Friday, May 28, 2010

Happy Buddha Day!

How will you mark Wesak today?

Today is Buddha Day, or, to give it its Pali name Visakha Puja, also known as Wesak. This is the day when Buddhists across the globe celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Not all Buddhist traditions celebrate Buddha Day today, but many do, and here in Thailand it is the main Buddhist festival of the year (and there are lots!). But why bother to commemorate the Buddha's life and enlightenment in this way? Well, it is an occasion that we can use skillfully to encourage reflection on his life and teachings in relation to our own existence. And, what's more, it is an opportunity to consider the debt that we owe him for showing us the way to liberation from suffering.

The Buddha's birth is a special event, of course, as it is not often that a fully-awakened one is born into the world. If Shakyamuni Buddha was never born, then the Buddhadharma would never have been established for us to use to awaken with.Similarly, if the Buddha had not realized the cessation of suffering under the Bodhi Tree, then we too would not know how to do the same. Furthermore, his apparent demise shows us that rebirth and continual suffering of these separated selves can be transcended, allowing the spacious awareness that we truly are to shine forth. Homage to the Blessed, Noble, and Perfectly Awakened One, indeed!

To mark this day of days, we need not go to a temple and take part in rituals if we cannot or would rather not. It's up to us to find appropriate ways to express our recognition and gratitude to the Buddha for what he has done for us. Perhaps this might be a simple ceremony conducted in front of a small shrine at home, or maybe a brief reflection on his qualities and teachings coupled with meditation will suffice. Of course, if we do decide to attend a full-blown public ritual with all the trimmings, then that can be wonderful too. As long as it's respectful and from the heart, go for it!

Another way to mark Buddha Day is to recognize the Buddha within. This, again, is best attempted with a modicum of decorum and a certain sincerity. Quietly looking home at where you are looking from, you might notice that where others see your face, and where you feel it, there is also an awareness that although empty in itself, is nevertheless full of all that you experience. This knowing is not your knowing as so-and-so, nor does it belong to somebody else, such as a god. It is what it is: clarity gazing upon the world. Staying with this unconditioned wakefulness, every conditioned thing or process can be observed to arise, exist, and end, including all these thoughts, memories, emotions, and sensations that we normally take to be 'me.' What better way than this, whether we take part in ceremonies or not, to acknowledge the Buddha. Happy Buddha Day!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Buddhist Thailand Burns

 The Buddha: "All is burning..."

So, the fighting is all but over here in Thailand, at least for now. The recent protests by the Red Shirts has not only left the country with damaged buildings, a damaged economy, and damaged (as well as dead) people, but also the gaping wounds of a divided nation are exposed for all to see. For, despite some people's narrow focus on issues such as the challenged legitimacy of the current government and the Red's desire to see former prime minister Taksin Shinawatra back in power, there are deeper, much more destructive problems lingering in this country.

Here in Ubon Ratchathani, a city in the Red's heartland of Northeastern Thailand, the rioting seen in the capital Bangkok was replicated, albeit on a smaller scale.The local city hall - as with similar buildings across Northern and Northeastern Thailand - was set alight by protesters and subsequently gutted. Early reports last night were claiming that two people had been shot dead in Ubon, but as yet I've been unable to verify this information. Earlier in the week, a drive-by shooting took place at a branch of Bangkok Bank (which has connections to a senior government official) and spent cartridges from an AK-47 assault rifle were found at the scene. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. For pictures and a report of the damage done here in Ubon on Wednesday, please read the following report by my friend Jason at Isaan Style!

As hinted above, there are underlying grievances that lie at the heart of the protests and violence that have occurred in Thailand over the past few months. These grievances are not so recent in their origins, however, and will therefore be difficult to identify and deal with by Thai society. The Red Shirts mainly consist of poorer people from the North and Northeast of Thailand, where the majority of the population are subsistence farmers. In the case of the Northeast, where most people are ethnic Lao, not Thai, central Thais and ethnic Chinese (Sino-Thais) often look down at them, seeing them as provincial and uneducated country bumpkins. The wealth of Thailand is concentrated geographically in Bangkok and central Thailand, and ethnically it is concentrated in the central Thai and Sino-Thai communities. And, recent estimates suggest that the gap between the rich elite and the poor is widening.

