About me

This blog is created by a Buddhist living in Singapore. He embraces the Mahayana spirit of Bodhicitta, deeply respecting all Buddhist Traditions as expressions of Kindness guiding us on the path towards human perfection ~ Buddhahood.

He likes to post stuff that he had read or think is good to share here, sometimes he adds a little comments here and there... just sometimes..

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“Sariputra, if there are people who have already made the vow, who now make the vow, or who are about to make the vow, ‘I desire to be born in Amitabha’s country,’ these people, whether born in the past, now being born, or to be born in the future, all will irreversibly attain to anuttarasamyaksambodhi. Therefore, Sariputra, all good men and good women, if they are among those who have faith, should make the vow, ‘I will be born in that country.’”

~ Amitabha Sutra

When I obtain the Buddhahood, any being of the boundless and inconceivable Buddha-worlds of the ten quarters whose body if be touched by the rays of my splendour should not make his body and mind gentle and peaceful, in such a state that he is far more sublime than the gods and men, then may I not attain the enlightenment.

~ Amitabha Buddha's Thirty-Third Vow

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Buddhism In a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma

There are some people who confuse Buddhism as a part of Hinduism. With the growing interests in new age and mystic teachings from teachers such as Eckhart Tolle, there is also confusion among some people mistaking the 'Enlightenment' mentioned by Eckhart to be the same as the Buddha's Enlightenment. Despite some similarities, the 'Enlightenment' of Hinduism, Christian mysticism, Sufism and Taoism are fundamentally different from that of Buddhism. That is because the fundamental view of Buddhism is distinct from all other religions.

I find the article below very beneficial in finding out what Buddhism really is. The veil of tradition has prevented some from seeing Buddhism apart from its many rituals and traditional beliefs. Although many readers might have already read about the Four Seals of Dharma, I strongly recommend reading this article in entirety with an open mind to benefit from this very wise teacher's insight.


(picture source: flickr.com)
(Also see: siddharthasintent.org)

Shambhala Sun | March 2000
Buddhism In a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma

by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

People often ask me: “What is Buddhism in a nutshell?” Or they ask, “What is the particular view or philosophy of Buddhism?”

Unfortunately, in the West Buddhism seems to have landed in the religious department, even in the self-help or self-improvement department, and clearly it’s in the trendy meditation department. I would like to challenge the popular definition of Buddhist meditation.

Many people think meditation has something to do with relaxation, with watching the sunset or watching the waves at the beach. Charming phrases like “letting go” and “being carefree” come to mind. From a Buddhist point of view, meditation is slightly more than that.

First, I think we need to talk about the real context of Buddhist meditation. This is referred to as the view, meditation and action; taken together, these constitute quite a skillful way of understanding the path. Even though we may not use such expressions in everyday life, if we think about it, we always act according to a certain view, meditation and action. For instance, if we want to buy a car, we choose the one we think is the best, most reliable and so on. So the “view,” in this case, is the idea or belief that we have, that is, that the car is a good one. Then the “meditation” is contemplating and getting used to the idea, and the “action” is actually buying the car, driving it and using it. This process is not necessarily something Buddhist; it’s something we’re doing all the time. You don’t have to call it view, meditation and action. You can think of it as “idea,” “getting used to,” and “obtaining.”

So what is the particular view that Buddhists try to get used to? Buddhism is distinguished by four characteristics, or “seals.” Actually, if all these four seals are found in a path or a philosophy, it doesn’t matter whether you call it Buddhist or not. You can call it what you like; the words “Buddhist” or “Buddhism” are not important. The point is that if this path contains these four seals, it can be considered the path of the Buddha.

Therefore, these four characteristics are called “the Four Seals of Dharma.” They are:

All compounded things are impermanent.

All emotions are painful. This is something that only Buddhists would talk about. Many religions worship things like love with celebration and songs. Buddhists think, “This is all suffering.”

All phenomena are empty; they are without inherent existence. This is actually the ultimate view of Buddhism; the other three are grounded on this third seal.

The fourth seal is that nirvana is beyond extremes.

Without these four seals, the Buddhist path would become theistic, religious dogma, and its whole purpose would be lost. On the other hand, you could have a surfer giving you teachings on how to sit on a beach watching a sunset: if what he says contains all these four seals, it would be Buddhism. The Tibetans, the Chinese, or the Japanese might not like it, but teaching doesn’t have to be in a “traditional” form. The four seals are quite interrelated, as you will see.

(picture source: flickr.com)

The First Seal:
All Compounded Things are Impermanent

Every phenomenon we can think of is compounded, and therefore subject to impermanence. Certain aspects of impermanence, like the changing of the weather, we can accept easily, but there are equally obvious things that we don’t accept.

For instance, our body is visibly impermanent and getting older every day, and yet this is something we don’t want to accept. Certain popular magazines that cater to youth and beauty exploit this attitude. In terms of view, meditation and action, their readers might have a view—thinking in terms of not aging or escaping the aging process somehow. They contemplate this view of permanence, and their consequent action is to go to fitness centers and undergo plastic surgery and all sorts of other hassles.

Enlightened beings would think that this is ridiculous and based on a wrong view. Regarding these different aspects of impermanence, getting old and dying, the changing of the weather, etc., Buddhists have a single statement, namely this first seal: phenomena are impermanent because they are compounded. Anything that is assembled will, sooner or later, come apart.

When we say “compounded,” that includes the dimensions of space and time. Time is compounded and therefore impermanent: without the past and future, there is no such thing as the present. If the present moment were permanent, there would be no future, since the present would always be there. Every act you do—let’s say, plant a flower or sing a song—has a beginning, a middle and an end. If, in the singing of a song, the beginning, middle or end were missing, there would be no such thing as singing a song, would there? That means that singing a song is something compounded.

(picture source: flickr.com)

“So what?” we ask. “Why should we bother about that? What’s the big deal? It has a beginning, middle, and end—so what?” It’s not that Buddhists are really worried about beginnings, middles or ends; that’s not the problem. The problem is that when there is composition and impermanence, as there is with temporal and material things, there is uncertainty and pain.

Some people think that Buddhists are pessimistic, always talking about death, impermanence and aging. But that is not necessarily true. Impermanence is a relief! I don’t have a BMW today and it is thanks to the impermanence of that fact that I might have one tomorrow. Without impermanence, I am stuck with the non-possession of a BMW, and I can never have one. I might feel severely depressed today and, thanks to impermanence, I might feel great tomorrow. Impermanence is not necessarily bad news; it depends on the way you understand it. Even if today your BMW gets scratched by a vandal, or your best friend lets you down, if you have a view of impermanence, you won’t be so worried.

Delusion arises when we don’t acknowledge that all compounded things are impermanent. But when we realize this truth, deep down and not just intellectually, that’s what we call liberation: release from this one-pointed, narrow-minded belief in permanence. Everything, whether you like it or not—even the path, the precious Buddhist path—is compounded. It has a beginning, it has a middle and it has an end.

When you understand that “all compounded things are impermanent,” you are prepared to accept the experience of loss. Since everything is impermanent, this is to be expected.

(picture source: flickr.com)

The Second Seal:
All Emotions are Painful

The Tibetan word for emotion in this context is zagche, which means “contaminated” or “stained,” in the sense of being permeated by confusion or duality.

Certain emotions, such as aggression or jealousy, we naturally regard as pain. But what about love and affection, kindness and devotion, those nice, light and lovely emotions? We don’t think of them as painful; nevertheless, they imply duality, and this means that, in the end, they are a source of pain.

The dualistic mind includes almost every thought we have. Why is this painful? Because it is mistaken. Every dualistic mind is a mistaken mind, a mind that doesn’t understand the nature of things. So how are we to understand duality? It is subject and object: ourselves on the one hand and our experience on the other. This kind of dualistic perception is mistaken, as we can see in the case of different persons perceiving the same object in different ways. A man might think a certain woman is beautiful and that is his truth. But if that were some kind of absolute, independent kind of truth, then everyone else also would have to see her as beautiful as well. Clearly, this is not a truth that is independent of everything else. It is dependent on your mind; it is your own projection.

