April, comes she will,
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain . . .

- Paul Simon

One of the nice things about a blog is that regardless of whether you have a theme or not, you can blog about pretty much anything you want. While I try to stay focused on Buddhism here, occasionally I do veer off in other directions, and one of them is often poetry. But, you see, I really don’t believe poetry is that far off the subject, but I am getting ahead of myself.

It’s the first day of April and sorry, no April Fools joke from me. I’d rather tell you that it’s National Poetry Month. Had I remembered that, and thought ahead, I might have saved a few of last month’s posts for this month. But I didn’t, so here in April you can expect a bit more on poetry.

Each April since 1996 the Academy of American Poets sponsors National Poetry Month when “publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools and poets around the country band together to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture. Thousands of businesses and non-profit organizations participate through readings, festivals, book displays, workshops, and other events.”

You can head over to poets.org and see what events and programs they have lined up. As I said above, I plan to celebrate with a few more poetry posts than usual, highlighting “spiritual” poetry.

Since the title of this blog, The Endless Further, comes from a phrase coined by a great poet, I think it is fitting to kick off National Poetry Month with that poet, Rabindranath Tagore.

Now I can tell you that just as I consider most poetry to be romantic, I feel that nearly all poetry is spiritual. Now, when I make these sorts of remarks, I am using the key words in a very broad sense and have in mind the salient and universal qualities of “romantic” and “spiritual.” I have a feeling that Tagore would understand what I mean.

In his introduction to Tagore’s Gitanjali or ‘Song Offerings’, W. B. Yeats, not a bad poet himself, noted that Tagore sprang from a “tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, [passed] through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back again to the multitude the thought of the scholar and of the noble.”

Really, everything is spiritual, especially as Buddhism views it, since everything we think, see, say and do involves our mind and that is where Buddhists find spirituality. Chih-i taught that a single thought moment can permeate the universe and that all phenomena in the universe in contained within that thought moment.

Tagore put it this way:

The same stream of life that runs through
my veins night and day runs through
the world and dances in rhythmic

It is the same life that shoots in joy
through the dust of the earth in
numberless blades of grass and breaks
into tumultuous waves of leaves and

It is the same life that is rocked in the
ocean-cradle of birth and of death,
in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the
touch of this world of life. And my pride
is from the life-throb of ages dancing
in my blood this moment.

In this same vein, Joseph Campbell, in a lecture from 1968, “The Inspiration of Oriental Art” (Myths To Live By), said,

Listen to the sound of the city. Listen to the sound of your neighbor’s voice, or of the wild geese honking skyward. Listen to any sound or silence at all without interpreting it, and the Anahata will be heard of the Void that is the ground of being, and the world that is the body of being, the Silence and the Syllable. Moreover, when once this sound has been “heard,” as it were, as the sound and being of one’s own heart and of all life, one is stilled and brought to peace; there is no need to quest any more, for it is here, it is there, it is everywhere. And the high function of Oriental art is to make known that this truly is so; or, as our Western poet Gerhart Hauptmann has said of the aim of all true poetry: “to let the Word be heard resounding behind words.” The mystic Meister Eckhart expressed the same thought in theological terms when he told his congregation, “Any flea as it is in God is nobler than the highest of the angels in himself. Things in God are all the same: they are God Himself.”

This should give you an idea of what I mean when I say all poetry is spiritual in one way or another. Poetry finds the sacred in the profane, and vice versa. It sees “a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower.” To me, Ginsberg’s Howl is as spiritual as anything Blake wrote. And cumming’s “in Just-spring, when the world is mud-luscious” is just as religious and transcendent as any poetry found in the sutras.

But, enough. Let’s get with the poetry. Most of Tagore’s poem were actually songs, meant to be sung. Here are two more from Gitanjali. Perhaps you will be familiar with them, and perhaps you will enjoying reading them once again, or for the first time.


Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers
But to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain
But for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield
But to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved
But hope for patience to win my freedom.
Sarvamangalam! Blessings to all!


