I have seen the writing on the wall.
Don’t think I need anything at all.
No! Don’t think I’ll need anything at all.
All in all it was all just bricks in the wall.

Roger Waters (for Pink Floyd)

Rick Santorum says that John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on being Catholic made him want to throw up. Of course, Santorum was only two years old at the time, so perhaps that had something to do with it. I cannot remember back to when I was two myself. But I do remember a time when I was four or five and President Eisenhower preempted “Superman” to give a speech. Never had any use for Eisenhower after that.

Some folks didn't cotton to the idea.

So what exactly did Kennedy say that the rug-rat Santorum found so regurgitatable? Well, Kennedy’s Catholicism was a major issue in the 1960 Presidential campaign, and he was explaining to a group of Baptist ministers in Houston that, if elected, he would not take his marching orders from the Vatican. You can read the entire speech here at NPR. In the meanwhile, here’s an excerpt:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

Santorum says, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.”

Actually, no one is saying that people of faith have no role in the public square. But we are trying to prevent people in the public square from pushing their beliefs on others, which is what Santorum is doing. That’s one reason why it’s called a wall of separation between church and state. Unlike Newt Gingrich, who makes all his stuff up, Santorum is misconstruing the facts. Or, maybe he just doesn’t understand the concept behind the separation of church and state.

But that’s par for the course in the Republican Party where truth and reason never get in the way of a good, divisive argument. Those guys have always made me feel a bit queasy. They go on and on about how they resist the idea of government intruding in people’s lives, and yet they want to tell the rest of us how we should think and act and what we can and can’t do. What a bunch of hypocrites.

The notion about separation of church and state is said to originate from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, in which he wrote,

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”

And, James Madison, 4th President of the United States, stated,

The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”

This, I think, pokes some holes in Santorum’s statement yesterday on “Meet The Press” that separation of church and state was “not the founders’ vision.” I think what Santorum and his ilk are really complaining about is a perceived separation between religion and state, which unfortunately is not absolute. If it were, none of our dollar bills would read “In God We Trust” and the President of the United States would be prohibited from saying “God Bless America”, at least while performing his duties as the nation’s chief executive.

Santorum needs to educate himself on American history, especially about the so-called “Founding Fathers.” Some historians, according to American historian Richard B. Morris, consider them to be the following: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

The Religious Right likes to paint the Founding Fathers as fervent Christians. However, of these seven, only John Jay was a practicing Christian. A number were “Deists” which is defined as “a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an all-powerful creator.” (Wikipedia)

Other historians “define the “Founding Fathers” to mean a larger group, including not only the Signers and the Framers but also all those who, whether as politicians, jurists, statesmen, soldiers, diplomats, or ordinary citizens, took part in winning American independence and creating the United States of America.”

One such individual, Thomas Paine, was no fan of organized religion:

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Ethan Allen, the Vermont patriot who never made a stick of furniture in his life, once said,

I am no Christian, except mere infant baptism make me one; and as to being a Deist, I know not strictly speaking, whether I am one or not.”

Allen was sure about one thing, though. In Reason the Only Oracle of Man, he stated,

While we are under the tyranny of Priests . . . it will ever be their interest, to invalidate the law of nature and reason, in order to establish systems incompatible therewith.

Benjamin Franklin, told Richard Price in a letter dated October 9, 1780,

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

Common Sense, what a unique concept.

To me, Franklin’s quote hits the rail on the head. If one’s religion is so great, if one’s God is so awesome, then why do so many people of faith find it necessary to promote their beliefs through force and twisting the truth? I think it has something to do with the fact that faith, as most people understand the word, is by its very nature unreasonable and delusional. I’ve always thought this line from the movie Miracle on 34th Street sums it up best:

Faith is believing in things that common sense tells you not to.”

Most of the time, we champion common sense. But not when it comes to faith. No, when we’re talking about faith, we throw reason and sense out the window. I can suspend my common sense for 90 minutes or so if it’s a fun film. But when the film is over I like to return to a sense of reality:

The way to see by Faith is to shut the Eye of Reason.”

Benjamin Franklin

Faith: not wanting to know what is true.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Yesterday, a reader commented on Thursday’s post, “What is Faith”:

This one was written for the advanced student, I think. It was difficult for me to understand, anyway. What is “provisionally existent?” What provisions?

Does one have faith in nothingness? What is faith in nothing? Nothing in nothing. I’m confused. A rank beginner, obviously.

This understanding is a challenge for everyone. The first thing we need to do, though, is to forget about the words “nothing” and “nothingness.” That is not what we are talking about at all.

In Thursday’s post, I quoted Kuan-Ting discussing Chih-i’s concept of the Threefold Truth (Emptiness, Conventional Existence, and the Middle Way):

. . . all entities are empty, [and yet] they are nevertheless provisionally existent, and that they are the middle between these extremes.”

Ancient painting of T'ien-t'ai master, Chih-i

As I stated in the post, Chih-i (538–597 CE) is considered the de facto founder of the T’ien-T’ai (“Celestial Terrace”) school. He was the first Chinese Buddhist to produce meditation manuals and the first Chinese Buddhist scholar to attempt to unify the various and contradictory Indian teachings. In the process, he developed a number of new doctrines, his work based mainly on the teachings of Nagarjuna. The Threefold Truth, then, was an expansion on Nagarjuna’s Two Truths.

