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.’

“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

Time Magazine’s article for their choice as the 2011 Person of the Year begins:

A year after a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself ablaze, dissent has spread across the Middle East, reaching Europe and the U.S., reshaping global politics and redefining people power.”

This year Time’s Person of the Year is The Protester, which is an interesting choice. The Protester beat out Adm. William McRaven (Commander of the bin Laden raid), Ai Weiwei (an Chinese artist who as a political activist might be covered under Protester), Kate Middleton (she got married, which to the people at Time must be a really awesome achievement), and Congressman Paul Ryan (whom Time calls “The Prophet”; I have some names for Ryan myself, but some other time). Frankly, these last two runner-ups are a bit bizarre.

But as far as The Protester goes, I say more people power to them all. Time’s choice reflects a wave of global revolution. But curiously, the cover story by Kurt Anderson does not once mention either Tibet, where this year ten Buddhist monks set themselves ablaze, or Burma, where Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released after spending nearly half her adult life in silent protest while under house arrest. So much for the global part of the revolution . . .

Gene Sharp

Now someone I think would have been far more fitting for inclusion into the runner-up field is Gene Sharp, the subject of a documentary showing on Current TV right now entitled, How To Start A Revolution. Sharp, whose nonviolent tactics for toppling despots have been employed by protesters in Egypt and Eastern Europe, is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. His Wikipedia entry goes into some detail about his “influence on struggles worldwide.” Sharp is also the author of a number of works, including From Dictatorship to Democracy A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, which is available as a pdf from The Albert Einstein Institution.

Sharp’s argument for nonviolent resistance is both rational and convincing. He writes,

Understandably, reacting to the brutalities, torture, disappearances, and killings, people often have concluded that only violence can end a dictatorship. Angry victims have sometimes organized to fight the brutal dictators with whatever violent and military capacity they could muster, despite the odds being against them. These people have often fought bravely, at great cost in suffering and lives. Their accomplishments have sometimes been remarkable, but they rarely have won freedom. Violent rebellions can trigger brutal repression that frequently leaves the populace more helpless than before.

Whatever the merits of the violent option, however, one point is clear. By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority. The dictators are equipped to apply violence overwhelmingly. However long or briefly these democrats can continue, eventually the harsh military realities usually become inescapable. The dictators almost always have superiority in military hardware, ammunition, transportation, and the size of military forces. Despite bravery, the democrats are (almost always) no match.”

What’s the alternative? Sharp says,

The conclusion is a hard one. When one wants to bring down a dictatorship most effectively and with the least cost then one has four immediate tasks:

• One must strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence, and resistance skills;

• One must strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people;

• One must create a powerful internal resistance force; and

• One must develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.

A liberation struggle is a time for self-reliance and internal strengthening of the struggle group.”

Although it might be a stretch, this reminds me of a story told in the Maha Parinibbana Sutta. King Ajatshatru of Magadha sends a messager to the Buddha seeking his advice on a plan to attack the Vajjians, whose territory was north of Magadha. The message from Ajatshatru states, “I will destroy these Vajjians, I will bring them to utter ruin!” I’m not quite sure what Ajatshatru’s beef was with the Vajjians, but the Buddha’s reply is that “so long as the Vajjians continue to observe their traditions properely, and meet regularly in their republican assembly, seeking agreement in all matters, and so on, their prosperity is assured.”

After this, the Buddha turns to his followers and repeats this advice word for word. Basically, he is telling the Sangha the same thing Sharp says above, that as long as the Sangha remains self-reliant and internally strong, it will continue to prosper.

I think this applies to individuals as well. If a corporation can be a person, then I suppose a person can be a group, since after all, we are a heap of aggregates, a collection of groups of cells.

Self-reliance is one of the key messages of Buddhism. It is what really separates Buddha-dharma from any other spiritual philosophy. Buddhism is a philosophy about jiriki, “self-power.” When it crosses the line into tariki or “other-power”, then it really no longer Buddhism, but something else based on Buddha-dharma. There are those who would disagree with this and suggest that it’s a dualistic view, but I think they are just rationalizing their own tendency to want to seek something outside of their lives for “the answer” or “salvation.”

Sharp notes that,

Liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people’s ability to liberate themselves. The cases of successful political defiance — or nonviolent struggle for political ends — cited above indicate that the means do exist for populations to free themselves, but that option has remained undeveloped.”

