Tuesday, May 17, 2011

3 Birthdays & a Farewell

There are three announcements on Buddha Space today of varying import, depending on your perspective. Firstly, it’s Buddha Day, or Wesak, Visakha Puja, etc. Secondly, it’s my birthday, and thirdly, it’s the birthday and 'death-day' of Buddha Space. So, it’s “Happy Buddha Day” to all Buddhists the world over. However you celebrate this momentous occasion (or however you don’t), I hope you have a peaceful and happy time of it. The world needs as much peace & happiness as it can get.   
This year, the full moon falls on the 17th May, so it’s Visakha Puja, which also happens to be my birthday, the coincidence of which I was told was very auspicious by one Buddhist monk, and met with silence from another: forest monks don’t let things go to your head! This coincidence seems a good motivation to review my Buddhist practice in relation to the Buddha’s teachings on being a good layman. Which leads me to the third of today’s announcements.    
It’s three Buddha Days ago that this blog was launched, and although its original aims were pretty high – “a space for exploring modern Buddhism” and “to examine the nature of the Buddha, of space, and of awareness itself via experience, as opposed to academic or philosophical means ” – it’s done OK…hasn’t it? Anyway, it's time for a break from such efforts so that personal practice and other projects can be focused on instead, so there won't be any new articles on the blog for the foreseeable future, although readers' comments will be responded to. All the input to the blog from readers in the shape of comments and emails is much appreciated, and I wish you all well in your efforts, whether you call yourselves ‘Buddhists’ or not. If I have anything to write as a final remark, it's to take a look at who's here once in a while, and to have compassion and kindness for the suffering beings that you encounter...including your 'self'!
Anyway, thank you again for your inspiration and encouragement over the last three years.
May all beings be happy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Reflections on Bankei's 'Song of the Mind' Verses 45-46

“The Pure Land
Where one communes at peace
Is here and now, it’s not remote
Millions and millions of leagues away

When someone tosses you a tea bowl
-     Catch it!
Catch it nimbly with soft cotton
With the cotton of your skilful mind!”

Master Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) has given us a wonderful gift in the form of his teachings. And, as the Buddha taught, the greatest of gifts is the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), so thank you, Bankei! I write this now, because we have come to the last two verses in his superb poem ‘Song of the Mind.’ Throughout these reflections, it has become apparent that there are two themes that run through the whole thing, and that they are crucial to its true appreciation; but more of that after we’ve taken a look at the two verses above. As ever with these reflections, the accompanying exercise is included to help open the ‘Dharma Eye’ that both the Buddha and Bankei want us to see with, so please take a few minutes to try it out. Read on!

“The Pure Land
Where one communes at peace”

The most popular form of Buddhism in the Far East is not Zen, which is the most well known in the West, but Pure Land Buddhism. Where the former is austere and most difficult to understand, Pure Land Buddhism is a religion of the masses, based on faith rather than knowledge. Pure Land devotees put their faith in Amida Butsu (Amitbha Buddha – ‘the Awakened One of Infinite Light’), who has taken a vow to accept all his followers into his heavenly paradise – the Pure Land – where they can achieve liberation under his compassionate guidance.

The common ways to worship Amida are through rituals and ceremonies and the nembutsu (‘remembrance of the Buddha’) where the devotee chants ‘Namu Amida Butsu’ (‘Homage to Amitabha Buddha’). Different sects of Pure land Buddhism advise their practitioners in various ways of doing this, some recommending several thousand recitations per day, and others stating that just one heartfelt utterance of the nembutsu is enough to be reborn in the Pure land. Once there, it is agreed that Amida’s infinite light will shine peaceful wisdom on his devotees, each of whom will be sat atop a giant lotus flower, meditating their way to enlightenment.

“Is here and now, it’s not remote
Millions and millions of leagues away”

As ever, we can expect Bankei to cut through any cosy beliefs and bring our attention right back to the here and now, rather than adrift in some never-never land. As with some other notable Zen adherents, such as the 20th Century’s D. T. Suzuki, Bankei tells us that the Pure Land is actually in our present location, not in some ethereal realm, and it is in this present moment, not in some future time. To be fair, according to Suzuki, some Pure Landers of the Shin sect have taught as much, including the poet Saichi who declared, “Shining in glory is Buddha’s Pure land,/ And this is my Pure land!/ Namu Amid Butsu! Namu Amidsa Butsu!” In such a practice as Saichi’s, the recitation has become his rebirth in the Pure Land, and the chirping bird produces heavenly music, the shining sun produces heavenly light, and the squatting dog produces heavenly cra – well, you get the idea!

