Thursday, June 26, 2008
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
“If you wish to cultivate the Way, don’t look outside yourself, for outside there is nothing to be sought. You should search within your own nature.” (‘The Heart Sutra by Master Hua’, page 36)
Master Xuan Hua, often given as Hsuan Hua, was a Chinese Zen monk who transplanted his tradition of Buddhism to
Master Hua was well known and respected for his erudite commentaries on the Mahayana Sutras, which included the Heart Sutra, Diamond Sutra, Amitabha Sutra, Platform Sutra, and a monumental interpretation of the Shurangama Sutra, which is transcribed from a 96 day talk to an assembly of followers. This review focuses on Master Hua’s commentary on the Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra, or the Heart Sutra as it is generally known in the West, which is a pdf book 216 pages long, and downloadable for free from the Gold Buddha Monastery Website.
The book is divided into three parts. Part One is a translation of the Sutra into English, made by the Buddhist Text Translation Society (BTTS), the organization set up by the Master to render such scripture into English. Part Two is Master Hua’s verse commentary on the Sutra, whilst Part Three is a prose commentary on Parts One and Two. The Heart Sutra is essentially a summation of the Mahayana teachings known as the Prajna Paramita (‘Perfection of Wisdom’). Here’s a sample from the BTTS version of a famous section of the Sutra:
“Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness;
Emptiness does not differ from form.
Form itself is emptiness; emptiness is itself form.
So, too, are feeling, cognition, formation, and consciousness.”
(The Heart of Prajna Paramita, page 31)
“Form does not differ from emptiness”:
“is” is like “is not”.
“Emptiness does not differ from form”:
the distinction is of substance and function.
“Form itself is emptiness”:
its true source is fathomed.
“Emptiness is itself form”:
the false flow has dried up.
Mountains, rivers, and the freat earth
are only manifestations of consciousness.
Be careful not to seek outside;
To cast down stained threads of cause
is to come toward the Thus.
(ibid. page 85)
“What is form? That which has a perceptible characteristic is form. What is emptiness? That which is without characteristics is emptiness. Then why does the text say, form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form; form is itself emptiness and emptiness is itself form? The sutra declares the ultimate meaning which penetrates clearly to the most fundamental principle.” (ibid. page 86)
It is this “most fundamental principle” that Master Hua is concerned to direct us to, and the combination of sutra, verse and prose comments are true skillful means that he employs to help us awaken to our true nature. The book contains pragmatic explanations of the Dharma also, as when describing the above relationship between form and emptiness in terms of a table occupying empty space. (The emptiness exists whether the table is there or not, and the form of the table has its being in the emptiness; relate this to the mind, and we just might have a glimpse of Nirvana!)
In his commentary, the Master also describes the basic Buddhist teaching of the Buddha’s first noble truth of suffering, describing the various kinds of suffering, using two different systems of classification. The first divides suffering into three main kinds, whilst the second cites eight types of suffering. Master Hua explains these two systems in lucid terms, leaving no doubt as to the universal nature of suffering, advising us to carefully reflect on the meaning of suffering:
“The three sufferings are also called the three kinds of feeling: the feeling of suffering, the feeling of happiness, and the feeling of neither happiness nor suffering. Therefore, the suffering of suffering itself is the feeling of suffering, and the suffering of decay is the feeling of happiness. Yo shouldn’t try to refute this by thinking that happiness is not caught up in suffering, because happiness can go bad.” (ibid. page 75)
The book also uses the Sutra as a starting point to explore various other essential teachings of the Buddha, including the Five Aggregates of being, Dependent Origination, the Four Noble Truths, and Nirvana. It also carefully explains the meaning of the important Mahayana Buddhist conception of the Bodhisattva, describing its etymology as deriving from the words “enlightenment” and “sentient beings”, indicating that the Bodhisattva is one who causes all beings to become enlightened. We will finish here with Master Hua elucidating the ultimate goal of Buddhism, Nirvana:
‘People who don’t understand the Buddhadharma say, “Nirvana is nothing but dying.” Yet that dying is not the same as death, because it is a voluntary dying; it is known and understood. What there was to be done is already done, and pure practice is already established, and so you undergo no further existence. Therefore, you wish to enter nirvana, the state in which there is no birth and death. You yourself know beforehand that you are going to enter nirvana: “At a certain time I will enter nirvana and perfect the stillness.” Thus this is dying which is voluntary and understood.’ (ibid. page 179)
‘The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra’ may be downloaded free of charge from the Gold Buddha Monastery’s website at the following address: Gold Buddha Monastery: Sutras.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
(Page 26, ‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah’)
This is a monumental work. Basically, this book is all of the talks of Ajahn Chah translated into English collected in one large volume, and as such is pretty much an electronic version of the commercial paperback release Food for the Heart, published by Wisdom Publications. The Teachings of Ajahn Chah is available completely free, in both pdf and online formats, from his former monastery’s website here Wat Nong Pah Pong.
