Friday, June 23, 2017

Basho on This Wandering Life

Basho's hut was not his true home...

Days and months are travellers of eternity. So are the years that pass by. Those who steer a boat across the sea, or drive a horse over the earth  spend every minute of their lives travelling, and the journey itself is home. There are a great number of ancients, too, who died on the road. I myself have been tempted for a long time by wind-blown clouds into dreams of lifelong travelling.

It was only towards the end of last autumn that I returned from rambling along the coast. I barely had time to sweep the cobwebs from my broken house on the River Sumida before the New Year, but no sooner had the spring mist begun to rise over the field than I wanted to be on the road again to cross the barrier-gate of Shirakawa in due time. A wandering spirit seemed to have possessed me and turned me inside out, roadside images seeming to invite me from every corner, so that it was impossible for me to stay idle at home. Even while I was getting ready, mending my torn trousers, tying a new strap to my hat, and applying *moxa to my legs to strengthen them, I was already dreaming of the full moon rising over the islands of Matushima. Finally, I gave my house to another, moving to the cottage of my patron Mr. Sampu for a temporary stay. Upon the threshold of my old home, however, I wrote a linked verse of eight pieces and hung it on a wooden pillar. The opening verse was:

even this grass hut
may be transformed
into a doll's house.

Note: Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) is Japan's most celebrated haiku poet, and one of its most revered literary figures. He was also a Buddhist, whose work reflected the transiency of life, its innate unsatisfactory nature, and the value of living in the present moment. *Moxa is a dried leaf applied in small doses to the skin and burnt, in the belief that it has curative properties.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Buddha on Greed, Hatred & Delusion

"Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.'

"What do you think, Kalamas? Does greed appear in a man for his benefit or harm?"

"For his harm, venerable sir."

"Kalamas, being given to greed, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by greed, this man takes life, steals, commits adultery, and tells lies; he prompts another too, to do likewise. Will that be long for his harm and ill?"

"Yes, venerable sir."

"What do you think, Kalamas? Does hate appear in a man for his benefit or harm?"

"For his harm, venerable sir."

"Kalamas, being given to hate, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by hate, this man takes life, steals, commits adultery, and tells lies; he prompts another too, to do likewise. Will that be long for his harm and ill?"

"Yes, venerable sir."

"What do you think, Kalamas? Does delusion appear in a man for his benefit or harm?"

"For his harm, venerable sir."

"Kalamas, being given to delusion, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by delusion, this man takes life, steals, commits adultery, and tells lies; he prompts another too, to do likewise. Will that be long for his harm and ill?"

"Yes, venerable sir."

"What do you think, Kalamas? Are these things good or bad?"

"Bad, venerable sir"

"Blamable or not blamable?"

"Blamable, venerable sir."

"Censured or praised by the wise?"

"Censured, venerable sir."

"Undertaken and observed, do these things lead to harm and ill, or not? Or how does it strike you?"

"Undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill. Thus it strikes us here."

"Therefore, did we say, Kalamas, what was said thus, 'Come Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, "The monk is our teacher." Kalamas, when you yourselves know: "These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill," abandon them.'”

*Note: This is an extract from the Buddha's discourse to the people of the town of Kesaputta, called the Kalama Sutta. The formula on how to decide a teaching is worth following or not at the beginning and end of this extract is one of the most famous of Buddha's teachings.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ajahn Sumedho on Identity

Ajahn Sumedho: Without any real core or essence

We’ll sacrifice our life for an illusion, to try to protect our identities, our positions, our territories. We’re very territorial. We think this England here belongs to the English. When we take that apart, does this plot of land here say it’s England? When I do jongrom (walking meditation) outside, does the earth come up and say, “You’re walking on me — England.” It’s never said that, never! But I say I’m walking here in England. I’m the one who’s calling it England, and that is an identity, a conventional identity. We all agree to call this plot of land here ‘England’, but it’s not really that; it is what it is. Yet we’ll fight, torture and commit the most atrocious acts over territory, quibbling about just one inch of property on a border. The land doesn’t belong to anybody; even if I own land legally — “This belongs to Ajahn Sumedho” — it doesn’t really; that’s just a convention.

