Friday, October 30, 2009

Daisetz Suzuki, Satori, & 'I'

D.T. Suzuki is the cat!

“Satori may be defined as an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it. Practically, it means the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of a dualistically-trained mind. Or we may say that with satori our entire surroundings are viewed from quite an unexpected angle of perception. Whatever this is, the world for those who have gained a satori is no more the old world as it used to be; even with all its flowing streams and burning fires, it is never the same again.”
(From ‘Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, pp.98/99)

Many, many moons ago, as I sat reading words like these written by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, something peculiar & wonderful happened: ‘I’ saw what he was getting at. I put the first-person singular in apostrophes because at the heart of the experience was there was no sense of an ‘I’ present. There was the book that I’d been reading, my hands grasping it, the room that I was sat in, but no ‘I’. Sunlight penetrated the white net curtains, but it wasn’t this that gave an illumined quality to the room, it was the light of naked awareness that shone so bright. In that moment – which is, in fact, this moment - awareness was one with the room, the book, and with the long-deceased D.T. Suzuki. All was/is satori.

What is satori? Well, etymologically-speaking, it means ‘understanding’. Not just any understanding, however, such as understanding how a watch works, or what one plus one is, but a deeper, non-intellectual understanding that precedes all such thinking. It is seeing things as they really are (the Dharma), unfiltered by the delusion-ridden mind. Back in that initial glimpse of the deathless, all was suddenly well. Anxiety disappeared; hopes and fears were non-existent, replaced with the totality of the present experience. Into this emptiness-that-contained-all rushed a feeling of quiet bliss which seemed to flood the room with its sweetness. A few moments on, and the first thought arose: if ‘I’ die now, it doesn’t matter!

This particular thought came up from the depths of my subconscious in response to a kind of koan (Zen-riddle) that had preoccupied me for several months over recent months – an intense and growing fear of my own mortality. What better answer to this fear-of-fears than the realization that death really doesn’t matter? And this response had not come out of a rational process, but had spontaneously burst forth from the state of being completely in the present, unhindered by any anxious thoughts. It was – and is – the experience of oneness with the very core of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, which was not the man’s body, nor his undoubtedly impressive knowledge of Buddhism, nor any other quirk pertaining to his individuality. It is the union with that which lies at the heart of us all, summed up in his Dharma (Buddhist) name, Daisetz, which means ‘Great Simplicity.’

All this is not meant as some kind of promotion of myself as being realized or enlightened, for that particular path is not the Path, and leads to an egoistic interpretation of spiritual awakening that is the death of genuine wisdom. The above is intended to illustrate how ordinary people (and I am ordinary, please believe me!) can have genuinely transformative experiences as written about by such luminaries as Doctor Suzuki. Satori, or the transcendence of ‘I’ is available to any of us that seek it wholeheartedly, and can be cultivated by practicing the Eightfold Path of the Buddha, which ‘I’ have endeavored to do since that wonderful day a quarter of century ago on the other side of the world.

Indeed, I have met many people over the years that have had similar, if not identical, experiences to mine, having their world views inverted by sudden insights into the way things are. According to their accounts, such experiences are neither restricted to Buddhists of a particular sect, nor even to Buddhists in particular. It is the natural state of the human mind that can break through the ignorance of self-delusion whatever the beliefs of the person involved. And now let’s turn attention to you, dear reader: What transformative experiences (transcendent or not) have you had walking the Buddha Way? How has living life in light of the Buddha Dharma changed your life for the better? If someone asked you how you had benefited from practicing Buddhism, what would your reply be? Please feel free to share your experiences by clicking the link below marked ‘comments.’

Monday, October 26, 2009

What Kind of Buddhist are You?

When change is uncontrollable, it has long been regarded in Buddhism as a form of suffering. Yet Buddhism has undergone remarkable changes over its history, up to the present. And in the face of change, Buddhist thinkers have struggled to control the meaning of the term Buddhism (and its often rough equivalents in Asian languages) and the meaning of the term Buddhist. As proponents of Buddhism have continued over the decades to expand what is encompassed by the term in order to accommodate various forms of science, it is perhaps useful at this point to pause briefly to consider the question of what makes a person, or an idea, “Buddhist.”

(P. 212, ‘Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed’ by Donald S. Lopez Jr.)

