Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Carol singing

Taking part in my son's carol service a few days ago, I was reminded of all the religious services I sat disdainfully through in my youth - pretending to sing when I wasn't, or replacing the words with rude ones. But I've changed over the years. Even though I'm no more inclined to believe at face value, a combination of maturity and Buddhism has mellowed me and I'm less hostile to theism.

A choir had come from Salzburg to take part and even though I don't normally listen to religious music, the combination of the two choirs, the organist and the congregation was quite something. My disdain had faded away; scripture readings were just voices telling stories; and I had a powerful sense of expansiveness through all of it.

Choir voices soar
High into the vaulted ceiling
Even hymns and scripture readings
Cannot obstruct God

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jedi not an option?

So, the results of my highly-scientific poll are in!

Don't know (33%)
A full third of the sample simply don't know why they started to practise Zen. Is this something to do with mokusho (non-thought)? Or are people really unaware of their own motivations?

Jedi not an option (26%)
Now this is a response I can relate to. My teacher may be be disappointed to discover that if Obi Wan Kinobi to appear to me in the desert offering me a lightsabre and paranormal powers, I would be very tempted to follow him. But it hasn't happened so I'll have to settle for the next best thing. Any Jedi masters looking for a new disciple can contact me at the email address above.

Mu (19%)
This response means 'I don't know, but I am a smartarse'.

Receeding hairline (11%)
Another valid response in my opinion. Would you rather be a disciple of The Way, a monk of the special transmission beyond words and letters, or would you prefer just to be a bald git? A no-brainer for me that one.

Like the outfits (7%)
Seems a bit superficial. I suspect that many people like the outfits because it allows them to imagine they are Jedi. If you want to be a Jedi, you should have the courage to admit it. The key question: have you ever swung around a toy lightsabre/cardboard tube/kyosaku while wearing kimono, kesa etc ?

'Nam (2%)
We had one respondant who gave this answer. I now have an image in my mind of a veteran tormented by PTSD going AWOL and trekking through jungles of Vietnam in search of a way to find peace; perhaps finding a Zen master there. How intriguing. Actually I once met someone who did almost exactly that except it was a master of kung-fu he followed. Please contact me if you'd be interesting in making a movie.

To annoy parents (0%)
So no one is prepared to admit that they practice Zen to annoy their strict Catholic/Evangelical parents? Come on - do you expect us to believe that?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

New post: Is there a place for verbal abuse in Buddhism?

I've just added a new post to the Progressive Buddhism blog:

Is there a place for verbal abuse in Buddhism?

It's a slightly loaded question - as you might imagine I'm tending towards the 'no' on this one.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Poll: Why did we get into Zen?

As you can see I've added a poll - 'Why did we get into Zen?'. I'm looking forward to seeing the results of this rigorously-conducted bit of scientific research.

Understanding the Shobogenzo

I've started a new blog Understanding the Shobogenzo, which I include as a feed on the side-column of this blog.

My aim is to gradually work my way through the Shobogenzo and give my own commentary. This isn't because I have any special authority on the text or on the translation; it's because the act of doing this helps my own understanding and is hopefully useful to others at the same time.

I'm hoping to do the same for a few of the sutras too over time.

I might cross-post here or post links since these separate blogs are a bit out of the way.

Please drop in and let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Precept #6 - Do not criticise others

The taking and keeping of precepts in all forms of Buddhism is essential to the practice. They're not optional and they are to be regarded sincerely. Zen Buddhism has never been just about sitting in a particular position. It's not what Buddha taught, nor Dogen and it's not what is taught in the Soto sect now. Similarly, the universal emphasis on compassion and the Mahayana concept of the Bodhisattva - someone who practices out of compassion for all beings - are not optional extras.

Of course, no one is forced to accept this if they don't want to. But if they don't it's not what was transmitted from Buddha through the Patriarchs to us today. It isn't true Zen. It's probably what Kuei-feng Tsung-mi (Keiho Shumitsu Zenji) would have classified as Bonpu Zen - non-religious, self-seeking meditation practice. And to claim that these are unneccessary in Zen Buddhism is a distortion.

Perhaps there's nothing objectively right or wrong in Buddhism - it's a method to attain nirvana. But if you tinker with the method in an unskillful way then you create a path that doesn't lead to nirvana but leads somewhere else - possibly to egotism, delusion and suffering. If a teacher does it they will confuse others about Buddhism too.

One of the the Bodhisattva Precepts in Soto Zen Buddhism is generally rendered as 'Do not criticise others'. I can see two sorts of value in this: firstly, criticising others can easily increase egotistical opinionating, intellectual vanity and hostility, all of which are forms of clinging and delusion; secondly, it's a good 'house rule' for maintaining social harmony in the place of practice, which itself helps with the practice.

