Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 19-21

“Having created
The demon mind yourself
When it torments you mercilessly
You're to blame and no one else

When you do wrong
Your mind's the demon
There's no hell
To be found outside

Abominating hell
Longing for heaven
You make yourself suffer
In a joyful world”

The message of the seventeenth century Zen master Bankei Yotaku can be both direct and modern in language. In the above three verses, we have ample evidence of both qualities, giving the words an immediacy that grabs the heart’s attention, pulling us back into the present moment, which is right where we need to be if we wish to experience the Unborn Buddha Mind, the Wonder that Bankei’s teachings consistently point to. Here, the master uses the age-old concepts of demons and hell to illustrate the nature of the egoistic mind, which is the true origin and location of our suffering. He pulls no punches laying the blame where it lies right from the outset:

“Having created
The demon mind yourself”

There are two important points to attend to in these two lines; firstly, that there is something Bankei calls “the demon mind,” and secondly, that we create it for ourselves. A demon is a tormented, evil being that cannot desist from doing wrong and selfish things. It is used here to characterise self-centred thoughts, hence, “the demon mind.” Another important aspect of this mind pertinent to this reflection is that it is also the contraction of what Bankei describes as the Unborn Buddha Mind, mentioned above. This is our natural state, unmoved and unmoving, whereas the delusion-based demon mind is a movement of mentality away from the Unborn. Furthermore, this movement is created by the mind; it does not come from without. True, it is influenced by outside forces, but it is mental processes themselves that forge the sense of being a separate being that necessarily suffers.

“When it torments you mercilessly
You're to blame and no one else”

All kinds of negative thoughts and feelings go around and around these ego-minds of ours. In fact, we cannot have one without the other, for the tormented contents of the demon mind are its very parts; it grows out of, and is constructed of, thoughts and feelings of ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine.’ Every time we identify with our emotions and notions we build up the sense of being a ‘me’ with all the torments that accompany such an idea. Here are a few examples of the kinds of harmful mental states that the demon mind is involved with: anger, frustration, agony, regret, torment, hatred, sadness, jealousy, greed, superiority, inferiority, and delusion (including the delusion of being an ego-self). Being the cause of, and subsequently the product of, such negative mindscapes as these, the demon mind is caught in a perpetual loop of self-made misery. We cannot blame the Devil, Mara (the Buddhist counterpart of Satan), nor anyone or anything else for our anguish. It is always a case of psychological D.I.Y.

“When you do wrong
Your mind's the demon”

At first glance, these lines may seem to be merely a repetition of the first verse, but if we look closely, we can pick out the word “do,” which adds a new dimension to these musings of Bankei. Previously, he related our suffering (“torments”) to our mind (“demon mind”), whereas now he turns his enlightened attention to our actions. Everything we do comes from the mind, for as it says in the first words of the Dhammapada, “Mind is the forerunner of all things.” Some may object that although it is obvious that premeditated actions follow the mind, spontaneous deeds have no previous though. This is not so, however, for as modern neurological research is confirming, the subconscious mind precedes any act that we do – consciously or unconsciously – sometimes by several seconds. And, the subconscious parts of the mind are conditioned just as the conscious parts are; so, whenever we do “wrong” or selfish things, we do so from our “demon mind.”
“There's no hell
To be found outside”

Bankei now turns his attention to a place that most of the world’s religions and mythologies attest to the existence of – hell. He boldly declares that hell is not “to be found outside,’ a pretty darting statement for a Buddhist monk of the seventeenth century to make. This is because most Japanese Buddhists at that time – and probably at this time, too – believe in the actual existence of an external place called jigoku (‘hell’ in Japanese). Not wishing to affirm nor deny such claims, here we can at least recognise, just like Bankei, that right now it is the inner hell that is of more immediate concern to us. This psychological Hades is part and parcel of our suffering existence, rising out of our unwholesome thoughts, speech, and actions, colouring everything we experience with the taint of Mara.

“Abominating hell
Longing for heaven”

We know, either through tuition or intuition, what is basically right or wrong, most of us putting kindness, politeness, generosity, compassion, altruism, peacefulness, and honesty under the heading ‘right,’ and hostility, rudeness, miserliness, cruelty, selfishness, violence, and dishonesty under the heading ‘wrong.’ Bankei is not promoting an amoral attitude to life here, but pointing out that attaching to what we like (“longing for heaven”) and fighting what we dislike (“abominating hell”) is not enlightenment. This does not mean that we abandon our moral precepts, but that we do not psychologically cling to them, thereby reinforcing the sense of ego that covers over our actual Unborn Buddha Mind. For, while it is better to be moral than immoral or amoral, the enlightening position to take is to do good without desiring heavenly rewards. This avoids the arising of guilt from selfish deeds, whilst at the same time transcending any sense of a ‘me’ doing any good deeds.

