Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 5-7

“Ideas of what's good,
What's bad
All due to
This self of yours.

In winter, a bonfire
Spells delight
But when summertime arrives
What a nuisance it becomes!

And the breezes
You loved in summer
Even before autumn's gone
Already have become a bother”

In Buddhism, there is a strong moral tradition that has existed since the time of the Buddha, over two-and-a half millennia ago. The Buddha encouraged us to keep at least the five precepts (not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to take intoxicants). So, when someone like Bankei seems to abandon any idea of morality, as he does in the first of the three verses above, we need to apply some wisdom in discerning what he actually meant. He, like all great Buddhist masters before and since, did keep the precepts, for he knew that every action has a reaction, and the repercussions of what we do affect not ourselves, but also others . Nevertheless, we must take Bankei seriously when he declares:

“Ideas of what's good,
What's bad
All due to
This self of yours.”

In this verse, it is important to focus on the word “ideas,” for it is when we conceptualize about what’s good or bad that we create suffering around the things we think about. This is moralizing for its own sake, and is therefore not only pointless, but downright harmful to the happiness of all concerned. In contrast to this, the five precepts are not mere moralization, but exist for a specific purpose: to let go of those karmic deeds that hang heavy over us, sowing the seeds for future anguish. (A secondary affect of keeping the precepts is that we create harmonious relationships with others. This is worth noting, for in the Buddha’s Way, what is good for me is good for you, and vice versa, for we are inextricably linked together in this interdependent world.)

These “ideas of what’s good” and “what’s bad” have a specific origin: the self. Or, to put it more accurately, notions of good and evil are created out of the illusion of being a self. The Buddha taught that whilst appearing real when we are living an unenlightened life, the self is in fact a conglomerate being, made up of multitudes of psychophysical processes. According to the teachings of the Buddha, when we awaken to these processes and see them for what they are, we are enlightened. Prior to this, however, we live with the misperception that I am me and nothing else – the Buddha’s Way is in essence seeing through this self-tinted existence and living from the indescribable No-thing that lies at the heart of every being. Whilst we are still mistaking this body-mind to be ‘me’ we are the cause of our own unhappiness. Bankei illustrates this with two descriptive verses, beginning with:

“In winter, a bonfire
Spells delight
But when summertime arrives
What a nuisance it becomes!”

This verse might seem almost irrelevant in its mundanity, for we can all see that in winter we need heat to keep us warm, whilst in the summer we desire to cool down. Fortunately, the words of masters like Bankei work on a multitude of levels, and this verse contains various meanings, just one of which this simple-minded commentator is able to interpret. By ‘winter’ is indicated those times in life when the idea of self might advantage us, for instance when food is scarce or our life is threatened in other ways, and our self-preservation instinct kicks in to keep us alive. In the ‘summertime’ of our lives, however, when we no longer need to look out for number one, the self is a barrier to the arising of enlightenment. Just sitting in meditation with the ego shouting, “Let me out of here!” will give us ample proof of what Bankei is getting at here. He continues in much the same vein with the following words:

“And the breezes
You loved in summer
Even before autumn's gone
Already have become a bother”

Again, it’s pretty obvious even to the most dull-witted amongst us – and I include myself in this category – that a cool breeze is much appreciated when the weather is too hot, but in the chillier times of autumn, the very same kind of weather can be a real pain in the neck, not mention other sensitive realms of the human form lower down our anatomy! But, Bankei is no fool like me, and he uses the image of a breeze to represent the intellect, which in the “summer” of an overheated mind (the emotions) can lead us away from emotional turmoil. But, in the ‘autumn’ of an already cooled-down mind, too much thinking can be dangerous, living us tied up in mental knots, unable to see the woods for the trees. A short experiment will illustrate this point amply. Please conduct the following five minute exercise and see if you can avoid noticing what Bankei is getting at:

Close your eyes. Take a moment or two to calm down, perhaps by counting your breath, one to ten, a few times. Next, turn your attention to your thoughts. What are you thinking at this moment? If it’s nothing, don’t worry – the flood of mental chatter will soon come rushing in. When you do notice your thoughts, please don’t fight them, but simply watch them, noting their subject matter and how they transform (almost) seamlessly from one subject to the next. See how they occupy your mindscape, taking up so much of your consciousness with their ever-flowing stream of verbiage. After five minutes or so, open your eyes and see if the thoughts stop or continue on their merry way.

