Dharmavidya's Seasonal Message
December 18th, 2013
Peace to each and all.
Posted on Wednesday, 18 December 2013 at 04:31 PM in Amida Pureland Retreat, Amida Sangha, amidashu, Buddhism, Buddhist, Ceremony, Dharma, Dharma Talks, Dharmavidya, Friends of Amida, Inspiration, Modgala, News, Pastoral Letter , Pureland Buddhism, Retreats, Susthama, Whispers from the Bamboo Grove, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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Pointed out by Dharmavidya:
Suddenly mindfulness meditation has become mainstream, making its way into schools, corporations, prisons, and government agencies including the U.S. military. Millions of people are receiving tangible benefits from their mindfulness practice: less stress, better concentration, perhaps a little more empathy. Needless to say, this is an important development to be welcomed -- but it has a shadow.
The mindfulness revolution appears to offer a universal panacea for resolving almost every area of daily concern. Recent books on the topic include: Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Politics, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, A Mindful Nation, Mindful Recovery, The Power of Mindful Learning, The Mindful Brain, The Mindful Way through Depression, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. Almost daily, the media cite scientific studies that report the numerous health benefits of mindfulness meditation and how such a simple practice can effect neurological changes in the brain.
The booming popularity of the mindfulness movement has also turned it into a lucrative cottage industry. Business savvy consultants pushing mindfulness training promise that it will improve work efficiency, reduce absenteeism, and enhance the "soft skills" that are crucial to career success. Some even assert that mindfulness training can act as a "disruptive technology," reforming even the most dysfunctional companies into kinder, more compassionate and sustainable organizations. So far, however, no empirical studies have been published that support these claims.
In their branding efforts, proponents of mindfulness training usually preface their programs as being "Buddhist-inspired." There is a certain cachet and hipness in telling neophytes that mindfulness is a legacy of Buddhism -- a tradition famous for its ancient and time-tested meditation methods. But, sometimes in the same breath, consultants often assure their corporate sponsors that their particular brand of mindfulness has relinquished all ties and affiliations to its Buddhist origins.
Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context is understandable as an expedient move to make such training a viable product on the open market. But the rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice, which was intended for far more than relieving a headache, reducing blood pressure, or helping executives become better focused and more productive.
ANY ENCOUNTER OFFERS US A CHOICE
This is an idea that seems difficult for Westerners to accept: when someone harms us, they create the cause of their own suffering. They do this by strengthening habits that imprison them in a cycle of pain and confusion. It’s not that we are responsible for what someone else does, and certainly not that we should feel guilty. But when they harm us, we unintentionally become the means of their undoing. Had they looked on us with loving-kindness, however, we’d be the cause of their gathering virtue.
What I find helpful in this teaching is that what’s true for them is also true for me. The way I regard those who hurt me today will affect how I experience the world in the future. In any encounter, we have a choice: we can strengthen our resentment or our understanding and empathy. We can widen the gap between ourselves and others or lessen it.
~ No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva by Pema Chödrön, page 185
Trying to find a Buddha or enlightenment is like trying to grab space. Space has a name but no form. It's not something you can pick up or put down. And you certainly can't grab it. Beyond this mind you'll never see a Buddha. The Buddha is a product of your mind. Why look for a Buddha beyond this mind?~ The Zen teachings of Bodhidharma
The Buddha described what we call "self" as a collection of aggregates – elements of mind and body – that function interdependently, creating the appearance of woman or man. We then identify with that image or appearance, taking it to be "I" or "mine," imagining it to have some inherent self-existence. For example, we get up in the morning, look in the mirror, recognize the reflection, and think, "Yes, that's me again." We then add all kinds of concepts to this sense of self: I'm a woman or man, I'm a certain age, I'm a happy or unhappy person – the list goes on and on.~ Joseph Goldstein, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Vol. VI, #3
When we examine our experience, though, we see that there is not some core being to whom experience refers; rather it is simply "empty phenomena rolling on." It is "empty" in the sense that there is no one behind the arising and changing phenomena to whom they happen. A rainbow is a good example of this. We go outside after a rainstorm and feel that moment of delight if a rainbow appears in the sky. Mostly, we simply enjoy the sight without investigating the real nature of what is happening. But when we look more deeply, it becomes clear that there is no "thing" called "rainbow" apart from the particular conditions of air and moisture and light.
Each one of us is like that rainbow - an appearance, a magical display, arising out of our various elements of mind and body.
Buddhist teacher, co-author of 'Awakening Joy'
As a Buddhist teacher I've been interested in finding true happiness through directly opening to suffering. A major interest and focus of my teaching has been awakening the natural joy that is within us. But two years ago after reading Bill McKibben's brilliant, sobering book, Eaarth, I had to face the harsh realities of climate change. My optimism was shaken as I came to terms with the fact that the future looks pretty bleak.
Although the current picture can seem pretty depressing, it's also been heartening to see that more and more people are starting to become aware of the dangers connected with the most crucial issue facing us today. As a wise friend of mine says, "We're in a race between ignorance and consciousness."