“You make yourself suffer
In a joyful world”

According to the Buddha Dharma, doing bad has worse repercussions than doing good, but clinging to either type of actions creates a screen between what we really are and what we think we are. What we think we are includes notions of a good person, a bad person, an animal, a soul, a body, a mind, or any other separate entity or thing. What we truly are is none of these, but an ineffable ‘No-thing’ that lies behind all our notions of good, bad, heaven, hell, deity and demon. If we can see through these various delusions, we will break through to the “joyful world” that Bankei writes of. This joyful world is neither some heaven above us nor hell below us, but is here where we are in the present moment, waiting for us to see it. To do so, all we need do is look at the world with a pure eye, a Buddha Eye, and it will be revealed to us; please conduct the following exercise and see if “a joyful world” springs up before you.

Close your eyes and imagine doing something good, noting all the feelings and thoughts that the mind produces in relation to it. Next, do the same whilst imagining doing something bad. (These can be actual events that took place or purely imaginary ones. The former may give more concrete responses, however, more readily reflected upon.) Re-examine both imagined acts and the mind’s reactions to them, but this time seeing them as what they really are; fleeting thoughts in awareness. Ultimately, is the good deed any different to the bad deed in its relation to naked awareness? Ditto, both sets of mental responses. Open your eyes and look around you. Do ‘solid’ objects have any more or less reality to them than thoughts? Right now, are you a separate suffering being or the Buddha Eye seeing all things as so much ‘Mind-stuff’ occurring in the Unborn Buddha Mind?

According to Bankei, the demon mind is the unenlightened mind, and the Unborn Buddha Mind is the enlightened Mind. He also encouraged his followers by emphasizing that to realize the latter is as easy as listening or looking without attachment. This is exactly what the exercise above is aimed at. This world is neither heaven nor hell. But it is what it is, and is seen as such if we look with our clear Buddha Eye and not the demon mind. And, what it is in truth is a joyful world full of wonderful and terrible things, all arising in the No-thing of the Unborn Buddha Mind. Not joyful in the worldly, egoistic sense understood in ordinary psychological terms, but from the viewpoint of the Awakened One. Why don’t we wake up from our dreams of heaven and hell, and live from this Vision?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Buddha, Self, and No-Self

“Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.
Actions exist, but no doer of actions is there.
Nirvana exists, but no one who enters it.
The Path exists, but no traveler can be seen.”
(Visuddimagga, 513)

The Buddha taught that there is no permanent individual self (anatta), and that if we fully realize this for ourselves we will be enlightened just like him. The important word here is ‘realize,’ for if we merely hold the view of not-self, we will not actually be enlightened, but rather clinging to a concept. The concept, or view (ditthi) of not-self is, from the Buddhist perspective, an improvement on the self-view (atta-ditthi), but it is still a pale imitation of the real thing. Believing something is one thing, but knowing it is another and the Buddha stated that if we really wish to escape the claws of suffering, we must realize what the extract above by Buddhaghosa describes as “Suffering exists, but no sufferer can be found.”

The Buddha’s teaching on not-self is unique among the world’s great religions, with all the other major faiths making the assumption that there is a soul or self of some description or another (atta-ditthi). They take as true what Buddhism classes as the eternalist view (sassata-ditthi), which is one of the two extreme views criticized by the Buddha. Eternalists believe that there is a permanent, individual soul in each of us that lives forever, either being reborn life-to-life, or being sent to heaven or hell upon physical death. Hinduism is an example of a faith that postulates that an eternal self reincarnates through a myriad lifetimes, with Sikhism and Jainism promoting essentially the same idea. The three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – tell us that we have undying souls that either end up in heaven or hell after death, depending on our behavior during just one life upon this earth.

The other main form of self-view is the annihilationist view (uccheda-ditthi), which states that although everyone does indeed have a separate self, it does not precede or survive this life. This is essentially the materialist view that modern scientifically-influenced people hold, such as the Darwinists and other non-religious people. The difference between this view and the Buddha’s is that annihilationism still presumes the existence of a real self (atta), whereas Buddhism declares that there has never been a self (anatta). The Buddhist understanding of no-self will be explored a little later, but first, we have a brief excursion to make into a third group of false views that the Buddha listed which, like him, denied the existence of a permanent, separate self, but unlike him, also denied the law of karma.