Truth or satya, according to the Soothill dictionary of Buddhist terms, means “To judge, examine into, investigate . . .” In Buddha-dharma, truth is not arbitrary or arrived at through revelation. As one scholar, Yao-Yu Wu, puts it: “Truth is the investigation of reality, the principles of reality learned through investigation are called Truth.” This investigation is done primarily through the process of meditation.

In Fundamental Verses on The Middle Way, Nagarjuna says,

The teachings of the Buddha are based on two truths, the mundane and the ultimate. Those who do not know the distinction between these two do not understand the profound meaning in the teachings of the Buddha.”

According to the ultimate truth, all things (dharmas), all phenomena, are devoid of an essential self-being (Skt. svabhava) or selfhood. They are empty (Skt. sunya). Self-being is an intrinsic nature that is permanent, unconditioned, independent, and un-caused. In Buddhism, the existence of self-being is impossible. For this reason, we say that things do not exist on their own, independently, eternally, without causes and conditions.

This, however, does not deny the reality of the phenomenal world. From the perspective of the mundane (relative or conventional) truth, all things do exist. But, due to the fact that they lack this intrinsic nature or inherent existence, they are only “provisionally existent.” In other words, it is a temporary existence.

Nagarjuna further says, “All things neither exist (as substantial Being) nor inexist (as nothingness).” Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-t’ai Philosophy, explains:

Therefore, “non-existence” is affirmed in the sense that though phenomena have conventional existence, they have no substantial Being. “Not inexistent” is affirmed in the sense that though phenomena have no substantial Being, they are not complete nothingness.”

When we look into the mirror, we see a person, a being, who is unique. There is no one else in the world who looks exactly like us, has the same personality, thinks exactly as we do, with the same personal history, etc. Yet, all the characteristics that seem to make us unique are temporary, they will cease to exist when we die, and all of that uniqueness comprises perhaps less than 2% of our entire being. The other 98% is exactly alike everyone else. From this perspective, it is just as Kuan-Ting wrote, “all entities are alike, ultimate, pure and unimpeded.”

Buddhism teaches that all things come into being as the result of causes and conditions, that they are interconnected. This we call pratitya-samutpada – dependent origination, conditioned co-arising, or interdependency.

Chinese character for "The Middle Way"

Chih-i pointed out that within the doctrine of the Two Truths there was actually a third truth implied. He based this on Nagarjuna’s famous maxim:

Whatever arises through interdependency is emptiness. However, this is a conventional designation. It is the meaning of the Middle Way.”

Chih-i maintained that emptiness and provisional existence are merely different extremes or aspects of one reality. Things are empty, in that they do not exist in themselves, but at the same time, they are not nothing. They are midway between these two extremes, and that middle ground (or Middle Way) constitutes a third truth.  On this point, Paul Swanson says,

Chih-i interpreted reality as a threefold truth, a single unity with three integrated aspects . . . The threefold truth is an integrated unity with three aspects. First, emptiness (Skt. sunyata), or absence of substantial Being, often identified with the ultimate truth (Skt. paramartha-satya). Second, conventional existence, the temporary existence of the phenomenal world as co-arising, often identified with the worldly truth (Skt. samvrti-satya). Third, the Middle [Way], a simultaneous affirmation of both emptiness and conventional existence as aspects of a single integrated reality.

For Chih-i these three components are not separate from each other but integral parts of a unified reality.

That’s why Kuan-Ting says that these three views are also provisional, because they are not independent. None of the three truths can stand alone. And when he says faith is conviction, he does not mean any sort of blind faith. Along with meaning a strong belief, the word “conviction” also conveys “the state of being convinced” (Merriam-Webster). And how are we to be convinced? Through our investigation of reality. In this way, the principles of reality learned through investigation that we call truth or satya, become the objects of our conviction, our faith.

To have faith in the Threefold Truth of Emptiness, the Provisional, and the Middle Way is to see reality as it truly is. Chih-i called it chen-k’ung miao-yu or “true emptiness, wondrous existence.”

Chen-k’ung or “true emptiness” refers to the realm of thought, the mind that realizes the emptiness of all things. It’s a state of mind that, free from attachments, is likened to space – it’s non-obstructive, open, and vast. Miao-yu, “wondrous existence”, says Buddhist scholar Ng Yu-kwan, “would imply an affirmative but non-attaching attitude toward the dharmas [things] in the world.” So, once again, emptiness does not deny or reject existence – emptiness is never nothingness – rather it is insight into the mystery of existence, it’s inexplicable reality, and our faith is in the glorious interdependency of all things.

This is a rather simplistic explanation, and I left a number of things out (like the Five Skandhas) in order to keep it as simple as possible. Nonetheless, I hope it helps answer the questions and does not add to any confusion.

