A Boundless Heart

Rabindranath Tagore remarked that way of the Buddha was “the elimination of all limits of love, the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself.”

Love is not a word used very often in Buddhism, and Tagore was not a Buddhist, but he understood the essential purpose of Buddhist practice. Others have too, in a different way. It may sound corny, but when the Beatles sang “Love is all there is,” they were right.

How deeply they got that, I don’t know. But anyone who can grasp this thought beyond a superficial level can get that enlightenment is not the ultimate goal, and understand why bodhisattvas forfeit Nirvana. The removal of suffering is not the goal either, because sufferings are Nirvana. Mere happiness, peace of mind, or improving one’s chances for a more favorable birth in the next life, seen in this light, are likewise. These are the tools, not the purpose.

I once heard the Dalai Lama give the following guidance:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that the bodhisattva should adopt.

I’ve shared this many times. One person told me it sounded like a prescription for co-dependency. I agreed. It is, but not in the way that she meant. The clinical term “co-dependency” refers to a condition that is not based on selflessness but rather on selfishness. It is an ego-driven condition. From a Buddhist point of view, we are all co-dependent, in the sense of dependent arising (pratiya-samutpada). We are all linked together, dependent upon one another, just as in the case of the proverbial two bundles of reeds which support each other – remove one, and the other falls down.

The purpose of the Buddha’s teachings is to transform the extreme self-centeredness which neglects others. To be interested in one’s own welfare and want happiness is natural. What we’re struggling against are the negative aspects of mind that prevent us from developing deep compassion, a sense of closeness to all sentient beings, and having a real empathy with them.

The motivation for most persons to practice Buddhism is the need to feel connected to their true nature. I have never heard anyone say that they became a Buddhist because they wanted to be of benefit to others, although I’m sure someone has. Bodhicitta, the aspiration to liberate sentient beings is the motivation for those who follow the bodhisattva path.

When bodhicitta arises, all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva. This is not different from Dogen when he says that practice of meditation is not of an ordinary human beings trying to be Buddhas, but a Buddhas expressing themselves as ordinary persons.

The bodhisattva eventually cultivates maha-karuna-citta, or great compassionate mind: a big mind and a boundless heart. This great loving heart-mind is the essential nature of the bodhisattva, or better yet the subject of the path, and all living beings constitute the object. The purpose then is to transcend the duality.

And once we accomplish that, we see something that we saw before but didn’t deeply get – that the duality never existed. This is not a case where a cognizing subject can never penetrate an object, being nothing more than a “finger pointing to the moon.” Dependent arising tells us that subject and object have always penetrated each other, existing interlinked in a chain of causes and conditions. Self and other are two but not two.

We have only to realize this all the way, and then, as the Karaniya Metta Sutta states, “Cultivate for the world a boundless heart of  loving-kindness.” It’s a big job.


The Tao of Zappa

The cover of "Absolutely Free": Zappa and his pumkin

I suppose this should be filed under Nostalgia: In yesterdays post, I mentioned the late, great Frank Zappa. It got me to thinking about him, and while looking around on the Internet, I discovered that Sunday was the 44th anniversary of the release of the first Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out!

This was a landmark record, one of the very first rock concept albums, as well as one of the earliest double albums. A mixture of pop/rock and experimental music with satirical lyrics that was unlike anything you had ever heard before. Produced by the legendary  Tom Wilson, who had produced three albums and one single (“Like A Rolling Stone”) for Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album, and The Velvet Underground for the Velvet Underground.

Freak Out! was followed a year later with  Absolutely Free, the one I especially liked, featuring songs like “Plastic People,” which I mentioned yesterday, “Brown Shoes Don’t Make it” (“Quit school, why fake it?”) and “Son of Suzy Creamcheese” (“Oh, mama, now, what’s got into ya?”). The Mothers’ third album, released in 1968, was We’re Only in it For the Money (“Hi, I’m Jimmy Carl Black, the Indian of the group!”). Those were the ones I had and listened to over and over again.

Zappa was an iconoclast in an iconic era. He poked a big hole in the tapestry of the counter-culture, put his head through and stuck his tongue out at anyone so hip they were lame. The Beatles, San Francisco, the hippies, represented the idealist, optimistic flavor of the ‘60’s. Dylan left that all behind even as he was becoming its ultimate figurehead. The Rolling Stones reflected the dark underbelly of peace-love-dove but that was mainly because it had always been their business plan to be the opposite of the Beatles. To my mind, only the Velvet Underground came close to what the Zappa and the Mothers were doing. However, instead of sarcastic humor, the Velvet Underground, a product of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene (the antithesis of the California hippie vibe) wrote lyrics full of dark poetry tinged with a sense of fatalism.  Not that the VU lacked humor, but it was very, very dry.

