First, a follow-up to Tuesday’s post: A Chinese court has sentenced 46 year old Buddhist monk Lobsang Tsundue to 11 years imprisonment for allegedly “killing” his nephew, Rigzin Phuntsog, a 16-year old monk who set himself on fire last March. Tsundue was found guilty of hiding Phuntsog which prevented the boy from receiving emergency medical treatment for 11 hours. Eyewitnesses claim that that after Chinese security personnel doused the flames, they severely beat Phuntsog’s charred body. Tsundue, they said, was trying to save his nephew from any further beating. Tsundue’s supporters also claim that young monk Phuntsog died as a result of the beatings and not from his self-immolation.

In related news, the former Tibet Communist Party chief Zhang Qingli who led China’s hard-line policy against the Dalai Lama and his supporters, has a new job and a new target.

Zhang Qingli, aka “The Tibetan bulldog”, has been appointed Communist Party Secretary of Hebei province, home to about one quarter of China’s Roman Catholics.  According to the, Hebei province is “where tensions between the state and the Vatican run at their highest.”

Although there is no evidence that Zhang Qingli plans to mercilessly persecute the Catholics, and perhaps unfair to suggest that he will, it’s still a safe bet things will be no picnic for them in the foreseeable future, because if you know anything at all about modern day China, you know that the government has no use for religion or spirituality.

And now, here’s another exciting episode featuring the guy the Chinese government just loves to hate:

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part X

Day Two – Morning Session

After leading the audience in a short sutra recitation and a series of mantras, the Dalai Lama begins the morning session with a long question-and-answer period. Since some of the questions dealt with specific topics within the Tibetan tradition, they have not been included. Some of the answers have been condensed and summarized.

Q: When you are talking about finding the nature of one’s mind, clear and knowing, in relationship to the past, present and future; and finding the empty space and consequently expanding it, as a concentration – how does this assist the attainment of one’s understand of selflessness?

A: When we are talking about the nature of the mind or consciousness, we must bear in mind that there are two different levels. One is the relative level and one is the ultimate level. So when we are talking about the possibility of actually defining the nature of the mind through a meditative process of preventing the arising of thoughts of the past and anticipation of the future and remaining in the present, then we are dealing with the nature of the mind at the conventional or relative level.

Of course, through such a meditative approach if one is able to develop a greater degree of awareness of the relative nature of the mind in the form of mere knowing or luminosity, then it could have positive benefits. When you reflect upon the emptiness of the mind, you can have a greater clarity, a clearer identification of mind itself.

As far as the actual nature of emptiness is concerned, which is the absence or the negation of the intrinsic reality, one cannot make a distinction between the emptiness of vast space and the emptiness of the mind. However, the difference in the subject or object upon which you meditate on emptiness – there is going to be a difference in the impact or effect it will have on your mind. For example, compared to the reflection on the emptiness of [? Word unclear.] certainly reflection on the emptiness of mind will have a greater effect. Also, in the Madhyamaka commentaries, in their discussions of how all the negativities of the mind are, through meditation, calmed or purified or dissolved into emptiness – the reference here is to the emptiness of mind. Similarly, when we talk about the qualities of the Buddha’s wisdom and transcendent mind, one of the dimensions of the dharma-kaya [dharma body] is said to be the emptiness of the mind.

Q: When people ask if Buddhist believe in soul, I don’t know how to answer them. It seems that they are asking about spirit, a belief in a higher power than the ordinary human being’s consciousness. Is the biggest problem semantics?

A: There is probably an element of semantics. Although I use the English word ‘spirit’ or ‘soul,’ I must admit that I do not really know the full implications of these English terms. However, when Buddhists talk about whether or not there is ‘self’, we must take into account the context in which this discourse on no-self takes place. Within the historical context of Indian Buddhism the discourse is about whether or not atman [Brahman concept of a permanent self that is one essence with Brahma or god.] exists. By rejecting atman, Buddhists are not rejecting existence or any basis on which the natural sense of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ arises. Buddhist are not rejecting that. What is being rejected, in the anatman theory, is the metaphysical concept where atman is said to be a metaphysical reality that is eternal and permanent. The problem arises for certain philosophers to accommodate that never-ending continuum with the transient nature of life.

Certainly your point that sometimes the difficulty being semantics is very true. If we were to understand by the word ‘soul’ a basis upon which the natural sense of thoughts of ‘I am’ arise within the individual being, then we could say that soul exists. However, if one understands by the word ‘soul’ a metaphysical reality, like the atman theory, and is independent of mind and body, independent of mental and physical aggregates, something  that is self-sufficient, autonomous, and so on – then, of course, that concept is not tenable in Buddhist thought.

Q: What do you recommend as a daily meditation for a lay person who is not skilled in meditative practices? Something to use in the morning after waking up and at night before falling asleep.

A: There is a set of verses from the Ratnavali, The Precious Garland [see below] which could be used as a daily recitation and also as seeds for thought. So that you read through and reflect on the meanings of these verses on a daily basis. Or one could personally select certain extracts from a text like The Precious Garland, certain key passages as a basis for daily practice.

Continue reading »

Young Phuntsog Jarutsang

He who allows oppression shares the crime.
- Desiderius Erasmus

On March 16, 2011, the third anniversary of the demonstrations that shook up Tibet in 2008, a young Tibetan monk named Phuntsok Jarutsang set himself on fire to protest the Chinese government’s continued oppression of the Tibetan people. According to reports, police officers extinguished the flames and then proceeded to beat the young monk mercilessly. He died in a hospital from injuries sustained from the beating. He was 21.

