Into The Mystic (Thanksgiving Edition)

William Blake once wrote, “The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.” A good sentiment to keep in mind as we in the United States pause for Thanksgiving today. Appreciation for our many benefits, and as well, our sorrows, is an important, and often overlooked, element in the Buddhist attitude.

Speaking of William Blake, today is also the 256th anniversary of his birth. To poetry lovers, Blake needs no introduction. He is one of the greatest poets in the English language, although he was relatively unknown during his lifetime. While he lived during the Romantic Age, Blake was, to my mind, a metaphysical poet, a mystic. Considered a bit of an eccentric for his nonconformist spirit, he was also a radical thinker who associated with likes of Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame) and Thomas Paine.

Blake’s metaphysical bent and prophetic utterances make him a child of Rumi, a father of Whitman, and grandfather to Ginsberg and many others. A consistent theme in his poetry is that what we think of as ‘divine’ should not be consigned only to the lofty clouds of some heavenly place, but rather the divine exists everywhere, in everything, especially in what we call ordinary.

Here is a poem that first appeared (as a graphic plate) in Songs of Experience (1794). It’s a perfect example of how Blake explored the relationship between the human and the divine.

The Human Abstract

 Pity would be no more,
 If we did not make somebody Poor:
 And Mercy no more could be,
 If all were as happy as we;

 And mutual fear brings peace;
 Till the selfish loves increase.
 Then Cruelty knits a snare,
 And spreads his baits with care.

 He sits down with holy fears,
 And waters the ground with tears:
 Then Humility takes its root
 Underneath his foot.

 Soon spreads the dismal shade
 Of Mystery over his head;
 And the Catterpillar and Fly,
 Feed on the Mystery.

 And it bears the fruit of Deceit,
 Ruddy and sweet to eat;
 And the Raven his nest has made
 In its thickest shade.

 The Gods of the earth and sea
 Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree
 But their search was all in vain:
 There grows one in the Human Brain


Buddha’s Birthplace Found?

I ran across a number of articles on the Internet about a claim that scientists have confirmed the Buddha’s birthplace and discovered the earliest Buddhist shrine. This research, published in Antiquity Journal (accessible by subscription or pay per view only) may be significant. However the headlines are a bit misleading.

It is widely held that Lumbini in Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha, and where he lived until the age of 29. There are a couple of reasons why many believe this. First, according to Buddhist tradition, his mother Maya gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree in a garden at Lumbini. Secondly, there is a marker dating from the time of King Ashoka (304–232? BCE) proclaiming Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace. Up until now, almost all so-called hard evidence we have about the Buddha’s life dates from the Ashoka period. However, as in the case of the birthplace marker, none of it is conclusive. It only tells us that this what people who lived some 2 or 3 hundred years after the Buddha believed.

Today, Lumbini is a pilgrimage site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Recently, a team of archeologists uncovered the remains of a previously unknown timber structure in the Maya Devi Temple. Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation, said in a press conference Monday, “What’s interesting is we identified a roof tile … all around the edges of the temple and not in the center. This indicated something that was very special about the center of the temple. When we started excavating we found another early temple below.”

Within this new temple, they found ancient tree roots, evidence, they say, of a “tree shrine.” Coningham links this to the story about the Buddha’s mother holding the tree branch, which seems like quite a leap of faith for a scientist to make. Not to mention that it is possible that this inner structure has nothing to do with the Buddha. However, if all this is correct, and it is at least the earliest the earliest Buddhist shrine, if not the actual birthplace, it could push the Buddha’s birth back 100 or so years to 623 BCE. It might have significant implications for historians, although that’s not something to go into today.

If you are an Antiquity Journal subscriber or have some extra $ to spend, here is a link to the report. And, if not, you can read this article from



His stewardship cruelly cut short, he left a record incomplete to such a degree that historians are reluctant to call him a great president, yet none can argue that his legacy is not immense. While living, he was beloved for the way he inspired people across the world with his youth, his vitality and his optimism. Inspiration that is still potent. The uplifting power of his presence and the values he embodied gave hope that we might at last commit the nation to its sacred creed of equal rights for all. His vision sparked a determination to reach beyond our environment into space. His words challenged us to be of service to others. And with grace and style, he and his wife epitomized what it meant to be modern. Fifty years on, his life still matters, his idealism still resonates, and the scar left on our souls by his slaying is still tender.

