Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Preamble to the Bodhi Path, an Effort at Translation and Actualization

An Anthology on Middle Contemplation and Life, a Chinese Buddhist book by Mr. Huang Kuo Tat, printed by the Buddhist Association of the United States (2005) has been in wify's collection of Buddhist books for some time now. We could not recall how the book ended up there, but chances are we must have picked it up at an exchange service of free Buddhist books, which is an integral part of many Buddhist centers.

Anyway, when we started to participate in the activities of the Middle Way Buddhist Association (MBWA), I started to delve further into what Middle Way entails. One obvious reference is Wikipedia, which casts Madhyamaka (the Sanskrit term) as “the rejection of two extreme philosophies, and therefore represents the "middle way" between eternalism (the view that something is eternal and unchanging) and nihilism (the assertion that all things are intrinsically already destroyed or rendered nonexistent”. While this is precise enough as definition goes, I wanted to understand it better as a lay believer.

And the first paragraph in Sub-section A (The Wisdom of Middle Way) of Section 1 (On Middle Contemplation) in the First Chapter (The Chan Practice of Middle Contemplation) of the above-mentioned book, as available online here, but I first saw it here, definitely put me on the right frame of mind. An excerpt of the text, translated in English, follows:

Buddhism speaks of the Middle Way as the avoidance of extreme views and behaviors. What then is the true meaning of the Middle Way? The Middle Way is defined as following the middle of the path as appropriate, without landing on either side. In this respect, Shakyamuni Buddha had cited the following illustration:

For a timber log to be transported smoothly from upstream via a river to a downstream destination, it has to follow the flow of the main stream so as not to be grounded in the shallows near the bank, nor sunk to the bottom. Middle Way is also akin to playing a harp, the sound is discordant when the strings are either too taut or too loose. Melodious sound will only ensue from strings that are neither taut nor loose.

In practice, Shakyamuni Buddha demonstrated the Middle Way as seeking neither suffering nor happiness. Neither the fruitless self-afflicting way of the ascetic, nor the indulgent, carnal way of the hedonistic can lead to liberation of the mind, which can be accomplished only through living the wisdom embodied in the Middle Way

I particularly like Section 3 of Chapter 3 (Integrated Discussion) entitled The Unperturbed Mind/The Bodhi Path with the tag-line, On Freedom and Responsibility. Both are deemed important human attributes in Buddhism but neither is absolute nor driven by a sense of mission borne of chauvinism. Both are relevant, if not integral, to the many personal struggles that we undergo on a daily basis, as well as to the intra- and inter-national and racial conflicts befalling the world today. Through dealing with life's challenges, the section expounds on how cultivating the Unperturbed Mind and actualizing the Bodhi Path can help bring the conflicts to some satisfactory resolution.

And that, meaning doing the English translation of Section 3, I will do in the next several blogs because of its length.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

From Calm Abiding to Insight, Meditation-wise

We drove to St. Pete yesterday morning to attend the Meditation Retreat for a Dialog with our Minds conducted by Bhante Upananda organized by Samadhi Buddhist Meditation Center and held at the Southwest Florida Buddhist Vihara. But we were there only for part of the time, staying to listen to the Dharma talk on How to move to Vipassana from Samatha.

We have been to the Vihara several times before, recalling the majestic outdoor model scenes depicting the various momentous events in the life of Syakyamuni Buddha, all in sparkling white. We note that several mini wooden crossings have been added since then.

We first handed over several vegetarian dishes to the kitchen, and tiptoed into the main hall where Bhante Upananda had already began his Dharma talk.

Bhante likened our life to being on a psychological marathon, always on the move. And we are lost amidst the tremendous technological advances that we have forged, mechanically moving forward but perhaps spiritually deficient. To fill this void, we need dialog, and talk to ourselves. Hence the purpose of the retreat, which is to try to look at ourselves.

Bhante notes with concern the fixation of college students on cell phones. They are often seen fidgeting with the cell phone in hand, scrolling up and down for someone to call. The outlook is often one of seeking pleasure from without, rather than addressing the inner turbulence that is constantly brewing, bordering on bursting at the seam.

In this respect, the word meditation as is commonly understood fails to convey what it is meant for. In Pali, the word is Bhavana, which means to cultivate, to enhance, to increase, through reducing turbulence.