In the same way, in the universal struggle against the dictatorship of suffering, the individual’s power to liberate his or her self remains undeveloped, and this is what Buddhism seeks to rectify.

Furthermore, Sharp writes,

Many people now suffering under a brutal dictatorship, or who have gone into exile to escape its immediate grasp, do not believe that the oppressed can liberate themselves. They expect that their people can only be saved by the actions of others. These people place their confidence in external forces. They believe that only international help can be strong enough to bring down the dictators.”

Of course, when we talk about self-reliance the “self” we speak of is not the same “self” that we are also trying to overthrow, the self of “no-self.” However, people get confused about this, and in general, confidence in one’s self-power can be a hard thing to cultivate. At the same time, we also talk about bodhisattvas saving people, and this too can be confusing, because in the end we are the only ones who can save ourselves.

This point may be, quoting the Lotus Sutra, “the most difficult to believe and the most difficult to understand.” A Japanese priest commenting on the sutra, once wrote, “We common mortals can see neither our own eyebrows, which are so close, nor heaven in the distance. Likewise, we do not see that the Buddha exists in our own hearts.”

The Buddha in our own hearts is a metaphor for the positive potential that exists within each human being – the potential for happiness, wisdom, liberation. We also call it Buddha-nature. It is the inner-power that is difficult to believe in and difficult to harness, especially when we are so busy looking for something outside of ourselves to come and save us.

You yourself must make the effort. Buddhas only point the way.”

- The Dhammapada




Waiting for someone or something else to save you is a childish, selfish way to live. We are not here to suffer, we are here to enjoy. If you do suffer, you have to face yourself, look within and examine what it is in you that’s suffering. External conditions have their roles to play, but only in setting the stage. In most cases, there is no one or nothing that can make you suffer. Suffering can only happen inside you, and that is the only place where liberation for suffering can be found.

The Dalai Lama is currently in Karnataka, India giving teachings on the Commentary on the Five Stages by Nagarjuna at Gyudmed Tantric University. According to the Tibet Post he told the audience that one should strive to become a 21st century Buddhist with both traditional values and a modern education.

He also commented on the subject of faith, saying

I always say that study and practice are both very important, but they must go hand in hand. “Not merely belief – faith alone is not sufficient . . . Faith needs to be supported by reason. Whatever we learn from study we need to apply sincerely in our daily lives.”

Xinxin, the Chinese characters for "faith"

The Post reports that he pointed out that the Buddha’s teachings should not only be the object of prayer and prostration, but that we should also pursue study and analysis of the teachings, as opposed to simply relying on faith.

Buddhists had different ideas regarding faith. Personally, I reject the notion that faith in Buddhism is akin to the Western notion, which Merriam-Webster’s defines in part as “allegiance to duty or a person; belief and trust in and loyalty to God; firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”

I do believe that Buddhist faith involves trust – trust in the teachings (after some study and critical analysis) and that it is “something that is believed especially with strong conviction.” Without some trust and conviction in the teachings, and without a determination to put the teachings into practice, what would be the point?

Now, from what I understand the Commentary on the Five Stages by Nagarjuna was written by Panchen Lobsang Choegyan and that the Nagarjuna in question is not the one we all know and love but rather the “Siddha N?g?rjuna,” a Tantric master and holder of the Mahamudra-Lineage. The two have often been confused.

The original Nagarjuna (assuming he was an actual historical person) wrote:

Because one has faith, one partakes of the dharma;
Because one has wisdom, one truly understands.
Of these two, wisdom is foremost,
But faith is the one that must come first.

So this kind of trust, this sort of conviction or confidence that there is something in the teachings which is extremely valuable and powerful, this kind of belief in the possibilities of the dharma, is a prerequisite. In the long run, though, as the Dalai Lama has noted, in commenting of the above verse, faith in Buddhism is not blind faith:

[A] flawed way is where you approach the path or practice purely on the basis of blind faith. You understand nothing, it’s just simple faith that is totally blind. It is again a flawed way of pursuing the path. By drawing contrast to these four wrong ways of going about one’s practice, [Nagarjuna] defines what is the true sense of faith.

Here Nagarjuna defines that someone who’s faith in the path . . . is grounded in a personal understanding and knowledge—such a person is someone who is said to possess the right kind of faith, the right kind of competence to engage in the path.

