Thursday, March 22, 2012

Angkor Haiku

Poems & pictures from a trip to Angkor last year.

Disappearing Buddha
Among these ancient ruins
And a blazing sun

Space defines being
Doorways are within doorways
As they fade away

Moss cannot conceal
Such a glorious smile
On that Khmer rock face

Time has ripped away
All trace of identity
Bar giant curled lips

Sensual carvings
Are trapped in an ageless dance
Stone their only home

Angkor saps energy
A stoney maze dry and hot
And without mercy

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review: Dogen's Genjo Koan, by Eihei Dogen Zenji

Eihei Dogen (1200 - 1253) is considered the founder of the Soto sect, the largest sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Having studied with a Zen master in China, he went back to his native Japan teaching & spreading the Dharma in that country. He is viewed as a great Buddhist teacher in the Soto Zen tradition, although his works can prove impenetrable at first, as they work as koans helping the student to transcend their little self and experience satori, or enlightenment. This book is such a work itself, and we who read it are challenged by Dogen to cut past our egoistic clinging and see what he is pointing at: our true nature.

We are not alone in this endeavor, however, for the book contains three separate translations and accompanying commentaries on its subject, the Genjo Koan, which is the opening chapter of Dogen's mammoth treatise Shobogenzo. As mentioned by Nishiari Bokusan (1821 - 1910), one of the commentators, said that Dogen's "entire teaching begins and ends with this essay…the other essays [in the Shobogenzo] are just offshoots of this one." (Dogen's Genzo Koan, p.2) So, in this book we not only have the heart of the Shobogenzo ('Treasury of the True Dharma Eye'), but we have the heart of Dogen himself, which is also - according to Soto teachings - the heart of the Buddha…and our heart, too. 

As mentioned above, there are three translations of the Genjo Koan with a separate commentary each. Alongside that of Bokusan, quoted earlier, we also have others by the well known Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki (1904 - 1971), and Kosho Uchiyama (1912 - 1998). Each lends their own style and interpretation to the Genjo Koan, and are sensitively edited and translated by a group of Soto Zen Buddhists including Dairyu Michael Wenger of the Beginner's Mind Temple. 

In essence, the Genjo Koan ('Actualization of Reality') can be summed up as in the following words of Shunryu Suzuki in his commentary on it:  "The secret of all the teachings of Buddhism is how to live in each moment, how to obtain absolute freedom moment after moment." (Ibid. p.95) Suzuki's treatment of his subject is more spontaneous than the other two commentaries, being a fusion of several different public teachings that he gave on it between 1965 and 1971. His commentary is no less valuable to us for this, however, and his more conversational style complements the studious approaches of Bokusan & Uchiyama. To illustrate the different approaches, we'll take a brief look at what they have to say about the same section of the Genjo Koan. First, however, the section itself will be presented, followed in turn by the commentaries of Bokusan, Suzuki, and Uchiyama, the order in which they appear in the book.

"When the myriad dharmas are without a self, there is no delusion, no realization, no Buddha, no sentient being, no birth and no death." (Ibid. p.23)
"All names are arbitrary names, and all dharmas are arbitrary dharmas. They are only a compound of conditions. We say 'you' in relation to 'I.' When we say 'I,' it is nothing but 'I,' however much we try to make of it. There appears to be a subsetntial being that is called 'I,' but it is merely a compound of conditions. 'You' are also merely a compound of various conditions. The Buddha explained this as 'all beings are without self.' (Bokusan, ibid. pp.30 - 31)
"When all things are without self what we do is done in the realms of selflessness, like milk and water. When the whole fabric is woven completely in various colors, what you see are not pieces of thread, what you see is one whole cloth. Do you understand? There is no need to say, 'This is water' when you drink water and milk, and there is no water and milk." (Suzuki, ibid. p. 98)

"The Diamond Sutra says, 'The Tathagata taught that all forms are nothing other than no-form.' And, 'The true form is not a form. Therefore, the Tathagata calls it the true form.' The true form of all dharmas (shobo-jisso) and 'all dharmas of no-form without fixed self' are not two different thongs; they both express the vivid reality of life. Because Dogen Zenji is an intellectual person, when he talks about the side of true-form, he uses shobon(various dharmas), which is an indefinite plural noun. When he talks about the side of no-form, since a plural noun is not suitable, he uses banjo (ten thousand dharmas, or everything), which is a collective singular noun." (Uchiyama, ibid. pp.161-162)