The dualistic mind creates a lot of expectations—a lot of hope, a lot of fear. Whenever there is a dualistic mind, there is hope and fear. Hope is perfect, systematized pain. We tend to think that hope is not painful, but actually it’s a big pain. As for the pain of fear, that’s not something we need to explain.

The Buddha said, “Understand suffering.” That is the first Noble Truth. Many of us mistake pain for pleasure—the pleasure we now have is actually the very cause of the pain that we are going to get sooner or later. Another Buddhist way of explaining this is to say that when a big pain becomes smaller, we call it pleasure. That’s what we call happiness.

(picture source: flickr.com)

Moreover, emotion does not have some kind of inherently real existence. When thirsty people see a mirage of water, they have a feeling of relief: “Great, there’s some water!” But as they get closer, the mirage disappears. That is an important aspect of emotion: emotion is something that does not have an independent existence.

This is why Buddhists conclude that all emotions are painful. It is because they are impermanent and dualistic that they are uncertain and always accompanied by hopes and fears. But ultimately, they don’t have, and never have had, an inherently existent nature, so, in a way, they are not worth much. Everything we create through our emotions is, in the end, completely futile and painful. This is why Buddhists do shamatha and vipashyana meditation—this helps to loosen the grip that our emotions have on us, and the obsessions we have because of them.

Question: Is compassion an emotion?

People like us have dualistic compassion, whereas the Buddha’s compassion does not involve subject and object. From a buddha’s point of view, compassion could never involve subject and object. This is what is called mahakaruna—great compassion.

I’m having difficulty accepting that all emotions are pain.

Okay, if you want a more philosophical expression, you can drop the word “emotion” and simply say, “All that is dualistic is pain.” But I like using the word “emotion” because it provokes us.

Isn’t pain impermanent?

Yeah! If you know this, then you’re all right. It’s because we don’t know this that we go through a lot of hassles trying to solve our problems. And that is the second biggest problem we have—trying to solve our problems.

(picture source: flickr.com)

The Third Seal:
All Phenomena are Empty; They Are Without Inherent Existence

When we say “all,” that means everything, including the Buddha, enlightenment, and the path. Buddhists define a phenomenon as something with characteristics, and as an object that is conceived by a subject. To hold that an object is something external is ignorance, and it is this that prevents us from seeing the truth of that object.

The truth of a phenomenon is called shunyata, emptiness, which implies that the phenomenon does not possess a truly existent essence or nature. When a deluded person or subject sees something, the object seen is interpreted as something really existent. However, as you can see, the existence imputed by the subject is a mistaken assumption. Such an assumption is based on the different conditions that make an object appear to be true; this, however, is not how the object really is. It’s like when we see a mirage: there is no truly existing object there, even though it appears that way. With emptiness, the Buddha meant that things do not truly exist as we mistakenly believe they do, and that they are really empty of that falsely imputed existence.

It is because they believe in what are really just confused projections that sentient beings suffer. It was as a remedy for this that the Buddha taught the Dharma. Put very simply, when we talk about emptiness, we mean that the way things appear is not the way they actually are. As I said before when speaking about emotions, you may see a mirage and think it is something real, but when you get close, the mirage disappears, however real it may have seemed to begin with.

Emptiness can sometimes be referred to as dharmakaya, and in a different context we could say that the dharmakaya is permanent, never changing, all pervasive, and use all sorts of beautiful, poetic words. These are the mystical expressions that belong to the path, but for the moment, we are still at the ground stage, trying to get an intellectual understanding. On the path, we might portray Buddha Vajradhara as a symbol of dharmakaya, or emptiness, but from an academic point of view, even to think of painting the dharmakaya is a mistake.

The Buddha taught three different approaches on three separate occasions. These are known as The Three Turnings of the Wheel, but they can be summed up in a single phrase: “Mind; there is no mind; mind is luminosity.”

(picture source: flickr.com)

The first, “Mind,” refers to the first set of teachings and shows that the Buddha taught that there is a “mind.” This was to dispel the nihilistic view that there is no heaven, no hell, no cause and effect. Then, when the Buddha said, “There is no mind,” he meant that mind is just a concept and that there is no such thing as a truly existing mind. Finally, when he said, “Mind is luminous,” he was referring to buddhanature, the undeluded or primordially existing wisdom.

The great commentator Nagarjuna said that the purpose of the first turning was to get rid of non-virtue. Where does the non-virtue come from? It comes from being either eternalist or nihilist. So in order to put an end to non-virtuous deeds and thoughts, the Buddha gave his first teaching. The second turning of the Dharma-wheel, when the Buddha spoke about emptiness, was presented in order to dispel clinging to a “truly existent self” and to “truly existent phenomena.” Finally, the teachings of the third turning were given to dispel all views, even the view of no-self. The Buddha’s three sets of teaching do not seek to introduce something new; their purpose is simply to clear away confusion.

As Buddhists we practice compassion, but if we lack an understanding of this third seal—that all phenomena are empty—our compassion can backfire. If you are attached to the goal of compassion when trying to solve a problem, you might not notice that your idea of the solution is entirely based on your own personal interpretation. And you might end up as a victim of hope and fear, and consequently of disappointment. You start by becoming a “good mahayana practitioner,” and, once or twice, you try to help sentient beings. But if you have no understanding of this third seal, you’ll get tired and give up helping sentient beings.

There is another kind of a problem that arises from not understanding emptiness. It occurs with rather superficial and even jaded Buddhists. Somehow, within Buddhist circles, if you don’t accept emptiness, you are not cool. So we pretend that we appreciate emptiness and pretend to meditate on it. But if we don’t understand it properly, a bad side effect can occur. We might say, “Oh, everything’s emptiness. I can do whatever I like.” So we ignore and violate the details of karma, the responsibility for our action. We become “inelegant,” and we discourage others in the bargain. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often speaks of this downfall of not understanding emptiness. A correct understanding of emptiness leads us to see how things are related, and how we are responsible for our world.

(picture source: flickr.com)

You can read millions of pages on this subject. Nagarjuna alone wrote five different commentaries mostly dedicated to this, and then there are the commentaries by his followers. There are endless teachings on establishing this view. In Mahayana temples or monasteries people chant the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra—this is also a teaching on the third seal.

Philosophies or religions might say, “Things are illusion, the world is maya, illusion,” but there are always one or two items left behind that are regarded as truly existent: God, cosmic energy, whatever. In Buddhism, this is not the case. Everything in samsara and nirvana—from the Buddha’s head to a piece of bread—everything is emptiness. There is nothing that is not included in ultimate truth.

Question: If we ourselves are dualistic, can we ever understand emptiness, which is something beyond description?

Buddhists are very slippery. You’re right. You can never talk about absolute emptiness, but you can talk about an “image” of emptiness—something that you can evaluate and contemplate so that, in the end, you can get to the real emptiness. You may say, “Ah, that’s just too easy; that’s such crap.” But to that the Buddhists say, “Too bad, that’s how things work.” If you need to meet someone whom you have never met, I can describe him to you or show you a photograph of him. And with the help of that photo image, you can go and find the real person.

Ultimately speaking, the path is irrational, but relatively speaking, it’s very rational because it uses the relative conventions of our world. When I’m talking about emptiness, everything that I’m saying has to do with this “image” emptiness. I can’t show you real emptiness but I can tell you why things don’t exist inherently.

In Buddhism there’s so much iconography that you might think it was the object of meditation or an object of worship. But, from your teaching, am I to understand that this is all non-existent?

When you go to a temple, you will see many beautiful statues, colors and symbols. These are important for the path. These all belong to what we call “image-wisdom,” “image-emptiness.” However, while we follow the path and apply its methods, it is important to know that the path itself is ultimately an illusion. Actually, it is only then that we can properly appreciate it.

(picture source: flickr.com)

The Fourth Seal
Nirvana is Beyond Extremes

Now that I have explained emptiness, I feel that the fourth seal, “Nirvana is beyond extremes,” has also been covered. But briefly, this last seal is also something uniquely Buddhist. In many philosophies or religions, the final goal is something that you can hold on to and keep. The final goal is the only thing that truly exists. But nirvana is not fabricated, so it is not something to be held on to. It is referred to as “beyond extremes.”

