Monday, May 21, 2007

The 4th Meditation/Dharma Discussion of MWBA: Vesak in May and the Genealogy of Afflictions

The month of May is one of special significance to Buddhist practitioners. It’s in the Month of May, 25 centuries ago, that Buddha (then known as Siddhārtha Gautama) was born (the Vesak Day). It’s in the month of May, 35 years later, that Buddha became enlightened. So too it’s in the month of May that Buddha first taught us to become awakened. [According to Wikipedia, "On Vesak Day, Buddhists all over the world commemorate events of significance to Buddhists of all traditions: The birth, enlightenment and the passing away of Gautama."]

The above were the opening statements from Bhante Dhammawansha at the Fourth meditation session organized by Middle Way Buddhist Association (MWBA) on May 19, 2007 at the Clearwater venue. In likening meditation to medication, Bhante explained that while the latter is healing of the body, meditation is healing of the mind.

Through fighting the enemies within us which erupt like burning fires (metaphorically representing the negative emotions that we are wont to falling prey to such as anger, greed, jealousy, etc.) and engulf us ever so often, we can begin to tame the mind. By focusing on compassionate, calm, loving, and happy thoughts, we can begin to become peaceful. And by looking deep into us and practicing letting go and detachment, we can begin to experience inner peace, balance, equanimity, and tranquility. The attendees were then told to relax, close their eyes, and settle into meditation.

After a short break, the wisdom talk series ensued, comprising an English speaking class conducted by Bhante, and a Chinese speaking one conducted by Brother Shieh. There was also a children class conducted by my wife.

It was an especially fulfilling day for me because for the first time in more than three years, all my children were with me, in the same room, listening to Brother Shieh’s exposition on the great teaching of Buddha. In my mind, it’s important that we provide access and facilitate the exposure of all people to the teaching of Buddha in the form of attending dharma talks, in the language the attendees are familiar with, and at a level that is not way over their heads.

Especially for beginners, it’s ambitious, if not unrealistic to think that they will pore over sutras and other interpretative texts on their own. Thus, the tri-step learning process of listening, understanding/thinking (which to me should include further reading on one’s own), and practicing logically starts with listening, but subsequently, the sequence will become less important as the three steps intermesh into a coherent learning expedition dictated by individual circumstances and conditions.

There being two other attendees for the class (Sister Connie and Brother Zhang, a first-timer), Brother Shieh decided to open the topic of the day to the younger generation among us and settled on addressing the two related questions, from the Buddhist perspective:

a) How to be peaceful?
b) How to be happy?

These are age-old questions that have confounded us. The solution seems straightforward enough at first glance: No Worry (as encapsulated in the now-famous mantra from the Lion King movie, Hakuna Matata).

Of course the simplicity of the solution does not translate directly into ease of application. Because that would entail understanding the mind, and how it works, and how it’s influenced by the myriad relationships in the human network, Brother Shieh added.

In a nutshell, we need to steer away from unhappiness and to attain happiness in the process. Conventional happiness is temporary, is transient, and changes with the environment. For example, the euphoria of a promotion can transit into the depression brought about by a layoff, the change precipitated by the changing demands of the volatile employment market beyond the control of individual employees.

In Buddhism, happiness denotes the ultimate truth, one that is unchanging, irrespective of the environment. And that only comes with the purity and stillness of mind, without the emotional roller coaster ride that we seem to be unable, or unwilling, to forego/disembark from. But lest this be misconstrued as perfect stillness, one where nothing ever moves, Brother Shieh cited the example of a tree, or a rock that would have fitted that bill to the letter, if that were the intent.

Instead, a better analogy would be transplanting us from a sea of waves into a placid lake of ripples, symbolizing the presence of responses, and yet small enough as not to lead to upheavals.

In practice, this departure from emotional peaks and troughs can be facilitated by electing to target the matter at hand, and not the people, as often trivialized by the mantra, Nothing Personal.

Next, we need to refrain from attachment. However, no attachment does not equate to the “don’t care” attitude, but rather one of not denying the existence of anything. In the same vein, we ought to recognize that all matters are not permanent, but we continue to cherish, and to enjoy the good times together.

Then we need to believe the cause and effect relationship, and the associated conditions, or the lack thereof. This wisdom is manifest in the following statements:

When conditions are there, things happen.
Likewise when conditions are not there, things disappear.