The first of these three anti-karma beliefs is called the inefficacy-of-action-view (akiraya-ditthi), which states that because there is no self, no karma and no karma results, our actions are meaningless and without any karmic consequences. The next idea is that of the view of non-causality (ahetuka-ditthi), in which the believer in no-self holds the opinion that things happen purely by chance, without prior conditioning factors, and that in turn our actions have no direct influence on future occurrences, either. The last false understanding of there being no self and no karmic process is called the nihilistic view (nattika-ditthi). Nihilists suppose that the universe is empty not only of any self or karmic process, but that it is also therefore empty of any meaning. It doesn’t matter what we do, because there’s no one to suffer our wrong doings and no one to benefit from our virtuous behavior. As with the annihilationist view, nihilism has gained a certain popularity with some modernists, among them anarchists and materialistic hedonists, who feel that they can do whatever takes their fancy as nothing really matters anyhow.

“This world, Kaccana, for the most part depends upon a duality – upon the idea of existence and the idea of nonexistence. But for one that sees the origin of the world as it really is with correct wisdom, there is no idea of nonexistence in regard to the world. And for one who sees the cessation of the world with correct wisdom, there is no idea of existence in regard to the world.” (Samyutta Nikaya 12:15)

As his words to the monk Kaccanagotta illustrate above, the Buddha held what he considered the Middle Way between the extremes of eternalism (“the idea of existence”) and annihilationism (“the idea of nonexistence”). In this quote, by the word “world” the Buddha means the world as it is experienced, in other words, all sense data that is received, interpreted, and reacted to by the mind. It is existent in that mental and physical phenomena are apparent, and yet it is nonexistent in that there’s no distinct self here experiencing it all. In this light, it is worthwhile rereading the verse from the Visuddhimagga found at the top of this article, as long as you see that there is in truth no one actually doing the reading!

With the teachings on karma and dependent arising (paticca-samuppada), the Buddha also avoided the extreme positions taken up by those holding ideas like the inefficacy-of-action view, the view of non-causality, and the nihilist view. Karma and karmic fruition describe existence in terms and actions and their consequences; that is to say, whatever we do, say, or think has repercussions far beyond this present moment (although they certainly influence current events also.) Recognition of karma and its results negates the idea of non-causality, as well as giving nihilists pause for thought. The Buddha’s radical, and like anatta unique, teaching of dependent arising also leaves those with the inefficacy-of-action view much to ponder, in that it describes a clear and logical set of conditioning factors that give order and meaning to life. Here’s a typical description of dependent arising as given by the Buddha in the Pali Canon:

“On ignorance (avijja) depend the karmic formations (sankhara); on the karmic formations depends consciousness (vinnana); on consciousness depends mind-and-form (nama-rupa); on mind-and-form depend the six sense-bases (salayatana); on the six sense-bases depends contact (phassa): on contact depends feeling (vedana): on feeling depends craving(tanha); on craving depends clinging (upadana); on clinging depends becoming (bhava); on becoming depends birth (jati); and on birth depends decay-and-death (jara-marana)." (Samyutta Nikaya 12.2)

From this description of the process of dependent arising it can be seen that the Buddha espoused a very detailed alternative to the non-causal and meaningless philosophies we have been examining. Whether we accept (or even fully understand) dependent arising, the step-by-step nature of its progression from ignorance (of the way things truly are) to eventual decay and death has a certain appeal that can leave the nihilists and other hedonists seeming rather inattentive and shortsighted. If we are to be attached to views, surely the Buddha’s Right View which includes karma and dependent arising makes more sense to both the mind and heart than the views of the eternalists, annihilationists, and thir ilk. (This article is not the place to explore dependent arising in more depth, but if there is interest on the part of this blog’s readership, it certainly can be the focus of a future post.)

Returning to the Buddha’s conception of karma and rebirth, some readers may be wondering how, if there is no permanent, separate self to be reborn, rebirth takes place, and also who, if there is no such self, it is that performs actions and receives their results. Well, a highly-detailed account of dependent arising was the Buddha’s main response to this question, but in the modest environment of a blog, a somewhat simpler explanation will be attempted! It is aspects of the mind that are reborn rather than a soul or personality, as such. Mental habits, attachments, and thought processes not only traverse time and space by ‘popping up’ in our brains during this life, but can also enter an embryo or foetus, a bit like radio waves or electrical impulses traversing the ether to be received at some future point. According to the Buddha, karmic results can also manifest (in relation to the mind-elements that created them) in future lives, as well as in the present one.