We somehow think that we can go somewhere where we’ll have a better sofa seat, a better shower system, a better sewer system, a nirvana where you don’t even have to have a remote control, where everything is there the moment you think of it. But as I said earlier, it’s not that we are adding something new that was not there before. Nirvana is achieved when you remove everything that was artificial and obscuring.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a monk or a nun who has renounced worldly life or you are a yogi practicing profound tantric methods. If, when you try to abandon or transform attachment to your own experiences, you don’t understand these four seals, you end up regarding the contents of your mind as the manifestations of something evil, diabolical and bad. If that’s what you do, you are far from the truth. And the whole point of Buddhism is to make you understand the truth. If there were some true permanence in compounded phenomena; if there were true pleasure in the emotions, the Buddha would have been the first to recommend them, saying, “Please keep and treasure these.” But thanks to his great compassion, he didn’t, for he wanted us to have what is true, what is real.

When you have a clear understanding of these four seals as the ground of your practice, you will feel comfortable no matter what happens to you. As long as you have these four as your view, nothing can go wrong. Whoever holds these four, in their heart, or in their head, and contemplates them, is a Buddhist. There is no need for such a person even to be called a Buddhist. He or she is by definition a follower of the Buddha.

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche was born in Bhutan in 1961 and was recognized as the second reincarnation of the nineteenth-century master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. He has studied with and been empowered by some of the greatest Tibetan masters of this century, notably the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the late Dudjom Rinpoche. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche supervises his traditional seat of Dzongsar Monastery in Eastern Tibet, as well as newly established colleges in India and Bhutan. He has also established meditation centers in Australia, North America and the Far East. Recently, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche won critical acclaim for his first feature length movie, The Cup, produced under his name Khyentse Norbu. Further information on Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and his activities is available at www.siddharthasintent.org. This article is based on a talk entitled, “What Buddhism Is, and Is Not,” given in Sydney, Australia in April of 1999.

Buddhism In a Nutshell: The Four Seals of Dharma, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, March 2000.


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Reading some news reports today and this song suddenly crossed my mind.
Are you a dreamer too?


John Lennon

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

~End of post~


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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Buddhism Social Equality & the Hindu Caste System

(Picture source: flickr.com)

No man [or woman] is noble by birth.
No man is ignoble by birth.
Man is noble by his own deeds [after birth].
Man is by ignoble his own deeds.

- The Buddha

Social equality should be everyone's birth right, its a ironic that the very words of wisdom left by the past sages to guide us towards true freedom are transformed by the ruling elites into traditions that systematically enslave the people in physically and mentally.

Despite much respect that I hold for Hinduism as a beautiful and profound religion in many ways, I feel that many social reforms such as those of the caste system discriminations which had been strongly voiced against by Buddha more than 2500 years ago - is really very much overdue. I admire India's respect to spiritual cultivation and the people involved in it - this is rare in this materialist world we live in now. Hope one fine day, the Indian society will evolve out of the caste system, and India would be a much better and prosperous place to live in.


(Picture source: flickr.com)

Dharmachari Kumarjeev and millions of other Indian untouchables convert to Buddhism to escape India's caste system

Monday, February 12, 2007

Former Hindu Dharmachari Kumarjeev is in the United State...
David Ian Miller
Finding My Religion

(Source: San Francisco Chronicle)

Can I have a glass of water?" asked the reserved but friendly Indian man who showed up at my office last week with a Buddhist monk in tow. It seemed like a simple question, but after only a few minutes of interviewing Dharmachari Kumarjeev I understood the true significance of his request. And I was glad the cup I handed him didn't happen to be chipped.

Kumarjeev, 37, grew up in a rural area of Maharashtra state as a member of India's untouchables caste, a group comprising roughly 30 percent of the population. They are shunned because they are born into the caste that historically did work considered to be unhealthy or unclean, such as rubbish removal, laundering and fishing. India's caste system is often linked to Hinduism, but the system is also adhered to by Christians and Muslims living in the subcontinent. Whether it's a religious or societal construct, untouchables are believed to pollute anyone who comes into contact with them, even if that contact is simply drinking water from the same village well.

The caste system was officially outlawed in 1947, but it continues to define social relations in the country, particularly outside of the cities. Some untouchables, who often refer to themselves as ex-untouchables or Dalits -- "the oppressed" -- feel that converting from Hinduism to Buddhism is an important step in reclaiming their self-worth. Kumarjeev, a member of the Western Buddhist order, is one of the leaders in this movement.

(Picture source: flickr.com)

He is also the founder of Dhammakranti, an organization working toward a more equitable society in India. He stopped in the Bay Area as part of a month-long trip to the United States to meet with Buddhists about the work he's doing to assist ex-untouchables and abolish the caste system.
How do people in India know that someone is an untouchable?

They immediately know that when you tell them your name. The family name identifies what caste you're in.

At what point did you learn you were an untouchable? Did your parents explain it to you?

Well, they didn't have to tell me. It's the society, the community, that tells you -- that teaches you.

How so? Can you give me an example of the discrimination you experienced while growing up?

In my hometown, it was customary to offer food to the friends and relations of the villagers where a wedding was taking place. My community [of untouchables] was made to wait until everyone else had eaten. It could be 10 or 11 o'clock at night before we were invited. And we had to bring our own cups and disposable plates so that we didn't pollute anybody else's.

That was really humiliating for me, and at first I didn't understand why this was happening. Later, I realized what was going on: that we were considered different from everyone else.

One time, I visited a family that was quite well off, and they gave me a cup of tea in a chipped cup, and they had plenty of good cups in their house. When I told a friend about this, an elder in my community, he was very angry. I asked him, "Why does this happen?" And he told me: "They are treating us as untouchables. Those cheap cups are kept especially for us."

When an untouchable converts to Buddhism, how is his or her life changed?

You are no longer part of a system that teaches you that you are low. Leaving that system behind gives you dignity.

Why would being a Buddhist make a difference? The caste system is based on other people's attitudes as much as yours. Even if you change your religion, other people are still living that way.

Buddha teaches that every person can reach the highest perfection of humankind. That gives you confidence that you have human qualities that can change your situation for the better, and you don't need to rely on anybody's approval to make that change.

When and how did you decide that you wouldn't be ruled by the caste system anymore? What were the circumstances?

I was 14 or 15 when I said, "No. I don't want this." I was very angry. I wanted to be treated as a human being and as an equal.

How did you become a Buddhist?

When I was 16, I went to this teacher's talk after seeing an advertisement. I was really fascinated by him, and I kept going for meditation class. Eventually, I decided I wanted to become Buddhist. So they made a little ceremony for me.

You were a Buddhist monk for a while, right?

Not really a monk. I took a vow of celibacy for three years and lived in a monastery.

And what did you learn from that period?

One thing I learned is it's very hard to be celibate in this era of Bollywood and Hollywood and all the advertisements around us. There are many temptations. Another thing I learned is that my spiritual practice is not just about closing my eyes and sitting in a monastery. I realized that I wanted to work in the community for the good of the society. Buddhism isn't just something for me. It's for transforming the world.

You grew up in a small town. What is it like to live as an untouchable in an Indian village now?

It can be very scary. Some villagers have improved their economic conditions. They own land that they can cultivate and live on. But some are very poor, and they are always vulnerable.

And it's hell if you are very poor in an untouchable family. Just recently, in the month of October, there was a massacre in a village and a whole family was killed. The women were paraded naked before they were murdered. So were two boys in the family. They were all killed by high-class people in the village.

Why did they do that?

The local government had given the family some land because it has a policy of helping to support untouchables earn a living. This angered high-caste people in the village. So they killed them.

That's horrible. Is it better for untouchable people who are living in the cities?

It is a bit better. You can buy a house anywhere you want if you have the money, and you can give your children a better education. But you still experience discrimination.

Didn't India outlaw the caste system after independence?

People who live by the caste system find it comforting in some ways -- they want to stay close to their caste. Anything that threatens the structure of the system makes them feel unsafe.

You mean people in the higher castes?

