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.