I came to Buddhism, like a lot of people in the 60s, through Zen.
I’ll warn you that the video is about 12 minutes long, but that’s a really good talk by Alan Watts, whose books were among my first teachers of Buddhism. There are probably a dozen columns in it, so it’s a real time saver.
Zen, as Alan explains, is widely imagined in the West to be anti-intellectual, but it really isn’t — it’s, instead, non-intellectual. It says that underneath the intellectual uinderstanding of Buddhism, there is a place where you are already the Buddha; Zen is, as Alan says, a way of directly pointing to that underlying reality that simply can’t be achieved intellectually.
So, of course, I’m going to write today about reading and writing and how my academic studies have affected my understanding.
I didn’t really start reading the sutras until … well, I guess it’s been quite a long time now, ten years or more, but seeing as I’ve been a Buddhist for something getting close to 50 years, it really came rather late in life. I started with the maha-prajña-paramita-sutra, the “Great Sutra at the Heart of Wisdom”. Fairly short, pithy, and very obscure on first reading. There are all these words for which the translations aren’t very satisfactory. So I started reading more widely, into the Pali Canon, the Tripitaka, and reading various people’s commentaries, and paying more attention to studying Sanskrit and Chinese.
This isn’t really foreign to Zen; there are lots of writings used in teaching Zen, and lots to be learned from them. I was thinking about listing some, but I think I’ll save that for another column. In the year I’ve been writing these columns, I’ve really found pretty much everything can be taken back to the Dharmachakra Sutra, the first teaching Buddha offered, directly after his Liberation. That’s where he first explains the Eightfold Path and the Four Great Truths.
Sometime in the 6th century (see “About Dates” below) not far south of the Himalayan mountains on the Indian subcontinent, a man laid out a simple idea: people are unhappy, lack peace of mind, because they cling to their illusions and fantasies about the world instead of seeing things as they are.
Traditional accounts agree his personal name was Siddhartha, “the successful one” or “the one who achieves”, which was a popular name then and is popular today. His gotra family name was Gautama, and he was born into a clan called the Shakya, of the Kshatriya or “warrior” class. His father was named Suddhodana, and his mother was named Mayadevi. Suddhodana is usually called a “king” but he was an elected ruler, and the Shakya’s government was something more or less like a republic.
The traditions say he was born prematurely, and unexpectedly, under a tree in a place called Lumbini, and recent archeological discoveries show that there was indeed a tree-shrine at the location the tradition identifies. Mayadevi died shortly after Siddhartha’s birth.
Siddhartha was raised as a rich princeling, but he left this life of wealth to become a renunciate, and eventually became known as a teacher called “the one who woke up” — the Buddha.
The first written records we have, however, are from at least a century after his death, and most of the written texts describing his life and teaching were first written down more than 500 years after he died. Many of these stories are fantastic, magical — and, as they say, they probably grew in the telling.
Can we look into these stories, the sutras, and see more clearly what this man’s original teachings were? What he taught before the sutras were written down?
What can we learn from the Undocumented Buddha?
So this is how I heard it. On the night before Siddhartha Awakened, as he contemplated the problem of suffering that had caused him to leave home, he became aware of his innumerable past lives. He saw himself as predator, and as prey; he saw himself as deer hunter, and as the hunted deer; he saw himself as the rape victim and the rapist; as the adulterer and as the cuckold; as eater and as the one being eaten. He saw that in every case, actions and their consequences had led to each event, and that consequences had inevitably followed. He saw the suffering in everything, and he felt pity and compassion for every being because he saw in himself the potential for every failing he had seen in others.
In Sanskrit, this is called karuna; you can translate it as empathy, or compassion, or even tenderness.
I’ve got Buddhist friends in many traditions. Some of them were discussing a recent story about Bodu Bala Sema — “Buddhist Power Force”, which really sounds like it ought to be a live-action Saturday morning kid’s show — rallying the Buddhists of Sri Lanka against the Muslim Tamils. This follows the Sri Lankan civil war, which followed the collapse of a cease-fire agreement with the Tamil Tigers in 2002, which followed an insurgency of 20-odd years, which followed anti-Tamil discrimination, which followed … and followed … and followed … on into the past.
Because it’s the beginning of a new year, and because I’ve been slack for several weeks on the Buddhism column, and because after all Gautama himself said that he was teaching basically just one simple thing that he found himself just explaining in many different ways, and because finally it’s my column and I can do what I want, I’m going to start this time by repeating again the core of the Buddha’s teaching, suitably rephrased so as to seem creative and original and avoid copyright problems with the people I’m stealing it from. So here they are, the Four Noble Truths, with only as much Sanskrit as necessary.
- Our ordinary lives are full of duhkha, badly translated as “suffering” and better translated as unpleasantness, agitation, discomfort. (The root word is actually connected to the idea of a cart wheel that’s got a bad axle: it isn’t rolling smoothly and the bump bump bump is making us cart-sick.)