Kuan-Ting (also known as Chang-an) was the 2nd patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, although some sources cite him as the 5th. In his introduction of the Mo Ho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”), the monumental work compiled from the teachings of the de facto founder of the T’ien-t’ai sect, Chih-i, he says,

What is Perfect Faith? It is the conviction that all entities are empty, that they are nevertheless provisionally existent, and that they are the middle between these extremes. Though ultimately there are not three separate views, provisionally there are three. To say separately they do not exist forestalls the interpretation that there are three, while to say there are three illuminates the truth in each of them. yet in the absence of either forestalling or illuminating the difference between them, one has conviction that all entities are alike, ultimate, pure and unimpeded. When hearing of the profundity and the vastness, not to fear or doubt; and when hearing of the shallow and the narrow, to still have courage in one’s mind – this is what is called having perfect faith.”

In the text of the MHCK itself, Chih-i says,

It is like talking about burning a candle: it is not beginning, yet not apart from the beginning, not final, yet not apart from ending. If knowledge and faith are complete, when one hears that a single instant is it [bodhicitta: the thought of awakening], by virtue of faith one does not repudiate it, and by virtue of knowledge one does not fear it. beginning and end are both right, both it.

If one has no faith, one will elevate it to the sphere of sages and think one has no knowledge of it. If one has no knowledge, one will become conceited and think one is equal to Buddha. Then beginning and end are both wrong, both not it.

In one of the footnotes of Neal Donner’s translation of the MHCK, he quotes from the Kogi, a Japanese commentary on the MHCK by Chiku (1780-1862):

Faith means to accept the teaching directly without superimposing one’s personal opinions.”

Chinese characters for Xinxin or "faith."

And, of course, Seng-ts’an in his poem Xinxin Ming (“Verses on Faith in Mind”) wrote,

To understand the mystery of this One-essence
is to be released from all entanglements.
When all things are seen equally
the timeless Self-essence is reached.
No comparisons or analogies are possible
in this causeless, relationless state.
Consider motion in stillness
and stillness in motion;
both movement and stillness disappear.
When such dualities cease to exist
Oneness itself cannot exist.
To this ultimate finality
no law or description applies.

For the unified mind in accord with the Way
all self-centered striving ceases.
Doubts and irresolutions vanish
and life in true faith is possible.”

Kuan-Ting translation by Neal Donner; Chih-i translation by Thomas Cleary

“If we are going to teach creation science as an alternative to evolution, then we should also teach the stork theory as an alternative to biological reproduction.”
- Judith Hayes

“Creationist critics often charge that evolution cannot be tested, and therefore cannot be viewed as a properly scientific subject at all. This claim is rhetorical nonsense.”
- Stephen Jay Gould

Recently, the Indiana Senate approved a bill that would allow public schools to teach Christian creationism alongside evolution in science classes as long as the schools include origin of life theories from various religions including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Scientology.

On the surface, it would look like the lawmakers are attempting to forge a fair and balanced approach. But in reality, this is just nuts.

First of all, whether you want to call it creationism or intelligent design, this theory is little more than fantasy. I don’t think I need say more in that regard. And Scientology? Their creation story is about as crazy as you can get. Something about a galactic overlord 75, 000, 000 years ago who ruled a number of planets, killed all his people and froze their souls (thetans), and sent them to Earth. These lawmakers really want school children exposed to that?

Another small problem: Buddhism has no creation story per se. So, it would be hard to teach. When I say no “creation story,” I am referring to the notion that life and the universe were created by a supernatural being. As  Nyanaponika Thera writes in “Buddhism and the God-idea”,

From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings. On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality. … In Buddhist literature, the belief in a creator god (issara-nimmana-vada) is frequently mentioned and rejected, along with other causes wrongly adduced to explain the origin of the world.”

This notion doesn’t fly in Mahayana either. Nagarjuna explained with his logic that creation would be impossible since there is neither a subject or object of creation.

Now, Buddhism does have a story about a man named Malunkyaputta who approached the Buddha and asked him explain the origin of the universe.  According to this tale, the Buddha refused to answer basically because it would amount to rank speculation. The Buddha was not there at the beginning of the universe, so how could he know?

Malunkyaputta had some others questions as well, and you’ll find more on that at the end of this post.

But back to creationism: I have never really understood why Christians in particular have such an aversion to evolution. It certainly has more of an empirical foundation than their present theory. And why couldn’t God have created evolution? How would that in any way diminish their god’s greatness? Sounds reasonable to me, but no, say the creationists, evolution is false.

From what I have heard in the public discussions about this issue, most Christians are unable to come up with a coherent explanation for why evolution is false. I suspect most of them don’t understand why either, but have come to that opinion merely because their parents and church elders and teachers have told them it’s false. I have also long suspected that the seeds of this aversion to evolution are racial in nature. For instance, when reading about the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, it becomes obvious that those opposed to evolution didn’t mind being related to monkeys as much as they objected to being related to “Negros.”

In any case, I think the bottom line is summed up very well by Claire Vriezen at iowastatedaily.com

Creation stories are not equivalent ideas to tested and refined scientific theories and, as such, should not be taught alongside evolution. They cannot be falsified, nor do they have predictive power. On a further note, the state legislature of Indiana should not be spending time arguing about whether to amend the curriculum to allow for the addition of religious ideas in a science classroom. There are surely better uses of the time and resources of the state legislature.”

