Dharma Rain

Over the past few days in Los Angeles we have been experiencing a very rare natural phenomena, something called “rain.” Water droplets that fall from the sky. Imagine that.

Whoever said it never rains in Southern California, didn’t know the half of it. I mean, it used to rain, every now and then.  We actually had some winters that were extremely rainy, but that was in the past. We’ve been in a severe drought for the last four years.  When it began to drizzle on Sunday, it was only the second time it has rained since April, and I think, only the 3rd cloudy day since then, too. In SoCal the weather is the same every damn day: relentless sunshine.

But, now . . . rain . . . lovely, beautiful, wonderful, nurturing rain. And when it comes to water falling from the sky, no one summed it up any better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who said, “The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”

rain3In Buddhism, the word rain is vassa or vutthi. Rain was essential for crops in India during the Buddha’s time, and they usually got plenty of it.  Rain in India can last for several weeks or a month. Not only was rain important agriculturally, but it was also critical for the sustenance of human life. Still is.

In the Samyutta Nikaya, Buddha says,

Rain sustains both slack and bold, as a mother nourishes her only child. The life of all earthbound creatures is sustained by the falling of the rain.”

The rain retreat was an important event in the year for the Buddhists, as they were generally nomadic, and it gave the bhikkhus an opportunity to rest, study, and concentrate on meditation.

Rain was equally important as a metaphor. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha compares himself and his teachings to rain. This famous passages appears in the “Medicinal Herbs” chapter. The Buddha describes how rain falls equally

everywhere at the same time, its moisture reaching every part. The grasses, trees, forests and medicinal herbs – those of small roots, small stalks, small branches and small leaves, those of medium-sized roots, medium-sized stalks, medium-sized branches, medium-sized leaves or those of large roots, large stalks, large branches, and large leaves, and also all the trees, whether great or small, according to their size, small, medium, or large, all receive a portion of it. From the rain of the one cloud each according to its nature grows, blossoms, and bears fruit.”

Then the Buddha describes himself as like a great cloud “having appeared in the world, for the sake of all living beings,” contemplating all things equally, and sending down the Dharma rain, filling all the world, enriching all people, and in pouring out this rain, empowering all who receive it to become Buddhas.

It’s wonderful allegory that reminds us that everyone has Buddha-nature, and while the dharma rain falls equally and has but one taste, each person absorbs the rain and is nourished by it according to their own capacity. That is how it should be. In this way, universality and individually are two but not two.

Thus, like Longfellow, I say, let it rain. Another American poet, and a much better one, Langston Hughes said,

Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby.”

This is not quite a lullaby, but this tune sung by Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, is just about the best rain song ever.



Extraterrestrial Highway

ET-Hwy2The U.S. Government has finally admitted the existence of Area 51, the secret base where many people believe that for decades the Air Force has been studying crashed alien spaceships along with captured, or stranded, extraterrestrials. Area 51 is located 100 miles from Las Vegas, near the small town of Rachel, on Nevada State Route 375, also known as the Extraterrestrial Highway, so named because of the numerous UFO sightings and reports of other strange alien happenings along the road.

Unfortunately, according to the new declassified documents, Area 51 was just home base for the U-2 spy plane program and other aerial surveillance programs. How boring. But there is a caveat, and that’s that this information comes from the CIA, not famous for their truthfulness, so there is still a small ray of hope for UFO enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists.

marvinI believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and I’d certainly like to meet up with an ET. Nothing would be cooler. Unless, he, she, or it wanted to zap me with a ray gun, or was intent on destroying the earth. That’s definitely not cool.

But believe me, the threat from space is real, and as it stands right now, we’re about to become less protected. The United States Air Force says that because of the sequester cuts, it can no longer afford to maintain the “Space Fence,” the space surveillance network that scans the sky for extraterrestrial threats that could destroy Earth. This is disturbing news because when the Space Surveillance System shuts down in October not only will we be vulnerable to global devastation from incoming comets and asteroids, but we’ll also be unable to detect impending interplanetary attacks.

This is serious stuff. This June, NASA announced that more than 10,000 asteroids and comets are near Earth, which means they could come within 28 million miles of the planet – that’s uncomfortably close. I guess.

Speaking of space, Lama Govinda notes that “According to the ancient Indian tradition, the universe reveals itself in two fundamental properties: as motion, and as that in which motion takes place, namely space . . . space is called akasa . . . derived from the root kas, ‘to radiate, to shine’, and has therefore also the meaning of ‘ether’. . .” *

In Buddhism, there are two kinds of space, local or limited space (akasa-dhatu), and infinite space (ajata-kasa). You really got to hand it to the ancient Indians, because when most people thought the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around it, those guys in India were envisioning multiple universes, multiple planes of existence within these universes, life on other worlds.