Now, Chinese authorities had announced that they plan to prosecute three Tibetan monks for their involvement in the death of the young monk. According to Voice of America, “China’s state run news agency Xinhua said Friday the court in Aba in Sichuan province is charging two of his fellow monks for plotting and assisting in the self-immolation. A third monk is being charged with moving or hiding the injured Phuntsog, preventing him from getting medical care, which lead to his death.”

All four monks were members of Kirti Monastery, which for months has been under siege from Chinese security forces who allegedly beat monks and set attack dogs on them. U.N. human rights investigators are still calling for China to disclose the “fate and whereabouts” of more than 300 monks who disappeared after being rounded up by police at the monastery. China is still defending its treatment of the monks who have been forced to undergo “re-education.” The Chinese government insists it has a right to interfere with “religious affairs.”

And the U.S. news media is still pretty much ignoring the situation. Nor is there any great outcry from the U.S. Government.

Casey Anthony studying Buddhism? Her attorney Jose Baez says she currently receiving “spiritual counseling.” Apparently one of her other attorneys, Dorothy Clay Sims, owns a place called the Vision Farm Retreat and Meditation Center in McIntosh, Florida. According to, Vision Farm Retreat and Meditation Center is a Thich Nhat Hanh community in Florida. Don’t visit their website, though. It takes you to a spam site. Naturally there’s some speculation about this connection (the lawyer and Thich Nhat Hanh) but then spiritual counseling could mean almost anything . . .

I’m not a big fan of “The Dude.” First off, I hate that word. Always makes me think of Keanu Reeves for some reason. Or Wayne’s World. Dude was not part of the lexicon of the Sixties. It came along much later when things started going seriously downhill. Likewise, “The Big Lebowski,” is not my favorite Coen Brothers film. I don’t have anything against The Dude. I’ve known a few people in that mold. However, I actually prefer my existentialist heroes to have a bit more class and sophistication. That being the case, I don’t have much interest in whether The Dude abides or not.

I am, however, a fan of the guy who played The Dude, Jeff Bridges. He’s had a couple of very good years here. Recently, he has made it known that he has some interest in Buddhism. In his typically understated and modest way, he has not made a big noise about it.

Bridges has also just released his second musical album, entitled Jeff Bridges, which he describes as “blues and country hymns.” It’s in the same groove as the music from “Crazy Heart” and produced by the man who put the music together for that film, T-Bone Burnett. The album has the kind of sound I like. I don’t think it’s going to set the world on fire. But, you never know.

One of the songs, “Tumbling Vine” begins with these words,

Here is the freedom
I have been sent
I’m delighted
I’m buddhistly bent.

“Buddhistly bent” sounds a little Dudeistic to me, but it’s cool nonetheless. The song isn’t bad either. You can listen to it here on Yahoo Music.

Irene prior to landfall. (NASA)

Hurricane Irene made landfall near Cape Hatteras, NC, on Saturday morning and then sluggishly churned its way up the Eastern Seaboard.

The cape is part of Hatteras Island, one of those barrier islands they call the Outer Banks. It has been hit by hurricanes 104 times in the last 140 years. It gets a direct hit about once every 4.34 years. Hurricanes affect Hatteras every 1.35 years on average. The last time was September 2010 when Hurricane Earl passed within 70 miles. In 2003, Isabel hit Hatteras hard, causing extensive damage to the entire Outer Banks

In August of 1889, William Aiken, a surgeon and his wife, Anna who was seven months pregnant, were on a short voyage along the coast. According to one account,

Their ship was caught in a hurricane, floundering against the rocky shore off Cape Hatteras, and William and Anna were handed to safety with the air of a human chain formed by the crew only a short time before a wave washed away the deckhouse where their cabin was located. But Anna suffered no ill effects, and she and her husband reached their new home . . . There on August 5, 1899, their first child was born . . .”

That child was Conrad Aiken, a poet I profiled a few weeks back. He wrote the following poem which is so terribly apropos for this weekend.

Hatteras Calling

Southeast, and storm, and every weather vane
shivers and moans upon its dripping pin,
ragged on chimneys the cloud whips, the rain
howls at the flues and windows to get in,

the golden rooster claps his golden wings
and from the Baptist Chapel shrieks no more,
the golden arrow in the southeast sings
and hears on the roof the Atlantic Ocean roar.

Waves among wires, sea scudding over poles,
down every alley the magnificence of rain,
dead gutters live once more, the deep manholes
hollow in triumph a passage to the main.

Umbrellas, and in the Gardens one old man
hurries away along a dancing path,
listens to music on a watering-can,
observes among the tulips the sudden wrath,

pale willows thrashing to the needled lake,
and dinghies filled with water; while the sky
smashes the lilacs, swoops to shake and break,
till shattered branches shriek and railings cry.

Speak, Hatteras, your language of the sea:
scour with kelp and spindrift the stale street:
that man in terror may learn once more to be
child of that hour when rock and ocean meet.


Hurricane info:
Aiken info: Edward Butscher, Poet of White Horse Vale (University of Georgia Press, 2010)


Again I hope that people are enjoying this series. I know of a couple of people out there who are, although enjoy is probably not the right word . . .