The book is 725 pages long and contains all the separate books published by his various monasteries over the years, including Bodhinyana, Living Dhamma, Clarity of Insight and Everything is Teaching Us, amongst others. Ajahn Chah was very popular both with native Thais and Westerners wishing to learn the Dharma from a living master, some as laypeople, and others as monks or nuns living under his leadership in
“He taught villagers how to manage their family lives and finances, yet he might be just as likely to tell them about making causes for realization of Nibbana. He could instruct a visiting group on the basis of morality, without moralizing and in a way that was uplifting, but would gently remind them of their morality at the end of infusing them with his infectious happiness; or he might scold the daylights out of local monastics and laypeople. He could start a discourse by expounding on the most basic Buddhist ideas and seamlessly move on to talking about ultimate reality.”
(From the foreword by Paul Breiter)
One classic talk to be found in the book is also one of my own favorites entitled Our Real Home. It was a talk addressed to an aging lay disciple approaching her death, and using all his teacher’s skills. Ajahn Chah began by using the analogy of household utensils such as cups, saucers, plates and so on as examples of aging and impermanence. He tells the disciple to accept that the body too ages and decays just like her kitchen ware, and through contemplating this fact she can come to terms with her own impending mortality. He doesn’t stop here, however; the talk winds on leading to a most striking description of the meditative process by using the mantra Buddho (a variant of the word Buddha), which leads to a letting go of all that is impermanent. He tells her that:
“Anyone can build a house of wood and bricks, but the Buddha taught that that sort of home is not our real home, it’s only nominally ours. It’s home in the world and it follows the ways of the world. Our real home is inner peace. An external, material home may well be pretty but it is not very peaceful. There’s this worry and then that, this anxiety and then that. So we say it’s not our real home, it’s external to us.”
(Page 218, ‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah)
Elsewhere in the book there are explanations of Buddhist teachings such as The Four Noble Truths, suffering and its ending, Samadhi (meditative concentration), morality, Vinaya (monk’s rules of conduct), and Right View, to name but a few. Ajahn Chah comes across in these transcribed talks as someone totally at peace with himself and the world, and has often been described by those that knew him as the happiest person they ever met. As a strict forest monk, he kept to the monk’s discipline assiduously, and demanded the same from his ordained disciples. Yet, he could also be incredibly humorous or tactful when the occasion required such. He was even referred to by some senior Thai monks as a sort of ‘Zen Theravada Buddhist’, with his tendency to sacrifice orthodoxy when the situation asked for something more vital and direct. The following extract could well have been said by a Mahayana monk:
“This emptiness is something people don’t usually understand, only those who reach it see the real value of it. It’s not the emptiness of not having anything, it’s emptiness within the things that are here. Like this flashlight: we should see this flashlight is empty; because of the flashlight there is emptiness. It’s not the emptiness where we can’t see anything, it’s not like that. People who understand like that have got it all wrong. You must understand emptiness within the things that are here.”
(Page 182, ibid.)
Ajahn Chah’s rich and non-doctrinal teaching style wasn’t indicative of a man who lived the life of a libertine, however. As mentioned above, he promoted strict adherence to the Vinaya (monk’s rules), and as often been said, he lived with the absolute basic necessities of life, giving away many fancy gifts that laypeople felt inspired to give him. This isn’t to say that he didn’t appreciate the generosity of the local population that supported his community of monks and nuns with their material needs. Indeed, he was very keen to instill in the ordained community at his monasteries a sense of gratitude to such laity, saying that:
“Right now, they have the faith to support us with material offerings, giving us our requisites for living. I’ve considered this: it’s quite a big deal. It’s no small thing. Donating our food, our dwellings, the medicines to treat our illnesses, is not a small thing. We are practicing for the attainment of Nibbana. If we don’t have any food to eat, that will be pretty difficult. How would we sit in meditation? How would we be able to build this monastery?”