Or, as the Buddha is quoted as saying below, “wasting valuable time on such metaphysical questions and unnecessarily disturbing their peace of mind.”

Here’s how Walpola Rahula tells the story of Malunkyaputta in What the Buddha Taught:

The Buddha was not interested in discussing unnecessary metaphysical questions which are purely speculative and which create imaginary problems. He considered them as a ‘wilderness of opinions’. It seems that there were some among his own disciples who did not appreciate this attitude of his. For, we have the example of one of them, Malunkyaputta by name, who put to the Buddha ten well-known classical questions on metaphysical problems and demanded answers.

One day Malunkyaputta got up from his afternoon meditation, went to the Buddha, saluted him, sat on one side of the road and said:

‘Sir, when I was all alone meditating, this thought occurred to me: There are these problems unexplained, put aside and rejected by the Blessed One. Namely, (1) is the universe enternal or (2) is it not eternal, (3) is the universe finite or (4) it is infinite, (5) is soul the same as body or (6) is soul one thing and body another thing, (7) does the Enlightened One exist after death, or (8) does he not exist after death, or (9) does he both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death, or (10) does he both (at the same time) not exist and not not-exist. These problems the Blessed One does not explain to me. This (attitude) does not please me, I do not appreciate it. I will go to the Blessed One and ask him about this matter. If the Blessed One explains them to me, then I will continue to follow the holy life under him. If he does not explain them, I will leave the Order and go away. If the Blessed One knows that the universe is eternal, let him explain it to me so. If the Blessed One knows that the universe is not eternal, let him say so. If the Blessed One does not know whether the universe is eternal or not, etc, then for a person who does not know, it is straightforward to say “I do not know, I do not see”.’

The Buddha’s reply to Malunkyaputta should do good to many millions in the world today who are wasting valuable time on such metaphysical questions and unnecessarily disturbing their peace of mind:

‘Did I ever tell you, Malunkyaputta, “Come, Malunkyaputta, lead the holy life under me, I will explain these questions to you?” ’

‘No, Sir.’

‘Then, Malunkyaputta, even you, did you tell me: “Sir, I will lead the holy life under the Blessed One, and the Blessed One will explain these questions to me”?’

‘No, Sir.’

‘Even now, Malunkyaputta, I do not tell you: “Come and lead the holy life under me, I will explain these questions to you”. And you do not tell me either: “Sir, I will lead the holy life under the Blessed One, and he will explain these questions to me”. Under the circumstances, you foolish one, who refuses whom? (i.e., both are free and neither is under obligation to the other).

“Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: “I will not lead the holy life under the Blessed One until he explains these questions,” he may die with these questions unanswered by the Enlightened One. Suppose Malunkyaputta, a man is wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon. Suppose the man should then say: “I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know who shot me; whether he is a Ksatriya (of the warrior caste) or a Brahmana (of the priestly caste) or a Vaisya (of the trading and agricultural caste) or a Sudra (of the low caste); what his name and family may be; whether he is tall, short, or of medium stature; whether his complexion is black, brown or golden; from which village, city or town he comes. I will not let this arrow be taken out until I know the kind of bow with which I was shot; the kind of bowstring used; the type of arrow; what sort of feather was used on the arrow and with what kind of material the point of the arrow was made.” Malunkyaputta, that man would die without knowing any of these things. Even so, Malunkyaputta, if anyone says: “I will not follow the holy life under the Blessed One until he answers these questions such as whether the universe is eternal or not, etc,” he would die with these questions unanswered by the Enlightened One.’

Then the Buddha explains to Malunkyaputta that the holy life does not depend on these views. Whatever opinion one may have about these problems, there is birth, old age, decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, distress, “the Cessation of which (i.e. Nirvana) I declare in this very life.”

‘Therefore, Malunkyaputta, bear in mind what I have explained as explained, what I have not explained as unexplained. What are the things that I have not explained? Whether the universe is eternal or not, etc, (those 10 questions) I have not explained. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I not explained them? Because it is not useful, it is not fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is not conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realisation, Nirvana. That is why I have not told you about them.

‘Then, what, Malunkyaputta, have I explained? I have explained dukkha (suffering), the arising of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha, and the way leading to the cessation of dukkha. Why, Malunkyaputta, have I explained them? Because it is useful, is fundamentally connected with the spiritual holy life, is conducive to aversion, detachment, cessation, tranquility, deep penetration, full realisation, Nirvana. Therefore I have explained them.’

Poster of Toshiro Mifune as Musashi in 1955 film, "Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple."

Miyamoto Musashi was a masterless samurai (ronin) who lived in Japan in the 1600’s. An accomplished swordsman, he is said to have engaged in over sixty duels without suffering defeat once. I’ve blogged before about his text, Go Rin No Sho (“Book of Five Rings”), a book on strategy, leadership, and philosophy still studied today. This is Victor Harris’ translation of the final chapter in the book.

Ku No Maki

The Book of the Void

The Ni To Ichi (“Two heavens, two swords as one”) Way of strategy is recorded in this the Book of the Void.