The kind of understanding that is referred to here, upon which one must ground one’s faith, is a fundamental understanding [the Buddha’s teachings] . . .  and though this understanding one can develop a deep conviction . . . Thus one will be able to engage in a dharmic life, and live according to a life-style that is with the bounds of an ethical and disciplined way of life. Such a person, whose faith and conviction in dharma is grounded in such an understanding, is said to be the ideal practitioner.

Although he credited the Buddha with the doctrine of the Two Truths (it is mentioned in the early suttas and in a few commentaries to the Abhidharma), it was really Nagarjuna who developed this concept of two levels of truth.

Why are the Two Truths important? A primary cause for suffering is that we do not see reality as it truly is, and by reality, we mean first and foremost the reality of our everyday world, the realm of appearance and experience we inhabit. Although doctrinal discussions of the Two Truths may be wrapped around such subjects as being and non-being, the actual focus, as far as we are concerned, is on daily life.

Our basic tendency is to hold onto “things” (dharmas) as though they were real and endowed with some sort of self-nature. It might be the sense of self, or some other person, possessions, our preferences or prejudices. Buddhism teaches that when we seize upon these things and cling to them, we invite suffering into our lives. This point alone could be dealt with in depth, but for now it is suffice to say that the Two Truths are a tool to help us understand the actual nature of “things” and end the confusion that causes seizing and clinging, and gives rise to suffering.

In Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna says,

The Buddha’s dharma is based on two truths: the relative or conventional truth and the ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the relationship between the two do not understand the profound point of the Buddha’s teachings.”

It is very important to understand that the Two Truths do not posit two separate realities (the world and some other “ultimate” reality), rather, this concept deals with how we perceive reality and the “things” in it. The first kind of truth that we call relative, conventional, mundane, worldly, veiled, and so on is valid for the practical affairs of daily life. However, our perception of the everyday world is often based on the mis-perception that “things” have an existence or self-nature independent from other things. However, from the view of the ultimate truth, all things are produced by causes and conditions, and are thereby interdependent, and without self-nature. So, in this way, they are said to be impermanent and “unreal.”

In Nagarjuna’s logic, if there is no self-nature, then it follows that there is no “other-nature” as well. And, as he says in the Middle Verses,

Further, how can a thing exist without either self-nature or other-nature. Existing things can only be maintained when there is self-nature and other-nature.”

David Kalupahana, in Nagarjuna, The Philosophy of the Middle Way, notes, “It is not merely self-nature and other-nature that are rejected, but also existence and non-existence.” About this, Nagarjuna says,

Those who perceive self-nature and other-nature, as well as existence and non-existence, do not understand the truth of the Buddha’s teaching.”

First, Nagarjuna show us that there are two ways of perceiving the world. In terms of the conventional truth, things exist – they are real. In terms of the ultimate truth, they are unreal. Not only are they unreal, but Nagarjuna systematically removes the foundations on which we perceive them, and as well, any basis upon which we can seize and cling.

Nagarjuna not only rejects the perception of existing and non-existing things, he also rejects all views, concepts, designations, modes of thought – all things (dharmas) are null and void. Things do not exist by themselves, from their own side. Yet, as Karl Jaspers writes in his essay on Nagarjuna,

[At] the same time, they are not nothing. They are midway between being and nonbeing, but they are empty. There is no dharma that has come into being independently, hence all dharmas are empty.”

They are empty of self-nature. But, while emptiness may be the ultimate nature of things, it is not the ultimate truth. Nagarjuna understands emptiness to be another “view,” another thought construction. The ultimate truth is not any view. In the ultimate truth, all views dissolve into silence. So, in the end, Nagarjuna rejects emptiness itself: sunyata-sunyata – the emptiness of emptiness.

Because we seem to be hard-wired to look at things dualistically, there are those who mistake the Two Truths to be separate.

Nagarjuna says,

The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the conventional truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, liberation is not possible.”

In other words, we use the relative to convey the ultimate, and we use the ultimate to understand the relative. Here we should see that the point is not so much that in this sense the relative is false, it’s more about being be able to skillfully use knowledge of the ultimate in order to understand the relative world, and to able to live more fully in it, without clinging to either truth. The trick is to know when the ultimate applies and when it does not.

While there are certainly distinctions between the relative and the ultimate, in the end, there is just one truth, one reality. The relative and the ultimate are but two sides of the same coin.

It is within nirvana that liberation from suffering is obtained, so nirvana is one of many terms used to express the ultimate. Nagarjuna makes clear, though, that there is no separation between the ultimate truth of nirvana and the conventional world:

Whatever is the extreme of nirvana is also the extreme of conventional existence. There is not the slightest bit of difference between the two.

