Basho’s Spring

It’s been spring for about a week now, which means it’s high time for some poetry.

By the way, next month is National Poetry Month, so expect some more poetry in the coming weeks.  But for today, poems on the subject of spring by the Japanese poet Basho (1644-1694). I discussed Basho in a previous post. He was a student of classical Chinese poetry, Taoism, Zen, and became the most famous poet in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867).

He is often thought of as a haiku master, but as Dr. David Landis Barnhill, University of Wisconsin, in his book Basho’s Haiku, points out “it is most accurate to speak of Basho as a master of ‘haikai’ poetry.” Basho worked with the tradition of “linked verses” (renku or renga) in which two or more poets contributed alternating parts of a poem. Dr. Barnhill further explains,

In linked-verse, whether classical renga or its haikai form, the first stanza (hokku) sets the stage for the entire poem and is considered particularly important. One feature that distinguishes hokku from other stanzas is that is must contain a a season word (kigo), which designates which season the poem was written in: hokku are by definition poems about the current season. A hokku must also be a complete statement, not dependent on the succeeding stanza. Because of its importance to linked verses and it completeness, haikai poets began to write them as semi-independent verses, which could be used not only as a starting stanza for a linked verse, but also could be appreciated by themselves. So the individual poems Basho created are, properly speaking, ‘hokku.’”*

Now on to the poems. These are my own interpretations, not that they differ greatly from any other translations.

spring awakened
only nine days and look –
these fields and mountains!

slowly spring
is coming back
moon and plum

spring of this year
how enthralling
the sky of wayfaring

spring rain
dripping from the leaking roof
down the wasp’s nest

spring unseen –
back of the mirror
plum blossoms

spring –
a hill without a name
veiled in morning fog

Kannon’s temple –
gazing at its tiled roof
through clouds of blossoms

Note: Kannon is the Japanese translation of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion

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* David Landis Barnhill, Basho’s Haiku: Selected Poems of Matsuo Basho, State University of New York Press, 2004, 4


Joseph Campbell and the Ramparts of Belief

“Belief gets in the way of learning.”
– Robert A. Heinlein

When I quoted the late Joseph Campbell in Monday’s post, I did not realize that today, 2 days later, we would be celebrating the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Few philosophers – in addition to a mythologist, writer and lecturer, he was a philosopher – outside of Buddhism have influenced me as much as Joseph Campbell. When I watched his dialogue with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth as it aired on PBS in 1987, it had a profound effect and certainly changed my life. It finally resolved for me the tension between the metaphysical aspects of religion and my rational mind.

1987 was a largely pre-cable time and the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) still dominated the television landscape. After The Power of Myth aired, a TV executive, with CBS as I recall, said that if the program had been broadcast on one of the major networks instead of PBS, it would have changed the face of religion in America.

Campbell’s central thesis in this program was relatively simple:

“From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be ‘misunderstood mythology’, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact . . .”

In other words, religious stories are just stories, myths, and not history. If more people understood and appreciated this, we could spare the world from much trouble, and free ourselves from the bondage of dogma. Some have taken this message to heart, but there are others who dismiss it as something that undermines their faith.

Faith is a concept used by different persons to designate very diverse attitudes, but most often, we find faith reduced to belief coupled with the misunderstanding that belief makes what is believed fact. Any attempt to clear up this confusion is viewed as a threat, and this insecurity is the cause of most religious controversy and conflict.

Campbell did not articulate his view as such, but the principle underlying his philosophy was essentially the same as Nagarjuna’s Middle Way teachings on the emptiness of views, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan* explains in this way,

The Middle Way is to see things as they are, to recognize the possibility of determining things differently from different standpoints and to recognize that these determinations cannot be seized as absolutes. This is the way that realizes the relativity of specific views and of determinate entities. This becomes practically the central point in the philosophy of Nagarjuna.”

Faith is not belief about experiences but something inferred from them, and various things can be inferred from any one experience. Even while we may acknowledge the fact that faith/belief does not make what is believed fact, faith/belief can greatly influence attitudes and produce undesirable, unbeneficial, and even dangerous actions. A case in point would be the Louisiana teacher who taught her students that the universe was created by God 6,000 years ago and that that both the Big Bang theory and evolution are false. She gave her class a test in which the only correct answers were those based on this literal interpretation of the Bible. When one student gave different answers and then stated he was Buddhist and didn’t believe in God, the teacher reportedly told the rest of the class that Buddhism was “stupid.”

