Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Being Buddhist

 What makes these people 'Buddhist'  - their clothes?

What is it to be Buddhist? Obvious answers might include specific activities such as taking refuge in the Triple Gem, meditating, and visiting temples; alternatively, one might see certain beliefs as being indicative of being Buddhist, examples being convinced of the Four Noble truths, the Three Characteristics, Emptiness, or Dependent Arising. Such activities and beliefs differ from culture to culture and person to person, however, making it very difficult to pin down in any general sense what a Buddhist actually is. For example, if we define a Buddhist as someone who meditates to realize Awakening, we are excluding most of the world's Buddhist from being classified as such, for meditation is not among the most common practices of the average Buddhist.

Even if we say that at the most essential level, to be Buddhist involves belief in the Buddha as the enlightened teacher of our age, which Buddha are we referring to - Shakyamuni, Amitabha, Vairochana, or some other embodiment of Nirvana? If we insist that the historical Buddha Shakyamuni is the only 'real' Buddha, then this not only discounts the small number of followers of Vairochana Buddha, but also the millions and millions of devotees of Amitabha Buddha, the most popular Enlightened One in the Far East. By this criteria, those that devote themselves to Amitabha and Vairochana are at risk of being seen as heretics, worshiping not false gods, but false Buddhas. Perhaps, if we see Buddha as that part of us all that is inherently enlightened, unlike these egos, then we may begin to find a way to describe all those people that consider themselves as Buddhists as being so. But then, every single being on this planet (and on any other planet for that matter) posseses an innate 'Buddha Nature', so in this sense we are all Buddhists, including Christians, Muslims, atheists, dogs, and mosquitoes!

Maybe it is in the way of life that we live that we might be considered Buddhist, for to live with mindfulness regarding body, speech, and mind is surely a basic foundation of being Buddhist. But then again, are the majority of potential Buddhists in the world actually living mindful lives, heedful of their actions, words, and thoughts? To some extent, any system of thought that encourages a moral outlook on life requires a minimal level of mindfulness to maintain such ethical standards, but there's a difference in being heedful of certain moral guidelines and being awake to minutiae of everything we do, which Buddhist mindfulness practice requires.

It's not only mindfulness that sums up a Buddhist way of life, however. Compassion and kindness are central elements to living in a way recognizably Buddhist in flavor. Insight without these finer emotions is an imperfect insight, and a life bereft of such qualities is surely one that is barely worthy of the description Buddhist. Compassion and kindness are not peculiar to Buddhism, however. Jews, Hindus, and probably aliens for that matter are equally capable of relating to the world in compassionate and kind ways as Buddhists. So, again, if we use these qualities as ways to define what it is to be Buddhist, we will end up classifying any decent human being as being so. But, then, perhaps this isn't so terrible...

This investigation into what it is to be Buddhist seems to be leading nowhere; but this isn't really so, for it keeps bringing us back to our basic humanity, to the ability at heart that we all have to develop generosity, morality, mindfulness, and wisdom. That these qualities are not solely associated with the label 'Buddhist' is not only obvious but also uplifting. In a nutshell, being Buddhist is being human. We are all, in some ways, 'Buddhist' whether we use such a title or not, and whether we attach to certain doctrines or not; equally,we are all innate Buddhas, waiting to explode our compassionate wisdom into the world at the appropriate moment. And that moment is always now. Being Buddhist is being Buddha, and here the teachings of that old Zen master Huang Po come to mind; all sentient beings are Buddha. As previously explored in Buddha Space, there is no 'us' and 'them' in being Buddhist, nor being Buddha, for that matter.

May all beings be happy!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Buddha Space Meditation

Whatever your mudra...meditate!

Meditating on a daily basis can be a wonderful thing to do. It helps the mind to let go of its pet likes and hates and open up to the way things are right now. It enables awareness to see thoughts as thoughts, emotions as emotions, opinions as opinions, memories as memories, and sensations as sensations. In this plain knowing, identification with these various stimuli is loosened, even completely abandoned, and then the bright nature of the mind - 'Buddha Space' - comes to the fore, lighting up experience with a calm gaze:

Each moment merges into the next,
falling out of a nothingness
that cannot be grasped
between the whistle of birdsong
and the wind gushing from a fan
that tickles against the skin.

Thoughts are born into clarity,
then pop like mental bubbles
dissipating into the void of now
which is the very Wisdom Eye 
of Buddha, forever awakened.

Silence washes everything clean,
an endless ocean of serenity
upon which each mind ship bobs,
before sinking into the depths
of this glorious flowing expanse.
Happily submerged in the deep.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Buddhism & Ritual

 Lovely Lion: Bye bye, beautiful boy!

Today, my wife and I held a brief funeral service for one of our dogs that died earlier this week. His name was Lion - because of his lion-like appearance - and he was not quite a year old when he died of unknown causes. After several days of intermittent grief, we went to his graveside, burned incense, offered ice, a dog treat, and I recited the following Buddhist verse which is commonly heard at funerals here in Thailand:

Anicca vata sankhara
Uppada vaya dhammino
Uppajjitva nirujjhanti
Tesam vupasamo sukho.

