Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Wrong Side of History

          One of the more interesting things about history is that it seems to be changing all the time. I live in the United States a country which seems to have become in the last 20 years  extraordinarily polarized.  One of the more irritating facets of American society is that we let individuals and newsroom reporters and so called think tanks tell us who and what we are and what we are supposed to think. They are constantly applying labels to everyone and everything.  Probably the two most irritating labels that I’ve run across of late are the terms conservative and liberal.   The primary quality that’s assigned to the term conservative seems to be a strong fear of and resistance to change.  The primary quality assigned to being liberal is to encourage change, usually concerning social and political behavior.
                 One of the more fascinating qualities that distinguishes Buddhism from the three other major religions on the planet right now is each groups attitude toward change. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all seem to have at their core a basic quality that seems to align them with the term or a label we call conservative. That is to say they seem to be extremely fearful of and resistant to change. Buddhism on the other hand has at its core the teaching that change is the very nature of reality.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons that modern Buddhist are more often than not considered liberals while members of the other three religions seem to be conservative at their core and only liberal around the edges.

            I am I think a member of a class of people in the west  and especially in the United States,  that usually makes up the core of the conservative groupings, both politically and religiously. That is to say I am male, white, moderately educated, and pretty much in the middle of the middle class economically .  Change very often means for my group a lessening of respect, a lessening of power both socially and politically as well as a deepening anxiety that this lessening will increase in crescendo to an all-out collapse of our privileged  status in society. Whether this is true or not is really irrelevant because it’s what is perceived to be true by most of the members of my group. And one of the things I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t really matter if it’s actually happening or not. The fear that this is what’s going on is more than sufficient to drive members of my class to become more and more afraid of change and of the future, and of other people.

            A short synopsis of recent history in the west I think can be illustrated here to explain this fear. For several hundred years members of my cast group told themselves and everyone else that God had appointed certain people to be our rulers, these people usually looked and acted just like me. Many people in my group historically made their living’s by exploiting other people. While this is not true of our group as a whole there certainly were sufficient numbers of people who believe this way to create thousands of years of misery and Empire going from Genghis Khan to the British Empire.  My groups belief in their own natural superiority allowed them to own slaves, have children work in their coal mines in their factories for 12 to 18 hours a day, and conquer and destroy  the cultures of just about everybody in the world who wasn’t white.  In almost every society regardless oof race or religion for thousands of years males have dominated females in just about every way imaginable. The conservative white male opposed women’s suffrage and still to this day many oppose women receiving equal pay for equal work. Hell we even told people, and ourselves  that animals couldn’t feel pain so when we worked them to death we wouldn't feel guilty about it. I am not joking about this I’ve actually read historical papers were so-called scientists argued that animals couldn’t feel pain or suffer like humans do. To me that’s just mind-boggling.

            The United States of America was started by some people that believed that the citizens of a nation should have control over how that nation was run. I think people forget that good old King George believed in the divine right of kings. This was an unheard of idea, at least for the last thousand years.  America has a lot of guilt on its doorstep, hundreds of thousands of Americans killed each other because about half of us wanted to own slaves. The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the right for corporations to have 10 and 12-year-old children work themselves to death in their factories and actually saying that this was good for their character. We  all but wiped out the native Americans that were here before we were. The men that started our country were of course both practical and more than a little bit hypocritical.  They wrote wonderful poetry about the quality of man while upholding slavery and basically consigning women to the status of property. But that in no way changes what a great and wonderful idea America was and is. Politician's like Donald Trump harken back to the days when people like him were the undisputed ruling  class of every one else here. This he says will make America "Great Again". He is unable to see that America is now greater than it has ever been, closer to the dream that it was founded upon than it has ever been.

