“When looking at the big picture — the yin, the yang, of things — grief and loss are, more precisely, about finding the courage and the determination to come to a more complete understanding of life in its glorious yet, utterly baffling, entirety.”
~ Daisy A Hickman
Many Modes of Spirituality
The contemporary world is such a confusing place. We have available to us a greater plethora of ideas than perhaps any previous age. The spiritual treasures of the whole world and much of history are spilled out at our feet and we do not know how to choose from amongst them. Actually any single jewel may be sufficient. It is surely not a matter of finding the right one any more than it is a matter of quantity. Sufi, Buddhist, Catholic, or even agnostic-yet-spiritual... there are many modes. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, said Shakespaere, but if one wastes so much energy disputing the name that one never stops to savour the aroma, the point is missed. They are all modes of expression of our deepest longing, our prayer and it is important that that longing find expression one way or another.
Loving the Divine No Matter the Creed
There are a growing number of people whose spirituality transcends the boundaries of traditional religions. They might be those who, like myself, practise one specific creed and benefit hugely, yet still know that it is just one vehicle and that many other vehicles might have done passably well; or they might be people who have never really settled in any one confessional community yet still harbour a strong spiritual sense of life. Such people, and there are many, find themselves at home with others who have fallen in love with the Divine no matter what their creed, but are less at ease with those who claim that one single interpretation of ultimate truth and one single book and church are exclusively right, all others being wrong and blameworthy, even if the church in question is our own – what embarrassment – and even if the creed is called "science" and the book was written by Darwin.
By Dharmavidya and originally published as a part of the book 'Not Everything is Impermanent'
First, however, I would like to say that the Buddha also has a list. Actually, he has many lists, but the best known one is love, compassion, sympathy and equanimity. Now in this I do not disagree with him at all. I think these two lists are simply two different ways of saying the same thing. At the core of all is love. Nobility is to have the courage of love. Love and compassion naturally go together, one being to wish others good things and the other being to wish them relief from bad things. These together constitute sympathy, but sympathy needs to be stabilised by equanimity which is the resilience to take the rough with the smooth. Although a noble person always strives for the best, he or she has to cope with the fact that the best cannot always be attained. Bad things still happen.
Here in this world we all try to love, but love always runs into difficulties and sometimes we are defeated by them. It takes courage to love again and to go on loving in the face of defeat, rejection or betrayal. Nonetheless, that is what nobility requires.
So this takes me back to my own list of key qualities. Firstly honesty. It seems to me that it is exceedingly difficult for us to be deeply honest. We have such depths of complicated motivations that we do not know ourselves very well. When we look closely we find all kinds of contradictions in our make-up. Also, we feel under a continual social pressure. Nobody really wants us to be totally honest. They actually want us to be supportive, sensitive, and conformist, but not honest. So in order to live in society we do well to dissemble about all manner of things. While we become very skilled at playing the social game, our spiritual life asks us to nonetheless preserve some space where we can be as completely honest as we are capable of being. This is an area where we can help one another. We all need a confidante or confessor who will listen and not judge us. Such wise counsellors are few and far between, even among those who have been trained in counselling or psychotherapy or pastoral care. Creating safe spaces where deeper honesty is possible is one of the things that a spiritual community should always work on.
Secondly, selflessness. To be truly selfless is even more difficult than to be truly honest. Of course, there are innumerable social situations where we do put others before ourselves in practical ways and this is good. This is part of the development of civilisation. True selflessness, however, goes much deeper than good manners. The noble person does the right thing whether it serves their own personal interests or not. For the truly honourable person it does not really matter whether they are in heaven or in hell, they still act in the same spirit. In an important sense, we are always in heaven and always also in hell. There is, however, also a deeper understanding. The truly noble person actually never acts against his own interests because he sees deeply enough to know that "the right thing" is never at odd with his ultimate spiritual well-being. This is what living a spiritual life implies.
Then thirdly, humility. This is the saving grace of all graces. Humility begins, perhaps, with the realisation that we are not always completely honest and certainly not always selfless. We are human and humans are rather cunning, destructive animals. We can also be timid, ashamed, anxious, and querulous, not to mention our propensities toward greed, slander, envy and jealousy. One could go on and make a long list. Of course, the noble person does overcome some of these foibles, but desire does not lie down and die until we do and there is no likelihood that we shall eliminate all sin this side of the grave.