The student’s parents successfully sued the school, with the presiding judge in the U.S. District Court ruling that “School Officials shall not denigrate any particular faith, or lack thereof, or single out any student for disfavor or criticism because of his or her particular faith or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

This case is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, for we know all too well how religious intolerance can lead to violence and war.

Campbell said

We have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Both sides are wrong. Campbell further explained that

Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images . . .”

Buddhism has its share of misunderstandings about mythology. Some tend to dismiss concepts they see as supernatural or metaphysical and fail to appreciate the real messages they convey, while others insist that certain beliefs, such as karma and rebirth, must be taken literally, missing the point that if these ideas are regarded as metaphor, it does not undermine Buddhism’s core philosophy. Then, in addition, there are those who also mistake belief for fact and contend that the sutras and the theology surrounding the sutras are historical and adopt an absolutist stand that their Buddhism alone is true.

Religious philosophy is a system of ideas. It uses words and symbols to refer to what lies beyond the full scope of our knowledge. The nature of God is a continuous debate, and yet, assuming there were a super-awakened being that created the universe, the mind of such a being would be so vast and impenetrable that no one on this earth could possibly know it, let alone claim the ability to interpret His or Her will.

Religion does has practical value when it is practiced without undue attachment to belief and the blindness of faith. In Monday’s post, Joseph Campbell pointed out that yoga means to “join” or to “yoke.” In The Power of Myth, he explained, “The word ‘religion’ means religio, linking back.”  We can say then that yoga and religion have essentially the same meaning, and the same ultimate aim, which is to enter the zone of pure consciousness awake. When we awaken from slumber each morning, we wipe the sand or sleep (rheum) from our eyes. To be awake in the religious sense means to wipe away the sand of dogma from our minds and then go into the world and make our stand not on the ramparts of belief but before the gates of wisdom.

[You] have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God.'”

– Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

The wayfarer that can understand this [the emptiness of views] does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.”

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra

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* K. Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987


Buddhism as Yoga

In the comments section of a recent post, I was asked if I thought yoga in its highest form is helpful in reaching a goal in Buddhism, and I replied by saying “Buddhism itself is really just a form of yoga.” That should not be a surprising statement if we remember there is more to yoga than the workout style focused on assuming challenging physical poses so popular today in the West.

Yoga has its origins in Vedic, perhaps even in pre-Vedic, philosophical thought. Yoga certainly embraces physical practice, but health and relaxation are auxiliary benefits. Let us consider this explanation of yoga, from Joseph Campbell in Myths To Live By:

The ultimate aim of yoga, then, can be only to enter that zone [“uninflected consciousness in its pristine, uncommitted state”] awake: which is to say, to “join” or to “yoke” (Sanskrit verbal root yuj, whence the noun yoga) one’s waking consciousness to its source in consciousness per se, not focused on any object or enclosed in any subject, whether of the waking world or of sleep, but sheer, unspecified and unbounded.”

These words could also sum up the ultimate aim of Buddhism.  The “zone” one enters is variously described as the state of emptiness fully realized, tathagatagarbha (“womb of the buddha”) or Buddha-nature, Original Mind, One Mind, No Mind, Original Nature, and so on. Some Buddhist schools have advanced the concept of an extremely deep layer of pure consciousness called the amala consciousness.

I’ve discussed the concepts of emptiness and original mind/nature at length, but only once, I think, have I delved into the subject of the 9 consciousnesses, and in this brief treatment today, I have used some passages from that previous post.

Consciousness (vijnana) refers to discerning, comprehending or judgment, and is one of the five components or aggregates (skandhas) that make up a human being. Early Buddhism defined six consciousness, functions which perceive objects as well as the subject who perceives them. The first five correspond to the ear, eye, nose, tongue, body and mind, and with sounds, tastes, scents, forms and textures. In short, the senses and everything the senses perceive. The 6th Consciousness (the mind or intellect) integrates the perceptions of the senses into coherent images.