One problem that has arisen in Western Buddhism, particularly in American Zen I think, is the abuse of power by the master over his (it's nearly always a man) students. I think the problem is twofold. Firstly, in the West many people have accepted a mythical idea of what a Zen Master is - that their actions are above criticism because they are 'enlightened'. This is not true, even of the most insightful master - no one ever stops being human, no one ever loses all of their delusions. If the Buddha managed it, who can say? To be human is to be deluded. To have a brain is to be deluded. To open your mouth is to be deluded. Enlightenment, I think, is insight that we can go deeper and deeper into without reaching the end. Most of the cases of abuse of power by American Zen masters would have been avoided if (ironically) there had not been a prevalent culture that the actions of the master are 'beyond criticism' in a way which did not apply to his students.

The second problem is that people misunderstand Zen as nihilism - that there is no 'right' and 'wrong' and that therefor you can do whatever you want. This is also a mistake. The first taisho that I saw Taiun Jean-Pierre Faure give was about correcting this western nihilistic misunderstanding. 'Authenticity' does not trump the need to strive to follow the precepts release attachment to selfish desires. We need to try our best to follow the precepts - in particular, to understand the spirit of the precepts as giving up the attachments and delusions of the personal, egotistic mind, opening the heart-mind and realising selflessness. As a person realises this more deeply, they no longer have to think about the precepts because they follow them naturally. That's the theory anyway. The tricky part, it seems to me, is to avoid believing you are more enlightened than you really are and falling into an egotistical delusion that precepts are unneccessary.

Open debate and discussion can be healthy. And occasional constructive criticism can too. I think it's only a problem when it becomes a habit or a compulsion. In that spirit I'm beaking the precept. I can't be sure that I'm not foolish by doing this, but I believe that it's the right thing to do in this particular case. I don't want to make it personal, but I do think it's right to make a response to how he is representing Soto Zen and the way he is teaching. Sure - my criticism is a form of egotistical delusion too, but I'm taking this one for the team. The alternative is that nobody challenges the narrow and distorted version of Zen that he is presenting. I might be wrong, as I said.
I've been following the Zen author and blogger Brad Warner for a few years now - from the time of his first online articles, before he published anything or started his Hardcore Zen blog. I always enjoyed him and he was an inspirational influence on my early practice. And I'm grateful to him for that. He can be very entertaining. But he can also be very abrasive. Anyone that's read his work will know what I mean. He criticises and freely insults students and teachers he doesn't like and he does it recklessly and without regard for their feelings. On his public blog, he referred to a student that left a sesshin early as an 'asswipe', referred to Genpo Roshi and Ken Wilber whose work he doesn't like as 'butt buddies' - a titles he has also used for people who have challenged his teaching style in the past. No doubt he'll call me something similar if he ever reads this. Buddha and Dogen must be proud.

The justification that he gives for acting like this is that this is how he really feels and that to act differently is 'phoney' and that anyone who does this is a hypocritical 'asshole'. This isn't Buddhism as taught either by Buddha or Dogen. This sort of argument can be used to justify pretty much anything. 'I did a bunch of bad stuff but I don't care cos if I didn't I'd be being 'inauthentic' and my repressed emotions might express themselves as passive-aggressive behaviour later on which is worse'. There's no support for the idea that not acting out anti-social impulses ie. acting as a socialised human being leads to greater harm later on. He is placing 'authenticity' ie. his attachment to 'punk' credibility above any harm he does other people. Unsurpisingly his blog comments section is full of conflict - with people challenging Brad's controversial teaching and others attacking those who dare to challenge him.
The Soto Zen way is neither amoral nihilism nor is it repression. It means at least trying to live according to the precepts and taking the Bodhisattva vows sincerely. Things like selfishness, vanity and arrogance are not rationalised as 'authentic' they are faced as part of our practice. How do these delusions arise? And why do we cling to them? By releasing the tight grip of the personal mind we can naturally understand other people better and treat them with kindness.

Perhaps it doesn't have a lot of punk credibility or attention-grabbing sensationalism, but this is the teaching of Zen passed from Dogen.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Has my dog got Buddha-nature?

At the weekend, we picked up Lily - our new dog, a whippet, aged 10 weeks.

She's affectionate, has long legs, a pointed nose, bluish eyes and soft ears. She likes to eat Weetabix, dog chews, carpets, grass and bonsai trees. She's just been to the vet and she's in great shape. But as a Zen Buddhist the obvious question of course is - does she have Buddha-nature? 'Does a dog have Buddha-nature?' is a question that Joshu was famously asked by a monk. His reply of 'mu' (meaning 'not' or 'nothing') became the first koan studied by most monks in the Rinzai tradition.

In China at that time a dog was considered to be lowly in a way that dogs in the west generally are not - as when Dogen declared that 'those who let their hair grow are lower than dogs!'. So the question had a subtly different meaning. Essentially he was asking whether even the lowliest beast has Buddha-nature. A dog? What about a rat?

What is Buddha-nature? Does it mean that there is a little Buddha inside everyone like a little homunculus? Or does it just mean that we are potential Buddhas? Buddha-nature is a translation of the Sanskrit Tathagata-garbha or 'Buddha-womb' and is described by certain Mahayana sutras as a truly real, but hidden element within the purest aspect of consciousness in all sentient beings. A dog is a sentient being, so why did Joshu not simply reply 'yes'? Joshu was a pretty sharp fellow so he wouldn't get such a basic doctrinal point wrong.

