Friday, September 29, 2006

A Short Digression on Impermanence

Driving around town the other day, I almost hit a squirrel.


The squirrel was standing right in the middle of the road, and then started dodging first left, then right, then finally stopped dead center and simply froze. I swerved the car a little to straddle his position with my tires, and after I passed over him, I did not see a dead squirrel in the rear view mirror.

I once read somewhere, I think it was Outside magazine, about the problem with squirrel's perception. A reader sent in a question, asking "Since squirrels are so fast and agile, how come they keep getting hit by cars?" The reply was that since squirrels basically evolved as small tree-dwelling mammals, their senses are attuned to the threat of hawks and eagles as their primary predators. So their perception is such that they are always alert to the threat of something of a certain size swooping down out of the sky, and when they see something as big as a car, moving so rapidly, and on the ground, their minds just can't comprehend it ("This does not compute"), and they simply choose to ignore it.

And this ignorance leads to death, to pain and to suffering.

Squirrels can clearly see the car, they know that getting struck would not be a healthy option for them, and yet their little squirrel minds can't put it all together and instruct the body to run away. As a result, we have squirrel roadkill on our streets.

In the years since I've read that, I've often wondered that if a superior intelligence were to observe us, would it wonder, "Why aren't they getting out of the way? What's wrong with them? Can't they see the danger? Doesn't all that cancer tell them something?"

I don't know why I chose "cancer" as the indicator, but the punchline to the little joke I kept telling myself about the analogy between squirrels and humans always ended with that phrase, "Doesn't all that cancer tell them something?" Maybe it's due to the modern perception of cancer as the Great Riddle, the mysterious ailment that cannot be cured, and all the while, to an intelligent species observing us from a detached perspective, we're simply like little squirrels, refusing to simply get out of the way and avoid that which is obviously causing us harm.

Looking at it now, from a Buddhist perspective, I see that my intuition was correct. Cancer is simply the manifestation of impermanence at the cellular level. Everything is impermanent, nothing last forever, the entire universe is on fire. Even the cells of our bodies, if they are to last long enough to avoid all of the other perils that might destroy them, will eventually morph into forms that threaten our continued survival, and we term this morphing "cancer."

But as humans, our little homo sapien brains can't comprehend impermanence, we can't see it, we think that things will last forever, and we cling to that delusion. Yet although governments change, sea levels rise and fall, Twin Towers collapse and our hair turns grey, we think that it's wrong, something unnatural when our cells mutate, and the doctors call the mutation "cancer." Yes, it's wrong for our own survival, and I'm certainly not saying that it's not sad and tragic for the little narratives we call our our "lives," but everything, even our own survival, is subject to impermanence, just like our cells, our lost memories, our childhood fear of clowns.

Impermeable is the fire that's raging through the entire universe, constantly renewing and reinventing what the Taoists call "the 10,000 things" (meaning everything that exists), and even though the evidence is right here before our eyes, even though we have the capacity to understand it, we instead choose to ignore it.

And this ignorance leads to death, to pain and to suffering.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A Lesson

How funny. . . for days, I couldn't think of a thing to say about the Third Noble Truth, but once I brought some mindfulness to it, I realized that by addressing the cessation of suffering - the whole promise that Buddhism holds out - it's actually about the very fulfillment of Siddharta's quest, it's about nirvana, it's the whole enchilada as it were, and I was overlooking the entire thing.

Live and learn.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Third Noble Truth

"The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.

"This is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before. This Cessation of suffering, as a noble truth, should be realized: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before. This Cessation of suffering, as a noble truth has been realized: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before."

The unexpected, week-long silence on this blog has been due in large part to an unexpected loss of words concerning the Third Noble Truth - that suffering can cease it the desires leading to suffering cease. This third truth always felt like merely a bridge between the Second and Fourth Truths, a logical necessity to get from Point A to Point B, but never subject to much scrutiny in and of itself.

Then I realized that Steven Hagen devoted an entire chapter of Buddhism, Plain and Simple to the Third Noble Truth. Hagen notes that the Third Noble Truth simlpy states that whatever is subject to arising is also subject to ceasing. And since suffering arises, it too is subject to cessation.

The end of suffering, the end of all the confusion, sorrow and loss, is nirvana. The Buddha referred to nirvana as "unborn, ungrown and unconditioned."

"The born, grown and conditioned refer to everything you can conceive of - including yourself," Hagen writes. "Look around you. There's nothing you can find - indeed, there's nothing you can even imagine - that doesn't originate, develop, or exist in relation to other things. Being born, growing, and responding to conditions is built into the very fabric of the world we live in.

"But the Buddha pointed out that there is an aspect of experience that is not born, grown or conditioned. This unconditioned aspect is directly available to perception. We can see it - we just can't conceptualize it or pin it down.

"In short, or condition is anything but helpless. There actually is something Real, Genuine, and True for us to see."

Everything that we see, hear, feel, smell, taste and think is in constant flux and change. Nothing lasts forever. We crave permanence and we find none, only this coming and going, this unending arising and cessation, and as a result we suffer, and suffer greatly.

Everything that we experience, we experience as motion, from light rays to sound waves, from the softest caress to the harshest blow. Indeed, matter itself is literally nothing but motion. And no matter how we look at it, at whatever scale, our experience is always one of motion, of change. This is true of everything in the physical world, including our bodies. Every cell, indeed, every atom of every cell, reveals nothing but ceaseless coming and going. Our bodies are remade moment by moment, and in no two moments are they the same.

This is also true of our minds. The contents of our minds are in constant motion as well. Thoughts, feelings, judgements and impulses arise, one after the other, then bloom and fade away like flowers after their season. Our minds, subject to endless changes of mood and attitude, of ever-accumulating memories and ideas, is never the same as it was the second before.

Nirvana, Hagen reminds us, us seeing, thoroughly and completely, that this is so.

The Third Noble Truth puts forth the proposal that there can be an end to suffering if we wee to put an end to our clinging to that which is impermanent, forever changing and in constant flux. The Fourth Noble Truth, then, is the perscription on how to do that.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Zen Hike - Jack's River Redux, Again

Today, the Zen Center hosted another of its quarterly hikes, this time up to the Cohutta Wilderness in northwest Georgia along the Beech Bottom Trail to Jacks River Falls.

The hike was actually a repeat of a hike from two years ago, when the Atlanta and Chattanooga sanghas met at the trailhead and shared in the trip down to the river. This year we had a smaller group - four - but no less fun. The weather was beautiful, the trail gentle, the falls full.

The trail is a pleasant four-mile hike (eight miles round-trip) along an old road bed to Jacks River and its dramatic waterfall. Deep rich soils support distinct plant communities lush with ferns in this forest. There are more than 40 species of rare and uncommon plants, and a variety of wild animals, such as black bears, wild boars, turkeys, deer, ruffed grouse and squirrels, abound. Ragged and heavily forested, the Cohuttas are true wilderness.

It may be a testament to planning, but there were no real adventures or misadventures to report. We all arrived at the Zen Center more-or-less on time, carpooled up to the trailhead without incident, hiked to the falls where we ate, sunned and played, sat zazen nearby in the shade, hiked out and drove home. No drama, no comedy, just a nice day.