            Right about now most of the members of my class are calling me a traitor and saying that I hate my nation, that I am un-American to my core. That I don’t love my country because I’m willing to admit that in the past my country did things that I don’t think were very nice. This is an outrageous argument and untrue. America started as an experiment in equality and liberty and that experiment is still ongoing. It is a dream that has just begun to unfold.  We Americans are a very young group of people as a nation. For that matter nationalism itself is a fairly new concept on the stage of history. There is no way to go back and undo what’s been done, and certainly when  at some point there has to  come an end to dwelling over it birth pangs. I really don’t think that if women get equal pay I’m going to be somehow made to suffer for it.  I don’t think that if people of different colors and races and religions all have an equal say in how our government is run.that I have any great thing to fear from that.  Of course when you look back on history and you see what my  own group has done to the other folks in the world you certainly do have a valid reason to fear that they might do the same thing to you that was done to them, even expect it to be so. . But the  goal here, the hope and the dream is progress not history repeating itself, a nightmare with each group taking it's turn to exploit the other. The simple fact is all those issues that arose leading to a Civil War in the United States are still playing themselves out,  not only in our country but all over the world. 
            All of the economic and social class issues that led to the French Revolution, the Marxist revolution in Russia and class war across the world are  still playing themselves out on the world stage.  The opposing  ideas of a theocracy verse a secular government are still killing thousands. The amazing  thing is that almost everyone in the United States at least really believes in that wonderful poetry that the founding fathers wrote about liberty and equality.  But  all of them have their own blind spots, areas in which they just can’t see what the real problem is. That applies to both conservatives and liberals and to Christians, Muslims, and Jewish people. There is this horrible mental and emotional disease that humans have that tells them that if everyone doesn’t act look and behave the way they do they are under threat and that fear blinds us.

            There has been more change in the world in the last hundred years then there was in the last 10,000 years of human history.  Scientists tell us that as the environment changes those species that learned to change with the environment and to adapt to it survive and those that don’t become extinct. It’s really fascinating and horrifying to see  an entire race of people almost 7,000,000,000 strong constantly at war with each other when at their core they all want the same thing or at least  the same thing for themselves,  if not for those others they perceive as "different". I have no answer to this nor do I have any explanation for it. But I do believe it is a fact. It is this fact that may well kill us all.

            But I do have an opinion, just as I’m sure you do. My opinion is that any religion or society or  a nation that isn’t willing to accept and adapt to change is going to go extinct and perhaps take everyone else on the planet with it. Of all the religions on earth the only one that I know of that embraces change is Buddhism. I think we all accept that the thing that we call Buddhism is going to change that this change is inevitable. The other religions must adapt to change or parish.  But if I were to pick a survivor, that is to say pick out which set of beliefs will still be around in a  1000 years my bet is on Buddhism.  I think our fundamental belief in change will put us on the right side of history.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Enlightment and Emptiness

               Whenever I decide to comment on a subject in this blog I always like to research what I’m talking about, I have a  really good library of Buddhism and of course I always search the Internet to see if the history has changed while I wasn’t looking. Yesterday something happened that’s never happened to me before, while finishing up my notes on the subject I found a blog post by a man named Lewis Richmond. It was as if he had stolen my memories and my education and written the blog post that I was in the process of writing but he wrote it back in 2011. I’m going to do something now that I have never done.  I am going to republish in part Mr. Richman’s post from back in 2011. I give Mr. Richman absolute credit for what’s written below.  It is however from my decades of practicing Buddhism in my judgment  the most absolutely correct history of the development of the word “enlightenment” in the history of American Buddhist that I have ever encountered. It is concise, and while it skips a few points that I would’ve made, for example the long-running battle between those Buddhist that believed that awakening was at an event that took place suddenly , something that struck like lightning, and those that believe that it was something that occurred over a lifetime of practice and work. This debate has raged for centuries and at one point cumulated into a very famous debate that took place in Tibet. It said that the proponent of gradual awakening won the debate, and that some sore losers actually waylaid and murdered the other debater

        The conflict between these two approaches was, according to Tibetan tradition, settled in the eighth century in a formal debate. Whether the debate actually occurred as such has been called into doubt, but there is no question of the importance of the legend of the debate to the Tibetan tradition. According to the Tibetan histories, the debate was arranged in Samyé temple in the late eighth century to determine whether Tibet would accept Indian or Chinese Buddhism ( think Chan and Zen here)  as normative. In the stories of the debate, the Indian side was identified with gradualism and the Chinese side with simultaneism, a greatly simplified version of the complexities of early Buddhist influences on Tibet which nonetheless became widely accepted in Tibet. According to tradition, the Indian Buddhist scholar Kamalaśīla, arguing for the gradualist position, opposed an Chinese monk called Hashang Mahāyāna, who was arguing for the simultaneist position. In the Tibetan versions of the story, Hashang was defeated, and his method rejected

            . I can’t see how it Mr. Lewis managed to leave that out but other than that his blog was spot on. I really hope that he doesn’t resent my republishing part of his blog, but I think what he has written needs to be preserved and remembered because we second wave baby boomer Buddhists are on our way out and history has a way of being rewritten especially when it comes to American Buddhism. I have watched this occur on a very fundamental basis over the last 20 years in the practice of Zen and in what I consider a tragic corruption of the Tibetan tradition by Westerners with money.