What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing. It is not included in man’s knowledge. Of course, the void is nothingness. By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist. That is the void.

People in this world look at things mistakenly, and think that what they do not understand must be the void. This is not the true void. It is bewilderment.

In the Way of strategy, also, those who study as warriors think that whatever they cannot understand in their craft is the void. This is not the true void.

To attain the Way of strategy as a warrior you must study fully other martial arts and not deviate even a little from the Way of the warrior. With your spirit settled, accumulate practice day by day, and hour by hour. Polish the twofold spirit heart and mind, and sharpen the twofold gaze perception and sight. When your spirit is not in the least clouded, when the clouds of bewilderment clear away, there is the true void.

Until you realize the true Way, whether in Buddhism or in common sense, you may think that things are correct and in order. However, if we look at things objectively, from the viewpoint of laws of the world, we see various doctrines departing from the true Way. Know well this spirit, and with forthrightness as the foundation and the true spirit as the Way. Enact strategy broadly, correctly and openly.

Then you will come to think of things in a wide sense and, taking the void as the Way, you will see the Way as void.

In the void is virtue, and no evil. Wisdom has existence, principle has existence, the Way has existence, spirit is nothingness.

To Teruo Magonojo

Twelfth day of the fifth month, second year of Shoho (1645)

From Shinmen Musashi

This is good guidance for Buddhists, or anyone on a spiritual path, as well as for warriors.

Naturally, when Musashi says, “ku is nothingness,” he does not mean it literally. Hidy Ochiai’s translation reads, “Ku is the realm of matters beyond ordinary human understanding.”

In his analysis, Ochiai writes,

The world of Ku is where one can truly know and feel what exists and what doesn’t. One knows and understands all and yet is not attached to knowledge. One is not even attached to oneself, therefore he is free in the truest sense of the word. In the world of Ku, one becomes harmonious with the universe to the extent that the self feels at one with it. According to Musashi, the realm of Ku can be reached though a complete understanding and absorption of the Way of martial strategy. One’s state of mind in the world of Ku is like a shiny blue sky which has no clouds – free from doubt and confusion.”

Ku is the Japanese translation of the Chinese kung, which in turn is a translation of the Sanskrit word sunyata or “emptiness.” Another meaning of ku is “sky.”

In Mahayana Buddhism, ku or emptiness is synonymous with “wisdom.” Dogen, in his commentary on the Heart Sutra says, “To, ‘learn what Wisdom is’ means ‘to be free of preconceptions’.”

One’s mind must be clear to be free from preconceptions. Doubt, fear, confusion – all stem from our preconceptions because there really is nothing to doubt, or be fearful about, or confused over. We just think there is, and so, when we see things clearly, when we wipe away the clouds of our preconceptions, our mind becomes “like a shiny blue sky.”

As Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, “A mind full of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, or habits is not open to things as they are. That is why we practice [meditation]; to clear our mind of what is related to something else.”

A Japanese monk named Tonna (1289-1372) wrote this poem based on the theme of “Color is no different from sky; the sky is no different from color,” from the Heart Sutra:

Clouds disappear
And the sky clears to deep blue,
But as I gaze up,
That color, too, in a while
Has faded into emptiness.”

From time to time, I get emails offering to send me a free book for the purpose of reviewing it. This one came from New World Library. Now, in December I ordered five or six books by a particular author from Amazon (because I decided I wanted all her stuff), last week I picked up some mystery paperbacks at my friendly neighborhood thrift shop, and yesterday, I bought six books from a great bookstore in downtown Los Angeles called The Last Bookstore. (Thank goodness these were all used and therefore, cheap.) Not to mention that I am still trying to slug my way through Crime and Punishment which I swear I will read even if it kills me and it probably will. What? Am I crazy? I don’t need any more books. How will I ever read all this stuff?

So I wrote back: sure, send me your book. And they did. It’s called Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. Here is the review:

Shyalpa Rinpoche is called a “renown teacher,” but I have never heard of him. Not that that means much. Apparently, he was born in the Himalayas and “trained as a lama from the age of four” and while he has received transmissions from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, he is primarily a lineage holder in the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) tradition, which is more or less the Tibetan version of “original enlightenment.” From his photograph, he looks as if he’s fairly young, but from his biography I am guessing he is in his 40’s. I checked him out on the Internet and he doesn’t seem to have any controversies surrounding him, so I guess he’s okay. There’s certainly nothing in this book that strikes me as unreasonable. Indeed, he seems to hit all the right notes.

I suspect that the material offered here has been culled from his dharma talks, rather than something he wrote especially for publication. It is organized in such way as to take the reader from the first steps of thinking about establishing a Buddhist practice to maintaining one, and then, beyond. He deals with such subjects as an “intelligent way to begin,” important qualities to nurture, freedom from the notion of self, facing obstacles, “Meditation is Necessary,” “Practicing on the Path,” the role of the teacher, and so on.

