R.I.P., Michael Dorfman

Another sad post . . .

I was shocked to read about the passing of a great friend to this blog, Michael Dorfman, who died on December 25th.

I’m still hoping it’s untrue, some kind of joke . . . but it seems not. I don’t know the circumstances of his death, but whatever they were, he was far too young, only 49.

Michael Dorfman
Michael Dorfman

Michael was a huge presence on Reddit’s /r/Buddhism. Just read the comments on the announcement about his death and you will see what an impact he had on that community. Michael left comments on The Endless Further as well and shared my posts on Reddit, for which I was immensely grateful as he helped expand the audience for the blog. More importantly, for me, when he commented here or shared a post, I felt it was his way of saying that he thought whatever I happened to write had some value. This was not the only blog he befriended, of course. I had great respect for his knowledge and point of view, even if I didn’t always agree with him (or he with me).

Michael was from Illinois, but lived in Norway. He had earned an M.A. in Buddhist Studies from the University of Sunderland in the UK, worked in computer programming for several companies, and most recently ran a online bookstore, Bokdykk. (Here is a link to a Norweigan article about the demise of Bokdykk.)  He had a great interest in Nagarjuna, in fact his Master’s thesis was on hermeneutics and early Indian Madhyamaka. That was just one of several bonds we shared.

We emailed occasionally. From time to time, he would forward some Bob Dylan link he thought I might be interested in seeing. The last private communication I received from him was in November. He remembered that I had written a post about a White Tara thangka I found, and sent along a link to a Dalai Lama teaching that included a White Tara empowerment. “I thought of you while I was watching,” he wrote. I was touched by that, even more so now.

If any members of his family, friends, or co-workers happen to read this, please accept my deepest condolences. I wish I had known him better. It’s only because of the Internet that we knew each other at all, and that’s a marvelous thing. He had a generous spirit, and I imagine to that to encounter him face-to-face would be to meet up with a kind, gentle, and intelligent man, who wasn’t the least bit impressed with himself.

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about John Ashbery, and Michael left a comment that Ashbery was one his favorite living poets and included a link to one of his favorite Ashbery short poems, “Late Echo”:

Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.

Beehives and ants have to be re-examined eternally
And the color of the day put in
Hundreds of times and varied from summer to winter
For it to get slowed down to the pace of an authentic
Saraband and huddle there, alive and resting.

Only then can the chronic inattention
Of our lives drape itself around us, conciliatory
And with one eye on those long tan plush shadows
That speak so deeply into our unprepared knowledge
Of ourselves, the talking engines of our day.

John Ashbery, “Late Echo” from As We Know. Copyright © 1979 by John Ashbery


New Year’s Observance by Su Shi

Su Shi (1037-1101) of the Song Dynasty was well-known for his political essays, travel writings, calligraphy, and poetry. During his life, he became somewhat of a celebrity, famous for his mastery of Chinese literary forms, and then infamous for his criticism of the government. Today, it is as a poet that he is most renown. About 2700 of his poems have been preserved.

He was also called Dongpo (“Eastern Slope”), the name he took from the farm where he resided after being banished for “great irreverence” (da bujing), meaning he was seditious. There, he practiced Buddhist meditation, studied dharma and adopted many Buddhist views, most notably, an abhorrence for taking life. However, it is difficult to pin him down as any particular type of Buddhist. As Ronald C. Egan, in Word, image, and deed in the life of Su Shi, notes

In Northern Song times, ‘Buddhism’ was terribly diffuse, and faith and practice among laymen were not necessarily bound to a particular school or lineage. Su Shi called himself a “lay Buddhist” (jushi), but he left no single identification of his location on the bewildering plain of Song-dynasty Buddhism.”

He did inspire a Buddhist parable, which goes like this:

Once Su Shi was visiting a Buddhist monk, who was also a friend. He asked the monk how he regarded him (Su Shi). The monk responded by saying, “You are a Buddha to me.”

Naturally, Su Shi was pleased to hear this. The monk then asked Su Shi how he regarded him (the monk). And Su Shi said, “To me, you are dung.”

The monk smiled and this made Su Shi even happier as he felt that he was superior to the monk. In fact, Su Shi was so delighted with this conversation that several days later he told the story to another friend, only this friend didn’t find the story so pleasing.