Bankei is telling us that our own mind or self is the cause of our suffering. Whatever concerns we have are ours; the self responds to the world and in its responses creates a certain amount of suffering. What is the mind made up of? Primarily, it is constructed of thoughts and emotions. And, although thoughts themselves are not suffering as such, it is our emotional responses to them that contain the suffering that blights this earthly existence. Being aware of this process, as Bankei encourages us to be, doesn’t free us from it, but it is a beginning from which we can take the next step which is to let go of our thoughts, and therefore our sense of being a separate self, and realize the Unborn.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Review: Stepping Out of Self-Deception by Rodney Smith

Recently, I’ve been reading Rodney Smith’s book ‘Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self.’ It was sent to me by Jennifer Campaniolo, the publicist at Shambhala Publications, the book’s publishers. In no way has this review of the book been influenced by the author, Jennifer, or anyone else connected with Shambhala: it is an honest appraisal of the work, and as such, is the sole responsibility of the reviewer. If you have any views on this review, please leave a comment on this blog.

Prior to reading ‘Stepping Out’, I was somewhat wary of it, as the author was unfamiliar to me, and it looked like it might be yet another Western Buddhist’s attempt to appear wise. My initial doubts have been completely released, however, for in this book Rodney Smith has written a work of unusually penetrative insights into the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. He has done so using modern language and concepts to convey the essence of the Path, making this work an important addition to any serious practitioner’s library. Moreover, he never shirks away from telling it the way it is, no matter how unpleasant the truths that he is revealing. He does this with skill as he brings to attention the games that the mind can play to sustain its self-centred view of the Buddhist life:

“Many of us incorporate a gentler and kinder “me” into our practice, which is in opposition to the worldly “me,” the troublemaking twin that needs a resolution. We then play the familiar theme of divide and conquer, pitting our spiritual ideals against worldly reactions. Eventually we see that calling the ego different names serves to strengthen its overall grip and control, which inevitably leads to greater pain and ill will.”
(‘Stepping Out of Self-Deception: The Buddha’s Liberating Teaching of No-Self’, p.xiii)

Reflecting on our own mental states may well reveal such an inner schism between the worldly self image and the “spiritual” or Buddhist one, but Smith sees this as just another ploy by the ego to sustain itself in the midst of an apparent effort to uproot it. At a deeper level, he considers this inner dichotomy as part of our evolutionary development, which exists to protect the human organism against the dangers of this world. Smith writes in an elegant manner on this fact, presenting the Buddha’s ancient teachings in a psychological garb that brings to life the Enlightened One’s wisdom in language that us moderns may well find easier to digest:

“Although it is a biological necessity for our mind to separate the organism from the environment, this is not the truth. The truth is that all things are conjoined in ways that the mind is incapable of perceiving, and we therefore cannot use the mind as an indication of what is ultimately true. It responds in accordance with how it organizes the data, and therefore thinks in terms of separation. Secondly, since the mind is only part of the truth of all things, it is incapable of perceiving that truth through the sense doors.”
(ibid. P.4)

Smith is especially addressing the intellectual capacity of the human mind to understand the way things are (in Buddhist parlance, the Dharma), which he sees as of limited use on the Buddhist Path because it is just a part of the whole without the ability to perceive the totality of this interdependent existence. Because the human mind has evolved to experience the world in dualistic terms, it cannot know the unity that lies behind the apparent divisions in life. Also, the physical sense doors (eye, ear, nose, tongue, and skin) are limited in their scope to experience existence, meaning that the information that the mind perceives is incomplete in the first place. This egocentric way of knowing the world must itself be known and understood if we are to move beyond it into genuine wisdom:

“As long as our practice is centered on “me,” as long as it is a dialogue from and toward “myself,” and is an accomplishment of “mine,” then “I,” “me,” and “mine” will be the residue of what remains through life and perhaps after death. As we move forward, we will continue to solidify what we already believe about “us,” and as we continue to affirm our own reality, we further perpetuate that reality. Reality is not fixed, but instead changes depending upon the perceiver. We actively configure reality by what we think about it; we see what we want to see and become what we want to become. We are constantly constructing our present reality from past experiences and living out the present as if it were the past.”
(ibid. P.18)

In his analysis of how we approach the spiritual life, Smith displays an admiral depth of understanding, which seems to come from actually living what he is teaching, rather than simply repeating or repackaging Buddhist teachings. He doesn’t play up to his reader’s ego, either, instead describing the various ways that an apparently sincere Buddhist practitioner can actually be using the Buddha Dharma as a subtle support for the ego. Indeed, we are often so caught up in playing out our games, spiritual or otherwise, that we are not really even living in the present moment, experiencing it through the distorted viewpoint of our memories and assumptions. Smith confronts the ego directly, describing it as the “sense-of-self”:

“The sense-of-self is an assumed reality. Only the idea of “me” separates us from the unconditioned truth of our being. However, the thought of “I” is entrenched within the conditioning of our species and needs to our patience in order to uproot it. The effort needed is to know when the self-image is arising and let it go. Spiritual practices are often far too complex and overstated. This complexity comes from the mind’s attempt to think itself out of the problem, and that thinking fosters a misconception about the nature lf the spiritual predicament. Misunderstanding the situation sets the self up to orchestrate its own demise – which it can never do. The simpler we are, the more we come into wise alignment with the conceptual nature of self and see it for what it is.”
(ibid. P.33)

Smith believes that if we let go of this sense-of-self, we will see life as it really is, rather than as we misperceive it to be. Furthermore, in writing that spiritual practices are often more complicated and distracting than they need be, he points to an important characteristic of the Buddhist life: at heart, it is simply letting go. To let go of the sense-of-self that we normally act from, however, we not only need to see it clearly but also to understand it, along with the processes through which it arises. This can be facilitated by developing what Buddhism calls ‘the skilful means’ of dana (generosity), sila (morality), samadhi (Meditative concentration), and panna (wisdom). When they become overly complex, they are distracting to the essential point of the Buddhist life: spiritual awakening. Then, they cease to fulfil the purpose for which they were originally conceived by the Buddha:

“As long as the Buddha was alive, his presence assured that the techniques he taught were secondary to the realization he manifested. His life was his teaching, but he needed to offer tools to orientate others to their own awakening, so he taught numerous meditation practices and other skilful means for forty-five years. When he died, some people assumed the practices and teachings as ends in themselves, and Buddhism was born. Centuries later, we may have too much Buddhism and not enough Buddha.”
(ibid. P.37)

The Buddha is the most controversial figure amongst Buddhists. Most Theravada Buddhists consider him to have been a man who realized enlightenment and upon his physical death ceased to exist, at least in any sense of the word that most of us would understand. In contrast, most Mahayana Buddhists seem to treat him as a godlike being that still lives on some heavenly plain and responds to their ardent prayers. Then, there is the Zen Buddhist understanding of the Buddha that is another word for Nirvana, or our true nature. (This last definition is found among other Buddhists, with even some Theravada Buddhists leaning towards it, but it is primarily associated with Zennists.)