Friday, September 15, 2006

A Field Demonstration of the First Two Noble Truths

"I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering."
- Agent Smith, The Matrix

Look, to put it another way: Friday night, I stopped at the local Kroger's supermarket on the way home from work to pick up some groceries for tomorrow's Zen hike. I parked a good deal away from the front entrance because the parking lot was full and, my attention wandering all over the place, I started walking toward the store.

In the parking lot ahead of me, right near the entrance, a man was yelling at someone in a taunting, sort of teasing voice. I didn't pay attention to his words, as I doubted they concerned me. As I got closer, I saw that he was pointing to someone sitting in a car parked in the front row.

The yelling was sounding louder, not only because I was getting closer to it, as well as more aggressive. Then, the guy in the parked car got out and started pointing back at the Shouting Man. It was then that I noticed it wasn't a finger he was pointing.

It was a gun.

We define ourselves as other than the outside world by a process of elimination - that which we perceive on the outside is not ourselves, so the remainder must be us. This perception is in the form of sensation - what we see, what we hear, what we feel, and so on. Perception itself is the process of ignoring those sensations which are indifferent to us - the vast majority to be sure - and focusing in on what is either pleasurable or offensive.

Walking toward the Kroger's, my perceptions initially considered the sensations of sound from the Shouting Man to be indifferent to me, based on my past experience of people shouting and yelling for no real purpose that I could determine. But when the sensation of seeing a handgun appeared, my perception narrowed in and focused on that one thing - the gun and the eyes of the man pointing it. In fact, my whole universe of awareness was reduced to those two elements - nothing else existed in my universe at that moment.

The yelling continued, and my perceptions now sought out the words: "Oh, you're gonna be that way about it, huh? You're gonna be a gangsta over this, a thug? Why you gotta be that way?" The Shouting Man didn't seem afraid - I got the distinct impression that this wasn't the first time he had a gun pointed at him - and he stood his ground and kept talking.

Eventually, the gunman dropped his arm, waved disgustedly at the Shouting Man, and got back in his car. Apparently, what ever the altercation was about, it wasn't worth risking a murder rap. He closed the car door and backed out of the spot, then slowly drove out the lot, passing right by me. I kept an eye on him to make sure he didn't fire off a passing round as he left, and he looked extremely angry. If this were a cartoon, he would have had black steamy lines rising above his head. He was suffering.

So the first lesson of this encounter was observing how my sensations were affected by my perceptions, and my perceptions by sanskara (mental formations, volition, or memory).

The second little lesson was how both of these men were suffering due to their cravings. Shouting Man was angry over some real or imagined transgression, and was craving an apology of some sort, and was suffering because he wasn't getting what he craved. The Gunman wanted respect, and was suffering because he wasn't getting that, even after he had produced a handgun. And the craving for apology and the craving for respect were both based on the men's perceptions of themselves as separate from each other and separate from everything else - their cravings arose from their perception of an ego-self.

I'm glad that no one had to have a cap popped in their ass as a result of all this ignorance, craving, suffering and false perception.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Origin of Suffering

Simply put, the Second Noble Truth states that our suffering is caused by our desires, our thirsts, our appetites and our attachments. We cling to whatever it is that we crave, to what gives us pleasure, and wish that it would go on forever, ignoring the reality that in fact nothing lasts forever, not romantic love (at least not as it is first experienced), not a new BMW 745i, not a steak dinner, not an episode of "Seinfeld." Everything ultimately slips away from us, even our own health, and our desire for it to be otherwise results in our suffering.

To put it another way, here's the secret to happiness: just recognize and appreciate the few brief moments of pleasure as they come, and don't try to hang on to them. Hanging on is like trying to hold water in your hands - the harder you squeeze, the more it slips between your fingers. Or to paraphrase Bucky Fuller, "Don't fight forces; just go with the flow." So just allow the pleasures to arise as they may, and don't try to make them last any longer than they naturally occur, and there it is - the secret of happiness. How about that? Not bad for an eccentric, sporadically updated blog, is it?

To look a little deeper, consider this interesting twist to the Siddharta story, as related by Red Pine:

The five ascetics - Ashvajit, Vashpa, Mahanaman, Bhadrika and Kaundinya - were all actually relatives of Shakyamuni. Kaundinya, for example, was his maternal uncle, and Ashajit was his cousin. All five had been odrered by King Suddhodana to accompany his headstrong son on his spiritual quest. But six years later, when Shakyamuni decided not to continue his austerities but to seek the Middle Way between asceticism and indulgence, they left him in disgust at the shore of the Nairanjana River below the caves they had shared at Pragbodhi. While the five ascetics proceeded to Varanasi, Shakyamuni waded across the river to Bodh Gaya, sat down beneath an ashvattha tree (Ficus religiosa, the Indian fig), and resolved not to rise again until he could put an end to suffering, which he did over the next several days to the benefit of all beings.

Not long after his enlightenment, the Buddha caught up with his former companions just outside Varanasi at a place called Deer Park, and proclaimed the Four Noble Truths. In that sermon, he traced suffering back to its cause: thirst (trishna), or more specifically, thirst for the existence or non-existence of some object or state to which we have become attached. Because all objects and states are subject to change, our thirst and its consequent attachment result in suffering. Thus, the Buddha's First Noble Truth was the truth of the existence of suffering, and the Second Noble Truth revealed the origin of suffering.

Every experience of which we are aware is transient and fraught with suffering. And every experience is fraught with suffering because we do not see things as they really are. All we see are what we love and hate and have deceived ourselves into believing exists or does not exist. In response to this, the Buddha asks us to see things as they really are. He does not ask us to cling to optimistic views of eternity or pessimistic views of annihilation, but simply to examine our experience. This is the first Noble Truth, the first statement of the way things really are. Because we are attached to what is impermanent, every experience is doomed to result in suffering. Thus, our suffering is a direct result of our attachment, which is the Second Noble Truth.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Second Noble Truth

These are the words of the Buddha on the Second Noble Truth, the origin of suffering:

"The Noble Truth of the Origin (cause) of Suffering is this: It is this craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation).

"This is the Noble Truth of the Origin (cause) of Suffering: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before. This Origin of Suffering as a noble truth should be eradicated: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before. This Origin of suffering as a noble truth has been eradicated: such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before."
- from The Dharmachakrapravartana Sutra

"Verily, due to sensuous craving, conditioned through sensuous craving, impelled by sensuous craving, entirely moved by sensuous craving, kings fight with kings, princes with princes, priests with priests, citizens with citizens; the mother quarrels with the son, the son with the mother, the father with the son, the son with the father; brother quarrels with brother, brother with sister, sister with brother, friend with friend. Thus given to dissension, quarrelling and fighting, they fall upon one another with fists, sticks or weapons. And thereby they suffer death and deadly pain.

