“Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground”

Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died serving in America’s armed forces.

Have you ever wondered just how many have died in our country’s major wars?  According to estimates from the Dept. of Defense and the Veterans Administration, the figure is around 1.1 million.  This chart, from pbs.org, breaks it down:


Regardless of how one feels about the nature of war, remembering our fellow citizens who have fallen while serving the country is a good thing.  Like Peter Rothberg, writing in The Nation, “I’ve always been sympathetic to the argument that the best way to honor the fallen is to make every effort to prevent needless deaths in the future. That means engaging in combat and military strikes only as a true last resort.”

In 1916, the great American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), reacting to the horror of World War I, wrote a poem entitled “Grass” in 1916.  In this short and spare piece, he looked beyond the wartime deaths of a single country and time, and used the personification of grass, to invoke the universal ruin of war:


NormandyAmericanCemetery4Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
 What place is this?
 Where are we now?

 I am the grass.
 Let me work.

In Carl Sandburg, scholar and biographer, Gay Wilson Allen wrote that in this poem “the scars of World War I will be covered by the perennial grass, not in a Pantheistic transmutation of men into vegetation, but as nature erases the scars of human violation of life.”

Photo: Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France


Buddhism helping the international community

Some Buddhist traditions observe Vesak, a celebration of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and death, on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which this year was Saturday, May 21.

And this year, President Barack Obama issued the first-ever official recognition of Vesak with a proclamation.  Of course, US Presidents declare a lot of different observances by proclamation (list here) so it’s not that big a deal. .  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also issued a statement.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, which has recognized Vesak since 1999, had something to say, too.  The comments by Obama and Trudeau were the standard stuff, but Ban Ki-moon (whose mother is Buddhist) went a bit further.   Like the others, he acknowledged the contribution Buddhism has made to “the spirituality of humanity”, but as the UN press release from Thursday reads, he added that


[The] teachings of Buddhism can help the international community tackle pressing challenges, including mass population movements, violent conflicts, atrocious human rights abuses and hateful rhetoric aimed at dividing communities.

“The fundamental equality of all people, the imperative to seek justice, and the interdependence of life and the environment are more than abstract concepts for scholars to debate; they are living guidelines for Buddhists and others navigating the path to a better future . . .”

Citing the story of Srimala, a woman who pledged to help all those suffering from injustice, illness, poverty or disaster, Mr. Ban said that this spirit of solidarity can animate global efforts to realize the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, carry out the Paris Agreement on climate change, and promote human rights while advancing human dignity worldwide.

The actions of Srimala also illustrate the primary role that women can play in advocating for peace, justice and human rights. Gender equality and the empowerment of women remain urgent priorities that will drive progress across the international agenda.”

The Srimaladeva Simhanada Sutra, translated as “The Sutra of Queen Srimala” or “Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala” is an important and early Mahayana text composed by an unknown author during the third century BCE.  Srimala means “glorious garland.”  Through the concept of the dharma-body of tathagata-garbha or “womb of the Buddha”, the sutra teaches that all sentient beings originally posses the potential for awakening  (Buddha-nature).

By portraying a woman in the leading role, Queen Srimala,  the sutra affirms the positive role of women as bodhisattvas and teachers, as well as promoting the view that women too can become Buddhas.

The term “lion’s roar” refers generally to righteousness or correctness in dharma talk.  In an early sutta, the Buddha says that when the Tathagata (Thus-Come-One)  is upmost in his powers he “roars his lion’s roar and sets rolling the supreme Wheel of the Dhamma.”

The “Lion’s Roar” of Queen Srimala includes these words:

Lioness-RoaringThose who search through all sufferings, who transcend all sources of suffering, who directly realize the transformation of suffering attain the pure, tranquil, and cooling Nirvana in the world fevered by impermanence and chronic dis-ease, and they become the guardians and refuge of the world in a world without safety and refuge.  How is this?  It is because Nirvana is not realized by those who discriminate superior and inferior natures: it is realized by those for whom wisdom is equal; it is realized by those for whom pure wisdom and insight are equal.  Thus, the realization of Nirvana is called ekarasa, ‘the one taste.’  That is to say, the tastes of wisdom and liberation are indistinguishable.”


Sans Traces

Noting another birthday, today it’s the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, born May 18, 1904 in Kanagawa Prefecture Japan, died December 4, 1971, San Francisco, CA.

His classic work, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind is an invaluable source of guidance for both beginning Buddhists (or those merely curious) and experienced dharma practitioners.  You can open it to any page and find a gem of insight, a pearl of wisdom.  Here is what I found on page 47:

Suzuki2016b2Most people have a double or triple notion in one activity. There is a saying, ‘To catch two birds with one stone.’ That is what people usually try to do. Because they want to catch too many birds they find it difficult to be concentrated on one activity, and they may end up not catching any birds at all! That kind of thinking always leaves its shadow on their activity. The shadow is not actually the thinking itself. Of course it is often necessary to think or prepare before we act. But right thinking does not leave any shadow. Thinking which leaves traces comes out of your relative confused mind. Relative mind is the mind which sets itself in relation to other things, thus limiting itself. It is this small mind which creates gaining ideas and leaves traces of itself.”