So if perfection is not attainable, what is the noble life that Buddha is talking about? I do not think that we should imagine that there is a state or status that we can reach in which greed, hate and delusion will never arise. Rather, I think the Buddha is talking about how to handle the situation when they do. When things go wrong, that is the time when enlightenment is possible. It is exactly when primitive feelings bubble up that we have at hand the energy to take a further step toward spiritual liberation. Each time we do so we over-turn a thousand years of bad karma at least.
How can we do so? Paradoxically, not really by our own power. What lifts us at such times is whatever inspires us. It comes like a voice out of the future. We shall only change our ways in order to create a better future for those or that which we love. We shall not do it for ourselves. Self-help books can reiterate that “You are worth it”, “Take care of yourself”, “Do it for yourself” and so on endlessly, but people do not generally make supreme efforts on their own behalf. They do it for others, or for something other, and they do it for the future. Ensuring the better future of others is what we mean by love.
Noble ones are those who live their love and, in the process, learn what they need to learn and overcome whatever it is in themselves that they have to overcome. In this they are certainly helped. When one looks at a noble person, one might think of them as self-reliant, but they themselves do not feel like that. They themselves are likely to be much more conscious of all the help they have received. Some of this help seems to be the work of providence, the experiences they have confronted in life, and some of it has come through encounters with, or the examples provided by, other people. Nobility starts with gratitude for all this. That is what supports a humble attitude which then erodes self-centredness. So the honourable life is one that is constantly evolving between the poles of gratitude and honesty.
Some things to ponder about by Satya - do please share your thoughts on these questions or anything else that strikes you:
- how do you do when it comes to honesty, selflessness, humility and gratitude? Which comes most naturally? Which is most difficult?
- What lifts and inspires you?
- When have you had an experience of making supreme effort on someone else's behalf?
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From Toni Bernhard:
According to the dictionary, to forgive is to stop feeling angry or resentful toward yourself or others for some perceived offense, flaw, or mistake. Keeping that definition in mind, forgiveness becomes a form of compassion. This is because compassion is the act of reaching out to yourself and others to help alleviate suffering. Forgiving yourself and forgiving others has just that effect.
To inspire you to work on cultivating forgiveness for yourselves and others, I’ve provided commentary on ten carefully gathered quotations. I hope some of them will resonate strongly enough with you that you’ll jot them down on a piece of paper as a reminder you can refer to now and then.
Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness. —Marianne Williamson
In my own life, I’ve found this to be true: peace comes when I’m feeling good-will toward others and not contending with them. Both of these require that I forgive those who may not have acted as I’d hoped they would. This can be a challenge.
Many of us find it hard to forgive. We’ve been conditioned from childhood to think of forgiving as a sign of weakness. But we can change our habits. That’s one of the most wondrous characteristics of the mind: it’s malleable. Each time we forgive ourselves or others, it becomes easier to do so the next time. This means that we are gradually changing a habit in a way that will bring us peace of mind.
It's one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody. —Maya Angelou
This is a tall order—not only to forgive ourselves and some people, but to forgive everybody. The best way for me to get a handle on this is to remember that we can “forgive but not forget.” And so, if someone has treated me badly, I can work on generating compassion for how much they must have been suffering to have behaved the way they did. That can lead to forgiveness. But forgiveness doesn’t mean I should forget, meaning that I may need to take steps to protect myself in the future from this person. Our minds should be forgiving…but they also should be wise!
Innumerable are sentient beings: I have harmed them all;
Uncountable are the holy precepts: I have broken them all;
Unfathomable are the Dharma teachings: I have offended them all;
Immeasurable are deluded passions: I have indulged them all;
Unconditioned is the heart of Buddha: I am accepted completely.
In the western redaction of Buddhism one does not much encounter the term contrition, nor the sentiments that are associated with it, and yet in the eastern reception of the Dharma it is precisely this dimension of life that constitutes the golden gateway to emancipation, awakening, faith and salvation.
My mission, in the attempt to fulfil in my own limited manner, the charge given to me by my teachers, both Zen and Pureland, has been to try to evolve a presentation of the Dharma that is suitable for the West, yet is true to the spirit of the East.
This means a Dharma that is suitable for the ordinary person who is willing to be honest about the ordinary state, about human nature as it is, rather than being intent upon pretense to a perfection that is unrealistic, unattainable, self-aggrandising and deceptive.
When i read the descriptions of many of the presentations of Buddhism to the west, they say such things as: “This is the form of Buddhism for the highest class of practitioner,” or “This is the most direct path to enlightenment,” or something of the kind. Well, how many of us are numbered in the highest class of practitioners? If we were then we would have been reborn 2500 years ago when Shakyamuni was on the Earth, would have heard his teaching and been immediately enlightened and not been reborn here again. Therefore, the answer is none of us.