And further, due to sensuous craving, conditioned through sensuous craving, impelled by sensuous craving, entirely moved by sensuous craving, people break into houses, rob and plunder, pillage whole houses, commit highway robbery, seduce the wives of others. Then the rulers have such people caught and inflict on them various forms of punishment. And thereby they incur death or deadly pain. Now, this is the misery of sensuous craving, the heaping up of suffering in this present life, due to sensuous craving, conditioned through sensuous craving, caused by sensuous craving, entirely dependent on sensuous craving."
- from the Mijjhima Nikaya, or middle-length sayings of the Buddha

"But where does this craving arise and take root? Wherever in the world there is the delightful and pleasurable, there this craving arises and takes root. Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind are delightful and pleasurable; there this craving arises and takes root.

"Form, sounds, smells, tastes, bodily touches and ideas are delightful and pleasurable: there this craving arises and takes root.

"Consciousness, sense contact, the feeling born of sense contact, perception, will, craving, thinking and reflecting are delightful and pleasurable: there this craving arises and takes root.

"If, namely, when perceiving a visible form, a sound, odor, taste, bodily contact or an idea in the mind, the object is pleasant, one is attracted, and if unpleasant, one is repelled.

"Thus, whatever kind of feeling one experiences - pleasant, unpleasant or indifferent - one approves of and cherishes the feeling and clings to it; and while doing so, lust springs up; but lust for feelings means clinging to existence; and on clinging to existence depends the process of becoming; on the action process of becoming depends birth; and dependent on birth are decay and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. Thus arises the whole mass of suffering."
- various sutras, as compiled by Dwight Goddard

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

What Is It That Suffers

And the Buddha said: "What, in brief, are the Five Aggregates connected with cleaving? They are bodily form, feeling, perception, (mental) formations and consciousness." In so stating, the Buddha not only taught that what we consider "the self" is nothing more than an aggregate of what arises when five conditions come together, but was also describing the entire universe, as we experience it. For on close examination, these are not two separate things, but one.

The "self" is nothing more or less than the collection of the five aggregates; the "self" is what arises when these conditions come together. The first of the five aggregates is bodily form, or rupa. To the Buddha, form includes not only what we normally think of as our body, but also the means by which the body is perceived - his definition of form included not only the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue and the skin, as well as their powers (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch), but also the objects they invoked. So "form" included the sun and the wind and the sounds of laughter and the smell of sweat and whatever else we might find in and through the five senses.

Rupa, according to the noted translator Red Pine, "is simply the outside world, in contrast to what we presume is an inside world. Thus, the word rupa does not actually refer to a concrete object but to the appearance of an object. Form is like a mask that cannot be removed without revealing its own illusory identity." So form is actually the outside world, by which we presume the existence of an inside world.

With the backdrop of an outside world established, the Buddha continued with an analysis of the inside, which he divided into four additional aggregates. Feeling, or sensation, is the second aggregate, the first of the four interior components. Once one establishes form, sensation follows as the interface between inner mind and outer form. Sensation looks at our experience as a process of evaluation. Sensation in this regard is not the same as mere sensory input, which the Buddha rarely described in more detail than positive, negative or neutral. For the most part, our experiences are neutral and ignored. But certain experiences appear to satisfy a need or pose a danger and are classified accordingly. As we walk through a forest our eyes take in countless appearances, but we quickly focus on a snake or a wildflower or some object that might affect our continued existence. Thus, the Buddha did not consider sensation as a passive collection of data from an outside world but as the active sorting and grading of appearances and their transformation into objects according to categories supplied by the third aggregate, perception.

Without perception, our sensations cannot be classified as positive, negative or neutral. Perception supplies the framework that allows us to make judgments as well as the framework that allows us to objectify or subjectify our experience. It also supplies the means that allow us to manipulate our sensations, so that we see what we want to see and don't see what we don't want to see. Thus, sensation is dependent not only upon form but also on perception. And likewise, perception is dependent on sensation as well as the fourth aggregate.

This fourth aggregate, sanskara, has been translated as "mental formations," "impulse," "volition" and "attention;" The word sanskara is derived from a combination of san (together) and kri (to make); thus it means "put together" and refers to those things we have "put together" that have a direct bearing on the way we think or perceive. According to Red Pine, what this term refers to "is our karmic genome, the repository of all that we have previously intended, whether expressed in the form of words, deeds, or thoughts. Thus, sanskara embraces all the ways we have dealt with what we have experienced in the past and that are available to us as ways to deal with what we find in the present." He therefore chose to use the word "memory" as a translation for sanskara. Thus, sanskara supplies the templates that perception applies to sensations and form.

And how do we know this? Because of the fifth aggregate - consciousness. "Consiousness" refers to the faculty of the mind in general, the ability to be aware, aware of anything, but always something - form, sensation, perceptions, memories, and of course, a "self." Thus, consciousness always has an object, and therefore a subject is implied. It is the least discussed and analyzed of all the aggregates because to discuss or analyze consciousness would be like the hand trying to grab itself. But consciousness brings its awareness to the outside objects, and therefore invents an inside subject, or "self." Alan Watts once described consciousness as something like a radar system, and as long as we identify ourselves as our radar system, well of course we're always going to feel under attack.

So, putting this all together, there is clearly an outside world, isn't there? Look, you can see it. And the way that we see it is sensation, which is filtered through perception. And that perception is conditioned by our past experience as stored in memory. And consciousness uses that awareness of that outside world to infer an inside world. So the perceived "outside world" is actually created by processes on the inside, while the "inside world" is just an assumption based on the perception of the "outside world," and the closer one looks at this process, the more the line between inside and outside disappears, and we begin to wonder why we put the limitations that we do on what we consider to be the "self."

I said at the onset of this whole series of postings that these concepts weren't easy to talk about. When the Emperor Wu asked the Indian monk Bodhidharma who he was, Bodhidharma replied, "I don't know."

Monday, September 11, 2006

In Remembrance

Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear; but around in awareness.
-James Thurber

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Last Words

Last month, the venerable John Updike wrote a terrific piece in The New Yorker about works of art created late in the lives of artists. His piece begins with a review of the late Edward W. Said’s “Last Works/Late Style." In his book, Said discussed the output of creative talents during their final years of life, including Beethoven, Mozart, Jean Genet, Glenn Gould, Arnold Schoenberg and Richard Strauss. While "late works crown a lifetime of aesthetic endeavor," Said concludes there also is in artistic lateness not harmony and resolution, but “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction."

From this, Updike turns his attention from late musical careers to late literary careers, noting, “at least for this aging reader, works written late in a writer’s life retain a fascination. They exist, as do last words, where life edges into death, and perhaps have something uncanny to tell us.” He goes on to discuss the late works of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Joyce, Shaw, Greene and Murdoch in insightful detail, noting the same themes of disharmony and irresolution.

What does this tell us about life? Why do these artists, as they approach the end of their lives, struggle with seeming contradictions? What does it say that these great minds find in their late years unresolved dualities?

Other examples of this tendency exist throughout the arts. Although he died a young man, the brilliant saxophonist John Coltrane provides an interesting example. Throughout the 1950s and early 60s, he played in a lovely and harmonious style and quickly became the preeminent jazz voice of his time. Sometime in the early 60s, his style became more searching and restless, and in his explorations he defined forms of self-expression new not just to jazz, but also to other musical idioms; arguably to the whole of the arts as well.

