Religious scholar Huston Smith is 92 today. A very happy birthday to him.

Smith is best known for his book “The Religions of Man”, first published in 1958 and apparently now titled “The World’s Religions.”  It’s considered to be a classic primer to comparative religion.

I have always thought his section on Buddhism was rather good. I especially like the way it starts:

Buddhism begins with a man . . . While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking life, one man roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like inchoateness of ordinary awareness. It begins with a man who woke up.”

Unlike other religious philosophies, Buddhism is not concerned with magic or the supernatural. Buddha-dharma is about human beings, human affairs, earthly events. The experience Gautama had beneath the Bodhi Tree was neither mystical nor mysterious; it was a human experience. It has to be, or else we could never hope to have the same experience ourselves.

Smith tell us that the Buddha’s teachings were earth-bound, rational, and pragmatic. He lists six corollaries of religion and then gives six reasons why Buddha-dharma is “almost entirely disassociated” with them:

1. Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.

2. Buddha preached a religion devoid of ritual.

3. Buddha preached a religion devoid of speculation.

4. Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition.

5. Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort.

6. Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural.

Then he presents six terms that summarize the Buddha’s approach to religion:

1. It was empirical.

2. It was scientific.

3. It was pragmatic.

4. It was therapeutic.

5. It was democratic.

6. It was directed to individuals.

[Smith offers an explanation to each of these, however it would too lengthy to include them here.]

Buddhism is a humanistic philosophy in the most literal sense. It was given by a human being to human beings. The teachings addressed human problems, the human malaise, human suffering. Even though there may be gods in the background, the dharma Buddha taught was not about them. The only mystery he was seeking to solve was the mystery within the human mind.

Earlier in the book, Smith writes,

Finally religion brushes with mystery. It is always mixed up with magic and mysticism and miracles; with the occult, the esoteric, and the uncanny; with things like spiritualism and the supernatural. Rationalists may complain and all will deplore its credulity and excesses in some of these directions. Religion’s final business is the infinite, the beyond, the beckoning, and its coin is ecstasy. It will always, therefore, lie tangential to what is mundane, ordinary, and prosaic and move away from these even when it can only grope in the direction of their alternative.

When I compare this description of religion with the lists, I can’t make out why Smith keeps referring to Buddhism as a religion. It seems to me that he makes a convincing case otherwise. The way I understand Buddhism is that the “mundane, ordinary, and prosaic” are never moved away from – on the contrary, that is the direction the Buddha encouraged us to head toward. It is actually the mystical that is tangential. Mysticism may be employed, but it is only a tool. Supernatural powers may be on display within the literature, but only as metaphors. It’s the same thing when we talk about the mind being infinite like space. It’s a metaphor for openness and interdependency.

In “The Religions of Man”, Huston Smith says, “Religion’s final business is the infinite.” Interestingly, Rabindranath Tagore, whose phrase “the endless further” I took for the title of this blog, is well known for his book “The Religion of Man.” It was published some 27 years before Smith’s book and while it was not on the subject of comparative religion per se, Tagore did discuss at length his ideas on the universality of religion. This passage conveys what I think Buddhism means when it talks about the infinite. Here, Tagore is discussing

[What] Buddha has described as Brahmavihara, “living in the infinite”. He [Buddha] says . . . ‘To be dwelling in such contemplation while standing, walking, sitting or lying down, until sleep overcomes thee, is called living in Brahma’.

This proves that Buddha’s idea of the infinite was not the idea of a spirit of an unbounded cosmic activity, but the infinite whose meaning is in the positive ideal of goodness and love, which cannot be otherwise than human. By being charitable, good and loving, you do not realize the infinite, in the stars or rocks, but the infinite revealed in Man. Buddha’s teaching speaks of Nirvana as the highest end. To understand its real character we have to know the path of its attainment, which is not merely through the negation of evil thoughts and deeds but through the elimination of all limits to love. It must mean the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself, which unites in its bosom all those to whom we must offer our sympathy and service.

So, we should always approach Buddhism with our feet on the ground and not with our heads in the stars. The Buddha was not on some “cosmic” mission. His quest was earthly. His dragons were the windmills of the mind.