The depth of understanding of the three commentators appears fathomless to this reviewer, and it is worth noting that whilst Shunryu Suzuki's comments are all he has to say on this short section of the Genjo Koan, both Bokusan and Uchiyama have much more to say on the matter, Bokusan's words alone extending to two pages of analysis. The different interpretations are not a problem for the Zennist, either, for it isn't in their literal meanings that we will open the Dharma gate to enlightenment, but in an existential understanding of them. Indeed, in his introduction Nishiari Bokusan advises us that we much take the Genjo Koan deep into ourselves, so that we realize that, "Being is Genjo koan as being. Emptiness is Genjo koan as emptiness. Nirvana is Genjo koan as nirvana." (Ibid. p.12) 

This is not an easy book to read, and if we approach it in too intellectual a manner, we will surely miss the point altogether. On the other hand, it is also a wonderful work. And if we spend some quality time with it, taking it into the core of our being, we will benefit infinitely. This reviewer is truly struck by its essentially quiet yet dynamic pointing to the True Dharma Eye, and recommends it wholeheartedly. There is a particularly well known and profound section of the Genjo Koan that it is fitting to end this review with, so we will let Dogen Zenji speak to us, and see if we can respond to his words by opening the Dharma Eye that we already possess. 

"To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly." (Ibid. p.24)

The above book by Eihei Dogen Zenji is published by Counterpoint Press, and is available from their website here: Counterpoint Press

A related post can be read here: Review: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki

Monday, March 12, 2012

Verses of Sharing and Aspiration

Through the goodness that arises from my practice,
May my spiritual teachers and guides of great virtue,
My mother, my father, and my relatives,
The Sun and the Moon, and all virtuous leaders of the world,
May the highest gods and evil forces,
Celestial beings, guardian spirits of the Earth, and the Lord of Death,
May those who are friendly, indifferent, or hostile,
May all beings receive the blessings of my life.
Mat they soon attain the threefold bliss and realize the Deathless.
Through the goodness that arises from my practice,
And through this act of sharing,
May all desires and attachments quickly cease
And all harmful states of mind.
Until I realize Nibbana,
In every kind of birth, may I have an upright mind,
With mindfulness and wisdom, austerity and vigor.
May the forces of delusion not take hold nor weaken my resolve.
The Buddha is my excellent refuge,
Unsurpassed is the protection of the Dhamma,
The Solitary Buddha is my noble lord,
The Sangha is my supreme support.
Through the supreme power of all these,
May darkness and delusion be dispelled.

The above is a reflection regularly chanted by Buddhists in the Western Forest Sangha. It is not only worthy of recital, but of reflection, also. So, please take as long as you can to read through it, contemplating its beauty and purity. The free book that it comes from can be downloaded from the Forest Sangha Publications site here: Morning and Evening Chanting

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review: Counsels from My Heart, by Dudjom Rinpoche

Counsels from My Heart is a small, pocket-friendly book containing a collection of teachings from a Tibetan Buddhist master on various subjects, such as the Buddhadharma, the Nyingma sect, and the Bardo. It is a work full of wisdom regarding Buddhist practice, and yet at the same time contains a certain bias against other forms of Buddhism that seems almost arrogant. Nevertheless, it is a book worth reading, consisting of talks from a widely recognized Buddhist teacher.

Its author, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987), also known as Jigrel Yeshe Dorje, was considered to be a tulku (reincarnated master) of a previous teacher also called Dudjom Rinpoche. Born in Central Tibet, after fleeing to India in the wake of the communist Chinese invasion, he was made head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism by H.H. the Dalai lama. He wrote copious amounts on Buddhist teachings and travelled widely to share his wisdom, spending his final years establishing a Buddhist centre in France. The book itself was translated from the Tibetan by the Padmakara Translation Group, who have also done a really good job.

The book itself is a series of talks by the Rinpoche given to his disciples, mainly in the 1970s. Due to lack of time & space, we'll focus on two chapters in the book. The first of these, a general encouragement to practice is called Buddhadharma. In it, Dudjom Rinpoche addresses several subjects from the Vajrayana Buddhist perspective. And here it is important to remember that he was a senior representative a particular tradition, for not only does he promote ideas specific to it, but he also heavily criticizes what he called 'Hinayana' Buddhism in the process. (Hinayana is a thinly veiled reference to Theravada Buddhism.) 