Another way in which the Buddha nullifies self-view is with his teaching of the five aggregates (panca-khandha), which he stated comprised the entiety of a person, leaving nothing to be considered as a permanent, separate self or soul. The five aggregates are as follows:

• The aggregate of corporality (rupa-khandha)

• The aggregate of feeling (vedana-khandha)

• The aggregate of perception (sanna)

• The aggregate of mental formations (sankhara-khandha)

• The aggregate of consciousness (vinnana-khandha)

The first aggregate of corporality means the body, that is, the physical components that make it up; the second aggregate of feeling indicates those emotional responses to mental and physical stimuli, the three basic forms of which are pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral; the third aggregate of perception refers to the recognition of objects, both mental and physical, and includes memory; the aggregate of mental formations applies to any psychological qualities, including volition, concentration, faith, compassion, delusion, hate, and envy; the aggregate of consciousness is that awareness dependent upon one or other of the other four aggregates, such as consciousness of feeling envy. As the following quotation points out, in his teaching of the five aggregates, the Buddha leaves no room for a separate, individual soul or self:

“Now, if anyone should put the question, whether I admit any theory at all, he should be answered thus:
The Tathagata is free from any view, for the Tathagata has understood what corporeality is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what feeling is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what perception is, and how it arises and passes away. He has understood what mental formations are, and how they arise and pass away. He has understood what consciousness is, and how it arises and passes away. Therefore, I say, the Tathagata has won complete deliverance through the extinction, fading away, disappearance, rejection, and getting rid of all opinions and conjectures, of all inclination to the vainglory of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’”
(Majjhima Nikaya, 72)

It’s interesting to note in the above words that not only does the teaching of the five aggregates cancel out self-view, but it also negates any views of whether the self exists or doesn’t exist, for as written at the top of this article, the Buddha taught that we need to realize that there is no permanent separate self if we wish to awaken to reality. Clinging to the view of not-self (anatta) is not enough: we must see this Truth and then live from it to really benefit from it. Otherwise, we are caught up in the realm of views, which as the Buddha declared, he did not enter into to. Transcending both self and all views, we fulfill the words from Buddhaghosa’s verse that opened this exploration: “Nirvana exists, but no one that enters it.” Bon voyage, no one!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 15-18

“Those who feel embittered by
life in this floating world of grief
Anguish themselves, distress their minds
Brooding over empty dreams

Since, after all, this floating world
Is unreal
Instead of holding onto things
In your mind, let them go!

Only Original Mind exists
In the past and in the future too
Instead of holding onto things
In your mind, let them go!

 When you don't attach to things
The floating world will cease to be
Nothing is left, nothing at all
That's what "living Tathagata" means”

Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) wasn’t your typical Zen master – if such a thing exists! Even more than most Zen monk-teachers of his time, he did not adhere to traditional teachings or methods of Buddhist training if he felt they didn’t work. An example is his dismissive attitude towards the use of koans (Zen riddles), used for centuries before him - and since - in the Rinzai Sect of Zen Buddhism with the intent of inducing satori (= Bodhi = ‘awakening’ or ‘enlightenment’). This initial satori is also known as kensho which translates as ‘seeing into one’s true nature,’ and is the true beginning of the Buddhist Path, being comparable to the term ‘opening the Dharma Eye’ found in the teachings of the Lord Buddha in the Pali Canon.Bankei felt that by his time the koan had become a redundant tool and therefore did not utilize it. Instead, his preferred method was, in his own words, his tongue, by which he meant his preaching of the Dharma. According to the records we have, massive crowds of Buddhists would gather at his retreats to hear the master talk of the ‘Unborn Buddha Mind,’ Bankei’s usual term for referring to our true, enlightened nature. Another skilful means that he employed to awaken us was his poetry, much of which has also survived in its original Japanese. One such poem, probably Bankei’s longest and most famous, is the present one that we are studying, the ‘Song of the Mind.’ Let’s delve into this amazing monk’s verse once more, and see what gems of wisdom we can find to illumine ourselves, opening our Dharma Eye to the experience of satori, the most precious event possible in this “floating world.”

“Those who feel embittered by
Life in this floating world of grief
Anguish themselves, distress their minds
Brooding over empty dreams”

A term common to Oriental Buddhism is “this floating world,” which Bankei writes of here. The word ‘this’ is a clue to which world he is alluding to exactly – the earth, the planet that we humans, along with other beings, currently reside upon. But why ‘floating’? This word is used by Buddhists to indicate the ephemeral, ultimately unreal or dreamlike nature of this existence – in comparison to our true nature, that is. This world floats like a ghostly vista across the backdrop of eternity, more often than not blocking out the Immortal Sun like so many dark rain clouds. And dark those rain clouds are, for they do not merely release raindrops into our lives but storms of grief that darken our minds. We are not innocent in relation to our suffering, however, for it is in our ‘holding on to empty dreams’ that we ourselves sow the seeds of grief and misery.