The time that my journey takes is long
and the way of it long.
I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light,
and pursued my voyage through the wildernesses of worlds
leaving my track on many a star and planet.

It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself,
and that training is the most intricate which leads
to the utter simplicity of a tune.

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds
to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide
before I shut them and said `Here art thou!’

The question and the cry `Oh, where?’ melt
into tears of a thousand streams
and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!’


You may have read that the Dalai Lama has announced his intention to relinquish his political role as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile. This should help dilute the argument put forth by critics that the he is some sort of autocratic ruler.

I heard Robert Thurman say one time that if the Dalai Lama had his way, he would just as soon go back to being an anonymous monk and do a three-year retreat. I seem to recall hearing the Dalai Lama say pretty much the same thing himself.

Fortunately, he is not resigning as the spiritual leader of Tibetans, or as a Buddhist teacher. That is how I tend to view him, as a teacher, especially as a scholar of Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (Middle Way) philosophy. He is one of the few Buddhist teachers who lectures from that perspective, as that is the general view of Tibetan Buddhism, and certainly he’s the only one who can present Madhyamaka teachings to such a wide audience.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of the Dalai Lama’s teachings over the years. From time to time, I have posted my transcript of the teachings he gave in 1997 at UCLA on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland. [Here, here, here, here, here, and here]

For newer readers of The Endless Further, I’ll mention again that I taped the entire four days of teachings, some 24 hours worth of tape, transcribed it by hand, and then made a second copy using an ancient writing device known as a typewriter. A rather tedious and time-consuming process, but it really helped to engrave these teaching on my mind.

When the Dalai Lama lectures on Buddhist dharma,  he always speaks in Tibetan and then it is translated. This is from the English translator, and it is verbatim, so in places the sentences are a bit fractured.

In this short excerpt, the Dalai Lama talks about the Four Noble Truths. When he speaks of the Ariya Sangha, in this context, I believe he is not referring to a small, elite group of individuals, but rather to anyone who has “perfected these levels of realizations.”

It is on the basis of a profound understanding of the nature of the Four Noble Truths that one can finally arrive at a deeper understanding of dharma. All the Buddhist traditions agree that the Four Noble Truths was among the first dharmas or doctrines that the Buddha taught. And according to this dharma, the cessation of suffering that one attains, and also, once you are able to recognize the possibility of such attainment, then one will also be able to the path that leads to such cessation.

So if you able to understand the nature of dharma, then you will be able to conceive the individual or being in whom such realization has taken place. These individuals or beings are sangha, the true sangha, and once you are able to conceive the existence of Sangha, once you can conceive of Sangha, then one will be able to recognize the possible attainment of Buddhahood, because these fully realized and enlightened beings, these Ariya [Pali: Ariya-Pubbala: “noble ones”] Sangha who have perfected these levels of realizations to the highest point – through these perfections, one is able to develop a good understanding of the Three Objects of Refuge: the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Therefore, in the text it reads, “he is utterly free from all faults”, referring to the qualities of the Buddha, which is an elimination of all faults. In the next line, it reads, “adorned with all good qualities,” refers to the perfections inherent in our consciousness. In that sense, the capacity to perceive, to know something is inherent within our minds and it is only the delusions that obstruct that full expression of the natural capacity of the mind.

So when the obstacles are removed, then the full flowering of that natural capacity of the mind to know is expressed as the wisdom of the Buddha, which directly recognizes the ultimate nature of reality and the relative world of multiplicity and diversity.


A  week or so ago, in paraphrasing Prof. Trevor Ling, I wrote that the Four Noble Truths were not offered as religious beliefs, but rather as the Buddha’s analysis of the human situation. But that doesn’t mean that they are theories either. Technically, they are satya (“Arya-satya-pariksa”), a Sanskrit word defined in the Soothill Buddhist dictionary as “true, genuine, a proved or accepted truth.”

So here “truth” means something that conforms with the judging of a fact. When what is judged to be is, then the judging is true. They are facts. You could just as easily call them the Four Noble Facts. The Buddha looked around and saw a whole lot of suffering going on. It was true then, as it is now. Suffering is.