“When someone tosses you a tea bowl
Catch it!”
Sound advice, O Master, for if one does not catch the tea bowl, it will smash into myriad pieces, and Polly will have to put the kettle on again! Zen masters used to do some crazy things, including throwing objects at their devoted followers. (Maybe they still do – let me know if you have some information on this.) But, it’s pretty safe to presume that Bankei is not being literal here; he isn’t about to toss us a piece of valuable Japanese ceramic, but instead is using the image of a tea bowl to represent something else even more delicious – the Dharma. And that’s saying something, coming from an Englishman!
“Catch it nimbly with soft cotton
With the cotton of your skilful mind!”

If he was pitching us a tea bowl, soft cotton might just enable us to catch it without any damage, but Bankei makes it clear exactly what we should to catch his teachings: the mind. Nevertheless, there’s more to this cotton analogy, because the mind too must be nice and soft to “catch” the Dharma, for if it’s too hard it will reject it without due consideration, or else take it literally or logically and not really understand it. Bankei is telling us to be reflective and wise when considering the Dharma, and if we do so, we will surely see the Pure Land sparkling all around us, even when we step in the stuff that the dog was so busy producing earlier! Seriously, let’s try an exercise that might help us to have at least a glimpse of Amida’s Pure Land. Are you ready?

Take a look at the room you’re in, or better still at the world outside your window. Observe the different objects and any people or animals present, noticing their shapes and colours and your mind’s reactions to them. Perhaps some of them inspire pleasant reactions in your mind, others unpleasant, while some evoke a neutral response. The world is imperfect, isn’t it? Some stuff is nice, some not so nice, and some just plain boring. But, wait. There’s more (or less!) to the world than this. Look at something (or someone) you like. Where is the emotion of liking in that person? Can you see it in them? Sure, there are qualities about their appearance that you like, but that’s your reaction to what you see. Your liking of them is in you, not them. Now look at something (or someone) that you don’t like. Again, where is the disliking? Is it in their appearance or in your reaction to them? In truth, the world is the way it is, however we respond to it. It is just so, it is already ‘the Pure Land.’ We just can’t see it properly because of the mind’s reaction to things. If we can just look at things in and of themselves, without judging them, they are the only way they could be, dependent upon causes and ‘just so.’ Accepting the way the world is opens us up to experiencing it as the Pure Land – we just have to look with a non-discriminative mind. Difficult? Keep looking!

It’ fitting that this is the last of the reflections on Bankei’s ‘Song of the Mind,’ because the final verses sum up the whole poem really well. (Well, I guess Bankei knew what he was doing!) Put very simply, he’s saying a) This is the Pure Land, and b) Look clearly. I’ll add a third point for us dumbos that are just a little slower than he: c) Enlightenment! Whether we use the exercises promoted on ‘Buddha Space,’ or zazen, or the nembutsu, or some other technique to open up to the way-things-are (the Dharma), it’s okay. The main point is to see beyond these limited and limiting egos that we take ourselves to be and see the bigger picture. It’s been a pleasure sharing these reflections with you: bon voyage on the Path!

Please click the following link to visit the homepage of  'Buddha Space,' where this article originated: http://buddhaspace.blogspot.com/

Monday, May 2, 2011

Buddha & Eckhart: On Nothingness

Japanese philosopher Ueda Shizeru
"According to Meister Eckhart, God gives birth to his Son in the solitary soul. 'The Father begets me as his Son, as his very same Son. Whatever God works is one. Thus he begets me as his Son without any distinction.' The 'birth of God in the soul,' spoken of here in the language of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, is the leap to realization of his own authentic life that man experiences in 'solitariness' with the surrender of the ego."
(The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School, edited by Frederick Frank., p.157)