Buddhism begins with a man . . . This is why a Tendai priest named Nichiren once said, “The real meaning of Shakyamuni Buddha’s appearance in this world lay in his behavior as a human being.”

If you want to have truly enjoyable sex then stay away from religion. That’s according to Darrel Ray and Amanda Brown’s “Sex and Secularism” survey. They claim that atheists have far better sex lives than religious people who are plagued with too much guilt to have any fun fornicating. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baptists have the highest levels of guilt, while Catholics and Lutherans are at the lower end.

I don’t know where Buddhists rank in this, if at all, because I didn’t download the full study. To do that you have to sign up for whatever it is Darrel Ray is selling. Apparently, he is a noted psychologist and atheist who may or may not have some affiliation with the University of Kansas (his assistant in the survey is a student there). I should also mention that this was an online survey (of 14,500 people, it’s claimed) and as such I don’t know if it passes the muster for academic surveys, which I  assume is what Ray is purporting it to be.

“I saw my parents as gods whose every wish must be obeyed or I would suffer the penalty of anguish and guilt.” – Natalie Wood

Still, I think there might be some truth there. Certainly religion is not the only cause for guilt. Yet, there’s no escaping the fact that for thousands of years, guilt and religion have seemed inseparable. At least, here in the West.

All of us experience feelings of guilt from time to time. Some folks more than others. Research suggests that guilt settles in around the ages of three to six. Some psychologists believe that guilt can be healthy stimulus to change our behavior for the better. Buddhism doesn’t see it quite like that.

We often see guilt defined as a “feeling of responsibility.” Actually, though, it is a form of feeling. In Buddhism, guilt is viewed as a negative emotion, a form of self-loathing. It’s just another suffering.

The Buddha encouraged his followers to face their problems with clear and calm minds. Acknowledging one’s faults and errors and taking responsibility is crucial, as is repentance. According to Wikipedia, “Repentance is a change of thought to correct a wrong . . .”

[By the way, a few months ago I wrote about confession and repentance in Buddhism. You can read it here.]

“Sin, guilt, neurosis; they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” – Henry Miller

This is what Buddhism asks us to do: change our thoughts. Buddhism never encourages us to be passive. There is always some action to be taken. A change in thinking can lead to a change in behavior. The self-pity and shame that accompanies guilt is not constructive. What is constructive, however, is to make a determination to not want to do it anymore.

“Want” is the key word here, because guilt, I believe, is a choice. Some people want to feel guilty, they want to feel bad. They subconsciously seek out negative experiences (or create them) and, as in the repetition compulsion Freud talked about, they repeat behaviors that produce feelings such as guilt. Or, they assume guilt needlessly.

Life is too fleeting to remain trapped in negative cycles. Every situation we face is an opportunity to gain wisdom. Guilt gets in the way of that. It’s a dead end street. I don’t believe it is a natural consequence of having a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong, which I think is more akin to a crossroads. Because we know the difference between right and wrong, we can make the choice which way to go in the future. Lamenting over the past just wastes the time that could be better spent learning the lesson life is giving us and accepting our responsibility to change the situation by changing ourselves.

This approach is not unique to Buddhism. Just yesterday in Joplin, Mo., where no doubt some people are dealing with “survivor guilt”, President Obama said these words:

We can’t know when a terrible storm will strike or where or the severity of the destruction it may cause. . . .We can’t know why we are tested with the loss of a loved one, the loss of a home where we’ve lived a lifetime. These things are beyond our power to control but that does not mean that were are powerless in face of adversity. How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control, and it’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.”

Not all the storms of life are caused by weather, natural forces. We can create storms and the devastation they wreak is not always physical. And, just as there is not just one form of suffering, there is neither a single solution or single path for overcoming suffering. However, because of the emphasis on inner-directed contemplation and motivation, I feel that Buddhism offers rather effective solutions, which pierce directly into the heart of these storms.

In some cases, guilt is an indication of low self-esteem. Guilt and low self-esteem are mutually self-destructive, because for a person who already feels bad about themselves, adding on guilt only compounds the problem.