“Since, after all, this floating world
Is unreal”

Again, due to its importance, Bankei reasserts the unreal nature of this world, and here he is nudging us to reflect on this point. The Buddha Dharma does not teach us that this universe is not real in the sense that it doesn’t truly exist, although some have interpreted its meaning thus, but rather indicates its relative lack of ultimate reality in relation to the deathless underlying Unborn. The world, and everything in it, is ‘born,’ or created, and as such is impermanent (anicca) and (ultimately) unsatisfying (dukkha). All things and processes will come to their end, and whilst they still exist they cannot supply us with continuous satisfaction or happiness. This is the First Noble Truth of the Lord Buddha, the Noble Truth of Suffering (= unsatisfying, dukkha in Pali). According to the Buddha, true happiness is found with what both he and Bankei called the Unborn.

“Instead of holding onto things
In your mind, let them go!”

Here, Bankei refers to both the second and third Noble Truths. “Holding on to things” is a colloquial equivalent to the Buddha’s declaration of the Noble Truth of the Cause of Suffering, which is desire (tanha), whilst the injunction to “let them go” indicates the Noble Truth of the Cessation (nirodha) of Suffering. We cling (upadana) to things, looking for satisfaction in them, which when disappointed, leads to suffering. This process has its roots in desire, for it is when we cling to our desires that we create our own suffering. As the Buddha taught, when we don’t have what we want we suffer, and when we have what we don’t want, we also suffer. Furthermore, as things are by their very nature both impermanent and unsatisfying, it is in the very desiring of them that suffering has its origins.
Bankei encourages us to let go of things, not physically, but psychologically. Of course, if we experience pain because we are holding something in our hands, we can end the pain by letting go of the object, but Bankei isn’t referring to physical pain; he is concerned with the mental anguish that not only accompanies physical discomfort but also exists on the purely psychological level. Letting go of this kind of suffering by letting go of our desires is the Buddha’s Noble Truth of Cessation (nirodha). This cessation is the ending of holding on to things in our minds, and is another way of describing enlightenment or awakening, for nirodha is another synonym for Nirvana, Bodhi, or satori. If we really wish to stop suffering, we must relinquish our desires.

“Only Original Mind exists
In the past and in the future too
Instead of holding onto things
In your mind, let them go!”

As mentioned above, Bankei loved to talk of the Unborn Buddha Mind, and it is to this that he refers when he uses the term “Original Mind,” which has been used by Zen masters since its earliest development in China. This ‘Mind’ – which is really no mind at all in the conventional concepts of what a mind is – is timeless in nature, unlike our human minds. It is eternal, and therefore has always existed, and always will exist – it is outside of time altogether. It is the act of taking ourselves to be distinct time-bound beings that we lose sight of our true nature. The master is suggesting that if we stop “holding on to things,” we will cease to be these small, limited individual minds, and realize the Original Mind. 

“When you don't attach to things The floating world will cease to be”

The world exists in our conventional experience of the concept as being dependent upon the clinging mind. If we cease to cling to things, then they appear in their true from as “floating” entities in the eternal Original Mind. This doesn’t mean that they actually cease to be altogether, but that they are seen as they really are – ephemeral things in the No-thing that is the Unborn Buddha Mind. At this point there is no separate ‘me’ here and a floating world ‘there’ – the two are fused together in a completely interwoven experience that is dependent upon the unified Unborn Buddha Mind and not experienced as a dichotomy by an ego-centred mind. This is the heart of the Buddha’s fourth noble truth, the Noble Truth of the Path (Magga) that leads to enlightenment. For, the first step on the Path is Right Understanding, and transcending our normal egoistic assumptions is the way forward into eternity.

“Nothing is left, nothing at all
That's what "living Tathagata" means”