Conventional existence is represented as the world of samsara – the world of suffering, misperception, of seizing and clinging. But we say, “Samsara is nirvana.” When there is a difference between the two, it is a matter of perception, or perhaps we should say an error of perception, because it makes no sense take a principle that points to the non-dual nature of reality and then look at it dualistically.

So that is a kind of brief overview of the subject, and I certainly don’t offer it as any kind of final word. It’s just my take, as far as my understanding goes.

Yesterday I wrote about a book that I haven’t read. Based on the promotional material accompanying it’s release, I formed an negative impression of this work. That might seem unfair. But consider this: the author promotes his book in various ways, including interviews and writing opinion pieces. The idea is to inform potential readers about the author and his book in the hopes of creating a positive impression that will lead to book sales. Sometimes an negative one is created and that’s what happened with the book by Owen Flanagan.

Today, I’d like to mention another book, also by a scholar, which I also have not read, but one that I have a very favorable impression of: “An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer” by Charles S. Prebish (2011, Sumeru Press Inc.).

Prebish is a professor emeritus of religious studies at Penn State. The difference between Prebish and Owen Flanagan is that Prebish is also a practicing Buddhist. In fact, he has paved the way for scholar-practioners, a breed sorely needed. So, to me, that’s a big difference. It’s means that Prebish’s thoughts have a bit more credence since he is inside the practice, not outside looking in.

Prebish is also a founding co-editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and the Journal of Global Buddhism, co-editor of the Routledge Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism series and the Routledge Curzon Encyclopedia of Buddhism project, an officer in the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and co-founder of the Buddhism Section of the American Academy of Religion. If that isn’t enough he’s  written or edited more than 20 books. In other words, he’s got some credentials.

The book is a memoir that details Prebish’s “role in bringing the field of American Buddhism to prominence. The difficulties he faced in establishing American Buddhism as a legitimate field of study, and in trying to be recognized as a “scholar-practitioner,” as one reviewer describes it. The subject of Buddhist studies is not an altogether un-sexy, since apparently Prebish dishes some dirt and names names. It’s also an informal history of Buddhism in America. As I said, I haven’t read the book, which was released in May, nor have I been able to find any excerpts. However, according to the publisher,

Dr. Prebish has been involved in virtually everything exciting in the Buddhist world over the past forty-five years. Because of his unique involvement and longevity, he has an incredible historical record to document and share, and a huge number of stories to tell. These stories allow us to share his incredible personal journey, and provide a true “insider’s” viewpoint.

This sounds infinitely more worthwhile that yet another “lets-fix-Buddhism” tome, a genre that is growing increasingly tiresome. Some of the self-proclaimed historians on the Net who claim that modern Buddhism is some sort of conspiracy being foisted upon us would do well to read some of Prebish’s other books (such as “Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America”) in order to learn something of the real history of Buddhism in the West.

When Prebish calls himself a pioneer, he isn’t kidding. He was one of the first to have “touched on Buddhism as a ‘Western’ phenomenon in any classroom in North America” (his own words). And while he is concerned with the development of “modern” Buddhism, from what I have read of his work, Prebish does not seem obsessed with the so-called hocus pocus aspect of Buddha-dharma, that so many others feel compelled to whine about ad nauseum.

Instead, many years ago, Prebish coined the term “two Buddhisms”: Asian-American Buddhists, practicing what might be described as “family Buddhism” vs convert white Buddhists centered around “sometimes only meditation.” In the early 90s, he rejected the notion that Asian-Americans were contributing little to the development of American Buddhism. Rather, he saw that both Buddhisms were doing valuable work and that if they could only talk with each other, it might be possible to create a harmonious American Buddhism that had nothing to do with one’s ethic or religious background.

This, I think, is an important issue facing Buddhism in the West. Complaining endlessly about karma and rebirth and hocus pocus does not bring us together. It doesn’t add much to our understanding of dharma, since the supernatural aspects are only there if you take everything literally.

Yesterday, I mentioned the spirit of Buddhism. I have found this concretely stated by Lama Govinda in his book, “A Living Buddhism for the West“, in which he writes

The Dharma of the Buddha differs from many other forms of religion in that it does not demand of its followers that they should believe in anything that lies beyond the experience of the individual. It allows a fresh view of reality to ripen within us, which grows from an experience that is only possible through hard work on ourselves and service to others.