In any case, there is still a long ways to go as we are just finishing with Day One in this installment:

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997

Part IX

But the Victors said that
the Dharma of the highest good
is the subtle and profoundly appearing;
it is frightening to unlearned, childish beings.

From verse 25 the discussion moves on to the dharma and three associated practices related to the attainment of what the text calls the highest good. The highest good here refers to liberation or nirvana. And it is said to be the highest good in the sense that liberation constitutes the definitive attainment and happiness and it is also positive in all its aspects.

Now the question is why is liberation or nirvana said to be the highest good? Here my explanation is from the point of view of the Madhyamaka [the Middle Way school of Nagarjuna] philosophy. It is said to be the highest good because liberation or nirvana is constituted by the total overcoming or elimination of the state of existence that is characterized by ignorance and the bondage of clinging to self. So long as one remains in a state where one is clinging to self-existence, there is no real scope for lasting joy or happiness because such an individual remains in the bondage of karma and afflictions of the mind. Therefore, any effort toward total freedom from that kind of bondage really constitutes the highest form of attainment.

When the Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, he taught the first truth, the truth of suffering, in terms of description of the four characteristics of suffering. The first being impermanence. The fact that existence in the unenlightened states is transient, ultimately unsatisfying, there is emptiness [Skt. Sunyata] and there is an absence of self-existence. When we talk about impermanence, in a conventional sense, one can have a rough understanding in terms of the continuum of life. But that is a coarse understanding of the transient nature.

The transient nature being taught here as one of the cardinal characteristics of existence should be viewed in terms of its dynamic process, its ever changing nature. It is momentary but even in the individual instances themselves, the moment they come into being are in the nature of disintegration. It is not as if things come into being first and then some third condition or some other factor cause it to cease to exist. It’s not the case. Whatever phenomena comes into being, the very instant they are born, they are born with the full mechanism for their disintegration.

One could say that the very cause that creates them also creates the destruction of the phenomena, so that the seed or mechanism for disintegration is built within the phenomena itself. So now, we apply that subtle meaning of impermanence to ourselves in an unenlightened form. We are then talking about an understanding of the causal process, where the two primary causes are negative karma and afflictions of the mind. Underlying all of the afflictions of the mind is the cardinal root cause, which is described as avidya or ignorance.

The very word avidya or ignorance in itself show a state that one cannot really endorse as positive. It is said to be fundamentally confused, so, surely it cannot be a state that is desirable. The point is that if our existence is said to be completely determined and conditioned by that fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, how can there be scope for lasting freedom or lasting peace. Therefore, it becomes crucial to see whether that advidya or fundamental ignorance can be eliminated.

Now, of course, within the Buddhist tradition there are divergent opinions as to what is the nature of ignorance. Such masters as Asanga [Buddhist philosopher who was the creative force behind the Yogacara school and the “Mind-Only” doctrine] made distinctions between self-grasping – the mind grasping at self-existence on one hand and ignorance on the other. Asanga, and others like him, saw ignorance more in terms of an inactive state, a mere not-knowing, where other Buddhist thinkers such as Dharamkirti [a Buddhist logician] and many Madhyamaka philosophers defined ignorance as an active state of mis-knowing, relating to the world in a distorted way of perceiving. In that sense, the self-grasping mind itself is the fundamental ignorance. From the last point of view, the quest for freedom from Samsara [the cycle of birth and death fueled by ignorance] really becomes the quest to dispel ignorance and its mortal apprehension.

One could say that this fundamental ignorance is the definitive enemy within us. As Shantideva’s Bodicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”, points out, the power and the extent of harm that the internal enemy can inflict upon us should cause us to view ignorance as the most definitive and inner-most enemy that we combat.

When we talk about ignorance, we must know that, to a large extent, it is something that is natural and innate within us and sometimes this naturally flowed way of viewing life can be reinforced by philosophical speculation. So when the Buddhist teaching of anatma or no-self is taught, often it can create a sense of unease within us. Because the grasping for self-existence is so deeply rooted in us, reflection on the fundamental Buddhist teaching of anatma can create some discomfort. Especially for those in whom this inherent self-grasping is further reinforced by metaphysical speculation – for them the sense of discomfort or unease can be even greater.

I can tell you a story about an Indian from Behar, who later became a Buddhist and part of the monastic order. One day I was teaching to him the doctrine of anatma, no-self, and when I mentioned to him that Buddhism rejects the concept of a soul, the person was literally shaking. So this shows how a genuine reflection of this most basic Buddhist teaching of no-self can go against the deeply imbedded ways of viewing the world that we possess.

This is what is meant by verse 26, where it reads, “the teaching of selflessness terrifies the childish./For the Wise, it puts an end to fear.”

For the wise, the teaching of selflessness really shows that there is an opening to getting out of this condition of being in an unenlightened state of existence.

In verse 27, it reads that,

All beings arise from fixation on self
such that they (thereby) are fixated on ‘mine’;
this is what has been stated
by the one who speaks solely for the sake of beings.

Given that it is this grasping at the concept of self-existence which gives rise to the unenlightened forms of existence, the Buddha has taught, out of compassion for all sentient beings, the path which would liberate all out of that bondage. The path here refers to the path of no-self.

So we will leave at that. Those of you who have deeper interests in what we have discussed so far, I would suggest that you reread the sections that we have covered today and try to reflect on their meanings. So, through this way, you will gain greater benefit.

