Thursday, September 23, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Mysticism

“In every age there exist fervent mystics. God does not deprive this world of them, for they are its sustainers.”
(Al-Ghazzali, d. 1108-1111)

Mysticism is found in all the great world religions. In Christianity there has been a strong mystical thread that begins in the Bible and runs up to this very day, from Christ’s “The Kingdom of God is within you” to Thomas Merton’s exploration of Zen and Roman Catholicism. In this article, the main source of quotations is from such mystics as the amazing medieval Dominican priest Meister Eckhart who said, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which He sees me.” In Islam there is the mystical tradition known as Sufism, the most famous of its exponents being the poet Jalaluddin Rumi, who also features below. Hinduism also features a long history of mysticism, with the guru Shankara being one of its main mystical exponents. Buddhism could be said to be, in essence, a mystical tradition, rather than a religion that contains mystical movements, with the Buddha himself being a mystic in the purest sense of the term.

This brings us to an important point to make clear at the outset, which is that one person’s mysticism is another person’s heresy. There are many different definitions of mysticism, including magical practices, way out philosophies involving aliens and the like, not to mention those that involve claims regarding the reincarnation of Cleopatra or Napoleon. We are not concerned with such wild and wacky beliefs here, but in a much narrower description of mysticism known as the perennial philosophy or perennial wisdom. In this sense, mysticism indicates the dying of the illusion of selfhood into the greater reality of God, Nirvana, Dao, or a number of other concepts representing the deathless and indefinable part of us that is often also called the Void.

As mentioned, it is the death of the individual self or ego into the indescribable that characterizes the perennial wisdom, and it is here that we shall begin our brief exploration of this kind of mysticism. In the New Testament, Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ; it is not my life that I now live, but the life which Christ lives through me.” Paul is telling us that he has surrendered his ego to the greater reality of Christ, or God manifest in the world. This statement may trouble many Buddhists who are doctrinally allergic to the word ‘God,’ but we need to be bigger than our dogmas if we’re to penetrate the real meaning of the mystics quoted in this article.

God, as the mystic understands the term does not correspond at all to the commonly held beliefs involving some egotistic anthropomorphic deity gazing down on humanity from on high. For the mystic, God is something much less cartoonish, and much more subtle and immediate. In mysticism, God is that which transcends all individualism, including the individualism of a deity; God is not a separate being to us, but rather the very ‘being-ness’ that lies at the heart of everyone. As Meister Eckhart declares below, we should understand God as “not-God.” This “not-God” is much easier to relate to the Buddhist conception of Nirvana, or the Chinese idea of the Dao, and this is why the writings of such luminaries as Eckhart, Rumi, and Shankara appear more often than any other in the following paragraphs. They seem to have experienced God in the same way as Buddhists experience Nirvana. This can be seen if we put aside our conceptual clinging and read between the lines. There is great inspiration to be gained if we do so.

Returning to the statement of Paul’s that Christ lives through him, it can be seen that it is in the giving up of identifying with being the individual ego or self that such an experience is gained. Buddhists, of course, are well-exposed to the notion that it is this very self that needs to be transcended if we are to experience our true nature. This is awakening to the way things are (the Dharma), and mystics of all the main traditions have recognized that the ego is blocking our view of God or Buddha:

“Whatever form [feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness] there is, past, present, future, internal or external, gross or subtle, inferior or superior, whether far or near, all form [feeling, perception, mental formation, and consciousness] should, by means of right wisdom, be seen as it really is, thus: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’" (Anattalakkhana Sutta, B.C.)

“Nothing burns in hell but the self.” (Theologia Germanica, c.1350)

“If you have not seen the devil, look at your own self.” (Jalaluddin Rumi, 1207-1273)

“Your own self is your own Cain that murders your own Abel. For every action and motion of self has the spirit of Anti-Christ and murders the divine life within you.” (William Law, 1686-1761)

The way to let go of the self and see the deathless beyond it is called prayer in most of the mystical traditions. This does not mean the commonly-held understanding of prayer, however, as a petition to some divine power intent on gaining something, but rather a series of practices or attitudes akin to Buddhist meditation. In this form of prayer, the mystic simply wishes, as Christ taught his followers to pray, that God’s will be done (rather than the individual’s own), and this corresponds with the Sufi Muslim’s intent to surrender completely to Allah, as in the whirling Dervishes graceful dance. This acquiescence is essential to the mystical merging into the divine, and is found in the Biblical injunction, “Be still, and know that I am God,” as well as in the following statements:

“Prayer makes the soul one with God.” (Julian of Norwich, c.1342-1420)

“The kernel of worship is melting away the self, and the rest of worship is merely the husk.” (Borhan al-Din Mohaqqeq, 13th century)
“The most powerful prayer, one well nigh omnipotent, and the worthiest work of all is the outcome of a quiet mind. The quieter it is the more powerful, the worthier, the deeper, the more telling and more perfect the prayer is. To the quiet mind all things are possible.” (Meister Eckhart, 1260-1327)
“Who is it that repeats the Buddha’s name? We should try to find out where this ‘who’ comes from and what it looks like.” (Xu Yun, 1840-1959)

So, as the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich points out, true prayer breaks down the egoistic barriers between the soul and God, rather than merely the former asking the latter for some favour or another. Again, Buddhists should elevate themselves above their conceptions of the words ‘soul’ and ‘God’ and see them in terms of mundane mind and Buddha Mind respectively. This is the “melting away of the self” that the Muslim Birhan al-Din refers to, which is facilitated by the absolutely quiet mind of Eckhart. Achieving this serene mental state usually requires a lot of discipline and skillful use of meditative tools such as the use of mantra that the Zen Buddhist Master Xu Yun mentions. For the mystic, such practices as mantra recitation, meditation, and the like are all aimed at quieting the mind to the point that it can see itself clearly. When this happens, the Unity that lies beneath the disparate elements of the self is revealed, and it is to this that the following words are commenting upon:

“You should love God as not-God, not-Spirit, not-Person, not-Image, but as He is, a sheer, pure absolute One, sundered from all duality, and in whom we eternally sink from nothingness to nothingness.” (Meister Eckhart)

“Behold but One in all things; it is the second that leads you astray.” (Kabir, b.1400)

“Though One, Brahman is the cause of the many. There is no other cause.” (Shankara, 789-820)

“One in all, all in One – if only this realized, no more worry about not being perfect.” (Seng-ts’an (d.606)

The nothingness that Eckhart describes is an essential part of the awakening of the mystic, for it is in the realization that the separate self is a delusion that the true interconnected oneness of life is revealed. This is called Brahman by the Hindu saint Shankara, but this label should no more be clung to than any other word used to describe the indescribable. Seng-ts’an, being a typical Zen Master does not even try to name the nameless, but instead highlights a practical result of seeing the unity behind the apparent diversity: that we will “no more worry about not being perfect.” For, in truth, there is no distinct self to be perfect or imperfect; there is just the way things are, the Dharma, the essence of which is that which the mystics variously call God, Zen, Allah, Buddha, Dao, Nirvana, and Brahman etc. This essence is also described as being deathless, for it is only separate things and beings that can perish, whereas the No-thing that lies behind all ephemeral phenomena is eternal:

“He who knows the soundless, odourless, tasteless, intangible, formless, deathless, supernatural, undecaying, uncreated, endless, unchangeable Reality, springs out of the jaws of death.” (Katha Upanishad B.C.)

“Past and future veil God from our sight;
Burn up both of them with fire.
How long will you be partitioned by these segments, like a reed?
So long as a reed is partitioned, it is not privy to secrets,
Nor is it vocal in response to lip and breathing.” (Jalaluddin Rumi)

“Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time. And not only time but temporalities, not only temporal things but temporal affections; not only temporal affections but the very taint and smell of time.” (Meister Eckhart)

“Watchfulness is the path to the deathless, and heedlessness the path to death.
The watchful do not die, but the heedless are already like the dead.” (Dhammapada, B.C.)

All the great mystics speak of transcending not only the sense of being a separate self, but also of going beyond time, as do the quotations above. For, in the purest experience of this present moment, we discover eternity and deathlessness. It is aging phenomena that die, whereas that which is ageless and without a limited individual form cannot expire. The mystical process, whatever tradition or methods it uses, is ultimately aimed at breaking through the prison of mortality into the freedom of what both the Buddha and the Japanese Zen Master Bankei called the Unborn. Living as the Unborn we are no longer tied to the false ego and its eventual fate, but are liberated from all suffering as the very awareness that is the heart of every being in this universe.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dukkha v.1

Thoughts surround pulsating pain,
Fledglings hatched from dark eggs;
Buddha’s faint smile remains firm,
Avian transformations in the void.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 8-11

“When you've got money
You despise the poor
But have you forgotten how it was
Back when you were poor yourself?

The money you amassed in life
Amassed with a demonic heart
You'll watch with horror and alarm
Seized upon by hungry ghosts.