This is why the Dalai Lama, during his first visit to the United States in 1973, said this:

In such situations, where there is a danger of feeling guilty and therefore depressed, the Buddhist point of view advises adopting certain ways of thinking and behaving which will enable you to recover your self-confidence . . . Because such disturbing emotions are adventitious, they can be eliminated. To think of the immense well of potential hidden deep within our being, to understand that the nature of the mind is fundamental purity and kindness and to meditate on its luminosity, will enable you to develop self-confidence and courage.”

When we talk about the “self” in this way, we are not referring to the fictional self of ego and soul, the Big Me. Rather we are referring to self in the relative sense, i.e. our distinct individuality, our personal characteristics, the consciousness of our own identity or being.

“There was guilt in her smile, but nothing you could call remorse.” – Nick Charles, ex-Private Eye

As I’ve written several times recently, the practice and study of Buddhism should leave us feeling empowered. I’m not sure that message always comes through in Buddhist discussions, so I don’t feel guilty about repeating it.

Buddha told us to be like a lamp so that we can see light in a world of darkness. So that others can see the light. We are the light and knowing that should give us strength to persevere in any situation, to persevere in spite of ourselves. The light we shine also illuminates our way, keeps us from stumbling over the stones of such things as guilt.

Some words about the 442nd Regimental Combat Team:

I have never been comfortable with the notion of a “good” war. I think perhaps the lone exception is World War II. A confrontation in the starkest terms between good and evil.

The 442nd was a WWII infantry unit composed of Japanese-Americans, the most highly decorated unit in American military history:  9,846 Purple Hearts, 4000 Bronze Stars, 15 Soldier’s Medals, 22 Legion of Merit medals, 560 Silver Stars, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, and 21 Medals of Honor.

The 442nd hike up a muddy French road in France, in late 1944.

These men were Nisei, Japanese Americans born on U.S. soil. Many of them volunteered for service out of the camps where their country had interred them. Interred is a polite word for imprisoned.

Soldiers from Hawaii called themselves Buta-heads (Buddha-heads).

In 1951, MGM filmed the story of the 442nd in Go for Broke starring Van Johnson. There’s a scene where a Catholic chaplain is speaking to a wounded Nisei soldier lying on a stretcher. Noticing the beads in the soldier’s hand, the chaplain asks why he hasn’t seen him at any of the services.  The soldier says, “Different type of rosary.  I’m Buddhist, Father.” The priest pats him on the shoulder and reassures him that he is there if the soldier needs him.

A Nisei soldier looks for German movements in a French valley 200 yards away.

During WW ll, military Chaplains were either Christian or Jewish. When Eleanor Roosevelt asked if any of the Japanese American soldiers were Buddhist, she was told no. In the absence of Buddhist chaplains, many Buddhist soldiers seeking spiritual guidance converted to Christianity. The U.S. Military would not allow a “B”, signifying Buddhist, on dog tags claiming it would confuse medics looking for a soldier’s blood type and the space was left blank.

The 442nd fought in eight major campaigns in Italy, France and Germany, including the battles at Belmont, Bruyeres and Biffontaine. It was at Biffontaine where the unit fought the legendary battle to rescue the Lost Battalion. 800 Nisei soldiers died rescuing 211 members of the Texan 1st Battalion.

This is the event that stands out in my mind: when members of the 442nd were attached to the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and they participated in the liberation of a Dachau concentration camp. I wonder what it must have been like for a young Japanese-American, having left an internment camp to go fight for the country that put him there, to be witness to the horror of a Nazi death camp, sharing food with Jewish inmates who were nothing but skin and bones  . . .

When the Nisei soldiers were sent ahead, they followed the same path that the Nazi’s used to march Jewish inmates to the camp. They noticed lumps in the snow and went to investigate. One of them later said, “Most of them were skeletons or people who had been beaten to death or just died of starvation or overworked or whatever. Most of them I think died from exposure because it was cold.”*

When you meet members of the 442nd, they’re just like the other American soldiers of that generation. They don’t much care to talk about the war.

You can learn more about the 442nd by visiting the Go For Broke National Education Center and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team Historical Society. In reading the history of the unit and the individual stories, one might be tempted to think some screenwriter thought it all up. Countless acts of bravery, heroism, selflessness. Living in the misery of rain, mud and snow. Death, a constant companion . . . It was real, their war was hard, and these Asian-Americans, like all the other WWII soldiers deserve our appreciation.