We have made great advances since that terrible November day, but those who would assassinate hope with the weapons of obstructionism and who denigrate the courage to care with rancorous words ever persist in their efforts to impede our forward progress. In as much as they will not easily lay down their arms, we cannot relax in our effort to reply to his spirit and fight the fight for peace and equality.

In so doing, we should not give credence to the suggestion that imperfection nullifies character, or that achievement is the only measure of greatness. Great figures are made of many traits, and they are many-sided. Those who have left the most indelible stamps on the pages of history are those who inspired others to greatness, and that is his living legacy, as consistent and enduring as the flame that burns at Arlington. It is a call to greatness, an appeal to aspire to a higher purpose, an invitation to hope and dream, a mandate to leave such a legacy ourselves, that when we depart this world we have left it a better place than it was when we arrived.


Who is it that hears, sees and understands?

Bassui Tokusho Zenji was born on this day in 1327. He was a priest in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism whose teachings attracted a large number of followers despite his eccentric lifestyle.

When Bassui was young, he was concerned with such questions as “What is this thing called a soul?” and “Who is it that hears, sees and understands?” At age twenty he began training at Jifukuji Temple where he studied with a Zen master named Oko. He was ordained as a priest some nine years later, although he had reservations about taking that step. Bassui was not comfortable with the formal and ritualistic aspect of Zen. For much of his life he traveled from hermitage to hermitage, preferring the life of a wanderer to that of residing in a monastery.

He earned such a reputation as a great teacher that during the last ten years of his life, it was not possible for him to live as he liked. He settled in one place, Enzan, and founded the temple Kogaku-an, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.

It’s said that when he died, Bassui was sitting in meditation with his students and he turned to them at the last moment and shouted, “Look directly! What is this? Look in this manner and you won’t be fooled.”

Arthur Braverman, who has translated Bassui’s dharma talks, Enzanwadeigassui-shu (“A Collection of Mud and Water from Enzan”, or simply Mud And Water), tells us that “According to Bassui, all the teachings [Bassui’s] can be reduced to a single precept: Seeing into one’s original nature is Buddhahood.

Here are excerpts from Bassui’s dharma talk on “One Mind”:

“If you would free yourself of the sufferings of the Six Realms, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realization of your own Mind. Now what is this Mind? It is the true nature of all sentient beings, that which existed before our parents were born and hence before our own birth, and which presently exists, unchangeable and eternal. So it is called one’s Face before one’s parents were born. This Mind is intrinsically pure. When we are born it is not newly created, and when we die it does not perish. It has no distinction of male or female, nor has it any coloration of good or bad. It cannot be compared with anything, so it is called Buddha-nature. Yet countless thoughts issue from this Self-nature as waves arise in the ocean or as images are reflected in a mirror . . .

What is termed Zazen [meditation] is no more than looking into one’s own mind. It is better to search your own mind devotedly than to read and recite innumerable sutras and dharani every day for countless years. Such endeavors, which are but formalities, produce some merit, but this merit expires and again you must experience the suffering of the Three Evil Paths. Because searching one’s own mind leads ultimately to enlightenment, this practice is a prerequisite to becoming a Buddha. No matter whether you have committed either the ten evil deeds or the five deadly sins, still if you turn back your mind and enlighten yourself, you are a Buddha instantly. But do not commit sins and expect to be saved by enlightenment. [Neither enlightenment] nor a Buddha nor a Patriarch can save a person who, deluding himself, goes down evil ways . . .

[One] who realizes that his own Mind is Buddha frees himself instantly from the sufferings arising from [ignorance of the law of] ceaseless change of birth-and-death. If a Buddha could prevent it, do you think he would allow even one sentient being to fall into hell? Without Self-Realization one cannot understand such things as these . . .