Whatever we take the Buddha to be, Smith makes an important point that after his death there has been much misinterpretation of his practices and teachings, with much of Buddhism descending into superstition and ritualism. According to early texts, these are things that he discouraged his followers from indulging in, and yet, go to any temple in the Buddhist world today, and they are hard to avoid. In Smith’s interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings, however, there is no room for such activities, with the emphasis firmly on using the practices and teachings found in Buddhism being used for more liberating purposes. Modern Buddhism is not spared his penetrative gaze either, however, as illustrated in the following excerpt:

“The Dharma can become faddish when it is too available, and it may be too accessible in the West. One friend of mine refused to go to a meditation retreat because he refused to share a room. The days when a prospective meditator would stand outside a Zen temple in the snow waiting for the approval of the roshi to enter are mostly gone. Such behaviour, extreme as it was, did indicate sincerity. A lack of sincerity is driven by a weak intention; we want the truth but on our terms and preferably without austerity. Competing interests not only weaken our resolve but also indicate a consciousness divided by between self-indulgence and an authentic yearning for freedom.”
(Ibid. P.75)

How many of us can honestly say that we have never used Buddhism in this way? Here, Smith is pushing us to look not only at our beliefs and practices, but at our deeper motives that drive us to behave in the manner in which we do. A dearth of real commitment in putting the teachings into genuine practice is surely indicative of the ego’s misuse of the Buddha Dharma to support its own flimsy existence. This encouragement to reflect upon why we believe what we believe and practice what we practice, and how sincere we are in such activities, is a real gift from the author, and is reason enough to give his book careful attention from any serious Buddhist. He extends this line of reasoning in the paragraph below:

“The lay Buddhist does not try to arrange her life to fit her spiritual intention, but rather brings forth that intention to every facet of her life. When the primary intention is used in this way, it serves the spirit of awakening. Intentions and views are the steering mechanism for our energy. Intentions move us into actions that follow our conscious or unconscious intentions. They are derived from what we really want, not from what we profess to want, and therefore cannot be prescribed by another or simulated by us.”
(Ibid. P.91)

The motives that lie behind our practice determine how genuinely liberating it will be. As lay Buddhists, Smith believes that we need to shape our practice to fit in with our lives; we cannot arrange our lives around our practice the way a monk or nun might. To try otherwise is to have unrealistic expectations and cause much frustration with the circumstances of our lives. As he writes, using Buddhist teachings and practices this way does mean that enlightenment is out of reach, far from it: he writes that it is readily within our grasp if we use the skilful means of the Buddha correctly. Having the genuine intention to realize enlightenment is required however; for our intent will either lead away from the sense-of-self or build it up further. Smith reveals how we can transcend the self:

“Surrender is not associated with a special environment or state of mind, and can be done anywhere at any time. To surrender, pause; drop all resistance, and allow the mind to be held within awareness rather than thought. Do not move by reframing, correcting, or altering whatever the mind is doing in this moment. When every state is fully embraced, we find awareness opening around and through states of mind. We surrender the mind to be just what is, and with the absence of resistance to the mind, awareness is all-pervasive.”
(Ibid. P.127)

Awareness is the heart of the Buddhist Path, and Smith highlights its importance in this extract from his book. Exactly how we might surrender by pausing and dropping all resistance he doesn’t really say. And this is the one main criticism of his book that I have: it is big on theory, but short on practical advice on how to actually put that theory into practice. Guided meditations or reflections would have surely added to the effect of this work to help shift the perceptions of the reader. This, however, is a common fault in many Buddhist books, perhaps most, and putting this criticism to one side, Smith is excellent in at least encouraging his readership to reflect upon their motives for living the Buddhist life. And, when writing about subjects such as awareness and mindfulness, his language is almost lyrical at times, and always to the point:

“Mindfulness is the ability to discern the difference between thought and fact, which is sometimes defined as the direct knowing of what is arising. The belief that I am “in here” and the world is “out there” is a subjective truth, an adaption of consciousness over many millennia; it is not an objective fact. Mindfulness has the potential to see objectively as long as it is not contaminated with personalized thinking. When mindfulness is viewed through self-centered thought, there is confusion between the chatter of the mind and what is being observed. The fact becomes inseparable from the muddled thinking, and it is impossible to know how much of what we see is our projection.”
(Ibid. P.159)