“The monk regards you as a Buddha because he regards all living things as a Buddha,” he said. “He has the eyes of a Buddha and the heart of a Buddha, but because you see all things as dung, you regard the monk as dung. So, you have eyes of dung and a heart of dung!”

Okay, maybe not the greatest parable in the world, so let’s move on to some poetry. Here is something that fits the season. This is my own translation/interpretation of Su Shi’s poem:

New Year’s Observance

The end of the year is fast approaching,
Like a snake going into a hole
Already half of its long scales have disappeared,
And who can stop it from going and leaving not a trace behind?
If we should wish to hold its tail,
Even with diligent effort, it would be to no avail.
Children try to stay awake,
And together, we observe the night with noisy cheer.
Afterward, the chickens do not cry at the dawn,
The drums are restrained and beat no further.  
We sit for a long while by the lamp as the ashes die down,
Then rise to see the plough slanting to the north.
Can it be that next year will be my dark year?
I worry and fear that I waste time.
Therefore, I strive to experience each day and evening to the utmost
While I can boast of a little time still left.


The External World

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says,

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”

Almost all Buddhists have accepted this core idea for 2500 years. The world is a construction of the mind. The words we use to describe the world, the names (nama) and signs (laksana), more thought constructions, are meaningless as they cannot be one with the referent they direct our attention to, and all of it is an illusion, because it’s all empty.

This is the view from the ultimate truth. The conventional truth is, well, conventional. Things exist, they have substance, at least temporarily. The palm tree outside my window was there years before I came along. It was made by a seed, not my mind. I’d like to make trees with my mind. I’d make a lot of money.

The ultimate truth is taught in order to break our attachment to these constructions of thought and to clear away the illusion. Now when we say that everything is an illusion, there is a small caveat involved. It doesn’t mean to suggest that nothing is real. It means that the way our mind normally constructs, or rather perceives, the world is illusory, as it often does not include interconnectedness. We tend to see things as being separate.

Our environment is an excellent example. Until recent times, human beings viewed their environment as something separate from them, in terms of individual parts rather than as a whole. Based on this illusion, we have polluted the earth, not realizing that the pollution of one part of the environment would have an effect on the other parts. Now, forced awake by climate change, we understand that this thing we call the world is a single living organism composed of smaller organisms functioning in a complex interrelationship.

The culture of human thinking has created the illusion of dualism, projecting a world of opposites, separate parts. To think holistically, focusing on the whole and the interdependence of its parts, is called non-dualism, although I think the Sanskrit word advaita, which means “not two” expresses it better. Human beings and their environment are “two but not two” (Jp. esho funi).

When we talk about seeing the external world as it truly is, we mean understanding the relationship between the ultimate and the conventional, recognizing that while there is some degree of separation between our-selves and the world around us, there is no real determinate essence of separateness.

We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

As I wrote recently, this is such an important point it bears consistent repeating. Another term we use to describe the interconnectedness of all things is ‘emptiness’ or sunyata, a Sanskrit word, a noun derived from the adjective sunya, meaning ‘empty.’ All things are empty of a independent self or own-being.

For those of us who practice Buddhism, an understanding of emptiness is crucial. Because wisdom, in this case ‘emptiness-knowledge’ (sunyata-jhana), is the root of awakening Buddha-nature, in a sense, we can say that emptiness and Buddha-nature are synonymous.

In his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna put it this way:

All that we see is a creation of the mind [citta]. How is this? It is through one’s thoughts that all things are perceived. Through mind one sees the Buddha and through the mind becomes a Buddha. Buddha is mind itself, and mind itself is our body. Because of ignorance, the mind does not know itself, cannot see itself. Ignorance causes one to seize the fixed nature of the mind. Under this state, the mind one seizes is false. The bodhisattva sees the true aspect of reality, the emptiness, through comprehending the real nature of mind.”

To wipe illusion from our mind, we must open it. Open our minds to the truth of interconnectedness and to the possibility of becoming a Buddha, which is not a fixed state either, but a continual process of re-opening the mind and acquiring wisdom.


Seeing our Buddha-nature

The Lankavatara Sutra is an important Mahayana Buddhist sutra compiled during the 4th Century CE. “Lankavatara” means “Descent into Lanka”. The Buddha allegedly visited the mythical island of Lanka, which is said to correspond with present-day Sri Lanka.