“Tathagata” is a title used initially by the Buddha himself, and subsequently by Buddhists, to refer to a Buddha. Its exact etymology is disputed, but it is usually translated either as “Thus Come One” or “Thus Gone One.” Both explanations work, for a Buddha is “thus come” in that he lives from the eternal Unborn and is therefore spontaneously present rather than created, and “thus gone” works because it indicates one that has crossed over to the ‘other shore’ (a synonym for Nirvana). Either way, Bankei here uses “Tathagata” to mean anyone that has awakened to the Unborn, rather than any one of a number of historical and mythological characters considered to be Buddhas. This usage of the term “living Tathagata” emphasizes this quality of a Buddha being manifest right here, right now.Bankei states that “nothing is left, nothing at all” when we let go of our desires and experience satori or enlightenment. Here, he refers to the emptiness (shunyata) of all phenomena, including the apparent experiencer. When we see things as they really are, we see that they are empty of separate eternal selves and are in fact alive in the No-thing that is without any sense of egotism or division. In this ‘suchness’ (tathata), seer and seen are one, not two, and are in fact the “living Tathagata.” This awakening is deepened through formal meditative absorptions (jhana), as taught throughout Buddhist history, and some Buddhists claim that it is only through specified meditation techniques that we can access the Unborn, but if this were the case Nirvana would be dependent upon a process and would therefore be the result of a process, rather than unconditioned, as all Buddhists admit it is. Therefore, at least in the sense of kensho, or opening the Dharma Eye, we can see our true nature without having to resort to complicated and drawn-out practices. No doubt such processes help to build on our initial insight, but if we wish to see our true nature, all we really need to do is look. If you fancy taking a peek at the “living Tathagata,” please conduct the following exercise in an open-minded attitude. What have you got to lose? Nothing!

What are you looking out of right now? Do you see two small blobs of flesh, or the endless Dharma Eye? Look at your reflection in a mirror. Notice those two little eyes in the mirror, noticing their shape and colour and opacity. Now, turn your attention around to look at the (apparent) seer. What do you actually see here? There are certainly no objects resembling those organs you see in the mirror, us there? (You might object that of course you can’t see your own eyes because they’re what you’re seeing with, and this is a valid argument. I’m not denying that you have eyes, but trying to point you to seeing what les ‘behind’ them.) What is every single thing occurring in right now, but this wide-open spacious No-thing that is without any separate individual features and instead accepts all things as they appear in it?

When we look Home with humility, we come to an incredible conclusion: the Buddha isn’t that statue of Shakyamuni or Amitabha, but is right here, where we normally take the ‘I’ to reside. Everything we see – and hear, taste, touch, smell, and think – appears in a wonderful No-thing, free of all the sufferings of a separate individual self. This doesn’t mean that such sufferings don’t arise, but that they don’t do so in relation to what we truly are – the living Tathagata. Spend the next few years from this understanding and not from identification with the self and see what happens to all your hang-ups, likes, dislikes, anguish, misery, and suffering. This is the challenge that Bankei presents us with. Shall we take him up on it?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Conclusion

From the beginning of this journey through the world’s major religions from the Buddha’s perspective differences between them were recognized. Religions are institutional aspects of societies that become fossilized and dogmatized, often obscuring if not burying the original spiritual insights that gave them impetus. A look at many of the sayings of both Jesus and Muhammad reveal as much, and the rigid caste system of Hinduism seems to have taken the teachings of karma and rebirth to an oppressive extreme. Nevertheless, from the reflections on these pages, it has hopefully become clear that there are important parallels between the teachings of the Buddha and religion. Let’s briefly review what we have found and then see where this leaves us – if anywhere!

When we examine Christianity, we find that, along with the other main world religions, morality forms an important substratum to its practice, with compassion particularly emphasized by both Christ and the Buddha. There are strong similarities seen in the lives of Jesus and the Buddha as well, from their miraculous conceptions to the radical transformations on the cross and under the Bodhi Tree. God the Father is more problematic from the Buddha’s viewpoint, as the former’s eternal individual existence contradicts the Buddhist revelations of no-self and the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena. In the teachings of the Christian mystics, however, as exemplified by Meister Eckhart, the image of God comes closer to the Buddhist conception of Nirvana, as we will see below.

The Islamic community (ummah) strongly resembles the Sangha established by the Buddha, with an emphasis on using community as a vehicle towards a deeper communion not only with others, but also with the Ultimate (God or Buddha; take your choice). Again, as with Christianity, the mainstream idea of Allah is not entirely in line with the Buddha’s descriptions of Nirvana, but probably as He is considered by Muslims beyond representation, there is slightly more convergence here. And, as with the Christian mystics, the Muslim Sufis often described their experiences in terms that are very close, if not exactly the same. (Think of the Sufi aim of fana and the Buddhist realization of nirodha (Nirvana), which both translate as ‘extinction’).

The Buddha made it clear that he didn’t think much of the Indian caste system, considering anyone enlightened as a true ‘brahmin.’ The Buddhist teaching that anyone, with the right effort and attitude, can awaken to their true reality is an egalitarian ideal that most duty-bound Hindus would surely have difficulties with. Another aspect of Hinduism that doesn’t agree with the Buddha’s tenets is its understanding of gods; for whilst they are eternal beings in Hinduism, their equivalents in Buddhism are long-lived but impermanent in nature. Even the commonly held concepts of karma and rebirth are not entirely in tune as it is a permanent separate self that reincarnates in Hindu believe, whereas the Buddha taught that no such permanent being exists. Despite these differences, the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta which teachings non-duality does come at least very close to the Buddha’s understanding that all things (and beings) are inextricably interdependent.

Buddha and Buddhism are not completely in agreement either, with all the major schools of Buddhism diverging from the original teachings of the Buddha. Buddha statues, used by every major sect of the religion were not only unknown during the Buddha’s lifetime, but for several centuries afterwards. As written previously, if such images along with other tools are used as skillful means to awaken to awaken the self-deluded mind, then this is at least in the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, but the widespread supernaturalism and use of petitionary prayers are less easily reconciled with his Way. The Buddha established the Noble Eightfold Path (to enlightenment), and anything found in Buddhism that is not for that purpose is not truly of the Buddha’s Way. In contrast, anything that encourages spiritual awakening – whether from the Buddhist tradition or elsewhere – is compatible with the Buddha’s essential teachings on suffering and the ending of suffering, and brings us to the mystics, with whom we briefly flirted in the last reflection.

In the world’s mystical traditions, also known as the perennial wisdom, God is often seen as “not-God” (in the words of Meister Eckhart), and this brings the Buddha and religion together. For, mystical religion is about the letting go of the individual self and dying into a greater reality, which as we previously saw is variously known as God, Nirvana, Allah, Dao, Zen, Dao, Brahman, etc. And, in this aspect of mysticism we find the merging of Buddha and religion, where both are about living the enlightened life rather than believing in a particular set of dogmas. That this “not-God” is the same as our own “not-self” is readily at hand, if we are willing to look with an open mind and a loving heart. It is therefore most appropriate that we end this short exploration of Buddha and religion with an exercise that reveals their common Ground. If more people – of whatever faith or none – discover and live from this ‘Ground’ the world will be a much happier and fulfilling place. So, please take a few moments to do the following experiment, taking the time to reflect on what you actually experience in this present moment, and not what you believe or think you already know.

Picture God, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, the Koran, Yin Yang, or some other holy image. (If you don’t want to do this, picture something else that you think is important, such as the Earth, a national flag, or a monarch.) Really look at this image, allowing your feelings towards it to rise to the surface of awareness, giving them time and space to flourish. (Such feelings might be love, devotion, admiration, appreciation, respect, etc.) Now, see where the image and related emotions are arising – on present evidence. What does this look like, and what feelings are associated with ‘it.’ Does it have a face like Jesus, script like the Koran, or colours like the Earth? Does it have any features at all, or is it a clear receptacle for both visual images and emotions to exist in? What are these words appearing in now, and the thoughts that sprout up in response to them? Is it a thought, a shape, a self, or a god? Or, is it a ‘not-thought,’ a ‘not-shape’, a ‘not-self’ and a ‘not-God’ that is an all-accepting and nonjudgmental space for the universe to manifest in? After finishing this reflection, try to maintain this attitude, seeing whatever is affront you and the lack anything whatever that is you: it’s a liberating experience!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 12-14

“Your longing for the one you love
Is for the present time alone
It only exists by reason of
The past before she'd come along

To recall someone
Means you can't forget
Not to recall them
That you never had forgot

Thinking back over the past
You find it was an evening's dream
Realize that, and you'll see
Everything is just a lie”

Much of our suffering is born of time. As these illusory separate selves, we are temporal beings tied to time, our lives slipping away to the rhythm of a ticking clock. As the Unborn, however, we are nothing of the sort, and we neither age nor die, but rest in the spacious no-thing that we truly are. The seventeenth century Zen Master Bankei lived from this no-thing, calling it the Unborn Buddha Mind. And, because he lived from nowhere and no-time, he was able to dispense wisdom to whoever came his way, giving advice to monks, nuns, and the laity. Although most monks and nuns (hopefully) do not ache for a lost love, most of us laypeople have done so – some of us many times for many years. In the above verses, Bankei is not only referring to the longing for past love(s), however; he is also talking of those we currently have close relationships with.

“Your longing for the one you love
Is for the present time alone”

We miss those we love in the present. When we go through our day thinking about them, we colour everything we do with their image and fragrance. This intrusion into the present moment can cause much discomfort, for as the Buddha taught, one major form of suffering is to long for that which we desire but do not presently possess. And, the yearning for a loved one is the most gut-wrenching of desires, tearing at our heart and causing us to go off our food. Of course, in this scientific age we can rationalise much of this process with empirical analysis, noting that it is procreative urges and the push of our genes that creates such emotions. But, even scientists fall in love and suffer the consequences. Systematic thinking alone will not release us from the sufferings of a lonely heart; we need the wisdom of the Buddha for that, and reflecting on the words of Bankei can assist us in our endeavours.