When we bind ourselves to these conventions and these illusions, then of course we’re troubled because these are so unstable and not in line with Dharma. We end up wasting our lives around trying to increase this sense of identification, the sense of, “It’s mine, it belongs to me and I want to protect it. I want to hand it down to future generations.” On and on like this, into future lives and the generations that follow. We create a whole realm of illusion, personality and identity with the perceptions that we create in our minds, which arise and cease, which have no real core to them, no essence.

We can be very threatened when these illusions are threatened. I remember first questioning the reality of my personality. It scared me to death. When I started questioning, even though I didn’t have particularly over-confident, high self-esteem (I have never been prone towards seeing myself in megalomaniac perceptions; usually the opposite, very self-critical), even then, I felt very threatened when that security, that confidence in being this screwed-up personality was being threatened. There is a sense of stability even with people who are identified with illnesses or negative things, like alcoholics. Being identified with some sort of mental disease like paranoia, schizophrenia or whatever gives us a sense that we know what we are and we can justify the way that we are. We can say, “I can’t help the way I am. I’m a schizophrenic.” That gives us a sense of allowing us to be a certain way. It may be a sense of confidence or stability in the fact that our identities are labelled and we all agree to look at each other in this way, with this label, with this perception.

So you realise the kind of courage it takes to question, to allow the illusory world that we have created to fall apart, such as with a nervous breakdown, where the world falls apart. When the security that is offered, the safety and confidence that we gain from that illusion starts cracking and falling apart, it’s very frightening. Yet within us there’s something that guides us through it. What brings us into this monastic life? It’s some intuitive sense, a sense behind the sense, an intelligence behind all the knowledge and the cleverness of our minds. Yet we can’t claim it on a personal level. We always have to let go of the personal perceptions, because as soon as we claim them, we’re creating another illusion again. Instead of claiming, identifying or attaching, we begin to realise or recognise the way it is. This is the practice of awareness (sati-sampajanna), paying attention. In other words, it’s going to the centre point, to the Buddho (the one who knows) position. This Buddha image in the temple: it’s the still point. If you look at this Buddha-rupa, it’s a symbol, an image representing the human form at the still point.

(Ajahn Sumedho is the senior monk of the Western Forest Sangha, as well as former abbot of Wat Nanachat in Thailand & Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England. His teachings are highly regarded across the globe. In the above talk, I have replaced the Pali word Dhamma with the more widely known Sanskrit term Dharma, both meaning 'Buddhist teachings' & 'the truth of the way things are.')

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Happy Buddha Day!

Today is Buddha Day, or, to give it its Pali name Visakha Puja, also known as Vesak. This is the day when Buddhists across the globe celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Not all Buddhist traditions celebrate Buddha Day today, but many do, and here in Thailand it is the main Buddhist festival of the year (and there are lots!). But why bother to commemorate the Buddha's life and enlightenment in this way? Well, it is an occasion that we can use skillfully to encourage reflection on his life and teachings in relation to our own existence. And, what's more, it is an opportunity to consider the debt that we owe him for showing us the way to liberation from suffering.

The Buddha's birth is a special event, of course, as it is not often that a fully-awakened one is born into the world. If Shakyamuni Buddha was never born, then the Buddhadharma would never have been established for us to use to awaken with.Similarly, if the Buddha had not realized the cessation of suffering under the Bodhi Tree, then we too would not know how to do the same. Furthermore, his apparent demise shows us that rebirth and continual suffering of these separated selves can be transcended, allowing the spacious awareness that we truly are to shine forth. Homage to the Blessed, Noble, and Perfectly Awakened One, indeed!

To mark this day of days, we need not go to a temple and take part in rituals if we cannot or would rather not. It's up to us to find appropriate ways to express our recognition and gratitude to the Buddha for what he has done for us. Perhaps this might be a simple ceremony conducted in front of a small shrine at home, or maybe a brief reflection on his qualities and teachings coupled with meditation will suffice. Of course, if we do decide to attend a full-blown public ritual with all the trimmings, then that can be wonderful too. As long as it's respectful and from the heart, go for it!