In his intriguing book ‘Buddhism and Science: A Guide for the Perplexed’, Donald S. Lopez not only writes of the relationship between Buddhism and the sciences, but also touches on the nature of Buddhism itself, in an endeavour to be sure of his subject matter. In this process, he throws up some interesting topics for Buddhists to reflect upon, such as the consideration of what significance words like Buddhism and Buddhist actually have for us, if any. For example, with the diversity of sects, both extant and archaic, Buddhism has evolved into forms that seem to actually contradict one another. Pure Land Buddhism, as practiced for centuries in countries such as China & Japan, puts an emphasis on faith in the Buddha Amitabha, in the hope of rebirth in his heavenly realm. Zen Buddhism, in contrast, is a branch of Buddhism again found in China & Japan where the aspirant must find their own way to enlightenment, something Zen has in common with the widely-considered oldest living sect of Buddhism, Theravada.

To the untrained eye, this apparently fundamental difference between Pure Land and Zen forms of Buddhism may appear to indicate two different religions rather than two branches of the same tradition. However, if we delve deeper into the aims and methods of the two, we find that they both hold the Buddha’s ideal of Nirvana as the ultimate purpose of Buddhist practice. The follower of Amitabha Buddha needs to be reborn in the Pure Land first, where Amitabha will assist in the realization of enlightenment; in Zen, this spiritual awakening is to be achieved in this very life, however, without any ‘outside’ assistance. But, even this difference is blurred when it is considered that some Pure Landers claim that enlightenment can in fact be realized in this life by reciting his name, and that many Zen Buddhists consider that more than one life is necessary to achieve Nirvana.

The above brief discussion of some very basic differences between two sects of Buddhism practiced for hundreds of years side-by-side in the Orient illustrates the wide variety of teachings and practices found under the banner ‘Buddhism’. Who is right here, the Pure Lander, the Zennist, the Theravadin, the Tibetan Buddhist, or some other sectarian Buddhist? But, now, we come to the question of what do we mean by ‘right’, in the Buddhist context. Surely, we do not mean ‘orthodox’, in some kind of dogmatic clinging to one particular Buddhist tradition? Given the scarcity of proof that the Buddha actually taught anything found in any of the Buddhist scriptures - whether written in Pali, Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit or whatever – the thought arises that none of them can lay claim to such a thing as orthodoxy in the Buddhist sense, anyhow. Perhaps by ‘right’, we mean that a Buddhist is someone that practices one of a variety of lifestyles that share a broad set of criteria that enable them to be called ‘Buddhism’. And one well known entry point into Buddhism found in most if not all Buddhist sects is someone who ‘takes refuge’ in the so-called Triple Gem, of which Mr Lopez writes in his book:

A Buddhist is traditionally defined as a person who regards the three jewels—the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha—as the true source of refuge from the sufferings of the world. The Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha (generally translated as “community”) are called jewels because they are difficult to encounter, and if encountered are of great value. But there are detailed commentaries on what constitutes each of the three jewels, with a range of opinion set forth concerning each of them.


So, even a basic element in Buddhist tradition as taking refuge in the Triple Gem is not without controversy, as definitions of the three jewels often differ between various branches of Buddhism. A contemporary example of this is the usage of the word ‘sangha’ as meaning the Buddhist community as a whole, as opposed to the traditional (original?) definition which includes fully-ordained monks & nuns only. This is a question discussed previously on Buddha Space, with some interesting insights contributed by some of this blog’s readership. (To read this article & its related comments, please click here.) Suffice to say, not all those who call themselves Buddhists share identical ideas on who constitutes the members of the Sangha.

Many modern-minded Buddhists view the older forms of Buddhism as being superstitious, ritualistic, and encumbered with much that is cultural in origin. Often such modernist movements replace the supernatural and mythological aspects of traditional Buddhist sects with science and scientific empirical methodology. In this approach to Buddhism, there is an emphasis on psychological interpretations of the teachings, sometimes incorporating the mythological and supernatural tales found in Buddhist lore. This fusion of the Buddha Dharma and science is the main focus of Lopez’s book, which he views with admiral detachment, neither endorsing it nor condemning it. (Perhaps this will be the focus of future reflections on Buddha Space.)

Of course, many traditionalists treat such modernist movements with some scorn, seeing them as not in complete agreement with ancient doctrines. Whatever one’s opinions on this subject, it is an opportunity to reflect on the nature of attachment to views, observing the mind’s reactions to teachings that are seen as agreeable or disagreeable. Part of the reason for this diversity of views is that Buddhism as a whole does not have one individual or group of individuals dictating its central tenets: it is as diverse as the many historical & contemporary cultures of those that have practiced it:

Buddhism, without a synod or a pope to declare what is orthodox and what is heterodox, became a tradition in which nothing is discarded, although something may be forgotten. New texts continued to be added, each claiming to be the word of the Buddha, with what was once definitive now being deemed provisional. All accretions were somehow accommodated. Yet the origins remain sufficiently occluded to make it possible to ask: is there only accretion?