The Tathagata-womb is sometimes described as a pure, unchanging and permanent element like a jewel. And proponents of this doctrine have sometimes been accused of contaminating Buddhism with Hindu ideas. The Hindu concept of the Atman as a permanent, undying essence or Self that dwells in all beings is described in the Upanishads. And the early Buddhist scriptures - the Pali Canon - can quite easily be seen as a reaction to the teachings that came from those texts. The Buddha unambiguously rejected any sort of Atman or separate self in his doctrine of Anatman ('no-atman'). So why was this apparent contradiction introduced by the authors of the Mahayana sutras?

There is a clue in one of the sutras which introduced this concept, the Lankavatara Sutra. In this sutra, the Buddha states that the Tathagata-womb or inherent Buddha-hood is not the same as the atman but is another way of teaching emptiness or no-self.

What I teach is Tathagatahood [or Buddahood] in the sense of Dharmakaya, Ultimate Oneness, Nirvana, emptiness, unbornness, unqualifiedness, devoid of will-effort. The reason why I teach the doctrine of Tathagatahood is to cause the ignorant and simple-minded to lay aside their fears as they listen to the teaching of egolessness and come to understand the state of non-discrimination and imagelessness...

...The doctrine of the Tathagata-womb is disclosed in order to awaken philosophers from their clinging to the notion of a Divine Atman as a transcendental personality, so that their minds that have become attached to the imaginary notion of a "soul" as being something self-existing, may be quickly awakened to a state of perfect enlightenment.

So the Buddha-nature doctrine is positive way of teaching emptiness, one that side-steps the problems of fear of annihilation and nihilism that sometimes arise as a misunderstanding of Buddhism. Yet it's not that one is the real teaching and the other one is a myth. Nirvana is not something that can be understood as a theory or grasped as an intellectual philosophy. Buddhist philosophy is intended to indicate the Way; it isn't intended as objective or final truth. Sometimes negation is needed and sometimes affirmation.

Some thinkers have tried to avoid the apparent contradiction between the Buddha-nature and Anatman ('no-inherent-nature') doctrines by arguing that Buddha-nature refers only to potential Buddhahood. But the Tathagata-garbha sutras state unambiguously that this isn't the case. It would also degrade it into a purely conventional metaphysical doctrine and miss out on the profundity of Joshu's mu.

To say that all beings already have Buddha-nature is to say that right here and now there is no separation between things - apparent separation is constructed by the mind. This is the same as saying that there is no self. The point is that there is no boundary - it doesn't matter which side of the imaginary boundary you think is real and which is illusionary - it's all an illusion. It's another way of saying that Buddhas and ordinary beings are of one substance; or that ordinary mind is Buddha; or that difference and sameness are in harmony; or that form is emptiness and emptiness is form. The message is the same.

It's a true and useful concept when applied internally as a way to realise that emptiness is present everywhere its just that our real nature is obscured by confusions. But when turned outwards as some sort of metaphysical speculative theory it's worse than useless.

Joshu's mu, I think is to negate Buddha-nature and no-Buddha-nature, Buddhas and ordinary beings, self and other, all categories and mistaken questions, leaving only bare reality, just as it is, unadorned. So, does Lily have Buddha-nature? Pass me the dog chew.

This is Mumon's comment on Joshu's Dog koan:

To realize Zen one has to pass through the barrier of the patriarchs. Enlightenment always comes after the road to thinking is blocked. If you do not pass the barrier of the patriarchs or if your thinking road is not blocked, whatever you think, whatever you do, is like a tangling ghost.

You may ask: What is a barrier of a patriarch? This one word, Mu, is it. This is the barrier of Zen. If you pass through it you will see Joshu face to face. Then you can work hand in hand with the whole line of patriarchs. Is this not a pleasant thing to do?

If you want to pass this barrier, you must work through every bone in your body, through every pore in your skin, filled with this question: What is Mu? and carry it day and night. Do not believe it is the common negative symbol meaning nothing. It is not nothingness, the opposite of existence. If you really want to pass this barrier, you should feel like drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.

Then your previous lesser knowledge disappears. As a fruit ripening in season, you subjectivity and objectivity naturally become one. It is like a dumb man who has had a dream. He knows about it but he cannot tell it. When he enters this condition his ego-shell is crushed and he can shake the heaven and move the earth. He is like a great warrior with a sharp sword. If a Buddha stands in his way, he will cut him down; if a patriarch offers him any obstacle, he will kill him; and he will be free in his way of birth and death. He can enter any world as if it were his own playground.

I will tell you how to do this with this koan: Just concentrate your whole energy into this Mu, and do not allow any discontinuation. When you enter this Mu and there is no discontinuation, your attainment will be as a candle burning and illuminating the whole universe.

Has a dog Buddha-nature?
This is the most serious question of all.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your own Buddha-nature.