The Indian Yogacara (“yoga practice”) school described two additional consciousnesses, the 7th or mano consciousness, which is independent from the senses in terms of its functions, yet bridges the conscious and sub-conscious realms of the mind and is where delusions concerning the false idea of a “self” originate; and the 8th or alaya (“abode’ or “receptacle”) consciousness, also known as the “storehouse consciousness,” where karma is deposited and carried over into future lifetimes.

While the idea of a 9th layer of mind, the amala consciousness, probably originated with Paramartha (499-569 CE), whose teachings formed the basis for Yogacara, the Chinese T’ien-t’ai and She-lun schools also adopted this concept. Amala means “stainless”, “pure”, or “undefiled.” This level of mind lies beyond the level of the storehouse consciousness and is free from any karmic influence. In the Fa hua hsuan i (“Words and Phrases of the Lotus Sutra”), T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i equates the amala consciousness with the aspect of “true nature.”* Paramartha also maintained that this level of consciousness “is identical with true nature (tattva or tathata).** So here would be the tathagatagarbha, the “womb of the buddha,” or the location of Buddha-nature within the mind.

Thus far, the notion of “pure consciousness” is still regulated to the realm of meditative or mystical experience, but it is worth mentioning that the alaya consciousness has some parallels with the psychological theories of Freud and Jung. In particular, the “storehouse consciousness” has been compared to Jung’s “collective unconscious.”

From all this, we can conclude that as the ultimate goals are the same, yoga is not a part of Buddhism, rather Buddhism is yoga, and perhaps that the simple act of meditation, which requires a specific sitting posture, may be the purest form of yoga physical therapy.

Yoga itself is based on the interaction of physical, spiritual, and psychic phenomena, in so far as the effects of breath-control (pranayama) and bodily postures (asana) are combined with mental concentration, creative imagination, spiritual awareness, and emotional equanimity.”

Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Cloud

Now as soon as we say Buddhism is one thing, we also need to point out that Buddhism is many things. It is yoga, and it is a discipline, a practice, a philosophy, a form of spiritual psychology, a religion, a way of life, a view of reality that is without delusion, seeing reality as it truly is, and a way to regard the past without regret, abide in the present with calmness of mind, and face the future with hope – Buddhism embraces all these things and then goes beyond them.

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* Swanson, Paul. “T’ien-t’ai Chih-i’s Concept of Threefold Buddha Nature – A Synergy of Reality, Wisdom, and Practice.” Buddha Nature: A Festschrift in Honor of Minoru Kiyota. Ed. Paul J. Griffiths and John P. Keenan. Buddhist Books International. 171-180

** Bibhuti Baruah, Buddhist Sects and Sectarianism, Sarup & Sons, 2000, 186


From Russia with Metta

As the Western nations consider tougher economic penalties in the wake of the failure of sanctions and diplomacy to halt Russia’s annexation of Crimea, here is a bit of news from that country of a very different sort: Sometime this year construction should begin on the first Buddhist temple in Moscow.

Buddhism has flourished in Russia since the end of the Soviet era, and while there are nearly two dozen different Buddhist schools in Moscow, evidently the temple will belong to Russia’s Association of Buddhists at Karma Kagyu School. However, it seems that Buddhism in Russia has a healthy non-sectarian spirit. Drikung Mahayana Buddhist, Alexander Dogayev says, “Buddhists don’t care that much about schools or doctrines, they want the temple. Certainly, we need this temple. It will be both a religious facility, and a meeting point of different schools.”

The temple, expected to be a 3,299-square foot facility, will also house cultural and medical centers, a conference room, a soup kitchen, and a stupa, the mound-like Buddhist commemorative monument, which according to Alexander Koybagarov, president of the Russian Association of Buddhists, will be a symbol of unity for all Buddhists: “Stupa is a common space for prayers and meditation, rituals and different Buddhist holidays . . . This can be a universal and uniting facility. We aren’t enemies, we don’t clash or compete.”

Buddhism came to Russia from Tibet via Mongolia in the 17th Century. In 1741, Empress Elizabeth of Russia, issued a proclamation recognizing Buddhism one of Russia’s official religions, and the Romanov rulers were viewed by Russian Buddhists as incarnations of White Tara, a female bodhisattva considered an emanation of Avalokitesvara (Tibetan: Chenresig).