This is a fair question when confronted with the sheer number of differing teachings & sects that are called ‘Buddhist’. Has the heart of Buddhism stopped beating under the sheer weight of two-and-a-half millennia of cultural, philosophical, ritualistic, and doctrinal accretions? To answer this question, we need to define what the ‘heart’ of Buddhism actually is. Well, this is enlightenment, of course, which is variously called Nirvana, Happiness, Cessation, Buddha-nature, and Emptiness, but to name a few. This awakening to the way-things-are (the Dharma) is not something to be gained, however, but something to be uncovered, hidden as it is by the three poisons of greed, hatred, & delusion. Meditation, practiced by a mind ripened for the task through living a moral & mindful life, is the doorway to enlightenment, but the latter is not the result of the former; it is revealed when the mental defilements that cover it over are completely washed away.

Now, what is left when the mind and all its delusions are let go of? Well, nothing. Or, to put it more accurately, perhaps: No-thing. That which lies at the heart of life, and is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is not a nihilist nothingness, as is often thought by those that haven’t experienced it and try to catch it with concepts, but neither is it any particular thing, hence, it may be named ‘No-thing’, rather than mere nothing. This No-thing is always here, whether noticed or not; but when noticed, it transforms experience, turning this world upside down & inside out, revealing the wordless meaning at the center of a previously meaningless universe.

If, then, the aim of a particular form of Buddhism includes basic teachings such the emptiness of all phenomena, and such practices as taking refuge in the Triple Gem, surely this is enough to classify system as ‘Buddhism’, and its adherents as ‘Buddhists’? What do you think of all this, dear reader? Is there only one true form of Buddhism, with all the other pretenders to the title nothing more than heresies? Is enlightenment the result of a specific system found in particular writings, or is it (as hinted at above) an innate aspect of life waiting to be discovered by those determined and skilled enough? Are the words ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhist’ that important in the end? Sure, we need words to convey concepts and experiences that will help the unenlightened to awaken, but should these terms become fossilized in their meanings to the point of dogmatism? Please feel free to leave a comment by clicking the appropriate link below, remembering to retain the politeness & respect for others that Buddhists are famous for!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Gratitude to the Teacher

In Buddhism one thing that we can always be grateful for is the teacher. Ajahn Sumedho has frequently referred to his teacher, Ajahn Chah, with great fondness and gratitude, acknowledging the debt that he owes him. A great teacher like Ajahn Chah (or Ajahn Sumedho for that matter) is easy for a sincere Buddhist to recognize, having received his wisdom, compassion and practical advice on walking the Path. I too feel much gratitude towards Ajahn Chah, as well as Ajahn Sumedho, Douglas Harding, Daisetz Suzuki, and many, many others. But these are not the only teachers that I have had in my life: not by a long way.

I myself am a teacher here in Thailand, and know only too well some of the misbehavior and disrespect that those in this profession must tolerate at times. And, casting my mind back to my own school days, I can recall some of the naughty stuff that I got up to. I also remember the teachers and the advice and care I received from (most) of them. I am thankful for their guidance. Yet, teachers are not only those formerly given the title like school educators and monks (‘ajahn’ means ‘teacher’ in Thai); there are many other people in life who deserve the title, one way or another.

What about our parents, or whoever played those roles during one’s childhood? The years of time, effort, work, and love spent trying to make a good future for their offspring, often not appreciated by the latter at the time. It’s no wonder that Buddhism encourages gratitude towards one’s parents. Friends too can play an important part in teaching us the safer route through life, or at least the more joyful, with their support and companionship. I have learnt much from my wife also over the years of our marriage. Thank you, darling!

It’s not only those we know well who can be our teachers, however. What of the stranger who says something that has a profound effect, perhaps encouraging a radical rethink of the way one is living? (I recall such an event many moons ago when a drunken woman told me that if I was really a Buddhist, I wouldn’t be sat inebriated puffing away on a cigarette and chatting to her! It took a few years for that to really sink in, but as a teetotal, non-smoking Buddhist these days I can look back with thanks for her opinion.)