The Significance Of 'Tathagatagarbha' - A Positive Expression Of 'Sunyata'

Note: The Shentong and Rangtong schools of Tibetan Buddhism argued about this and the nature of emptiness for years, the former saying that Sunyata is emptiness of other and the latter (more accurately) saying that Sunyata is emptiness of self. But these amount to the same thing: no separation.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Are disasters in Burma and China caused by bad karma?

Some people have speculated that the earthquake in China is bad karma due to the actions of that state over Tibet. Similar opinions have been expressed about the cycone in Burma/Myanmar and its treatment of its own people - particularly its monks.

But this is a superstitious worldview not one based on understanding. Karma is not divine retribution. Buddha never talked about karma in a collective sense like this. However this is not dissimilar to the sorts of rationalisation that were used in feudal Tibet to justify the continued enslavement of a whole class of people - they were working off bad karma from previous lives.

Many people think that karma was the Buddha's concept. It wasn't - it was part of the dominant worldview of his culture. Buddhism - in particular the original teachings of the Buddha - can only be properly understood in context - as an expounding of or response to Brahmanism and the Upanishads. The latter teach that not only do all actions have consequences, but those consequences continue after bodily death affecting how one is reincarnated. What Buddha did was tell the same story in terms of interdependent conditionality instead of essential self.

For the Buddha, reincarnation and consequences which revisit us after death were given aspects of the understanding of his time. They are not given aspects of the understanding of our time. And there is no evidence that he was omniscient. That's not what Bodhi means. When he debated with others, he appealed to their reason and their experiences. We don't need to accept something is automatically true just because the Buddha said it or allegedly said it. Buddha emphasised direct experience. Zen Buddhism perhaps even more so.

Karma means action. Karma is action and the consequences of action. It is just cause and effect from the perspective of something that perceives itself to be an agent, a self. All actions have consequences of course, so in that sense it is indisputable that karma exists. But what the exact consequeces of any given action are not clear. From observation, some actions do indeed seem to lead to 'good' or 'bad' consequences for myself or others, but actions deemed morally 'bad' by society don't always lead to suffering for the perpetrator. I can't eliminate the possibility that this would be redressed in future rebirths but there's no evidence for this and it seems to beg a lot of questions given the current understanding we have of the universe. Why should there be a coincidence between the morally 'bad' and later suffering? What sort of mechanism allows this chain of cause and effect to continue after death? Where did this mechanism come from? How does this fit in with biological evolution? etc.

We also understand through science that chains of cause and effect are effectively infinitely complex and open-ended involving effectively the whole universe to some extent or another. A butterfly flapping it's wings in one part of the world can cause hurricanes in another. This validates the Buddhist concept of interdependent conditionality but it makes karma highly unpredictable and unstable.

Karma is not divine retribution. And I can't help but think that those who use karma either to justify some sort of inequality or as a 'divine revenge' for a perceived injustice are projecting their own subconscious desires onto the cosmos. This is every bit as hateful as those who have said that AIDS is God's punishment on homosexuals or that Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment on hedonists or 9/11 was His punishment on 'infidels'. In a sense, it's even worse since Yahweh/Allah at least is supposed to do His own Dirtywork, whereas Buddhists rely on impersonal and unaccountable cosmic forces.

Tens of thousands have been killed and many more have been made homeless by natural disasters. Most of us don't like the behaviour of the Burmese regime or the actions of the Chinese government over Tibet. But let's not delude ourselves. The causes of natural disasters are largely beyond our control, but we can still do things to help in the aftermath such as not making callous comments which are transparently our own violent desires projected onto the cosmos.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Every day zazen

At one time I had quite a few regulars here and I've had comments from a few well-known names in the dharmasphere, but I'm quite irregular so I think I've probably lost everyone. I've got my own PC again and I'm relaunching the blog with a new name: 'Urban Bodhisattva'. Welcome. Say hello. Let me know what you think.

I'm now doing zazen every day. I've built up to this gradually and because I have a lot of commuting to do as well as family responsibilities half an hour is what I can manage. I know of monks and nuns who go on very long retreats in Europe but who don't practive at home. I don't really understand this. I can see the importance of the retreats, but you don't have to wait for months or travel hundreds of miles to find the here and now.

Paradoxically, it's easier to do zazen every day than it is to do it two or three times a week. And it's easier to do it for a set period every day than to try to fit in as much as you have time for. This is because there can be a fight about whether you're going to do it today or not and how much and whether you could put it off till later ot until tomorrow and how you're going to adjust your schedule. It's best to have a non-negotiable period in the morning when you do it. And then just do it. Set an alarm, and when it goes off, just do your zazen. Do do it because you feel like it and avoid it because you don't. You're not doing it to get a grrovy feeling or an exciting experience - that's what TV, and Playstation and movies are for. Thrills and escapism. If you 'don't have time' then get up earlier. In the evening there are many distractions from TV, the Internet, household jobs and your relationships with other people. It's hard to escape from those attachments and excuse yourself from social situations. But the morning is quiet and even if you're sleepy, it's easy to be motivated and focussed.