Usually, there is a Bangkok bias in the national news outlets - all based in the capital - which either focus on issues specifically pertaining to the city, or look at wider national issues from the Bangkokian perspective. The provinces are clearly not seen as important by the Thai media, reflected in this attitude. As to the faces that appear in the Thai media, most newscasters and reporters have Chinese features, most distinct from native Thais, and national politicians too usually have Chinese features. Most actors, pop stars, and business moguls also come from ethnically Chinese backgrounds. Go into any gold shop in Thailand, and the owners will usually be of Chinese origin (or predominately Chinese origin, as there is a small degree of intermarriage between native Thais and Chinese). Ethnic Chinese make up roughly 14% of the Thai population compared with the 34% that are North-easterners.

Such ethnic, political, and economic disparities between the various regions and social groups of Thailand creates social unrest, a sense of injustice where Bangkokians and ethnic Chinese are richer, more powerful, and somewhat arrogant in their treatment of those less well off. Seen from this perspective, the frustration and protests of the Red Shirts can be viewed with some sympathy, and the position of the economic and ruling elite as untenable in the long run. Unfortunately, human nature is based on greed, hatred, and delusion, so those people who are more privileged wish to cling to their advantages, whilst those struggling to make ends meet desire to emulate their richer rivals. This, of course, is not a unique situation in Thailand, but right now this country is bleeding from its societal splits, and no doubt such conflict will erupt again in the future if these ills are not treated.

"Monks, all is burning. Burning with what?...Burning with the fire of greed, burning with the fire of  hatred, burning with the fire of delusion." (The Buddha, in 'The Fire Sermon')

From the Buddhist point of view, how are we to respond to this situation? Well, at the risk of sounding overly simplistic, it comes down to those two old qualities of wisdom and compassion. Whatever we do, whether we live in Thailand or not, as Buddhists we can endeavor to come from a position of mindfulness; mindful of the way things are, not only in the mundane sense of the term, but also in the ultimate sense. From the mundane, worldly point of view, we can be alive to the issues written about above that have driven so many Thai people to desperate acts, whilst at a deeper level we cam remain aware of the basic characteristics of our minds that fuel both positive and negative behavior. At a even more fundamental level, we can simply be aware of the spaciousness that is home to all the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that arise in our consciousness. In such a state of openness, both wisdom and compassion have space to grow and be expressed.

Rather than simply reacting to the problems that Thailand faces from our preconceived ideas and biases, we can get back to (Buddhist) basics, and be aware of that in which all this sense data and emotional responses arise. This naked knowing is a place of peace, a sanctuary amidst the turmoil of the conditioned world. If we can approach the challenges that Thailand has from this serene perspective, we have a greater chance of benefiting both ourselves and Thai society. Rather than reacting from opinion and declaring how terrible this group is, or how wonderful that person is, we can see things in the clarity of this 'Buddha Space' that lies at the heart of our being. Doing this, we are less likely to exasperate the situation, being a calming influence rather than adding fuel to the already rampaging flames burning through Thai society.

Thailand has (or had) an international image of being a kind of paradise on earth; this is clearly not so. Dig beneath the surface of those inscrutable smiles and you find a people barely suppressing their greed and hatred of each other. Greed and hatred are always accompanied by delusion, however, and here we have the key to the situation. The delusion of being a separate self, whether as a rich Chinese defending one's wealth or a poor Lao grasping after another's, is the cause of our suffering. On the worldly level, yes, we are these humans we take ourselves to be, full of loves and hates, but on the level of psychological transcendence, we are pure awareness, awake to the conditioned world and yet beyond its grasp. Living from this knowledge, we are able to liberate ourselves and others from the prison that is the ego. May all beings be Happy!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Linji's True Eye

‘One day Linji went to He Prefecture. The governor, Councillor Wang, requested the master to take the high seat.
At that time Mayu came forward and asked, “The Great Compassionate One has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which is the true eye?”
The master said, “The Great Compassionate One has a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. Which is the true eye? Speak, speak!”
Mayu pulled the master down off the high seat and sat on it himself.
Coming up to him, the master said, “How do you do?”
Mayu hesitated. The master, in his turn, pulled Mayu down off the high seat and sat upon it himself.
Mayu went out. The master stepped down. 