Our dogs Leo & Lion have been a genuine source of Dharma too, despite being unaware of the fact – at least they look unaware of it, anyhow. It’s hard to tell, really! The attachment and suffering experienced due to their various misadventures have been opportunities for reflection that have shown the reality of the Noble Truth of Suffering and its origin. Mosquitoes, snakes, flies, stray dogs, early morning cockerels waking one up – they can all be teachers of the way things are (the Dharma), if we stay alert.

And let’s not forget the weather. As I write this it’s pouring down outside, which is a bit premature for this time of year in Northeast Thailand. The rain is teaching me about impermanence and imperfection, on how unsure everything really is, something Ajahn Chah constantly emphasized. A couple of years ago I bumped my head and had stitches in it, and then returned to the scene of the accident and thanked the low ceiling for a lesson in mindfulness! Even an awful tragedy like the aftermath of the recent storm in the Philippines that’s apparently killed many human beings – not to mention other beings – can be a teacher to humanity. Not that this reduces the compassion and sympathy that we might feel towards the poor people involved, of course.

What does all this boil down to really? Spiritual teachers, educators, family, friends, lovers, associates, strangers, animals, inanimate objects, and events can all contribute the cultivation of wisdom and the development of compassion. In a nutshell, life is the teacher, with each moment a potential moment for awakening to the Dharma, and realizing the Truth for ourselves. With this in mind, let’s express our gratitude to the teacher, to life itself, in all its wonderful, terrible, inspiring and frustrating forms. Let us bow to this life that gives us the opportunity to learn.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Signs: The Wisdom of Ajahn Chah

“Any speech that ignores uncertainty is not the speech of the sage.”

The above words are to be found on a sign hanging from a tree in the grounds of Wat Pah Nanachat (the International Forest Monastery), here in Ubon Ratchathani Province of Northeast Thailand. It is one of many such signs, some in English, some in Thai, spread through the main complex of the monastery, giving food for thought for residents and visitors alike. It points to the link between wisdom and the experience that all of life is subject to change (anicca). If anything is thought or felt to be permanent, including the idea of an eternal soul, then one hasn’t grasped this central characteristic of existence, and therefore cannot be truly wise. Here’s the words of Ajahn Chah to be found on another sign:

“If you have something bad smelling in your pocket,

wherever you go it will smell bad. Don’t blame it on the place.”

Ajahn Chah often allowed his monk disciples the chance to visit other monasteries if they felt that it would help their practice of Dharma. He did emphasize, however, that our reactions to where we are living are conditioned by the same underlying psychological habits of like and dislike. If one finds a certain place disagreeable, moving somewhere more agreeable doesn’t remove one’s attachments but gives temporary respite from their negative side. Finding a place (and lifestyle) that gives the opportunity for living the contemplative life is the really important thing. With such a foundation, both likes and dislikes can be observed and calmly understood, developing a liberating insight that frees the mind from the petty preferences of the ego.

“Strengthening the mind is not done by making it move around

as is done to strengthen the body but by bringing it to stillness.”

Philosophizing about one’s preferences, as an example, is not what’s meant by contemplation in Forest Buddhism. To contemplate the objects of the mind, it must first be stilled through meditation, so that in the deep peace thus achieved, awareness can simply watch what’s going on. This is seeing things as they are, as opposed to analyzing them and manipulating them with the intellect. It is the forest wisdom of Ajahn Chah, also expressed in the following:

“Use your heart to listen to the teaching, not your ears.”

Listening with the heart, rather than with the ears, enables us to ‘hear’ things that would otherwise go unnoticed. But, if we’re not to use our lugholes, what do we listen with? The Buddha pointed to awareness itself as the gateway to awakening: being fully present in this moment, to this moment, is true listening. And this can involve the ears, of course, Ajahn Chah was speaking so’s to make a point, rather than telling us that we should plug our ears or ‘do a Van Gogh.’

“Some people are afraid of generosity. They feel that they will be exploited or oppressed. In cultivating generosity, we are only oppressing our greed and attachment.”

Dana, or generosity, is the first and most basic form of meritorious action, as taught by the Buddha. If we are unable to give freely to others, without thought of self-gain, then we’re pretty closed off from the Dharma of the Buddha. It’s a sign of selfishness and not selflessness that one is too cynical to be generous, wary of other peoples’ motives and reactions. Taking a chance and breaking down the barriers of self by extending the hand of generosity to those in need, whether monk, nun, layperson, or animal, is the beginning of living the life of a true Buddhist.