The fundamental problem of course is that zazen is boring - generally speaking at least. If zazen was like watching The Sopranos or playing Halo 3, there wouldn't be an issue. But it isn't. Don't get me wrong - I usually find zazen very satisfying, very peaceful, even blissful, but the mind is resless and hard to tame - staring at a wall is one of the last things we want to do. We'd rather escape into a fantasy or even get ourselves involved in some destructive drama rather than face our own selves and the actual reality of our lives. But it's only by facing this regularly that we can stop running from it and find happiness which is not dependent on other factors. You can't find inner happiness in spomething outside yourself - or even if you are dependent on being in a particular mood. We have to sit and confront our demons and one of the strongest of these is also the most insidious and insipid - boredom. The quality of Brad Warner's advice and teaching is very mixed but he can be a very engaging writer. I recommend a very early internet article he wrote - the first of his I read and probably still the best.

Zen is boring

If I ever take monk ordination I feel I should be sitting for at least an hour every day.

Monday, May 19, 2008

As-it-is mind is Buddha

On the inside of my Rakusu is the following line 'As-it-is mind is Buddha'. This is a variant of the the more familiar 'ordinary mind is Buddha' - a paradox that seems to sum up the Soto Zen approach very well.

In most forms of Buddhism, enlightenment tends to be regarded as something very remote and exotic. It is represented as a sort of perfect, almost divine, human being - supremely dignified, always kind, immune to suffering and any sort of vice. Well, life isn't much like that for most of us, so we wonder how we can get there from the mess where we are now. Such images, inspiring as they might seem, can make us feel even more imperfect. If we strive to acquire Buddhahood, this could encourage a dualistic perspective between self and other, between here and there, this and that. And such duality makes it more difficult. This duality is itself samsara, while non-duality is nirvana.

Mahayana Buddhism incorporates the concept of Buddha Nature - that is, that we are already Buddhas. It is easy to misunderstand this as teaching that we are carrying some sort of metaphysical entity 'inside' us, which is or becomes a Buddha, but that isn't what it really means.

Instead we just enter fully into the present moment and this very life we are living now. Deeply entering into the present moment, we find that it is not a point or a thin slice of life, but an ocean which we can go into more and more deeply. It includes all of our thoughts and feelings about ourselves and about the world. Excluding nothing, we realise that our entire sense of the past and the future are included as memories and anticipations. They exist now. Doing this we realise that we were deluded when we thought we could ever genuinely escape from the present moment.

Lo, I am with you always means when you look for God,
God is in the look of your eyes,
in the thought of looking, nearer to you than your self,
or things that have happened to you
There's no need to go outside.
- Rumi

A monk asked Baso, “Why do you teach that Mind is Buddha?”
Baso replied, “To stop a baby's crying.”
The monk asked, “ What is it like when the baby stops crying?”
Baso answered, “No Mind, no Buddha.”

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I come to help God

On his death-bed Master Kodo Sawaki told Taisen Deshimaru to take Zen Buddhism to Europe. When Master Deshimaru arrived in France - a Catholic country for many centuries - he was asked why he had come. He said "I come to help God! I come to help Christ!". What does this mean? Was Master Deshimaru actually a Christian? And why did God need help?

Master Rinzai is supposed to have said, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." True religion is beyond form. Deshimaru did not have a belief in a personal god as far as I know. But the dharma can be expressed to suit the audience, using different languages: Christian, Buddhist, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, secular or scientific.

Master Sawaki felt that spirituality in Europe was ailing. Nietzsche had famously declared that 'God is dead'. Existentialist philosophy was dominated by angst. Deshimaru arrived to help - not to revive traditional Christianity but to offer a fresh perspective.

Zen is beyond theism and atheism. Not 'beyond' as in 'superior' in the sense of a value judgement, but in the sense that what it points too has no attachments or boundaries. True religion is beyond religion - the true God is beyond God.

There is no God.
And He is everything.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Sorry things have been quiet for a while. Two reasons: Emily and I just got married - yay! And I'm focussing on stilling my mind instead of opinionating. I expect there will be more stuff, but not just yet.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Open to the great sky

Do not cling to
This small mind,
This bag of skin.

Open to the great sky
Where there is no birth
and there is no death.

I really like this poem. It is all the more poignant because it was presented to our late brother blogger Michael at his Jukai ceremony just days before his death. And because my old friend Guy died in November. I don't know who wrote it - perhaps Michael's sensei. For me, the whole meaning of Buddhism is condensed into those six lines. All things are transient, so do not cling to fleeting forms, instead completely open up.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Bodhisattva Path

A Bodhisattva is someone who is on the way to becoming awakened. In Mahayana Buddhism it is a person who is bound for awakening, but who vows to help others before completing that path themselves. In a sense, there are two sorts of Bodhisattvas - there are legendary characters such as Kannon (Avalokiteshvara), who are a sort of Buddhist equivalent of saints, and there are ordinary practitioners like myself who have taken Bodhisattva ordination. Kannon could be understood as an inspirational ideal of Bodhisattvahood and a conceptualisation of the principle of compassion.