- Dukhka arises because of our efforts to re-order the universe to our liking. We thirst for pleasant experiences; we try to make things be just how we’d like them to be; and we try to un-make things that aren’t the way we want them to be. All of these things come down to a kind of ignorance of the way that we and everything around us can’t be made to hold still; everything changes.
- This special discomfort ceases when we stop trying to force things.
- We can learn to stop trying to force things by practicing what the Buddha called “skillful means”, upaya.
Which is all well and good, but how?
The tradition says that when Buddha was about 80, he told his followers he would die soon. He was visiting the town of Kusinara, just south of modern-day Nepal, and frankly the middle of freaking nowhere at the time, and for that matter today. He ate a food offering and became violently ill, and died. Depending on the tradition you follow, there were either poison mushrooms or spoiled pork in that last meal, but the Buddha himself insisted it wasn’t the food and told Ananda, his chief of staff and personal servant, to reassure the person who’d given him the food that it wasn’t his fault.
While he was dying, he asked his students to ask him any final questions. His last words were: “Remember, everything that is an aggregate is perishable. Attend to your own salvation.”
The whole story, along with a long summary of the Buddha’s teachings, is in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta — we Mahayana Buddhists have a very different, and way more exciting, version in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra in which the Buddha is attended by 80 billion monks, speaks in a great voice that covers the whole world, and generally would make a lovely manga comic, but never mind that for the moment.
The thing is, this is one of the core Buddhist teachings: you get yourself into this trap, and you have to get yourself out. We live with duhkha, that pain of everything slipping away from us, because we’re ignorant of the reality that there’s nothing permanent to hang on to; we escape from duhkha and enter nirvana, peace of mind and the end of the pain of duhkha, when we really understand that there’s nothing permanent to hang on to. And like personal salvation in evangelical Christianity or recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous, you have to do it yourself. No one can recover for you.
A friend of mine wrote me the other day with a story I thought was informative. It’a a touch long, but I think it’s worth it; it’s lightly edited to make it fit.
A few weeks back my eldest daughter was having a bad day. It revolved around the typical teenage issues, which she generally doesn’t have problems with. However, I tried to comfort her by saying it was perfectly normal to feel the way she did because everyone wants to be liked and feels bad when they aren’t liked.
Well, that’s when my son chimed in (unhelpfully but innocently) “I don’t”
Now while this wasn’t exactly helpful while I was trying to console my daughter it is true. My son is amazingly centered. I’ve seen him been insulted directly and refuse to be baited and just shrug it off and be fine. So after I had resolved what I could with the daughter, I sought out my son and explained that what he said, while true, and admirable, was perhaps not helpful at that moment. But then I thought to compliment him on his evenness. That’s when I said he was practically Buddhist.
That sparked the question. “What’s Buddhist?” So I tried to explain how the Buddha taught that suffering is caused by desire, and that a lot of frustration is caused by our desires and expectations, and that if we surrender our expectations we actually are happier, less harried. I told him that even though we weren’t Buddhists we could learn a lot from this premise.
So to set up what happens next I have to tell you that recently my son has discovered Dungeons and Dragons, after he was introduced to it by his uncle. He has bought his own dice and is pouring over the manuals. All the conversation lately has been about critical hits, armor checks and saving rolls.
Well tonight we had a minor church event we had to go to. My son went early because he had some responsibility with our young men’s organization which was setting up. When I came later and met up with him his usual calm resolve was disturbed. He had said something to the other young men that had embarrassed him, and he was upset about it and upset that it had upset him. I said nothing. We had to sit as the program was about to start, and he usually works these things out. After a moment of silence he said. “Buddhist Saving Roll” and made a gesture like he was throwing dice. I burst out laughing. Right in the middle of church. He laughed too. People stared, and we quickly composed ourselves, but we smiled at each other and he was fine, and no longer upset.
After the event was over we joked about it. What die do you use in a “Buddhist Saving Roll?” Perhaps a twenty sided die where every face is a symbol of Mu?
At any rate, I was pleased that he had internalized the lesson and made it into a joke with his hobbies and D&D. I will never think of D&D the same way. I hope it becomes an inside joke between us.
And every time I’m frustrated with something, I hope I think “Buddhist Saving Roll” and just move on.
So this is the way I heard it. More or less.
After his Enlightenment, Siddhartha was walking along a path in a forest. He didn’t have a goal and he wasn’t concerned with the weather: if it was hot, he sweated, if it rained, he got wet. He was untroubled, calm, serene.
In fact, he was so untroubled that it was obvious to anyone around him. He met a man traveling the opposite direction.
“Excuse me,” the man said, “are you a sadhu, a saint?”
“No,” Siddhartha said, “I’m not. Being a saint doesn’t really lead to peace of mind anyway.”
“But you’re … are you a God?”
“Hardly. I’m just a man. I don’t know if there are any gods, but I’m certainly not one.”
“Well… but you seem so different. What makes you so different?”
Buddha thought about it. It couldn’t really be explained, of course, but still the man deserved an answer.
“I am… awake.”