The above dialogue comes from the Record of Linji, a book containing the teachings of the Ninth Century Zen master Linji Yixuan (died 866), and who is the founder of the Rinzai Sect of Zen, as it is known in present day Japan. (Rinzai is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese name Linji.) At first glance, it may look as if the two monks involved in the discussion are either mad or having a laugh – they are not. Linji and Mayu are involved in the most serious of matters which questions the very essence of our existence, albeit in a way that can be most baffling. Here, we will attempt to cut to the chase and see exactly what it was these men of Zen are getting at.

On a visit to a temple, Linji was requested to take the high seat, that is, the chair from which a Zen master gives a Dharma talk and takes questions from his audience, which normally comprises predominately of fellow monks, but which often also has interested laypeople such as Councillor Wang present. In this setting, Mayu asks about the Great Compassionate One, which refers to the so-called ‘Goddess of Mercy’ Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit – thankfully Chinese is so succinct!). She is believed to come to the aid of devoted followers whatever their predicaments, whether they are caught in a fire, desirous of fertility, or seeking enlightenment, for instance. If you’ve ever seen Oriental representations of Guanyin, you may well have seen her represented with many hands to assist those in distress, and many eyes to see those in need of help, which stand in for the thousands talked of by Mayu. 

Mayu, however, is only interested in one aspect of Guanyin – her true eye. This eye is the gateway to the ultimate objective of the Buddhist life which we call enlightenment. To help Mayu in this quest, Linji uses a common trick of the old Zen masters in turning the question back on the questioner. Swiftly adding, “Speak! Speak!” he jolts Mayu to come up with spontaneous response, denying the intellect time to intervene and give some inappropriately intellectualized answer. (The true eye is beyond the grasp of the intellect.) Mayu does something unimaginable to many meeker monks when he evicts Linji from the high seat and takes up residency there himself, apparently announcing that this is the answer to the question of what is the true eye. And, if coming directly out of the clarity that is the true eye, Mayu has indeed responded correctly. Linji is not satisfied with this, however, and challenges Mayu further by giving him a traditional greeting, here translated as, “How do you do?” The other monk is dumbfounded at this point and cannot answer Linji, at which he is ejected from the high seat (which he does not now deserve to occupy) and walks off. Mayu’s inability to reply reveals that he is not looking with his true eye after all, and is not worthy of Linji’s congratulations and is therefore disposed from the high seat. Following this, Linji decides that enough questions have been asked for the time being and ends the meeting by departing himself. What bizarre behaviour! 

The above interchange between two Zen monks may well appear most peculiar to a conventional mindset, but hopefully it has begun to dawn to the reader that this is no ordinary conversation, and that seeking out the true eye is something that everyday attitudes are unlikely to realize. Therefore, it is common in these old records to find Zen Buddhists breaking out of the confines of everyday logic into a wonderful and (logically) nonsensical world. And all this elaborate verbal dancing in aid of seeing with ‘the true eye.’ Thankfully, for those of us that find such dialogues more exasperating than enlightening, there are other ways to achieve this, and below we will explore an alternative to Linji’s answer to Mayu’s question.

Douglas Harding (1909-2007) was a wonderfully British mystic, for want of a better term, and his method of answering Mayu is typical of his homeland in its empirical flavour. Rather than use the mind to transcend the mind in a kind of intellectual suicide that leads to spiritual awakening, Douglas had a much less painful approach to seeing with the true eye – to look. Here again, the aim is to put aside the mind’s attempts to define and categorize, whilst instead seeing directly into the nature of things as they are in this present moment. But, being British, Douglas’ way is much more down to earth and pragmatic. To see what is meant by this, please conduct the exercise below with sincerity. (For more on Douglas Harding’s approach please go to the Headless Way link found to the left of this page under Weblinks.)
Point at whatever is in front of you. Notice its size, shape, colour(s), and relation to the rest of your surroundings. Now, turn your finger around and observe what you see at your end of that somewhat rude digit. What, exactly, do you see? Does ‘it’ have any size, shape, or colour(s)? And what is ‘its’ relationship to the environment? Is it true that the true eye is without discernable size, shape, or colour(s), and that ‘its’ relationship to the world is equally impossible to define? Taking down your finger, what do you notice about this spacious true eye and the world that it perceives? Are they one or two, or neither?