By the mid to late 60s, Coltrane had abandoned lyricism and harmony altogether, focusing his attention more and more on a powerful form of direct self expression that embraced both dissonance and disharmony for the sake of freedom. In 1965’s “Ascension,” most musical rules are thrown out the window for complete freedom, resulting in strikingly abrasive sheets of horn interplay amid moments of striking beauty.

This was also a period in Coltrane’s life of intense and passionate spiritual interest, particularly in Eastern religions. By February 1966, Coltrane and other group members were chanting "Aum-mani-padme-hum" (a Sanskrit mantra meaning “the jewel in the lotus”) to open and close a West Coast recording session. “The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording” documents a live performance on April 23, 1967, one of the last times Coltrane was to appear on stage. The sonic blast of his free jazz was becoming still more aggressive and out of bounds; it is hard to imagine how much further he could have gone from there, where the music would have gone, could have gone, next. Sadly however, we’ll never know, as Coltrane died at the age of 40 in the early morning of July 17, 1967 at Huntington Hospital on Long Island.

So late in his career, Coltrane’s music was marked by dissonance and disharmony, and by a search for a fusion between Eastern spirituality and a musical idiom rooted in the West. At the time of his death, his insistence on following his muse down this difficult path lost him many of his fans, and critics were labeling his music as “anti-jazz.” In these aspects, Coltrane’s late career can be considered marked by Said’s “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction."

The career of director Luis Bunuel appears at first glance to go in the opposite direction – from abrasive and confrontational to sophisticated and sublime. His first film, 1929’s notorious “Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog),” contains the famous scene of a woman’s eye being graphically slit open with a razor. It's hard to get much more confrontational than that. The following year, sponsored by wealthy art patrons, he made his first feature, the scabrous, witty and violent “L’Age d'Or” (1930), which mercilessly attacked the church and the middle classes, themes that would preoccupy Bunuel for the rest of his career. After the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Mexico and directed the lacerating study of Mexican street urchins, “Los Olvidados” (1950), which won him Best Director at Cannes. But despite this acclaim, Bunuel spent much of the next decade working on a variety of ultra-low-budget, almost unwatchably violent and difficult films. In 1961, General Franco, anxious to be seen to be supporting Spanish culture, invited Bunuel back to his native country, and Bunuel responded by biting the hand that fed him with ”Viridiana” (1961), which was banned in Spain on the grounds of blasphemy, though it won the Palme d'Or.

This inaugurated Bunuel's late period when he made several extraordinary masterpieces, starting with “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964). Although far glossier, more expensive, and featuring major stars, these later films cannot be viewed as slick commercial offerings from a former dissident – Bunuel most decidedly had not “gone Hollywood.” The films of this period showed that even in old age, Bunuel had lost none of his youthful vigor. In abandoning the low-budget productions of his past and embracing the attractive settings and actors of the European cinema, Bunuel was at the same time subversively disguising his surrealist manifesto as slick entertainments. The latter films, including “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)” and “The Phantom of Liberty” (1974), are actually absurdist pranks posing as sophistication. In scene after scene, Bunuel keeps pulling the rug out from under the viewer’s expectations. “The Phantom of Liberty” includes an impeccably dressed, upper-class dinner party with the diners around an elegant table, but all sitting on toilets (they do get up occasionally to discreetly enter a small separate room to eat). “That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)” opens with the dapper Fernando Rey pouring a bucket of water over a beautiful woman in a train station. After saying that every one of his films from “Belle de Jour” (1967) onwards would be his last, he finally kept his promise with “That Obscure Object of Desire,” and died six years later (July 29, 1983).

In these films, Bunuel embraces the disharmony of the production - the beautiful settings, the glamorous actors, and the slick photography – with the surreal and absurd story lines. While the visual aspects of the films show a master director in the prime of his craft, they are subverted with gags at times so puerile they seem to have been conceived by an adolescent. In this late career embracement of such polarities, Bunuel can be seen as consistent with other artists at the end of their lives.

Interestingly, these themes are absent in the late works (quite literally) of Eastern artists. As the title implies, Yoel Hoffman’s “Japanese Death Poems – Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death,” compiles the literal last words of Zen monks and haiku poets. In Japan, there exists a centuries-old tradition of writing a poem at the very moment the poet is breathing his last. These poems give a remarkable insight not only on Zen Buddhist ideas about death, but also on life as well. For example, a 90-year-old haiku poet wrote, upon his expiration in 1868:

My old body:
A drop of dew grown
Heavy at the leaf tip.

In 1736, another wrote at the age of 71:

How did
A dewdrop last?

And from 1897:

I cast the brush aside –
From here on I’ll speak to the moon
Face to face.

These poems differ dramatically from the “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction," inherent in the late works of western artists. The Zen monks and haiku poets had spent a lifetime contemplating the dualities of existence and attempting to reconcile the perceived gap between difference and unity. In 1308, a Zen monk wrote:

You must play
The tune of non-being yourself –
Nine summits collapse
Eight oceans go dry.

In the ancient Indian cosmology, nine mythical summits separated eight mythical oceans. Like all physical phenomena, these dharmas are merely manifestations of mind and disappear at death along with he or she who manifested them, just as dream worlds disappear upon awakening. But playing the “tune of non-being” does not refer to death, but rather to a state of enlightened awareness that transcends such dualities as life and death, self and other, being and non-being. The questions that remain when such dualities are dropped were expressed by the monk Zoso Royo in his 1276 death poem:

I pondered the Buddha’s teaching
A full four and eighty years.
The gates are all now locked about me.
No one was ever here –
Who then is he about to die,
And why lament for nothing?
The night is clear,
The moon shines calmly,
The wind in the pines
Is like a lyre’s song.
With no I and no other
Who hears the sound?

Saturday, September 09, 2006


This morning, Mike from Chicago suggested that I've underestimated the intelligence and capacity of animals in Thursday night's post.

He may have been right. We often overstate things to make our case - sometimes it's a simplifying assumption (to itemize every exception would be exhausting and counter-productive), sometimes we go too far in an effort to be "right." I hope that my overstatement was motivated by the former and not the latter.

Yes, dogs and cats have evolved a survival strategy that includes fulfilling some sort of emotional need for humans, but anybody who owns a dog or cat knows that these animals do have emotional states of their own, and experience happiness and contentment, anxiety and distress, joy and anger. I saw a documentary on PBS once where a herd of elephants approached the body of one of its fallen members, and each individual elephant approached the corpse, placed a trunk on it for a few moments, and then moved aside to allow another one the opportunity. If that's not "ritual," I don't know what is.

Wild animals especially have to constantly struggle to survive, from finding the next meal before its eaten by another to avoid being eaten itself, all while trying to find a mate and pass on its DNA for the survival of the species. One extreme view is to imagine that's all there is to life - a constant struggle to replicate itself by hunting, eating, mating and, when necessary, hiding. And according to this extreme view, we humans are no different, we just have more elaborate methods for survival that include creating societies, education and art, but when it comes down to it, it's all still about survival and mating, passing on our DNA out of whatever mad impulse it is that makes all life want to replicate itself in its own form.