About 2500 years ago there was a city-state called Kapilavastu in what is now called Nepal. According to tradition, a man named Sudhodana was its king, although archeology and history suggest that it was an elected post in something much like a republic. Sudhodana had a wife, who we know as Mayadevi, which means something like “Enchanting Angel.” She was pregnant, and as the traditions of that time and place required, she was traveling to her home to have their child, when she went into labor and was taken to the shade of a tree in a place called Lumbini. Her child was born there, a son, who was named “Siddhartha”, “the one who achieves his aim”. Mayadevi died shortly afterward.
One of the cool things about writing these columns is that I’m always learning something new. Sometimes it’s reading new things — I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhist yogacara recently — sometimes it’s that I find new ideas as a result of trying to explain something in a column, and sometimes, like today, it’s that I’ve run into something I’d never seen before.
Regular readers know that I’ve suffered for most of my life from depression. In fact, “double depression”, chronic dysthymia with occasional acute episodes of depression. Chronic dysthymia is basically chronic low-level depression, what Shirley Maclaine is talking about in Steel Magnolias when she says “I”m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood for forty years!”
One of the characteristics of depression is obsessive thoughts: you find yourself obsessively thinking that there’s no hope, that you have failed and will always fail, that you’re unworthy of happiness, worthless, and a burden to yourself, your friends, and your family. For me, one of the striking things about antidepressants, especially Prozac, fluoxetine, the one that has worked best for me, is that my thinking about these things became clearer. I was more able to recognize when I was really unhappy above something, and when it was just depression “thinking me” that way.
So, as I’ve written about suffering and the end of suffering in the last couple of weeks, I’ve realized that there’s a sort of obsessiveness there too. Sitting zazen, meditating, gives you a look at your mental processes. You get yourself settled, you start watching your breath or counting or repeating a mantra, and you find yourself dragged away by other thoughts. You catch yourself dwelling on those thoughts, anticipating or remembering pleasures, worrying about things to come or remembering with embarrassment things that have happened, fantasizing about what you should have said, or what you are going to say.
Those are all examples of the roots of suffering: trishna, “thirst” or “desire”, for pleasant things, desire to avoid unpleasant things, desire to make or control things or simply be something else. I, for example, want to be a dragon.
Last week we talked about suffering and the end of suffering, and about looking for that space in between the times when you dwell on the roots of suffering — desire for pleasure, desire to avoid pain, the desire to make everything perfect. Ultimately, I think the best practice for this is shikentaza, “just sitting”, but that’s hard to do as a beginner.
In fact, sometimes that’s hard to do when you’ve been practicing for years. Sometimes you sit down and your mind is capering like a drunken organ-grinder’s monkey, shaking his tambourine and stealing people’s hats, and generally just making an obnoxious spectacle of itself. What then?
Something I’ve found helpful is mantra meditation. Now, this is practically heretical in Zen, the tradition I started in and largely follow today, but — here’s a Buddhist saying for you — it is what it is. Sometimes you need to interrupt the little sonuvabitch and get him settled down, and sometimes shikentaza doesn’t do it.
So here’s how you do meditation with a mantra.
So, of course I write this Buddhism column because I’m an Enlightened Being and have no personal problems, having ended all suffering and being Liberated from the Wh…
Okay, stop laughing, especially all you people who know me personally. I’m trying to make a point.
Which is, nobody, not even the Buddha, stops having personal problems. His Dad, Suddhodana, took a long time to reconcile with his son after Siddhartha gave up the career Dad wanted for him — world-conqueror — and took up saving all sentient beings from suffering.
His cousin Ananda, who we talked about last time, was apparently sometimes a bit officious and no doubt tried to boss the Buddha around and make sure he moved on to his next interview on time. After all, he may have been the World-Honored One but he was also Ananda’s cousin Siddhartha who everyone gossiped about at home. And I’d bet a lahk that his wife Yasodhara sometimes nagged him about their son Rahula when Rahula was a teenager. And I’m sure Buddha swore when he stubbed his toe and scratched mosquito bites when they itched.
What was different is that he didn’t suffer. He didn’t have that thing with the Sanskrit name we keep talking about, duhkha. He also said that we could all stop suffering if we practiced three things:
- we had to decide we wanted to stop suffering;
- we had to order our affairs ethically so that we minimize the drama and angst that lead to suffering;
- and we needed to pay attention so that we didn’t fall into suffering.
This all comes to mind because, well, I had my own opportunities to fall into suffering fairly often in the last month or so: laid off my day job, some disappointments in relationships, and all the day to day tsooris that everyone goes through. I’ve also got a young friend who is having his own troubles and has been talking to me about them. So, the topic of suffering has been on my mind.
So I guess I really am basically nuts. I really don’t need another project.
As I was writing my morning pages this week, I was pondering the Kalama Sutra we looked at last week, and it occurred to me that there was a need for “readable” versions of the sutras, at least some of them. Not that the various translations aren’t good, or aren’t readable — they’re far better than some of the Victorian atrocities I’ve railed at before — but what if the sutras were redone more as they might be written down today? So today’s column is a little experiment.
