Monday, April 27, 2015

Robert Aitken on Enlightenment & Love

Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2010)

Everything falls under the law of change,
like a dream, a phantom, a bubble, a shadow,
like dew or a flash of lightning;
you should contemplate like this.

This poem comes at the end of the Diamond Sutra, and refers not only to the brevity of life, but to its very texture at any moment. It is not substantial; in fact, as the Heart Sutra says, it is empty.

Because the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness cannot be understood intellectually, it is widely misunderstood. Some Buddhist scholars are reduced to explaining it simply as the ultimate of impermanence: "When you say 'now' it is already gone." But this is not the ultimate fact.

Emptiness is simply a term we use to express that which has no quality and no age. It is completely void and at the same time altogether potent. You may call it Buddha nature, self-nature, true nature, but such words are only tags or pointers.

Form is emptiness and as the Heart Sutra also says, emptiness is form. The infinite emptiness of the universe is the essential nature of our everyday life of operating a store, taking care of the children, paying our bills, and other ordinary activities.

In realizing all this, we understand how we are just bundles of sense perceptions, with the substance of a dream or a bubble on the surface of the sea. The vanity of the usual kind of self-preoccupation becomes clear, and we are freed from selfish concerns in our enjoyment of the universe as it is, and of our own previously unsuspected depths.

The mind is completely at rest. Nothing carries over conceptually or emotionally. In this place of rest, we are not caught up in the kaleidoscope of thoughts, colors, and forms as they appear, so we do not react out of a self-centered position.

We are free to apply our humanity appropriately in the context of the moment according to the needs of people, animals, plants, and things about us. We stand on our own two feet and decide, "I will do this; I will not do that." This sense of proportion is called "compassion," a word that originally meant "suffer with others." "I am what is around me," as Wallace Stevens said in an early poem. Thus you may see that enlightenment and love are not two things.

(The above is excerpted from the excellent book ‘Taking the Path of Zen’ by Robert Aitken.)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Buddha's Ten Duties of a Leader

Do any of these leaders live up to Buddha's teachings?

Here in Thailand, society is subject to the same political vicissitudes found the world over. In recent years, this lovely country has seen turbulent times involving successive governments, claims of corruption, incompetence, and favouritism thrown around on a daily basis. The present military junta is not above such accusations either. If this predominately Buddhist nation is to progress in the future, it requires sound political leadership. But, how should Thailand expect its future elected leader to behave? Well, Buddhism does have a set of guidelines for kings, which in the modern context includes other leaders such as prime ministers and presidents. They are called the ten duties of a king, or dasa-vidha-rajadhamma in Pali (or rajadhamma for short). They were taught by the Buddha over two thousand years ago, but are as valid a set of principles now as they were all those centuries ago. Let’s take a brief look at them:

1.      Dana – charity – having a willingness to sacrifice one’s interests for the people.
2.      Sila – morality – maintaining a high moral order in one’s personal conduct.
3.      Pariccaga – altruism – being generous towards the people, avoiding selfishness.
4.      Ajjava – honesty - fulfilling one’s duties with loyalty and integrity.
5.      Maddava - gentleness – being kind and gentle, never arrogant.
6.      Tapa – self-control – to perform one’s duties with dispassion.
7.      Akkhoda – non-anger – remaining calm in the midst of confusion.
8.      Avihimsa – non-violence – being non-violent, not persecuting the people.
9.      Khanti – forbearance – practicing patience in one’s duties.
10.  Avirodhana – uprightness – respecting public opinion, promoting harmony.

Historically, there was a man who exemplified the ten rajadhamma, and that man was called King Ashoka (304-232 BCE), who ruled India for forty-one years. Initially, he was a great warrior general, winning many battles, and continued to expand the Indian empire during the first eight years of his reign. After one particularly bloody campaign, King Ashoka wandered the sight of his army’s victory, and seeing the carnage all around him, famously cried out, “What have I done?” Following this, he embraced Buddhism, establishing a just kingdom along Buddhist lines and was known as ‘Dhammashoka’ – “Pious Ashoka.” He promoted wildlife protection, banning hunting for sport, built universities, hospitals for people and animals, and constructed irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He also renounced the use of violence, ceasing all military campaigns against his neighbours, instead sending monks and nuns abroad to spread the Buddhist Teachings on wisdom and kindness. Indeed, a son and daughter of King Ashoka’s who were monk and nun took Buddhism to Sri Lanka, where it remains the predominant faith to this day. This is not to say that he promoted Buddhism at the expense of other religions, however, as he also encouraged tolerance and understanding between different creeds and ethnic groups. King Ashoka is remembered by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike as an example of a truly compassionate and just ruler, who lived according to the ten rajadhamma.