Throwing your whole life away
Sacrificed to the thirst for gold
But when you saw your life was through
All your money was no use

Clinging, craving and the like
I don't have them on my mind
That's why nowadays I can say
The whole world is truly mine!”
Possessions, and the desire for them, are a big part of our suffering. We want what we don’t have and cling to what we do have, either way creating the circumstances for both present and future suffering. Present suffering is created when we live with the desire for something that we do not possess, for we are in a state of want or incompleteness, longing for that object; and the seeds for future suffering are sown because we will continue to suffer while we fail to take hold of that which we crave. And, even when we already possess that which we want, we still suffer, both now and in times to come, for we fear the loss of our possessions. In this, it can be seen that rich people are in a worse position than the poor, for they have more to lose, and therefore more possessions to worry about. The 17th Century Zen Master Bankei has some interesting insights into desire in his poem ‘The Song of the Mind’:
“When you've got money
You despise the poor”

Regarding the rich, Bankei says that not only do they avoid the poor, but that they actually despise them. Why? Well, if you’re rich, and you wish to retain your wealth, then the poor may be perceived as a threat to your continued prosperity, for they will no doubt desire what you already have. On a subtler level of human psychology, it may well be that whilst consciously we may be unaware of the fact, subconsciously we may feel guilty that we have a lot whilst others have very little, and this can result in resentment towards those that trigger such inner conflict. Of course, these are generalisations, and there do exist philanthropists that willingly give to those less fortunate than themselves through a genuine sense of compassion or fellowship. But how many of us have given to charity or the poor in the past, but part of us has resented the fact, regretting the loss of part of our wealth? Bankei suggests that we reflect upon our life in relation to the poor, rather than merely acting out of subconscious motives:

“But have you forgotten how it was
Back when you were poor yourself?”
Now, again, not all of those who are rich were once poor, for some people are born into wealth. But, for many of us that are well-off to one degree or another, we can recall earlier times in our lives when we weren’t so affluent. Remembering what it was like back then, and how we felt about not having what we wanted, we can then imagine how those poorer than ourselves feel right now. They do not deserve to be despised or even disliked for being less fortunate, if anything they are worthy of our empathy. Out of such empathy for the poor can come the motivation to help them, and if acted upon, such altruistic behaviour can be the source of much pleasure, counteracting any feelings of guilt referred to above.
“The money you amassed in life
Amassed with a demonic heart”

Here, Bankei has a perhaps shocking accusation to make, that the accruing of money through our lives is motivated by a “demonic heart.” This is a powerful and challenging assertion; powerful in that it grabs our attention, and challenging in that it demands we look at the mindsets we have when pursuing and stockpiling our wealth. To understand Bankei’s use of the word “demonic” it’s crucial to remember that the Buddha taught that desire and clinging are the ultimate causes of our suffering, and therefore that if we live with such feelings in our minds we are doing the worst thing possible if our ultimate intent is to attain enlightenment. In this sense, it is “demonic” and must be recognised and let go of if we are to progress along the Buddha’s Way.

“You'll watch with horror and alarm
Seized upon by hungry ghosts.”

The belief in hungry ghosts is long-established in the Buddhist traditions of Asia, perhaps going back to at least the lifetime of the historical Buddha. In Asia, hungry ghosts are usually believed in literally as the spirits of dead people who were greedy during their previous life and therefore now live as a ghostly being with a massive belly but a tiny mouth, unable to satiate their enormous hunger. But, Bankei’s reference to hungry ghosts may well mean something less fantastical, as he was renowned for not indulging in the more supernatural and superstitious elements of traditional Buddhist culture. Rather than meaning the ‘leftovers’ of actual dead people, he seems to be using the term “hungry ghosts”  to mean either our own psychological reactions to our greed or other living people that grasp after our wealth and associated happiness. Perhaps for modern-minded Buddhists the latter interpretation is more useful, and as the Buddha Dharma consists of skilful means to help us realize Nirvana, it is surely both efficacious and acceptable to view Bankei’s use of the words “hungry ghosts” in this way.