“All of us can’t stay in the [internment] camps until the end of the war.  Some of us have to go to the front.  Our record on the battlefield will determine when you will return and how you will be treated.  I don’t know if I’ll make it back.”
- Technical Sergeant Abraham Ohama, Company “F”, 442nd RCT, Killed in Action 10/20/1944

President Barack Obama talks with his guests before signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office.

*George Oiye testimonial.

Severe weather is still pounding the Midwest. The videos of these tornadoes are awe-inspiring, just as the scenes of the devastation they leave behind are heartbreaking.

Here in Southern California we’ve had unseasonably cool temperatures and unusual wet weather, but the last few days that’s changed and it’s beginning to feel more like spring. And since it’s May, that means it’s Jacaranda time.

I don’t believe the Jacaranda mimosifolia or Blue jacaranda we have here are native. From what I understand they originated in South America and were transplanted. Jacarandas are a bit like cherry blossoms in that they drop from the trees almost as soon as they bloom.  The Jacarandas tend to drop slower, though, and some blossoms stick for up to two months, while cherry blossoms are normally gone within two weeks.

To me, both  represent the transient nature of life.

Here are some photos I took yesterday of the big jacaranda tree down the street from me. You can click on them for a larger view. And I have more photos of the jacarandas, from a previous year, here.

It is precisely
because all is transient
that even mute trees
put forth blossoms in the springtime
and in autumn shed brown leaves.

Otomo no Yakamochi (718?-785)

One cannot rely
on things to stay as they are –
for on the morrow
this day we call today
will be called yesterday.

Monk Saigyo (1118-1190)

While I gazed out,
barely conscious that I too
was growing old,
how many times have blossoms
scattered on the spring wind?

Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241)

Well one may wish –
but will those who have parted
return once again?

Late into the evening,
mountains where blossoms fall.

Bishop Shinkei (1406-1475)

When I was involved with the Soka Gakkai, they used to call the teachings of Nichiren, “True Buddhism.” I imagine they still do, and they are not the only ones to describe their brand of Buddhism that way. However, such sectarian claims are now quickly crumbling in light of new scholarship.

Last week there was an interesting article published on entitled “Whose Buddhism is Truest?” It’s about the discovery of some birch bark scrolls in an area of eastern Afghanistan/northwest Pakistan that was once known as Gandhara. This locale at one time was also the center of a Buddhist civilization. Gandhara art is mostly Buddhist, done in the Greco-Roman style, and includes not only the earliest known oil paintings but also some of the earliest representations of the Buddha’s likeness. The giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan were a part of this incredible legacy, and sad to say, Buddhist artifacts from the Gandhara era are still being destroyed by the Taliban.

Somewhere around 1994, the aforementioned birch bark scrolls were discovered and eventually wound up at the British Library. It was soon apparent that these were the oldest Buddhist manuscripts in existence. Perhaps the first thing researchers noticed was that the manuscripts were written in a language previously unknown. Not Pali, not Sanskrit, or any other Indian language. This led to the conclusion that not only were they the oldest Buddhist manuscripts, but they were “the oldest surviving manuscripts of South Asia, period. They reach back into an era when the oral tradition of Buddhism probably first began to be written down.” What’s more, some of the material is new.

You can read all the details in the article here. In the meantime, here are some excerpts to give you an idea of the impact of this discovery:

[These] scrolls and scroll fragments are a stunning find: an entirely new strand of Buddhist literature.

[Scholars traditionally thought] that if they traced the various branches of the tree of Buddhist textual history back far enough, they would arrive at the single ancestral root . . .

As scholars scrutinized the Gandhari texts, however, they saw that history didn’t work that way at all . . . It was a mistake to assume that the foundation of Buddhist textual tradition was singular, that if you followed the genealogical branches back far enough into the past they would eventually converge. Traced back in time, the genealogical branches diverged and intertwined in such complex relationships that [the model] broke down completely . . .

It is now clear that none of the existing Buddhist collections of early Indian scriptures—not the Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, nor even the Gandhari—‘can be privileged as the most authentic or original words of the Buddha.”

