Saturday, February 26, 2011

Review: Living This Life Fully by Mirka Knaster

 "Dukkha - this is the noble truth of suffering. This is to be investigated. This is to be explored. This must be examined and discovered. Then comes the cause of suffering. What is the cause of suffering? One must understand, explore, investigate this." ('Living This Life Fully' p.185)

Mirka Knaster, former pupil of Anagarika Munindra, has supplied a copy of her book 'Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra' so that it might be reviewed on these pages. Now, there's always a risk when someone does this, as the author of this review refuses to write nice stuff about books that he doesn't find well-written or inspirational, but Mirka needn't be perturbed by this statement, as her book passes both criteria comfortably, to say the least. She writes with a warm, insider's view of the man and his teachings, giving intimate insights into Munindra's gentle wisdom, with many other contributors helping in this task, including Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sylvia Boorstein, Daniel Goleman, Kamala Masters, Christopher Titmuss, S. N. Goenka, Lama Surya Das, and Ram Dass. With the exception of S. N. Goenka, all these well-known meditation teachers studied under Munindra, which illustrates the influence that he has had on Buddhist practice in the West.

"Based on his personal knowledge, Munindra was convinced that even nowadays people are capable of tasting what the Buddha and his disciples experienced more than 2,500 years ago. What may seem out of the ordinary or even impossible is actually within reach of those who make the effort. Yet Munindra never pretended to be extraordinary, exceptional, or perfect. He was simply a flourishing human being, not a saint. With all his idiosyncrasies and fallibility, he walked the path and enabled others to walk it too." (Ibid. p.ix)

Time and again, the contributors to this work describe the soft yet unwavering manner of Munindra that was based in his own cultivation of metta (loving-kindness, or goodwill), recalling how he would gently bring their wandering minds back to the mindfulness of the present by drawing their attention to a small flower or how fruit was stacked on a market stall. They also recount how Munindra devoted his life to imparting Buddhist teachings to anyone that showed an interest, living the life of an anagarika, or homeless layperson so that he had no distracting commitments to either family or monastery. And, as Alan Clements recalls, Munindra had great patience, never talking down to questioners no matter how "dumb" their queries might seem, something echoed in the words of Lama Surya Das who notes that he was "very generous and patient with his time and his knowledge" (Ibid. p.125).

The book contains a brief biography written by Robert Pryor, another student of Munindra, which details his early years in Chittagong, in present day Bangladesh, to his work with Mahabodhi Society (1936-1957), practice and study in Burma with masters such as Mahasi Sayadaw (1957-1966), subsequent teaching in Bodh Gaya (1966-1985) and beyond (1985-2003). Quite a curriculum vitae for a Buddhist teacher! It is not in such facts that Munindra's worth is truly reflected, however, but in the skillful way that Mirka Knaster has woven the testaments of his many students into a coherent and stimulating read. Munundra comes across as an unassuming but uncompromising man, always willing to give of his wisdom, but not expecting anything in return. But, as the book illustrates, it wasn't just wisdom that he shared, for when he received gifts from grateful students, he was likely to pass them on to people in greater need than himself.  An amusing anecdote that shows the human side to the man is remembered by Vivian Darst:

"Throughout our trip to Europe, my friend and I were lugging around Munindra's luggage with all this stuff he was taking back to India. I used to give him a really bad time about it because I had to carry it into all these cars and planes. I used to say, 'You could buy it in India.' And he'd say, 'No, not the same quality.' I asked, 'What is it all for?' He wanted to give presents to family and friends, especially a lot of little children in Bodh Gaya." (Ibid. pp.54-55)

Knaster has organized the book into chapters each focusing on an aspect of the Buddha's teaching, such as Sati (Mindfulness), Dana (Generosity), Metta (Loving-Kindness), and Upekkha (Equanimity). As well featuring the stories and teachings of Munindra, every chapter ends with a neat definition of its main theme (such as 'Sati'), reflecting Munidra's own dependence on the Pali Canon as a source of validity for his own understandings and teachings. This makes the book more accessible to those that are not so familiar with Pali Buddhism, and helps those of us who have a propensity to forget what Pali we do know! Again, as useful as these sections are, it is the accounts of Munindra's compassionate wisdom that Knaster has done so well in describing, an act of respect to her teacher that does them both credit. It is with such an account that we will finish, here, and I for one am most grateful to Mirka and Munindra for sharing such insight with the world.