“Looking for peace in the world is like looking for a turtle with a mustache. You won’t be able to find it. But when your heart is ready, peace will come looking for you.”

It’s not just in places like Iraq and Afghanistan that we find conflict: the whole world is ablaze with the restless and violent fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. Even in those around us, whom we may feel are our most trusted companions, there’s always the possibility of some kind of conflict. And even in our own minds, differing points of view or feelings can arise that do battle for one’s allegiance, causing much internal strife. So, where to find peace? Well, by establishing a consistent meditative practice, one lays the foundations for peaceful states of mind to occur. Over time, peace will indeed pay you a visit, and if you’re a patient and accommodating host, it will stay around for a long time, maybe forever. Peace is our true nature, hidden by those flames caused by like, dislike, and the delusion of selfhood.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ajahn Sumedho & The Way It Is

The American forest monk Ajahn Sumedho (pictured above) has often emphasized seeing the true nature of things and being able to say, “This is the way it is.” Without adopting a personality viewpoint, we can observe ‘the way it is’ by witnessing the body’s breathing, its posture, and just noticing how it is now, in this moment. This is the path of mindfulness, of being awake to the reality of the human form. Being alert to this body is a basic mindfulness practice taught by the Buddha back in India around 2, 500 years ago, remaining conscious of its every move whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. Ajahn Sumedho promotes an understanding of ‘the way it is’ through mindfulness as a means to liberate ourselves from the negative thoughts and habits that condition our lives. A practical upshot of such alertness is that we’re less likely to make mistakes as we won’t be so distracted or absent minded. How many times have you stubbed your toe on a doorway, chair or table leg due to thinking about something else and not being conscious of where you were placing your feet? I’ve done it innumerable times – a painful reminder of the dangers of heedlessness!

Avoiding throbbing toes is but one advantage of a more aware mind: a much more profound benefit is the insight that can develop from being cognizant of our bodily movements and feelings. This insight involves the realization that the body is truly not ours; it is of nature, and is the result of natural processes, most of which are out of our control. Whilst we can direct the body to do this or that action, within natural limits of course, we cannot prevent it from ever being ill, from aging, and ultimately from dying. Watching our physical condition can open a door onto the true nature of the body, that it is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self (the three characteristics of existence).

The mind’s moods, whether dull or bright, happy or sad, are conditions that Ajahn Sumedho believes we can know; the empty mind, also, free from association with the myriad emotions about the self and others can be known. It can be seen to be both intelligent and compassionate. If we are willing to go through boredom, miserable feelings, and other forms of suffering, the mind will become clearer, bearing with negative mind states rather than suppressing them. Ajahn Sumedho sees this as an opportunity to recognize that this is the way that it is at this time, at this place, and by doing so, wisdom will grow.

As well as the body and mind, Ajahn Sumedho advises us to be heedful of the contents of our minds, and this too was a frequent subject for reflection in the sermons of the Buddha. Knowing each thought as it is now means that we’re less likely to drift off into unhelpful reveries that take us away from the natural ability of the mind to find solutions to the every day problems that arise in all our lives. As Ajahn Sumedho also reminds us, this doesn’t mean that we’re taking the easy option by becoming more mindful, for in doing so we will undoubtedly discover the negative states of our minds as well as the positive. But becoming more aware of such mental conditions will enable us to deal with them better, allowing an understanding to arise that can encourage us to let go of them and cultivate more beneficial psychological attitudes. And we might stub our toes less often too!

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Buddhism & This Glassy Essence

“Man, proud man!

Drest in a little brief authority, -

Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,

His glassy essence, - like an angry ape,

Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,

As make the angels weep.”

(From ‘Measure for Measure’ by William Shakespeare)

Sometimes this life can be pretty complicated. Family ties (or Thai families!), friendships, work commitments, and even the needs of our pets can pull our attention in various directions. Having a religious or spiritual discipline can also become another commitment full of demands and complications that seem to clutter up our lives, adding to the mental maelstrom inhabiting mindfulness. Not that this is the point of Buddhism or any other spiritual way of life. Such modes of existence are surely for freeing us from our bonds, not strengthening them further with rituals, recitations, dogmas, doctrines and intricate etiquette guidelines on how to behave towards others within or without a particular discipline. The first visit to a forest temple, whether in the Occident or the Orient, can be a minefield of conventions dictating how to talk, walk, eat, bow, chant, and when to do such things.