Since the process of understanding takes place in the form of attaining different levels of understanding, and in the scriptures there is a description of a procedure where one arrives at an understanding derived through study and listening and which can then develop into the second level of understanding, which is contemplation, which goes to the third level of understanding-through-meditation. In the first level of study, listening and hearing, what is important is to be able to train and focus when listening and studying so that one can deepen one’s insight. So this is why in the sutras there is the advice that you should listen well and then put what you have heard into heart. So, it is listening well and the using one’s faculty of mindfulness that one can then put into memory what one has learned.

Both knowledge and mindfulness are very important in insuring that we are successful in living a life-style which is in the bounds of an ethically disciplined way of life. So when we talk about mindfulness [Pali: anapanasati, literally, mindfulness of breath], we are not always talking about being self-conscious, but rather an underlying alertness. So that we are ever-vigilant, so that when we are confronted with situations that demand an ethical judgment, because of our underlying mindfulness, we are instinctively able to respond in the right manner, and therefore, without knowledge we won’t know how best to act or what ethical way to act. So when there is knowledge, but no mindfulness, then that knowledge is not beneficial, so you need both knowledge and mindfulness.

So that is all, we will end the session with a prayer of dedication.

[The Dalai Lama leads the monks on stage in chanting a short prayer in Tibetan.]

[in English] Thank you, good night.



To be continued . . .

I am about t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. tho I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening. – Bob Dylan

Last week’s installment of the Dalai Lama’s Commentary on The Precious Garland included this quote by the German existentialist philosopher, Karl Jaspers1:

Nagarjuna strives to think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable. He knows this and tries to unsay what he has said.”

Some folks might wonder, if it is unthinkable or inexpressible then how can it be thought or spoken, and why does Nagarjuna contradict himself?

First, it is helpful to remind ourselves what we are dealing with. One writer, F.C. Happold2, has said,

One of the difficulties for the Westerner in his effort to understand Buddhism is the particular language in which so many Buddhist writings are couched. It is often a language of paradox and non-duality. One is called upon to penetrate through this paradoxical, non-dualistic language to get at the inner meaning.”

Statue of Nagarjuna at Samye Ling Monastery

This is especially true of Nagarjuna, the master of paradox with his arguments on logical contradiction. And with Nagarjuna, we have an additional element in that he had a problem with language. He found it inadequate, incapable of accurately describing reality. At best, it provides us signs, semblances of reality. These signs, however, are false, for as language shapes our view of the world, it obscures the truth.

Jaspers says,

All designations are meaningless: When I speak, I suppose that the signs (nimitta) I employ ‘signify’ things. If for example I wish to speak of becoming and perishing, I must devise different signs. But designation and differentiation lead us into error. Designation and thing designated cannot be one, nor can they be different . . .

To live by signs is to live in illusion . . . But every man lives by signs when he lives in the realm of appearance – whether he assumes that “appearance is a sign,” or that “appearance is empty,” when he lives in the assumption ‘I live’ or ‘I am conscious’ . . .”

Language must have its subject and object, its designation and differentiation, its duality, which produces a tendency to seize objects and cling to them. And it is this tendency that is said to be the root of suffering. Non-differentiation and non-conceptual thinking is offered as an antidote.

Although Nagarjuna makes a distinction between the ultimate truth and the relative or conventional truth, in the end the ultimate truth is no truth: “No definite statement is possible.”

Conventionally speaking, we can say that things exist and they have the nature of interdependency. From the ultimate truth, we say that things do not have intrinsic existence. They are empty. But even this ultimate standpoint is, in the final analysis, only a conventional view.


All things that arise interdependently,
I declare as emptiness.
This is a conventional designation;
it is the Middle Way.

Here Nagarjuna is making it clear that even emptiness is a relative truth. All truth is relative, in this sense, because truth is always expressed conventionally. Jay Garfield, in The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way3, explains,

Nagarjuna has been urging all along that ultimately all things are empty. It would be very easy to interpret him to mean that from the ultimate standpoint, we can say of phenomena that they are empty. But here he quite deliberately undermines that interpretation, claiming instead that nothing can be literally said of things from such a standpoint. For ultimately there is no entity of which emptiness or nonemptiness that can be predicated. Nor can we say that things are neither empty nor nonempty. For that would contradict the fact that from the standpoint of one using conventional language and cognition, it is correct to characterize phenomena as empty.

I don’t know about you, but this tends to make my head spin.

Forging ahead anyway, the bottom line, as far as my understanding goes, is that “it” is unthinkable and ineffable not because it is some transcendent, sacred reality, but because reality itself, whether in the relative or ultimate aspect, can never be fully known through conceptual thinking, nor can it ever be expressed adequately using conventional language.

Emptiness is not the ultimate reality. As Nagarjuna indicated above, it is merely a conventional designation. However, it is a pathway to enlightenment. Perhaps it is the most expedient means in which to realize awakening, for it demolishes all concepts, and like a vajra-sword it cuts through all delusions. Nagarjuna often compares emptiness-knowledge with Prajna-paramita or Transcendent Wisdom.

I don’t feel we should always assume that words like “transcendent” are used to imply a mystical reality or experience. Enlightenment is just seeing things as they truly are, empty of intrinsic self-being. Frederick Streng notes, “Emptiness is an answer to the quest for enlightenment when it promotes a practical solution to the problem of sorrow.”4 Through cultivating awareness of the absence of self-being in things, we transcend the limits of language and the conceptual thinking that tends to reinforce our sense of self, another root of suffering.