So, in this chapter the Rinpoche extolls the value of Mahayana - mostly specifically Vajrayana - Buddhism, and the attitude of bodhichitta, which is the aim to help all beings to enlightenment. Another section here is called What is the Mind? In it, Dudjom Rinpoche directs us to examine what the mind actually is, revealing the false assumptions we have regarding it, and the delusion and clinging that cause so much suffering. Here's an extract:

Well, then, where is this self-clinging? Thaty which clings to 'I' is the min; that which clings to "other" is also the mind. So the next question is: Where is the mind? It mustbe somehow in the body, because when the mind is not present, we have only a corpse. So, ask yourself, is it in the top part of the body or the lower part? How big is it? What color is it? If you pull a hair out of your head, it hurts, doesn't it? If you prick your foot on a thorn, it hurts, doesn't it? The mind and body must be somehow coextensive, mustn't they? 
(Counsels from My Heart, pp.21 & 22)

As mentioned above, the Rinpoche pulls no punches when referring to what he considered to be an inferior form of Buddhism, known as Hinayana / Theravada. This is something that this reviewer cannot agree with, and so it forms the only criticism of the book in this article. Dudjom Rinpoche came from a long line of Vajrayana masters, and also saw himself as part of the broader Mahayana tradition, also. And, throughout the history of Buddhism, these two major branches of the Dharma have found it necessary to justify their practices and very existence by claiming that Hinayana Buddhism is a selfish, underdeveloped tradition for spiritual simpletons. This is unfortunate, and although Theravada / Hinayana Buddhism has often rejected Mahayanists as being unorthodox, two wrongs don't make a right. Take a look at what the Rinpoche has to say on the subject from the opening chapter:

Those who have the attitude of shravakas and pratyeka-buddhas are not able to appreciate that the whole of space is filled with beings who were once their parents, and that it is for their sake that they should practice Dharma. They are satisfied simply with the idea of freeing themselves from the ocean of samsaric sorrow. 
(Ibid. pp.4 & 5)

Shravakas and pratyeka-buddhas are the two classes of Theravada adepts according to the Mahayana classification - those of their own tradition are known as bodhisattvas. As is clear from the above quote, Dudjom Rinpoche didn't seem to think much of the former, and criticized them in the usual way found in many Mahayana teachings. Presumably he didn't know that the idea of everyone having been one's parents is first found in the Pali Canon, the Theravada scriptures. Moreover, living in a country where Theravada Buddhism is widespread, this reviewer can attest to that tradition's encouragement to help other beings to enlightenment. In a later chapter of the book called Practicing Without Sectarian Bias, the Rinpoche criticizes Theravada Buddhism again, whilst discouraging sectarianism within Tibetan Buddhism. Anyway, enough of this griping, let's look at another chapter and see what we find there.

In chapter 7, entitled Introduction to the Jewel of the Fortunate, the Rinpoche discusses rigpa, related to the Great Perfection (Dzogchen), and is rendered into English as awareness. This is an important concept in Vajrayana Buddhism, alongside bodhichitta, and in this brief description Dudjom Rinpoche states that it is "empty, limpid, stunning, light, free, joyful!" (Ibid. p.84) However, he warns us that to simply recognize this awareness is not enough; meditation is still required to develop one's grounding in it and to grow wisdom from it. Moreover, virtue and devotion are also needed at this stage, for as he colorfully puts it, "So don't go around claiming to be some great Dzogchen meditator when in fact you are nothing but a farting lout, stinking of alcohol and rank with lust!" (Ibid. p.88)
He goes on to describe awareness and its perceiver as one and the same, a nonrealistic experience that if sustained liberates one from selfish, harmful actions and modes of thought. Indeed, the usually resultless nature of thoughts die down, revealing the underlying peacefulness of the mind. This is to be developed in meditation practice, allowing thoughts to arise or not as the case may be, neither reacting to their presence or their absence. This sounds like familiar advice, but when combined with the experience of pure awareness, it's suggesting something more radical. Of this awareness, the Rinpoche states the following:

 You actually have this awareness within you. It is the clear, naked wisdom of dharmakaya. But who can introduce you to it? On what should you take your strand? What should you be certain of? To begin with, it is your teacher that shows you the state of your awareness. And when you recognize it for yourself, it is then that you are introduced to your own nature
(Ibid. p.85)

The book ends with a brief autobiographical sketch by Dudjom Rinpoche, followed by a useful glossary and extensive notes. The Padmakara Translation Group have done a superb job of producing this English version, and much credit goes to them, as well as Shambhala Publications. The latter, incidentally, also published another work by Dudjom Rinpoche and the Padmakara Translation Group called A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom, a much more substantial and detailed work. (Having over 350 pages to the current book's total of 122 - see the link below.) The two works together form a wonderful introduction to the teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism, and those of us fortunate enough to read them owe a service of gratitude to the translators and Dudjom Rinpoche himself. We must draw a close to this review now, but hopefully it has shown the value of Counsels from My Heart, whilst acknowledging the limitations of its sometimes sectarian bias. For, despite the reservations discussed above, this little book is a gem, pointing to the shining jewel of our innate awareness, which is the doorway to enlightenment.