Now, the Buddha was not interested in merely proclaiming philosophical truths. He was also concerned with offering a method to solve human problems, a prescription to cure the dis-ease of dukkha (suffering). This is why, when the Buddha taught the Four Noble Facts, it is described as the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. It unites the Buddha’s analysis, his statements of fact, with action. And that is really what the Eightfold Path of the Four Noble Facts is all about, the laying out of actions that can taken to reduce suffering.

We might say that the Buddha had a “scientific” approach because he arrived at this judging of fact through a process of investigation and critical analysis. Starting with the premise that the world is permeated by suffering, the Buddha wanted to find out if it was possible to transcend suffering. He did this by tracing the origins of suffering. The Four Noble Facts has its procedure: The first stage is to recognize that suffering has a cause. The second stage is to determine where suffering comes from, where the principle source of suffering lies. The third stage is to investigate whether or not it is possible to end or transcend suffering, while the fourth stage is to search for the way, or path, by which one can obtain liberation from suffering.

I believe the Buddha also wanted to free people’s minds from the prejudices of dogmatic tenets, so I don’t feel it is necessary to get hung up on having just one specific cause for dukkha, because even suffering does not exist from its own side. So it doesn’t matter if tanha (thirst, craving) is the primary cause or something else, or if there is just one cause or many. Once we have identified the fact that suffering has causes, we can then proceed to change the conditions by dealing with the vehicle for suffering, which in most cases is our very own mind.

Dogen-zenji said, “Teaching which does not sound as if it is forcing something on you is not true teaching.” The teaching itself is true, and in itself does not force anything upon us, but because of our human tendency we receive the teaching as if something was being forced on us. But whether we feel good or bad about it, this truth exists. If nothing exists, this truth does not exist. Buddhism exists because of each particular existence.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

It’s spring now and soon the cherry blossoms will come to Japan. It’s a big deal. The entire nation celebrates with festivals, and viewing parties and picnics, and after dark, the parks always seemed to be filled with strolling couples admiring the trees in the moonlight. The newspapers and the TV news carrying special features each day updating everyone on the “sakura front”, charting the progress of the cherry blossoms as they bloom their way across the country.

To say that the Japanese appreciate the beauty of the sakura is an understatement. I imagine that for many this year they will as excruciatingly poignant as they should be exquisite, for cherry blossoms, which drop from the trees soon after blooming, represent the transient nature of life.

Some Japanese poems on the subject of cherry blossoms . . .

We cannot behold
the beauty of the blossoms
enshrouded by haze –
yet steal us their scent, at least,
spring breezes blowing from the hills.

Yoshimine no Munesada (816-90)

How many times now
have I crossed over hill crests
with the image
of blossoms leading me on –
toward nothing but white clouds?

Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204)

Everyone feels grief
when cherry blossoms scatter.
Might they then be tears –
those drops of moisture falling
in the gentle rains of spring?

Otomo no Juronushi (late 9th century)

The pathway I marked
when last year I made my way
into Yoshino –
I abandon now to visit
blossoms I have not yet seen.

Monk Saigyo (1118-1190)

Thoughts still linger  –
but will those who have parted
return once again?

Evening is deep in the hills
where cherry blossoms fall.

Shinkei (1406-1475)

A fallen blossom
Returning to the bough, I thought –
But no, a butterfly.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549)

From Traditional Japanese Poetry An Anthology, translated by Steve D. Carter

Our local station KABC ran an interesting story on the Healthy Living segment of the afternoon news about how meditation and overcoming fears. It had to do with a Burbank father of two diagnosed with lymphoma who was so fearful of the radiation treatment he was almost willing to forgo it. He did refuse to wear the mask that is apparently required.  This irrational fear stemmed from his claustrophobia.

Being a very short segment, the piece did not go into a lot of detail about the meditation angle, but did say this:

Sedatives didn’t help, so his doctor recommended visual guided imagery. Raking in a zen garden is one form of relaxation, but visual guided imagery is a specialized form of meditation that teaches a patient to focus on their breath and different muscle groups.