Mahayana teaches that Samsara is Nirvana. Where is the ultimate reality? You’re in it right now. I feel that Nagarjuna would like to tell us not to be so concerned with ultimate realities and truths. The conventional, the mundane is more important, because that’s where we are, and it’s much more of a challenge overall to develop a profound awareness of things in the everyday world, than it is to “think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable.” Besides, it’s already been done.


  1. Karl Jaspers, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Plotinus, Lao-Tzu, Nagarjuna: From the Great Philosophers The Original Thinkers (Harcourt Brace, 1974).
  2. F.C. Happold, Mysticism A Study and an Anthology (Penguin, 1971), 159.
  3. Jay Garfield, The Fundamental Wisdom of The Middle Way (Oxford University Press, 1995), 280.
  4. Frederick J. Streng, Emptiness A Study in Religious Meaning (The University of Chicago Press, 1967), 163.

In the Bodhicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”, Shantideva wrote,

All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others.”

When human beings think of nothing but their own cares, they become selfish and small-minded. Self-cherishing is like a cold abyss in which a person flounders, numb, without real feeling.  Many people in our modern society have lost sensitivity. They feel isolated. Alone.

Buddhism teaches that we are not isolated.

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche says,

Throw a pebble into a pond. It sends a shiver across the surface of the water. Ripples merge into one another and create new ones. Everything is inextricably interrelated.”

The Buddha said that understanding the interdependent nature of phenomena was equal to understanding the dharma itself. He taught interdependency to demonstrate how selfishness stems from the false notion that we are independent and isolated from others, and how this is the root cause of suffering. The Buddha wanted to empower people. He wanted people to understand the causes of suffering so they could change those causes, change their lives, change the world . . .

Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence… Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation…

It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Robert F. Kennedy

She’s a model and an actress and she’s written a book. Not a string of words that tends to stir thoughts in my mind about great literature. But, today I’d like to tell you about a possible exception. I want to tell you about a new book. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve just put it on my list. The author’s name is Yangzom Brauen. I’d never heard of her before. It seems that she is a Swiss actress and model who’s been in a number of Swiss films and on a Swiss television series.  Maybe you’ve seen her in the handful of Hollywood films she’s made: Pandorum, Cargo, Movin’ In, Aeon Flux. I haven’t.

Yangzom Brauen is no Alpine Paris Hilton, though. Not even a Swiss Snooki. This model and actress is also a political activist, and a courageous one at that. On the left is a photo of her in 2001 being arrested in Moscow for protesting the choice of China to host Olympics in 2008. Moscow is one of the last places in the world I would want to get arrested. At the time, Brauen was serv­ing as pres­i­dent of Tibetan Youth Congress in Europe. Her father is a Swiss anthropologist and her mother, a Tibetan artist.

In 2009 she published a autobiography, Eisenvogel. Apparently, it’s more than just a biography, it’s the story of three generations of Tibetan woman: Brauen’s Tibetan grandmother, her Tibetan mother, and herself. By the way, her grandmother, who’s in her 90s, is a Buddhist nun.

The book was a bestseller in Germany and Switzerland and St. Martin’s Press is publishing it here in the U.S. on September 27, 2011. Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom (translated by Katy Darbyshire) is described as “A powerful, emotional memoir and an extraordinary portrait of three generations of Tibetan women whose lives are forever changed when Chairman Mao’s Red Army crushes Tibetan independence, sending a young mother and her six-year-old daughter on a treacherous journey across the snowy Himalayas toward freedom.”

If you go the Amazon page for the book, you’ll see she’s gotten some rave reviews from the likes of the Dalai Lama, Oliver Stone, Robert Thurman and others. I ran across an excerpt of Across Many Mountains and I liked what I read. Here’s the first paragraph:

It is late autumn and the wind whistles across the dry, rocky fields and meadows. As I step out of the house a fierce gust pushes me aside, so strong that I have to tilt my body into its force. Mola stands with her legs planted wide, buttressing herself against the gale.  Mola means grandmother in Tibetan. My grandmother is a ninety-one-year-old Buddhist nun. In the tradition of all Buddhist nuns, her now snow-white hair is cropped close to her scalp, and she wears only red, orange, and yellow. Her floor-length Tibetan chupa billows out like a sail, and it takes all her concentration to keep her balance. My grandmother wants to perform kora.  For Tibetans, kora means walking around a sacred place absorbed in prayer, a kind of pilgrimage that can encompass hundreds of miles or only a few yards.”

You can read the entire except here. And learn more about Yangzom Brauen at her website.

I like simple, evocative writing and that’s what I got from the except. Across Many Rivers has been out in the UK for several months and the comments on Amazon along with several advance reviews here have been somewhat negative about the writing. But you never know. I once judged a book by its cover and it turned out to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century (Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany).

In any case, some 30 years ago I read In Exile From The Land of The Snows, John F. Avedon’s compelling, and I suspect still definitive, account of the Tibet story. I feel like its time for another one and Across Many Rivers looks promising to me. I thought I’d tell you about it, and about Yangzom Brauen. You know, just in case you’re interested . . .

2001 photo:

I thought there were a few things in Tuesday’s post that might raise questions in some reader’s minds. First, one might wonder if it is possible to be a “good” Buddhist if you do not totally buy into rebirth.