As best anyone can tell, the historical buddha lived in the 5th-to-4th century, in the plains around the Indus and Ganges Rivers, mainly in what we now call northern India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Roughly 100 years later, Asoka the Great conquered nearly all of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other random small countries. He then had a “moment of clarity” looking at piles of dead people; he became a student of, and then a convert to, the teachings of the Buddha. Asoka adopted or adapted those teachings, becoming for his time a very “liberal” and enlightened king.
As interesting a fellow as Asoka is, though, he comes into this story mainly because he erected a series of monuments memorializing events in the historical Buddha’s life, and a series of 50 foot stone pillars with the Edicts of Asoka, the rules he established for running his kingdom. Those rules speak of the Dharma, and they’re pretty much the first written record of the Buddha or his teachings.
But we get the sutras by another route. Shortly after the Buddha’s death, there was a Great Council convened where the Buddha’s followers decided to agree on how they could remember and retain the Buddha’s teachings. His cousin Ananda, who had been the Buddha’s attendant and sort of his “chief of staff” who was with the Buddha every day, either had a perfect memory (as tradition says) or was one hell of a storyteller. In any case, he recited the stories of the Buddha’s life that became the foundation of Buddhism.
When they were written down 500 years later, between Ananda’s time and when the sutras were first written down, they were transmitted word of mouth. And they show it — they are full of poetry, repetition, all the things that make epic poetry easy to remember.
If you want some admittedly esoteric fun, there’s probably no better way than to get a bunch of Buddhists talking about one of my favorite quotes from the Buddha. It’s usually stated as:
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
Now, this one gets a whole post on the blog Fake Buddha Quotes run by a monk named Bodhipaksa. I’m certainly not one to shy away from a little pedantic quibbling about translations, and I certainly don’t want to spoil the fun of trying to effectively translate Pali into English and arguing over the details, but in this case I think that while it might be an imperfect translation, it is a “skillful” translation.
It helps to refer again to the basics of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. So, for convenience and because it’s my column by golly, let’s hit them once more.
- Our lives are filled with unsatisfactory unpleasant annoying and generally uncomfortable feelings — “suffering” (Duhkha).
- Those feelings arise from clinging: first, clinging to pleasant experiences; second, the desire to make things what they are not; and third clinging to the attempt to push away unpleasant experiences. (Samudaya)
- Those unpleasant feelings can be overcome by learning not to do the things that lead to unpleasant feelings. (Nirodha)
- You can learn not to cling by following the suggestions of the Noble Eightfold Path.(Aryastangamarga).
Things that lead you to not cling, and thereby to reduce suffering, are called “skillful”, so the whole collection is called “skillful means”. Oh, and skillful means aren’t limited to the Eightfold Path; anything that leads to reducing clinging and thereby reducing suffering is skillful.
So what’s the fuss about? The “fake Buddha quote” is usually linked to the Kalama Sutra (that link is to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation, which is brilliant, but that isn’t going to stop me from paraphrasing it).
When you put together a list of the most influential and interesting bands of the ’90s, you have to put Smashing Pumpkins near the top of the list. The band and its charismatic leader, Billy Corgan, took a flair for the grandiose, a generation’s angst, and Corgan’s distinctive voice and parlayed them into a successful career, selling 25 million albums.
Smashing Pumpkin’s songs spoke to certain members of my generation in ways that no other band could. Lyrics like, “The killer in me is the killer in you,” “In spite of my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage,” and “We don’t even care” reflected a particular spiritual emptiness in Generation X. Whether fans were drawn to that brand of nihilism (remember the Zero T-shirt?) or, like me, just enjoyed the music, there was no denying the darkness at the core of Corgan’s music.
Corgan admits that he had a definite reason for such darkness – he struggled with depression and often harbored suicidal thoughts during the band’s heyday:
“I think I had to hit rock-bottom to even be open to ask for help,” he says of his state of mind during much of the 1990s.
“There were days, months and years where I just stared out the window and felt miserable…”
Corgan’s music was always hailed for its raw honesty but overt spirituality didn’t seem to be part of his earlier life. In 1993, while their second album, “Siamese Dream,” catapulted The Pumpkins to nationwide popular success, Corgan says he felt suicidal.
Throughout that period, Corgan’s maniacally creative genius helped him suppress the unhappiness and emptiness he felt inside as the world seemed to simultaneously hand him the best and worst of everything. Band members’ drug addictions, messy personal relationships and the pressure of living up to expectations of becoming the new Nirvana locked Corgan into a deep depression while record sales soared.
After being burned a few, make that several, times, I’ve learned two rules that always apply to the news about something like the recent shootings at the Naval Research Labs:
- First reports are always wrong.
- In case of doubt, refer to Rule 1.
So, let’s review the things we know aren’t true that were reported:
- It was a single shooter, not three.
- He didn’t have an AR-15 or any sort of “assault weapon.”
- He didn’t steal an ID, he had a valid ID.
