Friday, September 16, 2016

Wind Teaches Dharma

Is it the flag or the wind that moves - or your mind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on Zen Master Huineng, see here: Master Huineng on Meditation & Wisdom
For more on Ajahn Chah, see here: Ajahn Chah Day 2012

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Amida, Buddha-Nature & Gratitude

"Amida Buddha is like a mirror that shows one’s true self."
(Professor Kogi Kudara, Ryukoku University, Kyoto)

The famous statue of Amida Buddha known as 'Daibutsu' (Great Buddha) is venerated by pilgrims from all over the world, just as the phrase 'Namu Amida Butsu' (Homage to Amida Buddha) is used by Shin Buddhists to praise him. And yet, these acts, as virtuous as they may be, point to the deeper truth that Amida as a buddha represents the underlying 'buddha-nature' that we all share. 'Namu Amida Butsu' is a link, an opening into connecting not only with Amida Buddha, but with the buddha-nature within ourselves. Doing so can free us from our self-created suffering: Namu Amida Butsu!

The calm look of Amida Buddha is reflective of his insight into the way things are. It is also representative of the compassion that Amida has for all suffering beings (us!). Amida Buddha is not 'out there' however, separate to ourselves. He is, as a personification of our innate buddha-nature, within us, and if we can find him within us, we too will be calm & compassionate. Immersing in his peaceful fa├žade can help us to open up to the buddha-nature within, as can chanting his mantra: Namu Amida Butsu!

Shin Buddhists recite 'Namu Amida Butsu' ('Homage to the Infinite Light Buddha') in gratitude for his compassion. Shin also teaches us to be grateful for all the wonderful things we have in life: family, friends, food, water, shelter, medicine, entertainment, etc. We are interdependent beings, depending on each other, on the Sun, the Earth, the weather, fauna & flora. There's so much to be grateful for in life, from our parents to our pets. We don't have to recite a Japanese mantra to express our thankfulness, though (although that's good, too), we can simply utter an inward 'thank you' at the appropriate time, and cultivate this feeling of gratitude. Life will be better for it: Namu Amida Butsu!

Reciting Na-man-da-bu, a contraction of Namu Amida Butsu, Shin Buddhists express gratitude towards Amida Buddha for his wisdom & compassion. Amida is said to welcome all, to be open to all. We can emulate this openness when chanting na-man-da-bu (or some similar phrase), by noticing the spacious silence that the words arise in. Just as Amida is open to all suffering beings, in truth so are we, as this capacious awareness that hears not only our chosen mantra, but also all sounds. Sitting alert, listening to the world is being open to it, and this is akin to Amida's own compassionate nature: Na-man-da-bu!

When I think of my wonderful wife, family, friends, pets, colleagues, students, community, earth, sun, life... there's so much to be grateful for. Gratitude is important in Buddhism, too, and it can be summed up in a phrase such as Namu Amida Butsu ('Homage to the Buddha of Infinite Light'), sometimes contracted to Na-man-da-bu. Reciting this phrase with gratitude can refresh the heart & clear the mind: Na-man-da-bu! Na-man-da-bu! Na-man-da-bu!