   Mr. Lewis Richmond is a Buddhist writer and teacher, and the author of the upcoming Aging as a Spiritual Practice, to be published Spring, 2012. Lewis leads a Zen meditation group, Vimala Sangha  , and teaches at Workshops And retreats throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He has published three books, including the national bestseller Work as a Spiritual Practice. Lewis also leads a discussion on aging as a spiritual practice at Tricycle magazines online community site.


“A Cultural History of the Word 'Enlightenment'”


By Lewis Richmond

“ The word "enlightenment" in a Buddhist context has been used so frequently and in so many ways, many people may not realize that this use of the word began fairly recently, and has a complex cultural and literary history.

Though 19th century translators of Buddhist texts sometimes used the word "enlightenment" to refer to Gautama's moment of spiritual awakening on seeing the morning star, the first time a large number of general English readers saw the word used as a spiritual term was with the publication Essays on Zen Buddhism First Series by D.T. Suzuki in the 1930s. Before that time the word referred to the 18th century rationalist movement in Europe that strove to understand the world using logic and reason.

D.T. Suzuki used the word "enlightenment" to translate the Japanese term satori¸ and his recounting of the enlightenment stories from the Zen koan literature made quite a splash among intellectual elites at the time. From that time forward, the idea of a sudden transformative spiritual experience became embedded in Western cultural imagination. It is worth nothing that D.T. Suzuki paid relatively little attention in his writings to the Buddhist practices of precepts, mindfulness, meditation, and the monastic life.

The best-selling books of Alan Watts in the 1950s, and Philip Kapleau's The Three Pillars of Zen in the 1960s, filled in some of D.T. Suzuki's omissions (Kapleau's book had good instruction about how to meditate, for example). But it was not until the arrival of Asian teachers in the late 1960s, that students began to understand that Buddhism was about much more than a single epiphany; it was a lifelong path of spiritual development which included both sudden and gradual transformations.

It was Shunryu Suzuki (not D.T. Suzuki), who said in the 1960s, when asked directly about satori, "Satori is not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed." (This was quoted in the introduction to the paperback edition of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind). In other words, he did not deny the reality or importance of satori; he just pointed out that satori, when separated from rest of Buddhist practice, has a tendency to devolve into just another object of desire, something the ego wants for itself.

"Satori" is the Japanese reading of the Chinese character "wu," which is in turn a Chinese translation of the Sanskrit "bodhi," which does indeed mean spiritual insight or awakening. We see this root term in words such as "bodhisattva" (literally enlightenment-being) or "bodhicitta" (the thought of enlightenment). Some Buddhist scholars (Edward Conze, for example) have felt that the Zen emphasis on satori as the sine qua non of Buddhist experience is somewhat outside the mainstream of Buddhist tradition. The Buddha himself taught an eight-fold path with many facets, all of them important. The Tibetan and Vipassana approaches each have detailed descriptions of the gradual stages of spiritual development. Even within Zen, there were various schools and approaches; not all of them emphasized satori as primary.

During the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s the sudden alteration of consciousness brought on by LSD and other drugs dovetailed neatly into the satori stories of Zen. Many veterans of psychedelics sought out Buddhist teachers to see if meditation could reproduce those altered states. Many Buddhist teachers and writers worked to counteract that view. That may have been the context of Shunyru Suzuki's remark about satori. Lama Anagarika Govinda, a German-born Buddhist teacher popular at the time, likened the psychedelic experience to a deep rut in the center of a wide road. Once you have carved that rut, he said, all your other spiritual experiences tend to roll down into it.