- He didn’t get a general discharge, and his military discipline problems weren’t major. They also happened mostly in the last couple of years.
There are some things that are being pretty reliably reported now, too:
- He took refuges (read “converted”) and attended a Thai Buddhist temple in Fort Worth.
- He had a history of oddly random instances of anger.
- He was apparently very intelligent (he learned Thai from hanging around with Thai people watching Thai TV. This is not easy.)
- He was being treated by the VA for emotional problems, including “hearing voices.”
Now, here’s what the Mayo Clinic says about the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia:
Signs and symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia may include:
- Auditory hallucinations, such as hearing voices
- Delusions, such as believing a co-worker wants to poison you
- Emotional distance
- Self-important or condescending manner
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
With paranoid schizophrenia, you’re less likely to be affected by mood problems or problems with thinking, concentration and attention.
Delusions and hallucinations are the symptoms that make paranoid schizophrenia most distinct from other types of schizophrenia.
- Delusions. In paranoid schizophrenia, a common delusion is that you’re being singled out for harm. For instance, you may believe that the government is monitoring every move you make or that a co-worker is poisoning your lunch. You may also have delusions of grandeur — the belief that you can fly, that you’re famous or that you have a relationship with a famous person, for example. You hold on to these false beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. Delusions can result in aggression or violence if you believe you must act in self-defense against those who want to harm you.
- Auditory hallucinations. An auditory hallucination is the perception of sound — usually voices — that no one else hears. The sounds may be a single voice or many voices. These voices may talk either to you or to each other. The voices are usually unpleasant. They may make ongoing criticisms of what you’re thinking or doing, or make cruel comments about your real or imagined faults. Voices may also command you to do things that can be harmful to yourself or to others. When you have paranoid schizophrenia, these voices seem real. You may talk to or shout at the voices.
Look, it looks pretty classic. As far as the Buddhist thing goes, the priest at the local temple says now he thinks the guy was just looking for a Thai girlfriend. But anyone who has practiced in any Buddhist group is also aware that a fair number of birds with broken wings come in, hoping meditation will help them.
Sometimes it does.
Last week in the comments, Zopa asked me to explain the terms nirvana and samsara. It’s an interesting question, and the more I thought about it the more interesting it got.
There is a whole Buddhist cosmology that we’ll go into another time, with six Dharma realms from the realm of gods living in intense rapture to the level of intense suffering, a sort of Buddhist version of Hell. If you visit the Tiger Balm Garden in Singapore, you can see brightly painted versions of the six Dharma realms, along with lots of other Chinese mythical figures and scenes.
The problem is, since Buddha was pretty definite about the doctrine of anatman, the doctrine that there’s no such thing as a permanent identity or soul, what is there to reincarnate?
Then it occured to me that Buddha, as a teacher, was known for crafting his message to communicate with the person in front of him at the moment. The stories of his previous incarnations, the Jatakas, are teaching stories, parables; a lot of them are basically children’s stories, with bunnies and tigers and mysterious silent princes. Maybe these are basically Buddhism with training wheels, intended for people who do believe in reincarnation and rebirth. So, okay, let’s start with training wheels Buddhism to explain samsara and nirvana.
Basically, in the training wheels tradition, a person has a part that survives death and is reborn. Krishna explains this to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita’s second chapter:
The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. (2.11) There was never a time when these monarchs, you, or I did not exist, nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future. (2.12) Just as the living entity (Atma, Jeev, Jeevaatma) acquires a childhood body, a youth body, and an old age body during this life; similarly, it acquires another body after death. ….
Just as a person puts on new garments after discarding the old ones; similarly, the living entity (Spirit, Atma, Jeev, Jeevaatma) acquires new bodies after casting away the old bodies. (2.22) Weapons do not cut this Spirit (Atma), fire does not burn it, water does not make it wet, and the wind does not make it dry. Atma cannot be cut, burned, wet, or dried. It is eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, immovable, and primeval. (2.23-24) The Spirit (Atma, Self) is said to be unexplainable, incomprehensible, and unchanging.
Notice that this translator, Dr Prasad, has included a hint there that Spirit in this context is Atman.
Hindu tradition would be that this Spirit acquires credits for good deeds and debits for bad deeds, and so when a body died, the Spirit is reborn into a life that is well suited to it. An incarnation is like going to school, and rebirth is kind of a Cosmic Sorting Hat that puts you in Griffendore or Slytherin as you deserve.
Buddha saw that this thing, this spirit, had to be something that changes and so was subject to cause and effect; it changes, so it is essentially impermanent. It can’t be the unchanging permanent thing it’s supposed to be.
So here’s one view of samsara and nirvana: samsara is that cycle of rebirth, returning again and again. Nirvana is graduation, leaving that cycle. For what? That’s one of the Unanswerable Questions: it’s literally unspeakable.
To which a whole bunch of profound students of Buddhism, in the -4th to -2nd centuries, said “what?”
It’s a central tenet of hipster Buddhism that being a Buddhist is just like being a college-town liberal, but with Oriental art and maybe some yoga classes.