Rather than associating with our thoughts, Smith writes that we should side with simply being mindful of thoughts, along with all else we experience. In doing so, we can begin to let go of the dualism of ‘here’ and ‘there’ that normally dominate our perception of life. This will bring us out of our selves, giving rise to a more objective and unitary understanding of the way things are. To further this process of awakening, we need to cultivate samadhi, or concentration, but this needn’t be developed only on a meditation cushion, for Smith writes of ‘natural samadhi,’ which can be cultivated in the midst of the lay life. The key to this process is the heart, as opposed to the mind. For, where the mind is caught up in thoughts and concepts that will bind us to the ego, the heart has the energy to push us beyond our selves to a state of true knowing.

“Natural samadhi is available in abundance when our energy is focused and aligned with our heart’s primary intention. The energy needed to investigate our pain, end our personal narrative, and free the contracted mind is considerable, but there is no more joyous or interesting work. The heart contains all the energy necessary to complete this task, but only when our attention is not fractured by our defense mechanisms. The energy and interest are consolidated through radical accountability by taking complete responsibility for our thoughts and emotions.”
(Ibid. P.188)

Being aware of the way things truly are, will lead us to the point when we must, as Smith puts it, take “complete responsibility for our thoughts and actions.” This counters a frequent distortion of the Buddhist Path among some modern interpreters which is the libertine attitude that we can do whatever we want because life is ultimately empty, and therefore there’s no one to suffer the consequences of our actions. If we fail to take responsibility for all that we do, think, and say, we aren’t awakened, and Smith produces strong arguments in the book which unfortunately I don’t have the time or space to expand on here. Over all, then, ‘Stepping Out of Self-Deception’ comes highly recommended by this reviewer. There is the wish that Smith had included practical exercises or meditations to complement the wonderful teachings that he has written, but those teachings are worth investigating nevertheless, for they can only deepen our understanding of the Path, as the final extract from his book illustrates:

“Buddhism in its final summation is about abiding in the Now, and Buddhist practice encourages and cultivates skilful states of mind to make that entry easier. It is a straightforward process of surrendering that occurs when the mind is calm, serene, and equanimous, because those states arise from a lack of mental resistance and bring the person of awareness closer to Now. They set in motion the intention to surrender by clearly seeing the disadvantages of a life lived through the noise of the mind.”
(Ibid. P.216)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Hinduism

