Sunday, May 27, 2012

Forest Walking II

A forest path in the International Forest Monastery.

Forest walking can be a wondrous exercise. Traversing the damp track through the fresh-aired woods is stepping through the mind. Though feet tread over wet soil, leaves and twigs, where does all this take place? In this very mind. The two are, in fact, one and the same. For, in actual experience, there is no separation between the sights & sounds of the forest and the mind that apprehends them; they arise together. 

The intertwining trunk of the mind...

Science, it would seem, affirms this unitive experience. For, where do we experience the five senses but in the sixth one, the mind? Take vision, for example. When I look at the tree, it is light reflected off of its surface that travels to my eye, and from there to the brain. And it is here, in the mind that's associated with this brain that I experience the tree; not 'out there' in the world, but here in the mind. In fact, if reflected on, everything that's perceived is known in the mind, not where they actually exist (assuming that they do independently exist from the mind - not that's another topic altogether!) 

A fallen flower on the forest path.

In Buddhism, experience is divided into the five aggregates (pancakkhandha in the Pali language). These aggregates, or 'lumps' of experience combine to form the universe, or an individual's particular view of the universe, that is. The five are: form (rupa), sensation (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vinnana). The latter four are mental in nature, whilst the first is the physical world, or a person's experience of the physical world. Consciousness is special in that it is said to be always present along with one of the other four aggregates. So, if I think of ice cream, there is the 'mental formation' of an ice cream in the mind, and along with that consciousness, or awareness, of the mental image. If no consciousness were present, then I would not be conscious of the mental image, and therefore no ice cream. It is the same with the first aggregate of form. To see a tree, consciousness must be present; otherwise no tree.

An old walking meditation path.

So, the trees occur in consciousness, in other words, in the mind. Colours are perceived by the visual centre of the brain, not over there where the trees really are (above objection accepting, of course.) The sounds of the forest such as birds, insects, and the sound of the wind amongst the trees, also occur in consciousness. Ditto smells, tastes, and tactile experiences. The leaf that I gaze upon is really a mental leaf, not a physical one. It is a mind-leaf. It is an image formed on the retina of the eye, and then perceived in the visual centre of the brain. It is part of the mind, made of mind, preceded by mind. 

A pavilion (Thai: sala) deep in the forest.

This unity of mind and the physical world has an interesting and inspiring aspect to it. They reflect one another. The mind is partly shaped by past and present experiences of the world, whilst the world (as I experience it) is conditioned by the mind. This is why two people's experience of the same event is rarely identical; the world is experienced by two minds, and partly conditioned by them, so the same world appears different. This may be interesting, you might remark, but why inspiring? Well, it means that not only is this mind unique, but so is the world that it perceives. Moreover, this unique world is unique because of this very mind. What a powerful thing the mind is! Sure, the world has innumerable effects on the mind, but it is the same the other way around, too.

The wonderful view from the pavilion.

One person may look at the forest and see something quite ugly and dirty, perhaps threatening. Another person may see the same forest with indifference, neither positive nor negative. When I look, I see something wonderful, full of wisdom. Uncomfortable, yes. Potentially dangerous, also. But these negative traits are part of that very wisdom. The human mind is a tremendous thing; truly awesome. At the same time it is an awful place, full of fears, hatreds, and ignorance. Sometimes it is merely disinterested; a cold lack of care. Forest walking reflects this threefold nature of the mind. Each fluttering of leaves, buzzing of an insect, and chirping of a bird is the sound of the mind. The birdsong appears beautiful, for that is the way this mind perceives it to be, whereas the insect's buzzing is colored with a mild dislike at the instinct that it may precede being bitten. As to a myriad objects that don't demand attention, such as fluttering leaves, well they are perceived with indifference.

The Buddha statue that stands in the pavilion.

Forest walking is a wondrous thing. Here, in the woods of the International Forest Monastery in Northeast Thailand, it seems particularly so. This is surely due to the influence of the forest monks and their teachings on seeing the Buddha's teachings in the forest. But wherever a forest is, it is of the same nature as the one here. It also reflects the mind that perceives it; and vice versa. Dead insects in a pool of water speak of impermanence, an important doctrine in Buddhism. But they also reflect some part of the mind that sees them. Every step along the forest track reveals the Buddha's wisdom, which s the natural way of things. Each tread is also a step through the mind. All that is needed to see this, and learn from it, is an open mind...

Related Post: Forest Walking

Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: Buddhism as Philosophy, by Mark Siderits

Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction is an interesting book. Its author, Mark Siderits, is Professor of Philosophy at Seoul National University, and he has brought his professional philosophical skills to good use in this work. Taking the three main philosophical areas of philosophy, ethics, metaphysics and epistemology as his framework, he describes the major developments in Buddhist thought, covering those found in early Buddhism and subsequent schools of Mahayana Buddhism. The book is chock-a-block with quotations from source texts such as the Pali Canon and the works of Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu (two extremely important Mahayana Buddhist philosophers). And Siderits weaves his narrative around these texts with keen insight and admirable organization. 

The book begins by explaining the basic teachings ascribed to the Buddha and found in the Pali Canon, or Tipitika ('Threefold Collection').  Siderits elucidates the four noble truths of suffering, the cause of suffering, the ending of suffering, and the path leading to the ending of suffering clearly enough. Though somewhat dry, as one might expect a philosophical account to be, this section of the book is not too difficult to follow, unlike some of the later chapters that focus on Mahayana Buddhist ideas. An interesting sidetone here is that when describing the origin of suffering, Siderits focuses on ignorance rather than desire. Whilst the former is an important factor in arising of suffering, usually it is the latter that is the traditional focal point when exploring this central idea of Buddhism. Perhaps it is because he is a philosopher that Siterits puts the emphasis of ignorance, but this is an issue worth reflecting on, nevertheless. This philosophical approach to the issues is systematically applied by the author, and he uses logic to examine Buddhist ideas that normally are less rigorously explored in most works on the subject. This is illustrated on the following extract where Siderits is investigating the relationship between suffering and the Buddhist teaching of not-self. The Sanskrit word skandhas refers to the five aggregates that the Buddha said comprised the person. The letter C stands for Conclusion.

"1 Suppose that we are each obligated to prevent only our own suffering.
2 In the case of one's own future suffering, it is one set of skandhas that does the preventing for another set that has the suffering.
3 In the case of one's own present suffering, it is one part that does the preventing for another part that has the suffering.
4 The sense of 'I' that leads one to call future skandhas and distinct present parts 'me' is a conceptual fiction.
5 Hence it cannot be ultimately true that some suffering is one's own and some suffering is that of others.
6 Hence the claim that we are obligated to prevent only our own suffering lacks ultimate ground.
7 Hence either there is an obligation to prevent suffering regardless of where it occurs, or else there is no obligation to prevent any suffering.
8 But everyone agrees that at least some suffering should be prevented (namely one's own).
C Therefore there os an obligation to prevent suffering regardless of where it occurs."
(Buddhism as Philosophy, p.82)

Whatever the validity of the above assertion, it serves as an example of much of the author's approach to the philosophical questions that come out of a rational contemplation of Buddhist teachings. Of course, to many a Buddhist practitioner this whole endeavor may smack of intellectual folly, for they will feel that it is in the walking of the Buddhist path that it is to be evaluated rather than in arguments formulated for and against its central doctrines. However, even for such Buddhists there is still much to be gained from a disciplined analysis of the teachings, which Siderits attempts to do throughout this work. He makes this point early in the book:

"Doing philosophy is said to help us acquire the conceptual tools we need to make sense of what we encounter in meditation. So, for instance, mastery of the philosophical arguments for the non-existence of a self will make it easier to appreciate the significance of the complex causal connections we find when we closely observe our mental processes. That there are these causal connections will then be seen to confirm that there is no self standing behind the the scenes directing our mental lives."
(Ibid. p.25)

Talking of non-self, Siderits discusses this essential Buddhist teaching throughout the book, as one would expect. In the chapter entitled Non-Self: Empty Persons, he utilizes to great effect both Pali texts and the non-canonical work 'The Questions of King Milinda' to demonstrate the idea of non-self to the reader. From the latter work, Siderits uses the dialogue between King Milinda and the Buddhist monk Nagasena to elucidate the concept of non-self in a clear manner that both experienced Buddhists and those new to this idea can appreciate. A famous section from this dialogue is the analogy of a chariot for that of a person, and the author explains the parallels between them with clarity. That he does this without merely promoting the argument of Nagasena is to his professional merit as a philosopher, and it also gives the reader the opportunity to do so, as well, which most Buddhist books do not do, for obvious reasons.

Not all of Buddhism as Philosophy is not as easy to follow as the aforementioned sections, however. Much cerebral effort is required in subsequent chapters to master the arguments employed with regards to the Buddhist luminaries Vasubandhu and Nagarjuna, along with the related Mahayana philosophies of Yogacara and Madhyamaka. The ideas of Vasubhandu are utilized in the chapters Abhidharma: The Metaphysics of Empty Persons and Yogacara: Impressions-Only and the Denial of Physical Objects. As the titles suggest, there are some pretty philosophically dense passages to be found in these parts of the book, as can be seen in the following extract:

"[Objection:] Why does that which has been most forcefully cultivated not perpetually bear fruit?
[Reply:] Because the mark of the conditioned is that what persists becomes otherwise. And the being otherwise of that conforms to the fruition of other cultivations. But this is merely an indication concerning the forms of all cognitions. For the buddhas [fully enlightened beings], though, there is abundance in the cognition of immediate causes, as is said:
The cause, in all its aspects, of a single eye of a peacock's feather
Is not knowable by one who is not omniscient, for the cognition of that is the power of omniscience."
(Ibid. p.127)

One use of this book other than to unravel dialogues like the one above is as a history of Buddhism. This is because much of Buddhism's history is tied up in its doctrines, the teachings of liberation that have been used for well over two thousand years to help people loosen the bonds of desire and ignorance. To understand these teachings is understand how Buddhism has changed through time, developed and adapted to different times and places whilst retaining its essential purpose of being a path that leads to the ending of suffering. Siderits' work helps the reader to glimpse important philosophical innovations in this process, which includes the Yogacara and Madhyamaka forms of Buddhism, the origins of which he succinctly describes below.

"Yogacara is one of the two chief schools of Mahayana Buddhism. It is not, however, the earlier of the two. The ideas that became the basis of Madhyamaka, the other major school, began appearing in sutras perhaps as early as late in the first century BCE. And these ideas received their first philosophical formulation, in the work of Madhyamaka's founder Nagarjuna, in about the mid-second century CE. By contrast, the sutras that first express distinctively Yogacara ideas seem to have appeared no earlier than the second century CE. And the founders of the school, Asanga and Vasubandhu, are generally dated around the middle of the fourth century CE."
(Ibid. p.146)

Whilst the above extract may appear to be more history lesson than philosophy, it is an important example of the background information that Siderits supplies throughout the book, and which give the reader important insights into the contexts of Buddhist philosophy. Both Yogacara and Madhyamaka are given plenty of page space in Buddhism as Philosophy, allowing the author to broaden the scope of his philosophical explorations. Indeed, much of the last quarter of the work is devoted to these two important philosophies, upon which so much of subsequent Mahayana Buddhism is built upon. The final chatter centers on the school of Dinnaga as a way to examine buddhist epistemology. 

Buddhism as Philosophy is not an easy book; but it is worth the effort required to fully appreciate it. It isn't for people with a passing interest in Buddhism (unless they happen to be highly-philosophical types.) It is, however, a valuable addition to any serious Buddhist's bookshelf, where it can enable them to deepen their understanding of important Buddhist doctrines. Alongside this, Buddhism as Philosophy is a work that will give philosophers not familiar with Buddhism a chance to explore its rich and intricate teachings in a systematic & vigorous manner that they would be accustomed to. Would reading this book enlighten you? Probably not, but it can certainly give its readership the information with which they could awaken themselves. It is, therefore, a work that this reviewer has no qualms in recommending.

Title & Author : Buddhism as Philosophy: An Introduction, by Mark Siderits
Publishers      : Hackett Publishing Company (US); Asgate Publishing (UK)
Page Count    : 304 (US); 242 (UK)
Price               : $16.95 (US); £16.99 (UK)
ISBN               : 978-0-87220-873-5 (US); 978-0-7546-5369-1 (UK)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Review: The Diamond Sutra, by Red Pine

Red Pine has produced some excellent translations of Buddhist texts, and The Diamond Sutra: The Perfection of Wisdom is no exception. It is a superb companion to other such works by the American scholar, which include translations of The Heart Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra. Reading this particular book is a pleasure on several levels. As one of the most important pieces of scripture in Mahayana Buddhism, it is a source of great wisdom. As a an example of fine translation work on the part of its translator and commentator, it is also a wonderful read. Moreover, as a work to dip into and be inspired by the wise utterances of some of the great thinkers of Mahayana Buddhism, it is a thought-provoking (and enlightening) book.

The Diamond Sutra is one of the central texts in Mahayana Buddhism, and is particularly important in Zen Buddhism, and is not only widely studied but also chanted in Zen monasteries & temples the world over. To give it its proper full name in English, it is the 'Diamond Cutter of Perfect Wisdom Discourse,' or Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra in Sanskrit. It takes the form of a dialogue between the Buddha and his disciple the Venerable Subhuti, and is a discussion on the nature of perception, non-attachment and non-abiding. Much of this is undertaken via an apparently somewhat contradictory set of statements by the Buddha, through which he leads Subhuti towards an understanding of enlightenment.

"Furthermore, Subhuti, undifferentiated is this dharma in which nothing is differentiated. Thus it is called 'unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.' Without a self, without a being, without a life, without a soul, undifferentiated is this unexcelled, perfect enlightenment by means of which all auspicious dharmas are realized. And how so? Auspicious dharmas, Subhuti, 'auspicious dharmas' are spoken of by the Tathagata as 'no dharmas.' Thus are they called 'auspicious dharmas."
(The Diamond Sutra, p.23)

So, succinctly put, the sutra is about emptiness…or is it? In the translator's Preface to the book, Red Pine rather amusingly recites his own journey of understanding of the Diamond Sutra - or journey of misunderstanding, at least for many years! For, as he recalls, it was only when he came to translate the text for himself, along with the commentaries that accompany it in this edition, did he begin to grasp its meaning. Moreover, it was by studying the Sanskrit version as opposed the Chinese versions he was previously familiar with that the author finally began to penetrate to its particular message. For, while emptiness and the other important factors above are part of the sutra, they are also found in other Buddhist scriptures. According to Red Pine, the Diamond Sutra is really about the body of the Buddha and those of his noble (enlightened) disciples.

"From the beginning of this sutra, the focus has been on the Buddha's body. But which body? It has sometimes seemed like the Buddha has been playing the old shell game with Subhuti: Now you see me, now you don't. Under which shell is the real buddha? As early as Chapter Five, the Buddha asked Subhuti if he could see he body, and with this koan he began Subhuti's education in the perfection of wisdom. Obviously, the Buddha was not referring to his physical body, whichh Subhuti knew was en\mpty of any self nature and merely an apparition. But to which body was the Buddha referring?"
Ibid. p.401)

This edition of the Diamond Sutra begins with a 27-page translation of the text itself, which is clear and attractive, without too many elongated words to disrupt the flow of the discourse. This is followed by the Translator's Preface, already mentioned above, which is both interesting and informative, engaging the reader with the sutra's meaning and Red Pine's own unravelling of it. This short section precedes the bulk of the work, which is a line-by-line commentary of the Diamond Sutra, in which the translator weaves its history, philosophy, and the related teachings of some of China's greatest Zen (nee Chan) masters. 

"Chu-kung says, 'Dharmas originate in the mind. Only someone who possesses wisdom can transform and understand them. Thus, there are no actual dharmas that we can talk about or name.'
Chiang Wei-nung says, 'A tathagata is the embodiment of a dharma, and a dharma body has no form. What is there to conceive? What is there to express?'
Hui-neng says, 'Unexcelled, perfect enlightenment is not found somewhere outside. It only exists when the mind contains neither subject nor object.'"
(Ibid. 133-134)

Red Pine, with his usual skill, takes a line of the original text and then extrapolates from it the deeper meaning, with the help of a profusion of great Chinese Buddhist teachers. This gives a multilayered feel to the sutra's overall thrust, allowing the reader to savor each of its chapters to the utmost. The value in this approach is that although Red Pine never shies away from showing his hand when a particular idea or interpretation is primarily his own, the reader is never left feeling that the work as a whole is merely one man's understanding, but is rather a whole tradition's exposition. This can be seen in the following extract, which is given in its entirety and is therefore somewhat lengthy, but to edit it would misrepresent Red Pine's methodology. 

"On this occasion, the venerable Subhuti was also present in the assembly.
Depending on how the word subhuti is parsed, it can mean 'born of emptiness' or 'auspicious sight.' Although Subhuti's family possessed great wealth, on the day he was born all the gold and silver in his family's storeroom disappeared. Thus, he was born of emptiness. Then, seven days later, his family's gold and silver reappeared. Thus, his birth was also an auspicious sight. Looking back on this event, commentators muse that the disappearance of his family's wealth demonstrated the truth of emptiness, while its reappearance demonstrated that true emptiness is empty of emptiness.
Subhuti was born in the city of Sharvati and became one of the Buddha's ten most prominent disciples. As his name foretold, he was known for his understanding of the doctrine of emptiness. Thus, it was appropriate that he assumed the role of the interlocutor for the assembly on this occasion. He was, however, quite elderly, and not always present when the Buddha spoke. According to a later tradition recorded in Hsuan-tsang's Hsiyuchi (Buddhist Records of the Western World), Subhuti was the Blue Dragon Buddha of the East and joined the Buddha's assembly in this form to assist in instructing others about prajna.
Chiang Wei-nung says, 'The Bhagavan put on his robe and begged for food every day. He did not always speak afterwards. He only spoke when the time was ripe. This, in truth, was a rare occasion. It was the ninth time the Buddha spoke about prajna. Thus, it was 'on this occasion.''
Hui-neng says, 'Why was he called venerable? Because he was esteemed for virtue and also advanced in years.'"
(Ibid. pp.58-59)

The above extract reveals Red Pine's eye for detail, explaining it does in some detail the etymology of the word subhuti, and its relevance to this work.  Other terms and ideas - many much more lofty than this one - are treated with the same devotion throughout the book, and are also accompanied by comments from both Chinese Buddhist masters and some of their Indian predecessors. The combination of the fine translation that Red Pine has done of the sutra itself, along with the wise words from the masters, make this a book capable of helping us to awaken to the Buddha in this very life. Reading The Diamond Sutra and deeply reflecting on it is a real opportunity to realize enlightenment, and is therefore a truly wondrous work to hold in our hands.

Title & Author : The Diamond Sutra: THe Perfection of Wisdom, by Red Pine
Publisher        : Counterpoint Press
Page Count    : 480
Price               : $13.19 (Amazon)
ISBN               : 978-1582432564
Web Link        : Counterpoint Press Website

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Birthday Reflection: The Five Subjects

As it's my birthday today, it seems appropriate to post something fittingly 'uplifting' and pertinent to the occasion. Hence, the five subjects for frequent recollection:

I am of the nature to age; I am not beyond aging.
I am of the nature to sicken; I am not beyond sickness.
I am of the nature to die; I am not beyond dying.
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.
I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, abide supported by my actions. Whatever actions I shall do, for good or for ill, of those I will be the heir.
This text has been adapted from the Chanting Book used in the Western Forest Sangha, and can be downloaded here: Morning and Evening Chanting

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: Open Heart, Open Mind, by Tsoknyi Rinpoche

Tsoknyi Rinpoche has - along with co-author Eric Swanson - written a wonderful book. The Rinpoche's warmth & wisdom exude every page, flowing with what he terms 'essence love.' (The full title of the book is Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love.) Swanson's role in the book is not exactly described, even in his own note that appears at the beginning of the book, but from his remarks there it seems whilst he didn't translate the work into English, some limited translating was undertaken. Perhaps he helped top gave the book its cohesive narrative - if so, he did a wonderful job! Whatever the case, the book is presented as the thoughts, experiences and teachings of Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and so from herein this review will refer to him alone as its author.

Tsoknyi has a delightful openness in describing his own life, but always in relation to Buddhist teachings. So, for example, he writes extensively about his being declared a tulku (reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist master) as a child, but in doing so he also relates important ideas from the Tibetan tradition, as well as revealing his own very human responses to such a discovery. Born in 1966 in Nepal, Tsoknyi is the son of another Buddhist master called Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, who was a renowned teacher of dzogchen ('great perfection'), a subject that the author explains in the book. The author is the third incarnation of Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and is a tulku in both the Nyingma and Drukpa Kagyu traditions within Tibetan Buddhism, and holds official lineage in the Kagyu school. When he relates al this in the book, however, it is never with any sense of pomposity or self-importance, but with a down-to-earth candor.

This apparent propensity to an open and honest sharing of his own life experiences to illustrate Buddhist ideas is a really engaging aspect to the book. So, for example, early on in its pages, in the chapter entitled 'The Bridge,' he relates the story of when he was too scared to cross a thick glass bridge between two skyscrapers. It was only at the third attempt that he managed to traverse its transparent length, having contemplated the other people passing over it, and then reflecting upon himself. Elsewhere, he writes lovingly of his marriage and two daughters, and how feelings of love and compassion were awoken in him when cradling the latter. Here's an extract from the book that illustrates his warm and personal style:

"I had never been on a train before. I'd heard about trains from my grandfather, who'd traveled on one several years earlier. He described it as something like a line of houses, each about the size of ours in Nubri, which traveled on wheels along metal rails.
The image worried me. How could a house move on wheels without cracking and breaking? I approached the possibility of traveling in a house on wheels with some trepidation, influenced by imagination.
When I saw the train with my own eyes, I realized it was made of metal, not wood and stone, and my notion of traveling in a moving house was put to rest by actual experience.
it was then that I began to discern the difference between imagination and reality - the beginning of a long process that has led me to understand the ideas about who we are and what we're capable of achieving are based on misconceptions, on stories we're told by others, enhanced by the fertility of imagination that is one of the gifts of openness and clarity."
(Open Heart, Open Mind p.83)

So, having established the style of Tsonyi Rinpoche's writing, let's take a closer look at the teachings themselves. The subtitle of the book refers to 'essence love,' but what exactly is it? Deriving from the Tibetan term nying-je, which Tsoknyi describes as "an unconditional kindness, gentleness, and affection born of openness and intelligence" (Ibid. p.61). He goes on to say that essence love is a basic sense of well-being for oneself and others, and that it comes out of the realization of emptiness and clarity. These qualities are related to dzogchen, referred to above in reference to Tsoknyi's father. The author also puts much emphasis on 'the great perfection,' and there is a beautiful sequence in which he describes teachings on it from his father, who related dzogchen to the spaciousness of the sky in relation to the clouds that float through it:

"Yes, look how they're changing. But the space beyond them hasn't changed at all. That space is like your essential nature. It doesn't change. It doesn't have a beginning or an end. Just as clouds pass through the sky, sometimes covering it completely, space is always there, in our hearts, in our minds, in all of our experience."
(Ibid. p.187)
Inspiring stuff indeed, but as Tsoknyi notes in his narrative, such statements can appear coldly abstract if not realized in actual experience. Following on from his father's wise counsel above, the author relates how he went outside on a cliff edge and actually watched the sky with its ever-moving, ever-changing contents. He then noticed how the contents of his mind, his thoughts and emotions were essentially the same as those clouds, which resulted in a clarity and freedom from the negative feelings that he had been experiencing up to that point. Merely describing his own experiences, however inspiring they may be, will necessarily help his reader to share in these realizations; thankfully, Tsoknyi includes practical instructions in the book, as well, such as this mindfulness practice he calls 'scanning':

"Assuming a stable and comfortable posture is a good start in terms of aligning the mind and the body. The actual practice involves a few different methods, the first of which is an easy exercise in what may be called 'scanning,' a very simple handshake between the mind and the body.
Lightly draw your attention to your body from the top of the head to the tip of the toes. Don't focus too intently on any part. Just bring a bare attention to each area.
Sometimes, of course, a physical sensation of discomfort will arise; that's normal. But it's not necessary during this exercise to dwell on such sensations or go looking for the causes. Instead, just note the experience and move on to the next part of the body - shaking hands so to speak, with every part: 'This is my forehead. How do you do, forehead?' 'This is my nose. How do you do, nose?'
For the practice known as mindfulness to have any effect, we need to learn to be polite toward the experiences we discover in the scanning process. Maybe someday politeness will be the word used instead of mindfulness. But before that can occur, we need to reach across the islands of discontent within ourselves and shake hands between our experiences and the stories that surround our experiences."
(Ibid. pp.126-127)

Hopefully, this review has given the reader a taste of the warmth & wisdom of Tsoknyi Rinpoche, as found in Open Heart, Open Mind. The teachings and practices that he presents in this wonderful book are potentially both life-enhancing & transformative - even enlightening. Allied with the easy and entertaining manner in which he communicates his teachings, this encouragement to awaken to our spaciousness and the essence love that flows from it form a powerful message indeed. Open Heart, Open Mind is a work worthy of our careful attention, and in the spirit of openness that it promotes, it is a book that can benefit anyone that reads, whether Buddhist or not. A fine work.

Title & Author : Open Heart, Open Mind, by Tsoknyi Rinpoche
Publisher        : Harmony Books
Page Count    : 272
Price               : $18:95
ISBN               : 978-0-307-88820-4

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Review: Natural Brilliance, by Irini Rockwell

Natural Brilliance is a beautiful book. Its presentation, from the tastefully flowery cover to the layout of the pages is nicely done, with the tidy use of little boxes that contain useful information generously sprinkled through its pages. It looks a bit like a typical new age work, with its pastel shades and somewhat misty references to Buddhism. Nowadays, there are many such books about, or inspired by, Buddhist teachings. Many of these take the form of new agey feel-good works, uplifting if a little vague, and bearing only a smidgin of a resemblance to the teachings of the Buddha. But is Natural Brilliance such a work, or is there more to it than that? The answers, of course, are in the book itself, so we will first take a broad look at its claims and aims, and then delve a little deeper into its pages for a somewhat closer look.

The author of Natural Brilliance: A Buddhist System for Uncovering Your Strengths and Letting Them Shine is Irini Rockwell. She is a senior teacher in the lineage of the notorious Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, and is the director of the Five Wisdoms Institute, an organization involved in promoting the system described in the book. Indeed, Natural Brilliance and the institute that Rockwell directs seem intertwined, as if the one complements, or promotes, the other. Clearly, the author is committed to the subject of which she writes, and holds a belief that its claims are genuine. So, what exactly, are the claims of Natural Brilliance?

The book claims that it contains a system that leads to a self-understanding that involves a satisfying relationship to life. Rockwell states that she presents a 'Buddhist model' that helps the reader to identify her or his personality traits that comprise one's 'innate intelligence.' These five qualities are presence, clarity, richness, passion, and action; by cultivating them one can enhance relationships, work, and creativity. Moreover, ultimately, the system shows us the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. Some pretty big claims there!

It's worth noting here that from the Buddhist perspective, the claims of the book are in line with some of the objectives found in the major movements of traditional Buddhism found around the world today. For, although it can be claimed that nirvana or enlightenment is the true destination of the Buddhist path, there are plenty of teachings and practices centered around making us happier and more productive human beings. Natural Brilliance seems more focused on these latter aims, rather than a breakthrough into an experience of awakening to our true nature. And, these are worthwhile objectives, for whilst no Buddhist worth their salt would deny the ultimate importance of enlightenment, it ain't for everyone right now; some people are more focused on their personality and its relationships, and whilst this is the case, they will benefit from teachings and practices that make them happier and less harmful. So, does this book achieve this?

The question of the efficacy of the teachings and methods contained in the pages of Natural Brilliance is, in truth, impossible to answer unless one has read them thoroughly and put them into practice - neither of which this reviewer has done. What can be done is to present those teachings and explore them a little, before coming to a prediction on whether the claims made by Rockwell in the book are justified. So, rather than to continue to sum up her writings, it's time to quote a few passages from Natural Brilliance to allow the reader of this review to formulate their own opinions on its potential benefits.

"When we get right down to it, what most of us really want more than anything - more than the newest smartphone, job promotion, or getaway vacation - is inner peace. The radical message of the Buddhist tradition comes down to this: the peace and fulfillment we are seeking are present in us right now. They have never really left us - and can never leave us." 
(Natural Brilliance, p.1)
"When we accommodate the parts of ourselves that we like the least and energies in others that feel threatening, we are allowing the full spectrum of human experience to display itself. One of the essential lessons of the five wisdom energies is that in embracing our confusion, we discover that our wisdom is right there. When we are familiar with the characteristics of each energy style, we immediately know where the sanity is and where the neurosis is. We can align ourselves with the sanity, with the wisdom aspect. At that point we have discovered the best within us, our unique brand of brilliance. We discover we have great liberty to be who we are, and we can celebrate that."
(Ibid. pp.13-14)
"Bringing Out the Best of Who You Are
  • Recollect three times in your life when you felt the best of who you are.
  • What outer circumstances made that possible?
  • What qualities in you began to shine?"
(Ibid. p.14)
"We are affected by the energy around us whether we are aware of it or not. When we are unaware, energy has the upper hand and we feel tossed around by life's circumstances. When we are aware of the play of energy, we can ride it. With awareness, we can gauge our atmospheric condition in a given situation, sensing the energy of the moment, whether 'open' or 'closed.' We can begin to see that habitual patterns of closing take us out of the moment. We literally lose track of where we are."
(Ibid. p.70)
From the first of the extracts above, the link between the five energies system and Buddhism can be seen - albeit a somewhat tenuous one at first glance. Reading in-between the lines however, a slightly closer connection can be made, when noting references to "inner peace," "wisdom," and "awareness." That no more explicit Buddhist language and concepts are used much in the book can be taken two ways. In a positive light, the book can be seen to be communicating Buddhist teachings in modern English as a opposed to obscure Asian languages; a negative appraisal might conclude that in fact there's little genuine Buddhism in Natural Brilliance to begin with. 

The quotation above that is entitled "Bringing Out the Best of Who You Are" is included here for two reasons. The first is that is highlights a central theme of the book, which is the importance given to discovering and living from "who you are" - a loaded phrase if there ever was one in Buddhist thought. This isn't the unconditioned 'true nature' that Buddhism teaches lies at the heart of every sentient being, but more the essential ego or conditioned personality that each of us is conventionally said to possess. The second importance of this particular quote is that it is an example of the reflections that appear throughout the book. Here, Rockwell has assembled a useful collection of exercises that encourage her readers to explore their selves. A useful undertaking for sure.

The emphasis that Rockwell puts on awareness is certainly something she shares with Buddhists of whatever persuasion, including those of the Tibetan tradition from which she draws her primary influences for the five wisdom energies. In encouraging her readers to increase their levels of awareness she is doing them a great service, and with the many awareness-based exercises in Natural Brilliance she gives them the means to do so. For this alone, the book is worthy of some praise, as is the eloquent and clear manner in which the author communicates her message. Another laudable aspect to the book is the abundance of real-life examples that Rockwell has woven into its pages, which lend it a vibrancy that would otherwise be missing:

"Jane had a pattern of getting speeding tickets when driving home from visiting her family. We would often be in emotional turmoil and put her foot on the gas. Then one day she practiced simply paying attention to (being mindful of) the speedometer. This allowed her to relax. No speeding ticket."
(Ibid. p.86)
"Becoming single, I took up the tango. I joke that, living on the edge of mainstream society as I do, I have never made much money, which gives me great freedom to move from one thing to the next. Nothing to lose! At various times, my husband and son have said, 'Why don't you get a real job?' I simply cannot. I have been stubborn about sticking to my passions, which in turn allows me to give the world my best."
(Ibid. p.98)
"At the time my sister was put under the care of San Diego Hospice, Dr. Charles Lewis, a meditator, was on her team. He is the medical director of both the Inpatient Care Center and their Institute for Palliative Care. I was present at the intake interview. He radiated a calm presence and, from his questions,you felt that he was seeing a whole person. In the two hours he spent with her and later in my conversations with him, he was attentive to every nuance my sister displayed. He created a healing environment not only for my sister, but also her caregiver, Jenna, and myself."
(Ibid. p.174)

So, returning to the question posed at the top of this review, as to whether Natural Brilliance is just another wishy-washy new age book, or something more substantial, this reviewer has come to his conclusion: the latter. For, whilst the Buddhist elements in the book are more implicit than explicit, and many traditionalist Buddhists may find it not to their tastes at all, Natural Brilliance does have an integrity to it that is impressive, the motives of Irini Rockwell appearing to be wholly genuine. The actual details of the five wisdom energies themselves are too complicated to go into in this review, and are therefore left to those that choose to read the book itself and reflect upon them. But it is the conviction of this reviewer that if they do so, they will reap worthwhile rewards.

Title & Author : Natural Brilliance, by Irini Rockwell
Publisher        : Shambhala Publications
Page Count    : 208
Price               : $18:95
ISBN               : 9781590309322
Web Link        : Natural Brillance at Shambhala

Monday, May 7, 2012

Vimala's Verses

Intoxicated with my complexion
figure, beauty, & fame;
haughty with youth,
I despised other women.
Adorning this body
embellished to delude foolish men,
I stood at the door to the brothel:
a hunter with snare lid out.
I showed off my ornaments,
and revealed many a private part.
I worked my manifold magic,
laughing out loud at the crowd.

Today, wrapped in a double cloak,
my head shaven,
having wandered for alms,
I sit at the foot of a tree
and attain the state of no-thought.
All ties - human & divine - have been cut.
Having cast off all effluents,
cooled am I, unbound.

Original source: "Vimala: The Former Courtesan" (Therigatha 5.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, 8 August 2010. Link: Vimala: The Former Courtesan

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: The Old Tea Seller, by Norman Waddell

Zen Buddhism is notorious for its eccentric characters, monks. nuns, and laypeople that appeared not a little loopy as well as wizened. And Baisao, the subject here of Norman Waddell's excellent study, is one of the most unique of Zen masters. Waddell provides his reader with all the information available, presenting the life & teachings of Baisao in their historical context. He follows this part of the book with a translation of all the published poetry & prose of Baisao, as well as some 'holograph texts.' Following this, is an extensive set of notes that possibly only the specialist may make a thorough exploration of; but interesting nonetheless to all those bar the most casual of readers. Here's a taste of Baisao's verse called Brewing Tea at Koda-ji, as rendered by Waddell:

"Trudging slowly up
the long stone steps
to old Kodai-ji
through a world of
rust red maples
unfolding like a scroll;
come to brew tea
with water dipped
from the fabled
Chrysanthemum Spring
just one cup
I now know
clears things up
for all time"
(The Old Tea Seller, p.42)

Baisao is a self-awarded name meaning 'old tea seller,' a title that the subject of this book adopted because of the profession he took up late in life. Baisao (1675-1763) took to tea selling after living many years as a Zen monk, staying in several different monasteries in Japan, in his native land. According to Waddell's narrative, Baisao was never a conventional monk, and even declined to be abbott of his master's monastery when the latter passed away. Instead, at the age of 49, he decided to open a tea shop in Kyoto, and then become an wandering tea seller, handing out cups of the beverage to whoever wanted one, whether they paid him or not. Waddell writes:

"At the age of sixty, Baisao was earning his livelihood selling tea at a tiny rented house in Kyoto. He called his shop Tsuen-tei, "the shop that conveys you to Sagehood," a name that by extension became one of his own sobriquets as well. The shop, which may have been merely a stall (he speaks of it as a "snail dwelling"), was situated at the heavily trafficked Second Fushimi Bridge on the eastern bank of the Kamo River…Baisao was thus guaranteed a fairly steady flow of potential customers."
(Ibid. pp.20-21)

Due to the minimal donations that he received for his tea, Baisao lived an ascetic life, with few possessions and often not enough to eat, hence his somewhat skeletal appearance in portraits of the man. This is reflected in some of his poetry, but the overall sentiment that oozes from his verse is that of the joy coming from an enlightenment person, which many Japanese Buddhists consider him to have been. His poetry appears to have been even more popular than his tea, with many students of poetry as well as Zen coming to talk with this peculiarly wise old man. He also exchanged letters with associates and wrote a brief history of tea in Japan, all of which are included in The Old Tea Seller. Here's another taster of his poetry entitled Brewing Tea on a Visit to Tofuku-ji:

"Pine trees rise through cloud
soar into the blue skies
bush clover, spangled with dew drops
sways in the Autumn breeze;
As I dip cold pure water
at the edge of the stream,
a solitary white crane
comes lolloping my way."
(Ibid. p.134)

Waddell is a skillful translator, and has displayed his talents in other works such as The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, The Religious Art of Zen Master Hakuin, and Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen Master Bankei. Contemporaries of Baisao, but more famous by far, both Hakuin & Bankei led lives more in line with conventional ideas of how a Zen master lives. In translating Baisao, Waddell has exposed the English-speaking world to another great in the history of Japanese Zen. Moreover, Baisao is the kind of Zen master, first as a monk, then as a layman tea-seller, that can speak to the modern reader, in ways that mopper conventional teachers perhaps cannot. (To be fair to Bankei, he was a one-off, too, but then there are some interesting stories about Hakuin as well!) What follows are droplets of Baisao's simple wisdom called Instructions for the Zen Nun Kansho:

"The clear waters of the Sea of Truth, originally tranquil,
roiled into waves by the passions can blot out the sky;
Turn within, see your nature in its original suchness,
Where your intrinsic radiance is immediately manifested."
(Ibid. p.167)

In this book, Norman Waddell has revealed a true gem of Buddhism: the wisdom of an old tea seller. Baisao's life is an inspiration to us all to live in line with Buddhist truths whatever our occupation; we do not need to be monks or nuns hidden away in a forest or mountain cave to see our true nature & live in accordance with it. As his own life illustrates, however, this is not always easy - but it is certainly worthwhile. Thanks to Waddell's extensive research and sensitive translations, English readers can now sip this wisdom, as refreshing as a cup of Baisao's tea. And, if we really savour it, we just might be as enlightened as he was!

Title & Author : The Old Tea Seller, by Norman Waddell
Publisher        : Counterpoint Press
Page Count    : 240
Price               : $11.66 (Amazon)
ISBN               : 978-1-58243-482-7
Web Link        : Counterpoint Press Website