We are faulty, vulnerable, prone to error, full of wayward passions, attached to unwholesome objects, invested in unwholesome ways of life, complicit in the ecological destruction of the planet, materialist consumers. No amount of high sounding discussion of intrinsic Buddha nature, inner wisdom, or original virtue will erase this fact.
We live in a kind of paradise that is also a place of incessant predation. We are winged animals, but our angelic wings are mostly folded away neatly out of sight. We commonly think - wrongly - that emphasising our well-polished good aspect will itself be sufficient for our spiritual emancipation. Do we think the gods are so easily deceived?
It is much healthier to be realistic and to be willing to look at the whole human being. This does not mean indulging in self-pity or self-castigation - they are also forms of pride. It means having a matter-of-factness about humanity, a humility about the part we play, and contrition in respect to the impact that our very existence has upon the world that supports us.
We do not do this because we fear some awful divine judgement. We do it simply out of honesty. The Buddha’s will love us anyway. When we deeply realise that that is so, something in us will melt and we shall lose some of the impulse to put on airs. When that happens we shall find we are among friends in a world where the Light is always shining.
This, anyway, is my understanding. Namo Amitabhaya.
"This is a lovely, gentle introduction to a lesser known (in the west) Buddhist tradition. It gives a user friendly outline of what Pureland Buddhism is and a realistic insight into the lifestyle of devotional religion. The authors use their experience to carry a message of compassion and a deep insight into Human nature as foundational aspects of a revolutionary way of life. An essential read for the Buddhist who wants to look beyond the dogma to the heart of the teaching. Namo Amida Bu!"
~ Adam Dunsby
"An enjoyable and understandable read. Very open, honest, and realistic. Covering day to day temple life and daily experiences, and shared moments of real insight.
Both writers and contributors capture the essence of what is unique in Pureland Buddhism and explain simply the various methods of practice.
A very positive and helpful book with a feeling of real gratitude running throughout."
"This is a very accessible introduction to Pureland Buddhism and an open account of life in a temple. Factual information is clear and never dry, and this alternates with personal experiences which are always honest. The overall impression is of warmth and acceptance - a must read for Buddhists, non Buddhists and the spiritually curious."
~ Amazon customer
We Need Restraint Not More Bombs
We are all dismayed by the events in Paris. Yet, have we been equally dismayed by the daily events in the Middle East where our own governments are dropping bombs? I am deeply sympathetic to the French people affected by the recent violence. I am deeply sympathetic to the people in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in the whole Middle East Region. I understand why there is hatred. I understand why people want to kill. However, killing more and more will not bring the killing to an end. Only restraint, understanding, wisdom and compassion will do that.
We are caught up in a tit-for-tat world and each retaliation only provokes more of the same. Every bomb we drop generates a new group of people who hate us. Every atrocity increases the likelihood of more. It is like fire spreading. Let us all pray for restraint and ask wisdom of our leaders.
A Little Political Analysis
Who are Islamic State? They are basically the Sunni Muslims who were driven out of power by the invasion of Iraq. Since we invaded their country, do we expect them to be our friends? They have been more successful than was expected in establishing a new proto-state by becoming the most effective element in the opposition to the Assad government in Syria, but were not our own governments also supportive of that opposition? In effect, there is a civil war going on in the Middle East, mostly between Sunni and Shia Moslems. The West has changed sides several times in its interference in this regional conflict. Sometimes it is anti-Iran and therefore anti-Shia, then it is establishing a Shia government in Iraq and so being anti-Sunni, then it is opposing Assad and being anti-Shia again, then it is dropping bombs on the most effective anti-Assad faction and becoming anti-Sunni again. It is difficult to escape the impression that the basic logic of Western policy is to keep changing sides frequently so as to generate the maximum amount of chaos and ensure that nobody in the Middle East ever become powerful enough to establish peace and order and become a rival to Western interests. If we carry on like this, what can we expect? Do we think that exporting chaos, destruction and death to a whole region is never going to come home? And now that some of it is coming home, do we think that we can re-stabilise the situation by escalating the strategy that is responsible for the trouble in the first place?
What Will Happen?
If we go on like this we can only expect the situation to worsen, both in the Middle East and in Europe. No analyst I have read thinks that Islamic State can be destroyed by bombing alone, even if this were desirable, and no Western country seems likely to commit ground troops, so why are we fighting a war we cannot win? Apart from the horror of the killing involved, it makes little or no political sense. The only power that is at all likely ever to commit ground troops to the defeat of Islamic State is Turkey and the expansion of Turkey in the region would probably only lead to sudden, startled Western suspicion of Turkish intentions and a new arena of conflict. Perhaps the whole region will be carved up by Turkey and Iran. It has happened before.