This past June fifty senior teachers met at an International Vipassana Teachers Conference at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif., where I teach. On the agenda was Climate Change: specifically the role Buddhism might play and the responsibility of those who share the teachings.
As the teachers attending energetically discussed the issue, across the floor was a scroll of 2000+ names of meditation students who had signed a request for teachings and guidance on wise response to Climate Change. Leading the discussion was Bob Doppelt, a longtime practitioner who coordinates the National Partnership for Climate Solutions, a non-partisan group of organizations that has worked with the White House to encourage and support their efforts in dealing with Climate Change.
Bob's very moving and provocative presentation was based on a book he wrote From Me to We which outlines five principles needed to shift the consciousness of the population in a meaningful response to the imminent danger. How would we respond to this challenge?
As a result of that gathering this week, October 1-7, Buddhists around the U.S. and abroad are participating in the first annual Earth Care Week. Communities are gathering to share teachings and participate in activities exploring climate change as ground for our awakening. The website One Earth Sangha has been established to be a repository for these teachings and exchange of ideas with regard to the Dharma and Climate Change. You can get a sense of some activities planned for this week here. Perhaps you'll be motivated to organize something in your own community. You don't have to be a Buddhist; your care and support of the Earth is enough.
I have been reading an academic paper that is part of a debate about the nature of the mind of a Buddha. What is at stake in this debate is a contention that to be enlightened is to be free from conceptual thought (and/or "representations to mind"). I find this all very odd.
The idea that Buddhas do not use concepts seems very strange. How can one ever entertain such an idea? Take the Vinaya, for instance. In it the Buddha specifies types of situations and prescribes right action in relation to them. This, surely, is conceptual if anything is. Take the debates that occur between the Buddha and other teachers or critics in the sutras. Buddha emerges as a skilled arguer and rhetorician. How can one possibly square this with non-conceptuality? And what is wrong with concepts anyway? It seems that Buddhist scholars are looking for some kind of philosophical definition of enlightenment that involves the elimination of some essential element of humanity, or even sentience. Is this not complete nonsense?
Some of this revolves around notions of spontaneous behaviour. This term spontaneous generally covers two very different things. One is habit. The other is unthinking reaction to unexpected circumstance. For sure, Buddhas do both of these things, just as everybody does, but, like everybody, this is not all they do. They also think about things and make decisions. They make those decisions from a deep knowledge of consequentiality, but that does not make them non-conceptual.
The logic of the case, such as it is, is that concepts are never exactly accurate representations of reality. Therefore they involve an element of error. Buddhas do not err. Therefore, Buddhas do not use concepts. The fallacy here is in the idea that a Buddha would never say or do something that is only approximately correct. It involves an item of faith that Buddhas are perfect in this respect. However, there are a number of examples in the sutras of Buddha Shakyamuni changing his mind, for instance, over the ordination of women and over the vinaya rule about when are proper eating times for monks. Encountering new arguments in the first example and new circumstances in the second, Shakyamuni changed his view. To me, this does not destroy his credentials as a Buddha. It rather demonstrates that he was reasonable and practical.
The impulse to define Buddha in some way that is impossible of attainment for human beings has been a long-standing feature of Buddhist polemic, probably motivated on the one hand by a desire to appear clever and on the other to provide a cast iron excuse for not have attained enlightenment oneself. By posing as the person who understands the principle and presenting that principle in a manner that looks tantalisingly possible but is actually unattainable, one can acquire kudos and create a mystique. The principle of Dharma is, however, surely, not like that.
The principle of Dharma is to observe that affliction is part of our existential condition, that with affliction comes the uprising of energy that can be turned to good or ill, and that those who have faith can act at such times in a manner that constitutes a true path whereas those without it are liable to fall into escapist, self-seeking, conflictful or insane ways. None of this requires one to eschew concepts. Indeed, doing so would make it very much more difficult and certainly make it impossible to teach others.
A question from a correspondent prompted me to these thoughts. Some people put it about that Pureland is a kind of revisionist tendency that departs from original Buddhism and/or that it is somehow a kind of Christianity in disguise. Such people tend to also hold the view that Buddhism is a philosophy or way of life rather than a religion or that it is spiritual rather than religious. In my view all these ideas betray deep misunderstanding based on the desire to remake Buddhism in the image of modern prejudice.
My take on the matter is this. Pureland is, in all probability, a direct derivative of the earliest Buddhism as practised by lay people. The Buddha when dying prescribed that his remains be interred in stupas that should be places of devotion for ordinary Buddhists where their faith might be renewed, sustained and strengthened. Archeology confirms that the earliest Buddhist sites were such stupas, set up for circumambulation, no doubt accompanied by chanting. A distance away from the main site there will often be a hermitage for those renunciant monks who are intent on achieving nirvana and leaving this world of sorrows behind, but for the ordinary person who had faith in Buddha not just as a historical figure now dead to whom one should have gratitude, but as an eternal source of help and support in this very world, stupa worship was the primary mode of practice. Pureland is thus an original Buddhism going right back to Shakyamuni. Buddha recognised that people need to take refuge in something more than is offered by secular life and he did not withhold that. If one goes to Ajanta in India, for instance, one sees clear evidence that in the early phase of Buddhism practice centred on stupa worship and at a later phase meditation became important. Nowadays many Western people want to make Buddhism into a secular self-development technique and/or to have the kudos that attaches to being monk-like, generally without wanting to take on the degree of world renunciation that Buddha prescribed for the small number who really want that type of path.