Having written the above, it might seem that the writer is veering towards a very common view of religious conventions which rejects them for being as troublesome as living without them, perhaps worse. But no, chanting, hierarchies and dress codes all have their place – without them, people often become libertines, doing anything and everything in the name of ‘spirituality’, however unwholesome those actions might be. So, where is this leading us? If religious conventions add to our already complicated lives, how can we keep them in perspective? We do so with mindfulness (sati). But even being mindful takes effort and concentration, doesn’t it? It too can be another complication focused on keeping an eye on all the other complications. But it doesn’t have to be. It depends on what form mindfulness takes.

An extremely beneficial practice that I’ve used for many years is the simplest of techniques, but can have the profoundest of effects on one’s level of sati, and is called by its founder, Douglas Harding, The Headless Way. This form of mindfulness simply involves reversing one’s attention form the many and varied objects ‘out there’ to that which is doing the observing. Using one’s finger, one can see what is meant by pointing back at where one is looking from and noting what one finds. Doing so now, I see…no thing at all.

Well, one might well ask, what is the use of nothing – or no thing? Well, focusing on the gap at this end of the pointing finger enables the realization to arise that there’s nobody here. ‘I’ am out to lunch, as it were. Permanently! Visual objects can be seen to arise and exist and cease in this awareness, which itself remains clear and calm, whatever’s going on ‘in’ it. And this ‘seeing’ isn’t restricted to what one actually sees – which was Douglas Harding’s main are of focus – it can be extended to all the senses, including hearing and the mind. With eyes closed, it can heard that all sounds occur in a serene silence; as to thoughts, well they arise in an otherwise empty mind. Emotions can be experienced in this context also, allowing a detachment to develop towards them, stripping them of their power to dominate attention.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a Buddhist technique, of course – at least no one I know has found reference to it in the Tripitaka, or Buddhist Scriptures. Nevertheless, Ajahn Sumedho, himself a bit of an innovator when it comes to mindfulness techniques, did once write to me that ‘headlessness’ – which is a somewhat misleading term, by the way – is a valid form of mindful practice. Along with other ways of being alert, it leads to what Ajahn Sumedho called ‘Ultimate Simplicity’. And, in Zen Buddhism much is made of “seeing one’s face before one was born.” Terms like ‘Buddha Space’ and ‘Buddha Face’ come into their own at this point, becoming indicators of the space that is our original (no-) face. Combining Douglas Harding’s in-seeing technique with a tradition like Buddhism works well. The simplicity of the former blends with the often complicated system of the latter, creating a relaxed yet focused mindfulness as a base for all of the chanting, prostrating and the like. And this mindfulness, as Ajahn Sumedho has so often pointed out, is the “path to the deathless”, leading to the realization of Ultimate Simplicity. (It’s interesting to note here that the Dharma name of that great Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki was Daisetz, which means ‘Great Simplicity.’ Surely, Ultimate Simplicity and Great Simplicity are synonyms in this regard.)

As written above, some consider the term ‘headlessness’ and its variations somewhat misleading, and even Douglas Harding himself admitted in later life that he did have a head. With such a term, however, he and others were essentially pointing out the essential, using the initial impression of being without a head a kind of shock treatment into mindfulness of this moment. What’s really essential is what Shakespeare called our “glassy essence” that lies at the core of every conscious experience. This “glassy essence” – or naked awareness, consciousness, mindfulness etc. – is a liberating experience. It enables the viewing of all our experiences with a certain coolness, preventing us from overheating with our emotions, for instance. It can also help in discouraging identification with the body, as it is seen in relation to awareness rather than blindly taken to be one’s self. All those complications referred to above, along any others that one could mention, can be known in the impartiality of attention. It’s a case of the complicated being known by the uncomplicated.

Now, an important realization of Douglas Harding hasn’t been touched on yet, and it would be seriously amiss of the writer not to mention it. Going back to seeing the void (awareness) that’s here and the things that are there, can any distance or separation be detected between them? Not here. Again, try out this theory with some of the other senses such as hearing and thinking – is there anything between awareness and its contents, or are they one? When you look at someone’s face, in actual experience, is it face-to-face or face-to-no face? (Looking in a mirror can reveal the answer to this one, too.) With nothing to separate us, we become one. Your concerns are mine and so are the world’s. This is where compassion (karuna) and goodwill (metta) come in, for with no self-made barriers between us, I naturally care for you and you naturally care for me. Letting go of self-identification and living form direct awareness instead loosens the ego’s grip on consciousness, allowing it a freer experience of existence, and the suffering beings that inhabit it.