Another extreme view is that all of this hustle and bustle is just to stay alive so that we can go on to achieve our higher purpose, whatever that is - spirituality, love, mindfulness or helping others. In this extreme view, some of the more successful animals - cats and dogs, elephants, the so-called "higher apes," certainly whales and dolphins - have so adequately insured their food sources, mating strategies, and protection that they can then turn what varying intelligence they have to some of the higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy.

The Buddha taught the Middle Way, and I will argue that it applies here as well. The life of animal can be nasty, brutish and short, but there can also be refuges, both in the wild and in human civilization.

But that's not to say that we have canine philosopher kings, self-actualized belugas or pachydermal Buddhas.

No, the capacity for enlightenment is strictly a human feature, but then so is suffering from the existential concerns of our minds. Our big brains got us into this mess, but the Buddha showed that our big brains also have the capability of getting us out of it as well.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Enlightenment Redux

Before going on to the Second Noble Truth and discussing the cause of suffering, we should talk about what it is that suffers. But before that, a very good question by the ever-perceptive Greensmile reminded me that there were things about enlightenment that still need to be said.

Concerning enlightenment, Greensmile asks, "It seems these realizations, presuming greatly that I understand them at all, are universally available to selfconscious beings. Have others worked their way to or stumbled upon enlightenment more of less of the flavor the Buddha tried to share?"

Not to be too picky, but I need to re-frame the question a little bit before answering. First, these realizations are not universally available to all sentient beings. Animals, at least other that h. Sapiens, simply haven't evolved enough brains to be aware of the mess that our big brains got us into in the first place. Animals, other than us, cannot realize enlightenment. At this point, many Buddhist students smugly state, "Well, I know that my cat/dog/iguana is clearly enlightened." Pets don't seem to let self-consciousness interfere with their actions - they eat when they're hungry, sleep when they're tired, and show affection without discrimination. That's like a Buddha, right?

I hate to be a killjoy, but no. Your pet's great, but it's also in a deep state of ignorance. Animal's brains simply don't have the capacity to grasp the bigger picture, and they only think along the most primal levels: "Eat. Sleep. Defecate. Fornicate. Sleep." And even though dogs display behaviors that we associate with noble emotions like loyalty, protectiveness, and affection, we're just projecting our emotional states onto pack/survival behavior. A dog is "loyal" to its master only because the master feeds it, and the dog wants the master to keep feeding it; its survival strategy, evolved at least since domestication first began, is to please and obey humans in return for food and shelter. Don't get me wrong - I love dogs (cats too), but I'm not going to confuse one with an enlightened Buddha. And if not dogs and cats, so much more reptiles, insects, invertebrates, trees and grasses.

An interesting thought though, to get us almost completely off-topic, are the problem-solving skills that were formerly thought to be solely human attributes but recently observed among certain higher primates, and certainly Koko the gorilla, who was taught to speak by sign language and communicated some evidence of abstract thought. We may have to expand our definition of "human," at least for spiritual purposes, beyond a strict biological definition based on our DNA, and regard spiritual humans as a continuum across species, including at least some members of some of the other "higher apes." I'm not a speciesist, and there have been times that I've looked into the eyes of monkeys and could swear that a person was looking back at me.

But, anyway, animals can be self-conscious, and certainly self-aware (I once heard the term "sentient" defined as "If you try to kill it and it runs away, it's sentient."), but not enlightened. Although it's not what I think Greensmile meant, I just wanted to be clear on that.

The realization of enlightenment is certainly possible for all humans. But I would not use the term "selfconscious being," since conception of a separate ego-self is one of the biggest hindrances in the way of achieving enlightenment.

Now, I often feel uncomfortable discussing enlightenment for a couple of reasons. First, saying too much about it implies that I understand it, that I've experienced it. Shunryo Suzuki hardly mentions it in what is arguably the best book on Zen in the English language, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. When asked about this, his wife chimed in impishly, "It's because he hasn't had it." But more to the point, when the laughter subsided, Suzuki said "It's not that satori (the Japanese term for nirvana) is unimportant, but it's not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed."

I don't like talking about it because it creates the concept that there's a goal out there that needs to be achieved. And striving toward that goal creates dualistic concepts, such as "There is enlightenment and non-enlightenment," and "Things would be better than their present state if only I was enlightened." The striving increases our suffering ("Not to get what one wants is suffering") not relieve it, and reinforces the delusion that our self is somehow separate from everything else ("I will become enlightened," rather than "All things are enlightened").

The Buddha was quite clear that we are all already enlightened. We just need to awaken to our own enlightenment. The Eightfold Path was his prescription for this awakening.

So, if he was able to awaken by his own, human efforts, without divine or supernatural intervention, have other people been able to do this? That is how I would like to (finally, at long last) re-frame Greensmile's question.

Sure. Of course. The Chinese patriarch Huineng (I'll get to him sooner or later in this series of postings if I stick to the syllabus in my head, although that's becoming increasingly unlikely with each successive post) became enlightened without a teacher upon hearing a monk chant a single line of the Diamond Sutra (". . . the mind that sticks to nothing . . ."). However, Huineng was unsure just what it was he had just experienced, and entered a monastery and formally worked with a teacher in order to clarify his experience.

Contemporary Zen Master John Daido Loori once said "Not only did Huineng gain realization without zazen, but so did Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and probably Walt Whitman." There are probably numerous examples of people awakening, gaining realization, becoming enlightened, or whatever you want to call it, in addition to Sakyamuni Buddha, but many probably just simply did not know what to do with their realization, or retreated from the world to, say, some mountain top, or have just been misunderstood or even persecuted before their teaching could be established. I personally have a suspicion that Jesus of Nazareth fell into the latter category.

History is full of characters who have had epiphanies of one sort or another and who then wandered off as substantially changed individuals. Some of these characters may have had the same experience as Sakyamuni. The Buddha even said that there have been many other Buddhas in the past, and that future Buddhas will appear.

What is unique about Sakyamuni is that he was successful in understanding his realization, developing a system to pass it on to others, and his realization has been transmitted from teacher to student in an unbroken lineage for over 2,500 years. John Daido Loori says, "Realization can occur in many ways. But the odds are in your favor if you engage a formal practice. Thousands of people realized themselves while practicing. Only few have done it without disciplined training. If you are looking to realize yourself, there is a process and I suggest you try it."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The First Noble Truth

"Thus I have heard: On one occasion the Blessed One was living in the Deer Park near Benares, where he addressed the group of five monks as thus:

"Monks, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. What are the two? There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable.

"Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Way; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nirvana. And what is that Middle Path realized by the Tathagata? It is the Noble Eightfold path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This is the Middle Path realized by the Tathagata which gives vision, which gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, and to Nirvana.

"The Noble Truth of Suffering, monks, is this: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering - in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.

"This is the Noble Truth of Suffering - such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before.

This suffering, as a noble truth, should be fully realized - such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before.

This suffering as a noble truth has been fully realized - such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light that arose in me concerning things not heard before."

These are the opening verses to the Dharmachakrapravartana Sutra, the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel. The five ascetics, the Buddha's old buddies from his starvation-and-mortification phase, were now monks, his first disciples, and memorized these words as he spoke them.