I don’t think it’s necessarily so. In fact, I think Buddhism, real Buddhism, is inherently more in tune with libertarian “conservative” politics. (This isn’t the place for this particular rant, but I scare-quote “conservative” because I think it’s a bad term. As I was telling someone last night, I’m not a “conservative,” I’m an 18th-century Enlightenment radical.)
As I usually do, I see this in terms of first principles, the Four Noble Truths, and yes, I am going to recite them again:
- Our daily understanding of life, the universe, and everything is full of frustration, annoyance, discomfort, disease, anticipation, avarice, mindless acquisitiveness, dread, anxiety, stress — all the things that are included in the Sanskrit word duhkha, which is usually translated as “suffering.”
- This suffering arises from clinging to our desire to make life, the universe, and everything be the way we want: we want pleasurable experiences, we want to avoid unpleasant experiences, and we want to control the world to make all these things happen. This is called duhkha samodhaya, the truth of the root of suffering.
- This suffering ends when we absorb and reconcile ourselves with the fact that life, the universe, and everything stubbornly persist in doing what they’re doing and that clinging is pointless and leads to suffering. This is called nirodha, the snuffing out of duhkha.
- And we can make that reconciliation by practicing ethical conduct (sila), by developing wisdom (prajña), and by engaging in practices that quiet the endless internal chatter (samadhi), which tends to be all about how much we like the good feelings, dislike the bad feelings, and want to make things go the way we want. Buddha gave advice on how to do this, first in the Noble Eightfold Path (aryastangamarga in Sanskrit, 八正道 in Chinese, or “I can never remember all eight at the same time” in English) and then later in more specific guidance in the Precepts.
I remember the first time it happened.
I’m not sure how old I was. Probably no older that 15; the movie in my head shows me the bedroom I shared with my father and a bright warm day outside. I was putting on a sock.
Very suddenly, the entire Universe changed. Very suddenly, I knew the Universe made sense. Oh, I didn’t understand it, I just knew it made sense. It was like when your grandfather shows you his special pocket watch, the one with a hinged back so that instead of seeing the face and the hands that apparently move by magic, you see the gears and springs and see that the hands are moving because of a complicated mechanism inside.
Here’s how Brad Warner, my favorite living Zen writer, described it in his blog not long ago:
In fact, this personal and private something was, I now saw, the personality of the entire universe from the beginningless beginning of time right on through eternity. I saw that this thing I thought was located so deeply inside of me that no one could ever even think of touching it was actually spread throughout all the universe. It wasn’t just inside me. It was inside Tau Ceti and Alpha Centuri and the Great Megallenic Cloud. It was there when the Big Bang happened. It was the Big Bang.
I saw that it was the very same intimate, personal, private something – the “me” aspect – of every person that ever lived, will live or could live – including you, dear reader. It was the personal private something of the sky and the sun and the moon and every ant or rock or piece of bird poop anywhere at any time throughout space. Nothing had ever happened or could ever happen without it knowing every intimate detail, bad or good, happy or sad, painful or pleasant.
If that’s not God, then I don’t know what is.
And perhaps I don’t.
Because it didn’t change me into a better person. It did not grant me moral perfection or freedom from the effects of my bad deeds. It didn’t give me magic powers. It didn’t give me extrasensory perception or vast insight into all things. It didn’t even let me know what color brontosauruses were. And that’s something I’d really like to know.
It didn’t leave me with anything to prove to others that it had visited me, like, y’know, when a guy in a sci-fi movie isn’t sure he really traveled back in time until he reaches into his pocket and discovers he still has the autograph he had Abraham Lincoln sign or whatever. Nope. I got nothing but a funny story I can tell. And not even a cool enough story to get me on one of those shows Oprah Winfrey produces!
(I know how he feels. Putting on a sock? At least Brad was walking across a bridge in Japan.)
I also told my friend it was a little like going through life with a paper grocery bag over your head. Then one day somebody lifts the grocery bag for a couple seconds and you see there’s whole world out there.
Well, Brad’s written a whole book about it now.
About eight years ago, I had to take my 18 year old Siamese, Vashti, to the vet for what I knew was her last time. She had lymphoma, and I’d been taking care of her as she failed slowly, until finally I was feeding her baby food with an irrigation syringe. Still, she’d always seemed grateful; she purred, however faintly, when I petted her, and she woulld sleep for hours on her special sheepskin rug, which I kept in my lap. But one morning I looked at her, and I heard her say, as clearly as if she’d spoken in words, that she was ready. So we went to the vet, and I held her, and as the vet was putting the needle into her vein, she died peacefully, before the vet even gave the injection.
Afterward, there were people who scolded me for waiting so long; and there were people, New Age hipsters, who said that as a Buddhist I should not have taken her to the vet, shouldn’t have participated in killing another sentient being. And I wondered myself if I’d waited too long, out of selfishness — but Vashti wasn’t just my cat, she was like my familiar, and you could make a good case that she’d been the only really successful relationship with a female of any species I’d ever had.