Every caste is a higher caste in some sense -- every caste except those at the very bottom. When someone doesn't comply with the system, the caste above him often becomes violent because their remaining low is a foundation of the other one being high.

Many untouchables have converted to Buddhism. In some media reports, the conversions have been described as protests against the caste system. Is that accurate, or would you say that they are sincere religious conversions?

It's one response. You want to disown the religion that you associate with being treated as less than a human being. So where do you go? Buddhism is a religion where the basic teaching is equality. So that's a very easy approach to take. You say no to Hinduism and no to being in a low caste.

The fact is there's a shortage of Buddhist teachers. So some people who convert don't know how to practice Buddhism. All they know are the Five Precepts.

I've read that several Indian states have passed laws making it harder to convert. People have to obtain government permission first. Why is that?

It's not that people have to obtain government permission. According to the Indian Constitution, no one can be stopped from accepting any religion. They do have to sign a declaration that they are doing it willingly and without any pressure from the religious institution.

Does becoming a Buddhist change how Hindus respond to an untouchable?

I would say that around 10 or 15 percent are broad-minded Hindus who do not believe in the caste system and are supportive of people who converted to Buddhism.

Another group is really confused. They don't really understand why they are doing it [living under the caste system] or what to do about it.

A third group is quite fundamentalist. Their attitude is "If you are born Hindu, you must stay that way; if you do not, then you are defaming the religion."

Can someone be a Hindu and decide to ignore or work against the caste system?

Yes, though it could be very hard. There are Hindus who are trying to work against the caste system, but they get a lot of resistance from their own communities.

How has being a Buddhist changed you? What has it brought to your life?

When I experience discrimination -- people hear my name and they may think of me as an untouchable even though I'm a Buddhist -- that can make me angry. I don't want to be hitting people because I'm angry, you know? I needed to find a way a creative way to deal with the situation.

I also wanted to help people understand how the caste system can be painful for others, how it does not meet human values. Now I can, with great patience and compassion, expose that and with very great confidence enter into dialogue with any kind of high-class Hindu. I got that confidence and that sort of compassionate heart from learning Buddhism and becoming Buddhist.

What is it about Buddhism that allows you to feel compassion? Is it the practice of meditation? Is it something else?

Dr. Ambedakar, who was born in 1891 as an untouchable and went on to become a scholar who wrote India's Constitution, converted to Buddhism after studying many religions. When he converted, he was asked which form of Buddhism he's accepting. He said, "I'm following Buddha -- not any particular sect or tradition." So that gave me a sort of openness to learn from all traditions.

Buddha's basic teaching is if society needs to be changed, then the mind of the individual needs to be changed. Buddhism focuses on change of mind. Compassion is a state of mind that you keep cultivating. Compassion for yourself as well as others.

It's common for religious people to feel as if God has abandoned them when tragedy strikes or they feel victimized in some way. Do some untouchables feel as if their gods have abandoned them? And is part of the appeal of Buddhism that for many Buddhists it's not about believing in a god?

Yeah. I think one reaction is that we have been untouchables for more than a thousand years. And we were always worshiping God so that we could be free of that condition. But none of our worshipping worked.

And Dr. Ambedakar supported or created conditions where we could help ourselves. We took that responsibility and got ourselves free from it. So it's time not to wait for God but to rely on yourself. That's the philosophy. That's the thinking the present ex-untouchable Buddhists have at this time.

How has the economic growth of India affected the caste system?

Well, to my understanding, it is not helping the Dalit community much. Those who already have wealth are getting wealthier, and the people who are hungry are still hungry.

What do you say to a person from a higher caste when they say to you, "Why should I care about the caste system? It doesn't affect me"?

If one segment of society does not feel safe, there is no safety for anybody, because if I am not safe, I will try to make you unsafe or I will attack you. Or if I see that you have a lot of bread and I am living next door and I am hungry, I might steal your things. The untouchable community is quite large. It is spread all over India.

Tell me about the social change groups you work with.

Karuna Trust is a charitable trust. When we started teaching Buddhism, we realized that these ex-Dalit communities had a lot of problems physically -- like sanitation, living conditions, education, health and so on. So if you want to teach dharma -- the right way of living -- you do need to respond to their suffering and do something.

So we do a lot of health work. Health volunteers visit the shantytowns and do medical service. And we run hostels so the children who live far away from schools can live in the hostels and get an education.

And the other groups?

Jambudvipa was started by the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order to find ways to help people support themselves -- job training, health education and those sorts of things.

Dhammakranti is a social change movement that I started with my friends six years ago. What we are trying to do is, we get all the different castes -- ex-Dalit Buddhists and Buddhists from higher castes -- and we bring them together in a retreat. We're trying to create a model of a casteless society. We live together for seven days. And we talk about caste. Because caste is always a subject no one talks about. And we declare that we are a casteless society based on compassion and friendship.

When people get together for that, do they have a hard time acting as if there is no caste?

It's not about acting as if there is no caste. We focus on communication, studying together and meditating. We encourage people to feel safe, to ask any person coming from any different caste to associate with and start friendships -- even get married.

Marrying outside the caste? That must be one of the most radical things you can do in India.

Yes. Amongst the untouchable communities, when it comes to marriage they are still quite traditional in India, and your parents will try to find a match for you. There are 12 different subcastes of untouchables, and your parents will look for a suitable partner from your own subcaste.

Things are changing, but so slowly. The most important thing I've learned from Buddhism is that the world keeps changing. But if you decide that you want to make a change for better, it's in your hands. You can create that change. You can be that change. And you can change yourself as well as society.


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Monday, February 12, 2007

Just Be

(Picture source: flickr.com)

Be the sky
Be the earth

~End of post~


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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Attending to the Deathless

Ajahn Amaro is co-abbot of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. He was born in England and trained in the Thai Forest tradition with Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho.

Attending to the Deathless
by Ajahn Amaro

“When the heart is released from clinging,” said the Buddha, “then consciousness does not land anywhere. That state, I tell you, is without sorrow, afflication or despair.” Ajahn Amaro on abiding in the consciousness that is completely beyond conditioned phenomena—neither supporting them nor supported by them.

A great passage in the suttas (Anguttara Nikaya 3.128) presents an exchange between two of the Buddha's elder monks. Venerable Sariputta is the Buddha's chief disciple, the one most eminent in wisdom and also in meditative accomplishments. Although he had no psychic powers whatsoever, he was the grand master of meditators. The other elder disciple of the Buddha, Venerable Anuruddha, had spectacular psychic powers. He was the one most blessed with "the divine eye"; he could see into all the different realms.

The two disciples were an interesting mix. Sariputta's weakness was Anuruddha's great gift. Anyway, shortly before his enlightenment, Anuruddha came to Sariputta and said, "With the divine eye purified and perfected I can see the entire 10,000-fold universal system. My meditation is firmly established; my mindfulness is steady as a rock. I have unremitting energy, and the body is totally relaxed and calm. And yet still my heart is not free from the outflows and confusions. What am I getting wrong?"

Sariputta replied, "Friend, your ability to see into the 10,000-fold universal system is connected to your conceit. Your persistent energy, your sharp mindfulness, your physical calm and your one-pointedness of mind have to do with your restlessness. And the fact that you still have not released the heart from the outflows and defilements is tied up with your anxiety. It would be good, friend, if rather than occupying yourself with these concerns, you turned your attention to the deathless element." (By the way, the Pali Canon has a lot of humor in it like this, although it's rather similar to British humor and is sometimes easy to miss.) So of course Anuruddha said, “Thank you very much,” and off he went. Shortly thereafter, he realized complete enlightenment. This was very understated humor.

The point of their discussion, however, is really quite serious. As long as we are saying, "Look at how complicated my problems are," or "Look at my powers of concentration," we will stay stuck in samsara. In essence, Sariputta told his colleague, "You're so busy with all of the doingness and the effects that come from that, so busy with all of these proliferations, you'll never be free. You're looking in the wrong direction. You're looking out, looking at the meditation object out there, the 10,000-fold universal system out there. Just shift your view to the context of experience and attend to the deathless element instead."