Alternatively, there will be ever increasing fragmentation, chaos and killing. In the short run we need restraint, but I am pessimistic. The tit-for-tat may continue to escalate. If it does we shall lose civil rights, become paranoid, elect extremist governments and much that has been achieved in Europe in the past generation will be lost. I hope this pessimism is unfounded. All spiritual people should now be urging restraint. Many are doing so. Let us pray that wise voices prevail.
Bringing Pureland to the West one runs into a mesh of ideas that have developed in our very different Western context. A crucial ideological element in our Western outlook derives from Adam Smith and the idea that if each looks after his own (economic) interest it will bring (by means of a "hidden hand") the greatest good for all. This is a corner stone of our Western type of "individualism". At the same time, we also have a monotheistic ethic that includes an idea of surrender. This reaches its fullest development in Islam. The word Islam itself implies surrender to God. However, the idea is also present in Christianity and from there it has come into programmes like Twelve Step and Course in Miracles. The existence of these two different ideals can lead to a kind of swinging from one extreme to the other and a sense that self-care and care for others are mutually opposed principles. This has been further strengthened by the historical fact that the early Christian church broke through the resistance of the Pagan Roman empire by Christians becoming martyrs. We thus have a rather strong current in our cultural unconscious of martyrdom and a good deal of contemporary pop psychology is dedicated to trying to eliminate this. However, one does not eliminate a pendular swing by adding energy to the other extreme.
Benefitting Self & Other
Buddhism comes from a different cultural context. Now these cultures are talking to each other. In Buddhism there is an implicit assumption that what is genuinely good for one is good for all and that by practising the spiritual path one is benefitting self and other automatically. This makes it a middle path in relation to the Western concerns. Actually Buddhism does not really have the idea of surrender in the sense of the military analogy. It is not really that the Buddhas are a "higher power" that one surrenders to. It is rather that they are an unfailing support. With that support one never has to surrender and one is never defeated. Yet one's state of never being defeated is not because of one's personal strength. It is because one has the merit power of the Buddhas supporting one. One's actions thus naturally become a further extension of that merit power, which is much greater than one's own little accumulation. The image is more of the Buddhas "underneath" than "on high". Hence we have the lovely little poem of Saichi:
The ocean is full of water
it has the seabed to support it.
Saichi is full of blind passions:
it has Amida to support it.
We can see in this poem that Saichi's sense of his "blind passions" is somewhat impersonal. It just happens to be so, but that is not a disaster because there is Amida (and, by implication, therefore, all the Buddhas and other celestial beings) supporting. Even the blind passions will somehow work out OK.
No Day of Judgement
So Saichi does not feel that one day he will have to answer for his passions and justify them or be punished. For sure they will have consequences in this world and it is better to be wise than stupid, but sin is not a cosmic or metaphysical catastrophe. He feels that the passions are just part of how things are - just as it is - and that is not terrible because, although his merit is small, he can rely upon and partake of the merit of the Buddhas.
We in the West have a cultural background of fear-of-God and fear-of-judgement and this drives both the sense of self-responsibility and judgementalism. In Buddhism, the gods are in the same boat as we are and the Buddhas do not judge, they help. For sure, we are vulnerable to urges that get us into trouble in various ways and even lead to us sometimes being cruel, mean or stupid, but still the Buddhas smile upon us in the same way as a good parent continues to love the child even when it has a temper tantrum or gets into trouble.
Relaxing in the Deepest Place
The Buddhas are looking out for us. They help when they can, past, present and future, here and hereafter. We live our lives by such light as we have, and they help and give us more light whenever we open up enough to receive it. The more appreciative we are of the spiritual support, the more we relax in the deepest part of ourselves. The more relaxed we are in the deepest part of ourselves, the easier we are to live with and the more others benefit from our presence. Self and other thus both benefit in a single process. There is no opposition between what is good for self and what is good for other. It is possible to see this as a kind of surrender, rather as one surrenders to a deckchair, but it is not surrender in the sense of the warlike analogy of becoming defeated or a slave. One remains undefeated. In fact, one relaxes because one knows one cannot and will not be defeated. Even if the whole universe is consumed by fire, one will be fine in the only sense that ultimately matters.