All things are impermanent,
Arising and passing away.
Being born, they must cease;
Their calming is happiness.

Both my wife and I were deeply affected by this little hound's demise, perhaps especially myself as I spent the most time with him, writing many of the Buddha Space articles on this blog while he sat by my chair. He even used to lie down next to me every morning when I meditated. Anyway, despite my Buddhist understanding and practice, Lion's death was a blow out of the blue that triggered some serious suffering in this mind. And, alongside associating with awareness rather than the painful memories arising in it, it seemed appropriate and therapeutic to have a small ritual to mark Lion's life and death.

 Daily rituals, which are very common in the Buddhist temples here in Thailand have never appealed to me much. Sometimes I use them, or truncated versions of them, and sometimes not, for attachment to rules and rituals is said to be one of the initial impediments to enlightenment, after all. But, in dealing with the complicated and powerful emotions associated with the loss of a loved one - and we did love this dog - a ritual marking the ending of a life and the continuance of the lives of those left behind seemed a wise thing to do. It is both an act of closure and a moving on. Done with awareness of the moment, it can be an intense way to focus on the perfectness of the present, perfect in the sense of being just the way it is, and reflective of the clear knowing that lies at the heart of being.

So, Lion is gone, remaining as memories and images (like the one above), and in being thankful for the short nine months that he was with us, and all the lessons we learned and failed to learn in his presence, my wife and I are truly grateful. For, the Dharma is expressed in a multitude of ways, much of which passes us human beings by without us ever noticing, but once in a while we are presented with events that are so earth-shatteringly attention-demanding that we are driven back towards the innate wisdom that we all posses - if we can wake up to it. Reflecting on suffering and its origin in our attachments is a lesson never more obvious and potentially inspiring as when we're really hurting inside. And little Lion has given us this opportunity by giving up his life.

By marking this important event in our lives with an albeit brief but heartfelt ceremony, my wife and I have turned suffering into the basis for awakening to the way-things-are (the Dharma). It has been brought back into sharp focus, and in the glare of awareness is seen for what it is: a conditioned process arising in unconditioned knowing. The latter is dubbed 'Buddha Space' on these pages, and rituals can be used to highlight this liberating peacefulness that is so easily overlooked. Whilst it's unlikely that either of us will take up daily rituals as a result of this experience, it has given us some insight into the skillful use of such activities, as opposed to the blind attachment to ceremonies. What is your experience of rituals? If you have anything to share on this, or anything else in this article, please click on the comments link below and leave your thoughts for reflection. May all beings be happy!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Buddhism & Free Speech

 Jetsun Pema: A threat to Thailand?

This weekend Jetsun Pema, the younger sister of the Dalai Lama, was due to give a speech at the Festival of Tibetan Spirituality, Arts, and Culture in Bangkok, Thailand. Although giving visas to another thirty-odd Tibetans, she was denied a visa request by the Thai Foreign Ministry. She was due to give a talk provisionally entitled 'Tibet: My Story.' The reason given by the Ministry for turning down the visa request was that her presence in the Thai capital might be seen as a political statement by the Thai government with regards the situation in Tibet. This, it feared, might offend the Chinese government, which could affect relations between the countries, including the growing trade between them.

It seems that the Thai government values its friendship with a tyrannical communist dictatorship (and the money that comes from this relationship) over allowing a Buddhist woman from telling her life story. In holding such a position, the Thai government is not unique of course, but the Thais do claim to be 'the most Buddhist nation on Earth,' citing ninety-five per cent of Thailand's population as followers of Buddhism. This claim seems an empty boast when someone like Jetsun Pema is turned away because her older brother is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, a Buddhist people cruelly subjugated by the atheist regime of the People's Republic.

Now, the Thai authorities are presumably not claiming that their decision regarding Jetsun Pema was taken from a Buddhist point of view; it was influenced by political and economical factors. But, as most (if not all) of the present administration would claim to be Buddhist, this ruthless attitude towards the Dalai Lama's sister doesn't come across as particularly compassionate. The thought arises as to what would happen if the Dalai Lama was somehow to make his way to Thailand - would he be arrested as an enemy of Thailand's big pal China? In contrast to 'Buddhist' Thailand, the US recently welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House, albeit in as hush-hush a manner as was possible, so's not to offend the Chinese dictatorship. Nevertheless, by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the US at all, the American authorities were surely braver and more highly principled than their Thai counterparts.

As Buddhists, albeit from a different branch than the Dalai Lama and his sister, presumably most Thais would see themselves as having much in common with them, not least shared values based on goodwill, peace, compassion, and wisdom. Where are such values when Jetsun Pema is barred from sharing what happened to her and her homeland? It does appear that modern Thailand holds more in common with a violently repressive regime like the Chinese People's Republic than with the Buddhist-centered Tibetan Government in Exile, its leader, and his sister. (The former advocates and uses lethal force to suppress the Tibetan population, whilst the latter is wholly peaceful in its aims and actions.) So, was Thailand correct to bar Jetsun Pema from the country? And, furthermore, what do you think should be the Buddhist response to a dictatorship like China's? Please leave your thoughts by clicking on the comments link below.