Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Best Buddha Space Post Ever...Not!

Being Buddhist with technology...

This entry was to have been the best Buddha Space blog article ever, but unfortunately, due to a technical glitch on Blogger, the original post was lost to the virtual ether. Normally, as articles are written, Blogger automatically saves them as a draft every few minutes, but this didn't happen. Then, when a button marked 'Publish Post' is clicked on, the post is published. This failed to happen as well, instead a message came up stating the action could not be completed. Immediately after this happened, a sinking feeling arose in the heart, and efforts were made to retrieve the lost post. All to no avail.

This is typical of life, isn't it? Things are unreliable, no matter how amazing the technology or natural processes involved, things are born imperfect. To expect otherwise is to cling to a hope that will never cease to disappoint and thereby create more suffering. The wisdom inherent in the Buddhist teachings go way beyond this, but this is a great place to start. We can send probes to explore strange new worlds and...wait, where have I heard that before? Anyway, technology is becoming more and more amazing every day,and we regularly do things that ancient peoples would have considered pure magic: fly, talk to people on the other side of the world, blow up entire cities, And yet, all of this uncertain and unreliable.

That this is not the best Buddha Space post ever is a matter of opinion of course, but in this mind at least it's not that great. But these are just thoughts aren't they? Thoughts, whether of food, love, war, football, sex, or Buddhism are uncertain and unreliable too. They are, in fact, empty of any permanency, and as imperfect, ephemeral constructs cannot be relied on to lead us out of suffering, which is the main point of Buddhism. (At least, I think it is - this is just an idea, too, of course!) In meditation and mindfulness practice we can learn to let go of our presuppositions - whether Buddhist in origin or not - and attend to the facts at hand. In this present moment, where do all our thoughts, emotions, and sensations arise? In a human mind, limited and limiting, or in a naked awareness that is unlimited and non-limiting, just purely awake?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Modern Sangha

Monks: The only kind of Sangha?

The Sangha, or 'Community,' lies at the heart of traditional Buddhism. In the more conservative Theravada Buddhism, it has two main connotations: the Bhikkhu-Sangha, or the Order of Monks, and the Arya-Sangha, the Order of Noble Ones (the enlightened). A third usage, the Bhikkhuni-Sangha (the Order of Nuns), is more controversial, as the traditional lineage of fully-ordained nuns died out in Theravada Buddhist countries centuries ago. Attachment to long-established conventions prevents many Theravada Buddhists from recognizing attempts to reestablish this Order. So, in Theravada Buddhist countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, only monks or enlightened ones may be considered to be members of a Sangha. (And, in what others see as erroneous interpretations of the Pali Canon, many consider it impossible for laity to realize enlightenment, which means only fully-ordained monks are within the Sangha.)

In Mahayana Buddhism, which is more diverse and adaptive than Theravada Buddhism and found in places such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, China, and Tbet, such classifications regarding who can be a member of the Sangha exist, but are much looser. For example, the Arya-Sangha clearly includes many lay Buddhists, both male and female. Furthermore, nowadays many Buddhist groups or communities consider themselves to constitute a Sangha. An example of this is the Dogen Sangha which has many branches in Japan and the West. This latter interpretation of a Sangha is found widely on the Internet.

E-Sangha is a popular virtual Sangha made up of both ordained and lay Buddhist members that meet online to share Buddhist teachings and advice. Of course, as with any Web-based message board or chat room, not all of the communications on such sites are, um, enlightening, sometimes no more than places to argue one's opinion. Virtual Sanghas do seem to be on the increase, however, and considering the fact that anyone visiting this blog is a member of what could be deemed the Buddha Space Sangha, it would seem somewhat churlish to dismiss the idea of an Internet Sangha out of hand.

So, what do you think, dear reader? Are you an ordained Sangha-member, an enlightened Sangha-member, or perhaps you see yourself as a member of the Wide Wide Web Sangha. Should the word Sangha set in stone with the traditional meanings as defined above, or is it, like Mahayana Buddhism - and, in truth, Theravada Buddhism as well - an organic entity that changes over time to suit the needs of current Buddhists? And, most crucially, what form do you think a modern Sangha should take?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What is Dharma?

 The Dharma encapsulated in scripture

Dharma is a crucial word in Buddhism. It has many forms and many interpretations. Dharma itself is an ancient Indian word from the Sanskrit language, and in a closely related language known as Pali it takes the form Dhamma. In other Asian languages, it is translated as 'fa' in Chinese, 'ho' in Japanese, and 'chos' in Tibetan. Usually here on Buddha Space it remains untranslated, for as the exploration of this term below will reveal, it is not a word easily rendered into English.