Thus what we call self-care and care for others happen, but without a strongly self-conscious contrivance of some kind. The bodhisattva saves all sentient beings but does not have a sense of saving all beings; cares for self but without any special sense of caring for self. Eat when hungry, sleep when tired, do what needs doing, see needs and attend to them, but no need to make a big deal out of it. That is the Buddhist spirit. It is really a kind of naturalness that becomes possible through the sense of having spiritual support.
Being Shattered but Not Defeated
There is a story that Quan Shi Yin was busy saving sentient beings for many eras and then paused to take stock and saw just as many beings needing saving as when she started. At this point she shattered into a thousand pieces. It was at that point that Amida appeared and put her back together again. Amida continues to appear in her headdress as you can see in the picture.
When we try to do things by our own power sooner or later we feel shattered. When she was shattered she stopped for a moment, and at that point, some light got in. At that point she was stopped in her tracks, she did not know what to do or what was what. Her "vedana" stopped, momentarily. In terms of her previous program she was defeated, but Amida appears and, in effect, says, "No, you are not defeated because I am here. You did not notice me before because you were too busy with your idea. It was not a bad idea, but it did blind you to my presence. Still, here I am, and all is well. You are not defeated. You can go on with your work, but now that you know I am here you will do it in a new spirit." Hearing this, she can relax. She will continue her work, but in a much more natural relaxed way and, with much less expenditure of effort, she will actually be much more effective. Furthermore, she will enjoy it more and feel happy and grateful, knowing that whatever happens, all's well and all shall be well.
We all know that dukkha is the first of the Four Truths. These are often called the Four Noble Truths, though a more accurate translation is Four Truths for Noble Ones. This change of translation is significant. It is not that affliction and the dark patches in life are themselves noble, nor is it that they are things to get rid of. Rather, it is that they play a crucially important role in the spiritual paths of noble people.
"Noble" here means spiritual. It means having the spirit to rise above adversity and not be crushed by life. It was such nobility as this that Buddha taught. In Pureland we see how this ability to be noble comes from having faith in (and gratitude for) something beyond oneself, something that is itself noble, and the most noble thing is the spirit of Buddha throughout time and space. It is the intuition of this pervasive "light" that constitutes the "awakening of faith" that is the core of Buddhist inspiration.
Thus, I do not teach that Buddhism will eliminate suffering from your life. It won't. However, it will bring you something wonderfully precious that is sometimes referred to as a "wish-fulfilling-gem" that has the seemingly magical ability to transform adverse circumstances into the spiritual path. At its core, this must be essentially the same as the Christian idea "Take up your cross and follow me," but the mode in which we take the idea is somewhat different in Buddhism, I think. Certainly there is no intention here to glorify affliction or cultivate a martyr mentality. There is suffering enough. Nor is there an idea that each person has a special suffering that they are supposed to endure and that doing so is itself noble.
Rather, in the Buddhist view, affliction is existential and inevitable and the quality of a life shows in how one responds to it - with eyes open or closed. We shall all encounter sickness, old age and death in ourselves and others. We shall all encounter separations and failures and circumstances that we hate. We all experience our own limitations, faults, failings and errors. We already live in a world where there is war, slavery, torture, disease, exploitation, and this world is such that many creatures cannot survive without devouring others. If we open our hearts, what are we going to experience? Surely this is why so many do not open them. Yet to be a "noble one" it is precisely such opening that is called for and it takes a lot of faith.
When we do open our hearts, we shall experience bliss, but we shall also concurrently experience the "great grief". This is like the yin and yang of the spiritual path. The more bliss, the more grief. The more grief, the more compassion. Dukkha, therefore, is a danger point. It is not that there is a danger that we might experience suffering, it is rather that there is a danger that in our desire to not experience suffering we close our hearts to light and bliss as well. It is the danger of spiritual anaesthesia. Spiritual anaesthesis is avidya. It is Mara - it is to be spiritually dead. Buddhism wakes the dead - brings the spirit to life. The awakening that Buddhism teaches is the shedding of such anaesthesia, but this itself means willingness to experience more dukkha: the dukkha of all sentient beings. This is why dukkha is a truth especially for noble ones.
Great dukkha yields great compassion. Great compassion yields great acceptance. Great acceptance yields the great path. How does it yield the great path? It does so because it yields a life that is real, that engages with the real situation, with the real person that one is, with the real person who stands before one, with the real existential situation that all sentient beings share. It is free from spiritual anaesthesis, from avidya. The Buddha called this a noble life because it involved a willingness to take on what is real, no matter that doing so involve dukkha or not.