Friday, September 27, 2013

The Heart Sutra

When Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva was engaged in the practice of the deep prajnaparamita, he perceived that there are the five aggregates; and these he saw in their true nature to be empty.

"O Sariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form; that which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness is form. The same can be said of sensation, perception, thought, and consciousness.

"O Sariputra, all things here are characterized with emptiness: they are not born, they are not annihilated; they are not tainted, they are not immaculate; they do not increase, they do not decrease. Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no thought, no consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, sound, colour, taste, touch, objects; no element of vision, till we come to no element of consciousness; there is no knowledge, no ignorance, till we come to there is no old age and death, no extinction of old age and death; there is no suffering, no accumulation, no annihilation, no path; there is no knowledge, no attainment, and no realization, because there is no attainment. In the mind of the bodhisattva who dwells depending on the prajnaparamita there are no obstacles; and, going beyond the perverted views, he reaches final nirvana. All the buddhas of the past, present, and future, depending on the prajnaparamita, attain to the highest perfect enlightenment.

"Therefore, one ought to know that the prajnaparamita is the great mantra, the mantra of great wisdom, the highest mantra, the peerless mantra, which is capable of allaying all pain; it is truth because it is not falsehood: this is the mantra proclaimed in the prajnaparamita. It runs: 'Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha!' (Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond, hail enlightenment!)"

*Notes. A few points in the above text may need clarifying. Bodhisattva is the highest form of practice in Mahayana Buddhism, which is prevalent in such places as China, Japan, & Tibet. Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva of compassion, popular all over the far east. Sariputra was one of the Buddha's foremost disciples, renowned for his insight, which is revealing here as he is the recipient of wisdom. Prajnaparamita means roughly 'transcendent wisdom,' and is the highest wisdom recognized in Mahayana Buddhism. The aggregates are the Buddha's fivefold classification of human experience: form, sensation, perception, thought, and consciousness. Emptiness is not mere materialist nihilism, and isn't to be understood intellectually, but directly experienced through meditative practice & insight. The final mantra is in praise of enlightenment, the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. The Heart Sutra is chanted by Buddhists every day all over the world, and is used as a focus of reflection to realize nirvana. Bodhi svaha!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Buddha, Beethoven & Beatles

Buddhism can sometimes appear as am austere tradition. Indeed, in the earliest known monastic rules monks & nuns are forbidden to listen to listen to music as it might distract them from their mindfulness practices. These rules are still found in the monks' rules in Thailand, along with a few other countries, but monks do often appear to enjoy music in the land of smiles, as observed by this author. There are some monastics that do not indulges in music, but music is played in public a lot in Thailand, even in festivals and other activities within Buddhist temples, so it's difficult for many monks to avoid, really. 

In other Buddhist traditions, as found in Tibet and China, for example, music is not only listened to by monastics, but actually performed by them, especially during Buddhist services. Chinese Buddhist chanting is often accompanied by music, and is itself most melodious, and the image of Tibetan monks blowing on long horns and clanging cymbals is an enduring image. Thai Buddhist chanting, on the other hand, is normally performed a cappella, and is pretty monotone in style. It is done this way to avoid any indulging in music or melody, thereby avoiding getting caught up in the beauty of music. (Many Buddhists will tell you, however, that it is possible to get entranced by the hypnotic qualities of such plain chant - this author included!)

Buddhist laity, whatever the tradition, are not proscribed from listening to - and enjoying - music. Only when staying in certain meditation temples are they discouraged from listening to or performing music. This author knows from personal experience that music can have all kinds of effects on the mind, sometimes calming, other times agitating. As these words are being written, Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major is emerging from the same computer that these words are being typed into. Such music can complement mindfulness practice if attenuated to correctly - and it can help to avoid the boredom that so often drives us away from being heedful of this present moment.

Listening to music can be a mindfulness practice in itself. Like mantra recitation, or shamanic drumming, it can be used to keep the mind in this current moment. This assists in cultivating present-moment awareness so important in Buddhist practice. Something I've enjoyed since a teenager is listening to music on headphones or earphones, giving the impression that music is coming from within rather than without. This enables one to focus even more clearly on the music, being able to follow a particular instrument through a song from beginning to end. Attaching attention to Paul McCarney's often very creative bass lines in those great old Beatles' records is an enjoyable example of this. Just listen to his bass guitar work on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and you'll see what I mean. 

When listening to music attentively, something wonderful can happen; awareness moves from the sound of the music to the sound of the silence in which it arises. This silence is amazing in that it is capacity not only for Beethoven, the Beatles and other great composers' music, but for any sounds that occur. It doesn't judge them or discriminate between them, bit rather gives them all the space they need to exist. Moreover, this silence isn't something separate from the listener, but is in fact his or her core nature. Sounds (along with all other phenomena, both mental as well as physical) arise, exist and end in this silent awareness. Both in meditation and in general mindful living, this spaciousness is the impartial host to all that is. To awaken to it is to begin the real Buddhist journey towards realization of the Buddha within; this 'Buddha Space.'

Making our everyday life our Buddhist practice is a crucial aspect of walking the Buddhist path. Monastics do this by adapting their environment so that many ordinary occurrences simply do not arise for them, enabling them to focus their attention more easily on their subject of awareness, whether it be their mind or body. We laypeople can do the same to some extent, but then as most of us do not live in a monastery or a cave, we can't cut out all of the distractions and pleases that monastics can. But what we can do is to adapt what we do experience to fit into a meditative regime. Beethoven and the Beatles can be used this way - as can most, if not all, music - moreover, our enjoyment of their music can help us to stick to the mindful path, not slipping off so often into the dream worlds of past and future. So, if you enjoy music, whether making it or listening to it, why not use as a focus for mindfulness practice - and you can hear your way to enlightenment!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Buddha on 'A Thicket of Views'

Not knowing what is worthy of consideration, and what is unworthy of consideration, the ignorant worldling considers the unworthy, and not the worthy.

And unwisely he considers thus: ‘Have I been in the past? Or, have I not been in the past? What have I been in the past? How have I been in the past? From what state into what state did I change in the past?

Shall I be in the future? Or, shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? From what state into what state shall I change in the future?’

And the present also fills him with doubt; ‘Am I? Or, am I not? What am I? How am I? This being, whence has it come? Whither will it go?’

And with such unwise considerations, he adopts one or other of the six views, and it becomes his conviction and firm belief: ‘I have a Self’, or: ‘I have no Self’, or: ‘With the Self I perceive the Self’, or: ‘With that which is no Self, I perceive the Self’; or: ‘With the Self I perceive that which is no Self’. Or, he adopts the following view: ‘This my Self, which can think and feel, and which, now here, now there, experiences the fruit of good and evil deeds: this my Self is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, and will thus eternally remain the same’.

If there really existed the Self, there would also exist something which belonged to the Self. As, however, in truth and reality neither the Self, nor anything belonging to the Self, can be found, is it not therefore really an utter fools’ doctrine to say: ‘This is the world, this am I; after death I shall be permanent, persisting, and eternal’?

These are called mere views, a thicket of views, a puppet- show of views, a toil of views, a snare of views; and ensnared in the fetter of views the ignorant worldling will not be freed from rebirth, from decay, and from death, from sorrow, pain, grief and despair; he will not be freed, I say, from suffering.
(Buddha, taken from Majjhima Nikaya 2 & Majjhima Nikaya 22)