In the 1960s book Conversations Christian and Buddhist by Catholic priest Aelred Graham, he recounts the time Yamada Mumon Roshi  an eminent Japanese Zen Master at the time, took LSD. Mumon Roshi's comment about the experience was, "This is form is emptiness, but this is not emptiness is form."

Shunryu Suzuki had his own teaching on this point. He said, "'Form is emptiness' is relatively easy to understand; 'emptiness is form' takes a lifetime."

It will be interesting to see how the next generation of Buddhist teachers and practitioners deal with the cultural history (and baggage) of the word "enlightenment." Maybe they will bypass it; maybe they will change it. I have a feeling that whatever they do they will come up with their own rather different understanding (and possibly mis-understanding) of this deep matter.”



    This is the end of the part of Mr. Richman’s article that I have reproduced here.  As readers of this blog know I practiced with the Tibetans for many years.  And I will always appreciate the teachings I received from any and all those old monks who have probably gone on to their next rebirth by now.   I was always fascinated by the statements that were made virtually every practice session that enlightenment could be  achieved in a single lifetime, this statement accompanied by the fact that old-time fundamentalist Buddhist like the Tibetans have a firm belief in reincarnation and rebirth, they also pride themselves on their logic and logical analysis, so it always seemed kind of funny to me to say that enlightenment could be achieved in one lifetime when in fact no one is on their first lifetime and by their own teachings the rebirth into this lifetime where you have encountered the teachings means that you have progressed through numerous lifetimes to reach this point.  I think when the Tibetans came over to America they encountered the Zen Buddhist that were already here and adopted the term enlightenment without giving much thought as to whether or not their western students would be able to distinguish their cultural illusions of what that word meant from what they ( the Tibetan Monks) were talking about and the problems it would cause later on down the road. Of course there are other words like Nirvana and prajna',  as well as Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi in Hinduism and in Buddhism, that have led to endless confusion in the teachings of traditional Buddhism when translated into English.

        I think the translation of prajna  and various other  Sanskrit words into the word enlightenment and the English translation for the Sanskrit word  Śūnyatā as the English word “emptiness”  have made them the two most misunderstood concepts in American Buddhism. Emptiness as Americans understand it in its normal application has nothing to do  with the Buddhist concept  of  Sunyata.  (I suspect  somewhere  out there Mr. Richman has probably written a blog post on this very subject as well,  it’s like the guy can read my damn mind, and his is probably better than I can do.)  Of course  the concept of Sunyata  is as old as Buddhism itself,  and what it means may depend upon whether or not you're reading the Pali cannon  or a Mahayana Sutra.

              So according to  Pali Philosophy as Thanissaro Bhikku, writes  emptiness is a quality of dharmas, in the early canons, means simply that one cannot identify them as one's own self or having anything pertaining to one's own self...Emptiness as a mental state, in the early canons, means a mode of perception in which one neither adds anything to nor takes anything away from what is present, noting simply, "There is this." This mode is achieved through a process of intense concentration, coupled with the insight that notes more and more subtle levels of the presence and absence of disturbance .

         Meanwhile  in the Mahayana schools, the famous  monk philosopher  Nagarjuna  decided that he would redefine  Śūnyatā ,   He equates emptiness with dependent origination. On the basis of the Buddha's view that all experienced phenomena (dharma) are "dependently arisen" (pratitya-samutpanna), Nagarjuna insisted that such phenomena are empty (sunya). This did not mean that they are not experienced and, therefore, non-existent; only that they are devoid of a permanent and eternal substance. . Since they are experienced elements of existence, they are not mere names. In his analysis, any enduring essential nature would prevent the process of dependent origination, or any kind of origination at all. For things would simply always have been, and will always continue to be, without any change. In doing so, he  restores the Middle way of the Buddha. His goal seems to have been at the time to refute the essentialism of Abhidharma, a third century BCE reworking of Buddhist teachings found in the Pali Cannon.  But in no case is emptiness in Buddhism related directly to the English word that simply means containing nothing, not filled or occupied. 

        I think it’s important that the  history of the English word "enlightenment" and the  history of the English word "emptiness" as they stumbled into Buddhism in America  be recorded somewhere. I’ve heard it said that once something is on the Internet it lives forever maybe this little bit of knowledge about how we got to where we are will hang around longer than the baby boomers that screwed all this up in the first place.