All it took was a slight shift of focus for Anuruddha to realize: "It's not just a matter of all the fascinating objects or all the noble stuff I have been doing—that's all conditioned, born, compounded and deathbound. The timeless dharma is being missed. Look within, look more broadly. Attend to the deathless."

There are also a few places in the suttas (e.g., Majjhima Nikaya 64.9 and Anguttara Nikaya 9.36) where the Buddha talked about the same process with respect to development of concentration and meditative absorption. He even made the point that when the mind is in first jhana, second jhana, third jhana and all the way out to the higher formless jhanas, we can look at those states and recognize all of them as being conditioned and dependent. This, he said, is the true development of wisdom: the mindfulness to recognize the conditioned nature of a state, to turn away from it and to attend to the deathless, even while the state is still around. When the mind is concentrated and very pure and bright, we can recognize that state as conditioned, dependent, alien, and something that is void or empty. There is the presence of mind to reflect on the truth that all of this is conditioned and thus gross, but there is the deathless element. And in inclining toward the deathless element, the heart is released.

In a way it is like looking at a picture. Normally the attention goes to the figure in a picture and not the background. Or imagine being in a room with someone who is sitting in a chair. When you look across the room you would probably not attend to the space in front of or beside that person. Your attention would go to the figure in the chair, right? Similarly, if you've ever painted a picture or a wall, there's usually one spot where there's a glitch or a smudge. So where does the eye go when you look at the wall? It beams straight in on the flaw. In exactly the same way, our perceptual systems are geared to aim for the figure, not the ground. Even if an object looks like the ground—such as limitless light, for example—we still need to know how to turn back from that object.

Incidentally, this is why in Buddhist meditation circles there's often a warning about deep states of absorption. When one is in one, it can be very difficult to develop insight—much more so than when the mind is less intensely concentrated. The absorption state is such a good facsimile of liberation that it feels like the real gold. So we think, "It's here, why bother going any further? This is really good." We get tricked and, as a result, we miss the opportunity to turn away and attend to the deathless.

In cosmological terms, the best place for liberation is in the human realm. There's a good mixture of suffering and bliss, happiness and unhappiness here. If we are off in the deva realms, it's difficult to become liberated because it's like being at an ongoing party. And we don't even have to clean up afterwards. We just hang out in the Nandana Grove. Devas drop grapes in our mouths as we waft around with flocks of adoring beings of our favorite gender floating in close proximity. And, of course, there's not much competition; you're always the star of the show in those places. Up in the brahma realms it's even worse. Who is going to come back down to grubby old earth and deal with tax returns and building permits?

This cosmology is a reflection of our internal world. Thus the brahma realms are the equivalent of formless states of absorption. One of the great meditation masters of Thailand, Venerable Ajahn Tate, was such an adept at concentration that as soon as he sat down to meditate he would go straight into arupa-jhana, formless states of absorption. It took him twelve years after he met his teacher, Venerable Ajahn Mun, to train himself not to do that and to keep his concentration at a level where he could develop insight. In those formless states, it is just so nice that it's easy to ask, "What's the point of cultivating wise reflection or investigating the nature of experience? The experience itself is so seamlessly delicious, why bother?" The reason we bother is that those are not dependable states. They are unreliable and they are not ours. Probably not many people have the problem of getting stuck in arupa-jhana. Nonetheless, it is helpful to understand why these principles are discussed and emphasized.

This gesture of attending to the deathless is thus a core spiritual practice but not a complicated one. We simply withdraw our attention from the objects of the mind and incline the attention towards the deathless, the unborn. This is not a massive reconstruction program. It's not like we have to do a whole lot. It's very simple and natural. We relax and notice that which has been here all along, like noticing the space in a room. We don't notice space, because it doesn't grab our attention; it isn't exciting. Similarly, nibbana has no feature, no color, no taste and no form, so we don't realize it's right here. The perceptual systems and the naming activity of the mind work on forms; that's what they go to first. Therefore we tend to miss what's always here. Actually, because it has no living quality to it, space is the worst as well as the best example, but sometimes it is reasonable to use it.
Unsupported Consciousness

In the Theravada teachings, the Buddha also talked about this quality in terms of "unsupported consciousness." This means that there is cognition, there is knowing, but it's not landing anyplace; it's not abiding anywhere. "Attending to the deathless" and "unsupported consciousness" are somewhat synonymous. They are like descriptions of the same tree, from different angles.

In describing unsupported consciousness, the Buddha taught:

Wherever there is something that is intended, something that is acted upon or something that lies dormant, then that becomes the basis for consciousness to land. And where consciousness lands, that then is the cause for confusion, attachment, becoming and rebirth, and so on.

But if there is nothing intended, acted upon or lying latent, then consciousness has no basis to land upon. And having no basis to land, consciousness is released. One recognizes, 'Consciousness, thus unestablished, is released.' Owing to its staying firm, the heart is contented. Owing to its contentment, it is not agitated. Not agitated, such a one realizes complete, perfect nibbana within themselves. (Samyutta Nikaya 12.38 and 22.53)

The Buddha used a whole galaxy of images, similes and forms like this because they spoke to different people in different ways. In another passage the Buddha asked his disciples, "If there was a house with a wall that faced out towards the east and in that wall there was a window, when the sun came up in the morning, where would the shaft of sunlight fall?"

One of his monks replied, "On the western wall." The Buddha then asked, "And if there's no western wall, where would the sunlight land?"

The monk answered, "On the ground." Then the Buddha responded, "And if there's no ground, where will it land?" The monk replied, "On the water."

The Buddha pushed it a bit further and asked, "And if there's no water, where will it land?" The monk answered correctly when he said, "If there is no water, then it will not land." The Buddha ended the exchange by saying, "Exactly so. When the heart is released from clinging to what are called the four nutriments—physical food, sense contact (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), intention and consciousness—then consciousness does not land anywhere. That state, I tell you, is without sorrow, affliction or despair" (Samyutta Nikaya 12.64).
Consciousness: Invisible, Radiant, Limitless

In several instances, the language of the Dzogchen tradition seems strikingly similar to that of the Theravada. In Dzogchen, the common description of the qualities of rigpa, nondual awareness, is "empty in essence, cognizant in nature and unconfined in capacity." A different translation of these three qualities is "emptiness, knowing and lucidity, or clarity." In the Pali scriptures (Digha Nikaya 11.85 and Majjima Nikaya 49.25), the Buddha talks about the mind of the arahant as "consciousness which is unmanifest, signless, infinite and radiant in all directions." The Pali words are viññanam (consciousness), aniddassanam (empty, invisible or signless, non-manifestative), anantam (limitless, unconfined, infinite), and sabbato pabham (radiant in all directions, accessible from all sides).

One of the places the Buddha uses this description is at the end of a long illustrative tale. A monk has asked, "Where is it that earth, water, fire and wind fade out and cease without remainder?" To which the Buddha replies that the monk has asked the wrong question. What he should have asked is, "Where is it that earth, water, fire and wind can find no footing?" The Buddha then answers this question himself, saying it is in "the consciousness which is invisible, limitless and radiant in all directions" that the four great elements "and long and short, and coarse and fine, and pure and impure can find no footing. There it is that nama-rupa (body-and-mind, name-and-form, subject-and-object) both come to an end. With this stopping, this cessation of consciousness, all things here are brought to an end."