These scrolls are incontrovertible proof that as early as the first century B.C.E., there was another significant living Buddhist tradition in a separate region of India and in an entirely different language from the tradition preserved in Pali.

In other words, there is more to Buddhist history than we know. Well, it’s not news to me and if you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I have said as much on several occasions.

The story of Buddhism that has been handed down to us has many gaps in it and has been spun in order to legitimatize tradition and solidify the monastic/priestly power base. The question folks should ask themselves is this: If we are to follow the teachings and try to cultivate an enlightened mind, a mind that is open and vast like space, shouldn’t the vehicle for these teaching also be open and vast? When I say open and vast here, I chiefly mean in the sense of being non-fundamentalist and inclusionary.

One thing is for sure, it is time to lay down sectarian posturing. For example, the Theravada tradition claims that the Buddha spoke Pali (which he didn’t) and that their Buddhism is the original Buddhism, and so they expect everyone else to bow down to them. On the other extreme, we have the Nichiren schools who claim that the historical Buddha actually taught the Lotus Sutra and yet, in some amazingly convoluted reasoning, the Buddhism of the historical Buddha is invalid and only dharma based on the Lotus Sutra should be practiced. Both claims are ludicrous and between those two poles there are quite a few variations of the same kind of dogma.

As we pry open the dharma gates to make Buddhism more accessible, reasonable and understandable to greater numbers of people, we come face-to-face with one prime point.

In The philosophy of the middle way: Mulamadhyamakakarika By Nagarjuna, David J. Kalupahana writes,

Myths of huge proportions have developed around the spiritual and philosophical stature of various personalities in almost every school of Buddhism. Often these myths were inflated by sectarian rivalries that continued to plague the history of Buddhism, especially the rivalry between the two major schools, Theravada and Mahayana. These prejudices tended to polarize the philosophical teachings of these two traditions though, in fact, they are similar if not identical. They are similar in being faithful to the basic teachings of the Buddha; they are also comparable in the way in which they rejected certain metaphysical ideas that continued to creep into the teachings . . .

The continuation of certain sectarian prejudices among the faithful adherents of Theravada and Mahayana may be understandable. Critical scholarship, on the contrary, has a responsibility to remain unsmeared by such sectarian prejudices. Modern scholarship in Buddhism, which began with the recognition of this sectarian rivalry as representing a major split in Buddhist philosophical and religious ideology, has come a long way in asserting its untenability. However, scholars are now beginning to realize that the Theravada/Mahayana distinction is an exaggeration and that the fundamental teaching of the Buddha has remained intact throughout the centuries.”

In the final analysis, once we remove the veils of sectarianism and have debunked all the myths, we come down to the clear fact that the message and the goal of Buddhism is essentially the same despite whatever name you give it or however you spin it.

I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.”

- The Buddha

It’s all meat on the same bone.

Transcending suffering and being of benefit to others, that is True Buddhism.

Everything else is flavoring.

Deepak Chopra is one of those guys who gets more than his fair share of criticism. Because he’s popular, he’s an easy target. There are folks who take exception to some of the things he says, especially in regards to science, but frankly I’ve heard Robert Thurman make some pretty wild claims too, and no one uses him for a punching bag. Not that I know of, anyway.

The way I look at it, Chopra provides a service. Because he is popular (and yes, a bit of a huckster), he’s sometimes used as a “talking head” on religious matters, and I think he offers a much needed alternative view. There may be some holes in his dissertations, but to me they seem consistent with the Buddhist view and Eastern philosophy in general, and I welcome almost any alternative to the spiritual dogma put out by the adherents of Abrahamic religions that dominate the media.

Look, up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superguru!

I have never read any of Chopra’s book and maybe if I did, I might change my mind. His latest one, however, intrigues me. It’s called The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes (HarperOne; June 2011; Hardcover; $25.99; ISBN 9780062059666). Now, if you have read this blog recently, you might have gotten the idea that I am still a bit of a sucker for comics and superheroes. Well, sort of. I haven’t read a comic book in decades. It’s more like nostalgia.

