Thursday, December 27, 2012

Forest Walking IV

Walking the forest path in Wat Pa Nanachat ('International Forest Monastery') always reveals something new, something fresh. In fact, each moment is new & fresh, as long as the mind remains alert in the present, open to its environs. And what environs! Trees form a dramatic canopy that protects against the tropical heat (to a degree or two, at least!), and the path itself winds in-between them, leading these feet always to somewhere interesting. 
Full of life, the forest is never still for a second, although it sometimes seems that way if we're not so alert. Even when its contents visually merge into one, green blending to black, there are sounds that infiltrate the stillness. Birds, insects, and other, less easily identifiable creatures call for attention, and the trees themselves rustle with the massaging of the wind. The creaking of giant bamboo is a sound frequently heard in the forest, a sound unfamiliar to these western ears that takes a few seconds to identify. 
But even the enormous bamboo plants that prod upwards are not invincible. Along the forest path there are several arches, formed from fallen bamboo, almost as if a giant ogre has been at work forming gateways amongst the trees. They are extremely impressive, demanding attention and not a little wonder at nature's ways. But to stop too long is to invite the close attentions of the mosquitoes that hunt in this environment. So, feet march on to new sights and sounds.
It isn't only small objects that catch the eye on the forest path. In fact, more often than not it is small, even tiny things that stand out. Leaves are particularly good at demanding contemplation. Not the mass of leaves that continually fall to the forest floor, of course, for they tend to blend together due to their sheer numbers. There are, amongst them however, individual leaves that are unusual in some way, either in their colour or condition. Sometimes intricate patterns are formed by the eating habits of unseen insects, other times a specific leaf may allure the eye. 
Gazing upwards, branches & leaves are silhouetted against the sky, which is often a few specks of light piercing the darkness. This reflects the denseness of the mind's contents in relation to the clarity of awareness that lies 'behind' them. The cool blue of the firmament is the personification of that quality of mind that is without bias or attachment. So often in the heat of daily activities we lose sight of it, perhaps for years - but then it appears from nowhere, like the heavens bursting forth into the earth. 
This isn't to say that only the sky of the clear mind is the Dharma ('the truth of the way things are'). Truth manifests in the entanglements of the woods also. Those little things referred to earlier can also be the very arising of wisdom in this present moment, in the form of birdsong or a golden leaf. And there are depths of meaning to be gleaned here, too. A golden leaf may speak to us of something shining akin to a golden buddha statue, or it may equally be the embodiment of impermanence; a fading away of the green of life into the gold-brown of death. Alternatively, beauty may demand recognition, showing us that from the dirt of delusion may grow the flower of wisdom.
Forest walking is a wonder. But then, to walk anywhere can be wondrous with the correct attitude. Right attitude is one of the eight aspects of the noble path that leads to enlightenment, and it is something that we can all cultivate, whichever particular path we may be traversing. To develop thoughts free from lust, ill-will & cruelty is right attitude, according to the Buddha. On the forest path, we can learn to let go of these negative qualities that prevent the growth of wisdom, and attend to the insights gained through mindful walking. But, we can also do this on any path, and if we do, we will be awakening step by step.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Forest Tanka

damp forest
spider trees weave
a web of leaves
fluttering foliage

light burns
the forest path
patches of sun
tree trunks reach
up for heaven

shadowed leaves
brush over this track
the briefest breeze
ants march single file
winding pindabat

beneath entwining 
branches and grass
something glistens
soft grass underfoot
ouch! an ant bites

brightest yellow
discarded on the floor
a butterfly wing
only after the rain
a wet forest path

bent bamboo
drunkenly hangs
damp forest air
sun piercing gaps
in the green canopy

after vassa
a solitary leaf
hangs forlorn
mosquito buzzing
seeking breakfast

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Bankei Zen, by Peter Haskel

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was a great Zen master. He was also original and somewhat iconoclastic in his approach to the teaching of Zen. Perhaps this latter trait has denied him the fame and acclaim that other Zen masters have received both in the east and the west. Or perhaps it's in the very essence of his teaching of the Unborn Buddha Mind that his directness is uncomfortable for more conventional Zen enthusiasts. Bankei deserves or attention as much as any other of the better-known Zen masters, and in this book Peter Haskel presents us with the means to do so. 

Bankei Zen contains a superb mixture of translations from the original Japanese, containing sermons, poems and letters by the 17th century master. Haskel also includes an illuminating introduction which describes Bankei's unique path to awakening and subsequent career as an incredibly popular teacher of Zen. We learn of his rebellious nature when he rejected established ideas about the 'Bright Virtue,' a concept he learned with a Confucian teacher, and instead sought to experience it for himself. The accounts of Bankei's struggles with various hardships and illnesses in pursuit of truth are among the most inspirational this reader has read regarding the correct attitude towards attaining enlightenment. And the occasion when he realized it is…bizarre! 