It’s really mind-blowing. Take the Lotus Sutra, for example. In this text, the Buddha explains that he didn’t actually become enlightened under the Bodhi tree as he said, but in fact, he became enlightened in unimaginably distant past.

He tells the assembly on Vulture Peak:

It has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of kotis of kalpas (eons) since I in fact attained Buddhahood . . .  Suppose a person were to take five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi thousand-million-fold worlds and grind them to dust. Then, traveling east, passing another five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi worlds he drops one particle of dust. Then, suppose he continues eastward like this until he has finished dropping all the particles. Good men, what do you think? Can the total number of all these worlds be imagined or calculated?”

Well, yeah, they can. A kotis is 10 million, and a nayuta is 100 million. It works out something like this: 5 x 100 x 1000 x 10,000 x 100,000 x 100, 000, 000, 000 x 1,000,000,000,000[4] x 1,000. On my calculator it comes out as 2.e+41, whatever that might be. Let’s just say it’s heck of lot of worlds. Actually they’re ‘world systems’ or galaxies.

By the way, I know you are very impressed with my calculations, but I have to admit that I got it from a book called Lecture on the Sutra by Josei Toda.

Then the Buddha says,

Suppose all these worlds, are once more reduced to dust, and each particle represents one kalpa (eon = 4.32 billion years). The time that has passed since I attained Buddhahood surpasses this by a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand, a million nayuta asogi kalpas. Ever since then I have been in this saha (mundane) world, teaching the dharma. Likewise, I have led and benefited living beings in hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayuta asogi worlds.”

Not only that, but Buddhist tradition holds that there have been countless Buddhas in the past, although several eons usually go by between each Buddha’s appearance, and there are Buddhas presently teaching in other worlds.

I’m a bit pessimistic about all that, but at any rate, this passage in the Lotus Sutra is where the Buddha reveals that he is not the mundane Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha of history, instead, he is the cosmic, Eternal Buddha. Naturally, this shouldn’t be taken literally, because it’s allegory. Just as the Buddha says he has always existed in this world, the potential for awakening to Buddha Nature has always existed in our life.

We could say that in this allegory, infinite space represents the infinite mind. As a physical object, our brain, may not be a vast as space itself, but it does contain 456 trillion trillion atoms, and our brain can hold more information and process it faster than the most powerful super-computer on earth.

Influenced by the Lotus Sutra, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i developed the concept of i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought.” These worlds, which some translators call dharma-realms, are basic conditions of life that interpenetrate one another, possess certain factors or qualities, and are manifested within the three spheres of existence: the five aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness), the realm of sentient beings, and the realm of the environment.

Chih-i arrived at the number of 3000 through a particular formula, but enough calculating for one post. Suffice it to say that the number of worlds is not important but rather what it represents, which is the interpenetration of all reality in a single thought. This is also stated as a single moment of thought permeating the universe with all phenomena in the universe contained within that single thought moment. Figuratively, then, the mind is a vast as space after all.

Chih-i’s identification of all reality with the mind was his way of equating the mind with Buddha-nature. All worlds or dharmas are Buddha-worlds or Buddha-dharmas, so the takeaway here is put succinctly by Chih-i himself in the text, Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra,

If one contemplates the thoughts of one’s mind . . . with the understanding that all dharmas (realities) originate from the mind, then the mind is Buddha-nature.”

Huang Po, a Chinese Ch’an teacher who lived roughly two hundred years after Chih-i once said, “Remember that the endlessness of the ten directions of infinite space is originally one’s own Mind.”

Just as with space, we are really still in the early stages of our exploration of the mind. The mind is the true Extraterrestrial Highway because it can take us beyond our saha or mundane world. I don’t mean to formless realms or twilight zones, but rather to a dimension of space and time where we transcend the desires and illusion that bind us to a world of suffering.

The mind is said to be quiescent like space. Nirvana is also said to be quiescent like space. It is through quieting the mind, allowing Buddha-nature to ‘to radiate, to shine’ that we can find Nirvana, right where we are in a single moment, in the present moment.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Anagarika Brahmacari Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism, Weiser Books, 1960


The Story of The Dragon King’s Daughter

I’m trying to read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, the best-selling book by late Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson that has become quite a phenomenon in the world of crime and mystery fiction. I say trying because I’m not terribly impressed with the translation so I am finding the book to be a bit of a chore.