In Mahayana Buddhism, I’m not so sure that rebirth is presented as anything to “buy into.” Especially in the case of Nagarjuna. Here is someone who rejected assertions of both existence and non-existence, who saw all things as empty because they posses no intrinsic essence of their own, and realized that it was the tendency to find things to seize, to assert, to cling, that is the primary cause of suffering. It is difficult for me to accept that a person with such a mind would then take an absolute stand on rebirth, a theory that is really little more than rank speculation.

Rebirth has to be a metaphor. And for many other “Mahayanists” it must have been the same case. Jung might have classified rebirth as an archetype. We get confused by the translations and the layering on of our own prejudices and Western way of thinking.

I think many people misunderstand the significance of rebirth. They mistake it for an ultimate truth, when actually it belongs with the conventional truth. Teachings on rebirth are upaya or skillful means, preparatory teachings leading to the ultimate truth, which unfolds only when we free ourselves from thought constructions and “enter” into emptiness, which is neither existence nor non-existence.

We get a clue about this from K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna`s Philosophy, who notes that The Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sastra

points out that when one sees only the birth and endurance of things, then there arises the existence-view, and when one sees only the decay and death of things, there there arises the non-existence view.”

Both views, existence and non-existence, are regarded as extremes. Indeed, all views are extremes, and they are all empty. Ramanan says further that

all schools [of Buddhism] recognize the denial of views . . . and the denial of views means the denial of such view as are based on extremes, especially the extremes of externalism and negativism, both of which are traced back to the false sense of self.”

The cycle of birth and death (and rebirth) represents the continuous flow of reality in which nothing is created or destroyed, comes into existence or goes out of existence, and where neither being nor non-being are tenable, let alone the notion of self-being (svabhava). Looking at it this way, the principle of rebirth is a tool for us to use in breaking free of the notion of a self that persists eternally. Part of the key to understanding this is having a good grasp of what Buddhism means by “rebirth.” It requires some further explanation, but in short, its literal sense does not suggest that the same person is reborn.

I wonder, though, if the question of whether or not there is literal rebirth should such take up much of our time. I feel what’s more important is how birth and death plays out in our mind. Nagarjuna himself says,

The single instant of a snapping of the finger contains sixty “moments,’ and in every one of these moments there are phases of birth and death. It is by virtue of the birth of the continuity of these mental elements that is possible to know that this is the mind of greed, this is the mind of anger ect. The wayfarer comprehends the stream of birth and death of the mental elements like the flow of water or the flame of the lamp. This is known as the door to the comprehension of emptiness (sunyata).”

The challenge for us to go beyond our usual thinking processes. To think anew. To have a rebirth of thought. That’s what we really mean by putting an end to thought construction. We can’t put an end to thinking. But we can transform it, construct our thoughts differently. We can empty our mind, and open it.

If this is a subject that is of interest, you may want to check out this post from a few months back that suggests yet another practical and rational way of looking at rebirth.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt from a dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh,

There is a classic Buddhist gatha:

All formations are impermanent.
They are subject to birth and death.
But remove the notions of birth and death,
and this silence is called great joy.

. . . It means you have to kill your notions of birth and death. As someone who practices the way of the Buddha, you have [a] sword . . .  which is sharp enough to remove wrong perceptions and cut through all notions, including those of birth and death . . .

The true practitioner understands real rebirth, real continuation . . .

Before you can answer the question, “What will happen to me after I die?” you need to answer another question, “What is happening to me in the present moment?” Examining this question is the essence of meditation. If we don’t know how to look deeply to what is happening to us in the here and the now, how can we know what will happen to us when we are dead?

. . . I don’t care at all what happens to me when I die . .  When I walk, I want to enjoy every step I take. I want freedom and peace and joy in every step. So joy and peace and lightness are what I produce in that moment. I have inherited it and I pass it on to other people. If someone sees me walking this way and decides to walk mindfully for him or herself, then I am reborn in him or in her right away—that’s my continuation.

All of Nagarjuna’s works were written in verse, though I don’t know if you could say they are poetry per se, and certainly they are not as poetic as many of Shantideva’s verses. Nagarjuna was primarily a logistician and his dialectic is often described as a form of reductio ad absurdum (Latin: “reduction to the absurd”), the method of pointing out the contradictory or absurd consequences of an opponents argument. Although, Nagarjuna maintained that “If I would make any proposition whatever, then by that I would have a logical error; but I do not make a proposition, therefore I am not in error.”

Karl Jaspers wrote, “Nagarjuna strives to think the unthinkable and to say the ineffable. He knows this and tries to unsay what he has said. Consequently he moves in self-negating operations of thought.” On the surface, it appears that Nagarjuna’s logic is rather negative, however, as many have pointed out, it would be a mistake to brand it as nihilism.

Here is more of the Dalai Lama’s teachings on one of Nagarjuna’s most famous works. In this transcript, I have only included those verses that were read aloud to the audience. If you would like to read the verses the Dalai Lama refers to, or the entire work, go here. It’s not the same translation as was used at the teachings, but the differences are minor.

The Free Tibet Network has reported that Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year old Buddhist monk died Monday  after setting himself on fire in protest against the continuing Chinese crackdown on Tibetan monks. According to witnesses, as he set himself ablaze, the monk shouted, “We Tibetan people want freedom,” “Long live the Dalai Lama” and “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.”