Which is part of the reason they now read so strange. The Sutra was passed down verbally for at least 100 years before being recorded in writing for the first time, each succeeding monk memorizing the words by chanting them along with their teacher. So the repetition, the painfully linear logic, the self-questions, were a built-in mnemonic device to assist this verbal tradition - it is highly unlikely that the Buddha actually spoke like that.

We still chant these words occasionally at the Zen Center, the roshi (head teacher) reciting from memory and the rest of us chanting along about a word behind. When a phrase like "such was the vision, the knowledge, the wisdom, the science, the light" comes up, everyone catches up, anticipating the closing "that arose in me concerning things not heard before."

The Sutra has an interesting rhythm that slowly develops after a while (only the first part is copied above). It becomes almost hypnotic after a while as the same, or rather similar, words are repeated for each of the other four Noble Truths.

And the First of the Noble Truths, as described above, is the existencee of suffering. It has been misinterpreted as "Life is suffering," but that's overstating it - I think it's fair to say that we've all had moments, at least, of non-suffering. But the First Noble Truth acknowledges that things aren't always perfect, that we don't always get what we want, and that sickness, old age and death are out there.

What a relief, as Pema Chodron notes. Somebody finally acknowledged this! It is not pessimistic or gloomy, but rather just an admission that things aren't right and that something ought to be done about this. And what ought to be done is laid out in the next three Noble Truths.

Other sutras detail more of the specifics of the First Noble Truth. The Dharmachakrapravartana Sutra spells out that "birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering - in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering." In A Buddhist Bible, Dwight Goddard offers a compendium of several sutras which define each of the terms as the Buddha meant them, such as, "What now is Birth? The birth of beings belonging to this or that order of beings, their being born, their conception and springing into existence, the manifestation of the aggregates of existence: this is called birth. "

And so on through decay, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair. "And what, in brief, are the Five Aggregates connected with cleaving?" the Buddha asks. "They are bodily form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. "

In short, the components, or aggregates, that make up what we call our "self," if we were to break them down, are as he describes: bodily form, feeling, perception, mental formation (or thought) and consciousness. We are nothing more or nothing less than the sum of these parts. When these five components come together, you have a "self." Take away any one of these five components, and that "self" is no longer whole, or at least not self-aware.

As you might imagine, the sutras go on to define and describe in more detail each of the five aggregates of form ("What is form?"), feeling, perception, formation and consciousness. This is how the teaching works. It starts with a simple statement, The First Noble Truth of Suffering, and then drills down from there, as if each word were in a kind of verbal hypertext to be mentally clicked upon, and drilled down into. So before moving on to the Second Noble Truth, each of the five aggregates can be explored a little bit deeper.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Turning the Dharma Wheel

Here comes an interesting dilemma - now that the Buddha had realized enlightenment, what should he do? (Oh, by the way, this is a continuation of a story from yesterday - the last several days, actually - not a report on recent events.) His enlightenment included the realization that all sentient beings had simultaneously achieved enlightenment with him, as there is no difference between self and others or between Buddhas and ordinary beings, and yet he also understood that not all sentient beings understood that.

To make things more difficult, what was there to say? There was nothing to teach, as his realization wasn't some sort of intellectual solving of a problem or the arrival at a certain conclusion, it was "just" an awakening. Words would only confuse the issue more. But you have to say something.

So out of his great compassion and resolve to relieve the suffering of the human race, the Buddha elected not to disappear into nirvana, never to be seen again, but to enter the world of people and words and ideas and try to share his experience, and lead others to it as well.

So he arose from under the ficus tree (or "bodhi" tree, for "wisdom") and went off at first to see his old teachers Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. Surely they would understand his realization, and he felt he owed them the favor of sharing his enlightenment. But he learned that they both had died, so he went instead to the forest to find his old friends, the five wandering ascetics.

When they saw him approaching, they first yelled at him to go away. In their minds, he had let them down by abandoning their ascetic practices and following his "Middle Way." But as he got closer, they saw a difference in him and they instinctively knew that he was on to something.

So he assembled them all together and gave his first sermon, the Dharmachakrapravartana Sutra (spell-check that!) , or The First Turning of the Dharma Wheel. The word "sutra" comes from the same root as the word "suture," and literally translated means "string." In Buddhism, it refers to a string of words that the Buddha said, usually as a sermon or a similar formal public talk, and that have been passed down through the generations, at first orally and only much later committed to writing. Sutras can be as short as a single page or multiple volumes in length (quite the memorization feat!). "Dharma" has several meanings, but here it is referring to its simplest definition, the teachings of the Buddha. So the dharma is the teaching itself, and the sutra is the form of the lesson.

But don't get too attached to words, especially slippery ones like "Buddha" and "dharma." "Dharma," for example, also means "anything you perceive to be true or real" and "all existent phenomena." To complicate things more, these are not alternate meanings, like "rock" can mean either "stone" or a type of music, but never both; "dharma" does in fact mean all three things simultaneously all the time. So when the Buddha was first turning the string of words that constituted the first sutra, the dharma being expounded was simultaneously his lesson, that which is perceived to be true and all existent phenomena, but we're getting ahead of ourselves here.

In this first sutra, the Buddha for the first time articulated the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Before getting into these, though, two points - first, the Buddha continued to preach over the next 40 years or so, quite a long career compared to most other spiritual leaders, and stayed on topic his entire life. At the end of his life, as he lay dying those many years later, out of great compassion he permitted one last visitor to ask him a question, which was basically about whether some other teacher was trustworthy or not. Buddha replied not to judge the teacher but the teaching. "Does he teach the Four Noble Truths? Does he teach the Eightfold Path?," the Buddha advised his visitor to consider, so at the very end of his life, his last lesson was basically the same as his first - the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Second point: the five ascetics became his first disciples and were the first to hear the dharma, but were not the first to experience enlightenment based on following the Buddha's teaching. The first passing on of actual enlightenment, the first mind-to-mind transmission of the Buddha's realization, was to his later disciple Mahakashapa, and occurred when the Buddha was on Mount Grdhrakuta (Vulture Peak). The Buddha turned a flower in his fingers and held it up before the assembled listeners. Everyone was silent, but only Mahakashapa understood, and smiled in recognition of this revelation. As described in the Chinese collection of stories, The Gateless Gate, the Buddha said: "I have the eye of the true teaching, the heart of nirvana, the true aspect of non-form and the ineffable stride of Dharma. It is not expressed by words, but especially transmitted beyond teaching. This teaching I have given to Mahakashapa."

This first transmission of enlightenment underscores that the teaching, the true dharma, transcends the words - a special teaching outside the sutras. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, then, merely describe a process, a path if you will, to help the follower get to the point of this special transmission, but are not the "thing" itself. The dharma is the teaching, which transcends all words; the sutra is the form of the lesson, the words that should never be confused with the teaching itself.

Next: The First Noble Truth.

Monday, September 04, 2006


Oh, dear - I can see that this mapping and story-telling is going to take a lot longer than I had anticipated. It's already been almost a week, and I'm not even half-way through the story of the Buddha's life. I expected to be past the bio by the fourth entry (my plan was after an initial introductory post, to warn against attachment to the teacher by the second and then to cover the whole story of the Buddha's life and enlightenment in a single post; now here it is the third of the biographical postings, and we haven't even gotten to his enlightenment yet).