To see with the true eye is to see with the eye of Guanyin, that is to say, with a compassionate eye. It is also to see with the eye of Shakyamuni Buddha, that is to say, with the eye off wisdom. It is also to see with the eye of God, in the sense that the German Mystic Meister Eckhart uses the term when he says, “The eye by which I see God, is the same eye by which God sees me.” No doubt, if Eckhart had listened to Linji and Mayu, he would have been somewhat perplexed (even if their words had been translated into his native tongue!); similarly, Eckhart’s talk of God would probably been dismissed by the two Zen monks as too metaphysical. But, cultural and linguistic differences apart, it’s conceivable that Zen’s true eye is Eckhart’s eye of God, and that seeing with this eye is neither restricted to one tradition no more than it is restricted to one place.

D. T. Suzuki, ‘the man who brought Zen to the West,’ was most keen on Linji, especially understandable as Suzuki had studied in the Rinzai Sect of Zen Buddhism, but he was also a fan of Meister Eckhart, two enthusiasms he shared with D. E. Harding. In his excellent book Mysticism: Christian and Buddhism, Suzuki compares Eckhart’s eye with that of the Buddha, the Zen masters and the devotees within Shin Buddhism. Suzuki writes, “Eckhart is in perfect accord with the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata [emptiness], when he advances the notion of Godhead as ‘pure nothingness’ (ein bloss niht).” In this endeavour he reveals that the true eye can reveal itself to whoever looks with sincerity, whether Christian or Buddhist or neither. Added to this Douglas Harding’s more scientific method of enquiry shown in the above exercise and we begin to witness the dovetailing of these apparently disparate traditions into this one true eye that we are looking out of right now. 

To be true to what we see, rather than what we are told, think or belief is the heart of the meditative life, and reveals reality as it is. This revelation can be experienced as exciting, boring, agreeable or disagreeable, or any other emotional response dependent upon our individual psychological disposition. For, looking inwards with the true eye, we see the No-thing that lies at the heart of every single thing, and that is innately free of being this or that, you or me. But the mental conditions and habits that we have spent our entire existence cultivating still exists to ‘colour’ the naked experience itself. These conditions influence how we interpret this awakened emptiness that is full of the world, hence multitudinous emotional reactions and doctrinal positions.

Nevertheless, as far as we can gather from the records that we have, people from as diverse cultures and traditions as Linji, Eckhart, Suzuki, and Harding saw with the same true eye, agreeing in the essentials whilst varied in the outer expressions. Eckhart’s Godhead may well be Suzuki’s Zen as the latter (and Douglas Harding) full-heartedly believed. Even if, however, we doubt that these four men and others like them were seeing with the same eye, we can still test the efficacy of Harding’s methods and see if it holds true for us or not. Here, G is revealed as the link between everything (the universe) and nothing (the transcendent). And all of this is seen with the true eye that is without size, shape, colour or relation. I am freed from the prison of self, not that G is dead, but that he is in his place along with every other thing. He lives in the eternity of Empty Knowing, which is unconditioned and therefore – unlike everything that is conditioned – beyond death.
 Mayu seeks for the true eye with a bold act
Yet is pulled down from his ego’s perch
While Guanyin gazes on in serenity –
Where is Linji’s true eye now?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Shin Buddhism

Daibutsu (Great Buddha) statue of Amida Buddha

Buddhism is often thought of – especially in the West – as a predominately rational path to spiritual enlightenment that emphasizes wisdom over devotion. This is simply not the experience of most Asian Buddhists, however, who worship Buddhas and Bodhisattvas much like Christians worship Jesus or Hindus worship Krishna. Probably the most widely worshiped figure in Asian Buddhism is Amitabha Buddha (‘Buddha of Infinite Light’), who is extremely popular across the Far East, with millions of devotees keen to be reborn in his heavenly realm, or ‘Pure Land’ – hence Pure Land Buddhism.

