Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Buddhist Glossary

Although every attempt is made on Buddha Space to avoid unnecessary use of complicated or unfamiliar terminology, Buddhism has a long and sometimes complicated history, and the terms found in it have often evolved a meaning peculiar to it. To help the reader circumnavigate the murky waters of such semantics, the following glossary is offered. If any mistakes or glaring omissions have been made, please use the post’s comments feature to offer your assistance in improving these efforts. All non-English terms are Sanskrit except where stated, the latter being used for Mahayana terms. Pali is an Indian language closely related to Sanskrit used in Theravada Buddhism. The words in bold are the usual ones to be found on Buddha Space.
Ajahn (Thai): ‘Teacher’ or ‘Master’ in secular as well as monastic usage.
Amitabha/Amituofo (Chinese)/Amida (Japanese): The Buddha of Infinite Light, whose name is repeated all over the Far East in the hope of being reborn in his ‘Western Paradise’; in Chinese Zen, repetition of his name can lead to concentrative states of mind and enlightenment.
Anatman/Anatta (Pali): ‘Not Self’; the denial of a permanent & separate self.
Anitya/Anicca (Pali): ‘Impermanence’; all created things are impermanent.
Arhat/Arahant (Pali): An enlightened person in Theravada Buddhism.
Aryastangamarga/ Ariya Atthangika Magga (Pali): The Noble Eightfold Path which consists of Right Understanding; Right Attitude; Right Speech; Right Action; Right Livelihood; Right Effort; Right Mindfulness; Right Concentration.
Atman/Atta (Pali): ‘Self’; the idea, belief, or delusional experience of selfhood.
Avidya/Avijja (Pali): ‘Ignorance’; not knowing the truths of not-self or emptiness.
Bhagavan/Bhagava (Pali): ‘Lord’ or ‘Blessed One’; a title of the Buddha.
Bhikshu/Bhikkhu (Pali): A fully-ordained Buddhist monk.
Bhikshuni/Bhikkhuni (Pali): A fully-ordained Buddhist nun.
Bodhi: ‘Enlightenment’, literally ‘Awakening’; realization of the way things are; equals Nirvana.
Bodhisattva: ‘Being of Enlightenment’; a being that forgoes full enlightenment in order to save others from suffering first; the Mahayana equivalent to an Arhat.
Buddha: ‘The Enlightened One’; literally ‘The Awakened One’; the historical Buddha; The primordial reality that lies beneath apparent phenomena (in this Mahayana sense, Buddha equals the unconditioned Dharma or ‘Buddha Nature’); ‘buddha’ can indicate any of the enlightened teachers that founded Buddhism in the distant past.
Buddhadata: ‘Buddha Nature’; our innate reality; equals Nirvava.
Buddhadharma: ‘The Teachings of the Buddha’.
Catvari Aryasatyani/Cattari Ariya Saccani (Pali): ‘The Four Noble Truths’; the essential teachings of the Buddha; 1) life is suffering, 2) desire causes suffering, 3) to end desire ends suffering, 4) the path leading to this end (The Noble Eightfold Path.)
Chan (Chinese): short for ‘Channa’, equaling the Sanskrit Dhyana; in Japanese pronounced ‘Zen’.
Dana: ‘Generosity’; an important quality Buddhists are encouraged to develop, along with morality and meditation.
Dao/Tao (Chinese): ‘The Way’; traditional term meaning the underlying reality of things; in Buddhism, designates the Buddhist Path;
Dharma: equals ultimate reality, or 'the-way-things-are'; with small d means any thing or quality of a thing.
Dharmachakra: ‘Dharma Wheel’; a symbol of the Noble Eightfold Path, and of Buddhism itself.
Dharmakaya: ‘the Dharma Body’; the ultimate ‘body’ of a Buddha; the unconditioned.
Dhyana/Jhana (Pali): Deep states of meditative concentration or ‘absorption’.
Duhkha/Dukkha (Pali): ‘Unsatisfactory’ or suffering nature of all created things or states.
Ekayana: ‘the One Vehicle’ (mindfulness) that leads to enlightenment found in the teachings on the satipatthana of Theravada Buddhism; ‘the One Vehicle ‘ that supersedes all other vehicles or ways, as written in the Lotus Scripture of Mahayana Buddhism.
Guanyin (Chinese) Kannon (Japanese): also Guanshiyin/Kuanyin/Kuanshiyin (Chinese) & Kanzeon (Japanese); the Bodhisattva that ‘hears the cries of the world’ in Far Eastern Buddhism; an oriental version of Avalokiteshvara.
Hui-neng (Chinese): The sixth patriarch of Zen Buddhism; an important founder of the Zen school of Buddhism, revered by all Zen Buddhists.
Jina: ‘the Victor’; the historical Buddha who had a victory over Yama and suffering.
Karma/Kamma: ‘Action’; all action that has a result, whether in this life or a future one.
Karuna: ‘Compassion’, an emotion highly regarded in all types of Buddhism.
Koan (Japanese): a kind of Zen riddle that leads the aspirant to a moment of sudden breakthrough into awakening to reality.