 Hinduism and the Buddha have much in common

The religion we call “Hinduism” is known to most Hindus as Sanatana Dharma (“the Eternal Law”), and traditionally governs every aspect of their lives. It is the third most widely followed faith in the world with roughly a billion believers, not only found in the Indian subcontinent, but also across the world with sizeable communities in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, the UAE, the UK, and the US. Unlike Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, Hinduism is not traced back to a single founder; and, unlike Christianity and Islam, it does have one god, but thousands.
Among the myriad deities found in Hinduism, are Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Krishna, Rama, Hanuman, Parvati, Sarasvati, Lakshmi, and Kali. The ‘big three’ are Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. Brahma is the least popular of the three, whilst Shiva is very popular with ascetics and philosophers, and Vishnu (often in the form of Krishna) probably has more devotees than any other Hindu god. Rama is also an avatar (incarnation’) of Vishnu, while Ganesha is Shiva’s and sports an elephant’s head; Hanuman is a monkey-god. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism has female gods such as Parvati (consort of Shiva), Lakshmi (Vishnu’s missus), Saraswati (goddess of art and knowledge), and Kali (associated with sacrifice and death).
In the Pali Canon, the Buddha’s attitude towards gods is not atheist as many modern Buddhists would no doubt prefer, but rather he sees them as subject to suffering and death like all other living beings, only over a much longer time scale. Brahma – or a rough equivalent of him called Brahma Sahampati - makes regular appearances in the Canon, including at the Buddha’s enlightenment and death. He is one of many Brahma-titled gods in early Buddhism, along with other deities, demons, angels and ghosts also mentioned. None of these gods are exactly the same as their Hindu counterparts, however, and are neither eternal nor the origin of the universe, according to the Buddha.
The word dharma, which denotes ‘cosmic law’ or ‘ultimate truth’ in Buddhism, also means the former in Hindu parlance. It also has another meaning not found in Buddhism, which is ‘duty’. Hinduism teaches that we all have moral, social, and religious duties to perform, including worshiping the gods – or at least one or some of them; there are so many deities in Hinduism that it would surely be impossible to regularly worship them all. Encapsulated in the scripture called the laws of Manu, such duties dominate most devout Hindus’ lives, and have given rise to the caste system, with rules that dictate who a person can marry, what food they can eat, and the type of work they do, as well as other activities.
The Buddha’s view of castes seems to have been negative on the whole, seeing them as causing unnecessary suffering and divisions between people. Indeed, in the Dhammapada, he states that the true Brahmin (a member of one of the highest castes in Hinduism, the priests) is in fact anyone who achieves enlightenment, and that it doesn’t matter which caste that person was born into. Most predominately Buddhist societies have reflected the Buddha’s viewpoint and not inherited the Hindu caste system – Sri Lanka being the primary exception. The Buddha does teach us that we have duties of a sort, however, but that they are more general ones like being compassionate and friendly, rather than dictating specific social groupings.
Hindus employ various kinds of art to stimulate devotion to its gods. This includes statues of them and carvings, the latter of which adorn not only the inside of temples, but are also found on their exteriors. Gods and goddesses are often represented in colourful paintings as well, which are found in peoples’ homes and workplaces, as well as in temples. Theatre and dance are used to not only entertain but also educate Hindus in their religion. The Mahabharata and Ramayana scriptures are often used in the theatrical shows, sometimes put on by special religious acting troupes that live in temples. Similar setups involve highly-trained dancers that have a variety of intricate dance routines, with events from the life of the popular god Krishna being a common theme. Another art form used by Hindus is music, which includes both vocal and instrumental genres, typically involving hypnotic qualities that can induce meditative and devotional states of mind in both performers and their audience.
Although in early Buddhism, according to the Pali Canon, the Buddha discouraged his followers from such activities as acting and music, reflected in the modern world by the rather plain and unaccompanied chanting found in countries such as Burma and Thailand, later traditions have utilized incorporated music into their chanting, seeing this as skillful use of the medium to encourage attention and devotion in Buddhists. Art has long been used by Buddhists to illustrate the life and teachings of the Buddha and other great teachers, and statues are used in all Buddhist traditions across Asia. It would seem that if done in a spirit of mindfulness, such endeavours can be considered as complementary to other Buddhist practices; and in using various art forms in this way, the Buddha Way has much in common with Hinduism.
When the animal features of the deities Ganesha and Hanuman are considered – the former with an elephant’s head, the latter in the form of a monkey – it is not surprising that Hindus often have a close and compassionate relationship with animals. Indeed, all the important Hindu gods have animal mounts that they are frequently portrayed with, almost as if the animals are extensions of the gods’ own selves. This also reflects the closeness and affinity with animals that exists within the Hindu tradition, as does the vegetarianism which can be encountered across the Indian subcontinent. Vegetarianism is also found amongst some Buddhist traditions, most notably in China, and the Buddha viewed animals with the utmost respect and compassion, something reflected in the behavior of many Buddhists to this day. In this, Hinduism and the Buddha are seen to have much in common again.
Turning to some of the central doctrines of Hinduism and Buddha’s teachings, we again find similarities. Hindus believe in karma and reincarnation whilst the Buddha often taught about karma and rebirth. Essentially, Hinduism describes the human being as having three layers of being: the physical body, the jiva (soul), and the Atman, or (True) Self. The physical body is created in the womb, grows and ages, and then dies. The soul is believed to survive death And can be reborn in a variety of forms, such as an angel, demon, ghost, hell-dweller, animal or human, dependent upon the karma (actions) that it has done. The soul changes over its countless reincarnations. The Atman, on the other hand, travels from life to life unchanged, and is considered to be the imminent form of the transcendent impersonal God, Brahman. (Brahman is not to be confused with Brahma, the creator god.)
The Buddha also taught that we are subject to karma and rebirth, but with one major difference: anatta (not-self). All that we take ourselves to be, the body, mind, soul, and Atman do not comprise a self; they merely appear to. It is not a soul that is reborn, but certain aspects of the mind, and at heart we are empty of any permanent being or Being (Atman). That which we truly are, according to the Buddha, cannot be conceptualized or analytically dissected, for “it” is not a thing, and lies out of reach of the mind, which appears in “it” rather than the other way around. So, while karma and reincarnation/rebirth are common themes in the teaching of the Buddha and Hinduism, they are not identical. It is worth noting here that much of Buddhist teachings are derived from ancient Hindu ones, but because of the Buddha’s denial of an eternal self (soul) or Self (God), his understanding and that of Hindu theology can be seen to be different at heart.
Both Hinduism and the Buddha agree that liberation from karma and rebirth are the ultimate goal that all wise people will aim for. In Hinduism, this is known as Moksha, and in Buddhism it is called Nirvana. Basically, Moksha is the complete recognition that Atman and Brahman are one; it is the mystical union between devotee and God found in much mysticism around the world. The Buddha taught that even this idea should be let go of, however, and that Nirvana is the complete recognition that there is no Atman or Brahman. Some forms of Hinduism teach that the ultimate goal is not the liberation described above, however, but that it is living in a heavenly paradise such as that presided over by Krishna. Again, even heavens and hells in Buddhism are considered impermanent, existing for eons before dying away and being replaced by other similar phenomena.
Of the three dominant religions in the world today, Hinduism is the one that is most similar to the teachings and practices taught by the Buddha. It contains ideas and practices that closely resemble those found in the Way of the Buddha such as karma and meditation, whereas the other two major religions, Christianity and Islam, differ greatly from Buddhism in much of their doctrines and religious practices. Historically, Hinduism and Buddhism have been rivals in the Indian subcontinent, and this continues today in some parts of that highly diverse region, most notably in recent years in Sri Lanka. The similarities described above reveal much that both Hindus and Buddhists can build on if they wish to create more harmonious relationships in the future. Let us hope that they do.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 1-4