"Every step is taking you near the goal. Continuity is the secret of success. Anyone who wants to know the art of living, who wants to experience this Dhamma, has to understand it clearly. But as long as you are expecting, then it will not happen." (Ibid. p.127)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Magha Puja (Sangha Day)

The Buddha preaches the Ovada-patimokkha Gatha

Magha Puja is the day when Buddhists commemorate the occasion when 1250 enlightened monks spontaneously met to hear the Buddha’s sermon known as the Ovada-patimokkha Gatha. For those of us not familiar with this text, here’s a translation of it:
“Patient endurance is the foremost austerity.
Nirvana is foremost: that’s what the Buddha’s say.
He is no monk who injures another;
Nor is he a contemplative who mistreats another.

The non-doing of any evil,
The performance of what’s skillful,
The cleansing of one’s own mind:
This is the Buddhas’ teaching.

Not disparaging, not injuring,
Restraint in line with the monastic code,
Moderation in food, dwelling in seclusion,
Commitment to the heightened mind:
This is the Buddhas’ teaching.”

Considering the fact that the Buddha surely gave these teachings to reflect on, rather than turn into an institutionalized recitation in an elaborate ceremony, let’s examine it a little, seeing what it can teach us. And, although it’s clear from the gatha that it’s primary audience are monks, it’s essential meanings can be easily extended to all Buddhists, ordained or not. (If you feel you have reflections to share on the gatha, they are most welcome; please do so by leaving a comment at the bottom of this article.)

The statement “Patient endurance is the foremost austerity” is a well known utterance of the Buddha’s in Thailand, and the late great meditation master Ajahn Chah put much emphasis on it, as often recalled by his most senior western disciple Ajahn Sumedho. The original Pali word for “patient endurance’ is khanti, and it is one of the 10 perfections promoted by the Buddha as being highly virtuous and conducive to realizing enlightenment. It not only denotes patience, but also forgiveness and forbearance.

Why are patience and forgiveness valued so highly in the Buddha’s teachings? Well, as to patience, it is clearly an advantage to have such a quality in a close-knit community such as the Buddhist monastic one. No Buddhist wants to see monks or nuns lose patience with each other and argue or even fight. Inwardly, patience is also a valuable attribute for the meditator to possess, for the fruits of meditation are not always that immediate, and it may take years for its benefits to emerge. Getting impatient is a common obstacle confronted by beginner meditators – and those of us that have been doing it for years, too!

Forgiveness is an important quality to possess for the same two reasons given above: in a monastic community having members who are forgiving of each other’s foibles will allow the community to run much more smoothly. And, not getting angry with one’s self when meditation doesn’t seem to be ‘working’ is a powerful tool in being able to sustain one’s practice and cultivate wisdom that otherwise would have remained hidden. On a personal note, after marrying, my wife and I went to the International Forest Monastery here in Ubon Rathchathani and asked the then abbot Ajahn Jayasaro for some marital advice. He paused for a second or two while I suddenly thought what a silly question to ask a monk, and then he gave us a short exhortation on patience. Afterwards, we thought what sound advice it was, and here we are ten years later still happily married.

The following words on nirvana are no surprise coming from the Buddha, and as it is an ongoing subject for reflection here on ‘Buddha Space,’ it will be glossed over for now. The next lines are a subject not often commented on in these pages, however, so let’s take a few moments to consider them. “He is no monk who injures another” is a clear reminder that monks (and nuns) should cultivate harmlessness (ahimsa) towards all beings, as in the spirit of the Metta Sutta, when the Buddhist wishes that ‘all beings may be happy.’

The Buddha also stated that “Nor is he a contemplative who mistreats another.” Inflicting injury is usually associated with doing physical harm, and this obviously against the monastic code, but to mistreat another is a much broader term and can include verbal insults or rudeness. The nuances of language can often disguise such behaviour, but it can be detected in monastics as well as fellow meditators relatively often. People are people, of course, and in the case of the laity at least, we can recognize that to err is human, and a degree of forgiveness is required. Even with inexperienced monks and nuns this approach holds water, but if we encounter long term meditating renunciates that are rude or unforgiving with others, alarm bells and not meditation bells should start ringing!