A self-taught musician, Zappa’s tastes ran from ‘50’s Rhythm and Blues to avant garde composers such as Edgard Varèse. He mixed rock music with jazz and classical, and those lyrics held nothing sacred.

He was very intelligent guy, and courageous, more than willing to fight for what he believed in. I remember his testimony before the US Senate Commerce, Technology, and Transportation committee in 1985, when he attacked the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC),  co-founded by Tipper Gore, and denounced their plan to label records with  “sexual or satanic content” as a form of censorship. He was angry but not bitter. I seem to remember he and Tipper liking each other.

He died much too young, at age 52 in 1993, a victim of cancer, and as I think about ‘ol Frank, I wonder would he have thought of the Clinton scandal, George “Dubious” Bush, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, Barack Obama. What about this somewhat depersonalized Internet age? Would he dig Lady Gaga, or just gag? Who knows?

Anyway, here is a tip of the hat, and a look back, at the Tao of Zappa:

Beware of the fish people, they are the true enemy.

Well, I believe that those energies and processes exist. I just don’t think that they’ve been adequately described or adequately named yet, because people are too willing to make it all into something that supports a religious theory of one flavor or another. If you start defining these things in nuts-and-bolts scientific terms, people reject it because it’s not fun, y’know. It takes some of the romance out of being dead. . . because of people’s desires to have eternal life and to extend their influence from beyond the grave. . . all that Houdini type stuff. . . but basically, I think when you’re dead . . . you’re dead. It comes with the territory.

The whole foundation of Christianity is based on the idea that intellectualism is the work of the Devil. Remember the apple on the tree? Okay, it was the Tree of Knowledge. “You eat this apple, you’re going to be as smart as God. We can’t have that.”

The essence of Christianity is told to us in the Garden of Eden history. The fruit that was forbidden was on the Tree of Knowledge. The subtext is, all the suffering you have is because you wanted to find out what was going on. You could be in the Garden of Eden if you had just kept your fucking mouth shut and hadn’t asked any questions.

I searched for years I found no love. I’m sure that love will never be a product of plasticity.

My best advice to anyone who wants to raise a happy, mentally healthy child is: Keep him or her as far away from a church as you can.

Scientology, how about that? You hold on to the tin cans and then this guy asks you a bunch of questions, and if you pay enough money you get to join the master race. How’s that for a religion?

The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of real estate they own.

I think it is good that books still exist, but they do make me sleepy.

Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff.

It has never mattered to me that thirty million people might think I’m wrong. The number of people who thought Hitler was right did not make him right . . .  Why do you necessarily have to be wrong just because a few million people think you are?

I don’t give a fuck if they remember me at all.

Some of us remember.


Buddhism without Buddhism

Ed Halliwell is a journalist and author who writes about health, psychology and Buddhism, and frequently contributes articles to the guardian.co.uk. This week he has one entitled The mindful enlightenment. I had to chuckle at a line in the second paragraph, “making it increasingly clear that we are social creatures with plastic minds.” I mean, I haven’t heard anyone use plastic for decades. I immediately thought, Frank Zappa and Absolutely Free: “Plastic people! Oh, baby, now you’re such a drag.”

I stopped chuckling a few sentences later when I read this, “to tackle the world’s most pressing problems, we don’t just need more action, we need more awareness.” Which I think is a nice way of phrasing it.

The piece is subtitled “Buddhist practices can help bring about a new kind of social enlightenment” and I’m not sure that he really got around to talking about that. It’s a short article, in which he basically says that Buddhism has been around a long time, it’s about meditation, has some religious trappings, and then he gives sort of a brief survey of some folks who are supposed to be in the vanguard of a new understanding of Buddhism or progressive Buddhism or something-Jack Kornfield, Stephen Batchelor, and Andy Puddicombe, all of whom might be summed up by tweaking Halliwell, “mindfulness taught without reference to its religious heritage.”

Now at the very end, he writes,

Traditionalists will complain about babies being thrown out with bathwater, and they may have a point – in our urge to connect with a wider audience, there is the danger of losing important, less palatable messages, honed over thousands of years. But if the Buddha’s insights are durable, then surely they can stand the creative tension that comes from attempts, Buddhist and secular, to forge new stretches on the road to enlightenment.

Well, those are the words I used yesterday: “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” That’s what I get for using cliches. I don’t, however, consider myself a traditionalist. If I have to put it in that kind of terms, I suppose I would say I’m trying to balance myself on a middle way between being a traditionalist and a progressive.

I’m all in favor of losing some of Buddhism’s dead weight, especially in regards to rituals and institutional structures, and far too many people take Buddhism’s myths literally. Certain groups looking to gain new followers and enlist them in some kind of Dharmic crusade seem to encourage that. I don’t think it helps anyone in the long run.  But, I’m not in favor of dismissing the myths altogether. We just need to do a better job of understanding the symbolism and context.