Tenzin Gyatso, The Dalai Lama – Commentary on The Precious Garland of Nagarjuna

June 5-8, 1997


In the next two verses, the text defines what are the ten non-virtuous acts: violence, theft, adultery, lying, divisive speech, harsh words, idle talk, miserliness, maliciousness, and nihilistic views. It says there are ten bright paths of action and that the reversal of the virtuous actions are the ten negative actions.

In verse 10, Nagarjuna, in addition to the list of positive actions, gives a list of another six dharmas: three dharmas of avoidance and three dharmas of acceptance [not drinking liquor, maintaining a proper occupation, abandoning harm, being respectfully generous, honoring the worthy, and cultivating love].

The point of indentifying these as the dharma here is to insure that the individual does not give any opening to negative actions or engage in negative activity. These are said to be the 16 Paramitas [Perfections], the ten positive actions plus the six dharmas, the 16 Paramitas is aimed at attaining the elevated states of existence, which means higher forms of rebirth.

Given the adoptions of these positive actions are constituted by abstaining from their opposite forces, what is important is to abstain from these negative actions throughout one’s entire life. If not, at least avoid them as much as possible. Even in the event that we find ourselves engaging in these negative actions, what is important is that we insure that our thoughts are influenced by repentance, so that we won’t take pleasure in the commitment of these deeds, so that there is no degree of indifference, because if someone has no regard for what happens in engaging in these acts, to such a person it is said that there is not even a smell of a good, practicing Buddhist.

So in verses, 11, 12, and 13, the text emphasizes the fundamental point that dharma activity by nature must be a beneficial activity. Because the essence of dharma is to be of benefit to oneself and others. If it is an activity that involves inflicting pain on others or on oneself, such forms cannot be considered as being the dharma of liberation or dharma that leads to higher forms of rebirth. In these verses, the text defines that if in engaging in such physical austerities, pain is inflicted on oneself or others, then it is not dharma at all.

Whenever I give instructions in Buddhism, I always tell people that the entire teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in two principles: one is the cultivation of the view of the interdependent nature of reality, and two is adopting a form of behavior that is not harming others. Those two principles capture the entire essence of the Buddha’s teachings.

The next set of verses address the question that sometimes one might wonder how murder and stealing and telling lies can be said to be negative in the sense that they cause pain, because certain things, which are said to be negative, can also bring a degree of satisfaction to the individual. For example, someone who has committed a murder or someone who has stolen something might, for a short time, feel satisfaction. So one could argue that these actions may not always be negative.

Nagarjuna addresses that question by showing how all these actions are negative and lead to undesirable consequences with the individual, and he suggests that in verse 18 that “prior to all of these there is a bad rebirth,” suggesting that these negative actions – if the deeds are done with strong emotion, great intensity and cool, calculated motivation, then the karmic result of these acts leads to rebirth in lower states of existence, even if one is reborn as a human being, these acts lead to undesirable consequences. This is described in verses 14 through 19.

The last verse indicates that when you refrain from these negative actions, you can have positive results, if you abstain from murder, you will have a long life span. If you abstain from violence, you will not be an object of violence.

Verse 20 of the text summarizes what is meant by negative or non-virtuous actions, and positive or virtuous karma, in terms of negative or positive in the sense that an action leads to liberation or not.

The next several verses summarizes the definition of what is meant by negative action and what is positive action, on the basis of what kind of effect it produces. Those actions which produce happiness and positive rebirth are virtuous. There are three doors from which actions are committed: body, speech, and mind. The text says that the dharmas given here are to be committed in observance of the right kind of code of ethics for body, speech, and mind. Then it reads that if one engages in such a dharmic way of life, not only will one attain higher forms of existence in the next life, but within that life one will also gain results like happiness and less suffering.

Verse 24 explains that within the realm of enlightened states, there are more elevated states of existence corresponding to the levels of consciousness and subtlety of concentration. And also there are said to be four levels of concentration and formless realms, regardless of whether or not they exist in the objective world. However, it is true as we approach deeper into the more subtle levels of consciousness there is a degree of tranquility, a corresponding level of freedom from the conceptual restlessness that seems to dominate our minds in the ordinary states of existence. So, compared to thoughts of the individual in the realm of existence, those individuals abiding in the formless realms are said to be at a level where these is a degree of tranquility and freedom from the gross levels of affliction of the mind, delusions and so on.

Within the formless states there are different levels of subtlety. For example, in the scriptures, there is a mention of a formless state which is said to be infinite space. Then the next state is infinite consciousness, which is even more subtle than infinite space, and next is the state of non-observation of nothingness, that is said to be more subtle than the state of infinite consciousness. And the highest level of formless realms is sad to be the most subtle.

The point is that as a result of engaging in different forms of concentration and absorptive meditation states of mind, one can attain corresponding subtleties of consciousness.

In the Prajna Paramita [“Transcendent Wisdom”] Sutras, there is mention of different yanas or vehicles. There’s discussion of human vehicles and deva [“radiant ones”] vehicles and Brahma [in this context, the ultimate divine reality] vehicles. And all the practices within the cultivation of these form and formless realms are said to be the Brahma vehicle, referring to levels of tranquility. The practice of the ten virtuous actions and the six dharmas that we spoke of earlier can be said to be part of the human yana or vehicle. And corresponding to the diversity of conceptual qualification, there are diverse forms of yana or existence.