It could also be said that the Bodhisattva ordination is, in a sense, more important than the monk or nun ordination, even though a monk or nun is generally considered to be more 'senior' in the practice than a Bodhisattva. The monk or nun does not stop being a Bodhisattva - it's just that he or she has decided to practice that path with a greater level of dedication.

The Bodhisattva path and the Zen path are one and the same thing. They are characterised by a spirit of kindness and open-heartedness. We might feel that we sometimes (or often) fall short of such ideals, but the important thing is that we make an effort. This doesn't mean that we need to save the world by organising international rock concerts or other grand gestures, nor does it mean that we have to go around persuading everyone to practice Buddhism. I'm still very much in the process of learning what it means - perhaps I always will be - but it's clear that the emphasis is on ourselves - on paying attention to our own motivations and preoccupations in a detached way so that we can see them clearly as they are rather than being pushed around by them unconsciously. We avoid doing harm, and we follow the precepts. Is our Bodhisattva duty to save all beings from ourselves, as another practitioner put it. If our practice has a positive effect on our lives, others will be affected by that and recognise it. When it is necessary to directly help someone, hopefully we will have the wisdom to recognise that. Some Buddhist schools have meditation techniques specifically for cultivate compassion, but most Zen teachers encourage just Zazen, vows and an open-hearted attitude.

The Buddha told a story about lotus flowers growing out of the mud as an analogy for awakening - lotus flowers cannot grow on air or marble, they can only grow in mud and yet the blossoms are not spoiled by that mud. Awakening is not separate from samsara. The Bodhisattva works in the mud of life.

The bodhisattva is a living Buddha. In Mahayana Buddhism there is no fear of hell. In Christianity that is the supreme punishment. In Zen, if you have to go to hell you go...The Zen monk must leap into hell to save those who are suffering. The bodhisattva must leap into the impurities of the social world. Leap, not fall! Falling into the river and diving into the river are completely different things. If you fall into the river your only thought is to save your life. If you dive into the river you swim and then you can save people who are drowning. Bodhisattvas dive into the world to help...Sometimes it is necessary to rub your hands in impurities. - Master Deshimaru

From personal experience, it seems that there is a risk of misunderstanding compassion as 'being nice all the time' or avoiding upsetting people. Sometimes the kindest thing to do is to be firm. Apparent kindness can be short-sighted or motivated by a desire for approval. It is important that we don't fool ourselves. We need to experience all of our emotions with a calm mind and deal with them skillfully rather than being pushed around blindly.

I took the Bodhisattva ordination myself a few months ago found it both rewarding and challenging. I felt it was time to make a deeper committment to my practice and hoped that making public vows would strengthen my dedication to practice. For someone with a fairly rational and scientific approach to life, making firm and public religious vows was quite an alien and intimidating step. Also during the sesshin I had a problem with my posture which led to a lot of pain in my back. I had been hoping to feel serenely happy about the ordination, but in truth I felt like a bit of a wreck. Nevertheless, I learned important lessons about my posture and my - sometimes irrational - fear of 'religion'. Despite the challenges, I enjoyed the sesshin a great deal. It's clear to me that taking the vows has helped my practice in ways that go beyond just committment to zazen.

The principle vows made during the Bodhisattva ordination are the same as the ones chanted during ceremonies by Zen practitioners on a regular basis.

However innumerable all beings are I vow to save them all
However inexhaustible my delusions are I vow to extinguish them all
However immeasurable the Dharma Teachings are I vow to master them all
However endless the Buddha's Way is I vow to follow it completely

The most remarkable thing about these vows is that, taken literally, they are impossible to fulfill. Perhaps if I made a vow which could be fulfilled, such as practicing zazen every day for an hour, I would forget about the vow when I succeeded or become disheartened if I failed. These vows are endless, representing a spirit of endless compassion and endless openness. The vows are an expression of the Bodhisattva spirit itself.

There are no limits. If I were to explain, you would be tempted to limit the role of the bodhisattva to what I had said. Every day you must find out the duties of a bodhisattva. They are not the kind of duties that come from a religious commandment. What you have to do is leap into the river to help those who are drowning, leap into the dangerous places. That is the bodhisattva's vocation. Leap into difficulties, not run away from them. It's very hard. That is what the bodhisattva does to help others. First give food and water to others, only afterward to yourself. "Please, you experience satori," says the bodhisattva. "I am going to help you to have that experience at any price, and afterward I shall try to have it myself." - Master Deshimaru

To live in service to others is an invitation to pass the barrier of self and other. To live an endless vow is an invitation to pass the barrier of success and failure. It's easy to talk about these things but it's not easy to live it in the face of your own desire and aversion, flawed judgement and difficult moral situations.