Now, this tenfold list of kingly responsibilities is surely a set of qualities that would make any ruler a great leader of their country today, just as King Ashoka was in ancient India. But do such leaders exist nowadays, one might ask, considering the many examples of politicians that have been exposed as anything but charitable, moral, or honest? Scandals have involved so many political and royal figures that it seems nigh on impossible to find one that comes anywhere near the ideals in the Ten Duties. But even if a leader or candidate for leadership displays some of the rajadhamma qualities he or she will surely be an improvement on the average world leader. We need to be aware of our leaders’ characteristics and support those that fulfil at least of the duties expected of them.

The Anglo-American Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho has spoken on the subject of the Ten Royal Duties, saying that rather than simply applying them to our presidents and prime ministers, to see if they’re really up to the job of governance, we can reflect on them with regards ourselves. We can contemplate our own behaviour, as well those who are in positions of power, to see if we are ruling our own lives in the spirit of the rajadhamma. After all, what’s the point of having a good constitution, a great leader and government, if we the people are selfish, unwise, violent, and ignoble?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ajahn Pasanno on Mindfulness & the Aggregates

Ajahn Pasanno (1949-present): Mr. Mindfulness

What the Buddha tells us in the Fire Sermon, that the eye is burning, form is burning, eye consciousness is burning, eye contact is burning, the feeling arising from eye contact is burning, is that it’s not a picnic, not something that we want to be seeking. It is not something to be delighting in, and it is not something to be averse to. It is something to wake up to, something to really take the opportunity to wake up to. Quit being a working stiff, a wage laborer. Quit seeking for more contact, trying to get the feeling you want. Pay attention to the opportunity that this is what relinquishment is about. This is what practice is about. The very act of establishing mindfulness in a moment is an opportunity to step back from the impulse of becoming. Recognizing the power of mindfulness is wisdom in and of itself. The sustaining, cherishing, willingness to maintain the quality of mindfulness takes relinquishment. It takes letting go. It takes a willingness to not accede to the power of becoming and to recognize the tremendous power in being mindful.
On one level, the teachings of the Buddha and the tools that he gives us are extraordinarily direct and straightforward. When we apply them, we see the results: Sanditthiko dhamma, “they are visible here and now; one can experience them for oneself.” The nature of the Dhamma is that “it is well-taught, well-proclaimed. It has tangible benefits. It invites one to see here and now. It is leading inwards, to be experienced by each wise person for themselves.” Each moment of mindfulness is the opportunity to verify the Dhamma of the Buddha. But in order to verify them, to really experience them, you have to be mindful; you have to be willing to pay attention, to not be swept up and swept along by the power of habit and the power of becoming.
But on a certain level, because of its directness and straight forwardness, the teaching is deceiving. The Buddha explained so many different avenues of approach, of tools, of how to experience it. This evening, I’m using the six sense bases as an example. But there are many, many ways of parsing it out. There is coming back to the five khandas and investigating them. The nature of becoming has the sense of an external object, something to become or drawn towards, or the internal sense of “me,” of being something or somebody. But if we look and see, we’ll find form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness.
You think, “Well, there’s more to me than that. I’m something more than that, more important than that. I’m not just form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. I must be something more than that.” But the reality is the way that the Buddha has parsed it out into that structure. If you really look at everything you conceive, perceive, proliferate around, that is all there is. It is not “that’s all there is and you’re nothing; you’re a nobody.” It is the basis of experience, and we create the desirable, interesting, fascinating, compelling, or the disgusting, irritating, doubtful, uncertain nature of the experience around us. We recognize that we’ve done this before and wonder how we get caught by it. It is the compulsion of becoming, the compulsion of kama-tanha, bhava-tanha, vibhava-tanha. Usually when our minds cling to the nature of experience in a personalized way, we end up running around trying to prop up a sense of a satisfied happy self, or reinventing ourselves as miserable and hopeless. But all it is is form, feeling, perception, mental formation, consciousness. And we’ve done it to ourselves.
So you recognize that you can step back to a place of mindfulness and relinquishment. You still rely on the five khandas to do that, but you use them in a skillful way. The point is the cultivation of the tools that facilitate awareness, peace and wisdom. You also have to let go of that, but you’re not pushing it away or annihilating it because you know it is going to arise and cease on its own. It is really seeing clearly; taking what we build experience from and seeing it from a place of Dhamma, as opposed to from a place of kama-tanha, bhava-tanha, vibhava-tanha—of sensual desire, desire for becoming, desire for non-becoming—which puts us into the mode of attachment and becoming.
(The above is excerpted from the book ‘On Becoming and Stopping’ by Ajahn Pasanno, and can be downloaded for free here.)