“It can be really helpful for people in terms of increasing immune functioning, helping to deal with daily stress levels,” said Dr. Harden.

After a few weeks the patient overcame his fears to the point that he could do the treatment and he felt that he had learned to excerize more control over his mind.

I’m not sure I would describe focusing on your breath as visual guided imagery, and even less sure what they mean by that, but the bottom line here is further proof that meditation is a powerful tool we can use in dealing with all manner of suffering. If you want to watch the segment here is the link to ABC7’s site.

As far as visual meditation goes, I think it helps to break away from focusing on your breath occasionally, if that is your primary practice. Doing something different prevents “mindfulness” from getting stagnant. Visual meditation to me means using some image or object other than your breath as the object of meditation. This can be loving-kindness meditation, or visualizing the chakras or a mandala, and so on. I’ve had some good experiences with visual meditation – I like the term creative visualization better – especially in group settings where I have been both a participant and the one guiding the meditation. I don’t know if it is any more effective, but it makes you feel better, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as it doesn’t become a sort of drug or escapism.

Actually, I don’t think the method or technique matters as much as our frame of mind – our intention. I think its all about learning how to concentrate deeply and keep it going. This brings to mind something that Lama Govinda wrote in Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness:

Just as the archer concentrates on his aim and becomes one with it in order to hit the mark with certainty, so the meditator must first indentify himself with the aim and feel one with it. This gives impetus and direction to his striving. Then, whatever his ways and methods – whether creative or discriminating, emotional or intellectual, synthesizing or analyzing, imaginative or discursive – he will always proceed toward his aim. He will neither get lost in the desert of discrimination and dissection, nor cling to the products of his imagination . . .

The demonstration of the mind’s capacity to create a world and dissolve it again, demonstrates better than any intellectual analysis the true nature of all phenomena and the senselessness of all craving and clinging.

Like many people, I feel conflicted about the Libyan airstrikes. There’s some tension between my beliefs and what appears to be a practical reality. I’m sure that more than a few people feel the same thing. Add to that the anxiety that war naturally brings to the table.

Some Buddhists may want to look at the issue from the standpoint of the precepts, the first of which is not to kill. The Brahajala (Brahma Net) Sutra states,

A disciple of the Buddha shall not himself kill, encourage others to kill, kill by expedient means, praise killing, rejoice at witnessing killing, or kill through incantation or deviant mantras. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of killing, and shall not intentionally kill any living creature.

On the other hand, the Buddha taught about suffering and its cessation and he said that intention (cetana) determined whether one’s actions were virtuous or non-virtuous. Nagarjuna offered this logical conclusion:

(The scriptures) maintain, ‘The mind is the prerequisite for all dharmas – the mind is the principle factor (in actions).’ So if one does something helpful with the intention to be helpful, how could it be unhelpful, even if suffering is involved?

No one wants to see another Rwanda. If the goal is to protect civilians and, as has been suggested, the airstrikes have succeeded, preventing Gadhafi from enacting retribution on a massive scale, wouldn’t this be a case where a non-virtuous act becomes virtuous through the intention?

It’s tempting to consider this second point of view as just another rationalization, more of “the end justifies the means.” I don’t think so, and no one has less use for that odious concept than me. Nagarjuna, who must be considered an authority given his status as a “Second Buddha” and as one of the chief architects of Mahayana philosophy, pointed out how important it was to understand the relationship between the Buddha’s two truths, the ultimate and the relative. As I’ve mentioned before we often have a tendency to apply the ultimate to the relative inappropriately. The admonition against killing is an ultimate truth, an absolute – but there are no absolutes in the relative world, everything is subject to change.

Awakening means understanding both truths.  The idea is to awaken to reality as it is, not as it should be, and reality can be dammed unpleasant. Awakening only to the pretty picture we paint or the “nice” ideals we aspire to, like peace and love, can be seizing on those things and clinging to them. Perhaps misunderstanding and attachment like this produces less suffering than bombs do, but it’s still suffering.