Without even reading his book, I can guess Chopra suggests that it’s possible for us to be spiritual superheroes. A few years ago he was telling people about “The Way of the Wizard” and how “A wizard exists in all of us.” But I can’t come down on him for that. I am guilty of the same thing, as demonstrated by my post of May 10th, Be A Hero of The Mind. On one hand, these are just analogies, nothing to take too seriously either positive or negative. Still, it seems to me that being a mind-hero or a superhero of your own life is more than just some spiritual taffy. Didn’t the Buddha put it terms of a Noble Quest? In the end, isn’t all about being a champion and winning over ourselves?

By the way, when I was six or seven I created my own superhero character. His name was Captain Virtue. The first installment of his saga was entitled, “The Virtues of Captain Virtue.” Sure, it was redundant but this was also around the time I also wrote my first song, “Your Love Gives Me Heartburn.”

Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers with Philson Ahn and Constance Moore

Superhero movies are in very much in vogue these days. Especially since they can finally do the special effects justice. As I write this, they are showing an ad for the Green Lantern movie on TV. Coming in June. Last week, I caught up with Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The effects were spectacular. When I was growing up they were so hokey. If you want an idea of the kind of special effects folks my age had to put up with, check out Turner Classic Movies on Saturday mornings and watch an episode of the 1939 serial Buck Rogers (and stayed tuned for a Tarzan movie). I wasn’t around in 1939, but special effects had not advanced much by the time I was.

Back in my day, you might have been able to make a reasonably decent Green Lantern movie but there was no way you could do the Fantastic 4. Kids today who are into this stuff are so lucky. And while I’m at it, I just have to tip my hat once more to Stan Lee and all the other creative geniuses at Marvel Comics, who in the 1960’s not only came up with great superheroes but also great super-villains. I mean the idea of a being who goes around consuming worlds to get the energy he needs to sustain himself (Galactus), aided by a “herald” who travels the universe on a cosmic surfboard (The Silver Surfer) is just, well, the only word for it is cool. Maybe they are just comic books, but the characters and story lines are a match for anything I’ve read in “serious” science fiction.

Speaking of heroes, another tip of the hat to one of my real life heroes: today is Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Being a big Dylan fan, I thought about writing something special but I couldn’t think of anything to say. After all, everything that’s been said about Bob has been said already. Like this:

This panel was published 40 years ago! Good grief!!

Most people think of tai chi as a form of gentle exercise, but technically, it’s a martial art. It’s also a way of meditation, and a way of life.

Tai is “great.” Chi does not mean “energy” or “life force” (ch’i, qi, ki) as one might expect, instead it refers to yin and yang (two polar forces in the universe) fused into the Great Ultimate, represented by the Tai-chi (taiji) symbol to the left. The Great Ultimate is fundamentally the Non-Ultimate, or the Ultimate of Non-being.

The health benefits of tai chi are pretty well documented now. Many studies have determined that tai chi has a positive effect on mental health, cardiovascular fitness, high blood pressure, muscle strength, flexibility and aerobic capacity. A new study by the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine in Daejeon, South Korea and the University of Exeter (UK), published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, concluded that while tai chi offers little help in easing the symptoms of cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, “tai chi, which combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements, may exert exercise-based general benefits for fall prevention and improvement of balance in older people as well as some meditative effects for improving psychological health.”

Here are the so-called Eight Truths of Tai Chi, translated by Waysun Liao* from “early manuscripts by unknown masters.” I don’t know if “truths” is the right word, for they are not facts, but rather principles, ones that apply not only to tai chi but also to meditation itself, and for that matter, daily living.

The Eight Truths of T’ai Chi

1. Do not be concerned with form. Do not be concerned with the ways in which form manifests.

2. Your entire body should be transparent and empty. Let inside and outside fuse.

3. Learn to ignore external objects. Allow your mind to guide you, and act spontaneously, in accordance with the movement.

4. The sun sets on the western mountain. The cliff thrusts forward, suspended in space. See the ocean in its vastness and the sky in its immensity.

5. The tiger’s roar is deep and mighty. The monkey’s cry is high and shrill. So should you refine your spirit, cultivating the positive and the negative.

6. The water of spring is clear, like fine crystal. The water of the pond lies still and placid. Your mind should be as the water and your spirit like the spring.