Anyway, the story so far is summarized by the little triptych I've assembled above - after observing human suffering in the form of poverty, sickness, old age and death, and seeing wandering monastics struggling to find a meaning to life (first pic), he decides to leave home and ritually cuts his hair to become an ascetic himself (pic two), almost dying on the process before he is saved and renourished by a passing goat-herder's daughter (third pic). See how quickly I can move through the story with a little motivation and visual assistance?

Anyway, having now rejected the comfortable and luxurious life of a prince, and the other extreme of asceticism and its austere practices, Siddhartha Gautama decided that there had to be a Middle Way between these two extremes. Neither extreme had given him any insight on the cause of the human suffering which had affected him so greatly, not to mention how that suffering could be ended.

By the way, the five mendicants, his ascetic buddies from his former practice, were so disappointed by his actions, taking food and so on, that they rejected him and resolved never to speak to him again; they kicked him out, as it were, of their little circle of friends.

Regardless, once his health was renourished, he continued in his practice alone, and one day he sat down under a ficus tree and resolved to sit in meditation until he had an answer. To our contemporary minds, used to our comforts and luxuries, extended sitting may sound like an austerity, but after what he had been through, this appeared to Siddhartha to be the Middle Way.

Can you imagine the state of mind he must have been in? He had left home and gave up everything he had - his royalty, his wife and his son, and taken on a life of extreme hardship only to discover that there was no answer there either. Unlike those of us who might resolve to sit for an hour a day, or even for a week of 14-hour periods, I believe he was ready to die under that tree if no answer presented itself to him first. Total commitment. No turning back.

And this, of course, is the pivotal point of the whole story, and one of the single most important moment in all of Buddhism (second only, of course, to your enlightenment). Stories and legends vary on how long he sat there, and exactly what happened. All I can say is - I don't know.

The hardest three words to say, sometimes. I wasn't there, and even if I was, I wasn't inside of his head. And I have not had the same experience of total and supreme enlightenment (annutara samyak sambodhi). The best that I can do is repeat the tales and complete the story in roughly the manner that it has been passed down, along with all its allegories and legend.

As Siddhartha went deeper and deeper into meditation, and gained increasing clarity of mind, suffering appeared to him to be a fundamental human condition, caused by our cravings, desires and attachments. It was also apparent to him that by ending these cravings, desires and attachments, we could also end our suffering. Of course, the issue was how do we end the cravings, etc. and break free from suffering?

And, the story goes, as he progressed further down this meditative path, his own ego-self appeared before him. First, it manifested itself as seductive singing maidens (think "the Sirens" from the Odyssey), luring him from his meditation back into the world of longing and desire. When that was not successful, his ego then refigured itself into the form of the god Mara - a fierce and fearsome figure, commanding him to stop this practice immediately upon threat of death. Mara raged and snorted fire and summoned up huge armies, and demanded that Siddhartha was not worthy of enlightenment and that he, Mara, should rightfully have that experience.

But Siddhartha refused to be distracted. Touching the earth with a single finger to reaffirm his connection with the here and now, he saw the vision even of Mara melt away, and by dawn, when the morning star rose over the horizon, Siddhartha Gautama had the direct realization of enlightenment. This was not an intellectual achievement - it would be a gross understatement to say "he figured it out," but a direct, intuitive, experiential awakening. We don't "figure out" how to awake from a dream, we just awaken, and similarly, the Buddha did not "figure out" enlightenment - it came to him, not he to it.

"How marvelous," he later said he thought at that moment. "I and all sentient creatures have come to enlightenment together." For in his mind, there was no separation between himself and all others - not only humans but all sentient beings, even the minds of trees and grasses. If he had thought for a nanosecond, "I have become enlightened," that conceptualization of "I" would have separated him from all other beings, and he would not have achieved enlightenment as surely as if here were to have stepped aside for his Mara (ego-self) manifestation.

In his mind, the whole universe had achieved enlightenment, not only in the present moment, but in the past and the future as well. In his mind, you had awakened, I had awakened, we all had awakened - there was no difference. Of course, it may not feel this way to us - I certainly don't think of myself as a fully enlightened Buddha - but that is what Sakyamuni Buddha taught.

And it is that disconnect between this teaching and our own experience that gives rise to the Great Doubt that arises and is cultivated in Zen practice.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Buddha - Short, Fat Guy?

After his great renunciation, Siddhartha placed himself under the spiritual guidance of various renowned Brahman teachers. Karen Armstrong provides an excellent account of his experiences under these teachers, and explains the teachings within the philosophical and religious context of their times, in her biography Buddha. Most of the following account is from P. Lakshmi Narasu’s shorter version from The Essence of Buddhism (1912), which became the first chapter of Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible (1938).

Siddhartha’s first teacher, Arada Kalama, lived in Vaisali and was the head of a large number of followers. He was evidently a follower of the Sankhya system of philosophy, and laid great stress in the belief in the atman, or soul. Without the belief in an eternal and immaterial soul, he could not see any way of salvation. The soul, it was believed, when freed from its material limitations, would attain perfect release, like a wild bird when liberated from its cage. When the ego-self finally realized its own immaterial nature, it would attain true deliverance.

Although it was not taught by Arada Kalama, this belief system had also given rise to the asceticism being practiced at the time by forest monks and wandering mendicants. To liberate the soul, one had to weaken its cage, the body, with the idea that the weaker the physical body became, the more the soul would shine through. So the ascetics would starve themselves, eating only one sesame seed a day, or spend hours in freezing cold rivers, believing that through these forms of self-mortification eventually all sense of “self” would drop away, the spirit would become stronger and liberation and release could be achieved.

Siddhartha was apparently both a difficult and a gifted pupil. He always refused to take anything on trust, and later, when he had his own sangha, he insistently warned his disciples not to take anything on hearsay. They must not swallow everything that their teacher told them uncritically, but test the teaching at every point, making sure that it resonated with their own experience. Even at this early stage in his quest, he refused to accept Arada Kalama’s teaching as a matter of faith. He went to his master and asked him how he had managed to “realize” these doctrines - surely he had not simply taken somebody else’s word for all this?

Although he had risen to become one of Arada Kalama’s leading disciples, the teachings did not ultimately satisfy Siddhartha, and he quit his teacher and placed himself under the tutelage of Udraka Ramaputra. Udraka also believed in the atman, but laid greater stress on the effects of karma and the transmigration of souls. Siddhartha saw the truth in the doctrine of karma, but could see no evidence for the existence of a soul or its transmigration.

He therefore quit Udraka too, and went to the Brahmin priests officiating in temples to see if he could learn from them the way of escape from suffering and sorrow. But to his gentle nature, the unnecessarily cruel sacrifices performed on the altars of the gods were revolting, and he preached to the priests on the futility of atoning for evil deeds by the destruction of life and the impossibility of practicing religion by the neglect of the moral life.

Wandering from Vaisali in search of a better system, Siddhartha came upon a group of five wandering mendicants near the kingdom of Magadha. He saw these five ascetics keeping their senses in check, subduing their passions and practicing austere penance. He admired their zeal and earnestness, and he applied himself to their practice of self-mortification and joined forces with them.