What kind of master is it that this very moment sees colors with the eyes and hears voices with the ears, that now raises the hands and moves the feet? We know these are functions of our own mind, but no one knows precisely how they are performed. It may be asserted that behind these actions there is no entity, yet it is obvious they are being performed spontaneously. Conversely, it may be maintained that these are the acts of some entity; still the entity is invisible. If one regards this question as unfathomable, all attempts to reason [out an answer] will cease and one will be at a loss to know what to do. In this propitious state deepen and deepen the yearning, tirelessly, to the extreme. When the profound questioning penetrates to the very bottom, and that bottom is broken open, not the slightest doubt will remain that your own Mind is itself Buddha, the Void-universe. There will then be no anxiety about life or death, no truth to search for.

In a dream you may stray and lose your way home. You ask someone to show you how to return or you pray to God or Buddhas to help you, but still you can’t get home. Once you rouse yourself from your dream-state, however, you find that you are in your own bed and realize that the only way you could have gotten home was to awaken yourself. This (kind of spiritual awakening] is called “return to the origin” or “rebirth in paradise.” It is the kind of inner realization that can be achieved with some training. Virtually all who like Zazen and make an effort in practice, be they laymen or monks, can experience to this degree. But even such [partial] awakening cannot be attained except through the practice of Zazen. You would be making a serious error, however, were you to assume that this was true enlightenment in which there is no doubt about the nature of reality. You would be like a man who having found copper gives up the desire for gold.

Upon such realization question yourself even more intensely in this wise: “My body is like a phantom, like bubbles on a stream. My mind, looking into itself, is as formless as empty-space, yet somewhere within sounds are perceived. Who is hearing?” Should you question yourself in this wise with profound absorption, never slackening the intensity of your effort, your rational mind eventually will exhaust itself and only questioning at the deepest level will remain. Finally you will lose awareness of your own body. Your long-held conceptions and notions will perish, after absolute questioning, in the way that every drop of water vanishes from a tub broken open at the bottom, and perfect enlightenment will follow like flowers suddenly blooming on withered trees.

With such realization you achieve true emancipation . . .

If you don’t come to realization in this present life, when will you? Once you have died you won’t be able to avoid a long period of suffering in the Three Evil Paths. What is obstructing realization? Nothing but your own half-hearted desire for truth. Think of this and exert yourself to the utmost.”


The Dalai Lama on the ‘Thought of Awakening’

If it seems that I write an awful lot about compassion, it’s because I need to constantly remind myself to practice compassion and understanding. These posts are like notes to myself. It’s also because I feel that what Jackie Deshannon sang almost 50 years ago is still true today:

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of . . .”

The world, even our little pieces of it, is still too cruel, too hard, and quarrelsome. And as the Dalai Lama indicates below, compassion is the main point of Buddha-dharma.

The other day, after reader sent a email with a link to a video of a recent teaching the Dalai Lama gave on Tsongkhapa’s “The Three Principle Parts of the Path,” I took a look at some notes I made from one of the first Dalai Lama teachings I attended. This was back in 1996 and it was a four-day session, the first three days devoted to teachings on the same text and the third, an “Empowerment of the White Tara.”

Here is what the Dalai Lama had to say during that teaching about bodhicitta, ‘the thought of awakening’, the aspirational wish to develop a mind of enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings:

“When you aspire to Bodhisattva, you contemplate all beings without suffering. All people are equal in the sense that all people want to be happy. It is important to be more concerned with the happiness of others, than yourself. Others are far more important. If you center on only your own well being, you ignore the well being of others. Putting yourself first brings trouble and leads to the ten non-virtuous acts. This is the folly of cherishing oneself. The act of cherishing others brings great benefits to you even though you do not seek them.

The Buddha achieved such a peaceful state from meditating on the welfare of others.

Why do we still suffer? Because we have not developed wisdom and the proper meditative techniques to relieve suffering. We have not learned to relieve suffering. Our aim should be to take this self-cherishing and turn it aroud.

If we are followers of the Buddha, it is important to do as the Buddha taught. He achieved various states of being only for the welfare of others. The welfare of others sentient beings is the main point of Buddhism.

When we go to the Buddha for refuge, we will switch our self-cherishing to other-cherishing. This wish is that out of compassion we can take the sufferings of others as our own. You should not hesitate to cultivate the bodhicitta mind, even if it takes several eons.”

Now here is the link I mentioned above, a one day teaching given on November 11th at the Main Tibetan Temple, Dharamsala, India. Thanks, Michael!