7. The river roars. The stormy ocean boils. Make your ch’i like these natural wonders.

8. Seek perfection sincerely. Establish life. When you have settled the spirit, you may cultivate the ch’i.

* Waysun Liao, T’ai Chi Classics (Random House, 1977)

Life is good and to be enjoyed.

The individual self is one with nature, an integral part of the vast universe. The Buddhist quest is to realize our “greater self” and to obtain liberation from the “lesser self”, the self of ego, self-cherishing and clinging. The view from the greater self is like the view from the top of mountain. It’s hard not to be enthralled with the vista. The lesser self is like standing on the land below in the fog. The view is limited.

To me, this is what is meant by the phrase chen-k’ung miao-yu (Jp. shinku-myou) or “true emptiness, wondrous existence.”

Chen-k’ung or “true emptiness”, refers to the realm of thought, the mind that realizes the emptiness of all things. It’s a state of mind that, free from attachments, is likened to space – it’s non-obstructive, open, infinite. Miao-yu, “wondrous existence”, says Buddhist scholar Ng Yu-kwan, “would imply an affirmative but non-attaching attitude toward the dharmas [things] in the world.” In other words, emptiness does not deny or reject existence, rather it offers us insight into the mystery of existence, it’s inexplicableness, and the glorious interdependency of everything.

Chih-i interpreted the word miao as “subtle.” Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, states, “For Chih-I the word ‘subtle’ symbolized and summarized that which is beyond conceptual understanding and thus it is the word most appropriate to describe reality, which is ultimately indescribable.”

This is similar to what is expressed in the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be known is not the infinite Tao.
The name that can be named is not the infinite name.
The unnamable is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is mother to ten thousand things.
Those without constant desire see into its subtlety.
Those with constant desire, only see its limit.
These two have the same origin
But are given different designations.
We call them both mysteries.
Deepness within deepness:
The gate to all subtleties.

It may sound strange but you should be pleased to know that things are empty, for it is what makes existence truly wondrous.

In The Heart of Understanding, Thich Nhat Hanh, commenting on the maxim “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” from the Heart Sutra, says,

‘Emptiness’ means empty of a separate self. It is full of everything, full of life. The word ‘emptiness’ should not scare us. It is a wonderful word. To be empty does not mean to be nonexistent.”

When one has attained this understanding of the oneness of true emptiness and wondrous existence and is liberated from thought processes that form attachments, our saha or mundane world is transformed into a world of ten thousand wonders.

The message today then is that letting go of attachments does not mean that we cease enjoying life and seeing emptiness does not mean to depreciate beauty.

Because, as Han-shan Te-ch’ing said, “so-called existence is called ‘wondrous existence’ because the illusory existence is fundamentally non-existent”, we can see the world around us clearly, without veils of desires and attachment before our eyes, or as if we were standing on a mountain above the fog, and that enables us to embrace what we see and what is enjoyable about life from a profoundly higher level of appreciation.

Life is good and to be enjoyed.

Enjoy being a laughing, smiling, happy Buddha all day.



The title of this post comes from a line in a Bob Dylan song. I don’t know if Bob believes in reincarnation or not. I rather doubt it, since he has fairly conventional religious views. But who knows? Shirley MacLaine definitely believes in reincarnation. Buddhists probably shouldn’t because it’s not really a Buddhist concept. Buddhism teaches rebirth.

Reincarnation is the theory that the same person will be reborn in successive bodies. The core teachings of Buddhism say nothing about this. Reincarnation found its way into Buddhism through the assimilation of folklore and native beliefs. Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul or a self that can transmigrate. So, rebirth is different from reincarnation. What Buddhism is talking about is a continuum of consciousness. The difference may seem slight, but its there.

Still, some people may wonder if then rebirth isn’t also just another supernatural belief we should cast off. The funny thing is, I don’t think of rebirth as being supernatural. It seems rather scientific to me.

Looking at existence just in terms of the cycle of birth and death, we know everything that is born will eventually become old and sick and then die away. On that, there is no question. What happens next is debatable. Yet, it would appear from the way nature and the universe behaves that things are recycled. Leaves fall to the ground to become compost that helps other plants to grow and it’s also food for worms and the worms become food for ants and beetles, and so it goes in a continuous cycle.