There you have it. No one has to believe anything they don’t want to. It would be nice to get past all the discussion over belief and superstition and quit disparaging others because their practice either is or is not meditation based, and starting talking about how we can transcend sectarian differences and create a holistic and inclusive home-grown Buddhism.

Owen Flanagan is a professor of philosophy at Duke University who just published a book entitled, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized” (MIT, 2011). According to the publisher:

Atheistic when it comes to a creator god, Buddhism is otherwise opulently polytheistic, with spirits, protector deities, ghosts, and evil spirits. Its beliefs include karma, rebirth, nirvana, and nonphysical states of mind. What is a nonreligious, materially grounded spiritual seeker to do?”

I doubt that such a person will be helped much by Flanagan, who seems like a pretty confused guy to me. I have to wonder about someone who feels that the Mahayana concept of nirvana is “hocus pocus.” To me, concerns of this nature are literary in nature, a matter of understanding how the writers of the sutras used imagery and allegory. Just because they wrote about bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves doesn’t mean they intended it to be taken literally.

Now I haven’t read Flanagan’s book, but I’ve read about it and read the first pages on Amazon. That’s enough for me to get his general thesis and I find it a bit flawed. Buddhism is already naturalized. If you choose to view it that way.

I also read a piece Flanagan wrote for the Huffington Post. In “Bourgeois Buddhists: Do Americans Miss the Point of Buddhism?” he inflicts these astounding words upon the unsuspecting reading public:

Buddhism has about as little to do with meditation as Jesus’s message of love has to do with prayer, which is some, not entirely nothing; but almost nothing. Thinking that meditation is the essence of Buddhism would be akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking that real Catholics say Mass everyday because priests do.”

Acutally, thinking that meditation is not the essence of Buddhism, just because Asian Buddhists, at least in modern times, do not practice meditation as much as many Americans suppose, is akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking . . .

Granted, we in the West may be have our own misapprehension about Asian Buddhists, but by putting the focus back on meditation as the prime point, I think we are “naturalizing” Buddha-dharma. I see the problem as entirely the other way around: most Westerners tend to approach Buddhism from the philosophical angle first, and when it doesn’t make sense at first blush or match up to their preconceived notions, if there are a few T’s uncrossed and I’s undotted, they are quick to dismiss or start poking holes in it. I have described many times on this blog how such concepts as rebirth and karma can be viewed reasonably and non-supernaturally. It’s there, if you want it. It’s really up to you.

Flanagan says,

One wonders whether American Buddhists, especially those who think that Buddhism is largely about meditation, and the personal psychological goods, the self-satisfaction on offer from sitting in, what has become, a laughably bourgeois pose, aren’t missing something essential about Buddhism, about what Buddhist philosophy is mainly and mostly about, namely, wisdom and goodness.”

No, what’s laughable is a professor of philosophy and a non-Buddhist who thinks that spending a few hours with the Dalai Lama and reading some books and research papers (and who thinks that “mindfulness” meditation is “almost entirely self-centered”) qualifies him to point out how the rest of us have somehow missed the point.

I’ve done some looking around online and I’ve seen where Flanagan talks a lot about recent research on the brains of Buddhists, but I haven’t seen him talk about his own experience with Buddhism and meditation. Perhaps he does so in his book. But I have a whole slew of other books to read first. I did see where “Flanagan argues Buddhism matters not just for practical reasons, but for philosophical ones.” Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that he’s suggesting that the philosophical aspects are the main thing, and I can’t believe that anyone with a real grasp on dharma would think that.

I can’t help but feel that perhaps he’s missed the point. The philosophy is just there to support the practice. It’s the practice, that “bourgeois” practice of meditation, that is the prime point. That’s how we open our minds to wisdom and goodness on a deep, intuitive level.

Crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s is not as important as capturing the spirit of Buddha-dharma. That’s another point that many people seem to miss. If you want to read a good book about Buddhism, I recommend “Stopping and Seeing: A Comprehensive Course in Meditation“, Thomas Cleary’s partial translation of the Mo Ho Chih Kuan by T’ien-t’ai meditation master Chih-i.  It’s not the easiest book in the world to understand, but even if you get only a fraction of it, you will come far closer to capturing the spirit of Buddhism than you probably could reading a hundred books like Flanagan’s.