The other day I wrote that WWII was justified. That was wrong. The use of force is never justified. But perhaps our reason for using force, our intention, can be justifiable. As for the world, it should be peaceful but it’s not, nor is it likely to be in our lifetimes. It has taken me a long time to realize that simple truth, and to understand that being an agent for the kind of change I want to see requires operating from that perspective. Otherwise, you just go crazy.

In any case, these are my thoughts about the subject today. I offer them only as something to think about, to consider. I hope they are helpful.

Traditonally, Refuge (Pali: Ti Samana Gamana) is a ceremony in which one formally becomes a Budddhist or adopts the precepts and teachings of Buddhism. Sometimes it marks an ordination. Most people probably view refuge as essentially a religious ceremony, but  there are different ways to think about it. Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance, says that refuge is not an expression of faith, it’s a practice.

However one sees refuge, I don’t think it needs to always be a formal thing. You should be able to take refuge anywhere, anytime, and as many times as you want. You can go for refuge this moment.

Take refuge in the

Buddha as an example

Dharma for a path

Sangha for companionship.

I don’t remember where I found that but I thought it sounded great. The Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are called the Three Jewels, the Three Treasures, the Triple Gem. The Buddha represents potential for liberation, happiness, enlightenment in all people. Dharma is the teaching, but it can also be phenomena, truth or anything in life.

We constantly enlighten ourselves by taking refuge in the Three Jewels of our own true nature, our own minds. Buddha means enlightenment, dharma means truth, and sangha means purity.

- Hui-neng, The Platform Sutra

I like the word community for sangha. Historically, the sangha has usually referred to the monks and nuns, and everyone else as more or less an afterthought. But there is the “Fourfold Assemby” of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. Personally, I don’t care for sangha with distinctions. I suspect that they were layered on after the Buddha’s passing. I am really uncomfortable with the idea that the monks come before everyone else.

It seems more in keeping with the Buddha’s democratic spirit that each individual in the community be equal. But if anyone comes first, it should be the people. Sangha, to my way of thinking, should always be about the people.

You can be a refuge yourself. Shantideva wrote,

Those desiring speedily to be
A refuge for themselves and others
Should make the interchange of “I” and “other”
And thus embrace a sacred mystery.

In Tenzo kyokun, “Instructions for the Cook”, Dogen uses cooking as an analogy, and says, “Not only do we have the fortune of being born as human beings but also of being able to cook meals to be offered to the Three Jewels.” I like to turn that around and think of the Three Jewels as food, take-out food to be exact. We take refuge, but then we should take our refuge with us, to share with others. Refuge can be thought of as shelter, sanctuary, asylum, a haven, but it is also sustenance and nourishment, a provision we carry along as we fare on the path.

Let’s go for refuge together right now:

We take refuge in the Buddha
We take refuge in the Dharma
We take refuge in the Sangha
We take refuge in the Three Jewels within ourselves

I received a comment the other day in response to my March 13th post featuring Paul Celan’s poem “Death Fugue.” It said something to the effect of “Hitler was great! You stink! Your blog sucks!”

Nazi Party rally 1934

The Hitler remark surprised me. It is somewhat amazing to me, although I don’t know why, that some 66 years later, this man’s name and legacy lives on. Yet, it does and today there are neo-Nazi’s all over the place. Fortunately, in small numbers: Yesterday, about 30 people showed up for a neo-Nazi rally in Claremont, California, just east of Los Angeles. Between 300 and 500 counterdemonstrators rallied nearby.

But neo-Nazi’s are not the only hate-groups out there, and sadly, according to what I have recently read, California has more hate groups than any other state.

When I was a kid, we used to play army. Actually, we played World War II and we fought Nazi’s. Let me tell you, in the annuals of kids playing army, few have ever been better set up than we were. Armed with Mattel sub-machine guns and outfitted with helmet liners, canteens, belts and other stuff we got at an army surplus store.  We dug a three-man foxhole in the back yard and used an old filing cabinet a neighbor had dumped in his back yard for a tank.