During this period, he went either naked or clad in the roughest hemp. He slept out in the open during the freezing winter nights, lay on a mattress of spikes and even fed on his own urine and feces. He held his breath for so long that his head seemed to split and there was a fearful roaring in his ears. He stopped eating and his bones stuck out like the beams of an old shed. When he touched his stomach, he could almost feel his spine. His hair fell out and his skin became black and withered.

One day after bathing in the river Nairanjana, he tried to leave the water but could not rise on account of his weakness. However, with the aid of a stooping branch of a tree he raised himself and left the river. But while returning to his camp, he again staggered and fell to the ground, and might perhaps have died, had not Sujata, the eldest daughter of a herdsman living near the jungle, who accidentally passed the spot where he had swooned, given him some rice-milk.

Having thus refreshed himself, he perceived that asceticism, instead of leading to the goal he had sought, brought about only an enfeeblement of both body and mind. However severe his austerities, perhaps even because of them, his body still clamored for attention, and he was still plagued by lust and craving. In fact, he seemed more conscious of himself than ever.

So, if the Buddha had almost starved himself into oblivion, then who is that fat guy we keep seeing in cartoons and statues at Chinese restaurants? Did he start binging after renouncing asceticism?

No, the fat guy is not the Buddha at all - it’s only Western ignorance that confuses Sakyamuni Buddha with the figure of Hotei. Fat old Hotei, better known in the English-speaking world as the Laughing Buddha, was called Bu-Dai (sounds a little like “Buddha”) in China, and dubbed the Loving or Friendly One. Based on a well-loved and eccentric Chinese monk, he has become incorporated into Asian culture, and Hotei statues and amulets have become relatively well-known in Western cultures as well. According to Wikipedia, misconceptions have arisen because of this new enthusiasm, including the false connection made between the Laughing Buddha and Sakyamuni Buddha.

Okay, good. Glad to get that out of the way.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Time for a quick break from the story and my map of the territory so that I could introduce you to the people above. Jacob, over on the right, is a friend of mine from the Zen Center, and invited me to meet a friend of his, Gojun, on the left, a young Tendai priest visiting from Kyushu (his family's temple is 1,300 years old). Gojun is with the Tendai Overseas Charitable Foundation (Jigyodan) and is currently assisting at the Tendai Buddhist Institute in the Catskill Mountains of New York, near Albany. He was passing through Atlanta on his way to New York to visit our mutual friend, who was kind enough to invite me to lunch with them today. The young ladies are also from Japan and are visiting the States for the first time.

Lunch was at the Vortex, a colorful restaurant in colorful Little Five Points. The girls took pictures of their meals when it was brought to them, and the waiter overheard us talking about Bodhidharma and was excited to let us know that he knew who Bodhidharma was, too.

We walked around Little Five Points after the meal, the girls shopping and the guys talking and watching the passers-by. A pleasant enough day. Jacob took the entourage to Stone Mountain for the afternoon, but I passed (it's on the other side of town, and I had other things that needed to be done).

So we'll pick up the story of the Buddha tomorrow, and the more clever of the readers will have already realized that this entry of today, although not part of the story, is just as much a part of the map of the territory as the posts of yesterday and tomorrow.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Young Buddha

So on with the story. The first lesson usually given to newcomers, after they’ve been warned not to become too attached to the Buddha as a figurehead, is the story of the historical Buddha.

This story has been told many, many times and in many formats. Karen Armstrong does an excellent job in her biography, Buddha. Herman Hesse took it on in the book Siddhartha. In the movie Little Buddha, Bertolucci directs Keanu Reeves as the young Gautama. The story has been co-opted as a Christian tale, and even the Vatican now admits that Saint Jehosephat was actually the Buddha.

Many historical accounts of the life of Buddha are crowded with legendary and mythical material. In 1912, P. Lakshmi Narasu wrote The Essence of Buddhism, and the first chapter of his book became the first chapter of Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible. I never really cared much for the title of the 1938 book, in that it carried the connotation of being a “gospel,” but it was a very useful and very early translation into English of several important texts, and is also one of the first “serious” books on Buddhism that I read, after I outgrew Jack Kerouac and Alan Watts.

“Stripped of mythical embellishments,” Narasu wrote, “the principal events in the life of Gautama Buddha are easily told. He was born about the middle of the sixth century before the Christian era (563 B.C.) in Lumbini Park in the neighborhood of Kapilavastu,” which is in what is now Nepal. Armstrong notes that recent scholarship indicates he might have been born as late as 479 B.C. Interestingly, 479 BC was the year Confucius died in China; it was also the height of the Greek civilization (Socrates, Pythagoras and Sophocles all lived during this time). The more-or-less simultaneous existence of figures like the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates have led some to call this period the “Axial Age,” but there’s no need to concern ourselves with this apparent synchronicity at this time.

“At Kapilavastu,” Narasu continues, “resided the chiefs of the Sakya clan, of whom little would be remembered had not Siddartha been born among them. Gautama’s father, Suddhodana, and his mother, Maya, the daughter of Suprabuddha, belonged to this clan.” As if the names “Siddhartha” and “Gautama,” weren’t enough to identify the historical Buddha, he has also been called “Sakyamuni,” or “Sage of the Sakyas,” an honorific title. And after his enlightenment, he referred to himself as “the Tathagatha” (the “thus come one”). So, from here on, any mention of Siddhartha, Gautama, Sakyamuni or the Tathagatha, or any derivation of those names (such as “Siddartha” and “Gotama”), all refer to the man known to the world as “the Buddha.”

“The mother of Siddartha died seven days after his birth. Under the kind care of his maternal aunt, Prajapati Gautami, Siddartha spent his early years in ease, luxury and culture. No pains were spared to make the course of his life smooth. At the age of sixteen, he was married to his cousin, Yasodhara, the daughter of the chief of Koli, and they had a son named Rahula.”

The name “Rahula,” Armstrong notes, has traditionally been understood to mean “fetter,” although some modern scholarship has questioned this derivation. Young prince Siddhartha apparently felt no pleasure when the child was born. The baby, he believed, would shackle him to a way of life that had become abhorrent, although all his life Siddhartha saw only the pleasant and the beautiful.

“About this time,” Narasu writes, “the sorrows and sufferings of mankind affected him deeply, and made him reflect on the problem of life. Impelled by a strong desire to find the origin of suffering and sorrow and the means of extirpating them, be renounced at the age of twenty-nine all family ties and retired to the forest, as was the wont in his day.”

Right from the start, Siddhartha took it for granted that family life was incompatible with the highest forms of spirituality. It was a perception shared not only by the forest monks and other ascetics of India, but also by Jesus, who would later tell potential disciples that they must leave their wives and children and abandon aged relatives if they wanted to follow him (Luke 9:57-62; 14:25-27; 18:28-30).

Siddhartha would not, Armstrong notes, have agreed with our current cult of family values; by one definition, you could have called him a “Dead-Beat Dad.” But before you get too harsh in your judgment, consider the dual facts that he was a Prince and left his wife and son to the generous care of the kingdom, and that he was not leaving for a more pleasurable life elsewhere, but rather a life of hardship and intense spiritual struggle that ultimately almost killed him.