Marga/Magga (Pali): ‘The Path’ or ‘The Way’(see Dao); the Buddhist Path.
Mahayana: ‘the Great Vehicle’; the form of Buddhism found in such places as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and the Himalayas. It emphasizes the ideal of the Bodhisattva as opposed to the Arhat, and puts great importance on compassion.
Mara: the Buddhist ‘Devil’; the personification of evil in Buddhist tradition.
Metta: ‘Kindness’, ‘Loving-kindness’ or ‘Goodwill’, highly regarded by Buddhists.
Nembutsu (Japanese)/ Nienfo (Chinese): 'Recitation of Buddha'. The practice of reciting the mantra 'Namo Amitabha Buddha', which is 'Namo Amituofo' in Chinese & 'Namu Amida Butsu' in Japanese. This is done to concentrate & purify the mind, either to worthy of rebirth in Amitabha's heaven, or to realize Bodhi here and now.
Nirvana/Nibbana (Pali): ‘Extinction’ (of greed, hatred and delusion); equals Bodhi.
Prajna/Panna (Pali): ‘Wisdom’; the realization that all things are impermanent, suffering, and not-self, and the emptiness that lies at their heart.
Prajna-Paramita: ‘The Perfection of Wisdom’; an important stage on the Way, extolled particular in Mahayana Buddhism, centered on the realization of emptiness.
Pratimoksha/Patimokkha (Pali): ‘the Monk’s Rules’ of conduct.
Pratitya-samutpada/Paticcasamuppada: ‘Dependent Arising’, sometimes ‘Dependent Origination’; a twelve-step description of how ignorance leads to birth, suffering, and death.
Pratyekabuddha/Paccekabuddha (Pali): ‘Solitary Buddha’; a being that realizes enlightenment but doesn’t teach others how to achieve it also.
Samadhi: ‘Concentration’; a single-focus of mind that leads to calmness and includes the various states of absorption (see Dhyana/Jhana).
Sangha: ‘Community’ or ‘Order’; in ‘Bhikshu-Sangha’, the Order of Monks; in 'Arya-Sangha', the Community of Arhats or awakened ones.
Samsara: ‘the Rounds of Rebirth’; the continual rebirth, moment-to-moment and life-to-life of the unenlightened being.
Satori (Japanese): 'Understanding'. An awakening to reality in the present moment. Degrees of satori are recognized in Zen Buddhism that will lead to Nirvana.
Smrti-upasthana/Satipatthana (Pali): ‘Bases of Mindfulness’ or ‘Foundations of Mindfulness’; important teachings on objects for mindful awareness in Theravada Buddhism; 1) mindfulness of the body, 2) mindfulness of feelings, 3) mindfulness of the mind, 4) mindfulness of mental objects.
Shakyamuni: ‘Sage of the Shakyas’; a title of the Buddha (Shakya being his clan name).
Shramana/Samana (Pali): ‘Striver’; an Indian homeless wanderer in search of enlightenment; equals a monk or nun in Buddhist usage.
Shunyata: ‘Emptiness; the essential fact that all created things are inherently empty of a separate self; found in Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism but emphasized in the latter.
Siddhartha Gautama/Siddhattha Gotama (Pali): the name of the historical Buddha; Gautama was his surname.
Sila: ‘Morality’; a crucial aspect to the practice of Buddhism, sometimes overlooked!
Skandha/Khanda (Pali): ‘the Aggregates’ that make up a human being, consisting of 1) body, 2) feelings, 3) perceptions, 4) mental formations, and 5) consciousness.
Sutra/Sutta (Pali): literally ‘thread’, as in the thread of meaning that runs through some teachings; it means a discourse (usually) spoken by the Buddha; Mahayana Buddhism uses Sutra whereas Theravada Buddhism uses Sutta.
Tathagata: the ‘Thus-come-one’ or ‘Thus-gone-one’; a title of the historical Buddha.
Theravada (Pali): ‘the Doctrine of the Elders’; one of the two main kinds of Buddhism in the world today; followers believe it is the oldest extant form of Buddhism, and that its scriptures contain the actual teachings of the historical Buddha. It is predominant in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
Tipitaka (Pali): the Theravada Buddhist scriptures.
Tripitaka: the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures.
Trisharana/Tisarana (Pali): ‘the Triple Gem’ or ‘the Three Jewels’ that Buddhists take refuge in; 1) the Buddha 2) the Dharma 3) the Sangha.
Wat (Thai): ‘temple-monastery’; a Buddhist temple where monks live.
Yama: the Hindu and Buddhist god of hell that symbolizes death itself.
Zazen (Japanese): ‘Sitting Zen’; to sit in meditation in Zen Buddhism.
Zen (Japanese): short & much more common term for ‘zenna’, meaning ‘absorption’ or meditation; also indicates the reality that lies beyond words and concepts, and which Buddhists seek to discover; Chan in Chinese. See Dharma.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