Our school in Wichita, Kansas had swastikas carved on the corners near the top. Obviously, it was built before the Nazi’s turned the swastika around and used it as their symbol. We thought having swastikas on our school  was kind of cool. In fact, we thought Nazi’s were kinda cool. I mean we knew they were the bad guys, although I don’t think we truly appreciated the evil they perpetrated. But you have to understand that the Nazi’s had neater looking weapons and uniforms than the Allies did. The SS and the Gestapo dressed in black, and there is nothing cooler than a black trench coat. Not to mention movies: the Nazi’s were without a doubt the greatest villains of all time. I mean those accents alone: “Ve have vays of making you talk.”

But in the end they weren’t as cool as our guys, because they were the good guys. When we played army, I was always Sgt. Rock (“Our Army at War” comics), my friend Dwight was Sgt. Fury (“and His Howling Commandos!” from Marvel) and my little brother was Sgt. Saunders (TV’s “Combat). We were tough. We were ready for action. We were cool.

Sgt. Rock, Sgt. Fury and Sgt. Saunders: The Triple Threat

Then one day, we decided there were better things to do than play army. There were Beatles records to listen to and girls to think about, the latter being a full-time endeavor by itself.

When I was in college I had a job where I worked next to a Holocaust survivor. I could not help but notice the number tattooed on her arm. Since then, I’ve read books. I’ve met more survivors. I know full well the evil the Nazi’s did.

Soldiers of the 101 US Airborne Division with a Nazi flag

So now, I have been an adult for a very long time and I don’t like swastikas. Whenever I step into a Buddhist temple and see them, I feel uncomfortable. I know the swastika is an ancient symbol meant to denote good luck, but seeing them displayed in a Buddhist setting seems to me, considering modern history, insensitive. They’re not necessary. They don’t have to be there. I wonder how Jewish people feel when they walk in and see them.

World War II was a classic battle between good and evil: one of the few times in history when war was justified. Yet, at the outset, the majority of Americans were reluctant to get involved. The idea of war literally had to be sold to the American public. Pearl Harbor sealed the deal. Ironically, after the war it seemed as though the U.S. was chomping at the bit to wage war.

President Barack Obama has received some flak for his reluctance to involve the United States military in yet another Middle East conflict. I support that reluctance. Critics say that Obama’s hesitation is a sign of weakness. I say it is a sign of strength.

Nazi’s do not always wear the same uniform. Sometimes they wear robes, sometimes business suits. Hitlers do not always sport Chaplin-like mustaches. Sometimes they wear a beard, or they are clean shaven, or they might wear funky headgear. They may not even call themselves Nazi’s. In the world today, we have more than a few little Hitlers. Their message is always the same: hate.

Unfortunately, the United States helped put some of them in power and kept them there. Getting rid of these guys is not so simple. It’s not black and white. Regardless of what our role in the past might have been, I agree with the notion that we don’t always need to take the lead and bear the heaviest brunt in taking them out. As it appears now, we are already overextended, so I think it is prudent to be cautious.

I am confident that Barack Obama personally has no use for dictators like Gadhafi. As far as I am concerned, our president is one of the good guys. I wish more people believed that. I am reassured to know that even in the face of great evil Obama is not as cavalier about sending American troops into harm’s way as some past presidents have been.

I’m not crazy about the No-Fly Zone. Not too crazy about Tomahawk cruise missiles being fired. At the same time, like everyone else, I have a strong suspicion that Ghadafi is crazy and he’s killing people, so perhaps it is the only way.

Still I wonder . . . is this some collective karma that keeps repeating itself or is it only history? How many times do we have to keep repeating this exercise . . .

Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac.

- George Orwell

Hitler and Mussolini were only the primary spokesmen for the attitude of domination and craving for power that are in the heart of almost everyone. Until the source is cleared, there will always be confusion and hate, wars and class antagonisms.