The above book by Dudjom Rinpoche is published by Shambhala Publications, and is available from their website here: Counsels from My Heart

A related post can be read here: Review: A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom, by Dudjom Rinpoche

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Review: The Lankavatara Sutra, by Red Pine

This is both a brilliant and difficult work. Red Pine has translated into modern English a very important sutra, one that is central to the history of Zen Buddhism, but is also renowned as being difficult to fathom for even the most seasoned Buddhist. And this, this reviewer would argue, is reason enough to feel thankful for Red Pine's efforts, for he has made available to our eyes and minds a deep work of Buddhist teaching that can enrich our Dharma practice no end, if we are willing to spend some quality time with it. Moreover, he has supplied copious notes inspired by the original Chinese and Sanskrit versions of the text, as well as by Chinese commentators.

The book begins, thankfully, with an excellent introduction that sets forth the two basic ideas contained in the Lankavatara Sutra, that 1) the universe is produced by mind, and 2) that we should each experience this. The first can be said to be a teaching of the Yogacara school of Buddhism, whilst the second is the foundation of Zen. And, illustrating its importance in the latter sect, Red Pine tells us that it was this sutra that the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma, handed over to his successor, along with his bowl and robe. 

The main text of the book is the actual translation itself, accompanied with boxes of well researched notes, colored grey to distinguish them from the words of the sutra. An example of both appears below. A substantial Chinese-Sanskrit-English glossary follows the sutra, crammed with useful definitions and explanations of central terms used in the main body of the book. There's also several blank pages after this, presumably for the reader to supply their own notes as well - unless its Red Pine's own Zen-like wordless & humorous commentary after all the technical jargon!

As to the contents of the Lankavatara Sutra itself, the work is primarily a set of philosophical questions put forth by the bodhisattva Mahamati to the Buddha who essentially instructs the former that it is "By becoming aware that projections are nothing but mind" that we realize enlightenment (The Lankavarara Sutra, p.4). Of course, there's much more the sutra than this, and Red Pine skillfully presents the deeper and more complicated threads it in a way that helps us to grasp, intellectually at least, their meanings. To fully understand this incredible text involves we need to abandon rationality and dive into emptiness, and that is the second of the book's important messages. It's up to each of us to use the sutra to help us achieve this. In the meantime, here's a sample of Red Pine's translation skills and the notes that he supplies as well:

Mahamati once more asked the Buddha, "Bhagavan, please tell us about a buddha's awareness. Bhagavan, what constitutes a buddha's awareness?"
The Buddha told Mahamati, "It consists in realizing that there is no self in beings or things, in understanding the two obstructions, in transcending the two kinds of death, and in putting an end to the two kinds of affliction. This is what is meant by the awareness of a buddha. Those shravakas and pratyeka-buddhas capable of this are also called buddhas. This is the reason I teach one path."
The Buddha then repeated the meaning of this in verse form:
1. "Knowing the two kinds of no-self / ending the two obstructions and afflictions / transcending forever the two kinds of death / such is the awareness of buddhas."
[Red Pine's notes]
17. Section LIX. Implicit in this definition of buddhahood is a reinterpretation of the Four Noble Truths: how can there be suffering if there is no self; how can there be a cause of suffering if there is no obstruction; how can there be a cessation of suffering if there is no death; and how can there be a path leading to the cessation of suffering if there is no affliction.
18. The two obstructions are passion and knowledge. Passion is the cause of karmic death. Death is the cause of transformation death.
19. The two kinds of death are karmic death and transformation death, the latter of which is so subtle that it is barely noticed. 
20. The two afflictions are the senses and what the senses give rise to. It is on the basis of these that attachment to the two kinds of self exist and that the two kinds of obstructions appear and that the two kinds of death occur.
21. In section LVI, the Buddha says this about the one path: "By the one path I mean the path to realization. And what does the one path to realization mean? Projections of subject or object do not arise in suchness. This is what the one path to realization means." Realization changes everything. It changes who or what we are. Thus, shravakas and pratyeka-buddhas also travel the one path because there are no shravakas or pratyeka-buddhas.
(The Lankavatara Sutra, pp.170, 171, & 173)

Hopefully, the above excerpt clearly shows both the importance of The Lankavatara Sutra as a Zen Buddhist text, and the wonderful job Red Pine has done in his English version. The notes are typical of those that run throughout the book on roughly every other page, some of them taking up more than a page each. This work comes with a wholehearted recommendation from this reviewer, for both seasoned Zennists and those wishing to go to an early text in the tradition as a starting point. Either way, it is a book to return to again and again for inspiration, and Red Pine deserves our thanks and blessings for this.

The above book is published by Counterpoint Press, and is available from their website at: 
The Lankavatara Sutra