The above quotation, along with the others in this article, are taken from the essay '"Nothingness" in Meister Eckhart and Zen Buddhism' by Ueda Shizuteru, a member of the Kyoto School of Buddhist philosophy and professor emeritus of the Department of Religion in Kyoto University. As with other Buddhist scholars, including the famous D. T. Suzuki, Ueda had a intense interest in the writings of Meister Eckhart, the Medieval Dominican priest. Not surprising, really, when we examine some of the parallels between Eckhart and the teachings of the Buddha. Take the above quote, for example. Ueda extracts the essential similarity between Buddhism and Eckhartian theology; both involve the giving up of the sense of being a separate self or ego, which dies into the greater reality which the Buddha named Nirvana and Eckhart called God. It is worth noting that in the above words Eckhart apparently equates the awakened 'soul' (or 'mind') with that of Christ, when he emphasizes that the Son begat in him is "his very same Son."

"'The Father begets me as his Son without any distinction.' This means that the absolute event of salvation touches each and every individual in its full originality, without first passing through a mediator. This being the case, Eckhart stands very close to Mahayana Buddhism, the philosophical-religious base of Zen Buddhism. According to Mahayana teaching, the very same awakening to the very same truth transforms each and every individual into the very same Buddha - that is, it makes each individual the same 'Awakened One' that it made of the historical Buddha, Gautama."
(Ibid. pp.157-158)

Ueda's excellent insight that Eckhart's view (or experience) of the Son is "without any distinction" parallels the Mahayana Buddhist belief that every 'Awakened One' is the Buddha is well worth reflecting upon. For, whereas in conventional Christian thought, Jesus is God's only begotten Son, and we are separate from Christ and God, even at the deepest level of being, Eckhart insists that if we practice correctly, we can merge into God, and are his Son just as Jesus was/is. The implications of this conclusion are most dramatic when we consider how it would affect one's relationship with the local cleric or preacher, unless a dignified silence was maintained. Imagine declaring to a Christian congregation, "I am the Son - and so are you!" This identification with being God's Son is mirrored in the Zen experience of being Buddha, that is to say, discovering that the essence of being is Buddha. (It's certainly not the case that one's ego is the Son or the Buddha, but that which lies beyond the sense of being an individual entity.

In essence, this realization that we are all Buddha is the case with Theravada Buddhism also, as the Buddha is considered the first Arahant (in this age), and that everyone that achieves full awakening is also an arahant. ('Arahant' is a term that denotes an enlightened person in the Theravada tradition, and is the ideal in that form of Buddhism. It is superseded by the notion of the Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, but that's a discussion for another time…maybe!) In Theravada Buddhism, the title 'Buddha' is reserved for the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and his predecessors that all discovered the Buddhist truths independently and then established Buddhism in eras when it had disappeared. Despite these sectarian differences in semantics, in the light of the central truth of enlightenment or salvation as understood by the Buddha and Eckhart, we can say that Arahant, Buddha, and Son are all descriptions of those who have been 'saved' from life's sufferings.

"So far the similarity is only of a general nature. A more deep-reaching spiritual kinship appears when Eckhart speaks of a 'breakthrough to the nothingness of the godhead.' 'The soul is not content with being a Son of God.' 'The soul wants to penetrate to the simple ground of God, to the silent desert where not a trace of distinction is to be seen, neither Father nor Son nor Holy Spirit.' By carrying out in radical fashion his Neoplatonically laden understanding of 'being one,' Eckhart transfers the essence or ground of God back beyond the divine God to the simple modeless, formless, unthinkable, and unspeakable purity that he calls, in distinction to God, 'godhead,' and that he describes as a nothingness."
(Ibid. p.158)

This "simple, modeless, formless, unthinkable, and unspeakable purity" that Eckhart calls "godhead" comes very close to the Buddha's description of nirvana as "the Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated and and Unformed" (From Udana VIII.3 in the Tipitaka) If the godless is formless, then its not the gendered god envisaged by most Christians, sat atop a throne with a long beard and flowing robes. This "silent desert" without "a trace of distinction" is not, as Eckhart clearly states, the Holy Trinity nor any one of its Persons, but is "a nothingness." As with Buddhist explanations of nirvana, the idea of nothingness can be easily misunderstood. As the forest monk Ajahn Sumedho has suggested, by writing the word as "no-thingness" we emphasize that it is not a thing, rather than point to nothing. In a similar effort, the term "No-thing" has often been used in the pages of 'Buddha Space,' under the influence of the British philosopher Douglas Harding. (Links to the Forest Sangha, of which Ajahn Sumedho is a senior member, and the Headless Way website, which based on Harding's teachings, can be found to the right of this webpage.) Ueda has further insights into Eckhart's concept of nothingness that may interest us:

"For Eckhart, the nothingness of the godhead is, in a non-objective manner, the soul's very own ground. Hence the soul, in order to return to its original ground, must break through God and out into the nothingness of the godhead. In so doing the soul must 'take leave of God' and 'become void of God.' This is accomplished only if the soul lets go of itself as what has been united with God. This what Eckhart understands by extreme 'solitariness,' the 'fundamental death.'"
(Ibid. p.158)

For the Christian word 'soul' Buddhists (and nonreligious types) can substitute the term 'mind.' Doing so, we can better relate to Eckhart's assertion that "the nothingness of the godhead is…the soul's very ground." In other words, these minds and bodies which are created things in a world of things are not self; indeed, there is no such individual, separate self. At heart, the "original ground" of our being, is this nothingness that is "void of God." Reading Eckhart's words carefully, it would seem that to achieve this realization, we need to practice meditation or silent prayer, and allow the soul (or mind) to let go of its self-identification which has surrendered to the idea of God (or Buddha) and rest in the godhead that is nothingness. This is because self is an entity, God is an entity, Buddha is an entity, and no-thingness is beyond all entities or things. Put another way, in Eckhart's view, surrendering to God is an important stage to full salvation (or enlightenment), but to achieve the latter we must let go of everything, dying as a separate self into the nothingness of what he calls the godhead.

"In Eckhart's thought it is the category of 'substance' that is,in the last analysis, definitive. But concomitant with this arrival at, and insistence on, the imageless and formless nature of substance pure and simple, Eckhart advances a radical de-imaging of the soul which is consummated in and as a ceaseless 'letting go.' This 'letting go' accords his teaching its extremely dynamic quality, corresponding to the dynamic of the Zen coincidence of negation and affirmation - except that in Zen, where we see a radical execution of the Mahayana Buddhist thinking on relatedness, the scope of coincidence is wider than it is in Eckhart."
(Ibid. p.160)

Ueda's philosophical language can be somewhat baffling at first - at least to this mind, it can - and so we need to decipher it to appreciate it basic meaning. By "substance," Ueda refers to that same nothingness that we have been discussing, and which is also known as 'the ground of being' elsewhere. By "a ceaseless 'letting go,'" Eckhart and Ueda refer to the process of realizing the truth of not-self. We can observe the world, the body, and even the mind (or 'soul') and see that none of them constitute a self, and in this realization we get to the heart of the religious life as envisaged by both the Buddha and Meister Eckhart. This "de-imaging" is the act of letting go with mindfulness, as in meditation and deep prayer. By the "coincidence of negation and affirmation," Ueda alludes to the Zen tradition of the koan that leads to an alogical experience of life, where we hear 'the sound of one hand clapping' and where opposites merge into a single, interrelated and interdependent understanding of existence. Ueda, as an advocate of Zen Buddhism proposes that it has a broader significance than Eckhart's theology of nothingness, which is an issue that the current author is unqualified to comment on.

In this article, along with several others (which can be linked to by clicking on 'Buddha & Eckhart' in the Buddha Space Reflection Series on the right of this webpage), the striking similarities between some of the Buddha's teachings and those of Meister Eckhart have been shown to be well worth reflecting upon for the open-minded Buddhist - not to mention the open-minded Christian! Whether or not you agree with the claims of Eckhart or this blog author, it is hoped that the material printed here has been interesting to you and has perhaps touched your beliefs or practices, or both. Reaching out to other traditions than our own can be of much benefit if done with kindness and consideration. It is not the claim of this author or others such as Ueda Shizuteru featured herein that the Buddha and Meister Eckhart experienced and taught exactly the same (No-)thing. There are notable coincidences within their respective teachings however, that glisten with the merest of polishings, and it is in this spirit that the Buddha & Eckhart Reflections have been offered. May all beings be happy!

Please click on the following link to go to 'Buddha Space,' the origin of this article: http://buddhaspace.blogspot.com/