- Jiddu Krishnamurti

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic

- Van Morrison

Well-known writer on Buddhist subjects, Stephen Batchelor says, “The Buddha was not a mystic.” This is true, if by “mystic” you are referring to “esoteric” or “otherworldly”, or if by using the word “mysticism” you mean, “vague speculation: a belief without sound basis”. However, if you refer to another definition of mysticism found at Merriam-Webster, “the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight),” then the Buddha was certainly a mystic, sans the God part.

The Buddha taught that nirvana (representing ultimate reality) was not some far-off transcendent realm, but was present in the here and now and accessible to all. However, nirvana is just one way of expressing the ultimate. Nagarjuna said, “The Buddha teaches the one dharma in numerous ways . . .  the ultimate truth, the reality that is not itself anything specific (akincana) is the heart of the teaching of the Buddha,” and Chih-i said, “The one truth is given many names.”

Batchelor has attracted a lot of attention with his deconstruction of Buddhist philosophy. For me, his notions have a scorched earth effect, because after he has deconstructed and demystified dharma, there is very little left: a classic case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

I don’t find Batchelor a particularly original thinker. But then, those who are seem to be few and far between. I’ve noticed some similarity between Batchelor’s work and that of Prof. Trevor Ling (1920-1995), who was also British. That’s okay, all writers and philosophers build upon what came before. Assuming he has at least read Prof. Ling, which I think is a reasonable assumption, Batchelor seems to have missed some of Ling’s finer points.

Here is the expanded passage from Buddhism Without Beliefs, published in 1998, which was quoted briefly above.

The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks. Only as Buddhism became more and more a religion were such grandiose claims imputed to his awakening. In describing to the five ascetics what his awakening meant, he spoke of have discovered complete freedom of heart and mind from the compulsions of craving. He called such freedom the taste of dharma.

And here is a passage from Prof. Ling’s The Buddha, published in 1973:

The nature of the change which took place when Gotama sat meditating under the bodhi tree on the bank of the Nairanjana river is traditionally described by saying that he became the Buddha, that is, the Awakened. In later Buddhist literature, the transition is described in terms which make it literally an earth-shaking event, but the earlier literature gives a more prosaic and analytical account, and one which makes the event described extremely difficult to fit into the categories of ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ experience. This was no ‘inaugural vision’, such as the prophets of Israel underwent. There was no sense of awe at the realization of the presence of divine being, such as Isaiah felt; no ecstatic experience like that of Jeremiah; no voice from heaven accompanying the descent of the holy spirit as Christian tradition represents happening in the case of Jesus; no archangel as in the case of Muhammad, coming down to announce ‘Thou art God’s apostle’, making the chosen one to fall upon his knees and tremble. . .

The account given in a Pali Sutta called Discourse of the Ariyan Quest is represented as the Buddha’s own version of the matter given years later to some of his disciples . . . an account of the intellectual penetration into the nature of the human situation which the Buddha then achieved . . .

Just as the Buddha’s experience was unlike those Ling cites from the Bible, the collection of texts that are the source of nearly all Western religious thought, the Buddha, too, as a teacher, was unlike Western models. He was not a prophet like Isaiah or a law-bringer in the way that Moses was; he was a meditation teacher, a mendicant philosopher. Prof. Ling describes the Buddha’s awakening as “humanistic discovery based on analysis.” In the Majjhima Nikaya or “Middle-length Discourses”, the Buddha says, “I am an analyst, not a dogmatist.”

After dealing with the Buddha’s awakening, Batchelor goes on to describe the “Four Noble Truths” by saying “At precisely this juncture, Buddhism becomes a religion.” In my opinion, Batchelor is projecting his own Western religious prejudices onto the matter. The Four Noble Truths were not offered as religious beliefs but rather, as Ling indicates, the Buddha’s analysis of the human situation.

In its original presentation, the Four Noble Truths does transform Buddhism into a philosophy, but not necessarily a religious one. There is a point of view to be sure, and without it, Buddhism would just be one more meditation technique or another form of yoga.

My feeling is that Batchelor and others who take the same tact are actually reacting against Western religion and not Buddhism. They have a beef with religion, and that’s cool, so do I.