In any case, I was no longer uncertain after she’d died, because I was sure that I’d done as Vashti had wanted.
So last week we talked about metta, “good will” or “lovingkindness”, one of the virtues exhibited by the Buddha that we try to learn to recognize in ourselves through metta practice. If you’ll remember, in metta practice, you try to invoke that feeling of metta in yourself, and then direct it toward yourself and toward others, even people toward whom you feel hatred and anger.
Metta has another virtue, karuna or “compassion”, with which it is paired. Metta is wishing good to others; karuna is understanding the suffering of others. Buddha, when he was Enlightened, could have chosen simply to reside in nirvana, but because of his feelings of metta and karuna chose to teach the Way of Liberation instead. The two things together are really the basis of Buddhist notions of morals: your good will to others goes along with your recognition that the other person is really, at heart, another person like yourself, and so you try to avoid causing suffering and try to help them also avoid suffering.
There is a story in the Jatakas about the time a mad elephant, released by the Buddha’s enemies, charged down the street toward the Buddha. People are screaming and running, the elephant is tearing up shopkeepers’ displays and smashing things, and Buddha’s disciple Ananda tried to drag him out of the way. Buddha said “Relax, Ananda, I got this,” and stood in the elephant’s path. The elephant was used to people screaming and running, and here’s this guy in an orange bath sheet just smiling at him. Uncertain, confused, the elephant — his name is Nalagiri, by the way — Nalagiri hesitated, and the Buddha walked closer, confidently, like the king of mahouts. He gestured, and Nalagiri knelt, his madness gone, and presented his head to be scratched.
You might as well remember Nalagiri, he’s one of my favorite characters and I’m sure he’ll be back again.
One of the first things that attracted me to Buddhism was that it treats animals as first-class citizens. I’m one of those people who never met an animal he didn’t like (although I’m a little jittery about spiders) and I never really got why the pastor said my dog didn’t have a soul but the obnoxious kid sitting behind me in Sunday School did. I had also learned, even at eleven, that someone who treated animals badly usually didn’t treat people very well either. But it wasn’t until much later — really, it wasn’t until the months after 9/11 — that I understood how important that feeling toward animals is.
It really is all tomatoes all the time this week in the Martin household, so I thought I’d make it a trifecta.
No, I don’t think Siddhartha used a tomato timer, but I’ve begun to see a similarity among several of the things I do as practices: Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, the Pomodoro Technique as I use it, and zazen (“zah-zen”), the basic Buddhist meditation. But to explain that, I need to explain meditation, a column I’ve been meaning to write for a while.
Meditation is one of the basics, maybe the basic, components of Buddhist practice. It was the primary sort of meditation that Buddha taught his followers. In Japanese traditions, it’s called shikantaza (只管打坐, Chinese “Zhǐguǎn dǎzuò”) — which simply means “nothing but sitting.”
Okay, so it’s “just sitting”. Pretty easy, eh?
But wait, there’s more!
The trick is, it’s just sitting and nothing else. If you sit down someplace comfortable, turn off the radio and the TV, relax and let your eyes become unfocused, and just sit, pretty quickly one of two things will happen: either you’ll find your mind consumed with thoughts, or you’ll fall asleep. Maybe both. Your mind becomes consumed with one thought, and then another — sexual fantasies, imagined arguments with whomever you might be arguing with, blog posts or comments or what you would have said if you’d have just thought of it then. You find yourself dwelling on thoughts, and so you’re no longer just sitting.
I think one of the essential keys to understanding what the Buddha taught is understanding the term karma. Now, I know this has come up before, but let’s look a little more closely at it, because karma is one of the terms that has been adopted into English in a horribly distorted, badly translated sort of accumulation of half-understood concepts combined with Victorian Orientalist New Age whoo whoo.
To put it gently.
The whoo whoo explanation of karma — which, to be fair, is at least similar to the understanding in more theistic kinds of Hinduism too — is that it’s some kind of Scale of Cosmic Justice that arranges, through reincarnation, to see to it that you are punished through horrible life experiences in one life for bad things you’ve done in some previous life, and that you’re rewarded for good things you’ve done. So anything, good or bad, that happens to you is the result of some thing you did in some previous life that you now have no control over. “It’s just karma, man!”
The word karma, though, has a much simpler and more straight-forward meaning: it’s “action”. It’s paired with another word, vipaka, which just means “consequences of an action”.
Yes, I’m serious. Buddhists have no souls. Or permanent ones at least. That’s really what Buddha taught.
Okay, end of column.
Let’s talk about souls first. What is this “soul” thing we’re talking about? The ever-convenient Mac built-in dictionary says the soul is “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.”
The common conception of the soul in the West is the immortal part of us, the thing that goes to Heaven — or doesn’t — when we die. There’s a whole lot of Western Christian philosophy about the soul that I’m not going to try to go into in depth, but certainly that’s the basic idea: an eternal, undying part that just “wears” the body, like clothes that it takes off and leaves behind. There’s a living, breathing entity there that’s “alive,” and then the breath stops and something is gone.