The next verse is one of the most famous in Buddhism, and is often found near the header of Buddhist websites (i.e. the excellent ‘Access to Insight’). It is a succinct summing up of the Buddhist teachings and has inspired many in their efforts to walk the eightfold path. “The non-doing of any evil,” covers those deeds that the Buddha advised us to restrain from, such as killing, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, lying, and consuming intoxicants (the five precepts). It also includes such topics as the five trades to be avoided: do not trade in weapons, poisons, meat, living beings, or intoxicants.

The next line, “The performance of what’s skilful” makes reference to doing what’s good towards our families, teachers, neighbours, etc., as well as taking care of the monastic community. It also covers living our lives in ways that help in developing heedfulness, kindness, compassion, and, of course, patience, amongst other positive qualities.  “The cleansing of one’s own mind” means mindfulness and meditation techniques, used to cultivate mind states that pave the way for enlightenment.

Further advice from the Buddha in the Ovada-patimokkha Gatha consists of “Not disparaging” and “not injuring” others: sound guidance for all of us, for certain. This is basically a repetition of the instructions in the first verse, which acts to reinforce their importance; monks, nuns, and laypeople should not indulge in such behaviour if we wish to be part of a harmonious community, let alone awaken to enlightenment. This is echoed in the next line which promotes “Restraint in line with the monastic code,” or for those of us not in robes, the code of conduct for the laity, touched upon above in the references to the five precepts and five trades to be avoided.

“Moderation in food, dwelling in seclusion ” and “ Commitment to the heightened mind” continue the wise advice from the Buddha to us all. It’s not just healthy to not overindulge in food and drink, it’s also good for our spiritual development, promoting self-control and strong determination. Dwelling in seclusion helps our meditation practice, of course, and whilst monasteries can be perfect environments for this purpose, if we live in relatively quiet areas and organize our home life appropriately, secluded moments for meditative development can be created.    

Finally, it’s worth reflecting on the line that ends both verse two and three: “This is the Buddhas’ teaching.” The apostrophe is not in the wrong place here, for as any grammarian will tell you, if the apostrophe appears after the s in relation to the word Buddhas, it means that it is referring to more than one enlightened being. This reflects the original Pali of the text, and is no mistake. The Buddha often taught that he was not the first (nor the last) Buddha, and that all Buddhas teach the same Doctrine & Discipline (Dhamma ca Vinaya). Therefore, when it is written that what appears in the Ovada-patimokkha Gatha is the teaching of the Buddhas’, it indicates that it is not the product of a single (albeit enlightened) mind, but is a collection of eternal truths that were as valid in the distant past as they are today, and will continue to be as valid in the millennia to come.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Buddha & Eckhart: On Peace & Eternity

Meister (Master) Eckhart
"God is a God of the present. He takes you and receives you as he finds you now, not as you have been, but as you are now." (Davies p.22)

To live in the present moment is a maxim that is promoted by many these days, including sportsman, artists, psychologists, and, of course, Buddhist teachers. To be alert to the present is a teaching that goes right the way back to the Buddha himself, according to the scriptures that we posses. In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, a seminal text on mindfulness and meditation, the Buddha says, "Furthermore, when walking, the monk discerns, 'I am walking.' When standing, he discerns, 'I am standing.' When sitting, he discerns, 'I am sitting.' When lying down, he discerns, 'I am lying down.' Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it." If Gos is a God of the present, then the Buddha is a Buddha of the present, too! In their different ways, the Buddha and Eckhart encourage us to live in the present moment, not lost in reveries of the past and future. For, from such focused awareness can arise the wisdom to see beyond the limitations of the egoistic self, thereby dying into what a Buddhist would call nirvana, and Eckhart names God.

"Do you know how God is God is God? God is God because there is nothing of the creature in him. He has never been named within time. Creatures, sin and death belong to time. In a certain sense they are all related, and since the soul has fallen away from time if she has fallen away from the world, there is neither pain or suffering there. Indeed, tribulation turns to joy for her there. If we were to compare everything which ha ever been conceived of regarding delight and joy, bliss and pleasure, with the delight which belongs to this birth, then it would be as nothing." (Davies p.117)

When Eckhart refers to the creature, he is making reference to the psycho-phyisical part of us all, and when he mentions God, he is describing the unconditioned element that lies at our very heart. In nirvana, there is no identification with the creaturely part of our being; it is known and cared for, as both wisdom and compassion flow out of the void, but it is not thought of of as being 'me.' For Eckhart, God is the same, without any sense of being an individual, separated being. he is without characteristics, just like the indescribable unconditioned that the Buddha taught about. Furthermore, God is betting the reach of time, and therefore death, unlike all created, mortal creatures. nirvana is like this also; the Buddha described it as being free of birth, aging, and death, which all occur within time. The pure awareness at the heart of our being is not so limited however, for it is not creaturely in nature, and when he uses the word 'soul,' this is what Eckhart refers to, not some ethereal, floating astral being. So, according to both the Buddha and Eckhart, whether in meditative states or in enlightened ones, this awareness is also out of time, just like God.