E-book Review: The Heart Sutra by Master Hua

“If you wish to cultivate the Way, don’t look outside yourself, for outside there is nothing to be sought. You should search within your own nature.” (‘The Heart Sutra by Master Hua’, page 36)

Master Xuan Hua, often given as Hsuan Hua, was a Chinese Zen monk who transplanted his tradition of Buddhism to America, setting up the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a temple in California. The temple not only hosts the training of monks, nuns, and laity, but also has a school and a university connected to it. As well as being the abbot of this very active monastery, the Master also instigated the translation into English of the major Mahayana Sutras, believing this was an important step in preserving what he considered to be ‘Orthodox Buddhism’.

Master Hua was well known and respected for his erudite commentaries on the Mahayana Sutras, which included the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Platform Sutra, and a monumental interpretation of the Shurangama Sutra, which is transcribed from a 96 day talk to an assembly of followers. This review focuses on Master Hua’s commentary on the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, or the Heart Sutra as it is generally known in the West, which is a pdf book 216 pages long, and downloadable for free from the Gold Buddha Monastery Website.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One is a translation of the Sutra into English, made by the Buddhist Text Translation Society (BTTS), the organization set up by the Master to render such scripture into English. Part Two is Master Hua’s verse commentary on the Sutra, whilst Part Three is a prose commentary on Parts One and Two. The Heart Sutra is essentially a summation of the Mahayana teachings known as the Prajna Paramita (‘Perfection of Wisdom’). Here’s a sample from the BTTS version of a famous section of the Sutra:

“Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness;
Emptiness does not differ from form.
Form itself is emptiness; emptiness is itself form.
So, too, are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness.”
(The Heart of Prajna Paramita, page 31)

“Form does not differ from emptiness”:
“is” is like “is not”.
“Emptiness does not differ from form”:
the distinction is of substance and function.
“Form itself is emptiness”:
its true source is fathomed.
“Emptiness is itself form”:
the false flow has dried up.
Mountains, rivers, and the freat earth
are only manifestations of consciousness.
Be careful not to seek outside;
maintain the Middle Way.
To cast down stained threads of cause
is to come toward the Thus.
(ibid. page 85)