Haskel explores the above-mentioned 'Unborn Buddha Mind,' a concept found in other Buddhist teachings, but presented by Bankei in a way that many of his contemporaries found accessible and appealing. Rather devoting ourselves to complex rituals and philosophical studies, Bankei encourages us to "Abide in the Unborn!" This is done by letting things be as they are, and allowing our self-centeredness and attachments to drop away. He used simple, everyday language to convey the Unborn to his listeners, which Haskel has translated well into modern English. The following extracts from Bankei Zen should illustrate the above points succinctly.

"With the dynamic function of the marvelously illuminating Buddha Mind, every object that comes before your eyes is individually recognized and distinguished without your doing a thing. So, even though you're not trying to do so, you recognize thousands of different impressions by sight or sound. All these are things with form - the things in people's hearts that can't be seen - are precisely reflected. Even with the different sorts of faces you encounter, their good or evil thoughts are reflected by the marvelously illuminating Buddha Mind."
(Bankei Zen, p.79)

"I can tell you something about this matter of women's Buddha Mind. I understand that women feel very distressed hearing it said that they can't become buddhas. But it simply isn't so! How is there any difference between men and women? Men are the Buddha Body and women are the Buddha Body too. You shouldn't entertain any doubts of this sort. When you thoroughly grasp the Unborn, then, in the Unborn, there's no difference whether you're a man or a woman. Everyone is the Buddha Body."
(Ibid. p.35)

"For one who at all times conclusively realizes the Buddha Mind, when he goes to bed, he goes to bed with the Buddha Mind; when he gets up, he gets up with the Buddha Mind; when he stays, he stays with the Buddha Mind; when he goes, he goes with the Buddha Mind…At all times he abides continually in the Buddha Mind, and there's not a single moment he isn't in the Buddha Mind.
(Ibid. p.92)

"Don't hate the arising of thoughts or stop the thoughts that do arise; simply realize that our original mind, right from the start, is beyond thought, so that, no matter what, you never get involved with thoughts. Illuminate original mind, and no other understanding is necessary."
(Ibid. p.136)

The above quotations are just a taster of the Buddhist wisdom found in the pages of Bankei Zen, by Peter Haskel. The book is chock-a-block full of interesting and inspiring teachings that we can all benefit from reflecting on. As a document to Bankei's life & teachings, it is beautifully put together, full of scholarly notes for the more erudite reader and is illustrated with photographs pertaining to Zen master Bankei. If there's one book on Zen Buddhism you buy yourself (or someone else) this year, make it this one - you can't be disappointed. After all, you are the marvelously illuminating Unborn Buddha Mind!

The the publisher's page of the book at Grove Press, click here: Bankei Zen

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Metta Bhavana (Loving-Kindness Meditation)

Ajahn Brahm: full of metta

A wonderful exponent of metta (goodwill, or 'loving-kindness') is Ajahn Brahmavamso, an Englishman who is abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia. Ajahn Brahm (as he is affectionately known) is a very popular teacher amongst Buddhists in the Thai forest tradition, and is very skillful in his descriptions of the meditative life - his book, ‘Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond’ is the main source of inspiration for my own meditation practice these days. He has taught extensively on Buddhist teachings including meditation and many other topics such as everyday mindfulness. But here, I want to focus on his directions on how to practice metta meditation.

Ajahn Brahm advises starting off by visualizing a kitten, puppy, baby or any another helpless creature or thing (even a young plant), imagining it as needing our care, our love and attention, as it is not doing so well. We see that it is in a sorry state, and we imagine holding it, feeding it, and caring for it, perhaps telling it how we will look after it and protect it. With the feeling of kindness that we’ve developed, we next turn our attention to someone close to us; our partner, a friend or close relation. Extending the feeling of loving-kindness to this person, we wish them well, extending positive thoughts of goodwill towards them. When this feeling fills the mind, the next subject to receive our careful attention is an acquaintance whom we know but not as well as the previous person. Thirdly, metta is directed to someone that we don’t like, someone that causes us displeasure; an enemy, even, if we have one. No matter what bad things they have done to us, or bad habits they have that we dislike, we overcome our negative thoughts by wishing them well.

Ajahn Brahm next instructs us to emit loving-kindness to the people that we live with or work with, or to our neighbors, before sharing such positive feelings with all beings, as in the Metta Sutta quote: “May all beings be at ease!” Lastly, he tells us to extend metta towards...our own self. For, as Ajahn Brahm points out, how many of us, particularly in the West, have bad or guilty feelings towards ourselves? The one person that many of us don’t really like, at least subconsciously, is our own self, and this is why Ajahn Brahm instructs us to develop metta towards all beings first, filling the world with loving-kindness before turning our attention upon our own being. Having wished goodwill towards all others, we then do the same for ourselves, overcoming any latent self-criticism with the strength of well-developed metta. Ajahn Brahm has taught that metta meditation softens the mind, making full of goodwill as the meditator becomes more selfless and peaceful towards others. He has stated that metta is an emotion that is full of delight and pure in nature. When developed, it takes residence in the heart and the meditator becomes more compassionate with their kindness a source of great joy to all.