Agvan Dorzhiev
Agvan Dorzhiev

Some years ago, I read Buddhism in Russia by John Snelling, which not only recounts the history of Russian Buddhism, but also tells the story of Lama Agvan Dorzhiev (1854–1938), a Russian-born monk who became an adviser and envoy of Tubeten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama (the current Dalai Lama is the 14th).

As I recall, the first Buddhist temple, or datsan, in Russia was the one in St. Petersburg that Dorzhiev received permission from the Tsar to construct in 1909. It was not completed until 1915, and had a relatively short lifespan. In 1917, the temple was heavily damaged and ransacked, and then appropriated by the Red Army two years later. Eventually the temple was returned to Buddhist hands, and following some restoration, there were several brief periods of activity. By the 1930, St. Petersburg was Leningrad, and Buddhists in the city were persecuted.

The last service at the temple was held in December 1933 to observe the passing of the 13th Dalai Lama, who had died on December 17. In 1935 the NKVD arrested a large group of lamas, who were sentenced to 3 to 5 years hard labor, and one day in 1937 the remaining Buddhists in the city were all arrested and executed.

For the next 50 or so years, Buddhism survived in Russia, but only underground. When the Communist era came to an end, there was a revival of Buddhism in Mongolia that spread quickly to other parts of Russia. Today, the Karma Kagyu, a branch of Kagyu, one of the four major Tibetan schools, is the dominate form of Russian Buddhism.

Agvan Dorzhiev was a fascinating figure. After the revolution, he was arrested and sentenced to death but reprieved by the intervention of some influential friends. Dorzhiev was allowed to be a free man and conduct his Buddhist activities, but all the while the Soviet authorities waged a campaign against him, determined to bring him down. They finally succeeded, in 1937, when Dorzhiev became a victim of Stalin’s Great Purge. Arrested and charged with treason, fomenting armed revolt, and spying for the Mongolians and Japanese, he died in prison “as a result of cardiac arrest and general physical weakness due to old age” on January 29, 1938.*

Shakyamuni Buddha was the first in human history to proclaim the notion of the vital unity of life, not only of human life by itself but of all living creatures on earth . . . Shakyamuni Buddha (moreover) taught that all living creatures have the same aspirations to life and life’s benefits, and that service to living creatures is the highest duty of every man. He also taught that, among living creatures, man is the most able to attain the supreme good, this being his sole prerogative.”

– Agvan Dorzhiev

What I have presented here is obviously a very abbreviated version of Russian Buddhist history. For anyone interested in learning more, I believe that Snelling’s book, published in 1993, is still the definitive account.

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* John Snelling, Buddhism in Russia, Element Books Limited, 1993, p. 252


May the Road Rise with You

Ah, St, Patrick’s Day.  Erin go Bragh!

When the Irish come to mind, often so does a handful of songs, songs virtually synonymous with the Emerald Isle. One of those tunes is “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen.” But this classic “Irish” ballad was actually written (in 1875) by an American, Thomas P. Westendorf, who was of German descent. Its association with Irish music probably stems from use of the name “Kathleen” (Anglicized from the Irish Caitlín) in the title, and perhaps also because it was one of the signature tunes performed by great Irish tenor, Josef Locke in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Joseflocke-1957A few words about Jo Locke: He was born in Derry and was a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary when he started his singing career touring UK music halls as “The Singing Bobby”. He sang in an emotional, operatic style and was able to reduce audiences to tears. Evidently, Jo also had the ability to provoke some other emotions within the heart of many a female listener. He became enormously popular and during the 1950’s was the highest-paid singer in England. Alas, toward the end of that decade, Jo got in trouble with the Tax Man. To avoid paying the taxes, he returned to Ireland and “retired.”

The story of Jo’s eventual return to the stage is the subject of a fanciful, quirky 1991 film, Hear My Song, in which Ned Beatty plays the part of the recalcitrant tenor. This is a little known movie, and quite wonderful. I highly recommend it.

I am not of the same caliber as Josef Locke, or the Sons of the Pioneers, whose version of “Kathleen” is my personal favorite, and yet, I hope you will find my humble rendition of this beautiful song serviceable for our St. Paddy’s Day 2014 celebration. Go n-eírí an bóthar leat! May the road rise with you!