Such unsupported and unsupportive consciousness is not an abstract principle. In fact, it was the basis of the Buddha's enlightenment. As the Buddha was sitting under the bodhi tree, the hordes of Mara attacked him. Armies were hurling themselves at the Buddha and yet nothing could get into the space under the tree. All the weapons and spears they threw turned into rays of light; the arrows that they fired turned into flowers that came sprinkling down around the Buddha. Nothing harmful to the Buddha could get into that space. There was nowhere for it to land. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, long and short, coarse and fine, pure and impure are all aspects of body and mind. They represent attributes of all phenomena. Yet none of them could find a footing. The Buddha was in a non-stick realm. Everything that came toward him kept falling away. Nothing stuck; nothing could get in and harm the Buddha in any way. To get a better sense of this quality of unsupported consciousness, it's helpful to reflect on this image. Also very useful are the phrases at the end of the passage just quoted, particularly where the Buddha says, "When consciousness ceases, all things here are brought to an end."
The Anatomy of Cessation

The concept of cessation is very familiar in the Theravada tradition. Even though it's supposed to be synonymous with nibbana, it's sometimes put forth as some event that we're all seeking, where all experience will vanish and then we'll be fine: "A great god will come from the sky, take away everything and make everybody feel high." I don't want to get obsessed about words, but we suffer a lot or get confused because of misunderstandings like this. When we talk about stopping consciousness, do you think that means "Let's all get unconscious?” It can't be that, can it? The Buddha was not extolling the virtues of unconsciousness. Otherwise thorazine or barbiturates would be the way: "Give me the anesthetic and we're on our way to nibbana." But obviously that's not it. Understanding what is meant by stopping or cessation is thus pretty crucial here.

I've known people, particularly those who have practiced in the Theravada tradition, who have been taught that the idea of meditation is to get to a place of cessation. We might get to a place where we don't feel or see anything; there is awareness but everything is gone. An absence of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, the body—it all vanishes. And then these students are told, "This is the greatest thing. That's what there is to look forward to." The teacher encourages them to put tremendous hours and diligence into their meditation. When one of these students told her teacher that she had arrived at that kind of state, he got really excited. He then asked her, "So what did it feel like?" and she said, "It was like drinking a glass of cold water but without the water and without the glass." On another occasion she said, "It was like being shut inside a refrigerator."

This is not the only way of understanding cessation. The root of the word nirodha is rudh, which means "to not arise, to end, check or hold"—like holding a horse in check with the reins. So nirodha also has a meaning of holding everything, embracing its scope. "Stopping of consciousness" can thus imply that somehow everything is held in check rather than that it simply vanishes. It's a redrawing of the internal map.

A story from the time of the Buddha might help to expand our understanding of what this means. One night while the Buddha was meditating, a brilliant and beautiful devata named Rohitassa appeared in front of him. He told the Buddha, "When I was a human being, I was a spiritual seeker of great psychic power, a sky walker. Even though I journeyed with great determination and resolution for one hundred years to reach the end of the world, I could not come to the end of the world. I died on the journey before I had found it. So can you tell me, is it possible to journey to the end of the world?"

And the Buddha replied, "It is not possible to reach the end of the world by walking, but I also tell you that unless you reach the end of the world, you will not reach the end of suffering." Rohitassa was a bit puzzled and said, "Please explain this to me, Venerable Sir." The Buddha replied, "In this very fathom-long body is the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world" (Anguttara Nikaya 4.45, Samyutta Nikaya 2.26).

In that instance the Buddha used the same exact formulation as in the Four Noble Truths. The world, or loka, means the world of our experience. That's how the Buddha almost always uses the term "the world." He's referring to the world as we experience it. This includes only sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, thought, emotion and feeling. That's it. That's what "the world" is—my world, your world. It's not the abstracted, geographical planet, universe-type world. It's the direct experience of the planet, the people and the cosmos. Here is the origin of the world, the cessation of the world and the way leading to the cessation of the world.

He said that as long as we create "me and my experience"—"me in here" and "the world out there"—we're stuck in the world of subject and object. Then there is dukkha. And the way leading to the cessation of that duality is the way leading to the cessation of suffering. Geographically, it is impossible to journey to the end of the world. Only when we come to the cessation of the world, which literally means the cessation of its otherness or thingness, will we reach the end of dukkha, unsatisfactoriness. When we stop creating sense objects as absolute realities and stop seeing thoughts and feelings as solid things, there is cessation.

To see that the world is within our minds is one way of working with these principles. The whole universe is embraced when we realize that it's happening within our minds. And in that moment when we recognize that it all happens here, it ceases. Its thingness ceases. Its otherness ceases. Its substantiality ceases.

This is just one way of talking and thinking about it. But I find this brings us much closer to the truth, because in that respect, it's held in check. It's known. But there's also the quality of its emptiness. Its insubstantiality is known. We're not imputing solidity to it, a reality that it doesn't possess. We're just looking directly at the world, knowing it fully and completely.

So, what happens when the world ceases? I remember one time Ajahn Sumedho was giving a talk about this same subject. He said, "Now I'm going to make the world completely disappear. I'm going to make the world come to an end." He just sat there and said, "Okay, are you ready? The world just ended. Do you want me to bring it back into being again? Okay, welcome back."

Nothing was apparent from the outside. It all happens internally. When we stop creating the world, we stop creating each other. We stop imputing the sense of solidity that creates a sense of separation. Yet we do not shut off the senses in any way. Actually, we shed the veneer, the films of confusion, of opinion, of judgment, of our conditioning, so that we can see the way things really are. At that moment, dukkha ceases. There is knowing. There is liberation and freedom. There is no dukkha.
Is the Sound Annoying You?

If people were trying to meditate and wanted to shut the world out, Ajahn Chah used to give them a very hard time. If he came across a nun or a monk who had barricaded the windows of their heart and was trying to block everything out, he would really put them through it. He drew in one monk of this type as his attendant for a while and he would never let him sit still. As soon as he saw the monk close his eyes to "go into meditation" he would immediately send him off on some errand. Ajahn Chah knew that cutting yourself off was not the place of true inner peace. This was because of his own years of trying to make the world shut up and leave him alone. He had failed miserably. Eventually he was able to see this is not how to find completion and resolution.

Years ago, when he was a wandering monk, living on his own on a mountainside above a village, he kept a strict meditation schedule. In Thailand they love outdoor, nightlong film shows because the nights are cool compared to the very hot days. Whenever there was a party, it tended to go on all night. About fifty years ago, public address systems were just starting to be used in Thailand and every decent event had to have a PA going. It was blasted as loud as possible all through the night. One time, Ajahn Chah was quietly meditating up on the mountain while there was a festival going on down in the village. All the local folk songs and pop music were amplified throughout the area. Ajahn Chah was sitting there, seething and thinking, "Don't they realize all the bad karma involved in disturbing my meditation? They know I 'm up here. After all, I'm their teacher. Haven't they learned anything? And what about the five precepts? I bet they're boozing and out of control," and so on and so forth.

But Ajahn Chah was a pretty smart fellow. As he listened to himself complaining, he quickly realized, "Well, they're just having a good time down there. I'm making myself miserable up here. No matter how upset I get, my anger is just making more noise internally." And then he had this insight: "Oh, the sound is just the sound. It's me who is going out to annoy it. If I leave the sound alone, it won't annoy me. It's just doing what it has to do. That's what sound does. It makes sound. This is its job. So if I don't go out and bother the sound, it's not going to bother me. Aha!"

As it turned out, this insight had such a profound effect that it became a principle that he espoused from that time on. If any of the monks displayed an urge to try and get away from people or stimulation—the world of things and responsibilities—he would tend to shove them straight into it. He would put that monk in charge of the cement-mixing crew or take him to do every house blessing that came up on the calendar. He would make sure that the monk had to get involved in things because he was trying to teach him to let go of seeing meditation as needing sterile conditions—to see, in fact, that most wisdom arises from the skillful handling of the world's abrasions.

Ajahn Chah was passing along an important insight. It's pointless to try to find peace through nullifying or erasing the sense world. Peace only comes through not giving that world more substantiality or more reality than it actually possesses.
Touching the Earth

Sometimes when I use the example of the Buddha sitting under the bodhi tree, people still feel that this is a negation of the sense world. There is an intimation of condescension, a looking down on that. We become afraid when we hear people talking about dispassion towards the sense world as it can offend our habits of life affirmation.

The balance—and this is something we can experience for ourselves—is not in negation. It comes when we stop creating each other and allow ourselves to relax into a pure quality of knowing. In not fabricating the world, ourselves or our stories, there is a gentle relaxation and, ironically, we find ourselves far more attuned to life than ever. This cannot happen while we are busy carrying around "me and you" and "it's my life" and "my past" and "my future" and the rest of the world with all its problems. Actually, the result of this relinquishment is not a kind of numbness or a distancing but an astonishing attunement.