One of the key themes of the Lankavatara Sutra is the doctrine of Tathagata-garbha (“Womb of the Buddha”), which later became synonymous with Buddha-nature. In Chapter Two, “Mahamati’s One Hundred and Eight Questions”, the bodhisattva Mahamati asks the Buddha,

Is not this Tathagata-garbha taught by the Blessed One the same as the ego-substance taught by the philosophers?”

The Buddha replies,

No, Mahamati, my Tathagata-garbha is not the same as the ego taught by the philosophers; for what the Tathagatas [Thus-Gone] teach is the Tathagata-garbha in the sense that it is emptiness, reality-limit, Nirvana, being unborn, unqualified, and devoid of will-effort. The reason why the Tathagatas teach the doctrine pointing to the Tathagata-garbha is to make the ignorant cast aside their fear when they listen to the teaching of egolessness and to have them realize the state of non-discrimination and imagelessness. I also wish, Mahamati, that Bodhisattvas of the present and future would not attach themselves to the idea of an ego imagining it to be a soul.” *

Buddhism teaches that any idea of a self (atman), person (pudgala), or living soul (jiva) as an abiding, self-subsistent entity is a false notion. Mahamati is questioning whether Buddha-nature isn’t also such an entity,  and the Buddha states that it is not.

What’s the difference? Buddha-nature is not an entity, a immortal thing like a soul; rather, it is a state of mind, a consciousness, or better yet, a potentiality. Buddha-nature is the seed of awakening, and if nurtured properly the seed can grow and blossom into awakening mind. All people have the potential to awaken and become Buddhas. Sometimes we say that we are Buddhas already, we just haven’t fully tapped into our potential yet, we haven’t actualized our Buddha-nature.

The false perception of self is the great hindrance to the actualization of Buddha-nature. It acts as a screen to conceal our Buddha-nature. As long as we cling to ego or imagining self to be a soul, we cannot see the external world as it truly is, let alone see the potential for awakening within. The underlying point in the above passage is about how clearly you can see your Buddha-nature.

Because as human beings we tend to look for things to cling to, the idea of selflessness can cause genuine fear. The emptiness of self and ego does not mean we lose our personality or identity. But when you remove the screens of self and ego, you realize that the things that make you uniquely ‘you’ exist only of the surface of your reality, and they are not substantial enough to justify discrimination or prejudice. Deep below the surface, inside, we are all one, because we are all Buddhas.

In the verse section appended to the original Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha makes a number of predictions about the future great accomplishments of his disciples; presumably, because they have taken his teachings to heart. Of one he says, “Katyayana will be the author of a sutra.”

We become the authors of our own sutras when we see our Buddha-nature writ large, clearer and stronger than the small self we feel compelled to cling to, the ego that hides the truth from our eyes.  That, however, is just a rough draft.  We must then polish it by seeing Buddha-nature in others.

Buddha-nature is our original nature.  When we have no idea of ego, we have awakened life, our egotistic ideas are delusion, covering our Buddha-nature.  Everything has Buddha-nature, so something apart from Buddha-nature is just a delusion . . . So to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha-nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

– – – – – – – – – –

* Adapted from the D.T. Suzuki translation.


The Impossible Dreamer: A Pioneer of American Buddhism

Lately I have written too many tribute posts for individuals who have passed away. Some readers may be finding it monotonous, but here is one more . . . one that I just had to write.

I learned last week that George M. Williams, former General Director of the Soka Gakkai International-USA, died on November 12. He was 83.

I’ve been critical of certain aspects about the Soka Gakkai, yet I have always mentioned there are, or were at one time, many positive sides. Mr. Williams for me epitomized the best values espoused by Buddhism, and as the title of this post indicates, he was a pioneer of American dharma, on the same par as individuals whose names are better known.

George M. Williams

I don’t know how to explain Mr. Williams to you. I suspect most of you have had no experience with the Soka Gakkai. The SG’s approach to Buddhism is very different from what you are no doubt familiar with, and to paint a complete portrait of this man and his style of leadership would require a great deal of supplementary information. Rather than a full portrait, I hope I can provide at least a good sketch.

George M. Williams was born as Masayasu Sadanaga in Korea in 1930. He first met the man who would become his mentor in life, Daisaku Ikeda, in Japan in the early 1950’s. Ikeda was the Soka Gakkai’s Youth Division leader at the time, but in actuality, he ran the organization from behind the scenes. It was a kind of rite of passage for up-and-coming young men in the organization to go to Ikeda’s house and give him a massage. Sadanaga was one such youth, and that is how the two men began their relationship.