One such country where Pure Land Buddhism is predominant is Japan, where Amitabha Buddha is known as Amida Butsu, or simply Amida. In order to be reborn in his Pure Land, this Buddha’s devotees not only fulfill certain moral precepts and perform particular rites, but also recite a formula intended to act as a ‘bridge’ between them and Amida. In Japanese, this incantation is “Namu Amida Butsu” and is pronounced something like ‘Na-moo A-mi-da Buts’, with the final word rhyming with the English word ‘looks.’ In translation, this phrase is “Homage to the Awakened One of Infinite Light” – thankfully Japanese is more concise here than the English!

As already mentioned, Pure Landers hope to be reborn in Amida’s heaven, rather than strive to achieve enlightenment in this world, as most forms of Buddhism encourage their practitioners to do: why is this? Well, Pure Land Buddhism teaches that we live in wicked times (tell me about it!), so wicked that it’s nigh on impossible for most of us to realize enlightenment through our own efforts (‘self-power’, or jiriki in Japanese). Thankfully, Amida has made the vow that good persons reciting his name will be reborn in his Pure Land, wherein they will find conditions conducive to attaining awakening. This is ‘other-power,’ or tariki in the Japanese tongue. All this talk of a divine savior and going to heaven after death may well sound way too Christian or Hindu in flavor for many modern Buddhists, but one branch of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism that has dovetailed the ‘other-power’ (tariki) of Amida with the goal of enlightenment is called Shin Buddhism, or Jodoshinshu (‘True Pure Land Sect’). The reason that we cannot realize enlightenment quite so swiftly was explored by the founder of Shin Buddhism, Shinran Shonin (1173-2262) who taught that as individuals we are full of vice, motivated by egotistic yearnings. When unenlightened, we act from self-centered viewpoints that impede experiencing existence as it is as opposed to the viewpoint of a Buddha which is untainted by selfishness. Shinran further taught that because of this all-conquering egoism we are unable to do anything that can help us to awaken to our innate Buddha Nature.

The central practice in Shin is the recitation of the Nembutsu (‘Remembrance of Buddha ’) which is the phrase given above: Namu Amida Butsu. If mindfully chanted with a devoted heart, one’s entire being is taken up in this practice, and all sense of being an individual self separate to Amida is lost, along with all the suffering that accompanies an ego. Devotee, Buddha, and mantra are unified into the present moment as the wisdom of a focused mind, the love of a focused heart, and the chanting of a focused body converge. Thus, with mind, heart, and body committed to the practice, the devotee is ripe for receiving Amida’s grace. In theory, it is believed, even reciting just once in this manner is enough to achieve rebirth in Amida’s Pure Land, though probably for most of his followers it takes many, many times that number to transcend identification with our delusionary selves!

It is only through the grace of Amida that the ego is transcended and what is revealed in the centre of human existence is Amida himself. And, rather than waiting to be reborn in the Pure Land and there achieve enlightenment, Shinran believed that upon death, the devotee of Amida realizes Nirvana with the letting go of the body. This involves self-abandonment (or absolute trust, shinjin in Japanese) where the devotee transcends any trace of effort by dying into the vast Void which is Amida, lying at the very core of existence. For some, even waiting until this short mortal existence ceases is too long a time to postpone seeing Amida’s Pure Land, and some followers of Shinran have taken his teachings to their logical conclusion, at least in terms of the immediacy of salvation (or enlightenment).

Here, Pure Land Buddhism begins to sound a little like another Japanese form of Buddhism – Zen. For, just as Zen Buddhists use ‘self-power’ to awaken to their True Nature, so Shin Buddhists can use the ‘other –power’ of Amida to realize enlightenment in this very life. A widely-respected advocate of this kind of Shin was the late, great Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), most famous for introducing Zen Buddhism to the West, but who also wrote of the former in glowing terms in such books as Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist and Buddha of Infinite Light. This author (G) has recently read both works and been immensely impressed by the way that Suzuki draws the reader into the world of Amida.