“Unborn and imperishable
Is the Original Mind
Earth, water, fire and wind
A temporary lodging for the night

Attached to this ephemeral burning house
You yourselves light the fire,
Kindle the flames
In which you're consumed.

Search back
To the time
When you were born
You can't remember a thing at all!

Keep your mind as it was
When you came into the world
And instantly this very self
Is a living ‘thus come’ one”

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was a wonderful exponent of our true nature. He called it the Unborn Buddha Mind, and talked of it in the everyday language of ordinary people, rather than in the convoluted language of philosophy and mysticism. For this reason, his teachings are as valuable today as they were in Seventeenth Century Japan where he gave them to the world, in the hope of helping suffering beings out of their self-created hells. For this reason, it is felt that the present exploration of the 'Song of the Mind’ will benefit anyone seeking clarification in the search for awakening to our Unborn Buddha Mind.

“Unborn and imperishable
Is the Original Mind”

When Bankei speaks of “the Original Mind,” he is talking of our true nature, the bottomless ground of our being. Moreover, he is using language common to the Zen masters of old, among whom the famous Huang Bo (died c.850) said that the One Mind is the Buddha, which is unborn in its nature. This Original Mind is unborn in that it is not created, that is to say it is not dependent upon anything, and is indeed not a ‘thing’ itself. Bankei says that it is imperishable - it cannot be destroyed. Now, since thoughts, emotions, memories, and sense-consciousness are all conditioned and ephemeral, they cannot be anything to do with the Unborn Original Mind. Therefore, it is not mind in any conventional (or current scientific) understanding of the word.