Generally, it has two main definitions which are 1) the Buddhist teachings and 2) a constituent factor that goes to make up experience. The main focus here will be the former meaning and its interpretations, but very briefly the latter will be looked at for the sake of coverage. Usually rendered in English with a small 'd', dharma indicates each element that forms part of the material and physical aspects of the world - not to mention any 'spiritual' phenomena that one may or may not believe in. Everything, therefore, that exists is either a dharma or made up of dharmas. Atoms, thoughts, clouds, art, cars, stars, and duck-billed platypuses consist of dharmas.

Normally represented in English with a capital 'D', Dharma has very different connotations to those written above. This means both the natural way of things, or universal law, and the Buddhist teachings that both point to this truth and describe the Path to realizing it (in other words, enlightenment). In the second sense, it is sometimes found in the longer form Buddhadharma - Buddhadhamma in Pali) - or other regional linguistic equivalents. Depending on what one accepts as genuine Buddhist teaching, this definition of Dharma may include the entirety of teachings to be found from the most ancient Buddhist texts right up to modern teachings, or it may be restricted to a particular sect or set of writings. An example of the latter would be a strict Theravada Buddhist understanding of Dhamma (this is the usual Theravada Buddhist form of the word) as being found in the Pali Canon, rejecting later texts such as the Prajna Paramita writings as heterodox.

As to Dharma representing the way-things-are, or 'the truth', this interpretation of the word is found in all major forms of Buddhism. In the Pali Canon, the Buddha is said to have declared that even when the Buddhist teachings don't exist, the Dharma still exists as the natural way of things. To realize this Dharma is to awaken to our own true nature, which is not made of the constituent dharmas described earlier, but is indefinable as being this, that, or the other. In Oriental Buddhism, the word Zen (and other regional variants) has much the same meaning, which could be deemed to be the transcendent, or the unconditioned as opposed to the conditioned (the dharmas).

This understanding of Dharma is not found in philosophy or ideas, however: it is an experience. To experience Dharma is to experience the facts of life regarding both the ephemeral elements (dharmas) of these bodies and minds, plus the timeless awareness in which they are known. In this sense, the Dharma is all dharmas, for they are found nowhere but in the midst of the truth, and it is found nowhere but right here in the phenomenal world. This experience is both conditioned and transitory, and yet unconditioned and endless. It is conditioned and transitory in its contents (all dharmas), and unconditioned and without end with regards its container. This container is not thoughts, emotions, sensations, memories, or the subconscious - it is awareness itself. Seeing dharmas not only with awareness but as awareness, rather than as a personality with all its limitations, we see the Dharma. And then, as the Thai monk Ajahn Chah pointed out, we are Dharma.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Looking at the Buddha

 Daibutsu: is this the true Great Buddha?

One of the most recognizable images produced throughout recorded human history is that of the historical Buddha, or Shakyamuni Buddha. His countenance inhabits innumerable temples, households, public spaces, mountain sides, paintings, books, and nowadays, countless websites (including this one - look to the right!). Buddha statues and amulets proliferate in the West as well as in the East as Buddhism and the Buddha become more popular amongst Occidentals. Not all of these images are of Shakyamuni, of course, as other Awakened Ones such as Amitabha Buddha ('the Buddha of Infinite Light') and Hotei (the fat-bellied 'laughing Buddha') are also very popular. Whichever particular Buddha it may be, a Buddha image can have a variety of influences on the observer.

In Thailand, the culture-defining golden Buddha statues sometimes seem to be more numerable than human beings, and are treated with the utmost respect by the majority of Thais; indeed, there are strict laws in Thailand prohibiting disrespectful acts towards such images, and heavy penalties for vandalizing or stealing them. Not known to many foreign visitors to the Kingdom, it is even considered unacceptable to have one's photograph taken with one, and especially taboo to sit on one!

In Japan, the most common Buddha to be represented in devotional imagery is Amitabha Buddha, the world-famous Daibutsu ('Great Buddha') of Kamakura being a particularly striking example. (It is this statue that is pictured above.) Attitudes towards behavior around Such statues in Japan isn't as strict as Thailand, but hordes of pilgrims along with secular tourists flood Kamakura every year to pay respect to this giant image of Amitabha, many reciting, "Namu Amida Butsu" ('Homage to the Buddha of Infinite Light').

Of course, in the modern and ever-increasingly commercial world, Buddha images are also used in less traditional and devotional ways, such as on the covers of dance music albums, in restaurants, and on T-shirts. These are not (usually) prayed to or even deeply respected, but are used to symbolize certain qualities such as peace and exoticism in the attempt to promote certain products. More traditionally-minded Buddhists often take exception to this kind of use of Buddha images, seeing them as disrespectful and insulting.