Sadanaga came to America in 1957 to study at UCLA. Ikeda asked him to visit U.S. members when he had spare time. There were only a handful of SG members, mostly Japanese war brides, scattered across the country. After Sadanaga graduated from the University of Maryland with a M.A. in Political Science, Ikeda implored him to stay in the U.S. and head the fledgling SG branch then called Nichiren Shoshu of America, or simply, NSA. Thus began a great saga, a quest really, of 30 years, during which the future George M. Williams crisscrossed the country tirelessly promoting Buddhism, organizing regional groups, and encouraging members.

In the late 1960’s Sadanaga had legally changed his name. He always claimed that George Washington inspired the first name. Obviously, it was calculated to make him seem more American. One of the major aims of NSA was to try to make Buddhism a part of American society. I imagine much of this direction came from Ikeda, but Mr. Williams brought his own unique creativity to the task. NSA was still rather small at that time. Mr. Williams promoted America and Buddhism by organizing patriotic themed conventions, parades, and musical shows, among other endeavors.

By the 1980’s NSA had grown considerably. In 1985 we sponsored a World Peace Culture Festival in Honolulu, Hawaii. As we prepared for the festival, one night there was a big rally at the NSA auditorium on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica. Mr. Williams led several thousand of us in singing “Blue Hawaii” and “Pearly Shells.” He said we were the “pearly shells from the ocean”, bodhisattvas rising from the earth. Not everyone’s dream necessarily came true in Blue Hawaii, but it was a grand event I’ll never forget.

We took over the Wakiki Shell, built our own elaborate stage on top of the existing one, and for two nights put on a four-hour musical extravaganza. On the Fourth of July we held a parade down Kalakaua Ave. with 13,000 members carrying American flags, and that was in addition to the marching bands, floats, and of course, the Young Men’s Division Gymnastics Team. We presented the Mayor of Honolulu with a petition containing 250,000 signatures calling for a ban on nuclear weapons.

Mr. Williams with Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, 1987
Mr. Williams with Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, 1987

Two years later, an NSA member discovered the existence of an exact replica of the Liberty Bell, cast from the very same forge. Somehow NSA latched onto it and Mr. Williams dubbed it “The New Freedom Bell.” He took it all across the country, staging rallies in major cities, the highpoint of which was when Governors, Mayors, and most importantly, everyday people got a chance to ring the bell.

But it wasn’t for these kind of events alone that Mr. Williams deserves to be called a pioneer of American Buddhism. He and the other pioneer leaders and members introduced Buddhism to literally hundreds of thousands of Americans. If only a handful ended up actually practicing Buddhism in the end, it is still an unprecedented achievement.

Discipline was strict under Mr. Williams. Practicing Buddhism in NSA was not a part-time gig. Practice consisted of not only chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra and a twice-daily recitation of two chapters from the sutra, but also participating in ‘faith’ (organizational) activities. We were told that the purpose of the activities was to strengthen our fundamental practice, that what we learned from doing activities would be engraved in our hearts, and we could then apply it to our daily life. Through this action, from this sort of practice, an inner transformation of the individual could take place.

There was also an emphasis on developing people. Helping others to achieve their fullest potential. Taking care of others. In no other group, have I ever seen such focus on and dedication to practicing as a bodhisattva. It wasn’t entirely pure, not altogether selfless. Much of the member-care was driven by a perpetual need to strengthen and promote the organization. That was one of the negatives.

The guidance we used to receive seems filled with platitudes, but when you tried to implement them, they suddenly became profound. In NSA, we were taught that everything is inside us, never to blame or judge others, look for the “diamond” in others. Be sincere, speak to others from the heart. We learned discipline, something many of us, myself included, sorely needed. Setting a goal and struggling to accomplish it was not a matter of strategy, but depended largely on one’s faith, the depth of one’s practice. “The more one struggles, the higher one’s life condition becomes,” Mr. Williams used to say.

Frankly, the discipline wasn’t any more severe that what you would experience in a monastery or on a retreat. I considered it kind of like a modern form of Zen training. We called it “training on the run.” But some people couldn’t handle it. It was relentless, never-ending. There was always some campaign to work on: membership drives, another convention, another parade, home visits . . .