Some of the mythology is inspiring and beautiful, so it would be a shame to lose those stories. Without its core elements, Buddhism would be dry, uninspiring, and dull. There are certain things that make Buddhism different from other spiritual practices and philosophies, and that’s why I can’t help but feel that Buddhism without Beliefs is just Buddhism without Buddhism.

Now, I am aware I am taking this phrase in a very literal sense.  I read Batchelor’s book a long time ago and haven’t kept up with him too much, so I am probably glossing over some nuances. I am also mindful that I may just be suffering from attachments I’ve developed to Buddhist “stuff.”

Now, I have nothing against teachers who don’t want to teach Buddhism. But maybe they should call it something else. That’s what Eckhart Tolle did. Come up with a catchy slogan like the Power of Now and sell a million books. More power of now to ya.

To some extent, I agree with Batchelor when he says that you don’t have to believe in karma and rebirth to be a Buddhist, because Buddhism works regardless. They’re important concepts, but not the main point. The danger is when we start cherry-picking those parts we are willing to accept. Also, Buddhism should be challenging. If a spiritual path does not challenge its wayfarers, I’m not sure it’s a very good path. I’ve heard long-time practitioners and teachers tell how they struggled for years over some concepts. So I a suspicion that too often we are looking for the quick, easy and painless way to enlightenment, even if we think we are not.

I’m intrigued with the idea of going beyond Buddhism to something that just “is” without being an “ism” or brand or form or sect, not needing to be called anything, not needing to be anything in particular, just a set of simple core principles and practices. I feel that’s what the Buddha tried to do, only in the process of getting rid of stuff, he didn’t get rid of everything. He kept what he thought was the good stuff.

I suppose that’s all the sincere folks are also trying to do. Paring it down and keeping the stuff they think is crucial. However, in my experience, no matter how justified, most of the resistance to Buddhist stuff is just egoism. The fact of the matter is that the many of those who criticize or reject concepts like karma and rebirth really don’t understand them well enough to be able to render a opinion. Myself included. Yet, it’s not entirely their fault, as in some cases, teachers and organizations who water-down Buddhist teachings for mass consumption have some responsibility to share.

In the end, when it’s reduced to stress reduction or simply mind-training, self-help, psychology, and so on, there’s something missing. Maybe it’s the spiritual part. I’ve always been drawn to folks like Tagore, Krisnamurti, Lama Govinda and a few others, because they were able to cut through the fog of dogma and the dazzle of myths without losing what Durkheim called “the sense of the sacred.” A kind of reverence,  or appreciation of transcendence-not toward a higher, holier being or force, but to life as it is, to ourselves and others, a sense of joy and wonderment at being alive in a world consisting of both suffering and peace.

A Chinese Buddhist expression comes to mind: Wonderful existence, true emptiness. I think that how it goes . . .

Or, maybe something like: Mysticism without being mystical. How does that sound? Catchy?

Seriously, again I suggest that a sense of Buddhism with a small “b” might be preferable to Buddhism without Beliefs. One signifies, in my mind, being  open to possibilities, while there other seems closed, more like a line drawn in the sand. I have no direct knowledge of rebirth. Just because Buddhism teaches that concept doesn’t mean I have to accept it. I am, however open to the possibility and willing to try and grasp the underlying meaning of the teaching. I have never seen a star being born or die. But I know they do. I have never seen a black hole, and yet, I am open to the possibility that they might be portals for other universes, other parallels and existences in space and time.

I’ve never been a Buddha, but I’m open to the possibility.


Sunday Dharma: Buddhism with a Small ‘b’

Sulak SivaraksaSulak Sivaraksa, a Thai activist-economist-philosopher who has been practicing socially engaged Buddhism for the past 40 years, is Thailand’s most prominent social critic. He’s also a Buddhist scholar.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a major influence, and like the Vietnamese Zen teacher, he discusses Buddhism in a simple and direct manner. Sivaraksa says, “Spirituality is not merely personal contemplation, not only meditation, that you feel peaceful and then you feel ‘I’m alright, Jack.’ I think that’s is dangerous. It’s escapism. In fact, meditation only helps you to be peaceful. But you must also confront social suffering as well as your own personal suffering . . .”

Sivaraksa believes that we should be less concerned with ritual, myth and culture, and focus more on ways to make Buddhism relevant to the contemporary world. This is an important message, but one that can also be taken to unnecessary extremes. I much prefer Sivarakas’s notion of “Buddhism with a small ‘b’” to “Buddhism Without Beliefs” in which we demystify dharma to the point that we have stripped away many of the core principles. Some folks are quick to point out that karma and rebirth are “cosmic laws” that belong to the realm of the supernatural, and while that has some merit, I don’t believe too many of us have such a high attainment and deep understanding that we can be absolutely sure about it either way. So, as the old saying goes, why throw the baby out with the bathwater?