Here’s a quote from “Stopping and Seeing” that I’ve shared before. I’ll probably share it again many more times:

The second issue is explaining this stopping and seeing (Skt.: samatha-vipassana; Ch.: chih-kuan) so as to promote four kinds of concentration by which to enter the ranks of enlightening beings. One cannot ascend to the sublime states without practice; if you know how to churn, only then can you obtain ghee.

The Lotus Scripture says, “Aspirants to Buddhahood cultivate various practices, seeking enlightenment” There are many methods of practice . . . The general term concentration means tuning, aligning, and stabilizing.

The Great Treatise [Nagarjuna’s “Great Transcendent Wisdom Treatise"] says, “Ability to keep the mind on one point without wavering is called concentration.” The realm of reality is one point; correct seeing [kuan] can stay on it without wavering . . .

This realm of reality is also called enlightenment, and it is also called the “inconceivable realm.” It is also called wisdom, and it is also called not being born and not passing away. Thus all phenomena are not other than the realm of reality; hearing of this nonduality and nondifference, do not give rise to doubt.

If you can see in this way, this is seeing the ten epithets of Buddhas. When seeing Buddha, one does not consider Buddha as Buddha; there is no Buddha to be Buddha, and there is no Buddha-knowledge to know Buddha. Buddha and Buddha-knowledge are nondualistic, unmoving, unfabricated, not in any location yet not unlocated, not in time yet not timeless, not dual yet not nondual, not defiled, not pure. This seeing Buddha is very rarefied; like space, it has no flaw, and it develops right mindfulness.

Seeing the embellishments of Buddha is like looking into a mirror and seeing one’s own features. First you see one Buddha, then the Buddhas of the ten directions. You do not use magical powers to go see Buddhas; you stay right here and see the Buddhas, hear the Buddhas’ teaching, and get the true meaning . . . You guide all beings toward nirvana, yet do not grasp the characteristics of nirvana . . .

Shantideva’s Sikshasamuccaya or “Compendium of Doctrine” is a veritable treasure house of passages from Buddhist sutras that are either no longer extant or have not yet been translated into English. Shantideva, in case the name is unfamiliar, was a Buddhist poet/scholar in the 8th century CE, thought to have spent most of his career at the famed Nalanda University.

His most famous work is of course the Bodhicaryavatara or “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.” The Sikshasamuccaya is his only other work (that we know of) and it is described by Wikipedia as “a prose work in nineteen chapters. It is organized as a commentary on twenty-seven short mnemonic verses known as the Sikshasamuccaya Karika. It consists primarily of quotations (of varying length) from sutras, authoritative texts considered to be the word of the Buddha — generally those sutras associated with Mahayana tradition . . .”

The passage I’m sharing today is from the Gaganaganja Sutra. I don’t know anything about this sutra, however, Gaganaganja (Sanskrit: “sky-inhabitant”) is a Bodhisattva mentioned in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. Robert Thurman in his translation of the Vimalakirti notes that the word also refers to “a particular samadhi”.

From the chapter entitled “Purity in Enjoyment and Religious Action” (translated by Cecil Bendall), this poetic passage conveys the true spirit of giving, as well as the real meaning of renunciation:

Purification of religious action comes from behavior pervaded by sunyata [emptiness] and by compassion.

For it is said in the holy Gaganaganja Sutra: “He gives that gift, pure of the notion of I, pure of the notion of mine, pure of the notion of motive, of heresy, of reason, of kind, of expecting profit, a gift pure in thought like the sky, … as the sky is infinite, so is the thought with which he gives; as the sky is outspread over all, so that gift is applied unto wisdom; as the sky is immaterial, so that gift is dependent upon no matter; as the sky is without feeling, so that gift is detached from all feeling; so it is without consciousness, not composite, with the characteristic of manifesting nothing;  as the sky pervades all the Buddha’s field, so that gift is pervaded with compassion for all creatures;  . . . as the sky is always transparent, so his gift is clear of the nature of thought; as the sky illuminates all creatures, so his gift gives life to all creatures; … as one seeped in spiritual power gives to another, so he is without imagination and without reflection; without thought, mind, consciousness, not desiring anything; thus by the absence of duality, his gift is clear of the natural marks of illusion. When he has this renunciation in giving, renunciation of the passions of all creatures by knowledge of wisdom, non-abandonment of all creatures by knowledge of expedients, so, young sir, the Bodhisattva becomes self-sacrificing in heart, and his gifts are like the sky.”