After expounding the underlying goals we need to embrace on the road to peace and happiness, no doubt in simplistic terms commensurate with the call of the occasion, Brother Shieh continued to enumerating the following ways:

1) In Chinese character, it’s the character of a knife/dagger over a heart, and it means forbearance, and perhaps more narrowly, tolerance, enduring a dire condition of peril. The very first way is to exercise forbearance toward all beings. A more accurate translation of a synonymous term used in Buddhist texts is “to reside in peace”.

2) The second forbearance is toward the environment, recognizing that it’s in a state of flux, hence subjected to a process of change. It cannot be prescribed, each of us has to feel it him/herself.

3) The third forbearance is at a higher plane and is the natural outcome from the first two, featuring no occurrence, nor ending.

While we sentient beings are still weighed down by a combination of illusions and wisdom in various shades, we also focus on the effect while we ought to focus on the cause, as Bodhisattvas do. To do that, we need to be familiar with the domain of afflictions, and their various categories, a fertile learning ground for psychologists-to-be.

At the primary/basic levels, there are six such roots:

P1) Greed (the urge to possess, defying the bounds of sufficiency)
P2) Anger (a supposedly natural response when things do not go our way)
P3) Illusion/Ignorance (the absence of wisdom)
P4) Arrogance (beyond being prideful)
P5) Doubt (unhealthy/excessive skepticism/suspicion)
P6) Bad views/understanding.

On P4: Arrogance, there are seven further sub-classifications characterized by a range of prideful feelings, from faked pride engendered by either superiority or inferiority complex, to just bloated ego, self-denial and one that may be best approximated as “for no apparent reason bordering on psychopathy”. Since it’s difficult at my level of understanding to differentiate the nuances inherent in each, I feel it’s best that I reproduce the list in Chinese for those who wish to delve further into the phenomenon.

On P6: Bad View, there are five sub-groups:

P6A: Self view: one based on bigotry
P6B: Side view: one that is off the mainstream, so to speak, comprising two contrasting viewpoints: permanence and ephemeralness, the former regarding all things as immutale while the latter, we live only for today, so carpe diem, or seize the day mentality.
P6C: further views that arise from personal views
P6D: views spawned by following unreasonable rules (usually ones that were invoked at a different epoch necessitated by a different circumstance)
P6E: Evil views such as those without regard to the concept of cause and effect.

Then items P1 to P5 and P6A to P6E are named the Ten Primary Afflictions where items P6A to P6E are termed as the Five Sharp Messengers, implying that we can work with them readily to accomplish right understanding. On the other hand, items P1 to P5 are termed as the Five Blunt Messengers that require much more efforts on our part for elimination, i.e., thinking.

Then there are the afflictions that arise following the basic afflictions, or secondary afflictions if you will. There are twenty of them, comprising ten in the minor category, 2 in the middle, and eight in the major categories.

Here are the entries in the minor league:
i) anger, feeling of upset
ii) hate/dislike
iii) covering up one’s shortcomings
iv) irritations
v) deception/exaggeration
vi) flattery
vii) conceit
viii) hurt (slandering, derogatory remarks)
ix) miserliness
x) envy

The Middle League:
a) shameless/guiltless
b) no compunction

And last but not the least, the Minor League, which also constitutes the generic set of afflictions:
1) distrust
2) sloth
3) indulgence
4) lethargy
5) without fortitude/easily perturbed
6) non-discriminatory/loss of discernment
7) deviationist view
8) lack of focus

Given the time constraints, Brother Shieh was only able to enumerate the various groupings that form a coherent framework of afflictions with brief explanations of what each connotes. Similarly, my attempts at translation are also to be viewed as a first cut, a broad brush stroke that should be further refined to bring them into congruence with the Chinese text. Therefore, your feedback is most welcome so that we could arrive at a unified English lexicon that best exemplifies the teaching of Buddha for English-speaking people.

As Brother concluded, we can become carefree through learning. We should not worry about thought arising, but rather be concerned with knowing that takes time.

During the vegetarian lunch that ensued, Brother Shieh demonstrated the traditional greeting among Buddhist practitioners: Both hands raised to the heart level, palms joined, and uttering “Amitofo”. This greeting can be used for various occasions: hello, thankful, and goodbye.

Sister Lily then announced the Buddhist Lecture by Venerable Jian Hu on July 9 and 10 as well as reminded the attendees of the Florida 2007 Buddhist Summer Camp to be held on July 5 – 9 at Ramada Inn, Orlando. Pleases refer to the website of MWBA for details. And hope to see you all there.

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