A few weeks ago I posted an excerpt from the chapter “Buddhism with a Small ‘b’ found in Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society (1992). Today, a longer one:

Buddhist liberation, nirvana, requires neither the mastery of an arcane doctrine nor an elaborate regimen of asceticism. In fact, the Buddha condemned extreme austerity, as well as intellectual learning that does not directly address the urgent questions of life and death.

The Buddha advocated the middle path between the extremes of hedonism and asceticism. He promised immediate release, saying that there is no need to work one’s way through a sequence of karmic stages to some remote level where release is feasible . . .

The first step in the teaching of the Buddha is awareness. Recognition of what is going on is enlightenment. Recognition of the fact of suffering is the first step towards its mitigation. The most difficult thing for someone who is sick or addicted is to acknowledge his or her illness. Only when this occurs can there be progress.

The Buddha also pointed out that when we realize suffering is universal, we can relieve a certain amount of anxiety already. When an adolescent realizes that his sufferings are the sufferings of all young people, he is taking a significant step towards their mitigation. It is a question of perspective.

Continue reading “Sunday Dharma: Buddhism with a Small ‘b’”


Death by “a thousand cuts”

Chinese security forces are crossing into Nepal to hunt down Tibetan refugees, and Nepal’s police are capturing refugees and trying to repatriate them back to Tibet where they will assuredly not receive a warm welcome.

The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) has issued a report that documents “Vigorous strategies by Beijing to influence the Nepalese government, border forces, the judicial system and civil society at a time of political transition in Nepal ,” which means that “Tibetans in Nepal are increasingly vulnerable, demoralized and at risk of arrest and repatriation.”

An official in Kathmandu calls this ongoing pressure along with refugees’ lack of status “death by a thousand cuts.”

Each year, several thousand Tibetans make the perilous journey across the border into Nepal, fleeing persecution and repression in Chinese-controlled Tibet, but Nepal has no asylum laws. In past years, however, Nepal has allowed refugees safe passage to Dharamshala in India, home of the Dalai Lama, under a so-called “gentleman’s agreement” made with the United Nations.

Cara Anna reports in the Huffington Post about an antiques dealer who is set to stand trial “on what rights groups say is a trumped-up charge of grave-robbing amid the largest crackdown on Tibetan intellectuals since the Cultural Revolution.”

Chinese authorities are targeting Tibetan intellectuals in a new campaign to silence all dissent. The ICT has also reported that 31 Tibetans are now in prison “after reporting or expressing views, writing poetry or prose, or simply sharing information about Chinese government policies and their impact in Tibet today.”

The Tibetan people are indigenous to that region but there are also Monpas and Lhobas, Hui (who practice Islam), and Han Chinese, the vast majority of the latter sent by China in what Robert Thurman has described as “ethnic cleansing by population transfer.” In 1913, The 13th Dalai Lama as the head of Tibet’s government declared independence from China.  Just as the British government did not accept the independence of the American Colonies, China refused to accept Tibet’s.

Tibet’s importance to China has a lot to do with India, but there are a myriad of other reasons as well, and very little of it has to do with China’s so-called historical claims. You can get some insight from Vikram Sood, a former officer in India’s external intelligence service here.

I ran across this is an article from a anonymous writer on what is obviously a pro-Chinese website, who, among other things, has an issue with the current Dalai Lama calling himself a “son of India.” It’s only interesting if you like to read propaganda.

Like Bob Thurman, I find the pro-Chinese attitude towards the Dalai Lama bizarre. He talks about that and why Tibet matters in this, posted some months ago in the Upaya Newsletter. G

John Avedon’s In Exile from the Land of Snows is a moving and eloquent account of the Chinese invasion of China and Tibetan refugees in exile, and provides a clear and concise background on Tibetan culture. Published in 1984, I think today the book still lives up to its sub-title as the “definitive account.” The stories of the Tibetans whom the Chinese imprisoned and subjected to appalling tortures are unforgettable.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who knew something about repressive regimes and labor camps, called China’s administration of Tibet as “more brutal and inhumane than any other communist regime in the world.”

And finally, a few unforgettable facts:

It is estimated that since 1959, 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a direct result of Chinese incursion into the country.

Between 1959 and 1977 all but 12 of more than 6,000 monasteries were destroyed. Many of them were used as target practice by Chinese artillery.

It is believed that approximately 3,000 religious and political prisoners are held in prisons and forced labor camps where torture is common. There are reports that Tibetan women are subject en masse to forced abortions and sterilization.

There are strong concerns, voiced internationally, that China is using Tibet as a dumping ground for nuclear waste.

China severely restricts the teaching and study of Buddhism, the essential core of Tibetan culture.