If we take “hungry ghosts” to mean either other people’s effects on our riches or our own psychological states regarding our wealth, we have some interesting and productive areas for reflection. Certainly, those who cling to their possessions will react with “horror and alarm” if other people threaten their privileged positions in society. It may be a thief or a business rival to name but two kinds of “hungry ghosts” in this interpretation of the term. Or, it may be the fear of being thieved or out-manoeuvred in business dealings that create mental turmoil akin to such ghostly beings. Whether physical or psychological, and ultimately such a division is misleading in itself, rich people definitely have “hungry ghosts” haunting them, but this is not the worst fate that can befall them, or any of us fir that matter:

“Throwing your whole life away
Sacrificed to the thirst for gold
But when you saw your life was through
All your money was no use”

This verse reveals another, greater, foe to not only the wealthy but every single living creature – death. We are all subject to death, and Bankei states that if we spend our lives in the pursuit of “gold” (or material wealth), from the perspective of the Dharma, we have wasted our time on earth. He creates the image of someone rich dying and finding that all their money is of no use now. What could have benefitted them in preparation for their demise was the practice of Buddhism, but since they neglected thus in favour of amassing as many possessions as they could, they are in quite a predicament, full of fear and confusion as they face their final moments. If only they had walked the Path of the Buddha whilst still healthy, now as death approached, they would have the wisdom to face it with equanimity.

“Clinging, craving and the like
I don't have them on my mind
That's why nowadays I can say
The whole world is truly mine!”

This verse reveals the wisdom of Zen Master Bankei, for he gets right to the heart of the matter and highlights the central issue here: “clinging, craving and the like.” As the Buddha taught over two-and-a-half millennia ago, when we cling to our desires, whether we already possess them or not, we create our own suffering. As an enlightened master, however, Bankei does not cling to any thoughts or desires that may arise in his awareness and therefore he does not suffer. Furthermore, and here we have another indicator of this man’s greatness, he states that “the whole world is truly mine!” Is he a megalomaniac or engulfed in a kind of solipsism? No, he is enlightened, that’s all!

When we see the true state of affairs we see that there is no separation between me and that object, between me and you, nor me and the world. In reality, ‘I’ am not separate from the things I might desire or cling to, and therefore I need not suffer at the thought that I do not have them or might lose them. You might protest that whilst this sounds great in theory, in practice it isn’t so easy to experience, to which I counter, “Poppycock!” All we need to do to set the wheel of Dharma rolling is to actually look at the way things are right now with an open mind and heart (which are in fact not two, by the way). If you are willing to do this, please conduct the following exercises in a spirit of inquiry.

Look at an object. It might be a car, a house, or even the sky. Take time to notice its features, those aspects of it that you might consider desirable or at least attractive. Now, gaze at your own face – or lack of, in truth – and note whether there is any gap between ‘you’ here and the object ‘there.’ It is true, on present evidence, that there is no distance separating ‘you’ and ‘it,’ but rather that there is only one seeing here that includes both seer and seen? Congratulations, you’ve just opened your Buddha Eye!

This Buddha Eye that is referred to above is none other than the Unborn which Bankei liked so much to talk about. It is the pure seeing that transcends both seer and seen, leaving awareness intertwined with whatever it is aware of. In this naked knowing, everything already is part of awareness, and therefore is already ‘mine’ as what I really am at centre is this very awareness. Living thus, there is no self from which the desire to have and to hold will arise; instead, everything and everyone is seen as an expression of the same awareness, worthy of the wisdom and compassion that flows from this empty heart. Then, all the “hungry ghosts” in the world can come to haunt us and we will be beyond their grasp, as will be every single object in the cosmos.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Buddhism

The Buddha's response to 'Buddhism'?

As the fourth most followed religion in the world, with an estimated 350 million followers or more, Buddhism is one of the major religions in the world today, and has been for much of its two-and-a-half thousand year history. As those years have passed, it has changed and adapted to new cultures and psychologies, producing a wide variety of forms. And yet, at the heart of all these sects, the essential message of the Buddha is retained: life is full of suffering, and there is a way out of that suffering – the Way of the Buddha.

This is not to say that there are not big differences between many of the diverse kinds of Buddhism, however; there is the somewhat austere and conservative approach of Theravada Buddhism, the radical and unorthodox methods of Zen Buddhism, the multifarious and Hindu-influenced forms of Tibetan Buddhism, the devotional and almost theistic Pure Land Buddhism, and the militant yet liberating Nichiren Buddhism, to name but a few. Outwardly, these different denominations appear more like different religions rather than various versions of the same one. This is not so surprising when we remember that the societies and times that they arose and developed from also differ greatly, and as hinted at above, it is the teachings of the Buddha that are really important, not the particulars of the sect from through they are conveyed. We will look at these teachings a little later, but first let’s examine the outer layers of the Buddhist onion.