"As far as you are in God, thus far you are in peace, and as far as you are outside God, thus far you are outside peace. If only something is in God, then it has peace. It is in peace in so far as it is in God. And you can tell how far you are in God, or not, by the extent to which you have peace or not. For where you lack peace, you must necessarily lack peace, since lack of peace comes from the creature and not from God. Nor is there anything to fear in God, for all that is in him can only be loved. Similarly there is nothing in him to cause us sadness." (Davies p.51)

Peace is emphasized by both Eckhart and the Buddha. Indeed, the latter described nirvana as peace, or at least the ultimate form of peace. Clearly, from the text above, Eckhart does not equate God with peace - although in an ultimate sense of the term, he may well do so elsewhere - but he does give peace a big importance in the spiritual life. And, this sense of peace as a fruit of spiritual practice is also used by the Buddha, who saw it as a result of being mindful and meditative. And, certainly one's progress in the noble eightfold path of the Buddha can be calculated to some extent, at least, by the amount of peace that one has in one's every day life. if we are walking around in a constant rage, wanting to hit this person or kick that person, it's a safe bet that we need to meditate or pray a little more often!

Eckhart also states that there is no fear nor sadness in God. This is also true if we have a strong level of mindfulness, which can help us to let go of such negative states of mind. This is so because as our meditation deepens we become aware of these emotions and what creates them in us - and we can then let go of them by ceasing to recreate those negative influences. Moreover, when we see beyond these limited egos, we become alive to the spacious awareness that lies beyond the sense of self, and then fear, sadness, and the like melt away into the void that shines so brightly. Such a state, whether reached through the devotional practices of a Christian contemplative like Meister Eckhart, or through a systematic Buddhist meditative life, is both peaceful and out of time. It is the serene eternity which Eckhart called God and the Buddha named nirvana.

Note: Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) was a Christian Dominican priest that wrote about the spiritual life in terms that many Buddhists would find both interesting and inspiring. The quotes used in this article have been taken from 'Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings'  translated & edited by Oliver Davies, and published by Penguin Classics.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 33-35

“Praying for salvation in the world to come
Praying for your own selfish ends
Is only piling on more and more
Self-centeredness and arrogance

Nowadays I'm tired of
Praying for salvation too
I just move along at my ease
Letting the breath come and go

Die - then live
Day and night within the world
Once you've done this, then you can
Hold the world right in your hand!”

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was an uncompromising Zen master. Now, many readers will be familiar with the uncompromising Zen masters in the texts, especially the ones from Tang Dynasty China such as Mazu, Huangbo, and Linji. Bankei was different from these masters, however, in that he did not usually, if ever, shout or hit his disciples to shock them into awakening to the Dharma. Instead, Bankei used words, often reminding his students that the only tool he had was his tongue (for speaking with, that is). Moreover, he used words to direct his listeners back to that which was listening, often specifically referencing the act of hearing in an attempt to help arouse enlightenment. As can be seen below, he did not support those practices that he saw as unhelpful to awakening.

“Praying for salvation in the world to come
Praying for your own selfish ends
Is only piling on more and more
Self-centeredness and arrogance”

The phrase “Praying for salvation in the world to come” may sound like it was directed at Christians, Muslims, or other such theistic religionists, but it was probably aimed at Japanese Buddhists, as there is a strong salvation-based tradition in the East known as Pure Land Buddhism. Most Pure Land devotees practice with the intent of being reborn in Amitabha Buddha’s heavenly realm, or pure land, where they can then achieve enlightenment. Bankei, however, clearly didn’t see this as a useful use of one’s time, and even condemned it as “Praying for your own selfish ends,” and “Self-centredness and arrogance.” Wow, he really was uncompromising!