Samatha (an English translation is Calm Abiding Mediation) is then aimed at emptying our mind of negative feelings, akin to clearing out the garbage that is occupying space in the kitchen, as a tool for fulfillment.

All Buddhas profess to do no evils, do all good, and to purify the mind, achieved by removing moral garbage. We inherit 52 types of tendencies by birth, the majority of which is negative. And good tendencies feed on good feelings, and vice versa.

While meditation as a practice predates Buddhism, Vipassana (an English translation is Insight Meditation) is where true Buddhism/Dharma begins.

Bhante believes that the word "religion" fundamentally carries cultural connotations. A preferred alternative term, which is increasingly used in US, is spirituality, which is perceived to be culture-neutral.

He also believes that there is no religion other than emotions, which are the functional aspects of the mind. One particularly pernicious emotional display is a deep level of helplessness, sometimes manifest in our crying out for help.

Thus, Samatha deals with the inner turbulence engendered by our emotional upheavals so that in the process positive tendencies would pop up, leading to good results. What Buddha did was to change the Samatha meditation as practiced then by not surrendering to some unknown higher level/source. The Buddha taught us to seek internal divinity instead, by internalizing and humanizing the God within us.The Buddha then rediscovered Vipassana, the insight meditation that permits us to see things as they truly are through letting the dust settle such that the water is no longer troubled. Otherwise it's like trying to see through a pond of troubled water but we cannot see because there is no way to see.

He cited a personal example of a back pain sustained during a fall in Toronto in 2002. While the doctor can prescribe clinical relief, he had to deal with the pain by seeing the pain as it is, to transform the pain as is often cited by Dalai Lama.

The easiest avenue to Vipassana is through dealing with aches and pains. By believing in the ability to deal with the pain, we can realize our inner potential. Scan the body, identify the pain as one whose primary existence is in the mind, recognize that we are mortals, are in a state of perpetual change, and hence, impermanence, thereby educating our mind in the process.

Vipassana connotes discernment and wisdom, and entails diving into the mind to see its beauty. While he does not encourage everyone to do so, Bhante engages in seeing his own skull as a way to understand impermanence. As an analogy, a medical practitioner has an anatomical understanding of the body, but the Buddhists need to have a spiritual understanding of the same, peeling off the robe, the skin, the flesh, the bone, the marrow, and ultimately nothing, the ultimate emptiness.

At this point, Bhante concluded the session on the Dharma talk and the attendees then adjourned to a scrumptious vegetarian lunch prepared by volunteers. We left soon after lunch while the other attendees continued with the afternoon session on walking meditation, earning a well-timed respite from their busy schedule by engaging the mind in a dialog through meditation.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The 11th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Love is in the air

“ ... Love is nature's way of giving; a reason to be living ...”

For those of us who belong to the so-called baby boomer generation, this is likely to be familiar lyrics; otherwise the tune itself, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, may also evoke a trip down the memory lane. Love can indeed move mountains. At the same time, love can be the source of untold misery too, when its twin brother, hate, comes to the fore. But it does not have to be that way, when we subscribe to the Buddhist notion of love, as expounded by Bhante Dhammawansha at the occasion of the 11th Dharma session of Middle Way Buddhist Association (MBWA) held on December, 15, 2007 at its Pinellas Park venue.

This was to be the first of the three topics that Bhante would speak on, immediately following the mutual introduction of fellow attendees, the other two being cause and effect, and compassion, two of the central tenets in Buddhism.

Broadly, love can be conditional or unconditional. The former lies within the purview of us mere mortals, it being the preoccupation of the mundane world, be it between married couples, among family members, friends, leaders and followers, etc. On the other hand, unconditional love is a particular rarity in this time when materialism reigns supreme but is professed by the Buddha and Bodhisattvas nonetheless.

Conditional love is characterized by the duality of love and hate, the line of division being often tenuous at best. It is selfish, driven by self benefits, and is loaded with expectations. It is carnal in nature and fixates on the ego. Since “I” is in the thick of action, negative emotions like anger, fear, worry, and doubt abound, thereby accentuating the negative feedback to the extent of destroying the lives of others. This proliferating trend has turned the world into a time bomb, a catastrophe in waiting.

