Monday, July 27, 2015

Red Pine on the Three levels of Wisdom

Red Pine (1943-present): Mr. Prajna

Buddhists distinguish three levels of prajna, or wisdom. The first level is mundane wisdom, which views what is impermanent as permanent, what is impure as pure, and what has no self as having a self. This form of wisdom is common to the beings of every world, and despite its erroneous nature, it is by this means that most beings live out their lives.

The second level of prajna is metaphysical wisdom, which views what appears to be permanent as impermanent, what appears to be pure as impure, and what appears to have a self as having no self. This is the higher wisdom of those who cultivate meditation and philosophy and is characteristic of such early Buddhist sects as the Sarvastivadins. Despite providing its possessors with insight into a higher reality, such wisdom remains rooted in dialectics and does not result in enlightenment. At best it leads to an end of passion and no further rebirth.

The third level of prajna is transcendent wisdom, which views all things, whether mundane or metaphysical, as neither permanent nor impermanent, as neither pure nor impure, as neither having a self nor not having a self, as inconceivable and inexpressible.

While mundane wisdom and metaphysical wisdom result in attachment to views, and thus knowledge, transcendent wisdom remains free of views because it is based on the insight that all things, both objects and dharmas, are empty of anything self-existent.

Thus, nothing can be characterized as permanent, pure, or having a self. And yet, neither can anything be characterized as impertnanent, impure, or lacking a self. This is because there is nothing to which we might point and say, "This is permanent or impermanent, this is pure or impure, this has a self or does not have a self." Such ineffable wisdom was not unknown among early Buddhists, but, if the written record is any indication, it did not attract much attention until such scriptures as the Heart Sutra began to appear four or five hundred years after the Buddha's Nirvana.

To distinguish this third level of prajna from mundane and metaphysical wisdom, it was called prajna-paramita. According to early commentators, there were two possible derivations, and thus meanings, for paramita. InPrajnaparamita scriptures like the Diamond Sutra, it is evident from usage elsewhere in the same text that the author derived paramita from parama, meaning "highest point," and that paramita means "perfection." Thus, prajna-paramita means "perfection of wisdom.'' But we can also deduce from the use of para in the mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra that the author of this text interpreted the word paramita as a combination of para, meaning "beyond," and ita, meaning "gone," and read the m after para as an accusative case ending.

Thus, according to this interpretation, paramita means "what has gone beyond" or "what is transcendent" or, according to Chinese translators and commentators, "what leads us to the other shore." Also, because ita here is feminine, paramita means "she who has gone beyond" or "she who leads us to the other shore," the "she" in this case referring to Prajnaparamita, the personified Goddess of Wisdom.

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘The Heart Sutra: Translation and Commentary’ by Red Pine, published by Wisdom Publications. Red Pine (pen-name of Bill Porter) is a translator and interpreter of Chinese texts, primarily Taoist and Buddhist, including poetry and sutras.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #7

Dhammapada, Verses 15 & 16:

The evil-doer grieves here and hereafter;
He grieves in both worlds.
He laments and is afflicted,
Recollecting his own impure deeds.

The doer of good rejoices here and hereafter;
He rejoices in both worlds.
He rejoices and exults,
Recollecting his own pure deeds.

Can a wrong-doer ever be completely happy? Some would argue that if he or she gets away with their wrong actions, a person will indeed be content. However, this presumes that happiness follows evil actions solely dependent upon not being punished or found out. But what of one’s own mind, one’s sense of right & wrong? In verses 15 & 16 it is not the outer effects of one’s action (karma) that is being referred to, but the inner effects.

In verse 15, Buddha suggests that the evil-doer grieves both now and in the future due to their own recollections of their wrong deeds. But, in Buddhist understanding, what exactly is an ‘evil-doer?’ Buddhist ethics are centred upon the five precepts which are: to avoid killing sentient beings, to avoid stealing, to avoid sexual misconduct, to avoid lying, and to avoid taking intoxicants. These precepts are based on the Buddhist principles of wisdom & compassion. Buddha suggests that if we live wisely & compassionately, we will avoid the above actions. Living thus is to live in balance with the interconnectedness of our lives together; we all wish to live, keep our possessions, have faithful sexual partners, know truth & to not be mistreated by drunkards. It works both ways, of course – if we all keep these precepts, we’re all happy and avoid some major suffering… and grief.

From the Buddhist perspective, if we are awakened to our true nature, we naturally avoid the evil actions described above. Being awakened, we are at one with all beings & life itself; there is no harm left in us. However, if we’re not awakened – and I guess you’re not, dear, reader, if you feel the need to read this meagre article – then precepts can help us to live in a better relationship with those around us. And, if we don’t do keep them, then at least at some level of consciousness, perhaps the subconscious if not the conscious, regret & grief will be follow. Who amongst us, if we’re truly honest about it, has never regretted our words & actions, even our thoughts?

To do good releases the mind from dwelling on evil, selfish actions. Instead, the person who’s actions are pure is free from the regrets that otherwise haunt the mind. To know that one has not killed another sentient being, stolen another’s belongings, had inappropriate or abusive sex, told lies or lost one’s mindfulness through intoxication results in a happier, more contented mind. A person having done such good can rejoice in their actions (karma), knowing that they are sowing the seeds of future well-being for both themselves and those that they interact with, especially those close to them. It’s time to take pleasure in our good, positive actions: there’s no other time to do so but now. Let’s be good & glad, not bad & sad!

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.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Ajahn Sucitto on Karma

Ajahn Sucitto (1949-present): Mr. Karma
What is ‘kamma,’ and what does it have to do with Awakening? Well, as a word, ‘kamma’ is the Pali language version of the Sanskrit term ‘karma,’ which has slipped into colloquial English as meaning something like a person’s fate or destiny. Taken in this way, the notion can support a passive acceptance of circumstances: if something goes wrong, one can say ‘it was my karma,’ meaning that it had to happen. Where the idea really goes astray is when it is used to condone actions, as in ‘it’s my karma to be a thief.’ If karma meant this, it would rob us of responsibility for our lives. Furthermore, there would be no way in which we could guide ourselves out of our circumstances or past history: which is what Awakening is about. However, ‘kamma’ in the way the Buddha taught it means skilful or unskilful action – something that we do now. It’s the active aspect of a cause and effect process known as kamma-vipaka, in which vipaka or ‘old kamma’ means the effect, the result of previous actions. And, for the most part, we get bound up with the results of our actions.
However, as ‘action,’ kamma supports choice. We can choose what actions we undertake. Cause and effect governs the activities of volcanoes, plants and planetary systems, but kamma relates specifically to beings who can exercise choice over what they cause – which means you and me. Also, not everything that we experience is because of past kamma (other than that of being born). So if you’re sick or caught up in an earthquake, it’s not necessarily because of you did bad things in a previous life. Instead, kamma centres on your current intention or ‘volition’ (cetana). The teachings on kamma therefore encourage a sense of responsibility for action; the responsibility to give attention to the many conscious and half-conscious choices we make in terms of what we do. What this means is that in this present moment we do have a choice as to how the future pans out: whether we will feel joyful and at ease with ourselves, or anxious and depressed depends on our actions now. And similarly, through our actions now, we can be liberated from the past, present and future. That’s what Awakening to kamma brings about.

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘Kamma and the End of Kamma’ by Ajahn Sucitto, which can be downloaded for free from here. Ajahn Sucitto was abbot of Cittaviveka Buddhist Monastery in England between 1992 and 2014 and has been a Buddhist monk since 1976, having studied with Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Sumedho.