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.