Buddhist cosmology and the stories of the suttas always have a historical, a mythical and a psychological element to them. When we talk about the Buddha under the bodhi tree, we sometimes wonder, "Was it actually that tree? Are we sure that he really sat beside the river Nerañjara near Bodhgaya? How can anyone know it was actually there?" The story goes that perhaps the Buddha did sit under a tree, or a Nepalese prince sat under a tree, and something happened (or stopped happening) somewhere in India a couple of thousand years or so ago. In other words, there are both historical and mythological aspects to the story. But the most crucial element is how this maps onto our own psychology. How does this symbolize our experience?

The pattern of the story is that even though the Buddha has totally penetrated the cycles of dependent origination and his heart is utterly free, Mara's army doesn't retreat. Mara has sent in the horrors, he has sent in his beautiful daughters, he's even sent in the parental pressure factor: "Well, son, you could have done a great job. You're such a natural leader, you would have made a great king. Now there's only your half-brother, Nanda, and he's a bit of a wimp, no good on the battlefield. Well, I guess if you're going to do this monk thing, the kingdom is going to go to rack and ruin. But that's all right, it's fine. You just do whatever you want to do. Just be aware that you're ruining my life; but don't worry, it's fine, it's okay."

The forces of allure, fear and responsibility are all there. Yet the Buddha doesn't just close his eyes and escape into blissful absorption. As the armies of Mara come at him, he looks straight at them and says, "I know you, Mara. I know what this is." The Buddha doesn't argue with Mara or give rise to aversion towards Mara. He remains undeluded; he doesn't react against what's happening in that moment. No matter what Mara's armies do, none can get into that space under the bodhi tree. All their weapons turn to flowers and incense and beams of light illuminating the vajra seat.

But even when the Buddha's heart is totally liberated, Mara still won't retreat. He says to the Buddha, "What right do you have to claim the royal seat at the immovable spot. I'm the king of this world. I'm the one who should be sitting there. I'm in charge here. I'm the one who deserves to be there, aren't I?" And he turns around to his horde, his army 700,000 strong, and they all say, "Yes, indeed, Sire!" "See," says Mara, "everyone agrees. I belong there, not you. I'm supposed to be the great one."

What happens then is that, just as Mara has called his witnesses to back him up, the Buddha calls on the mother goddess, Maer Toranee, as his witness. The Buddha reaches down to the ground, touches the earth and calls forth the earth mother. She appears and says, "This is my true son. He has every right to claim the vajra seat at the immovable spot. He has developed all the virtues necessary to claim the sovereignty of perfect and complete enlightenment. You do not belong there, Mara." The mother goddess then produces a flood from her hair and the armies of Mara are all washed away. Later they come back full of apologies, offering gifts and flowers and asking for forgiveness: "Terribly sorry about that, Mother. I didn't really mean it."

It's very interesting that Buddha thus did not become a fully enlightened, teaching Buddha without the help of the mother goddess and then, later, of the father god. It was Brahma Sahampati, the creator god, the CEO of the universe, who came and asked the Buddha to teach. Without those two figures, he would not have left the immovable spot and he wouldn't have started teaching. So, mythologically, there are some interesting little quirks to the tale.

The Buddha's gentle gesture of touching the earth is a magnificent metaphor. It is saying that even though we might have this enlightened, free space internally, it needs to be interfaced with the phenomenal world. Otherwise, there is no completion. This is why meditating with the eyes open is, in a way, such a useful bridge. We cultivate a vast internal space, but it is necessarily connected to the phenomenal world. If there is only an internal, subjective experience of enlightenment, we 're still caught. Mara's army won't retreat. The hassles are everywhere—the tax returns, the permits, the jealousies. We can see that they are empty, but they are still coming at us from all directions.

But in reaching out to touch the earth, the Buddha recognized, yes, there is that which is transcendent and unconditioned. But humility demands not simply holding to the unconditioned and the transcendent. The Buddha recognized and acknowledged that "There is the conditioned. There is the sense world. There is the earth that makes up my body and my breath and the food that I eat."

That gesture of reaching out from the transcendent is saying, How could fully engaging with the sense world possibly corrupt the innate freedom of the heart? This freedom cannot be interrupted, corrupted or confused by any sense experience. Therefore why not allow it all in? By openly, freely acknowledging the limited—needing to call the great mother to bear witness, for example—the unlimited manifests its full potential. If there is hesitency and the caution to keep the conditioned at bay, that betrays a basic lack of faith in the natural inviolability of the unconditioned.

Another phrase that expresses this same principle is cittam pabhassaram, akandukehi kilesehi, meaning "The heart's nature is intrinsically radiant; defilements are only visitors" (Anguttara Nikaya 1.61). It's pointing out the fact that the heart's nature is intrinsically pure and perfect. The things that appear to defile this purity are only visitors passing through, just wandering or drifting by. The heart's nature cannot truly be corrupted by any of that.

From Small Boat, Great Mountain: Theravadan Reflections on the Natural Great Perfection, by Ajahn Amaro. Published by Abhayagiri Monastery, 2003. Free copies of the book can be obtained from Abhayagiri Monastery or downloaded from their Web site: www.abhayagiri.org.

Books by Ajahn Chah (Click to browse Amazon Reader Reviews)
~ Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah
~ Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away: Teachings on Impermanence and the End of Suffering
~ Being Dharma: The Essence of the Buddha's Teachings

Books by Ajahn Sumedho (Click to browse Amazon Reader Reviews)
~ The Sound of Silence: The Selected Teachings of Ajahn Sumedho
~ The Mind and the Way: Buddhist Reflections on Life
~ Cittaviveka Teachings From the Silent Mind


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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Eighty-Fourth Problem

Dear friends,

I'm not sure if Buddha really did have this conversation with the farmer, but I felt this is a good meaningful story so let's learn from it with an open mind.

With metta,

The Eighty-Fourth Problem
by Yin Yao Shakya, OHY

This essay is about problems - the kind we all share. Big ones and little ones, problems that we cause ourselves and problems that the world inflicts upon us.

A man once came to see the Buddha because he heard that the Buddha knew how to solve problems. The man had more trouble than he could handle and so he knelt and begged, "Lord, my life is nothing but conflict and sorrow. Help me to find peace."

The Buddha smiled. "Tell me what is wrong, my brother."

"I'm a farmer," said the man, "and a good one. I enjoy farming. But there is always trouble with the weather. Sometimes it doesn't rain enough and my crops die, and my family nearly starves. Other times it rains too much and my crops die, and my family nearly starves. No matter what I do, my livelihood brings me nothing but anxiety."

The Buddha listened quietly as the man continued.

"I have a wife and two children. I love them all, but sometimes being a husband and father is nothing but headaches! My wife nags me so much that if I lived to be a hundred I couldn't figure out all that she wants from me! And my children! They eat my food and spend my money, but they don't respect me or the land. They sit around, useless and greedy."

The Buddha nodded.

"And then there are my neighbors! This one steals my water; that one moves his fence onto my property. Another one drives his cattle across my field. And the worst of the lot has an idiot son who wants my precious daughter. I can't work my crops without having to argue with one of them about something."

The man went on this way, carefully cataloging all his troubles. After an hour or so he was nearly in tears, too agitated to speak. He bowed his head and waited for the Enlightened One to speak the words that would would end his suffering.

The Buddha said, "I'm sorry, brother. I cannot help you."

The man was incredulous."What do you mean, you can't help me?" And then, disgusted, he sneered, "What use are you if you can't even tell a simple farmer how to improve his life?" He stood up to leave.

The Buddha answered, "It's true that I can't help you. And I don't think anyone else can, either. But perhaps I can tell you how to get help from the one person who can help you... yourself."

The farmer sat down and listened.

"You," said the Buddha, "and everybody else who is born into this world of Samsara have been given Eighty-Three problems. You deal with them as best you can. Whether you merely survive them or whether you constructively work to solve them, you find that no sooner do you handle one problem, but another one instantly arises to take its place. That's how life is."

The farmer considered this. "Yes," he said. "but can we solve all Eighty-Three problems in this lifetime?"

