and rest in the moment. Take notice of each sound as it arises; is it loud, soft, long, short, pleasant, unpleasant, etc. After a few minutes of this, turn your attention around to that which is hearing all these sounds. Please look with honesty at what you find based on current evidence, not on previous knowledge or assumption. Is it noisy or or quiet? Is it moving or still? Perhaps, like this author, you find a silence that hosts all the sounds you can hear. It is awareness itself, awake to every sound that is occurring, but is itself perfectly silent, wonderfully still. It is the ‘buddha space’ that is awakened to this present moment.

Part II: Next, we will use this buddha space to take note of thought rather than sound. So, as a preparation for observing thought, we need to repeat the first meditation and become aware of this spaciousness in which sounds are heard. Take a few moments to listen to sounds before turning attention around to the listener. Once you’re awake to this welcoming silence, you’re reading for Part II. Think of a place you know: Your home, workplace, the park or wherever. Visualize this location fully, but all the while be aware of the open awareness that is observing this memory. Be alive to the fact that this memory is occurring in a clear, welcoming knowing. The famous Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah called this “our real home.” Whatever place is imagined, it appears in this real home; the only home we really ever have. Now, do the same with a person. Visualise their face clearly, the sound of their voice, their personality and actions. Again, as you do so, be awake to the buddha space that plays host to these memories and thoughts. Try this meditation with people you like and with people you dislike. Whatever the emotional responses you have, can you see the non-judgemental spaciousness in which they arise? If you can, you’re ready for the next stage.

Part III: Finally, having made sure you’ve gone through parts I & II first and are established in your ‘true home,’ think of an event that causes you some discomfort: a time when you were done wrong or embarrassed. Be open to the uncomfortable memories and associated feelings. Stay awake to what they exist in: buddha space. Give them room to be, observe them from this spaciousness, recognising what happened and the feelings that arise in you as a result. Don’t judge any of this, but simply give it room to breath; it will dissipate on its own when the time is ripe. Now, think of a loved one that has passed away, allowing all the good memories (and bad) to arise in this buddha space. The pain is still painful, perhaps even more so if this is the first time that you’ve faced it, but, if you stay aware of the peacefulness in which the pain exists, it won’t be able to ‘catch’ you and overwhelm you. In other words, if you identify with that which is aware of negative emotions, including grief, they are able to express themselves fully without causing you unbearable suffering. Often, such feelings remain buried in the subconscious where they may wreak all kinds of chaos, much of which you may not even realise is related to your suppressed grief. Grief, after all, is a natural reaction to the death of somebody that we love, but it needn’t cause damage. Not if we stay aware of the buddha space that is always here, always calm, always open.

Such an awareness has certainly helped this author to deal with feelings of grief regarding my lovely grandmother’s death. Rather than trying to think of other things, escape into a movie, or rationalize away negative feelings, being this spaciousness for grief to arise, exist & cease has made the grieving process a tolerable, even insight-laden experience. Not that grief is over and done with any quicker this way than if experienced from the viewpoint of a suffering personality, but the suppression, depression, and intense sadness often associated is less likely to occur. Grief is cushioned by awareness of buddha space, recognised and allowed to be, but not indulged in or lost in. Moreover, through being this buddha space, insight into this existence can develop, such as the impermanent nature of both physical & psychological processes.


Of course, being buddha space isn’t only useful when we’re grieving or experiencing other intensely negative emotions, but the fact that it can help with such strong emotions reveals its power. Being spacious awareness can improve the quality of every moment in our lives, from the mundane to the profound. Indeed, part of living from this buddha space is the revelation that what we take to be mundane is in fact profound. Every moment is profoundly important when experienced from the viewpoint of buddha space; the trick is to keep looking back and recognising this spaciousness at our centre. As to grief, if given the space it needs to go its natural course, it will not only be less devastating, but – along with those that we miss - will also be our teacher. Thank you, Nan.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Ajahn Anan on Getting to Know the Mind

Ajahn Anan (1954-present): A mindful smile

When we first come to meditate, we will notice quite quickly that even sitting for a minute seems almost impossible. All we get is restlessness and agitation. With practice though, we will soon be able to sit for longer periods. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes—eventually we will be able to sit for half an hour with ease. Sometimes the meditation is peaceful, other times not, but in the beginning stages the key element is patience.

It’s important to see that the five hindrances to peace in the mind—sensual desire, ill will, dullness, restlessness, doubt—are not created by meditation. It’s just what is there already. In daily life we are used to thinking a lot, and often not in a very skillful or controlled way. This type of thinking tends to agitate the mind and create different types of mental stress. So when we sit down to concentrate on the breath or another meditation object, what we notice first is what is already there. Suddenly we see, “Hmm, there’s a lot of thinking going on.” So to begin with, just accept that it’s normal for the untrained mind to be like that. And the way to deal with it skillfully is to develop this quality of mindfulness.

We meditate to get to know our mind. But that doesn’t mean we think, “I’ve got to be peaceful!” If we think and attach in this way then we’ll tend to get irritated with ourself when we’re not peaceful. Our aim is just to know the mind. And when we’re working on developing constant awareness, this will include times when we are not very peaceful, when there are thoughts and distractions coming up. So we just know, “Oh, now the mind is distracted.” There will also be times when our mindfulness and concentration are strong and the hindrances disappear. At those times we are aware that, “Now the mind is peaceful. Now the mind is calm and concentrated.” Whatever the experience, we know it for what it is. That’s our aim.


Ajahn Anan is abbot of Wat Marp Jan forest monastery in Thailand. He studied with the internationally-renowned teacher Ajahn Chah and has been a monk since 1975. The above quotation is from the book 'Simple Teachings on Higher Truths' which can be downloaded for free from here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Shodo Harada on the Eye of Emptiness

Shodo Harada (原田 正道, c. 1940): Buddha eyes

Twice the terrorists have attacked London, and even now the horror of those attacks has not allowed life to return to normal. The fear continues. Those who were killed were written about in the paper, while those who survived are filled with the possibility of their own deaths.  It is said that humans can become buddhas, but they can also become devils. Those possibilities seem apparent when something like this happens.

When people, through no fault of their own, are killed by those who are so dissatisfied and discontent, the entire world becomes a battlefield. When people are under severe pressure, their dissatisfaction can explode. Then hate gives birth to hate, anger gives birth to anger. There is no solution to this. When someone wants to kill people in great numbers, there’s no way to prevent it or to prepare for it.

People all over the world become more insecure and full of fear. Buddhism says that human beings have five types of eyes: physical eyes, heavenly eyes, eternal eyes, Dharma eyes, and Buddha eyes.

If we look at human eyes, there is no question that we are animals. The heavenly eyes see things that are far away; they have no perception of a physical body. Eternal eyes see humans as they really are, in true emptiness; these are the eyes of wisdom. Dharma eyes are those that see the emptiness and see this world and humans as beautiful; these are the eyes of the artist. The Buddha eyes see all beings as our own children, to be loved from pure compassion. To see everything as empty and every person as our own child is to love everything dearly. To open the eye of compassion is enlightenment or satori.

Shodo Harada is a Zen priest and abbot of Sogen-ji Zen temple in Okayama, Japan. The above extract is from the wonderful ‘The Book of Mu’ edited by James Ishmael Ford & Melissa Myozen Blacker, and is published by Wisdom Publications.