Anything that simplifies our complicated lives yet at the same time deepens our reflective experience of life has got to be a good thing, surely? Sitting at the computer now, it can be seen that there’s no one here typing these words, but that the words, the computer, the fingers, thoughts, sounds, etc. are all arising in awareness. And this awareness has no barrier between itself and the objects that occupy it: they are it and it is they. In this ‘fusion’ selfishness takes a vacation, and selflessness takes residence in the heart, with the experience of being a separate and (inevitably) selfish being let go of.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one. If you are interested in finding out more about ‘headlessness’ or ‘Seeing’, please click on ‘The Headless Way’ link in the Weblinks feature to the right of this blog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Only Here

Ajahn Chah: deceptively simple

One of my favorite anecdotes of Ajahn Chah’s penetrating yet deceptively simple teaching style is the following tale. Ajahn Chah was constantly visited by people seeking guidance in their Dharma practice, including established Buddhist teachers. One such teacher that came to see Ajahn Chah was a teacher of Buddhist psychology and Abhidharma (Buddhist philosophy). She asked him if he thought that it was important for his students to understand Buddhist psychology as she did. Ajahn Chah agreed that he did. She then asked the forest monk if he had his students study Abhidharma. Ajahn Chah stated that he did. She next asked him where he had his students begin, which books and studies where best. “Only here,” replied Ajahn Chah, pointing to his heart. “Only here.”

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Buddha, God, & Richard Dawkins

I recently finished reading the British scientist Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The God Delusion’. In it, the Darwinian biologist decries theistic religion as being more trouble than its worth, inspiring conflict, bigotry, and ignorance. He cites many examples for each of these points, including the 9/11 attacks to illustrate God-inspired violence, anti-gay tirades by evangelical Christians, and the Creationist denial of the science-backed theory of evolution. He decries fundamentalists of any faith who take there scriptures as absolute truth inspired by God, rejecting scientific evidence in favor of dogmatic belief.

Dawkins criticizes those religionists that fill gaps in scientific knowledge with God, giving the example of the as yet unexplained evolution of the eye. In a kind of simpleton’s logic, many theists claim that because the eye’s evolution isn’t yet known, it must have been God that designed and made them! This is a sort of variation on the “God works in mysterious ways” declaration of religionists who can’t explain certain aspects of their own faith. ‘The God Delusion’ also criticizes scientists that believe in God, seeing them as not accepting the full implications of scientific knowledge, instead ignoring those aspects of it that contradict the belief in a supreme deity. In contrast to this, Dawkins promotes a quest for truth that involves open-minded investigation before the facts. So, how does Buddhism fare in all this? Dawkins himself does not consider Buddhism in the same class of religion as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, seeing it as more of an ethical system or philosophy of life. Indeed, Buddhism is only mentioned three times in the whole book, about the same number of times as Hinduism, and Dawkins doesn’t give a definite opinion on either of them.

Dawkins does have criticisms of monotheism, in comparison with which we might also take a look at Buddhism in the light of his scientific perspective. Does the Way of the Buddha promote conflict, bigotry, and ignorance as the British biologist says is found in the Bible and the Koran? Well, the Buddha promoted pacifism of course – as did Jesus Christ in the New Testament, arguably – and Buddhism is a famously tolerant faith, the Buddha himself sometimes advising people not to convert to Buddhism but retain their original faith. As for ignorance and deliberately turning a blind eye to any facts that contradict one’s beliefs, the Buddha taught us to investigate for ourselves whether his teachings are true. Indeed, ignorance, or avijja, is seen as the cause of our suffering, and is to be banished with the light of insight.

What of fundamentalism in Buddhism? Do Buddhists take the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures) literally, as absolute historical facts that must be believed in, say as many Christians view the Bible, or Muslims the Koran? Well, some may well do this, but generally speaking Buddhists see the Tripitaka as a set of teachings to reflect on, and use to develop wisdom regarding the impermanent, unsatisfying, and selfless nature of all phenomena. Whether the Buddha actually said or did exactly what it says in the Tripitaka isn’t really the point, as Ajahn Sumedho has often stated.

One way or another, ‘The God Delusion’ has inspired a lot of reflection in this Buddhist, encouraging the exact kind of investigation into the facts that Dawkins (like his hero Charles Darwin) has based his scientific career on. This investigative spirit is totally ion line with the Buddha’s teaching regarding the Dharma as ehipassiko, ‘inviting investigation’, rather than belief. For this alone, the book has been a wonderful read, prompting the continued search for the truth of the way things are – the Dharma. I thank Richard Dawkins for this, as well as the Lord Buddha, who has inspired millions of people through the centuries to see the truth for themselves.