I'm very grateful to everybody who helped me to find my way onto the Bodhisattva path - those who ordained me and those who helped me to finish my rakusu on time.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Rebirth, Reassessed

[Reposted from Progressive Buddhism]

The rise of Buddhism in the west is undoubtedly linked with it's relative compatability with the dominant rational, empirical and pragmatic worldview. The single biggest obstacle to practice for westerners is probably the belief in rebirth and karma, since this this is not part of our worldview, nor does there seem to be any rational or empirical justification for accepting this. The majority of Buddhist orders would insist on acceptance of this doctrine in order to be a serious practitioner, certainly for one to become a monk. It was a barrier for me when I first encountered Buddhism as an undergraduate. And it remains an issue for many. It was probably reading Stephen Batchelor's book Buddhism Without Beliefs, in which the author argues for the validity of agnosticism on such matters, that allowed me to see a route forward and I'm grateful to him for that. I've not read any more recent writings, however, I got the impression that he was still wrestling with these issues.

Why do most traditional Buddhists believe in traditional rebirth and karma?
For most Buddhists, these concepts are part of the worldview in which they are raised. Believing these things are as natural as the understanding that the earth rotates around the sun is for a modern westerner. There are several arguments sometimes made in Buddhism for accepting these notions, but none I have personally come across hold much water.

  1. Buddha taught them to be true.
    Even assuming (not unreasonably) that the sutras have reliably passed down what the Buddha taught, this argument doesn't stand up. First, this would only be justification if the Buddha was literally omniscient and there is no good reason to suppose this. Interestingly, the believer himself would have to be omniscient as well in order to know for certain that the Buddha was omniscient. Secondly, the Buddha made several statements indicating that his teachings were merely a vehicle for passing across to nirvana, thus there is room for the possibility that they were metaphors using common concepts of the time to indicate something more difficult to articulate (such as the realisation that we don't exist as separate continuous entities in the first place).

  2. Buddha was right about suffering so we should have faith in the rest
    This is the argument I've seen given by Bhikkhu Bodhi on this subject. Initially we may have no belief in traditional rebirth and karma, but as we begin to see the fruits of our practice, we increasingly trust the Buddha not just on the matter of the elimination of suffering, but on matters which we cannot experience ourselves such as rebirth and karma. This is an example of the logical fallacy known as the Appeal to Authority. Someone's expertise on one subject does not make him or her an authority on other matters. What is important is whether a particular claim can be validated or not.

  3. We can experience this ourselves in meditation or upon enlightenment
    Well until this can actually be verified with experience, this comes back to blind faith again. Even if we did have experiences during meditation or special states, they might be the product of imagination - it isn't difficult to produce vivid experiences or false memories during states of deep mental relaxation.
Did Buddha believe in rebirth and Karma?
It might be tempting for those who practice the dharma and yet who do not believe in these ideas - especially under pressure from traditionalistic Buddhists who accuse them of being 'not real Buddhists' - to attempt to bolster their position, by arguing either that the Buddha did not really teach rebirth and karma or that his teachings were just metaphors. From my (far from complete) readings of the Pali Canon it seems very clear that he did teach literal rebirth and karma and went into details of their mechanics at times. It would be incredible for these central ideas to have been levered into position at a later time. Nor have I found any direct evidence that those specific teachings were intended merely as metaphorical devices. But certainly there are several examples of him indicating that much or all of his teachings were just teaching devices, vehicles.

Why did Buddha believe or at least teach karma and rebirth?
The Buddha was born into a culture in which the concepts of karma and rebirth were commonplace in religious thought. The Buddha did not spontaneously produce these ideas from nowhere. Karma originated with Jainism and rebirth is a modified form of reincarnation which comes from Vedic thought. Denial of these concepts was associated with nihilism or materialism.

Why don't I believe in rebirth and karma?
First of all, it's not accurate to say that I don't believe in rebirth and karma. More precisely, those beliefs I provisionally have about rebirth and karma are not exactly the same as those which Siddhartha Gautama seems to have taught.

Karma is volitional activity and the consequences, good or bad, of that activity. Everyday human experience reveals the reality of this and increasing awareness and compassion allows us to create better consequences. Every moment we send out chaotic ripples of change across the universe, the vast majority of which have consequences we have no control over. This doesn't mean, however, that I have any reason or evidence to believe that all actions which are conventionally regarded as 'bad' always lead to increased suffering for the perpetrator. Nor is there any good justification for supposing that consequences inevitably revisit 'the same person' reborn.

All the evidence available from both science and introspection suggest that there is no continuous self which survives intact or unchanged even from one moment to the next. Instead we have continuously changing psychological processes, including the processes which produce that very sense of continuity. Yet this sense of self reappears again and again. This is sometimes called 'moment to moment rebirth'. On the other hand, I can find no justification for believing that at death, the causal chain of my being is somehow (and for some unexplained reason) focussed through 12 links of dependent arising onto the formation of a single future being.

For me, the traditional teachings of rebirth and karma are like fingers pointing to the interconnectedness of everything, to emptiness, presented from within the context of the Vedic worldview. Emptiness itself is is universal, particular theories about life after death are culturally dependent and impermanent.

The translation I have (Bhikku Bodhi) of the Pali Canon implies that Buddha did not spontaneously recall his previous lives, but that, during a profound state of meditation on the night of his awakening, he deliberately turned his attention to recall them. This implies that he already had a belief in them gained from his cultural environment. From my understanding of psychology and my personal experiences of self-hypnosis and visualisation I know that such apparent memories under such circumstances do not constitute at all reliable evidence for past lives.