The title refers to one of the main characters, Lisbeth Salander, a young woman who is a troubled anti-social misfit and sports a tattoo of a dragon on her left shoulder blade.

In Eastern mythology, dragons represent wisdom, power, nobility, divinity, and benevolence.  In Western cultures, however, dragons are usually depicted as being rather ill disposed, symbolizing evil. Interestingly, the word “dragon” comes from the Greek word, drakon, formed from the verb drak which means “to see clearly.”

In any case, the title of this book reminds me of the story in the Lotus Sutra about the Naga Princess, also known as the Dragon King’s Daughter. Not that there are any strong parallels, although there could be, but I’m not that far along with it.

The Sanskrit word “naga” actually refers to the King Cobra snake, but the Chinese translated it as dragon. In Buddhism, the Nagas are supernatural beings who live on Mount Semuru and in the depths of the ocean. It was from the underwater Naga Kings that Nagarjuna (“dragon-tree”) is said to have received the Mahayana sutras.

The story of the Dragon King’s Daughter is the lone example in Buddhist literature of a mortal being becoming a Buddha, with the notable exception of the Buddha himself. It’s meant to convey the universality of Buddha-nature. And it’s about a woman becoming a Buddha, which is significant not only for the statement it makes but also because it came out of a patriarchal culture that tended to view women as inferior.

Here is an abbreviated version of the story:

There was once a daughter of Sagara (“Ocean”), one of the great Dragon Kings who lived at the bottom of the sea. When the Buddha was teaching the Lotus Stura on Vulture Peak, Bodhisattva Chishaku stood up and said, ‘It took eons of practicing austerities and accumulating wisdom for even our own Shakyamuni Buddha to realize awakening. Is it possible for anyone to quickly attain Buddhahood?’

To this Manjusri Bodhisattva said, ‘With the Awakened One’s permission, let me tell you about the Dragon King’s daughter. She is just eight years old, highly intelligent, and well-versed in Buddha-dharma. In just a single moment, just one instant of time, after having generated the thought of awakening, she entered into meditation and became a Buddha.’

Bodhisattva Chishaku replied, ‘There is not even a spot as small as a poppy-seed in this universe where the Bodhisattva has not made efforts for the sake of all living beings and only after such efforts was he able to realize awakening. I find it hard to believe that a mere girl could become a Buddha so quickly.’

It was at that moment when the Dragon King’s daughter arrived and Shariputra asked her, “The Buddha Path is long; I too, have difficulty understanding how you could so speedily become a buddha.’

The Dragon King’s daughter turned, bowed to the Buddha and offered him a precious jewel. When he immediately accepted this gift, she said to Shariputra, “Did you see how quickly the Buddha took the jewel I offered. Was this action speedy?

All agreed that was most speedy. Then she replied, “Now, watch as I become a buddha even more quickly than that!”

And in a flash, she completed all the bodhisattva practices and sitting down upon a thousand-pedaled lotus, became a buddha.

At this, all in the assembly made reverent salutation, silently believing.

There is a part of the story I left out, about how it was necessary for the Dragon King’s daughter to change into the form of a man before becoming a Buddha. Diana Y. Purl, in Women in Buddhism: images of the feminine in Mahayana tradition, says that “[The] transformation of sex from female to male is a prerequisite for the Naga princess’ entrance to the path of Bodhisattvahood, presumably at the irreversible stage (because of the five kinds of status excluding females).” I think she is referring to “The Five Obstacles” which state a woman cannot become a Brahma, a Sakra god, a devil (Mara) king, a wheel-turning king, or a Buddha.

I left it out because it’s not important. It’s a piece from the past we can let drop off. It doesn’t change the prime point regarding the universal buddha nature. It certainly didn’t stop the women of Heian Japan, where the Lotus Sutra was extremely popular, from embracing the story’s message. During that period, women were barred from entering most temples and it was thought that they could never escape the realm of enlightened existence.

Yet, there were some who contested this. In Songs to make the dust dance: the Ryojin hisho of twelfth-century Japan, Yung-Hee Kim presents a number of homon uta (songs of Buddhist sutras) based on the story of the Dragon King’s daughter. One in particular he says “challenges the Buddhist theories and prejudices against women by insisting that women do posses an inborn buddha nature”:

If the Dragon King’s daughter became buddha,
why can’t we, too, somehow?
A thick cloud, the five obstacles, yes
but buddha nature shines through like the moon.