In fact, the Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Chinese words that correspond to “soul” all have roots in “breath.” (I just looked up the etymology of “soul,” which is of Germanic origin, and it turns out to be pretty much perfectly obscure; it appears that early missionaries into Northern Europe picked it up to translate the Greek word psyche.)
In any case, the Sanskrit word is atman, and one of the Buddha’s basic teachings was the doctrine of an-atman (an- being a negative), or in other words, the doctrine of the non-existence of a permanent soul.
This was a radical revision of the Hindu idea that appears in, for example, the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna tells Arjuna, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (That’s from Prabhupada’s translation, the one the Hare Krishnas used to sell in airports. Another thing we lost after 9/11.)
Basically, what Buddha was pointing out was that anything that was “us,” was our “identity”, was inherently changing from day to day, instant to instant, and so necessarily couldn’t be “eternal.” So there is no permanent Self, no soul, no spirit that exists forever.
This is probably the thing that is least understood in Buddhism, and this time I don’t mean in the West; I mean everyone. That illusion of Self is persistent and very very stubborn, because it’s a necessary illusion in day-to-day life — if there’s no Self and no others, then who’s going to write the columns? Who’s going to cash the checks?
Along with all my other rants about the way Buddhism is misunderstood, one bunch of misunderstandings and misconceptions that I can’t blame on the Victorian translations are the ones that come bundled with the word “religion”. Because all the dominant religions in the West are “Abrahamic” and derived from Judaism, we have a very deeply ingrained belief that all religion uniformly believes in a single God or chief god. In fact, a dictionary definition gives:
the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods: ideas about the relationship between science and religion.
a particular system of faith and worship: the world’s great religions.
Then along comes Buddhism. Not only does Buddhism not prescribe a belief in a particular god, when questioned about it, old Siddhartha got very cagey about talking about it at all. Various sutras talk about various believers in other things coming to debate the Buddha, and traditionally there are ten (or fourteen if you’re in a Mahayana tradition like me) things that Buddha repeatedly refused to get into. These became known as the Fourteen Unanswerable Questions, (Sanskrit: Avyakrta) and so as not to keep you in suspense, these are:
- Is the world eternal? Is it not? is it both? Is it neither?
- Is the world finite? Is it infinite? Is it both? Is it neither?
- Is the self identical to the body? Is it different or separate from the body?
- Does an enlightened being continue to exist after death? Or not? Both? Neither?
Theravada Buddhists leave off the both or neither questions on the first two, which is why they only have only ten unanswerable questions. Clearly, Mahayana is superior.
Yes, that was a joke.
I have a pair of Birkenstocks — you just knew I wear Birkenstocks, didn’t you? — anyway, I have a pair of Birkenstocks that I bought on my honeymoon, thirty years ago this September. Now, Birkenstocks are pretty tough, but they do wear out; I’ve had the Vibram soles replaced three times, the uppers eventually broke a strap so I had them replaced, and while I was doing that they rebuilt the cork part where it had worn away.
You see the joke here, of course: at this point, I’ve replaced all the parts, but I think they’re “the same shoes”. It’s like the story about the farmer who bragged he had a pickaxe that was a hundred years old, handed down from his great-grandfather. Oh, he’d replaced the handle six or seven times, and he once broke the pick end trying to pull a stump so he’d had to replace the head, but the tool was a hundred years old.
This is actually a central point of Buddhism. In fact, the Heart Sutra says that Buddha became Enlightened by realizing, wholly and completely, that everything in the universe that we see and interact with, everything that is related to everything else by cause and effect, is just like my Birkenstocks: a collection of atoms that happen to be in one relationship at a particular time, but that came together from parts of other things in the past and will come apart and become something else in the future. When buddha really saw that, he saw through and recovered from the addiction of thinking there could be something permanent, and so ended the clinging to a fantasy of permanence that causes suffering.
Which is all well and good, but until we manage to Realize the Heart of Perfect Wisdom ourselves, what can we do?
That’s the Fourth Great Truth: that there are upaya — “skillful means” or “expedient means” or even “clever tricks” — through which one can reduce one’s own suffering now, and reduce the likelihood of suffering in the future. Siddhartha laid out some of these clever tricks in a program of eight steps that’s usually called, in English, the Holy Eightfold Path.
I’m going to take an aside here for one of my periodic rants about the Victorian Theosophist translations Buddhism is burdened with in English. The “Holy Eightfold Path” in Sanskrit is arya-ashtanga-marga; wherever you see “Holy” or “Noble” in something in Buddhism, you can bet the original word was “arya”. The problem is that arya doesn’t really mean holy, and only sort of means “noble” — it really means “valuable” or “precious”. The translation to “noble” happens because the term is often used for “noblemen” or aristocrats. Chinese is more straightforward — it’s 八正道, ba1 zheng4 dao4, or “road of eight valuable things”. What are these eight valuable things? They break down into three groups: wisdom, ethical behavior, and meditation.