Some other branches of Buddhism also claim to derive from the very beginning. These claims cannot be substantiated one way or the other, but we do know that Theravada, for instance, was standardised some centuries after Buddha, no doubt out of a tradition that did go back to Buddha's day, but not necessarily in exactly the same form. Some think that Mahayana came later, but, again, while Mahayana texts did not reach their present form until approxemately 100CE onward there is no reason not to think that they are essentially compilations from materials of much earlier date. We simply do not know for sure what the practice of Buddhists in the earliest times was, but stupa worship, which is clearly a tap root of Pureland, has a very strong claim and devotional activity in general must surely be original.
In fact, the essential elements of Pureland practice, which include a sense of Buddha as pervasive in a more than historical sense and as an object of devotion, and the practices of invoking that cosmic Tathagata and his help, are found all over the Buddhist world in Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana countries. This is the practice of ordinary Buddhists everywhere irrespective of whether it does or does not fit with the ideology of the dominant form of Buddhism in the area. The fact that it is found everywhere argues strongly for it having been there at the beginning before Buddhism spread out in so many different directions, both geographically and ideologically. Buddhism was, from the beginning, a religion with recognisably religious practices and this is why it has survived and provided inspiration to so many people over such a long time. The whole idea of a secular Buddhism is modern and is an adaptation to modern prejudice, if not a complete remake. It is the secularists who constitute a revisionist tendency that departs from original. When people criticise it is often enough a projection.
As for the matter of Christianity, there may well be an influence, but in the other direction. We do not know where Jesus got his ideas from or where he was during the missing years that precede his ministry, but it is interesting that in almost all regards in which he disagrees with or departs from the Judaism of his ambient culture it is in a direction that concurs with Buddhism. Historically we can ask “Who were the three wise men who came looking for a child bearing gifts following a star?” The only people that we know of who do anything like that are Buddhists looking for the incarnation of a tulku. We may also reflect upon the widespread stories about Jesus not dying on the cross but travelling east and finally dying in what is now Pakistan, where there was at that time a Jewish community, where there is a site that claims to be his grave and where, at that time, Buddhism flourished. None of this is conclusive but it is highly suggestive. Christianity may well be a branch of Buddhism and if it has similarities to the Pureland form in particular then that too is interesting.
One must draw one's own conclusions, but to assert that a modern, secular, icon-less, faith-less, non-devotional Buddhism is somehow the original item must be nonsense. People in those days just didn't think that way. Pureland is as close to being a form of original Buddhism as one is likely to find. It is less distorted by modernist appropriation and closer to the shraddha-centred teaching that Shakyamuni gave to lift the lives of ordinary men and women of his day.
Our modern society has been much affected by a tendency to reject religion, but this rejection leaves the individual at the mercy of the secular state which is ever more intrusive and coercive. I am aware that I am completely out of fashion in saying so, but real Buddhism is and always was religious. It is collective, social, devotional and centred on the objects of refuge. It has a place for the individual, private practice, but that is not its central thrust. It has wonderful teachings on morality, but it is not puritan, in fact, it is broadly tolerant and inclusive. It has public temples centred on icons set up for the making of offerings and the saying of prayers. They are places of beauty attractive to the multitude. It has priests who minister to congregations and it is, even in the secular West, mostly practised in groups. In countries where it is widespread it has a significant socio-political influence and impact upon popular opinion. It is a religion.
A religion can have a social purpose as well as an individual one. It encompasses spirituality but is not limited to it. Spirituality seeks personal peace of mind. Religion encompasses that spiritual search for inner peace, but also seeks peace in the world, an end to war and the establishment of harmonious community. Spirituality seeks personal liberation. Religion encompasses that spiritual search for personal liberation, but also seeks an end to slavery as an institution, the elimination of oppression and political coercion. Spirituality seeks personal illumination. Religion too, but it also encourages intellectual advance and general education for whole populations. Spirituality may lead a person to artistic expression. Religion too, but also encourage the growth of the arts in society.
Buddhism generally does manage to demonstrate that a religion does not need to be narrow or exclusive, that it can be friendly and outgoing, that it can be a positive stimulus to culture, that it can bring peace and harmony to societies and that it can make life meaningful in ways that take one beyond personal greed, aversion and pride.
Buddha was an educator and an organiser as well as being merely an example. That is why he was effective and why we are still talking about him. His spirit transcended his times and was an expression of something greater than one person or one era and that is why we are still invoking it, worshipping it and sustained by it, both personally in our spirituality and collectively in our Buddhist religion. Buddhism is fine not because it is lacking religious features, but precisely because it has religious features in a very fine form and that is something I am grateful for.