When we inspect specific practices from individual sects, Buddhism can seem pretty confusing. Chinese Buddhists make much use of music, with some beautifully melodic hymns in their repertoire. Whereas in Theravada Buddhism, a cappella chanting is used in their religious services, basing this practice on teachings attributed to the Buddha. Pure Land Buddhists pay obeisance to a number of statues in their temples, including Avalokiteshvara, Tara, and the Buddha, in Nichiren Buddhism the primary object of worship is a symbol representing the Lotus Sutra, and whilst Pure Land Buddhists chant the name of Amitabha Buddha, Japanese Zen Buddhists meditate upon the moment or illogical riddles.

All these apparent contradictions lead some scholars to classify the major sects as different Buddhisms as opposed to forms of one religion called Buddhism. Furthermore, there are seemingly irreconcilable doctrines to be found in these sects; in Theravada Buddhism, the Buddha is believed to have been a man who realized Nirvana, or enlightenment, and when he finally passed away, ceased to exist. In Mahayana Buddhism (which includes most of the other modern Buddhist movements) the Buddha is more like a god, still existing in some heavenly realm ready to come to the aid of a follower when petitioned. Likewise, the spiritual ideal in Theravada Buddhism is the Arahant, someone who realizes full enlightenment in this lifetime and then ceases to exist like the Buddha; in Mahayana Buddhism, the Arahant is superseded by the Bodhisattva who though spiritually awakened, puts off full enlightenment so as to help others to do the same.

A Traditional response to these and the thousands of other differences found between the Buddhist sects is to consider them as ‘skillful means’ to enlightenment. In other words, the various sects, practices and teachings exist to accommodate the many different kinds of human beings that live in the world. According to this viewpoint, whilst outwardly they may appear to contradict one another, the final destination (enlightenment) is the same; it is only the particular route taken that differs. This interpretation of the myriad of forms that Buddhism takes is quite popular among many modern Buddhists, especially western ones, and it has even been taught by popular Buddhist teachers who themselves adhere to one particular sect. Another cause for conciliatory language between such teachers is some of the similarities found in their denominations, as explored below.

Generally speaking, most forms of Buddhism share many common characteristics such as the use of Buddha statues and other religious imagery, ceremonies and rituals, the practice of chanting and prayer, and the presence of a priestly class, often in the from of minks and nuns. With the exception of monks and nuns, according to the earliest known scriptures (the Tripitaka or Pali Canon), the Buddha actually dissuaded his followers from using images, rituals, and prayer, and made little or no reference to ceremonies and chanting. As far as we can tell, these practices arose long after his passing away, and while he was alive, the Buddha encouraged his disciples to walk the Noble Eightfold Path, involving aspects such as basic morality, meditation and mindfulness. So, whilst a cause for Buddhists to see similarities amongst the different versions of Buddhism found in the world today, such activities are not really part of the Buddha’s actual teaching.

This emphasis of the Buddha on his Way as the Path to end suffering, rather than as a religion as such raises an important question when looking at the Buddhist religion today: is it what he really intended for his followers? The same could be asked of Christ and Christianity of course, and I know many Christians who hold the view that whilst religion is manmade, the real point of Christian practice is salvation in Jesus Christ, which is God-made. With the substation of Buddha for Christ, and enlightenment for salvation – plus the elimination of God from the equation altogether – this statement could be made regarding Buddhism. It can be argued, and some Pali Canon purists do, that the Buddha did not teach Buddhism or any other ism for that matter, but that he pointed out the Way to Nirvana.

So, who is correct? Are Theravada Buddhists or the Pali Canon enthusiasts on the right track, or are the Pure Landers headed for eventual enlightenment in Amitabha’s heavenly paradise? Perhaps none of these groups are correct, and it is the tantric Tibetan Buddhists that are on the true path; but, then again, surely all those hours spent meditating have not been wasted by the world’s Zennists? In truth, it is by looking at the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, whether in the Pali, Chinese, or Tibetan scriptures, that we might divulge as to who is right and who is wrong. And, if we discern the common themes that run through these voluminous works, we find that wisdom, compassion, meditation, mindfulness and above all enlightenment lie at the common heart of all these variations on the Buddha’s Path.

Furthermore, by walking this Path we can taste liberation, which is the ultimate test as to whether we are walking the Buddha’s Way or not. True enough, it is easy to get caught up in rituals and doctrines and the like, and when this is done, we fall into the traps of sectarianism and religiosity, and this is a million miles from the intention of the Buddha, which was to establish the Way out of suffering. Therefore, if awareness is applied to our practice, then whether we call what we practice Theravada Buddhism, Pali Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, or no Buddhism at all, it will be in line with what the Buddha intended for us: the Way to end suffering.