If we practice simply for our own salvation or enlightenment, we are being self-centred, are we not? What about everyone else; don’t we wish to help them awaken, too? Here, Bankei is getting at the sense of being a separate egoistic self, and encouraging us to have a broader perspective when it comes to spiritual awakening. If we put off any serious attempt at realizing enlightenment in this life, for whatever selfish reasons we may have, we deny all those other people that we might have helped if we had achieved a high level of awakening in this life. And, it’s useful to know that devotional religions like Pure Land Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, et cetera, all have mystical traditions that encourage both compassion and awakening right now, rather than at some undisclosed point in the future.

“Nowadays I'm tired of
Praying for salvation too
I just move along at my ease
Letting the breath come and go”

In this verse, Bankei gives precedence to “Letting the breath come and go” over “Praying for salvation.” This can be taken two ways, and it’s highly probable that Bankei wished it so, being the shrewd old Zen master that he was. Firstly, “Letting the breath come and go” can refer to simply living life spontaneously, allowing things to arise and dissolve as they may. Very Zennish and typical of the post-enlightenment verse and sayings produced by many a Zen master.

The second interpretation of this term, “Letting the breath come and go” is that it alludes to anapanasati, or ‘in-out-breath meditation,’ which is the main from of meditation taught by the Buddha in the Pali Canon. Although Zen Buddism is famous for its zazen style meditation, where the sitter either focuses on a Zen riddle (koan in Japanese), or just sits with a quiet, alert mind, in also makes use of breath meditation. In Japanese Zen monasteries today, a new meditator will often be given a form of breath meditation to begin with. Anyway, it’s clear from the above verse that Bankei does not give much credence to praying for salvation, which leaves us with the rather radical words below to deal with:

“Die - then live
Day and night within the world
Once you've done this, then you can
Hold the world right in your hand!”

Is Bankei asking us to really die, and then be born again? Well, he writes about dying and then living, but then puts them in the context of “Day and night within the world.” He clearly isn’t referring to actual physical death and rebirth – so what kind of death is he promoting here? He is calling our attention to the death of the self – or at least the death of the delusion of being a self. Bankei is challenging us to see our true nature, which lies beyond the everyday notion of selfhood and the limitations that go with it. This is the spiritual death and rebirth that is found in the literature of such awakened masters as Rumi, Eckhart, and Dogen. As it’s said in some movie, “It’s a good day to die!”

The last line in this verse is just so Zen: “Hold the world right in your hand!” We could take this to be symbolic language, that is, when one is enlightened, it is like one is able to hold the world in one’s hand. But, this sounds somewhat contrived, and makes Bankei out to be a peddler of hyperbole. Is it, in some way, literal, then? Well, we can only truly test this hypothesis if we were actually enlightened in the first place, and thereby able to answer this query. Is this possible, then, to taste enlightenment right now, and then see if the world fits in one’s hand? Let’s try an experiment together and see what occurs...

Listen to the sounds that you can presently hear. Take a few seconds to recognise and label each sound, working through them one by one, until you cannot identify any new ones. (You may be surprised by the number of different sounds that you can detect – we are so often caught up in our own little world that we fail to notice the actual world around us.) Next, turn your attention around from those sounds to that which is aware of them. Does this have a sound associated with it, or is it soundless? Surely sounds arise in that which is absent of sound, which is to say, there must be a space for objects to exist in. Where is this space right now? Is it located somewhere in front of you or behind you, or is it found to your left, or right, above, or below you? Surely not. Is it not the case that all the sounds that you can hear occur in a spacious silence that is where you previously thought ‘you’ were? (Similar enquiries can be done with the other senses, as well as the mind itself, showing that this is a universal truth that lies at the heart of whichever sense-base we choose to investigate.)

Now, we conducted the above experiment in the hope that we might discover the enlightened state, from which we might see if we can really hold the world in one hand. If, and it’s up to each of us to decide on this matter, we consider experiencing the silence that contains the world of sounds to be enlightenment, then we are now in a position to see where the world is, right now. As we discovered above, the world of sound exists in this silence. We can therefore reckon that the world of sight exists in the silence (which equals the invisible) here, too. Looking now, we can see the world in this silent, invisible awareness, without any division between them. The world is me, I am the world. The world is contained in this hand in the sense that it is this hand; world, hand, and awareness are unified, and Bankei sits laughing in the corner, “You have died, but now live! You have died, but now live!”