Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Review: Haiku, An Anthology of Japanese Poems

What a delight this little book is. To hold it in the hand is a very pleasing experience to begin with: it is light (for a hardback), is not much bigger than an adult's hand, and is wrapped in a beautiful brown and gold cover, illustrated with a painting by Sakai Hoitsu (see above). The contents of the book are even more impressive. As the title makes clear, it is a collection of haiku translated from the Japanese by Addiss and the Yamamotos. And what an excellent job they've done! Divided into three sections, 'The Pulse of Nature,' Human Voices,' and 'Resonance and Reverberation,' Haiku also features brief biographies of all the poets featured, as well as black and white prints by Japanese artists including the famous Zen priest Hakuin Ekaku. Beautiful.

The Introduction gives the reader a concise account of the structure of haiku, its history in Japan, and an argument advocating a somewhat freer translation of haiku into English than the traditional seventeen syllables. In the Japanese originals of the poems that appear in this book, the standard form was seventeen sound units which amount to short syllables, so the word haibun consists of three such units, hai-bu-n (the final 'n' counting as a separate unit). And, as explained in the Introduction, Japanese uses more syllables to represent the same content than English generally does, so extra words are needed to pad out English translations of the japanese originals if seventeen syllables are rigorously kept to. The editors of this work have decided, wisely in this reviewers opinion, to ignore the seventeen syllable rule, and focus more on accurate and poetic renderings of the haiku.

To illustrate the above issues, the Introduction skillfully uses the example of the most famous of these poems, the 'ancient pond' verse of the greatest of all haiku poets, Basho (1644-1694). It argues that a faithful translation of this poem requires less syllables than in the Japanese original, coming up with the following on p.viii:

 Old pond
a frog jumps in -
                the sound of water

Other examples are used to elucidate the reader on other issues involved in the translation work, especially with regards to whether using a parallel translation (line-by-line), or a freer form where the line oder doesn't correspond with the original. The view here is that it depends on the particular poem, with some a parallel rendering works well, with others less literal version is required. Returning to Basho's frog haiku, the book contains a nice, albeit brief, exploration of the possible meanings of the piece; "old (the pond) verses new (the jumping), a long time span and immediacy, sight and sound, serenity and the surprise of breaking it" (paraphrased from p.xi). So much contained in so few words - the beauty of haiku!

Moving on to the main part of the book, the poems and black and white prints, the book really excels itself. The editors have chosen a wide range of haiku by many of the great poets from Japan's rich cultural history. Basho is joined by the other three masters of the form: Buson (1716-1783), Issa (1763-1827), and Shiki (1867-1902). Alongside these superstars of the haiku world, there are over ninety other poets featured. A real haiku fest in such a small book! Here's some more samples from the book featuring the three masters mentioned above:

  An old well
falling into its darkness
 a camellia
(Buson, p.5)

   Charcoal fire - 
my years dwindle down
just like that
(Issa, p.124)
       Killing the spider
then so lonely - 
 evening cold
(Shiki, p.150)
Taken in turn from each of the three sections referred to earlier, these poems each contain the subtle nuances of meaning not always apparent in the succinct nature of haiku. And in doing so, these haiku and the others in the book reflect the influence of Buddhism on the Japanese psyche and arts. Buson's camellia, for example, speaks of death and the unknown, whilst Issa's verse clearly refers to the Buddhist understanding of impermanence and aging, whilst Shiki talks of morality and regret…and the reader of this review can surely come up with his or her own interpretations also. This ambiguity inherent in haiku is one of their attractions, and for some, a source of infuriating vagueness. And yet, if this book is read cover to cover, this reviewer challenges even the staunchest of haiku-haters to deny the meanings and beauty contained in them!

Returning for a moment to the Buddhist sentiments that through much haiku, we might briefly explore what value this book has spiritually. Haiku speak of the moment, this moment, as experienced by the poet. In doing so, they give the reader a glimpse into eternity. For, eternity or the Deathless as the Buddha called it, is only ever known in this current present moment; it is never the product of memory or imagination. The haiku in this book have the capacity to jolt the reader into this current moment, leaving her or him with a taste of the eternal. Hopefully, this will be realized by the reader of this review with the batch of quoted poems given below:

        The autumn wind
takes the shape
        of pampas grass
(Kigin, p.73)
            At the sound of the sea
the sunflowers open
their black eyes
(Yuji, p.48)

How delightful
walking on dewy grasses - 
straw sandals
(Haritsu, p.150)

The above book is published by Shambhala Publications, and is available from their website at: 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Wind Teaches Dharma

"One monk said that the wind was moving, while another monk said the banner was moving. They argued on and on, so I went forward and said, ‘It is not the wind that is moving, and it is not the banner that is moving. It is your minds that are moving.’"
Huineng (638-713), Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism

The wind is a great teacher. Just like the Buddha, Ajahn Chah or Zen Master Bankei, it teaches us the Dharma. Unlike those teachers it doesn't use words, however, nor does it have what we would normally define as a language to communicate its wisdom. Yet, in its own subtle way it's constantly teaching us the way things are, using what we might name 'the language of the wind.'

We might understandably wonder what form this language takes if it doesn't involve words. Well, we humans use languages that have no words when we pull a face to indicate displeasure, produce or listen to music to inspire pleasure, or construct a building in a specific style. (A Gothic cathedral with all its angels and devils communicates very different messages to us than a modern, shiny hospital. Although the inhabitants of both would claim to deeply care about people.)

So, how exactly does the wind teach us? We can't even see the wind, although we can hear it, especially clearly in a gale, for example. We can also feel it on our skins & in our hair as it blows past us. And, although we can't see it directly, we can see the effects of the wind, which I am enjoying as I write these words, occasionally glancing up to see the treetops waving back and forth as the gentle breeze plays with them.

Now, accepting that all this is the 'language' of the wind, why would interpret it as pertaining to the Dharma, particularly. Surely, we can understand this language in a variety of ways, not necessarily in terms of the Dharma. This is true, as it it of anything in life. We can look at the surface of an act involving thought, word, or deed and understand it in that specific context, so that those rustled trees over there simply mean that it's a windy day. But, we can look a little deeper into the implications of what we are seeing, and this what we do when we listen to the Dharma rather than to other aspects of life's many modes of communication.

Returning to those trees for a moment, I will pause in this commentary…the wind manipulates them, and teaches of the continual flux of this universe. They aren't still for a moment, swishing this way and that, in a kind of existential dance. Sometimes they slow down, only to speed up and become almost manic in their movements, all directed by the invisible wind. This characteristic of the wind, that it is unseeable, speaks of another important fact of life, which is that there are unseen forces at work, which we are usually (if not constantly!) unaware of. They are not only active in the wind, but also in everything else that exists in this wondrous cosmos, including in these bizarre constructions that we call our bodies, and which we normally (mistakenly, according to the Dharma), identify with.

Back to this present moment, and the wind softly caresses the skin of this body that sits on the balcony typing with its tapping fingers. It soothes the mind within this body, like an amorphous masseuse tenderly kneading limbs and head. It teaches that the body is part of nature, linked to it in invisible connections that include the wind's breath. But, learning the Dharma is not all pleasant feelings, and when the wind blows over those garments hanging from a clothes horse, annoyance arises in the mind. This too, is a teaching, for it is the same wind that blows on those clothes and this body. So, too, should the mind reflect the balance between what it deems good and bad, for such ideas do not always correspond to the way the world actually is.

Taking a moment to reflect on the quotation from the Platform Sutra at the top of this piece, Huineng's wisdom shines forth as if born on the wind itself, blowing away our delusion. He points to the discriminating mind that will argue over just about anything, including whether the wind is moving or those treetops over there are moving. Pointing directly to the mind that is moving, Huineng brings our attention to that which never moves, what he called our 'Original Face.' This Face, we might call it Buddha-face or even No-face, is what sees the waving trees; it is the space in which those branches and leaves have their being.

All this talk of wind-blown trees takes me back to my childhood and early teens when I used to gaze out of my bedroom window at the tree in my family's front garden. Bathed in the yellow light of street lamps, it was a real attention-grabber. Somewhat hypnotic in its movements, the tree flowed in the wind, its disparate parts unified in a graceful undulation of golden leaves. I would find my mind silenced in these moments, awareness tied to the tree's fluctuations.  A state of what Buddhism calls samadhi, or concentration, would ensue. This was my meditation at that time, long before I explored the teachings of the Buddha. And, what the wind taught on those quiet evenings long ago isn't so different from the Buddha's own words of wisdom that I later came to discover.

A bell tinkles in the wind, bringing attention back from the mind's reveries and to this actual moment. It was the mind that was moving after all! The shadow of a flag catches attention, reminiscent of an early satori, or enlightenment, experience from my late teens, when a fluttering plastic bag caught on a branch of a tree brought about a sudden awakening. Each moment, which is of course this moment, is a chance to glimpse, or better still rest in, this 'Original Face' that watches fluttering leaves, bags, or banners. And those trees, that bell, or a fluid shadow can all call to attention the Dharma, the way things really are, as they arise and dissolve in this No-face, this 'Buddha Space.' Time to go 'inside' now, the wind's getting cold!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Storm Haiku

The clouds have returned
With the promise of more rain
Birds sing from afar

Thunder cracks the mind
Wide open to the heavens
No salvation here

The torrential rain
Falls through present awareness
Into this no-thing

This mind is the rain
Falling in its own knowing
Eternal downpour

Rain floods awareness
Barriers utterly breached
In a surge of sound

Rain is splattering
Between the door's metal mesh
Calling out, "Awake!"

The rainstorm passes
Distant thunder fading out
Dogs now relaxing

Sun replaces rain
Ants swarm the corpse of a worm
Such transiency!

Peace is an absence
Of wind-battered mind moments
August rains reprieve

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom by Dudjom Rinpoche


 This is a monumental work of over 350 pages. It is not its length that makes it monumental, however, but rather the depth and scope of its author's knowledge on the subjects contained within it. It is subtitled 'Complete Instructions on the Preliminary Practices,' and is a primer for practitioners of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism.

Its author, His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987), also known as Jigrel Yeshe Dorje, was considered to be a tulku (reincarnated master) of a previous teacher also called Dudjom Rinpoche. Born in Central Tibet, after fleeing to India in the wake of the communist Chinese invasion, he was made head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism by H.H. the Dalai lama. He wrote copious amounts on Buddhist teachings and travelled widely to share his wisdom, spending his final years establishing a Buddhist centre in France. The book itself was translated from the Tibetan by the Padmakara Translation Group, who have also done a really good job.

The book itself is a commentary on the preliminary practices (ngondro in Tibetan) that Dudjom Rinpoche considered indispensable to the realization of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen: the primordial state of mind that leads to enlightenment). It is divided into two parts, the first of which instructs the reader on how to identify and relate to a teacher, or guru. It states that, "teachers should be individuals who have perfectly tamed their minds by means of the three superior trainings - the training in discipline, the training in concentration, and the training in wisdom. They should have great learning as a result of having extensively studied the three baskets - the Vinaya, Sutra-pitaka, and Abhidharma-pitaka - which expound the essential points of these three trainings. They should have seen the way things truly are unmistakably and be eloquent in conveying their own experience of it to their disciples, combining scriptural authority and reasoning." ('A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom,' p.10)

These are high standards by which to judge a teacher of Dharma, but on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it is of paramount importance as the guru will guide the disciple to their own spiritual awakening, and such a teacher should indeed have excellent levels of morality, meditative states, and wisdom. Moreover, Dudjom Rinpoche states that the teacher should be viewed as, "the embodiment of all the Buddhas" (Ibid. p.32) and that they should be shown immense respect, as illustrated in the next extract:

"For this reason, simply stepping into their shadow has negative consequences as serious as demolishing a stupa. Stepping over their belongings - their shoes, seat, clothes, horse, eating bowl, and other everyday articles, their umbrella, canopy, and so forth - is just as bad, so always be careful to avoid such things."
(ibid. p.33)

The second part of the book, which forms the majority of its pages, describes the preliminary stages of the path towards enlightenment, elucidating various Buddhist teachings along the way. It starts by advising the student on how to begin each session of meditative practice with a visualization and recital of a text to support the visualization process. This practice ends with the following verse:

"The strength of my devotion inspires and delights the teacher,
And with a show of unbearable happiness,
he comes above the crown of my head, and as a cloud of bodhicitta,
Confers the empowerment of the enthronement of wisdom:
In the state of simultaneous realization and liberation I am Blessed."

(Ibid. p.53)

The next section of the book reminds the reader how fortunate they are to have had a human birth in an age when the Buddha's teachings are accessible. This serves as an impetus to the practitioner to have heedfulness and diligence in their application of the teachings to their life. A common practice in many schools of Buddhism is reflecting on death and impermanence. Dudjom Rinpoche next introduces such reflections, which not only lead to understanding of the way things are, but also give extra impetus to one's practice, being aware that death is waiting in the wings.

"The whole of the three worlds of existence is impermanent, moving and dissolving like clouds in Autumn that mass together are moment and disperse the next. Beings are born and die under the fickle control control of their good and bad deeds, manifesting in all kinds of ways like the choreographic movements of a skilled dancer. People's lives race by, swift and brief, like a flash of lightning in the sky that vanishes in an instant, or like a stream cascading down a mountainside."
(Ibid. p.74)

In Chapter 7, the book focuses on suffering in relation to cyclic existence and the six classes of beings that suffer. Dudjom Rinpoche refelcts upon the wheel of existence and states that his reader has had countless previous births and lived in every place that there is. He writes that throughout these births all kinds of sufferings have been endured.

The reader is directed to reflect upon those inhabiting the six lower realms, which include four kinds of hellish beings, hungry spirits, and animals. After this, he skillfully leads us through the sufferings in the higher realms, which include those of humans, demigods, and gods. Dudjom Rinpoche next relates the three kinds of suffering, using the classic descriptions found in the Pali Canon. He states:

"So whatever kind of rebirth we take - high or low - in these three worlds of cyclic existence, we suffer as if ill and unceasingly wracked by pain. There is no chance of being happy even for a second. We should therefore feel deeply disillusioned with cyclic existence, thinking, "From now on, I must seek definite freedom, as if I were escaping from a dark dungeon." As the Great Master says,
However much effort you put into worldly activities, they are never finished;
Put your efforts into the Dharma and the job will be quickly done.
Activities concerned with cyclic existence, however good, bring ruin in the end;
The result of practicing the sublime Dharma can never be spoiled."

(Ibid. pp.114/115)

By the Great Master, Dudjom Rinpoche makes reference to Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, and is traditionally credited with taking Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet. He is constantly referred to in this present work, being quoted on numerous occasions, as are other great figures from Tibetan Buddhism. This is an essential part of the structure of the book, in which quotations are either used to illustrate Dudjom Rinpoche's remarks, or are commented on by him.

Further chapters in this book comprise of the following topics: cause and effect, taking refuge, arousing the mind to enlightenment, purifying negative actions, gathering the accumulations, and training in guru yoga. All are awarded the same meticulous attention as the earlier chapters decried above, and form a solid base on which to set one's application of the preliminary practices.

In the current review, it must be born in mind that the reviewer is not a Tibetan Buddhist, and has only a basic understanding of that great and lofty spiritual tradition. His Buddhist practice and studies have primarily derived from the Theravada & Zen traditions, and therefore whatever he writes here should be read with that understanding.

So, as to the (illusory?) appearance of the book, it's beautiful. Its durable hardback edition is in cream and amber with a typically stylish dust jacket by Shambhala Publications. There are numerous illustrations throughout, which are no doubt helpful when trying to do the visualizations that Dudjom Rinpoche teaches. The flow of the narrative is nice 'n' smooth, for which the Padmakara Translaion Group much take much credit, as well the author himself, who composed the work in his native Tibetan.

As to the teachings in the book, they too are presented with clarity, and even someone like this reviewer can follow the gist (if not the fine detail) of this work. here is one point to note, however: For those dedicated Tibetan Buddhists interested in the preliminary practices that it focuses on, it is surely an indispensable aid, but for the rest of us, it gives an interesting and inspiring insight into this aspect of the Tibetan tradition, but is apt to be somewhat confusing in places, if not actually superfluous to our needs.

For me, this is a book I will no doubt refer to from time-to-time for said inspiration, but it will not be forming the heart of my Buddhist practice henceforth. This said, there is a special quality to it which may be called 'the scent of enlightenment.' For, although it makes little direct reference to the awakened state, it does have the feel of a document born from the wisdom of an enlightened being.

 The above book by Dudjom Rinpoche is published by Shambhala Publications, and is available from their website at A Torch Lighting the Way to Freedom

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Awkward Fact & Anattā

Douglas Edison Harding: The Man With No Head

One of the biggest influences on my Buddhist practice was not a Buddhist, but he knew a lot about Buddhism, especially the Zen variety. His name was Douglas Harding, and I had the pleasure of meeting him quite a few times during the 1990s. Douglas was a warm, humorous, intelligent, articulate, generous, open man - the last quality of which is most immediately relevant here. You see, Douglas was, by his own admission, headless. Furthermore, this condition resulted in him being blown wide open to the world, not separated off from it by being encased in a head.

Now, you may protest that if the photograph above is indeed of the said Mr. Harding, then he most certainly did posses a head. And, Douglas would not have argued with you, as long as it was understood that it was from your perspective that he had a pinkish meatball plonked atop his body; for, he claimed that from his own experience, he did not. Douglas was so passionate about his decapitated state that he not only wrote a dozen major works on the subject but also travelled the world sharing his vision with anyone that cared to listen (or look).

In the extract below, Douglas does not discuss being headless, but rather focuses on the Nothingness that is seen where a head would be expected to be found. He refers it as "our Absence, our Void Nature or Emptiness," as well by other names, all of which he admits fall well short of the mark in describing exactly what this condition is like, which is the "awkward fact" of enlightenment. And, as he spent decades emphasizing, it is to be experienced rather than believed in or philosophized about. This experience can pointed at with words, as well as a finger, and Douglas was extremely adept at this, as shown below.

"Three words cover it—seeing our Nothingness. It's that simple. Or, to drive the point home, turning our attention round 180° and looking into What we are looking out of, into our Absence, our Void Nature or Emptiness or Speckless Clarity, into our lack of characteristics, distinguishing marks, attainments, you-name-it. It is not—emphatically not—knowing all about Natureless Nature, or understanding it profoundly, or believing in it sincerely, or even feeling it acutely, but seeing it with such finality and such intimacy that we see this Absence which we are and are this Absence which we see. But alas, how liable even the most apt words are to complicate what is, after all, simplicity itself!

The awkward fact is that this Experience, which is none other than the substratum of all experience, is impossible to describe. It's as ineffable and incommunicable as the redness of red or the sweetness of honey or the smell of wild violets. Try telling a man colour-blind from birth what purple is. Well, telling him about his Empty Core is even more futile. Somehow you must get him to look in for himself at himself by himself instead of just out at you. Then and only then nothing could be easier or plainer, more blazingly self-evident to him, than his Nothingness, his disappearance in your favour.

However, three things can be said, and need to be said here, about this essential in-seeing.

First, precisely because it's void of all qualities of its own, because there's Nothing to it, it is for all beings of all grades and of all worlds one and the same. There are no angles or perspectives on This, no variations. There are no preliminary or private views or privileged showings, no more enlightened or less enlightened versions of This, no heights to mount to or fall away from, and certainly no religious or spiritual or aesthetic qualities to cultivate.

Second, (and for the same reason) one's "first fleeting glimpse" of one's Nature doesn't differ at all from one's "latest and clearest and most sustained seeing" of that Nature. No matter how brief or how sustained it may be, this Experience is unique among all experiences in that it has no degrees of clarity or intensity or familiarity. It's as if every time it happens happens to be the first time. Like it or not, there's no encouraging upturn, never any progress to plot on one's spiritual progress chart. Either you see This or you don't. Here's the one skill you can't get better at, but only exercise more frequently and for longer periods.

Third, it follows that, whoever and wherever and whenever you may be, your Inside Story is the plainest of all plain tales, and identical with the Inside Story of all creatures. So that to see What you really are is not only to see What they really are but to be What they really are. Beyond all doubt you are me and him and her and it, and all the rest. And at once you have hit on the answer to all the loneliness and alienation in the world. You rest on the Ground of Being and of all loving and caring. Secretly you are healing, along with your own wounds, the wounds of this wounded world."
(Douglas Harding, 'The Experience and the Meaning.')

Now, this "Absence" can be experienced, it is at the very core of our being, and it reveals the complete interconnectedness of life. Is this not, in Buddhist parlance, anatta, or 'not-self?' The Buddha taught that everything we take to be the self is in truth not. Buddhist meditation is designed in part to reveal this profound realization step-by-step, aggregate-by-aggregate. (The aggregates are the five 'heaps' that the Buddha divided the human condition into: body, feeling, perception, mental formations, & consciousness.) When this is fully seen, there is nothing of the ego-self left, only No-thing, full of the world.

Moreover, just as many great Zen masters have claimed, such as two of my favourites, Huang Po & Bankei, "Nature" is immediately realizable if only we dare to look within with honesty & awareness. (After an initial glimpse, we may need to cultivate this "in-seeing" if we wish to fully benefit from it, however.) Another parallel Douglas' experience has with Buddhism is his encouragement that we look for ourselves, and that we are our own authorities on what's going on where we are, not Douglas. This echoes the Buddha's declaration that the teaching (the expression of No-thing) is to investigated & decided on by each of us, not to be blindly followed.

With the above advise fresh in mind, let's explore the three things that Douglas was so keen to be said (and heard). Firstly, that this No-thing is for all to be discovered and lived from. This is clearly in line with the Buddhist attitude that all beings can be led to enlightenment. Indeed, looking back and seeing this Emptiness, it is evident that it is full of the world with all its suffering. It is capacity for all to be, and also is aware of how unenlightened state causes so much anguish, and reaches out to help those in the slough of despond.

Douglas' second important point was that the first glimpse of No-thing does not differ in the least to more "sustained seeing." This statement appears to be more problematic than the first one, for in Buddhist traditions there are stages of enlightenment described. In the Theravada tradition, for example, there are four levels of awakened beings described, with only the highest (arahant) being considered completely enlightened. In the Zen tradition, there are degrees of awakening from initial glimpses called kensho to the fuller, more complete experience known as satori. It is the experience of this author that the stages of enlightenment described in Buddhism are real, and yet at the same time the essential experience itself does not alter. Rather, it is the demise of the delusion of self within this experience that changes, eventually (and this part is taken on faith for now) dying away utterly. So, on this point, there are differences between Buddhism and Douglas' description of the Void, but the central realization appears the same.

Douglas' third important thing to be noted seems to have no conflict with the Buddha's teachings. Here, he says that the No-thing at my centre is the same as that which lies at yours, and all other creatures. This is identical with the view taken in Buddhism; the Buddha's Emptiness is the same as that of anyone else; it is the same No-thing that is at your core, my core, and all beings. This can be confirmed by looking within and checking with how Douglas sees his "Absence" and comparing it with one's own. (We can also do this with anyone that has awakened to this experience, for as Douglas so often said, we are all equal authorities on the vacuity at the heart of being.

Now, this article was deliberately entitled 'The Awkward Fact & Anatta' because the author wished to bring to the reader's attention to two issues: the incommunicable nature of our "Natureless Nature," and its similarity to the Buddhist understanding of anatta, or not-self. With reference to the former, it might be born in mind by the reader to take what they read with a pinch of salt, and of the latter to explore in experience (and not belief) to see if it is so or not.

The full article can be read on the Headless Way website here: The Experience and the Meaning.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dr. Walpola Rahula on Anattā

Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula

"In the Dhammapada, there are three verses which are extremely important and essential in the Buddha’s Teaching. They are verses 277, 278, and 279 in Chapter 20:

277. All compound things are impermanent; those who realize this through insight- wisdom are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to purity.
278. All compound things have suffering as their nature; those who realize this through insight-wisdom are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to purity.
279. All states are without self; those who realize this through insight-wisdom are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to purity.

The first two verses say: “All compound things (saṁkhārā) are impermanent” (sabbe saṁkhārā aniccā) and “All compound things have suffering as their nature” (sabbe saṁkhārā dukkhā). But the third verse says: “All states (dhammā) are without self” (sabbe dhammā anattā).

Here, it should be carefully observed that, in the first two verses, the word saṁkhārā “conditioned things, compound things” is used. But in its place in the third verse, the word dhammā “states” is used. Why does the third verse not use the word saṁkhārā “conditioned things, compound things” as in the previous two verses, and why does it use the term dhammā instead? Here lies the crux of the whole matter.

In the first two verses, the term saṁkhāra denotes the Five Aggregates, that is, all conditioned, interdependent, relative things and states, both physical and mental. If the third verse had said: “All saṁkhārā (“conditioned things, compound things”) are without self”, then, one might think that, although conditioned things are without Self, yet there may be a Self outside conditioned things, outside the Five Aggregates. It is in order to avoid misunderstanding that the term dhammā is used in the third verse.

The term “dhamma” is much wider than saṁkhāra. There is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhamma. It includes not only the conditioned things and states, but also the unconditioned, the Absolute, nibbāna. There is nothing in the universe or outside of it, good or bad, conditioned or unconditioned, relative or absolute, which is not included in this term. Therefore, it is quite clear that, according to this statement: “All states (dhammā) are without self”, there is no Self, no ātman, not only in the Five Aggregates, but nowhere else either outside them or apart from them.

This means, according to the Theravādin teaching, that there is no Self either in the individual (puggala) or in dhammas. The Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy maintains exactly the same position, without the slightest difference, on this point, putting emphasis on dharma-nairātmya as well as on pudgala-nairātmya."

Note: As with many Westerners, my first exposure to the Buddha's teaching came through reading the Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula's wonderful little book 'What the Buddha Taught.' The above is a section from the chapter entitled The Doctrine of No-Soul, and had a profound effect on me. (In fact, it still does today!) The entire book can be downloaded free of charge in PDF format from the kind people of the Charleston Buddhist Fellowship at the link below:

What the Buddha Taught 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Forest Haiku

On a visit to the International Forest Monastery here in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, the following words emerged from the quiet of the cool environs. A real haven from the noise of the world, this forested retreat reveals the inner stillness that is our true refuge. It is in this primordial silence of our being that perfect communication emerges, with the emphasis on the communing aspect of language.

Here in the forest
Trees cast a cooling shadow
Cicadas rejoice

Monks are pot-cleaning
An old layman attends them
As do the squirrels

A forest temple
Ants on the pavilion
As they make merit

We sit in the shade
I, in trendy white clobber
He, in forest robes

Sat with aching legs
There is this still silence
But for cicadas

Forest monastery
Sat talking with a bhikkhu
Leaves replace queries

Watching falling leaves
Is observing thoughts disperse
Into emptiness

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: The Buddha Walks into a Bar...by Lodro Rinzler

 Reading this book elicits two main responses, one positive and one negative. On the positive side, the book uses language and concepts likely to appeal to (what I've lately started calling) youngsters, but on the negative side of things, it promotes unskilful modes of behavior such as taking intoxicants and promiscuous sex. It may be that in attempting the former, Lodro Rinzler couldn't avoid the latter - both in his own practice as well as in this book - but it is the view of this reviewer that it is possible to retain the essential elements of Buddhist practice, including the moral precepts, alongside a modern, 'hip' approach to the Dharma, as many others have shown.

But, let's be balanced in our assessment of 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar…' and start by looking at the positives. Rinzler has an engaging style of prose that captures and retains his reader's interest - at least this reader's! He writes as an informed practitioner of Shambhala Buddhism in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and uses popular cultural icons such as the cartoon heroes of the 1980s TV show Super Friends including Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to grab our attention:

"In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, we have our own group of Super Friends. These are four mythical and nonmythical animals that represent different aspects of our training in wisdom and compassion. Individually, they are the tiger, the lion, garuda (part bird, part man), and dragon, and together they are known as the four dignitaries of Shambhala." (p.18)

These four dignitaries forms the structural backbone of the book, giving it both logical progression as well as an interesting Tibetan Buddhist focus for the teachings and practices. In the first part of the book, for example, Rinzler describes the qualities of the Tiger as discernment, gentleness and precision. He then uses the character Danny Ocean from the movie 'Ocean's Eleven' to explore the concept of discernment and the mandala as used in Tibetan Buddhism, pointing out that prior to the events in that film, the character probable would have needed to be pretty discerning in his future plans. Gentleness is dealt with in an original manner, also, which is discussed below. As for precision, he tells us that it is in the level of mindfulness in our everyday activities such as shopping, cooking, housework, clothes, and attending to the needs of the body that we use this quality to our advantage, as well as in more formal meditation settings.

"One way to cut through the busyness of your day is to include what are called the four exhilarations. Making sure we attend to these four aspects of our life give us energy to handle whatever comes our way. They are:
1. Eating
2. Sleeping
3. Meditating
4. Exercising
While these four actions are something of a no-brainer, most of us end up skipping meals or shortchanging our sleep, believing all the while that we can get away with it. It's as if we think our bodies won't notice. We keep saying, 'Tomorrow I'll do these things.' After months of this, we realize we are running out of tomorrows. We need to take care of our body today."

Rinzler's talent for fusing Buddhist teachings with modern American culture is exemplified in the chapter entitled 'Being Gentle With Your Incredible Hulk Syndrome.' What a great title! Returning to a favorite of his - and my - childhood, comic book superheroes, he uses the Incredible Hulk as a way to illustrate how destructive emotions such as anger can be, leading us to examine how we can gently work with them, instead of fighting them, which is not the Buddhist way. As an experienced Buddhist teacher, Rinzler shares both traditional meditative instructions like Shamatha with more innovative practices such the 'Writing Exercise for Working with Emotions' given on pp.38-39. In this exercise, we are taught to meditate and then write about any emotions that arise therein, giving us the opportunity to reflect upon them and develop insight.

Later on in the book (pp.100-102) Rinzler gives an excellent guided loving-kindness meditation, a well known traditional Buddhist practice often familiar as metta mediation. (Metta is the Pali word used by Theravada Buddhists and maitri is the Mahayana Buddhist equivalent from the Sanskrit tongue used by Rinzler.) The author takes the reader through the various stages of this exercise in a typically bright and accessible manner, starting by wishing happiness to oneself and ending by doing the same to all beings. This is a practice that many Buddhists (and those that they come into contact with) benefit from greatly, and Rnzler does a good, succinct, job in describing it.

In another chapter called 'How to Apply Discipline Even When Your Head Gets Cut Off' Rinzler writes about the wise application of discipline in relation to virtue. He advises us that discipline should be accompanied with gentleness rather than aggression, something worth noting. As he remarks, virtue that lacks gentleness can result in a discipline being used as a weapon against others. [It can also be self-destructive, also, and not in the positive, Buddhist sense of ego-transcendence.] He quotes the fourteenth century Tibetan meditation master Ngulchu Thogme to this end, emphasizing that virtue combined with compassion is what's really gonna cut the (Buddhist) mustard, so to speak.

"If someone cuts off your head
Even when you have not done the slightest thing wrong,
Through the power of compassion
To take his misdeeds upon yourself
Is the practice of a bodhisattva."


It is, however, on the point of virtue that this reviewer begins to find fault with 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar…' When discussing sex in relation to the third of the five basic precepts of Buddhism, he starts to wriggle in his commitment to what the Buddha (is widely accepted to have) taught. This precepts states that the Buddhist undertakes the commitment to abstain from engaging in sexual misconduct, which traditionally precludes promiscuous sex. But not for Rinzler. He states that he personally believes one night stands are fine if the motivation is seriously considered. (I wonder if he thinks the same about the other four precepts of avoiding killing, stealing, lying, and getting drunk or drugged. Oh, hang on, he does think getting drunk's okay, as we'll explore in a while!)

According to Rinzler, promiscuous sex is okay if "you are interested in having a one-night stand because you are too busy for a relationship, but you appreciate the other person and want to make a sexual connection with them." (p.81) He distinguishes this from thinking, "I'm drunk, I'm horny. They're hot." (Ibid.) Some might see the former as simply a more polite (or politically-correct) way of stating the latter! Rinzler adds that good conduct sexual might mean being very open with your partner or practicing safe sex. It definitely includes both, surely! Whilst agreeing with him that sexual contact with someone should include being "genuine" and "caring," it seems to this reviewer that it involves a whole lot more if we are really going to be wise and compassionate in our sexual behavior. That's why the Buddha gave us the third of the five precepts and why Buddhists have practiced it for the last two-and-half thousand years! A clue to Rinzler's motivations is revealed at the onset of the book, however, and it's worth quoting from the (wind)horse's mouth:

"Buddhism is often perceived as a moralistic religion. When I was in college, I would tell people that I was a Buddhist, and they would balk at the beer in my hand and the hot girl on my arm. They assumed that Buddhists aren't supposed to drink or have sex. But Buddhism is not some super-religion that is more puritanical than other religious traditions. Just as in other spiritual traditions, there are some Buddhists who chose a life of abstinence and others who do not. In fact, many Western Buddhist practitioners are wonderful drinkers and lovers." (p.25)

Does the latter include yourself, Mr. Rinzler, a self-confessed boozing Buddhist with a taste for "hot babes?" (Wink, wink) To deal with this paragraph briefly, let's start with the assumption that he refers to, that Buddhists aren't supposed to drink (alcohol) or have sex. The former is true (fifth precept) and the latter is true for monks and nuns. Buddhists shouldn't be "puritanical," it's true, but is keeping the five precepts necessarily being "puritanical?" As long as we're applying them in a compassionate way and not betting other people with them so as to appear superior, then they are to be applauded not ridiculed or belittled.

Although not an expert on the subject, a (very) small alarm bell rang when the following lines appeared: "There's a Tibetan word for Incredible Hulk syndrome, which is klesha. Klesha can be best translated as "afflictive emotion." (p.34) Now, klesha is a Sanskrit word (related to the Pali word kilesa), and not a Tibetan one. The Tibetan equivalent - a quick search on Google revealed - is nyon-mongs. Now, although this is a rather pedantic point, perhaps, it does raise the question of whether there are more important inaccuracies regarding Tibetan language or Buddhism in the book, which someone not well versed in such subjects would probably miss. Certainly, as presented below, the author doesn't appear to have a very good understanding of Theravada Buddhism.

Another less than praising appraisal of Rinzler's efforts is his apparent Mahayana snobbery when writing about Theravada (or 'Hinayana,' as he derogatorily insists on calling it) Buddhism. As most of us modern Buddhists know by now, Theravada ('Teaching of the Elders') is both the more widely-used title and the one preferred by Theravada Buddhists themselves for their form of Buddhism. (The latter is also the more accurate, as 'Hinayana' refers to many different kinds of early Buddhism, only one of which survived and later became what we now know as Theravada Buddhism.) And, yet, as every smug Mahayanist will gleefully tell you, their branch of Buddhism is the 'Great Vehicle' whereas the other one is the 'Lesser Vehicle.' Boring - and unenlightened - sectarianism!

"Turning your attention away from only taking care of yourself to taking care of others is the subtle distinction between the Hinayana (narrow vehicle) teachings and the Mahayana (greater vehicle) teachings. The distinction lies between the Hinayana view of being concerned only with our own path to awakening, and the Mahayana view of taking others' happiness as that path." (p.61)

As quoted above, Rinzler repeats the usual rubbish spouted by some Mahayanists that Theravada Buddhists are somehow more selfish than he and his Mahayana pals because they are only concerned with their own individual enlightenment and don't care about others'. Living in Thailand (a predominately Theravada Buddhist country) and knowing many people in the international Forest Sangha movement, I can loudly declare that this is not so! Many, many Theravada Buddhists care about and try to help others to their own awakening, just as many, many Mahayana Buddhists do. It's about time this uninformed sectarian bias was 'put to bed,' Mr. Rinzler. All this is all the more surprising since earlier in the book the author declares that we should avoid such negativity and see that "the Hinayana is a process of getting your act together." (p.19)

So, from this reviewer's perspective - one that straddles both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist traditions in a spirit of modernity - 'The Buddha Walks into a Bar…' has some questionable attitudes on display, not just to 'Hinayanists,' but also in the area of Buddhist ethics. As suggested at the top of this article, it may be that Lodro Rinzler in his genuine attempts to be hip and up-to-date in his practice and teaching of Buddhism has lost sight of some of the essential ethical elements in Buddhism. However, this may be a reflection of the type of Buddhism he practices, Shambhala Buddhism, which has Tantric elements to it that might be less than stringent in its application of the Buddhist precepts. This latter point is mere speculation, and is most definitely not some kind of sectarian slandering! It may also be the case that as a Mahayana Buddhist, Rinzler feels a sense of superiority over Theravada (or Hinayana, as he calls it) Buddhism. If this is the case, it is to be regretted, as it will appear petty and sectarian to many readers.

In contrast to the above criticisms, Rinzler has managed to do what he sets out to do at the beginning of the book and present Buddhism in way that is likely to appeal to a younger readership. If this work does help to encourage young people to explore Buddhist teachings and practices, then it can be deemed a success, despite the reservations already expressed. Buddhism needs writers like Lodro Rinzler to promote to new generations of suffering beings in need of enlightenment, and to that end at least, this reviewer is wholeheartedly behind him.

The Buddha Walks into a Bar by Lodro Rinzler is published by Shambhala Publications, and is available from their website at The Buddha Walks into a Bar