The universe itself continuously recycles energy and mass at both the subatomic and macro-atomic level. Atoms, molecules, planets, suns, and even galaxies are destroyed and the energies are dispersed to be reassembled in other forms. Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics called this “the Cosmic Dance”:

The exploration of the subatomic world in the twentieth century has revealed the intrinsically dynamic nature of matter. It has shown that the constituents of atoms, the subatomic particles, are dynamic patterns which do not exist as isolated entities, but as integral parts of an inseparable network of interactions. These interactions involve a ceaseless flow of energy manifesting itself as particles are created and destroyed without end in a continual variation of energy patterns . . . The whole universe is thus engaged in endless motion and activity; in a continual cosmic dance of energy.”

Here we also have science revealing patterns of interdependency, consistent with the Buddhist concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada). Additionally, science tells us that new matter and energy are created about every trillion years. So, evidently what we see as birth and death is not birth and death at all, it is only the transformation of matter and energy. It’s recycling.

Some years ago, Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok of Cambridge University unveiled the “cyclic universe theory” which suggests, “that space and time may not have begun in a big bang, but may have always existed in an endless cycle of expansion and rebirth.”* The beginningless beginning . . .

I don’t feel that it’s deal breaker if existence does not unfold exactly as Buddha-dharma has laid out. It’s the overall principle that is important. Nor, do I believe it is out of the realm of possibilities that the recycling of energy may not also apply to living beings. For these reasons, I am reluctant to dismiss rebirth as just some supernatural notion that deserves no attention or contemplation.

Yet, I think people make too much of the question of rebirth. People shouldn’t feel that, well, if I practice Buddhism then I will be expected to believe in this “supernatural” stuff. But if you keep your mind open, then it’s possible that you might perceive deeper meanings about the inevitability of change and life manifesting itself in interrelated patterns within cycles of  time and nature.

Birth and death are just cycles of life and Buddhism says that throughout these cycles, nothing is created and nothing is destroyed. It’s just life, flowing . . .

This teaches us the humility of our mutual dependence as well as the universality of our true nature and the freedom from that most deadly of all illusions, the illusion of a permanent, separate ego. Whatever resists transformation condemns itself to death. There is no death for those who accept the law of transformation.”

Lama Anagarika Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous

Bob Dylan, Tombstone Blues


Although Vesak (Pali: Vesakha; Sanskrit: Vaisakha) is often called the “Buddha’s Birthday”, it’s actually three celebrations rolled into one: the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni (Sage of the Shakyas), and of course, as the Buddha.

The date for Vesak differs according to tradition and country, but generally it’s held on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which would be today. So happy Vesak day to everyone.

Of course, no one knows for sure when the Buddha was born or when he died, or even if there actually was such a person. Sometimes I am inclined to believe that the Buddha’s story was crafted from that of Mahavira, who was the real architect of Jainism as we know it today, or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe there actually were two guys with nearly identical backgrounds who arrived on the Indian spiritual scene at basically the same time with very similar teachings. Maybe they’re both myths. It’s likely we’ll never know.

As far as Buddhism goes, it doesn’t matter. Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Because the Buddha is portrayed as a human being and not a god, his awakening represents the potential for awakening that exists within every human being. It’s not important whether one particular person was the first to awaken. Plenty of others awakened after him, and we can too. That potential is like a seed and when it sprouts in anyone, that person is, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.”

Tsung-mi (780-841), regarded as both a patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master, composed a work entitled Yuan Jen or “On the Original Nature of Human Beings.” It’s often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings. In this piece, he wrote,

All sentient beings posses the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.”

For Buddhists, then, the Buddha is the personification of all our ideals and values. He attained the highest spiritual achievement, but the same is never beyond our own reach. To me, Vesak is about commemorating that potential for Buddhahood. We are really celebrating ourselves. We are him and he is us. His day is our day.

The term ‘all Buddhas’ means Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni Buddha is synonymous with one’s very mind being Buddha. At that very moment when all the Buddhas of past, present, and future have become, do become, and will become Buddha, without fail, They become Shakyamuni Buddha. This is what “Your very mind is Buddha” means.

- Dogen, On ‘Your Very Mind Is Buddha’ (Soku Shin Ze Butsu)