According to Suzuki, Shin has produced many devotees of Amida who managed to transcend the dichotomy of jiriki-tariki (‘I-Thou’ in Christian mystical language) and realized enlightenment in this very world by merging their separate self into the universal Being of Amida. This is akin to the Zen Buddhist losing his egoistic self into that of the Buddha Mind or ‘No-Mind.’ The paths are substantially different, however, for the Shin Buddhist gives up all hope of achieving spiritual awakening through his or her own efforts, whereas the Zen Buddhist relies on no one else for his or her enlightenment. Ultimately, as Suzuki emphasizes, these two apparently opposing approaches converge in their final destination, however – enlightenment.

D. T. Suzuki has written of those Shin devotees known as myokonin (‘Wonderfully Fragrant Person’) whose practices involves totally immersing themselves in the reciting of the Nembutsu to the point where Amida takes over and it’s no longer an individual that chants “Namu Amida Butsu”, but Amida chanting through the myokonin. This is where ‘other –power’ comes into its own, for when perfected there is no sense of self involved in the recitation, just the sound of existence (Amida) singing the song of life. And what a song it is! Suzuki personally translated the wonderful verse of one such myokonin called Saichi, an unpretentious artisan who wrote volumes of simple odes describing this process of merging into Amida. Here’s a taste of this delightful poetry taken from Suzuki’s book Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (pages 126, 140, and 154 respectfully):

As I pronounce ‘Namu-amida-butsu’
I feel my thoughts and hindrances are like the spring snows;
They thaw away as soon as they fall on the ground.

Shining in glory is Buddha’s Pure Land,
And this is my Pure Land!
‘Namu-amida-butsu! Namu-amida-butsu!’

My heart and thy heart –
The oneness of hearts –

Thankfully, we do not need to go to Japan and become myokonin to taste the fruit of reciting the Nembutsu, for if we attend the way things are right now, we can experience the ‘other-power’ of Amida, our inner formless truth. Sitting in a quiet room – closed eyes may help in concentration here – say “Namu Amida Butsu’, paying attention to the silence in which the words arise. This silence is the very Emptiness that Buddhism teaches about, and is also the essence of all Buddhas, including Amida. If we are alert to this moment as we continue to chant the Nembutsu, we become aware of the fact that the words are coming out of this silent knowing, and that any sense of individual self that remains is of the world, like the chanting, whereas the Void-Silence is that out of which these things come.

As some readers may already be thinking, the use of mantras predates Pure land Buddhism by hundreds of years, and has been found in many meditative traditions around the world, including the Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Hare Krishna mantra, the Sufi chanting of ‘Allah,’ and the Tibetan’s ‘Om mani padme hum,’ to name but a few. The famous Twentieth Century spiritual teacher Jiddhu Krishnamurti taught that such practices were nigh on useless, and once said that one may as well chant, “Coca Cola, Coca Cola,” but it seems that he missed the point. If recited with mindfulness, and backed up with a devoted heart, chanting a mantra can have a profound effect on how we perceive ourselves. This is when sound reveals Silence and Silence transcends sound, for “Namu Amida Butsu” is not only sound arising in Awake Silence, but it is that silence, or at least an expression of it, coming from it.

Such an endeavor requires a sincere heart, of course. Simply reciting the words without mindfulness will probably result in an understandable reaction: “So what?” If, on the other hand (Or ‘other-power-hand,’ to be precise!), we repeat the Nembutsu with a pure, focused mind we are open-minded enough to experience the Buddha Nature that is none other than Amida. According to Shin teachings this does not require the visualization of Amida as found in some other Pure Land sects. Rather, Amida is understood to be beyond being personalized in the mind of the Shin devotee, and is nearer the formless Buddha Nature than a particular Buddha, as such. Surrendering one’s entire sense of being a separate self to this ‘inner Buddha’ in the heartfelt reciting of “Namu Amida Butsu” reveals this Nature, and the Earth itself is transformed into the Pure Land. “Namu Amida Butsu” indeed!

Over on the Tricycle Editor's Blog there's a post inspired by this article with relevant links. Please click the following for more: More on Shin Buddhism