Do we have the questions ready? [The answer is no]. So in that case, I will continue to read from the text and you can prepare the questions for tomorrow. You can write down the questions on a piece of paper and give them to the usher and tomorrow we will deal with them in one of the sessions.

To be continued . . .

Lane: Clark, where you going?
Kent: This is a job for Superman… I mean, I’ve got to find him.

I don’t get political on this blog too often. But like most folks these days I have been shaking my head at the current situation. Especially the last two weeks. I’ve been around a while and I have never seen such an appalling lack of leadership in our nation’s capitol. This country is in a crisis and yet no one seems to be in charge. Congress is on vacation, and President Obama might as well be, too.

Last week President Obama said “There is something wrong with our politics.”

You think?

I think that it is time to stop stating the obvious and start laying out a solution.

One conclusion I’ve come to is that is it going to be a long road to the 2012 election. A very long road. Election night 2008 I was happy Obama won but I was happier the damn thing was over. That election was a painful austerity. It felt like the longest in the history of mankind.

Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll. This one is going to be even more excruciating.

In Thursday’s Republican debate Bachmann said, “People are looking for a champion, they want someone who has been fighting.” That’s right. But please note those words come from a woman who a few seconds later patted herself on the back for passage of the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, “so people could all purchase the light bulb of their choice.”

Yes, let’s not use a more efficient light bulb, one that uses 1/5 of the energy of the traditional bulb, and saves the country $12.5 billion annually, because that’s an intrusion by big government. Sometimes I wonder what planet these people hail from.

The first time I saw Barack Obama was on the Larry King Show in 2006. I wasn’t all that impressed. He seemed like a very conventional politician with very conventional ideas. I still feel that way to some extent.

Other’s don’t. Senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), said Wednesday that Obama’s was “the most anti-business and I consider anti-American administration in my lifetime.”

That’s just bad form if you ask me. You know, I didn’t agree with any of Bush’s policies but I didn’t call him anti-American. A moron, maybe. A liar and a cheat. But I never questioned his patriotism.

Obama’s really under the gun right now. He’s getting it from both the right and the left. I’m a bit frustrated with the Prez, too. Up to now, I’ve liked his style. It’s almost Zen-like. He seems to lead like a Taoist sage would, using wu-wei or non-action, avoiding confrontation, speaking carefully and thoughtfully. A nice change of pace from the previous 8 years.

But as admirable as that approach is, it doesn’t seem to be working very well. I really have no idea what goes on in his head. Sometimes I have to wonder, though, if he isn’t in a state of deep denial. Something akin to that was suggested by Ron Reagan Thursday on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews,

. . . we are in a place right now where we really need a sort of transformative leader, and that was the sort of leader that President Obama promised he would be. He talked about being a transformative president. But once he got into office, we seem to discover now that temperamentally he is unwilling to break the furniture, tip over the system that already exists here, and really get down to the brass tacks of reforming the system that we all agree is broken. He just doesn’t seem to want to do that. And you get the feeling that what we really elected was a kind of center-right politician . . .

He doesn’t seem to understand that he’s dealing with people who want nothing more than his destruction – with people who are not trying to help the American economy, at least not for the next year or so. They want the American economy to suffer for the next year so that it will hurt him. That’s the kind of game they’re playing . . . He needs to call these people out. He needs to identify them and he needs to identify their tactics and their strategy as well.

The President talks a lot about tough choices, but he doesn’t seem to want to get tough himself. Perhaps the President could learn something from one of the greatest tough guys that ever lived, Japan’s most famous swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi.

Musashi (c. 1584–1645) was a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wrote The Book of Five Rings, a book on strategy, tactics, and philosophy still studied today, not only by martial artists, but also throughout the business and political world. It’s considered a classic text on the subjects of leadership and management.

Mushash understood wu-wei, and he also understood that sometimes you gotta fight the fight. This is from the translation by Hidy Ochiai in A Way to Victory:

Whether a general of a foot soldier, a samurai must always carry two swords . . .

Understanding how to use each weapon correctly is crucial, as one must apply each weapon in the appropriate time and situation . . .

When you and your opponent are dragging on the fight in a particular posture, each knowing the other’s intentions, it is important that you completely change tactics in order to open the door to victory . . .

When there is no clear sign of an end to the combat between you and your opponent, you should immediately change your tactics by adopting a new and unexpected technique in order to overwhelm him.

It’s not a good idea to rely just on one sword, or one strategy. Obama doesn’t need to go after his opponents with a “ferocious personal assault,” as was reported earlier in the week. It’s not necessary to sink to their level. But it’s just common sense that if compromise and conciliation aren’t working, another approach needs to be employed.

If the President can’t change tactics, at least he could try to recapture the spirit of Obama in 2008. By the time the election was over, I was impressed with Barack Obama. I found him inspiring. His campaign was exciting. Some of his speeches, especially the one on race, were not only masterful, they were historic.

I didn’t expect Obama to be Superman, but I did expect to get a little more than I seem to be getting.  And frankly, I am not interested in seeing Obama fight for his job. I want to see him fight for our jobs.

We do need a champion. We need the Barack Obama of 2008 back again, that guy who convinced us that yes, we can, the man who said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Then what are we waiting for?

Along with some of my nutty theories, I’m also kind of proud of the fact that I can still recite this intro word for word.