"Ah, said the Buddha, "that's the trouble. Once solved, they don't stay solved. They keep coming back, sometimes in different places and sometimes with different people."

"Then, will I never be happy? Will these Eighty-Three problems hound me even to the grave?" Suddenly the farmer was angry. "What kind of teaching is this? What am I to do now?"

"Well," said the Buddha, "You can solve the Eighty-Fourth problem."

"Oh, wonderful!" said the man sarcastically. "Now I have Eighty-FOUR problems! And what might that problem be?"

"The Eighty-Fourth problem," replied the Buddha, "is deciding not to have any problems."

And that's about all there is to it.

Like all of us, the poor farmer had a lifetime's experience with trouble and frustration. Like us, he dreamed of putting an end to his problems once and for all. But like everyone else who comes to Buddhism, he had to progress beyond the First Noble Truth: Life in Samsara is bitter and painful.

The fact is, being a Buddhist doesn't take the problems of life away. A Buddhist still has work and family and traffic jams to deal with. Neither does Buddhism offer comforting, easy-to-digest solutions for each of the bitter problems life puts on our plate.

Buddhism teaches that troubles go with life like wetness goes with ocean. Only the dead have no problems. And certainly we can find no comfort in telling ourselves, "Well, the next life will be better." To be alive at any time and any place is to struggle. Life is struggle. It is our attitude towards life that determines whether or not we regard the struggle as trouble or challenge.

George Polya, that preeminent mathematical problem-solver, said, "A great discovery solves a great problem, but there is a grain of discovery in any problem." And this is Buddhism's approach: to embrace problems great and small and to seek in each of them that grain of discovery. There is great joy in solving a problem when we see that problem as the very source of its own solution.

We tend to lose perspective. We see an obstacle and are blinded to the fact that it is in being alive and in being able even to see the obstacle that we have the ability to surmount it.

Often the closest we come to dealing with a problem is to make it seem less significant than someone else's. We find comfort in cliches. "I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a man who had no feet." But Buddhism says, "Why do you cry because you have no shoes? Stop crying and find a way to get yourself some shoes. Solve the Eighty-Fourth problem first!"

Recently I saw a bunch of guys who had no feet. They were playing basketball in wheelchairs. They were laughing and whooping it up no differently from the way they'd have acted if they had been conducting their offense and defense on two feet each. These men were in that Eighty-Fourth moment, in the game, enjoying life.

The world is filled with men who have two feet but who enjoy nothing and complain about everything because they cannot find that seed-grain of discovery inside a single problem.

The men in the wheelchairs accepted what had been put on their plate and no matter how bitter it was, they let it nourish them. They found a way to solve their problem and to find the joy of discovery in that solution.

And this is what that farmer needed to do. Instead of complaining, he needed to respond to the weather's challenges by acquiring other skills, by seeing to it that he and his family learned trades or cottage crafts so that when drought or flood came they'd be able to continue to prosper. He needed to meet with his neighbors and discuss the solutions of law and mutual respect, of teamwork instead of opposition.

There is joy in discovery, in creating something new and useful, in accepting a challenge and involving ourselves constructively in its solution. We all need to solve the Eighty-Fourth problem first. It is Attitude. It is Grace. It is being grateful to be alive here and now and to be blessed with all life's other Eighty-Three challenges.


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Verses on the Faith Mind by The 3rd Zen Patriarch, Sengstau

(Photo source: phototravels.net)

Verses on the Faith Mind by The 3rd Zen Patriarch, Sengstau

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything. To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind's essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

The Way is perfect like vast space when nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess.

Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things.

Live neither in the entanglements of outer things nor in inner feelings of emptiness.

Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves.

When you try to stop activity to achieve passivity your very effort fills you with activity.

As long as you remain in one extreme or the other you will never know Oneness.

Those who do not live in the single Way fail in both activity and passivity, assertion and denial.

To deny the reality of things is to miss their reality; to assert the emptiness of things is to miss their reality.

The more you talk and think about it, the further astray you wander from the truth.

Stop talking and thinking, and there is nothing you will not be able to know.

To return to the root is to find the meaning, but to pursue appearances is to miss the source.

At the moment of inner enlightenment there is a going beyond appearance and emptiness.

The changes that appear to occur in the empty world we call real only because of our ignorance.

Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.

Do not remain in the dualistic state -- avoid such pursuits carefully.

If there is even a trace of this and that, of right and wrong, the Mind-essence will be lost in confusion.

Although all dualities come from the One, do not be attached even to this One.

When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way, nothing in the world can offend, and when such a thing can no longer offend, it ceases to exist in the old way.

When no discriminating thoughts arise, the old mind ceases to exist.

When thought objects vanish, the thinking-subject vanishes, as when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.

Things are objects because of the subject (mind); the mind (subject) is such because of things (object).

Understand the relativity of these two and the basic reality: the unity of emptiness.

In this emptiness the two are indistinguishable and each contains in itself the whole world.

If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine you will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.

To live in the Great Way is neither easy nor difficult, but those with limited views are fearful and irresolute; the faster they hurry, the slower they go, and clinging (attachment) cannot be limited; even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray.

Just let things be in their own way and there will be neither coming nor going.

Obey the nature of things (your own nature), and you will walk freely and undisturbed.

When thought is in bondage the truth is hidden, for everything is murky and unclear, and the burdensome practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.

What benefits can be derived from distinctions and separations?

If you wish to move in the One Way do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas.

Indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true Enlightenment.

The wise man strives to no goals but the foolish man fetters himself.

There is one Dharma, not many; distinctions arise from the clinging needs of the ignorant.

To seek Mind with the (discriminating) mind is the greatest of all mistakes.

Rest and unrest derive from illusion; with enlightenment there is no liking and disliking.

All dualities come from ignorant inference. They are like dreams or flowers in air: foolish to try to grasp them.

Gain and loss, right and wrong: such thoughts must finally be abolished at once.

If the eye never sleeps, all dreams will naturally cease.

If the mind makes no discriminations, the ten thousand things are as they are, of single essence.

To understand the mystery of this One-essence is to be released from all entanglements.

When all things are seen equally the timeless Self-essence is reached.

No comparisons or analogies are possible in this causeless, relationless state.

Consider movement stationary and the stationary in motion, both movement and rest disappear.

When such dualities cease to exist Oneness itself cannot exist.

To this ultimate finality no law or description applies.

For the unified mind in accord with the Way all self-centered striving ceases.

Doubts and irresolutions vanish and life in true faith is possible.

With a single stroke we are freed from bondage; nothing clings to us and we hold to nothing.

All is empty, clear, self-illuminating, with no exertion of the mind's power.

Here thought, feeling, knowledge, and imagination are of no value.

In this world of suchness there is neither self nor other-than-self.

To come directly into harmony with this reality just simply say when doubt arises, 'Not two.'

In this 'not two' nothing is separate, nothing is excluded.

No matter when or where, enlightenment means entering this truth.

And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space; in it a single thought is ten thousand years.

Emptiness here, Emptiness there, but the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.

Infinitely large and infinitely small; no difference, for definitions have vanished and no boundaries are seen.

So too with Being and Non-Being.

Don't waste time with doubts and arguments that have nothing to do with this.

One thing, all things: move among and intermingle, without distinction.

To live in this realization is to be without anxiety about non-perfection.

To live in this faith is the road to non-duality, because the non-dual is one with trusting mind.


The Way is beyond language, for in it there is no yesterday, no tomorrow, no today.

~End of gatha~

Picture & character introduction source: selfdiscoveryportal.com)

Seng-Ts'an was a Buddhist layman over forty years of age when he came to the second Patriarch, Hui-k'o, with a request that the master purify him of his sins. The response (see Hui-k'o on the Other Ch'an Masters page) inspired Seng-Ts'an to become a monk under Hui-k'o, leading to his enlightenment and succession as Patriarch. He died in 609, leaving us the priceless stanzas titled Hsin Hsin Ming, which are variously identified in English as Inscribed on the Believing Mind, On Trust in the Heart and The Mind of Absolute Trust. The full text appears in the column to the right, with other translations of sections appearing below. You'll see that he's giving directions on living in the Way, or Tao.


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