On the subject of meditation, Shyalpa Rinpoche says,

It is not enough to simply study the teachings; one actually has to live them. Once we have some understanding of the teachings, we need to apply discipline and practice meditation. Most of us cannot embody these teachings overnight. We may have some conceptual understanding, but we cannot put this understanding into action right away . . . If you do not actualize these teachings through practice, you may be utterly defenseless when faced with challenges, like a baby in the midst of a battlefield.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Now as you might have gathered from that excerpt, to some extent this is a book for beginners. That doesn’t mean that more experienced Buddhists will not find something of value here. We may have heard some of these things many times before, yet, frankly, there are those of us who need to hear them repeatedly until they sink into our stubborn heads. I count myself as among that number.

Shyalpa Rinpoche’s style of writing, or speaking, is simple, spare, and elegant. Reminiscent  of Thich Nhat Hanh. However, the latter will intersperse his declarative statements with interesting stories and examples. There is some of that here, but not much. In this book, it is mainly one declaration after another, and that to me, is its major fault. It becomes monotonous when nearly every sentence is a pithy little statement that could stand alone as a quote:

When you are truly integrated with the flow of your breath, you will know that all beings are blessed with this same precious gift. You will trust in your goodness and in the basic decency of others. This conviction and confidence will prompt those around you to slow down and relax and to experience their lives in a complete way. (“Confidence”)

We all experience doubt, fear, and wakefulness. We can be understanding and tolerant of others, even when they treat us badly. We are all doing our best to survive. Everyone is troubled by the stormy waves of desire, anger, greed, envy, and pride. We are full of these disturbing emotions. No one wishes to suffer, so why would we want to compound the misery of others? (“Your Highest Standard”)

The nature of the mind is unobstructed. Moment by moment, one thought is born, while another one dies. This energy is unceasing, and it springs from primordial wisdom. This energy is the essence of what we are. This essence manifests, but not in any solid or substantial way. We cannot imagine it or express it. It transcends imagination and expression. (“Coming and Going”)

Embrace freedom. Try your best not to rely on material comforts. Rather, learn how to be content by uniting with your unconditional nature. In this way, the more you challenge yourself, the more you will build confidence. (“Turn Toward Freedom”)

And so it goes. Nearly, the entire text is written in this manner. I am guilty of the same thing with some of my blog posts. I don’t know why, but I expect a little more from a book.

At the same time, it’s not the kind of book that demands linear reading, from beginning to end. Each chapter is made of several small sections of two to three pages each. They can stand alone. One can pick the book up, turn to any page, and not miss anything. In this way, Living Fully can be useful as a source of daily inspiration or wisdom.

My only other gripe about Living Fully is that in his presentation Shyalpa Rinpoche makes it seem too easy. As he says above, we should “embrace freedom.” But simply embracing freedom does not make one free. There’s a process involved. He says, “Our lives will not be truly satisfying if we cannot live each moment deliberately and grasp the essence of our precious human nature.” Well, I’ve read basically the same thing many times by many authors, but rarely have I found someone who goes on to talk about how difficult it is to achieve. Living deliberately, living fully, being in the present moment and maintaining that awareness, grasping our true nature – none of it is easy. It’s damn hard. But somehow, Shyalpa Rinpoche makes it sounds as if all you have to do is cherish life and each breath and remember the perfect moment and you’ve got it made. Well, he’s not the only one. And while he does remind us that practice is not about avoiding adversity and that there are obstacles and “obscurations” along the path, it seems to me that he glosses over these challenges.

For instance, in the section “Look inside the Fear” he asks, “How does fear arise? Where does it come from? Where does it go?” Good questions. But then he launches into a discussion of the emptiness of views which he equates with fearlessness and he concludes with, “We labor hard at boosting our image and enhancing our reputation, without ever discovering the inner beauty that is our true essence.” Yes, but what about fear? How does one look into it? How does obtain this fearlessness?

The book as a whole does answer those questions, but I think readers would be better served if he had addressed them more specifically, and with more substance. Ultimately, then, Living Fully is just a bit too sugar-coated for my particular cup of tea. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good book, or that it doesn’t contain timeless wisdom. It is and it does.

Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. He was born in 1809. American author, poet, editor and literary critic, inventor of the detective story. He really needs no introduction.

If you are familiar with Poe’s legacy, then perhaps you are aware that to mark the anniversary of the writer’s birth, each January 19th since the 1940s a mysterious man dressed in black with a white scarf and wide-brimmed hat has come in the dark of night to leave three roses and a bottle of cognac on Poe’s grave. He is called the “Poe Toaster.”

On occasion, this anonymous man has left notes. A few indicated that the torch had been passed on to a new person after the death of the original “Poe Toaster” in the late 1990s. Over the years, crowds have gathered outside the gates of the Westminster Burial Ground for a vigil, waiting for the mysterious stranger to lay down his tribute. However, this year, he had been a no-show for two years in a row and Poe fans were saying they would hold one last vigil before ending the tradition.

Early this morning the visitor once again failed to appear and thus ends a rather sweet story, one so befitting Poe, whose name alone conjures up images mysterious women, madmen and murderers, premature burials, tell-tale hearts that beat on after death, and ravens croaking upon midnights dreary.