“What is form? That which has a perceptible characteristic is form. What is emptiness? That which is without characteristics is emptiness. Then why does the text say, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form; form is itself emptiness and emptiness is itself form? The sutra declares the ultimate meaning which penetrates clearly to the most fundamental principle.” (ibid. page 86)

It is this “most fundamental principle” that Master Hua is concerned to direct us to, and the combination of sutra, verse and prose comments are true skillful means that he employs to help us awaken to our true nature. The book contains pragmatic explanations of the Dharma also, as when describing the above relationship between form and emptiness in terms of a table occupying empty space. (The emptiness exists whether the table is there or not, and the form of the table has its being in the emptiness; relate this to the mind, and we just might have a glimpse of Nirvana!)

In his commentary, the Master also describes the basic Buddhist teaching of the Buddha’s first noble truth of suffering, describing the various kinds of suffering, using two different systems of classification. The first divides suffering into three main kinds, whilst the second cites eight types of suffering. Master Hua explains these two systems in lucid terms, leaving no doubt as to the universal nature of suffering, advising us to carefully reflect on the meaning of suffering:

“The three sufferings are also called the three kinds of feeling: the feeling of suffering, the feeling of happiness, and the feeling of neither happiness nor suffering. Therefore, the suffering of suffering itself is the feeling of suffering, and the suffering of decay is the feeling of happiness. Yo shouldn’t try to refute this by thinking that happiness is not caught up in suffering, because happiness can go bad.” (ibid. page 75)

The book also uses the Sutra as a starting point to explore various other essential teachings of the Buddha, including the Five Aggregates of being, Dependent Origination, the Four Noble Truths, and Nirvana. It also carefully explains the meaning of the important Mahayana Buddhist conception of the Bodhisattva, describing its etymology as deriving from the words “enlightenment” and “sentient beings”, indicating that the Bodhisattva is one who causes all beings to become enlightened. We will finish here with Master Hua elucidating the ultimate goal of Buddhism, Nirvana:

‘People who don’t understand the Buddhadharma say, “Nirvana is nothing but dying.” Yet that dying is not the same as death, because it is a voluntary dying; it is known and understood. What there was to be done is already done, and pure practice is already established, and so you undergo no further existence. Therefore, you wish to enter nirvana, the state in which there is no birth and death. You yourself know beforehand that you are going to enter nirvana: “At a certain time I will enter nirvana and perfect the stillness.” Thus this is dying which is voluntary and understood.’ (ibid. page 179)

‘The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra’ may be downloaded free of charge from the Gold Buddha Monastery’s website at the following address: Gold Buddha Monastery: Sutras.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

E-book Review: The Teachings of Ajahn Chah

“To define Buddhism without a lot of words and phrases, we can simply say, ‘Don’t cling or hold on to anything. Harmonize with actuality, with things as they are.’”
(Page 26, ‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah’)

This is a monumental work. Basically, this book is all of the talks of Ajahn Chah translated into English collected in one large volume, and as such is pretty much an electronic version of the commercial paperback release Food for the Heart, published by Wisdom Publications. The Teachings of Ajahn Chah is available completely free, in both pdf and online formats, from his former monastery’s website here Wat Nong Pah Pong.

The book is 725 pages long and contains all the separate books published by his various monasteries over the years, including Bodhinyana, Living Dhamma, Clarity of Insight and Everything is Teaching Us, amongst others. Ajahn Chah was very popular both with native Thais and Westerners wishing to learn the Dharma from a living master, some as laypeople, and others as monks or nuns living under his leadership in Northeast Thailand. A flavor of the way he instructed his disciples comes the book’s introduction:

“He taught villagers how to manage their family lives and finances, yet he might be just as likely to tell them about making causes for realization of Nibbana. He could instruct a visiting group on the basis of morality, without moralizing and in a way that was uplifting, but would gently remind them of their morality at the end of infusing them with his infectious happiness; or he might scold the daylights out of local monastics and laypeople. He could start a discourse by expounding on the most basic Buddhist ideas and seamlessly move on to talking about ultimate reality.”
(From the foreword by Paul Breiter)