“Earth, water, fire and wind
A temporary lodging for the night”

In traditional Buddhist parlance, as in other ancient philosophical systems, “earth, wind, fire and wind” represent the primal four elements of the natural world, and as such, also account for the human body. Bankei states that this form is no more than “a temporary lodging for the night.” A temporary lodging for what, however? If the mind is accepted as being temporary as stated above, then this is not the ‘what’ that is being referred to by the Master. Indeed, when its transient nature is accepted, the mind as much as the body can be considered a temporary lodging, too. Both are impermanent phenomena playing host to what Bankei calls the Unborn.

“Attached to this ephemeral burning house
You yourselves light the fire,
Kindle the flames
In which you're consumed.”

“This ephemeral burning house” is another term for the body, and by extension the mind that is interwoven with it. And, as the Buddha taught in the famous Fire Sermon, the body and mind are “burning with the fires of passion, hatred, and delusion; burning with birth, ageing, and death, with sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair.” Furthermore, we cannot blame others for our self-created suffering; nor can nature be blamed, for it is simply the way it is, and it is our own egotistical minds that create suffering around it. We “kindle the flames” by attaching to what we like and resisting what we dislike, rather than accepting life as it is. This ego-perpetuated misery ends up consuming the mind, born of our constant thirst for life to be the way we want it to be, and not the way it actually is.

“Search back
To the time
When you were born
You can't remember a thing at all!”

Bankei encourages us to think back to when we were born, or as close to that time as we can because as newborns we do not have these cynical minds making tall demands of life, but rather innocent ‘blank sheets’ upon which life writes its poetry, both beautiful and grotesque. Sure enough, as babes we quickly decide on what we like and what we don’t like, crying when we don’t get our own way; but even toddlers still have moments when the clear and indiscriminating mind of innocence remains, illuminating their world. Indeed, even adults can sometimes spontaneously experience the Unborn, for it is our natural underlying state, and out of it comes the struggling egos that we mistake ourselves to be.

“Keep your mind as it was
When you came into the world
And instantly this very self
Is a living ‘thus come’ one”

Here Bankei encourages us to “keep your mind as it was when you came into the world” because he knows that this pure state of innocent knowing is the very Unborn Buddha Mind that is without the sufferings of the limited human minds that we normally identify with. On top of this, he states that “this very self is a living ‘thus come’ one.” A ‘thus come’ one is a title of a Buddha, and Bankei is saying that if we recognize and retain the pure Mind that precedes and sits behind the conditioned mind, we will rest in the unconditioned and unborn Buddha Mind. This is not, as Bankei makes clear, not something to be believed, but rather an experience to be known. And here, we come to a crucial point in all of this: how do we realize the Unborn? It is not through thinking, for enlightenment precedes all thought; it is not through feeling, for enlightenment precedes emotions. We must regain the vision of an innocent babe. And we can do this by looking at ourselves with the pure Eye of an infant. To do this, please conduct the following reflection, remembering that it is not our thoughts or emotions that are important, but the essential experience itself.

Look carefully at whatever is opposite you at this moment. Take notice of its size, shape, colours, and opacity. Now, turn your attention around 180 degrees and focus upon that which is doing the looking. Examine what you see here for any of the same qualities you observed earlier: right now, right here, is there any size, shape, or colour to be seen? Moreover, is what is here opaque or transparent? Lastly, is what is seen here and what is seen there actually separate, or are they in fact a unity of things and ‘No-thing’?

If Bankei is correct in that the Unborn is ever-present amidst the born, and that it is in fact our natural state, it shouldn’t be too difficult to locate. And, as it turns out, if we turn around and accept what is present instead of what we think or believe should be present, the Unborn is revealed. As it was never born, it can never die, and is always awaiting us if we pay enough attention to the way things are right now. Retaining this vision, we will spontaneously produce all the wisdom and compassion we need, straight out of nowhere. Doing thus, we are each a “living thus come one” awake to our true nature, as well as the relative nature true that appears in it. Why not look and see whether or not Bankei is correct – what have you to lose?