Certainly there is Buddhism with beliefs, Buddhism as religion, as dogma, but there is the opposite as well. Really, Buddhism in today’s world is a potpourri where you can find almost anything you are looking for. But, at its core, I do not see the belief-system and religion that Batchelor does, and I suspect that he sees those things mainly because he wants to.

Prof. Ling had something to say about that, but first I should note that Ling’s thesis is “what we today call a religion is the remains of what was once a complete civilization” and when he uses the word “sacred” Ling is referencing what Durkheim called ‘a sense of the sacred’, or “the human individual’s awareness of his own dependence on the values and collective life of the society to which he belonged, something which greatly transcended him, with his own short span of life, something to which he was indebted, which upheld him, and which provided the sanctions of his conduct.” Prof. Ling:

Thus, in one sense of the word ‘religion’, denoting beliefs and practices connected with spirit-beings, Buddhism was in origin not a religion, but a non-religious philosophy. In the other, more sophisticated meaning of the world ‘religion’, which indicates awareness of that which is sacred, that which sanctions every individual existence, Buddhism in its Asian setting remains in certain respects what it was in origin, a way of attempting to restructure human consciousness and the common life of men in accordance with the nature of what it conceives to be the sacred reality.

There are signs that in the modern period this important dimension of Buddhist civilization – the societal and political dimension – has been lost sight of, and that Buddhism is being reduced from a civilization to what the modern world understands by religion: that is, a system of ‘spiritual’ beliefs to be taken up by the minority in whatever country it happens to be who care for that sort of thing, a source of comfort to some, but in the last resort a private irrelevance, having little bearing on the real issues that shape human affairs. When Westerners have looked at Buddhism, too often they have seen only this, because this was all they were looking for.

Mysticism, but let it be a flower,
let be the hand that reaches for the flower,
let it be the flower that imagined the first hand,
let it be the space that removed itself to give place
for the hand that reaches, the flower to be reached -
let it be self displacing self
as quietly as a child lifts a pebble,
as softly as a flower decides to fall, -
self replacing self
as seed follows flower to earth.

- Conrad Aiken

Memo: Here is an interesting essay about what various religions (I hate to lump Buddhism into this group, but its included) in Japan are doing to help with relief and recovery efforts, and as well, a connection of sorts to my post on March 14th. From religiondispatches.org: Tokyo Governor Says Tsunami is Divine Punishment—Religious Groups Ignore Him

Ah, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, when anyone can put on some green and be Irish for a day, even Alfred E. Neuman. Whenever I think about my Irish heritage, I am reminded of that great quote by William Butler Yeats:

Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

Yes, we Irish do have our special charm.

Yesterday’s post included a quote from Petra Nemcova, a survivor of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand. I don’t know how many people clicked on her link, but I thought it deserved special mention.

After her experience in the tsunami, which she survived by clinging to a palm tree for eight hours with a broken pelvis, Ms. Nemcova, a Czech model and television host, founded the Happy Hearts Fund, “a non-profit foundation dedicated to improving children’s lives through educational and sustainable programs in natural disaster areas.”

HHF has directly helped children in several post-disaster areas, including Haiti, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Peru, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hurricane Katrina-affected areas of the United States. Globally, HHF is active in eight countries and has built/rebuilt 46 schools and kindergartens. Its programs benefit more than 12,000 children and 230,000 community members annually.

As we all deal with the anxiety over the events in Japan and send thoughts of loving-kindness to the victims, we should not forget that in this saha world, money can be a useful tool to help relieve suffering. The Happy Hearts Fund looks like a place where donations are put to wise and effective use. You can check them out here.

However, I think there might be a need for more immediate donations to help those affected by the earthquake in Japan and tsunami throughout the Pacific and the Red Cross is a good place for that. However, if you text your donation, be aware that text donations can be delayed by a month or more, because organizations typically don’t receive the cash from the phone company until after donors pay their bills.

Remember, be as generous as you can, it’s the Irish thing to do.

Erin go Bragh!