In my small tribute to Poe, here is a poem first published in 1849, some six months before the author’s death. In it, Poe muses about the state of his existence, apparently feeling that so many important elements of life were slipping away from him, falling through his fingers like grains of sand. What should be obvious to Buddhists here is how he mirrors the famous passage from the Diamond Sutra: “All conditioned things are like illusions, bubbles, shadows or dreams; Like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning, this is how they should be seen.” Although, it is highly unlikely that Poe had ever heard of the sutra.

A Dream Within A Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

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“I’m all right now, but you should have seen me last week,” began many a monologue by comedian Rodney Dangerfield. A week after chemotherapy, I am starting to feel human again. The point to having these treatments is to keep the size of the cancerous tumors on my liver small.  If they get too big, a transplant is out of the question. I hope this one does some good. I sure don’t look forward to any more.

But, enough of my gloomy stuff.

EARLIER THIS WEEK I received two emails asking for information and/or advice about the Soka Gakkai International. I thought this was a bit strange, but in the off chance they were legit . . . Dude, if your girlfriend has been in the SGI all her life, my advice is either become a fanatic yourself or find another girlfriend.  You can’t change her. You won’t be able to save her. It sounds to me like you are not that into Buddhism yourself, so I say go find a nice yoga girl  . . .  Now, as to the current state of health of the SGI fearless leader, Daisaku Ikeda – I haven’t a clue. There are rumors that he has been secluded in a hospital for some time, and that he is in a coma, etc. I am sure that no one, outside a small circle of people in Japan knows the truth. There are also rumors that he will be mummified after he passes away. Well, I have heard of crazier things . . .

YOU MAY HAVE HEARD about the controversy stirred up by the sale of Buddhist jewelry at a New York store. Jewish groups and some politicians were outraged and, as the New York Daily News reports, “The apologetic owner of a Brooklyn jewelry store blasted for hawking earrings that look like swastikas said Wednesday that she will stop selling the controversial baubles.”

The swastika is a traditional Buddhist symbol and it is not unusual to see them displayed in temples and on Buddha statues. Although this latest controversy is a different situation, I have long felt that ethnic Buddhists should cultivate more sensitivity about this issue. Regardless of which way it is facing (the Nazi’s turned it around), to many people it is odious symbol, representing hate and mass murder, particularly for those Buddhists with Jewish origins. I, who am not Jewish, know the difference between a swastika and the Nazi emblem. My elementary school in Wichita Kansas had swastikas carved at each corner. I thought that was kind of cool, then. Now that I am an adult and have met a few holocaust survivors, when I walk into a Buddhist temple and see swastikas about, I feel uncomfortable.

The swastika just carries too much emotional baggage and bad karma with it to be useful. Traditional or not, it serves no purpose to continue using the swastika as a Buddhist symbol. Ditch it, or use it with more sensitivity. And you definitely have to wonder what is in the mind of someone who would walk around in New York city wearing swastika earrings . . .

FINALLY, some very sad news . . . After 40 years, Bodhi Tree Bookstore has closed. Yes, that great smelling, cozy little institution on Melrose Ave in Los Angeles is a thing of the past . . . As Teresa Watanabe wrote in the LA Times, the store had served “as a world-renowned spiritual mecca for seekers of all persuasions — including Gov. Jerry Brown, Beatle Ringo Starr and actress Shirley MacLaine, whose memoir chronicled how her metaphysical journey began at the Bodhi Tree in 1983.”

I spent many an hour perusing the titles in the Buddhism corner, and listened to many great talks there as well. Of course, this is part of a growing trend but I have to say that there is just something wrong about a world without bookstores . . .

This holiday season was hell . . . A few days before Christmas, my step-mother was in the hospital for two nights, after she experienced yet another in the series of strokes she’s been getting since October which has left her disabled and somewhat confused in mind . . . Two days after Christmas, my father fell, fractured his femur and destroyed his 20 year old hip replacement equipment in the left leg . . . Two days later, while in surgery to repair the hip, he went into cardiac arrest – they performed CPR on him for 33 minutes . . . and he made it. That doesn’t happen often, so it is rather amazing. He even achieved a sort of legendary status at the medical center: the 89 year old guy will an iron will to live.

Members of my step-family attributed his survival to Godly intervention. I didn’t buy that for a minute but I kept quiet. My take was that it was attributable to his spirit, (alluded to above), good genes, great doctors who wouldn’t give up, and the fact that he had lived a good life. While I have my doubts about the whole of the karma theory, I do believe that if you spend your entire life being kind to others, being honest and non-judgmental, you can create a measure of good fortune. Taking some care about your health helps, too.

Immediately after the surgery, however, my father’s prognosis was rather iffy. So I flew up to where he lives the next day. I spent two nights camped out in the ICU waiting room with two of my step-brothers, stayed one night at the folks house so I could visit my step-mother, then slept the next four nights on a cot in my father’s hospital room. After some initial setbacks, he rallied. I flew back to Los Angeles on Thursday, spent one night at home and then at 7am Friday I checked into the hospital here for a chemotherapy treatment. What an end to a lousy first week of the year . . .