In the Kalama Sutta, Buddha himself says that one need not believe in rebirth and karma in order to be a successful practitioner.

Karma Police
One of the appealing things about Zen is that belief in doctrines isn't given much importance, but when I took the Boddhisattva vows I had an interview with Master Taiun to ensure I wasn't taking the vows on a false understanding. The answers he gave me were reassuring.

Nevertheless some Buddhists are less open and less tolerant. The administration on the eSangha Buddhist discussion board hold the opinion that since Zen is a school of Buddhism they have to accept the fundamentals and that those fundamentals include traditional karma and rebirth. I wrote about my own experiences of this on my personal blog. Jundo James Cohen, a Zen priest, was recently banned from the same board apparently for saying that...

...traditional ideas of rebirth and reincarnation are not to be taken literally in
this modern age; and (2) Shakyamuni Buddha was a man, not a god or super-human
being, and though enlightened … was a human being like the rest of us.

But, in fact, the non-literalist views I am expressing on Reincarnation
represent, I believe, the generally dominant view among Zen teachers in the West
right now. The reason is not that we have lost the direct line to Buddha’s brain
that you’all so evidently possess. The reason is, quite simply, that we no
longer live in an age of superstition and hocus-pocus. I do not believe in a
magical view of Reincarnation for much the same reason that I do not believe in
flying dragons, the tooth fairy, genies, Qilin (a kind a giraffe with fish
scales and wings) and such. We do not believe that earthquakes are caused by
giant catfish under the earth, or that stomach aches are due to ghost
possession, and other things that the same primitive folks (who wrote the
Sutras) believed in. Now, we know a little better (although, granted, we have
our own modern myths and superstitions).
Such people want to claim that Buddha is omniscient and infallible and that anyone who disagrees is a heretic. Rather than admit that Zen does not require adherence to such dogma, they intimidate or ban the individual who states such a perspective.

No-Self and Tony Soprano
I don't generally talk to my work colleagues about Buddhism, but a few of them know that I practice and one of the guys in the team is a Mormon, and he brings up the subject of religion sometimes. So one day he was explaining his beliefs about the after life and he asked me if I believed in reincarnation and I went into an explanation that most Buddhists believe in rebirth which is a chain of cause and effect rather than the continuation of a self or soul. And blah, blah, blah. But later I found a better way of expressing this.

My partner and I are working our way through the Sopranos on DVD - I can't recommend it enough by the way - and we were watching an episode in which Tony Soprano was convalescing in hospital after being shot. One of the other guys chatting in the room was a scientist who came out with a great description of the non-existence of separate entities, which I felt described the Buddhist perspective in a contemporary and rational way, far better than most of the stale descriptions of rebirth and karmic dogma given by Buddhists. Next time I get asked the 'reincarnation' question, I'll answer along the same lines (and yes, I do think that non-practitioners can realise emptiness, to at least some extent - this is because reality is inherently empty, it's emptiness is not something which has to be passed down in the form as dogma.)

Pauli (one of Tony's most senior men): Look at you T. You do your uncle a kindness, you get shot for your efforts. You think you got family, but in the end they fuck you too.
Tony Soprano : [to the others in the room] He's grieving. His aunt just died.
Pauli: Each and every one of us, we're alone in the ring, fighting for our lives. Just like that poor prick. [referring to a boxer on the TV]
John Schwinn, a scientist: That's one way to look at it
Tony: You got a better one? ...
John Schwinn: Well, it's actually an illusion that those boxers are separate entities....Their separate entities is simply the way we choose to perceive them.
Tony: I didn't choose nothin.
John Schwinn: It's physics. Schrodinger's equation. The boxers, you, me - we're all part of the same quantum field...Think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air - two tornadoes. They appear to be two separate things, but they're not. Tornadoes are just the wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is, nothing is separate - everything is connected ...
Tony: Get the fuck outta here
John Schwinn: The universe is just one big soup of molecules bumping up against one another. The shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness...
Pauli: You're so fucking smart, fix that TV.
John Schwinn: [Laughs] OK

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

One Foot in Front of the Other

I've just found out that Michael the author of the blog One Foot in Front of the Other has died yesterday after a long struggle with cancer. I've been following his blog off-and-on for about 4 years and was always moved by his poems, his outstanding photographs and the way in which he has dealt with the inevitability of his approaching death. It has been, for me, possibly the best Buddhist-related blog out there.

Having been absent for a while, I was a little disturbed by the tone of his latest posts which made it clear how much he had deteriorated. I became suspicious when I saw that he had not posted for 12 days, and not even approving comments to his last post. My own response to his final gruelling poem, like many others I'm sure, is lost, hanging in the ether for eternity.

Seems to be a pattern developing here.

Everyone you know (including online) will die.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Luang Prabang

We just got back in from a visit to the Laos and Thailand. Luang Prabang in Northern Laos is the most beautiful city I have ever been to.