(Page 607, ibid.)
Reading this book is both an honor and an injunction. It’s an honor to be exposed to such a rich depth of wisdom that Ajahn Chah clearly possessed. It’s also an honor to have such a work freely available for one’s development, given as an act of generosity by the monastic community at Wat Nong Pah Pong (Ajahn Chah’s main monastery). It is an injunction too, however. It’s a call to arms, to take up the practice of the Buddhadharma with sincerity and endeavor to cultivate the wisdom and compassion required to transcend this world of suffering. Moreover, in the life and teachings of Ajahn Chah, we have the perfect example of the selfless sharing of such realization that true wisdom brings.
‘The Teachings of Ajahn Chah’ may be downloaded free of charge from Wat Nong Pah Pong’s website at the following address:
The Teachings of Ajahn Chah.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Ajahn Sumedho, the American Buddhist monk that is abbot of
“Beginning to notice the space around people is a very different way of looking at somebody, isn’t it? We look at the space around them rather than looking at them. This is a way of beginning to open oneself. When one has a spacious mind, then there is room for everything.” (Ajahn Sumedho, in the talk ‘Noticing Space’)
Turning attention away from this computer screen to the room that it’s in and then applying awareness to the space that all the things appear in, rather than to the things themselves, transforms the experience. What was previously perceived as quite a small room now seems to be almost vast in its dimensions. Space not only occupies the gaps between objects, but also surrounds them; it is the ground of their beginning. And, it has a very peaceful, characterless quality to it, which inspires no reactions such as like or dislike. It is perfectly neutral:
“Space is something that we tend not to notice, because it doesn’t grasp our attention, does it? It is not like a beautiful flower something really beautiful, or something really horrible – which pulls your attention right to it. You can be completely mesmerized in an instant by something fascinating, horrible or terrible; but you can’t do that with space, can you? To notice space you have to calm down – you have to contemplate it.”
(Ajahn Sumedho in the talk ‘Noticing Space’)
Focusing attention on my wife involves many, many thoughts and emotions – some of them good, some of them not so good! A whole train of thinking can develop just through looking at her, one thought leading to another and one emotion feeding on another. Before I know it, I could be ready to scold her or kiss her, depending on the direction of the thoughts. But taking notice of the space in which her form appears is all together a different experience. It isn’t centered upon my feelings towards my wife, but takes in the whole of her being as it appears now, instead of those parts I might otherwise focus on. In space, she becomes a full human being, just as she is, rather than my idea of who she is.
This practice isn’t limited to the physical world, however; it can equally be applied to the mental world too. During meditation, or simply whilst sitting quietly, one can close one’s eyes to block out outer distractions. Instead of attaching to or rejecting thoughts and emotions, one can learn to simply observe them as objects in space. Again, Ajahn Sumedho:
“We can see that mentally there are thoughts, emotions – the mental conditions – that arise and cease. Usually we are dazzled, repelled or just bound by the thoughts and emotions; we go from one thing to another – trying to get rid of them or reacting, controlling and manipulating them. So we never have any perspective in our lives, we just become obsessed with repression and indulgence; we are caught in those two extremes.”
(Ajahn Sumedho, in the talk ‘Noticing Space’.)
Ajahn Sumedho has also taught that this mental spaciousness can be cultivated deliberately using a simple thought like “I am”. Before thinking “I am” we can notice the space in the mind, empty for something to occur in. Then the word “I” appears, followed by another gap. This space precedes the word “am”, which itself ends in more space. With this practice, we can see that the thought “I am” is an object in spacious awareness, being born, existing, and then dying back into space. Even emotions that can accompany a thought like “I am” exist in the same space that exists before, during, and after they have arisen. In this way, we can develop a calm dispassion towards our thoughts, seeing them as ephemeral objects in space, coming and going. Over time, they will lose their power to entice us into identifying with them and creating suffering around them as a result.
Seeing thoughts and emotions as things in awareness, rather than as my thoughts and my emotions gives us what Ajahn Sumedho refers to above as perspective. This is an example of the
Ajahn Sumedho’s talk ‘Noticing Space’ can be found in his book ‘The Mind and the Way’, published by Wisdom Publications. It can also be found as a file for free download at the following website: www.budsas.org