They kept me overnight, letting me go late yesterday morning (Saturday, January 7th, the tenth anniversary of my biological brother’s death). This was my second treatment to reduce the size of the tumors on my liver. The last treatment was a pretty much a cake-walk but had no effect on the tumors. They must have given me a double-dose this time because I am sitting here getting chills (I can barely type as my hands shake), experiencing flu-like symptoms, occasionally vomiting, and strangely, having reoccurring bouts of hiccups. In other words, I feel like shit.

Latest word on my dad is good. He’s doing much better and will be released from the hospital on Monday. He’ll go to a rehab facility where my step-mother, who needs 24 hour care, will join him and they can be together there for a few weeks.

Wednesday was a particularly tough day for me, and perhaps for my dad as well. I could see his spirit flag. He had been going in and out of atrial fibrillation. Not life-threatening but better not to have it and it left him completely worn-out. Plus he had been stuck in a bed for a week, he couldn’t move, was in pain (including broken ribs from the CPR), and he hadn’t seen his wife in 7 days – all very frustrating for him. I began to worry that it might be too much for him. It broke my heart to see my father, whom I had never seen in any situation in which he was not in control of, lying there helpless, listless . . .

In the hall outside his room, my emotions overcame me. Although I had been emotional (crying) several times before, this time was different, fueled by fear, lack of sleep, stress. I just sort of broke down in the hallway. My step-niece tried to reassure me. She’s young, an English teacher, a Christian. She felt a sense of peace, she said. My dad was in God’s hands and God loved him. She understood my feelings, she knew of the medical challenge I am facing, and she was praying that I would find peace.

Peace . . . I immediately reached for a phrase that has helped me considerably over the years, especially after the deaths of my mother and brother . . . “Sufferings are Nirvana” . . . I’ve shared that Buddhist maxim on this blog before. I feel it is one the prime points of Buddhist philosophy, perhaps the most important point of all, so I don’t mind talking about it again, and again. I shared it with my step-niece. But I couldn’t explain it properly to her. The words just failed me.

A few minutes later when I was more collected, I tried again. I said, the phrase means that the things we go through, even the bad things, are the sustenance we need to grow, to live – it means that positive things can come from negative things . . . still I failed at conveying what I really wanted to communicate to her.

I wanted to tell her that, yes I may be sad at this moment, but I have peace . . . I don’t need to rely on some other power, something outside of my own life to find peace . . . peace . . . she wished peace for me as if there were only one way that could be obtained but I know that sufferings are peace . . . If I had said that, sufferings are “peace”, maybe she would have gotten a sense of what was in my mind, behind my in-artful words. She would not have necessarily understood it, but I would have made my point better. Nirvana was too abstract. If I had used the word she used, which has the same meaning as Nirvana . . . peace . . .

I doubt I am explaining it any better now. I think it’s something you either get intuitively from a culmination of experience and study. You either get it or you don’t . . .

I’m not sure where the phrase “sufferings are nirvana” originated from, maybe from the Prajna-paramita Sutra, but who knows? Nagarjuna was one of the first scholars to discuss it in depth. K. Venkata Ramanan, in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, explains Nagarjuna’s sense of “sufferings are nirvana”:

With regard to the life of the human individual, “conditioned origination” bears the import that whatever is one’s state of life is what one has worked out for oneself as one’s self-expression. Impelled by thirst and conditioned by one’s understanding, one does deeds which bear their results. Shrouded by ignorance and impelled by desire one does deeds that bind one to the life of conflict and suffering. The way out of these is to eradicate their roots, viz., ignorance and passion. Free from ignorance and passion one may yet do deeds and not be subjected to suffering . . .”

All right to this point, but is it possible to be living and not be subjected to sufferings? Even after Siddhartha became the Buddha, he experienced sufferings. His evil cousin tried to kill him. That’s a suffering, and there were others. The root of suffering is eradicated in our mind, that is why we practice training our mind, calming our mind . . . for when you are truly at peace, dwelling in nirvana, you do not see sufferings as sufferings . . . sufferings are only inescapable facets of life and when a person is strong in peace, inner peace, sufferings may be painful but they do not destroy, and in this sense, they are impermanent. If all things are of the nature of impermanence, then sufferings must be as well. And yet, the Buddha declared that this world is nothing but suffering . . .

Peace is a state of mind. In our mind do we see suffering as suffering, or as poison to be converted into medicine? It’s all in our mind. As simple as that. But the hardest thing to do is to change our mind, change our life, win over ourselves . . . Ramanan continues:

Nirvana is the ultimate goal toward which all beings move seeking fulfillment. The Buddha drew the attention of the monks  to the log of wood being carried along the stream of the River Ganga and told them that if they, like the log, do not ground on this bank or the other bank, and also do not sink down midstream, then they will ‘float down to Nirvana, glide down to Nirvana, gravitate towards Nirvana’ because ‘right view’ [seeing the world as it really is] floats, glides, gravitates towards Nirvana . . .”

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream,
It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thought, surrender to the void,
Is it shining? Is it shining?

That you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being

Love is all and love is everyone
Is it knowing? Is it knowing?

That ignorance and hate may mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing

But listen to the colour of your dreams
Is it not living, is it not living

Or play the game “Existence” to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning

“Tomorrow Never Knows” – John Lennon