It does, indeed.

By the way, the jewel given to the Buddha by the Naga princess represents her precious life.


The Bodhisattva Who Never Disparaged

The Lotus Sutra contains a number of parables and stories, and this is one of my favorites. From Chapter Twenty, based on the Watson and Kato translations, the story of Bodhisattva Fukyo:

“Once there was a bodhisattva bhikshu named Fukyo (Sadaparibhuta) whose name meant ‘Never Disparaging.’ Why was he given this name? Because he paid respect to everyone he saw, whether bhikshu, bhikshuni, layman or laywoman, by bowing in reverence to all of them, saying, ‘I deeply respect you. I would never condemn or disparage you, because you all walk the bodhisattva path and are becoming buddhas.’

Bodhisattva Fukyo did not devote his time to reading and reciting the scriptures but only to bowing and paying respect. If he happened to see any of the four kinds of believers far off in the distance, he would go to them and bow, saying, ‘I would never disparage you, because you are all to become buddhas.’

Bodhisattva Fukyo was often subjected to insults and abuse, and yet, he did not give in to anger, instead, each time, he spoke the same words, ‘You are to become Buddhas.’ There were those who said, ‘Where did this ignorant person who predicts we will become buddhas come from ? We need no such false predictions!’ And some of them attacked him and beat him with clubs and sticks and pelted him with stones. Still, while escaping from these people, he continued to call out in strong voice, ‘I would never disparage you, for you are all certain to become buddhas!’ It is because he always spoke in this way that the contemptuous bhikshus, bhikshunis, laymen and laywomen gave him the name ‘Never Disparaging.’

When Bodhisattva Fukyo was at the point of death, he was able to receive and retain a million verses of the Lotus Sutra as it had been taught by the Buddha Awesome Sound King.  As a result, he obtained the purity of the sense organs and extended his life span by two hundred ten thousand million billions of years, and taught the Buddha-dharma to countless beings. Those who had slighted and condemned Bodhisattva Fukyo then became his followers.”

In this story, Bodhisattva Fukyo sees that all people have Buddha nature, that they inherently possess the capacity to become enlightened. The practice he engaged in is called raihaigyo or “bowing in reverence.” He represents the Buddha himself, in another lifetime.

Obviously, the major point here is that we should treat others with respect, and it is offered as an example of bodhisattva practice. The reward of long life that Fukyo obtains as a benefit from this austerity represents the principle of ‘what goes around, comes around’ in the positive sense.

Here’s what Thich Nhat Hanh has had to say about this inspiring bodhisattva:

Sadaparibhuta, the bodhisattva who says, “I would never dare to despise anyone,” is also everywhere. Even if someone does not seem to have the ability to be awakened, he sees that within everyone there is that capacity. Sadaparibhuta helps everyone to have self-confidence and remove any feelings of inferiority. This kind of complex paralyzes people. Sadaparidhuta’s specialty is to be in touch with and water the seeds of the awakened mind or the mind of love in us. This bodhisattva is not just a person in the Lotus Sutra but can be found right here in our society in many different guises. We have to recognize the bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta, who is around us in flesh and bones.

We do not worship imagined or mythological figures. Bodhisattvas are not figures from the past living up in the clouds. The bodhisattvas are real people who are filled with love and determination. When we can understand someone else’s suffering and feel love for him/her, we are in touch with the bodhisattva of understanding.

This bodhisattva removes the feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem in people. “How can I become a buddha? How can I attain enlightenment? There is nothing in me except suffering, and I don’t know how to get free of my own suffering, much less help others. I am worthless.” Many people have these kinds of feelings, and they suffer more because of them. Never Disparaging Bodhisattva works to encourage and empower people who feel this way, to remind them that they too have buddha nature, they too are a wonder of life, and they too can achieve what a buddha achieves. This is a great message of hope and confidence.


Sunday Dharma: Thoreau’s Lotus Sutra

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

American transcendentalism as advocated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and others became the first real port of entry for Eastern philosophy on these shores.

The New England Transcendentalists were exposed to Eastern in a number of ways: from the commercial ships returning from Asia and bringing with them snatches of Eastern wisdom, from their university studies, and from the writings of such individuals as Rammohan Roy, a Bengali social reformer.

Emerson was editor of The Dial, the Transcendentalist publication they called a “Journal in a new spirit”, and worked with Thoreau on the “Ethical Scriptures” column that featured excerpts from various Eastern texts. Both men were greatly influenced by Hinduism, and in particular, the Bhagavad Gita.