When it came to practice, Mr. Williams led the way. Each morning, when he was in town, he arrived at the headquarters building on Wilshire Boulevard and chanted for an hour and a half. That was about the only time he ever remained stationary. He seemed to be possessed with a form of kinetic energy, always in motion, and he had a boundless sense of optimism.

His favorite song was “The Impossible Dream” from Man from La Mancha. While ‘tilting at windmills’ is usually taken as an analogy for delusion, in this song it’s about dreaming big dreams, fighting unbeatable foes, or as Mr. Williams would tell us “never giving up”:

This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right, without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause

George M. Williams gave his entire life for the cause of promoting Buddhism in America. He was rewarded for his unsparing effort by having his mentor, his “forever sensei“, Ikeda, use him as a scapegoat for some of the controversies confronting the American organization at the time when Ikeda wanted to force a split from the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood.

Ikeda came to the U.S. in 1990 to “save us” he claimed. From what? The people who were only carrying out his wishes, the people who got their marching orders directly from him? The contention was that Mr. Williams and the American leaders had strayed, become extreme, drifted too far from President Ikeda’s direction. I have a clear memory of Ikeda walking unannounced into a meeting held in Malibu while Mr. Williams was speaking, interrupting and berating him for being “militaristic.” A charge leveled at Ikeda himself many times only a decade before. It was sad and disgusting, but I remember Mr. Williams taking it like a stalwart soldier, brave, smiling.

Mr. Williams was removed from his position as General Director in the early 1990s when the schism between the Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu was at its height. Soon afterward, rumors began to circulate about his alleged transgressions: that he plotted with the priests against Ikeda, that he tried to get rich off NSA, and so on.

Mr. Williams’ greatest asset, and to some degree his greatest fault, was his single-minded dedication to the “cause” and to Ikeda. I never once heard Mr. Williams speak, informally or in front of a group, without talking about “our President Ikeda”, praising him, quoting him, throwing the spotlight back on Ikeda as the central figure of the Soka Gakkai. The idea that Mr. Williams was some sort of “lone wolf” is absurd. From Day One, there were advisors from Japan around to look over his shoulder, and report back to Ikeda. I can’t believe that Mr. Williams took money from the organization for his own purposes. He did not get rich. He lived in a modest house in Santa Monica with his wife. They struggled with their finances like everyone else.

The story of how Nichiren Shoshu/Soka Gakkai Buddhism was brought to the United States is one usually left out of books like Rick Field’s How the Swans Came to the Lake, an otherwise definitive history of Buddhism in America. Over the past 20 years, the Soka Gakkai has been busy rewriting this history to magnify Ikeda’s role and to minimize Mr. Williams’. I can’t help but feel that it was truly despicable the way he was pushed off to the sidelines, discarded like a rag, and forgotten. The valiant efforts and sacrifices made by Mr. Williams and the other NSA pioneers deserve remembrance, and deserved to be honored.

I’ve heard that Mr. Williams had Alzheimer’s. There are a couple of brief videos of him from 2010 on YouTube. He doesn’t seem quite all there, but they are such short snippets, it’s hard to tell. I find myself hoping it was true, as perverse as it sounds. I hope that he wasn’t fully aware of how he was being maligned, and written out of history.

This has been a long tribute. However, you will be hard-pressed to learn about George M. Williams anywhere else, and I thought you should know.

I haven’t meant to make it sound as though he was perfect. He wasn’t, of course. He had his faults like anyone else. His vanities, too. He wore lifts and piled his hair up ala early 60’s Elvis to appear taller than he was. While, he may have been small in statue, he was a giant in spirit.

I will leave it with some words spoken by Mr. Williams in 1989, taken from one of my notebooks:

13,000 flag-bearers in Honolulu, July 4, 1985
13,000 flag-bearers in Honolulu, July 4, 1985

“No matter what, we should never allow ourselves to be swept away by fame or self-interest, nor abandon our pursuit. Giving up the challenge means the end of our quest to attain happiness in this lifetime. Accomplishment comes from perseverance, and no one will place you on the plateau of achievement, you have to strive to get there by yourself. By the same token, happiness is something you generate yourself, no one can give it to you. You create your own happiness, through your own actions, and then others will naturally support it.”

Goodbye “Regicho”, and thanks for the dreams, thanks for everything.