And so, it is the larger more spacious mind that we want to actualize.  This is what The Diamond Sutra is talking about, developing a mind that is apratishtita, a Sanskrit word that, as I have noted before, means “unsupported” or non-abiding.

In the sutra, the Buddha tells Venerable Subhuti that a “Bodhisattva should have an unsupported mind, that is, a mind which is nowhere supported, with thoughts unsupported by sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, or mind-objects.”  If we catching birds, our mind is unsupported by the idea of birds, our thoughts are as open and wide as the sky.

A mind that does not dwell anywhere and leaves no trace.

Before the chapter, “No Trace” is over, on page 49, Suzuki says,

When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.”

More posts concerning Shunryu Suzuki here.


Krishnamurti and the Pathless Land

One hundred twenty-one years ago today, the Indian speaker and writer Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986) was born.  He was only 11 when he met a leader of the Theosophical Society who tried to groom him as the next “World Teacher,” their concept of a super-guru from tomorrowland based loosely on Maitreya, the so-called future Buddha.

In 1929, Krishnamurti, then 34, rebelled against the World Teacher gig, disbanded the organization created to support him (Order of the Star in the East), gave all the donated money back, and headed into the endless further.

He became like a roving iconoclast, unaffiliated with any religion, espousing no specific philosophy, rejecting methods and techniques.  He offered a kind of un-teaching.  He wrote books, traveled the world speaking to audiences large and small, punching holes in many a cherished notion.

On the day he dissolved the Order, Krishnamurti said,

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally.  Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized . . .”

Krishnamurti was the ultimate skeptic.  He felt that if one wasn’t questioning, one wasn’t thinking.  But in a public talk given in 1949, he cautioned,

Skepticism is not cynicism or denial; it is the state of mind that does not agree quickly, that does not accept or take things for granted.  A mind that accepts is seeking, not enlightenment or wisdom, but refuge.”  *

We should not be looking for sanctuaries or safe harbors, but rather keep our minds set upon enlightenment.  Of course, Krishnamurti, being Krishnamurti, the ultimate questioner, might ask, as he did in another talk, “To be enlightened about what? Please let us be rational.” **

– – – – – – – – – –

* Sayings of J. Krishnamurti, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Susunaga Weeraperuma, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1996

** Public talk, Saanen, 1980


The Diamond Sutra in La-La-Land

“In La-La Land We Trust.”
– Robert Campbell

There’s a new exhibition opening tomorrow at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, Cave Temples Of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art On China’s Silk Road:

library-cave-2On the western edge of the Gobi Desert, near the ancient oasis town of Dunhuang, China, hundreds of cave temples were carved into a cliff face and decorated with Buddhist wall paintings and sculptures. [“Library” cave shown right.] The caves are known as the Mogao (peerless) Grottoes. From the 4th to the 14th century, Dunhuang bore witness to intense religious, commercial, and cultural exchange along the trade routes linking the East and West, known collectively as the Silk Road. The documents and artifacts discovered in the site’s famed Library Cave, along with the paintings and sculptures found in almost 500 other caves, focus primarily on Buddhism. They also tell tales of the merchants, monks, and ruling families who lived, worked, and worshipped in the Dunhuang region.”

The exhibition is collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy and the Dunhuang Foundation and will feature rare objects from the caves, cave replicas, along with Cave 45 described as a “virtual immersive experience.”  One of the 43 manuscripts included is The Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest complete printed book, currently on loan from the British Library.

I’ve written a number of posts that deal with this indispensible Mahayana Buddhist teaching that you can find here.

But an even better resource is a book by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters, Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book that tells the fascinating story of Aurel Stein (and his dog, Dash), an archaeologist, who traveled along the Silk Road through India, Tibet, and China in search of relics for the British Museum. It details his various expeditions, the friendships made, the politics and intrigue encountered, and the artifacts he discovered, one being the oldest printed copy of the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra.

On the surface, The Diamond Sutra seems difficult to understand, but when we read between the lines we find that, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes in The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion, “The sutra is so deep and wonderful.  It has its own language.  The first Western scholars who obtained the text thought it was talking nonsense.  It’s language seems mysterious, but when you look deeply, you can understand.”

In the Morgan and Walters book, Paul Harrison, Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, compares the sutra to a “piece of music that must be heard to be appreciated or a play that needs to be witnessed”  but if you approach the text as you would a novel “with a logical mind expecting things to be done in sequence and no repetitions to occur, it seems very weird.”

Subhuti, what do you think?  Has the Buddha attained the supreme awakening? Has he something he can teach?”

Subhuti said, “World Honored One, as I understand the dharma of the Buddha, the Buddha has no doctrine to covey.  The truth is ungraspable and inexpressible.  It neither is nor is not.  How is it so?  Because all noble teachers are exalted by the unconditioned.”

[Based on the Mu Soeng translation]