Looking at the Buddha, whether in a Thai temple or restaurant, whether on a pendant or a website, the response that arises will, of course, depend upon the way that one views such images. If someone is a devotee of Amitabha, then the Kamakura Daibutsu will inspire deeply religious feelings, but if one is a tourist gazing at the same image, then it will be seen as a good photo opportunity and nothing more. And, because of the sectarian tendencies of the human mind, a Theravada Buddhist may well view with scorn the same statue as a heretical idol, much like a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim might do.

A pertinent point here is the well-known tale of a Chinese Zen monk who was extremely cold while sheltering in a temple one night. Instead of praying to the Buddha statue for assistance or inspiration, he promptly set it alight, and used it as a warming fire! As awful as this may appear at first, it hints at an important point that many Buddhists would make about Buddha images: they are visual tools to assist in the practice of Buddhism, not idols to be worshiped or considered somehow 'holy.' The real Buddha, if you take the traditional Theravada Buddhist viewpoint died over two thousand years ago, and is now in an indefinable state beyond the reach of mortals. From the Mahayana point of view, both Shakyamuni and Amitabha Buddha exist on a 'higher plane', ready to intervene in the affairs of this world. Either way, a statue is a statue, and only to be used as focus in Buddhist practice, rather than as an actual manifestation of a Buddha.

So, if we wish to use a Buddha statue to help us reflect on certain qualities considered important in Buddhism, this would seem perfectly in line with Buddhist teachings regarding skillful means to spiritual development. If, however, we wish to actually see the Buddha - whichever one we choose - statues and pictures are not even a poor substitute for the real thing. But then, how are we to look at the (real) Buddha? In a dream or vision we might believe that we are viewing the Buddha, but it may well be an elaborate creation of the subconscious, manifesting in the mind's eye in response to a deep psychological need (or desire) to see the Buddha. Such dreams and visions are not unheard of, of only in Buddhism, but in Christianity and Hinduism, for example. Are we to believe that the vision of Christ is any more or less 'real' than the Hindu's visualization of Krishna, or that either are more or less valid than the Japanese Buddhist's dream of Amitabha?

This leaves us nowhere in our search to look at the Buddha, however. If inner visualizations are no more to be taken literally than outer ones, where else is there to see the Awakened One? Furthermore, how are we to recognize the Buddha if there are widely differing representations of Shakyamuni, Amitabha, and Hotei etc? Looking at the etymology of the word Buddha will give us a big clue here. It is an Indian word found in the ancient languages of Sanskrit and Pali meaning 'enlightened one' or 'awakened one', and comes from the root word budh, meaning to know, or to be awake. The Awakened One (the Buddha) can only be seen by the Awakened One. That is, if we find the Awakened part of ourselves, we find the Buddha. Moreover, this isn't a particular Buddha, in the sense of being a particular individual being, rather, it is that which is Awakened in all of us.

Now we come to the heart of the matter, so to speak, when we need to open our Buddha Eye to be able to see beyond these mortal frames and minds.This Eye is not a small ball of flesh and optic nerve, however, although it can be used in conjunction with the physical eyes. It can, however, be used equally well with any of the other senses such as the ears, or even with what Buddhists call the sixth sense - the mind. Where is this Eye, then? Well, it's right where you are seeing, right now. If you turn your attention around and look at where you are looking from, you are looking at your Buddha Eye. It's both vast and yet without appearance (in itself).

If you point at whatever is in front of you, you can see specific colors, shapes, sizes, and various other features. However, if you turn your pointing finger around and gaze back at that which is doing the gazing, you will see an absence of particular features. This is your Buddha Eye. It is vast, in that it not only contains all that you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, but it also plays host to the multitudes of thoughts, feelings, memories, impulses, and other mental phenomena that we normally take to be 'me.' It contains everything. It is featureless if focused on in isolation, but this is deceptive, for because it is without limits and can never be 'closed', this Eye is everything that it sees. Seeing as this Eye and not as an ego peering out of two small eyeballs has a devastating affect on the usual duality of human experience: everything merges into each other, shining with the light of awareness.

But, where's the Buddha in all of this? It seems that if the Buddha Eye is accepted as not only the 'vessel' into which everything is born, then all that we experience now is all. So, where's the Buddha? Raise that pointing finger again (if you've already lowered it , that is) and direct it at the Knower, the Awakened One as experienced right now. Where is this Awakened One found? At this end of the pointing finger, right where the Eye and all that it is are located also. Eye, Buddha ('the Awakened One'), and the suffering world are all right here, nowhere else. And, what's more, they are seen, heard, and known to be undivided, beyond dualism. When we look with our Buddha Eye, there is no way to completely separate your needs and mine, no way to conveniently dismiss others as less important than one's 'self', for this apparent self and all other apparent selves a part of this single Knowing that is the Buddha. Want to see the Buddha? Take a good, hard look at yourself...