Footnote: Years back, I was experiencing difficulties getting to sleep at night. I’d read, or heard, somewhere that practicing metta meditation upon retiring to bed could help such a condition, enabling one to fall asleep and have a sound and comfortable night’s sleep. So I tried it, and it worked beautifully, really quickly. (In fact, I rarely got to extend loving- kindness to myself, as I’d fall asleep long before I got to that point of the meditation.) So,whether for the benefit of others or for oneself, or both, metta bhavana can have great results. Why not try it?

For more on metta, see the following;
Metta / Loving-Kindness

Friday, December 7, 2012

Metta / Loving-Kindness

A very popular Buddhist sutta (scripture / discourse) is called the Karaniya-metta Sutta, or the Metta Sutta for short. Metta is one of those Pali Buddhist terms difficult to translate accurately into English, but is usually rendered as something like ‘loving-kindness’ or 'goodwill.' Well over a decade ago, when attending a meditation retreat in England, I listened to two Buddhist forest monks recite the above sutta in English. The words stirred something subconscious in me, and I noticed much to my surprise tears trickling down my cheeks in recognition of the profundity of the words. I say recognition because there’s always been something inherently familiar in the essential Buddhist teachings from the earliest times that I encountered them in my teens, almost as though I was rediscovering them rather than coming across them for the first time. Anyhow, in the said sutta, the following words are to be found:

“In gladness and in safety, 
May all beings be at ease. 
Whatever beings there may be, 
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, 
The great or the mighty, medium, short, or small, 
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away, 
Those born and to be born, 
May all beings be at ease.”

Now, these words are central to the Buddhist form of kindness, which is not a reciprocal thing; it is the undertaking that I will be kind to you whether or not you’re nice to me. This is not a kindness born of friendship, family, or personal love, but an impersonal feeling that is projected to all and sundry, whatever one may think of them. But is it practical? If I think you’re an idiot, or worse still, an evil so-and-so, is it possible (or desirable) to wish you well? Well, yes and yes! For, in developing an over-riding impulse to feel loving-kindness to all beings (and that even includes those pesky mosquitoes that constantly want to feast on our blood!), we not only make life more pleasant for others, but also for ourselves.

If I go around feeling resentment and ill-will to various people (and other creatures), then I’m creating negative mind states in myself, as well potentially offending the recipients of my negative attitudes. But, if I let go of my attachments to how I think others should be, and feel kindness towards whoever they may be, I’ll not only be more relaxed in myself, but I’ll also avoid those negative frames of mind that sow the seeds of future unhappiness.

Sounds all airy-fairy and impractical? Not in the least! What’s more practical or down- to-earth in the long run: disciplining one’s mind to be more positive and kind, or dwelling in enmity towards those one doesn’t take to? The path of developing metta is not pie-in- the-sky, nor is it necessarily an easy one, but it is most certainly worth while, for in cultivating positive, generous states of mind, we create a better world for ourselves and those we come into contact with. Now, that’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?

For more on the Metta Sutta see here:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dependent Origination / Paticca-samuppada

"'Monks, I will teach you dependent origination. Listen to that and attend closely, I will speak.'

'Yes, venerable sir,' those monks replied.

The Blessed One said this:
'And what, monks, is dependent origination? With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This, monks, is called dependent origination.

'But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, the cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness, cessation of name-and-form; with the cessation of consciousness, cessation of name-and-form; with the cessation of name-and-form, cessation of the six sense bases; with the cessation of the six sense bases, cessation of contact; with the cessation of contact, cessation of feeling; with cessation of feeling, cessation of craving; with the cessation of craving, cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of existence; with the cessation of existence, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.'"
(The Buddha, from the Samyutta Nikaya 12:1, Pali Canon)

Note: Elsewhere on Buddha Space, paticca-samuppada is translated as 'dependent arising.' This is an alternative rendering of the original Pali into English that I prefer, but in the above text the translator Bhikkhu Bodhi has chosen 'dependent origination.' Both translations are valid, but the latter can appear somewhat cumbersome, and can also imply that the process has already occurred and ceased. In actuality, dependent arising is a continual, moment-to-moment process that only ceases after the realization of nirvana. For a review of the book by Bhikkhu Bodhi that the above translation is excerpted from (p.353), please click here: Review: In the Buddha's Words.