 Gassho, Togen  




Friday, September 4, 2015

The Three Ages of Buddhism, Welcome to Mappo.

The Three Ages of Buddhism, also known as the (Three Ages of the Dharma) are three divisions of time following Buddha's passing.  Buddhist temporal cosmology assumes a cyclical pattern of ages, and even when the current Buddha's teachings fall into disregard, a new Buddha will at some point be born to ensure the continuity of Buddhism. This cosmology  appeared early in Buddhist writings references to the decline of the Dharma over time can be found in such Mahayana sutras as the Diamond Sutra and the Lotus Sutra, but also to a lesser degree in some texts in the Pāli Canon such as the Cullavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka. Nanyue Huisi was an early monk who taught about it; he is considered the third Patriarch of the Tiantai.

The Three Ages of Buddhism are three divisions of time following Buddha's passing:

  1. The Former Day of the Law, also known as the Age of the Right Dharma the first thousand years (or 500 years) during which the Buddha's disciples are able to uphold the Buddha's teachings;
  2. The Middle Day of the Law, also known as the Age of Semblance Dharma, the second thousand years (or 500 years), which only resembles the right Dharma;
  3. The Latter Day of the Law , Mappo, which is to last for 10,000 years during which the Dharma declines.

             The three periods are significant primarily to Mahayana adherents, particularly those who hold the Lotus Sutra in high regard, such as the Tiantai and Tendai  and Nichiren Buddhist, and some schools of Zen,  who believe that different Buddhist teachings are valid (i.e., able to lead practitioners to enlightenment) in each period due to the different capacity to accept a teaching  of the people born in each respective period.  

      In the Lotus Sutra, Visistacaritra is entrusted to spread Buddhist law in this age and save mankind and the earth. He and countless other Bodhisattvas, specifically called Bodhisattvas of the Earth (of which he is the leader), vow to be reborn in a latter day to re-create Buddhist law, thus turning the degenerate age into a flourishing paradise. Shakyamuni entrusts them instead of his more commonly known major disciples with this task since the Bodhisattvas of the Earth have had a karmic connection with Shakyamuni since the beginning of time, meaning that they are aware of the Superior Practice which is the essence of Buddhism or the Dharma in its original, pure form some call the era of Maitreya (the future Buddha)

             Pure Land Buddhism in China and Japan believe we are now in this latter age of "degenerate Dharma". Pure Land followers therefore attempt to attain rebirth into the pure land of Amitābha, where they can practice the Dharma more readily. Nichiren Buddhism has taught that its teaching is the most suitable for the recent Mappō period. Vajrayana Buddhism taught that its teaching would be popular when "iron birds are upon the sky" before its decline. The Kalacakra tantra contains a prophecy of a holy war in which a Buddhist king will win. Theravada Buddhists taught that Buddhism would decline in five thousand years.  Some monks such as Dōgen and Hsu Yun had alternative views regarding dharma decline. Oddly enough Dōgen believed that there is no mappō while Hsu Yun thought mappō is not inevitable. Maybe that's why Dōgen  wrote huge volumes on Buddhism while telling his students scholars went to the hell of hungry Ghosts.

So the point of this small bit of trivia is being presented so that you understand that Zen Buddhism in Japan and China, pure land Buddhism in Japan and China, Nichiren Buddhism as they all exist today all developed, more or less,  during what is known as the Kamakura Period of Japan  1192-1333, based on the belief that we have now entered the Mappo period of Buddhism. With the basic understanding that in this degenerate age the people born herein  are not capable of understanding Buddhism as it was taught by the Buddha. 

           So! Each school is in effect a chopped down readers digest form of Buddhism aimed at the diminished capacity of the people who are born in this age because they’re not capable of digesting the pure Dharma.

           Therefore, Zen practitioners are taught to just sit, pure land practitioners are taught to just chant the name of the Buddha of pure light, Amitabha, so that he can take them to a pure land where they can do what’s necessary to become enlightened, Nichiren Buddhists only have to recite the first couple of paragraphs of the Lotus Sutra, over and over, they don’t even have to understand the words.
Just thought I’d mention this, it seems like something worth knowing.