Another way to mark Buddha Day is to recognize the Buddha within. This, again, is best attempted with a modicum of decorum and a certain sincerity. Quietly looking home at where you are looking from, you might notice that where others see your face, and where you feel it, there is also an awareness that although empty in itself, is nevertheless full of all that you experience. This knowing is not your knowing as so-and-so, nor does it belong to somebody else, such as a god. It is what it is: clarity gazing upon the world. Staying with this unconditioned wakefulness, every conditioned thing or process can be observed to arise, exist, and end, including all these thoughts, memories, emotions, and sensations that we normally take to be 'me.' What better way than this, whether we take part in ceremonies or not, to acknowledge the Buddha. Happy Buddha Day!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kukai on the Mantra 'A'

Close your eyes and say, "A."

All sentient beings have in the core of their minds a portion of purity which is completely appointed with all practices. Its essence is extremely subtle, clear, and bright, and it remains unchanged even when transmigrating in the six destinies. It is like the sixteenth phase of the moon. When the bright aspect of that phase of the moon meets the sun, it is merely deprived of its brightness by the rays of the sun and therefore does not appear, but from the start of the moon that then rises it gradually waxes day by day until the fifteenth day, when it is perfectly full and its brightness unobstructed.

Therefore, the practitioner of meditation first arouses the brightness within his original mind by means of the letter A, gradually makes it pure and brighter, and realizes the knowledge of non-arising. The letter A signifies the original non-birth of all things.

(Kukai, also known as Kobo-Daishi, 774–835, was the founder of Shingon (Esoteric) Buddhism in Japan.The syllable A is an important mantra in Shingon meditation practice, and is pronounced like the a in father.)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

D.T. Suzuki on Nihilism

D.T. Suzuki: Much ado about nothing?

A monk asked Joshu, "What would you say when I come to you with nothing?"

Joshu said, "Fling it down to the ground."

Protested the monk, "I said that I had nothing; what shall I let go?"

"If so, carry it away," was the retort of Joshu.

Joshu has thus plainly exposed the fruitlessness of a nihilistic philosophy. To reach the goal of Zen, even the idea of "having nothing" ought to be done away with. Buddha reveals himself when he is no more asserted; that is, for Buddha's sake Buddha is to be given up. This is the only way to come to the realization of the truth of Zen. So long as one is talking of nothingness or of the absolute one is far away from Zen, and ever receding from Zen. Even the foothold of Sunyata must be kicked off. The only way to get saved is to throw oneself right down into a bottomless abyss. And this is, indeed, no easy task.

(Taken from 'An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, the Japanese scholar credited with introducing Zen Buddism to the West. Joshu (Zhaozhou in Chinese) was a famous Zen master of the 8th & 9th centuries)

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Heart Sutra

Prajna-paramita-hridaya Sutra
(Heart-of-transcendent-wisdom Discourse)

When the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was engaged in the practice of deep transcendent wisdom, he perceived: there are the five aggregates; and these he saw in their self-nature to be empty.

Here, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form; what is form that is emptiness, what is emptiness that is form. The same can be said of sensation, thought, confection, and consciousness.

Here, Shariputra, all things are characterized with emptiness: they are not born, they are not annihilated; they are not tainted, they are not pure; they do not increase, they do not decrease.

Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formations, no consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch, objects; no element of vision, till we come to no element of consciousness; there is no knowledge, no ignorance, no extinction of knowledge, no extinction of ignorance, till we come to there is no old age and death, no extinction of old age and death; there is no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; there is no knowledge, no attainment, and no non-realization.

Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment, bodhisattvas dwell depending on transcendent wisdom there are no obstacles; and because there are no obstacles in his mind, he has no fear and, going beyond wrong views he reaches final nirvana. All the awakened ones of the past, present, and future, depending on transcendent wisdom, attain to the highest perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, one ought to know that the transcendent wisdom is the great mantra, the mantra of great wisdom, the highest mantra, the peerless mantra, which is capable of allaying all pain; it is truth because it is not falsehood; this is the mantra proclaimed in transcendent wisdom. It runs:

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

(Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond: Awakening! Hail!)

(Adapted by the author from D.T. Suzuki's translation of the Heart Sutra, with reference to many other renderings of the text)