Sunday, January 27, 2013

Forest Haiku IV

a golden smile
mesmerizes attention
still cool air

buddha statue
curvaceous mudra
winter light

old stained sign
grows from a trunk
so many rains

bamboo archway
and scattering light
a cooling path

looking right here
giant belly, tiny feet
discarded leaves

bright white sky
the silhouetted bamboo
leaves and lines

patches of light
windless afternoon
forest stroll

among twigs
saffron mushrooms
triple gem

ghostly web
atop brown leaves
traps the eye

a golden leaf
reveals nothing
but the forest

dark temple frame
is blown wide open
enlightened trees

a silver gate
trees locked away
until my return

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Breakthrough to the Dharma

"The Blessed One took up a little bit of soil in his fingernail and addressed the monks thus:
'Monks, what do you think, which is more: the little bit of soil that I have taken up in my fingernail or this great earth?'
'Venerable sir, the great earth is more. The little bit of soil that the Blessed One has taken up in his fingernail is trifling. It does not amount to a hundredth part, or a thousandth part, or a hundred thousandth part of the great earth.'
'So too, monks, for a noble disciple, a person accomplished in view who has made the breakthrough, the suffering that has been destroyed and eliminated is more, while that which remains is trifling. The latter does not amount to a hundredth part, or a thousandth part, or a hundred thousandth part of the former mass of suffering that has been destroyed and eliminated, since there is a maximum of seven more lives. Of such great benefit, monks, is the breakthrough to the Dhamma, of such benefit is it to attain the vision of the Dhamma.'

Editor's note: The breakthrough to the Dhamma (dhammabhisamaya) and the gaining of the vision of the Dhamma (dhammacakkhupatilabha) are synonyms signifying the attainment of stream-entry."

Taken from In the Buddha's Words, edited and introduced by Bhikkhu Bodhi, a review of which can be read here: Review: In the Buddha's Words.

Blog notes: 'Blessed One' denotes the Buddha; Dhamma (Pali) equals Dharma (Sanskrit), which here can be understood as 'the truth of the way things are.' Stream-entry indicates the first stage on the noble path towards enlightenment.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Ajahn Chah & the Buddha

A statue of Ajahn Chah: His teachings are not so lifeless!

"Where is the Buddha? We may think the Buddha has been and gone, but the Buddha is the Dhamma, the Truth. Some people like to say, “Oh, if I was born in the time of the Buddha I would go to Nibbana.” Here, stupid people talk like this. The Buddha is still here. The Buddha is truth. Regardless of whoever is born or dies, the truth is still here. The truth never departs from the world, it’s there all the time. Whether a Buddha is born or not, whether someone knows it or not, the truth is still there."
(Ajahn Chah, The Teachings of Ajahn Chah, p.160)

Today is Ajahn Chah Day, the anniversary of the passing away in 1992 of the the great Thai monk Ajahn Chah. The above quotation is particularly appropriate here as we can substitute the words 'the Buddha' with 'Ajahn Chah,' and the meaning is still the same. For, in the person and teaching of Ajahn Chah, the Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma, 'Truth') was embodied, as attested to by his many followers that knew him when he was alive. Indeed, it has been claimed that Ajahn Chah had realized Nibbana (Sanskrit: Nirvana), and was enlightened. Whether this is so or not, his teachings still inspire countless people all over the world, and it is with this in mind that we can take a moment to reflect on the his words above.

The above quotation is taken from a free pdf book that can be downloaded here: The Teachings of Ajahn Chah

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Review: The Mind and the Way, by Ajahn Sumedho

In The Mind and the Way, Ajahn Sumedho introduces his reader to the basic teachings of Buddhism in the light of mindfulness. Each chapter is centered around teachings familiar to any Theravada Buddhist, but beautifully scented with the practice of awareness, and illustrated with examples from Ajahn Sumedho's own life. It is worth noting here that Ajahn Sumedho did not write this book - he spoke it, for it has been edited from spontaneous talks given by him prior to its original publication n 1995. Not that this detracts from the quality of the teachings at all, for they contain an organic flow that is typical of an accomplished speaker such as the ajahn.

The first part of the book is entitled Approaching the Way, and in Ajahn Sumedho addresses such subjects as Is Buddhism a Religion?, The Four Noble Truths, The Three Refuges, and Nibbana (Nirvana). These are obvious topics to cover in a primer on Buddhism, but Ajahn Sumedho's contemplative attitude to them infuses the teachings with a practical wisdom that is so often missing from more abstract works on Buddhist teachings. He emphasizes that these teachings are not dogmas to become attached to, but rather insights to reflect upon, to experience. Of Buddhism, he states:

"It's not based on a metaphysical or doctrinal position, but on an experience common to all humanity - the experience of suffering. The Buddhist premise is that by reflecting, by contemplating, and understanding that common human experience, we can transcend all the mental delusions that create human suffering."
(The Mind and the Way, p.3)

Suffering, as the first of the four noble truths, is of central importance in Buddhist understanding of the way things are. To know suffering (dukkha) experientially is what's crucial, according to the ajahn. And, in doing so, we take the initial step towards nirvana, for suffering is the motivation to seek enlightenment in the first place. All of us, he suggests, can recognize suffering in our lives - in one form or another -  and this is the beginning of walking the way. 

"First, dukkha has to be realized, made real in our mind; in other words, it has to be made a fully conscious experience. You're in this very limited condition, an earthbound body. A body is subject to pain, to pleasure, to heat, and cold; it gets old and the senses fade; it has illnesses, and then it dies. And we all know this, that death s waiting there for us all. Death is here. It's something people don't like to consciously reflect on or recognize - but it's something that can happen at any moment."
(Ibid. p.18)

Suffering and death are not to be hidden form view, then, but rather focused on in a mindful manner. Ajahn Sumedho believes that this is ultimately a positive movement, for in doing so, we will move towards an understanding of suffering's cause, and the way to end it. The latter is the fourth noble truth of the path, or way to enlightenment, which will not be enunciated here (go buy the book!), but rather, we will turn attention to the second part of the book called Awakening the Mind. Here, the focus is on meditation & mindfulness, and includes the following chapters: Mindfulness of the Breath, Cleansing the Mind, and Themes for Daily Practice. Mindfulness of the breath is a traditional Buddhist meditation, but Ajahn Sumedho is also an innovator in these matters, as with his teachings on Noticing Space:

"Our minds tend to get caught up with thoughts of attraction or aversion to objects, but the space around this thoughts is not attractive or repulsive. The space around an attractive thought and a repulsive thought is not different, is it? Concentrating on the space between thoughts, we become less caught up in our preferences concerning the thoughts. So if you find that an obsessive thought of guilt, self-pity, or passion keeps coming up, then work with it in this way - deliberately think it, really bring it up as a conscious state, and notice the space around it."
(Ibid. p.119)

The above practice is what we might deem 'Buddha Space,' and it was such exercises that originally inspired the name of this blog. Furthermore, it is this reviewer's own testimony that such practices can help us to become less egotistical and self-obsessed. In propagating such teachings, Ajahn Sumedho has done the world a great service, and he has the gratitude of many, many people, including yours truly. 

The final part of the book is named Living the Dhamma. It focuses on the implications of Buddhist practice at both the individual & societal levels, and features chapters such as The Science of Goodness, The Human Family, Education for Life, and A Perfect Society. Here, Ajahn Sumedho discusses the subject of freedom, contrasting what he calls the freedom based on desire with freedom in the Dhamma (often rendered 'Dharma'). This is a freedom that comes from mindfulness rather than blind desire, and is based on the teachings of Buddhism. As to the word Dhamma, Ajahnn Sumedho has an interesting definition which comes from his own innovative approach to teaching:

"[So] 'Dhamma' is an all-inclusive term. It means 'the way things are, without any kind of bias.' It means 'the natural law.' When we contemplate Dhamma, we are not coming from an idea of Dhamma as being something. If we define 'Dhamma' as being this or that, then we start looking for something, don't we? So that is not the way. The way of mindfulness is the opening of the mind to the way it is - to this time and place."
(Ibid. p.149)

So, in conclusion, The Mind and the Way is an important Buddhist book. It not only communicates the basic teachings of Buddhism, but does so in a way that promotes their active understanding by the reader. Moreover, Ajahn Sumedho supplies his reader with the techniques required to do so, as with the instructions regarding noticing space above. This collection of Buddhist teachings cannot come more highly praised by this reviewer - make the next book on Buddhism you buy this one. You will benefit in many ways, depending how much you apply its contents to your own life. 

The Mind and the Way: Buddhist Reflections on Life has 240 pages, and is published by Wisdom Publications. Its page on their site is here: The Mind and the Way.

Another book by Ajahn Sumedho has been reviewed on this blog; to read it click here: The Sound of Silence.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Seeing Atrocities With Wisdom

Tears: A natural response to an atrocity

Two appalling events in the news in the past month have inspired these reflections. They are written with respect to all the victims and their families involved, and it is hoped that no offense is taken by anyone that reads them. When we look at a tragedy like the Newtown Connecticut shootings any number of responses can come up. We might be shocked that such an awful thing could happen, angry that innocent children & their teachers were mercilessly mown down, or vengeful towards the perpetrator. Regarding the Delhi bus rape & murder, such emotions may well arise in us also, for does not a woman have the right to travel in safety, without the fear of being brutally attacked? In both cases, all of these and similar responses would be both understandable and justifiable. But, we might also find it beneficial to look at such reactions with a Buddhist eye. Not because they are wrong, for Buddhism doesn't declare that any emotions are 'wrong,' but to comprehend them and see if we might turn them into something positive.

Negative responses are normal to events like the shooting in Newtown and the Delhi bus attack. On the contrary, it would be quite reasonable to claim that anything other than negative responses would be inappropriate, if not downright perverse. We may claim that because we have seen such horrid scenes again and again on our screens that they no longer touch us, but this would surely be an avoidance, a numbing of our real feelings. If we look at the footage from the shooting, for example, the terrified children, the stunned adults, a tearful president, our hearts will feel something. That something could well be shock at first. How could such a catastrophic murder spree take place? How must the parents of the dead children feel? Anger will understandably be one feeling. And we should respect the relatives and friends right to feel whatever they must in the wake of their loss.

But, for the rest of us, watching such events from afar, what can we make of our own reactions to a score of murdered children, along with half-a-dozen adults? If one such emotion is shock, then this is a good sign in a way. It means that such atrocious events are rarities in our lives, occurrences that we don't often experience. And this implies that at least in this respect alone, we live in decent enough societies, where usually the lives of others are respected. This is why it's such a shock to us when we do witness such terrible images. As to each of us as individuals, the shock that we feel suggests that we too are decent enough people, who consider the killing of children unacceptable. We care for them, even if we don't know them. This is an example of compassion, and it's a quality that we should cultivate, for it improves us both individually and collectively.

Another understandable reaction mentioned above is that of anger. In the case of the Delhi bus attack, we may well be angry that some men sadistically raped and beat a defenseless woman before dumping her and her friend off a moving bus. Again, this reveals that we think that such behavior is wholly intolerable, and therefore that both we and the cultures that we come from are basically good. But, though understandable in the short run, is anger such a good thing in the long run? Buddhism suggests not. Anger rots us from the inside. We become bitter, twisted, and vengeful. Sometimes even spiteful. Indeed, anger has been known to make the wronged worse than those that wronged them. If we observe our anger, however, as opposed to identifying with it, we might begin to understand it, and in doing so, turn it into something more productive. This isn't easy, and there isn't the space here to explore this issue further, but Buddhism contains many practices to enable such transformations. Among them, meditation is the most well-known.

To want revenge on a mass killer like the one in the Newtown school shooting is, as already acknowledged, understandable. Not only might the bereaved families desire 'an eye for eye,' but society at large might see it as an appropriate response. In the former case, this is to be expected and surely we should have sympathy, but in the latter case, things are different. Of course, the killer in Newtown took his own life, which makes the above observations somewhat redundant. However, it has been known that people are often 'guilty by association,' and the families of murderers are sometimes persecuted themselves. The Newtown killer first shot his mother, so she cannot be sought out to punish, but his brother (who was first wrongly reported to be the killer by the media) and his father are still alive. But are they any more guilty of this tragedy than any of us? And have they not suffered too with the loss of both the killer and his mother. The shame and confusion that they must feel towards the killer's actions must itself inspire us to feelings of sympathy, rather than revenge.

With regards to the Delhi bus attack, the killers are very much alive. Whether all the culprits are in custody at the time of this reflection is not clear, but it is clear that there is a clamor from the Indian public - or some quarters of it - for them to be executed for the despicable crimes they committed. Again, the family's feelings in these matters should be acknowledged, not criticized, and if it is their wish that the rapist-killers be put to death, that's understandable. But, for the rest of us, do we not need to be aware of why we react the way we do, and what the longterm ramifications of being a vengeful society might be? What of the families of the rapist-killers? They will be suffering too right now. Surely their parents did not bring up their sons to be raises and murderers? Can we not put ourselves in their shoes for a moment, as well for the victim's families, and see the disbelief and despair that they must be experiencing right now? We can be bigger than our fear and anger. We have the capacity to see the wider picture, and respond appropriately.

As a society, we have the ability to stand back from such tragedies and our responses to them. If we do not, aren't we indulging in our emotions and possibly brewing them into a potential frenzy? We are responsible for our emotions, not people in the news, however awful we may think them to be. Some amazing individuals have done this even when it was they who were terribly wronged, but we should not expect this of any victim's loved ones; they need space to express their grief. We, on the other hand, have the ability to observe our vengeful thoughts towards such killers. Are we violently-minded people too? If we take pleasure in a murderer's execution, wouldn't we be stained with blood also? Moreover, would such a death annul the deaths of those shot, or simply make us more at ease with the situation? If we wallow in our anger we brutalize ourselves, and by extension our society. Alternatively, if we take the time to observe our emotional responses and see what they do to us, and here they may lead us, we can begin to make ourselves somewhat wiser.

These are difficult issues. And yet, to reflect upon them can broaden our perspectives beyond the initial negative responses to tragedies like the Newtown school killings and the Delhi bus rape & murder. If we can turn anger and vengefulness into understanding, then we can learn from such a tragedy both at the level of the individual and as societies. We can give the space needed to shock, anger and vengefulness to arise in us in the immediate aftermath of a horrific event, but not cling to them. Then, having let them go, we can wait for lawful justice to take its course before helping the surviving victims and their families, as well as those of the dead, the opportunity to make a start to deal with their grief and torment. Probably, they will never recover from their loss, especially because of its manner, and we shouldn't push them to do so. But, we can be there for them in whatever capacity we can, whether its moral support, changes in the law, or in a general commitment to reduce such terrible events in the future.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

'No Moon, No Finger,' by Ryokan

You stop to point at the moon in the sky,
but the finger's blind unless the moon is shining.

One moon, one careless finger pointing - 
are these two things or one?

The question is a pointer guiding
a novice from ignorance thick as fog.

Look deeper. The mystery calls and calls:
No moon, no finger - nothing there at all.

Ryokan (1758-1831) was a Zen master & poet in Japan. His poetry is widely appreciated.

The above poem is taken from 'The Poetry of Zen' by Sam Hamill and J.P. Seaton, and translated by the former. For a review of this wonderful little book, please click here: Review: The Poetry of Zen