At this time there was some confusion in the minds of Americans between Hinduism and Buddhism, a situation that was not completely resolved until Edwin Arnold’s story of the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, was published in 1878.  Nonetheless, Emerson and Thoreau, apparently well-versed in the classics of India, China, which in addition to Hindu scriptures included classical Chinese texts, such as the writings of Confucius and Mencius, had each expressed a deep interest in Buddhism.

Unfortunately for them, the translation into European languages of Buddhist texts had not moved at the same pace as those of other Indian and Chinese philosophies. As a result, most Buddhist texts were unavailable to Western readers. However, Henry David Thoreau had a copy of Burnouf’s French translation of the Lotus Sutra, possibly a very early edition, which was translated into English (probably by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody) and subsequently published in the “Ethical Scriptures” column in 1844.

Here, then, is an excerpt on medicinal plants from “Thoreau’s Lotus Sutra” – quite possibly the first appearance of one of the most important pieces of Buddhist literature in English, predating Kern’s translation by some forty years:

Lotus FlowerThe Tathágata [ Thus-Come-One] is equal and not unequal towards all beings, when it is the question to convert them: “He is, Oh Kassapa, as the rays of the sun and moon, which shine alike upon the virtuous and the wicked, the high and the low; on those who have a good odor, and those who have a bad; on all these the rays fall equally and not unequally at one and the same time. So, Oh Kassapa, the rays of intelligence, endowed with the knowledge of omnipotence, make the Tathágatas venerable.

I who am the king of the law, I who am born in the world, and who governs existence, I explain the law to creatures, after having recognized their inclinations. Great heroes, whose intelligence is firm, preserve for a long time my word; they guard also my secret, and do not reveal it to creatures. Indeed, from the moment that the ignorant hear this science so difficult to comprehend, immediately conceiving doubts in their madness, they will fall from it, and fall into error. I proportion my language to the subject and strength of each; and I correct a doctrine by contrary explication (clarification). It is, Oh Kassapa, as if a cloud, raising itself above the universe, covered it entirely, hiding all the earth. Full of water, surrounded with a garland of lightning, this great cloud, which resounds with the noise of thunder, spreads joy over all creatures. Arresting the rays of the sun, refreshing the sphere of the world, descending so near the earth as to be touched with a hand. It pours our water on every side. Spreading in a uniform manner an immense mass of water, and resplendent with the lightning which escape from its sides, it makes the earth rejoice.

And the medicinal plants which have burst from the surface of this earth, the herbs, the bushes, the kings of the forest, little and great trees; the different seeds, and everything which makes verdure (greenness); all the vegetables which are found it the mountains, in the caverns, and in the groves; the herbs, the bushes, the trees, this cloud fills them with joy, it spreads joy upon the dry earth, and it moistens the medicinal plants; and this homogeneous (uniform) water of the cloud, the herbs and the bushes plump up, every one according to its force and its object. And the different kinds of trees, the great as well as the small, and the middle sized trees, all drink this water, each one according to its age and its strength; they drink it and grow, each one according to its need. Absorbing the water of the cloud by their trunks, their twigs, their bark, their branches, their boughs, their leaves, the great medicinal plants put forth flowers and fruits. Each one according to its strength, according to its destination, and conformably to the nature of the germ whence it springs, produces a distinct fruit, and nevertheless there is one homogeneous water like that which fell from the cloud. So, Oh Kassapa, the Buddha comes into the world, like a cloud that covers the universe, and hardly is the chief of the world born, then he speaks and teaches the true doctrine to creatures.

And thus, says the great sage, honored in the world, in union with gods. I am Tathágata, the conqueror, the best of men; I have appeared in the world like a cloud . . .  I fill the whole universe with joy, like a cloud which pours everywhere a homogeneous water, always equally well disposed towards respectable men, as towards the lowest, towards virtuous men as towards the wicked; towards abandoned men as towards those who have conducted most regularly; towards those who follow heterodox (contrary to accepted belief) doctrines and false opinions as towards those whose doctrines are sound and perfect . . .

This teaching of the law, Oh Kassapa, is like the water which the cloud pours out over all, and by whose action the great plants produce in abundance mortal flowers. I explain the law, which is the cause of itself; I tried, in its time, the state of Buddha, which belongs to the great sage; behold my skillfulness in the use of means; it is that of all the guides of the world.

What I have said is the supreme truth; may my auditors arrive at complete annihilation; may they follow the excellent way, which conducts to the state of Buddha; may all the auditors, who hear me, become Buddhas.