One classic talk to be found in the book is also one of my own favorites entitled Our Real Home. It was a talk addressed to an aging lay disciple approaching her death, and using all his teacher’s skills. Ajahn Chah began by using the analogy of household utensils such as cups, saucers, plates and so on as examples of aging and impermanence. He tells the disciple to accept that the body too ages and decays just like her kitchen ware, and through contemplating this fact she can come to terms with her own impending mortality. He doesn’t stop here, however; the talk winds on leading to a most striking description of the meditative process by using the mantra Buddho (a variant of the word Buddha), which leads to a letting go of all that is impermanent. He tells her that:

“Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, it’s only nominally ours. It’s home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace. An external, material home may well be pretty but it is not very peaceful. There’s this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it’s not our real home, it’s external to us.”
(Page 218, ‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah)

Elsewhere in the book there are explanations of Buddhist teachings such as The Four Noble Truths, suffering and its ending, Samadhi (meditative concentration), morality, Vinaya (monk’s rules of conduct), and Right View, to name but a few. Ajahn Chah comes across in these transcribed talks as someone totally at peace with himself and the world, and has often been described by those that knew him as the happiest person they ever met. As a strict forest monk, he kept to the monk’s discipline assiduously, and demanded the same from his ordained disciples. Yet, he could also be incredibly humorous or tactful when the occasion required such. He was even referred to by some senior Thai monks as a sort of ‘Zen Theravada Buddhist’, with his tendency to sacrifice orthodoxy when the situation asked for something more vital and direct. The following extract could well have been said by a Mahayana monk:

“This emptiness is something people don’t usually understand, only those who reach it see the real value of it. It’s not the emptiness of not having anything, it’s emptiness within the things that are here. Like this flashlight: we should see this flashlight is empty; because of the flashlight there is emptiness. It’s not the emptiness where we can’t see anything, it’s not like that. People who understand like that have got it all wrong. You must understand emptiness within the things that are here.”
(Page 182, ibid.)

Ajahn Chah’s rich and non-doctrinal teaching style wasn’t indicative of a man who lived the life of a libertine, however. As mentioned above, he promoted strict adherence to the Vinaya (monk’s rules), and as often been said, he lived with the absolute basic necessities of life, giving away many fancy gifts that laypeople felt inspired to give him. This isn’t to say that he didn’t appreciate the generosity of the local population that supported his community of monks and nuns with their material needs. Indeed, he was very keen to instill in the ordained community at his monasteries a sense of gratitude to such laity, saying that:

“Right now, they have the faith to support us with material offerings, giving us our requisites for living. I’ve considered this: it’s quite a big deal. It’s no small thing. Donating our food, our dwellings, the medicines to treat our illnesses, is not a small thing. We are practicing for the attainment of Nibbana. If we don’t have any food to eat, that will be pretty difficult. How would we sit in meditation? How would we be able to build this monastery?”
(Page 607, ibid.)

Reading this book is both an honor and an injunction. It’s an honor to be exposed to such a rich depth of wisdom that Ajahn Chah clearly possessed. It’s also an honor to have such a work freely available for one’s development, given as an act of generosity by the monastic community at Wat Nong Pah Pong (Ajahn Chah’s main monastery). It is an injunction too, however. It’s a call to arms, to take up the practice of the Buddhadharma with sincerity and endeavor to cultivate the wisdom and compassion required to transcend this world of suffering. Moreover, in the life and teachings of Ajahn Chah, we have the perfect example of the selfless sharing of such realization that true wisdom brings.

‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah’ may be downloaded free of charge from Wat Nong Pah Pong’s website at the following address:
The Teachings of Ajahn Chah.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Noticing Space

Seeing space can inspire a new perspective

Ajahn Sumedho, the American Buddhist monk that is abbot of Amaravati Temple in England, and probably the most senior Westerner in Theravada Buddhism today, is known for his innovative mindfulness techniques. He has spent over forty years as a monk since ordaining in Thailand in the 1960s, with most of them in the West, practicing and promoting the simple meditative life found in the forest tradition of Thai Buddhism. During this time, he has developed several ways to explore consciousness, including what he calls noticing space.

“Beginning to notice the space around people is a very different way of looking at somebody, isn’t it? We look at the space around them rather than looking at them. This is a way of beginning to open oneself. When one has a spacious mind, then there is room for everything.” (Ajahn Sumedho, in the talk ‘Noticing Space’)

Turning attention away from this computer screen to the room that it’s in and then applying awareness to the space that all the things appear in, rather than to the things themselves, transforms the experience. What was previously perceived as quite a small room now seems to be almost vast in its dimensions. Space not only occupies the gaps between objects, but also surrounds them; it is the ground of their beginning. And, it has a very peaceful, characterless quality to it, which inspires no reactions such as like or dislike. It is perfectly neutral:

“Space is something that we tend not to notice, because it doesn’t grasp our attention, does it? It is not like a beautiful flower something really beautiful, or something really horrible – which pulls your attention right to it. You can be completely mesmerized in an instant by something fascinating, horrible or terrible; but you can’t do that with space, can you? To notice space you have to calm down – you have to contemplate it.”
(Ajahn Sumedho in the talk ‘Noticing Space’)

Focusing attention on my wife involves many, many thoughts and emotions – some of them good, some of them not so good! A whole train of thinking can develop just through looking at her, one thought leading to another and one emotion feeding on another. Before I know it, I could be ready to scold her or kiss her, depending on the direction of the thoughts. But taking notice of the space in which her form appears is all together a different experience. It isn’t centered upon my feelings towards my wife, but takes in the whole of her being as it appears now, instead of those parts I might otherwise focus on. In space, she becomes a full human being, just as she is, rather than my idea of who she is.

This practice isn’t limited to the physical world, however; it can equally be applied to the mental world too. During meditation, or simply whilst sitting quietly, one can close one’s eyes to block out outer distractions. Instead of attaching to or rejecting thoughts and emotions, one can learn to simply observe them as objects in space. Again, Ajahn Sumedho:

“We can see that mentally there are thoughts, emotions – the mental conditions – that arise and cease. Usually we are dazzled, repelled or just bound by the thoughts and emotions; we go from one thing to another – trying to get rid of them or reacting, controlling and manipulating them. So we never have any perspective in our lives, we just become obsessed with repression and indulgence; we are caught in those two extremes.”
(Ajahn Sumedho, in the talk ‘Noticing Space’.)

Ajahn Sumedho has also taught that this mental spaciousness can be cultivated deliberately using a simple thought like “I am”. Before thinking “I am” we can notice the space in the mind, empty for something to occur in. Then the word “I” appears, followed by another gap. This space precedes the word “am”, which itself ends in more space. With this practice, we can see that the thought “I am” is an object in spacious awareness, being born, existing, and then dying back into space. Even emotions that can accompany a thought like “I am” exist in the same space that exists before, during, and after they have arisen. In this way, we can develop a calm dispassion towards our thoughts, seeing them as ephemeral objects in space, coming and going. Over time, they will lose their power to entice us into identifying with them and creating suffering around them as a result.

Seeing thoughts and emotions as things in awareness, rather than as my thoughts and my emotions gives us what Ajahn Sumedho refers to above as perspective. This is an example of the Middle Way of the Buddha; being neither attached nor repulsed by mental phenomena. The things we think lose some of their sting when seen this way: they are known in a wider perspective. They are no longer clung to as part of one’s self-produced identity, but experienced in the fullness of this moment. They are what they are – nothing more, nothing less. And in this moment of ‘just so’ can be found the doorway to peace and contentment.

Ajahn Sumedho’s talk ‘Noticing Space’ can be found in his book ‘The Mind and the Way’, published by Wisdom Publications. It can also be found as a file for free download at the following website: