Tuesday, January 27, 2015

D.T. Suzuki on "A Is Not-A"

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (鈴木 大拙 貞太郎, 1870-1966)

We generally think that “A is A” is absolute, and that the proposition “A is not-A” or “A is B” is unthinkable. We have never been able to break through these conditions of the understanding; they have been too imposing. But now Zen declares that words are words and no more. When words cease to correspond with facts it is time for us to part with words and return to facts. As long as logic has its practical value it is to be made use of; but when it fails to work, or when it tries to go beyond its proper limits, we must cry, “Halt!” Ever since the awakening of consciousness we have endeavored to solve the mysteries of being and to quench our thirst for logic through the dualism of “A” and “not-A”; that is, by calling a bridge a bridge, by making the water flow, and dust arise from the earth; but to our great disappointment we have never been able to obtain peace of mind, perfect happiness, and a thorough understanding of life and the world. We have come, as it were, to the end of our wits. No further steps could we take which would lead us to a broader field of reality. The inmost agonies of the soul could not be expressed in words, when lo! light comes over our entire being. This is the beginning of Zen. For we now realize that “A is not-A” after all, that logic is one-sided, that illogicality so-called is not in the last analysis necessarily illogical; what is superficially irrational has after all its own logic, which is in correspondence with the true state of things. “Empty-handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands!” By this we are made perfectly happy, for strangely this contradiction is what we have been seeking for all the time since the dawning of the intellect. The dawning of the intellect did not mean the assertion of the intellect, but the transcending of itself. The meaning of the proposition “A is A” is realized only when “A is not-A”. To be itself is not to be itself – this is the logic of Zen, and satisfies all our aspirations.

(Taken from ‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’ by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. A review of the book can be found here.)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #4

Dhammapada, Verses 9 & 10:

Whoever being depraved,
Devoid of self-control
And truthfulness,
Dons the yellow robe,
He is surely not worthy of it.

But, whoever is purged of depravity,
Well-established in virtues
And filled with self-control
And truthfulness,
He is indeed worthy of the yellow robe.

There are many fine Buddhist monks around; I should know as I’ve met quite a number of them over the past quarter of a century. There are monks devoted to meditation, to serving their communities, to studying & sharing the Buddhadharma, and generally leading their communities to behave with wisdom and compassion. Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole story. Across the Buddhist world there are innumerable accounts monks unworthy of the yellow robe (or whatever colour it happens to be!). In verse 9 of the Dhammapada, quoted above, it gives three main reasons why someone won’t be fit to be a monk (or nun).

The first reason is that someone is “depraved.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines depravity as “moral corruption; wickedness,” and when considering the rules for bhikkhus & bhikkhunis (ordained monks & nuns), it’s easy to see why a depraved individual would be considered unfit to be a Buddhist monastic. Depravity can cover pretty much any wicked, corrupt behaviour including sexual misconduct, violence, financial corruption, verbal abuse and more. Considering monks & nuns are supposed to be pacifist, kindly-spoken people that don’t handle money (or, in some Buddhist sects, handle it with honesty), it’s clear that a depraved person isn’t the perfect candidate for the monastic life.

In Cambodia, monks are in a highly revered & privileged position. They are seen as examples of how to behave and treated with deep respect by Cambodian Buddhists. However, there are many that wear the monastic robes that clearly aren’t worthy of them, and stories such as the following are not uncommon. In September of this year (2014), in Siem Reap, a small town near the famous Ankor Wat complex, two monks were arrested when caught partying in a room in their temple with two women, condoms, alcohol and a pipe for smoking methamphetamine. One of the monks tested positive for methamphetamine. Both were later expelled from the monkhood. Sadly, this kind of behaviour is not unusual in Cambodia –  as well as just about every Buddhist culture on the planet – and there have been recorded cases of monks arrested for rape (including that of children), violence and drug abuse.

In neighbouring Thailand (where this author lives), horrendous stories of monks’ misdeeds are commonplace. Some of them are so extreme as to seem unbelievable…unfortunately, they’re not. One such story is that of ‘Venerable’ Porn (yes, that is his name!), a 54 year-old monk in Nakhon Sawan, a province in central Thailand. Jilted by his 15 year-old lover, the monk shot her several times in the head & chest. Apparently, the monk had begun the affair with the girl a few years prior to the shooting, and had given her money for ‘monthly expenses.’ The monk confessed the crime to the police after being arrested. He was defrocked and formally charged with the girl’s murder. I myself have been told first-hand of Thai monks attempting to rape other monks, as well as the problem of poor family’s boys entered into monasteries as novices only to end up having the wrong kinds of lessons from their older monkish ‘mentors.’

The second reason given that someone is unfit to be a monk or nun is that they are “devoid of self-control.” If a person has no self-control, it’s clear that they won’t be able to avoid the wickedness described above. More than this, they won’t be able to follow the lesser rules for being a monk or nun, such as having to wear their robes appropriately, dignified ways of eating & the etiquette surrounding expected modes of behaviour around fellow monastics & laypeople alike. Besides rules, people without self-control won’t be able to dedicate themselves to being mindful or practicing meditation to any level of concentration. Thus, their chances of developing wisdom are not good, either. Such a lack of self-control was displayed in Thailand recently (December, 2014) by a Buddhist monk twice slapping a teacher on the face on a train over a misunderstanding. The incident was filmed and can be seen here with a fuller account of what occurred.

Truthfulness is expected of Buddhist laity as the fourth precept is the undertaking to refrain from lying, and monastics are equally expected to avoid false speech. If a monk or nun lies, how can people expect them to speak with integrity when training other monastics, giving public talks, describing their monastic achievements or counselling & guiding others? If a monk or nun is known to lie, it will be very difficult to know if what they say is true or not, including when teaching Buddhism. Did Buddha really say that in the ancient texts? Are these really the obligations of a monk or nun? Should a layperson really act this way in a monastery? Integrity in speech is crucial if we are to trust someone with our spiritual & personal concerns, and not knowing if their words are true or not is going to confuse us & possibly turn us away from the Dharma.

All this may seem depressing or even overwhelming for the dedicated Buddhist. However, it’s only have the story. There are examples of high-profile monks and nuns that have dedicated their lives to others, and are “purged of depravity, well-established in virtues and filled with self-control and truthfulness,” as the second verse above puts it. The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ayya Khema, Ajahn Chah, Shunryu Suzuki, and Pema Chödrön are but a few of the many well-known modern Buddhist renunciates that have been worthy of their robes. Such monks & nuns have led exemplary lives, not only teaching the Buddhadharma but also living in ways that have not contradicted what it means to be committed to the Buddhist life.

And, it’s not only ‘celebrity’ monks & nuns that live the true life of the Buddhist monastic, but there are plenty of relatively unknown people out there tucked away in temples, monasteries, villages, mountain hideaways and the like all as worthy of the Buddhist robes as the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh. Near where I live here in Thailand, there are two forest monasteries, one aimed at Thais, one for foreigners, where the monk’s discipline is vigorously kept to, and the residents (both ordained and lay) commit themselves to a contemplative lifestyle based on meditation & mindfulness. Such people are an inspiration, showing that living an ethical life imbued with integrity is not just a distant dream, but an actual reality, here and now. We just need to look hard enough to find such people and appreciate them when we do. There are Buddhist monasteries & nunneries all over the world nowadays, especially from the Theravada, Tibetan & Zen traditions. For example, one tradition called the Western Forest Sangha has monastic branches in Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, the UK & the US, as well as those here in Thailand.

Having a teacher that one sees as being virtuous, self-controlled & truthful can be a real boon to one’s Buddhist practice. Of course, they needn’t be a celibate monk or nun, but in Buddhism they often are, and if we are a student of such a person, it’s important to be able to trust them, otherwise, why listen to word they’re saying? One of my main teachers is the famous Anglo-American monk Ajahn Sumedho. Not only is his public image & teaching role immaculate, but in private too I have found him to be warm, compassionate, wise & highly disciplined with regards to the monastic code of conduct (something he apparently learned from his teacher, Ajahn Chah). I’ve felt safe in his presence, not at risk of being misled or mistreated. And, whilst we can never fully know another person’s future actions, and to err is human, it is inspiring to have known and learned from such a human being as Ajahn Sumedho. Virtuous monastics are around – it’s up to us to seek them out and cherish them.

This isn’t to say that those people wearing Buddhist robes and doing seriously bad stuff should just be ignored – they need to be weeded out of the Buddhist orders into which they have imbedded themselves to clean up the image & reality of Buddhist monasticism in the modern world. Thailand recently set up a hotline that concerned people can call reporting the inappropriate behaviour of monks there; this is a good example of how the problem can be begun to be addressed. But, each of us – if we are serious Buddhists – should consider how we should react when confronted with those soiling their robes. Are we going to pretend it isn’t happening and allow such people to abuse the trust of both their monastic & lay followers, or will we stand up for the honour & efficacy of Buddhist monasticism? For, in the end, whether we wear those yellow (or black or maroon) robes or not, as Buddhists we all have a responsibility to make sure the Buddhadharma is tarnished by wayward monks.

The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ajahn Chah on Our Real Home

Ajahn Chah (อาจารย์ชา, 1918-1992)
Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, it's only nominally ours. It's a home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace. An external material home may well be pretty, but it is not very peaceful. There's this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it's not our real home, it's external to us, sooner or later we'll have to give it up. It's not a place we can live in permanently because it doesn't truly belong to us, it's part of the world. Our body is the same; we take it to be self, to be "me" and "mine," but in fact it's not really so at all, it's another worldly home. Your body has followed its natural course from birth until now it's old and sick and you can't forbid it from doing that, that's the way it is. Wanting it to be different would be as foolish as wanting a duck to be like a chicken. When you see that that's impossible, that a duck has to be a duck, that a chicken has to be a chicken and that bodies have to get old and die, you will find strength and energy. However much you want the body to go on and last for a long time, it won't do that.

The Buddha said:

Anicca vata sankhara
Uppada vayadhammino
Uppajjhitva nirujjhanti
Tesam vupasamo sukho.

Conditions are impermanent,
subject to rise and fall.
Having arisen they cease —
their stilling is bliss.

The word "sankhara" refers to this body and mind. Sankharas are impermanent and unstable, having come into being they disappear, having arisen they pass away, and yet everyone wants them to be permanent. This is foolishness. Look at the breath. Having come in, it goes out; that's its nature, that's how it has to be. The inhalation and exhalation have to alternate, there must be change. Sankharas exist through change, you can't prevent it. Just think: could you exhale without inhaling? Would it feel good? Or could you just inhale? We want things to be permanent, but they can't be, it's impossible. Once the breath has come in, it must go out; when it's gone out, it comes in again, and that's natural, isn't it? Having been born, we get old and sick and then we die, and that's totally natural and normal. It's because sankharas have done their job, because the in-breaths and out-breaths have alternated in this way, that the human race is still here today.

As soon as we're born, we're dead. Our birth and death are just one thing. It's like a tree: when there's a root there must be twigs. When there are twigs there must be a root. You can't have one without the other. It's a little funny to see how at a death people are so grief-stricken and distracted, tearful and sad, and at a birth how happy and delighted. It's delusion, nobody has ever looked at this clearly. I think if you really want to cry, then it would be better to do so when someone's born. For actually birth is death, death is birth, the root is the twig, the twig is the root. If you've got to cry, cry at the root, cry at the birth. Look closely: if there was no birth there would be no death. Can you understand this?

Don't think a lot. Just think: "This is the way things are." It's your work, your duty. Right now nobody can help you, there's nothing that your family and your possessions can do for you. All that can help you now is the correct awareness.

So don't waver. Let go. Throw it all away.

Even if you don't let go, everything is starting to leave anyway. Can you see that, how all the different parts of your body are trying to slip away? Take your hair: when you were young it was thick and black, now it's falling out. It's leaving. Your eyes used to be good and strong, and now they're weak and your sight is unclear. When the organs have had enough they leave, this isn't their home. When you were a child your teeth were healthy and firm; now they're wobbly, perhaps you've got false ones. Your eyes, ears, nose, tongue — everything is trying to leave because this isn't their home. You can't make a permanent home in a sankhara; you can stay for a short while and then you have to go. It's like a tenant watching over his tiny little house with failing eyes. His teeth aren't so good, his ears aren't so good, his body's not so healthy, everything is leaving.

So you needn't worry about anything, because this isn't your real home, it's just a temporary shelter. Having come into this world, you should contemplate its nature. Everything there is, is preparing to disappear. Look at your body. Is there anything there that's still in its original form? Is your skin as it used to be? Is your hair? It's not the same, is it? Where has everything gone? This is nature, the way things are. When their time is up, conditions go their way. This world is nothing to rely on — it's an endless round of disturbance and trouble, pleasures and pains. There's no peace.

When we have no real home we're like an aimless traveler out on the road, going this way for a while and then that way, stopping for a while and then setting off again. Until we return to our real home we feel ill-at-ease whatever we're doing, just like the one who's left his village to go on a journey. Only when he gets home again can he really relax and be at ease.

 Extracted from a transcribed talk by Ajahn Chah, published by the Buddhist Publication Society and available here: Our Real Home.