Following on from reading Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, here are some further reflections. Firstly, as a Buddhist who doesn’t believe in God, why discuss ‘Him’ at all? Well, considering that maybe two thirds of the world’s (human) population believes in a supreme deity of one description or another, it seems only wise to give ‘Him’ some thought. As a Buddhist I do not believe in God, however, unlike Professor Dawkins in The God Delusion, I do not actually disbelieve in God, either. Buddhism doesn’t require me to take either position, but if I did choose to believe in a personal god, that would be in contradiction to the teachings found in Buddhist Scripture. On the other hand, to actively disbelieve in such a deity is clinging to the opposite position, creating suffering around attaching to a concept. And in truth, it doesn’t really seem relevant to Buddhist practice to hold on to such belief or the rejection of it. As Ajahn Chah was so keen to say, “Let go! Let go!”

Returning to the point above, that most of the world’s people believe in a god, and that they do some pretty wonderful and terrible things as a result of their faith, how does this relate to Buddhism? Well, the Buddha didn’t always try to convert his new listeners to the Buddha Dharma, but actually supported them in the virtuous practice of the religion that they already were living. Such practices would have included those who believed in supreme deities, as well as the Jain community, who don’t believe in God, but do believe in a permanent soul (of sorts). This belief is in direct contrast to the Buddha’s teachings which state that all is impermanent, including our selves, whether we take them to be material, mental, or ‘spiritual’. Yet, if it suited the particular individual that he was addressing, the Buddha would not attempt to turn that person to the Buddha Dharma, but encourage them to perform their current religious duties to the best of their ability. Did Jesus, Muhammad, or any other founders of major religions say the same?

So, bearing in mind the Buddha’s above attitude towards those who weren’t ready, willing or able to adopt the Buddha Dharma, how should modern Buddhists respond to the idea of God, and those that make this idea the heart of their religious lives? Well, I can’t peak for any Buddhist but the one sat here typing these words, and his response to theists is one of tolerance and respect. The Buddha Dharma has helped me to tolerate the sometimes forceful opinions of theists, even when those opinions have severely criticized the Buddha, Buddhism and Buddhists. It has also enabled me to be respectful of people that hold different views to my own, focusing on the good things that their beliefs lead them to do and say. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and others have done much good in this world.

Some of you might think of all the bad that’s been done in the name of God, as Richard Dawkins does in his book, and to this I would respond with the following: There are bad Buddhists, doing some pretty awful things in the world. For example, there are Buddhists in Sri Lanka who have killed those they perceive as their enemies in the defense of Buddhism as well as for ethnic and nationalistic reasons. (Of course, equally evil acts have been done by Hindus on that island, and there are many good Buddhists living in Sri Lanka, as there are Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.) There are also bad atheists, who have killed in the name of atheistic and materialistic philosophies such as Stalinism, Maoism, or Nazism. Buddhists and atheists are potentially just as guilty of committing evil acts through clinging to views than those that believe in a god. Such is human nature.

The Buddha, unlike many of the world’s main religions’ founders did not claim to be related in some way to God. Jesus Christ is believed to have been God and the Son of God simultaneously; the Prophet Muhammad was said to have been inspired by God, and Hindus consider that Sri Krishna was an avatar (incarnation) of God. It’s not my place as a Buddhist to make some pronouncement about whose god was the real one – taking the conventional view that they can’t all be somehow right – nor is it my concern to state that they are all wrong. Both attitudes seem to smack of ego and a grasping of views. Incidentally, some mystics have taught that the various versions of God point to the same ultimate Reality, but again, focusing on the impermanent, unsatisfying, and selfless nature of everything, this doesn’t greatly interest me.

As a Buddhist, I consider it my duty to live in peace with those who live around me, whatever their religion or lack of one. The Buddha taught how we can extend metta (loving-kindness) to all sentient beings, not just Buddhists and cuddly rabbits, but also born-again Christians and snakes. There may be times that this mind is averse to what a theist might be saying, but I don’t have to act on that aversion; I can observe it, watching it arise, exist, and die, just like all phenomena. Replacing such aversion with metta towards whoever is present seems a truly noble and truly Buddhist thing to do. And I thank the Buddha and subsequent masters for teaching such a profound message.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.