“It only exists by reason of
The past before she'd come along”

By “it” Bankei is referring to the longing for another, and he states that its ultimate cause is that prior to knowing the object of our desires, we were a vacuum waiting to be filled with romantic love. This vacuum is not the Void that is free of all identification with selfhood and its sufferings, but rather an aspect of the individual ego that longs for union with another person. So, whether we possess our loved one and are desperately trying to cling on to her or him, or wishing to gain the affections of someone, according to Bankei it is the original egoistic desire for self-fulfilment that makes us desire another in the first place.

“To recall someone
Means you can't forget”

Memory clings to the image or idea of a loved one, fantasising about it, holding imaginary conversations with it, and even blotting out present circumstances with its aroma. This image is ensnared within the mind, which constantly returns to it every time it threatens to escape the memory’s grasp. So, even when we are in a moment of respite from the longing for another, its seed is buried in our psyche, ready to sprout again when we least expect it to.

“Not to recall them
That you never had forgot”

This part of the verse seems at odds with the last one. In the previous lines, Bankei stated that because we cannot forget someone, we continually recall them, but here he says that in not remembering them, we have never forgot. This apparent contradiction is lifted when we realize that in the second segment of the verse he is not talking of forgetting the same thing as in the first. In the first two lines he is indeed referring to forgetting a person, but in the second he is talking of not forgetting something completely different – the Unborn.

The Unborn is the central concept in Bankei’s teachings on Buddhism. It is not a concept in the sense of an idea that we need to intellectually understand, but rather an abstraction used to represent that which is beyond all concepts. In this way, the Unborn is a teaching that Bankei wants us to see rather than think. To not forget the Unborn is also to be fully awake in this present moment. This is why Bankei declares that one who never forgets does not recall their loved one(s): he or she is so completely alive to what’s happening right now that they do not dwell on anything else, even those they desire the most. He continues:

“Thinking back over the past
You find it was an evening's dream”

Here, Bankei is encouraging us to reflect on the past, and actually see what it is in this very moment now. Is the past real now, or is it, as Bankei claims, “an evening’s dream”? To experience an event is clearly not the same as considering it afterwards, is it not? If I think back to what I ate for breakfast this morning, this is not the exact experience that I had when I actually consumed it. I can’t see the colours of my breakfast in the vividness that they possessed early today, and the taste and smells are a pale imitation of the sense data that I received just a few hours ago. If this is true of this morning’s breakfast, then it is equally true for every other memory that I have; each one is indeed “an evening dream.”

“Realize that, and you'll see
Everything is just a lie”

Everything becomes a memory eventually; unless it is completely forgotten, of course. This is the fate of every single thing in existence, as well as every single event in time. In this sense, things and events are not real, in that they are not our true nature. Our true nature is not a thing or a process, but is the No-thing that experiences them whilst remaining unchanged itself. We can experience this No-thing by looking at our memories with detachment, and the resultant realization of what we truly are transforms our relationship with both our memories and the world as it is at this current time. Please take a few minutes to conduct the following exercise, and see if what you’ve been reading is in fact the case.

Close your eyes. Recall an event from the past, dwelling upon each image long enough to give it a firm appearance. Next, focus your attention on your original feelings towards the images within your memory; are they positive, negative, or indifferent? What emotions arise now as you view these mental objects? What are all these images arising in? Does it have a particular appearance that you can analyse? Does it have any features that give rise to emotional responses in you? Or, to the contrary, is it a simple and transparent awareness that pays attention to your thoughts and reveries but is void of any particular characteristics itself? Is it, in fact, free of attachments and the sufferings that accompany them? Is it your Unborn Buddha Mind?

We live in the world with each other. We live, we love, and we die. All this is perfectly natural and to be expected, and not to be avoided, unless one feels the pull to an alternative lifestyle, that is. And yet, if Bankei and the exercise above are to be believed, whilst on the conventional level we may love and lose, laugh and cry, there is another aspect to life that liberates us from the suffering normally associated with such activities. Seeing the Unborn Buddha Mind, as Bankei describes the indescribable, is to free ourselves from the restrictions of time and place. Furthermore, if done fully and continually, seeing and living from the Unborn frees us of our biggest enemies: our selves. This doesn’t mean that we cease to be humans living human lives, but that we live in the knowledge of the Unborn, ultimately free from the chains of time, self, and suffering.