The only way to defuse the dire situation is to propagate unconditional love, one that is fulfilling, healing, uplifting, and reinforcing. It nips hatred in the bud. Unconditional love starts from within, by changing our mind. It is said that the difference between a murderer and a saint is only one thought away.

Ever noticed that the poisons in animals are confined to certain parts of their bodies: the tail of a scorpion, the fangs of a venomous snake, the skin of some animals? But all five senses of a human body are poisonous, but they can be controlled, with the mind. Think no retaliation, practice forbearance. When in a group, do only one of two things: spiritual discussion or noble silence.

A pre-requisite to embracing unconditional love is self love, the ability and capacity to love ourselves. It may seem paradoxical, but is like having a bottle of water, you can't give it to others if you don't have one. Through self love, we will be able to give love to others. This is one way to develop the seed of unconditional love. One other way is to appreciate life, going above and beyond the oft-quoted raison detre: eat, drink and be merry.

Cultivate the right understanding, and hold the right view. Let go of clinging, avoid emotional roller coaster, talk to “anger”, without giving it plus or minus, be friendly with negative emotions, not hiding or rejecting, but accepting, observing. Be mindful, focusing in the moment.

How to be detached from the 5 senses? When seeing, just see. When touching, just touch. We need to control our senses, just like the turtle retracting its head and limbs into the shell when it encounters a tiger, leaving the tiger no choice but to walk away.

Satisfying our desires only brings temporary relief, after which they will continue to fester to become long-term afflictions.

Bhante concluded the meaningful session on love by passing on another gem of Buddhist teaching:

Worldly things are always ready for our needs, but not for our greed.”

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Tenth Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Consciousness and Self

Venerable Jiang Hu made a return visit to Middle Way Buddhist Association's venue at Pinellas Park at the occasion of its Tenth Dharma session to deliver the Dharma Talk entitled Buddhist Analysis of the Mind: Consciousness and the Self. As was the case during his first visit in July, the session was preceded by meditation at 7.00pm, and concluded with a Taking the Three Refuges ceremony at 9.30pm.

We left home around 6.00pm and found the evening commute on I-275 to be bearable, enabling us to reach the venue before the scheduled time of start.

The attendees in place, seated variously on chairs and on the carpeted floor, with cushions, Venerable Jian Hu first gave a brief introduction to the essentials of meditation, it being a way to tame the mind, distracted as it is by our endless search for happiness, not realizing that our preoccupation is actually a delusional facade and is the very source of our unhappiness.

Through understanding the mind, which is by nature restless and constantly seeking, we can begin to understand ourselves, the truth of others, and the problems that surround us. This insight can come from within, uncovering our potential to realize the highest level of happiness and freedom.

Meditation is a fruitful practice that begins with the right posture, one that is upright, centered, and relaxed. While the full lotus position is deemed the most stable, beginners can opt for other less “difficult” position such as half lotus, or simply cross-legged, or even sitting on a chair, if physical limitations prevent one from assuming the preferred position. This is followed by paying attention to our breathing to follow a natural unhurried rhythm, and our mind to be fully aware of what's going on. The salient points in this regard are covered in Venerable Jian Hu's first visit and would not be repeated here.

Venerable Jian Hu then led us through a sitting meditation, followed by a walking meditation to experience mindfulness in motion.

Brother Tom introducing our Dharma teacher for the night, Venerable Jian Hu.

In the Dharma talk that followed, Venerable Jian Hu cited meditation as one approach to calming the mind, to render it non-seeking and not desiring. The focus is to clear ourselves of self, the mind in pure awareness, no thoughts arising.

Another approach is a contemplative one, by analyzing consciousness. He related a parable of a group of blind men trying to make sense of what an elephant looks like by feeling different parts of the animal: its tusks, its trunk (snout), its body, its tail, and its leg. As a result, each “sees” a partial and incomplete picture. This is analogous to our perceiving the world using our limited senses.

In Buddhist analysis, we have eight types of consciousness. The first five of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch are similar to the five senses known in western psychology. The sixth consciousness is our thinking faculty, one that categorizes, and assigns names to objects the first five consciousnesses come into contact with and therefore co-arises with them. However, this is not sixth sense or extra-sensory perception (ESP) that people in the west are wont to invoke.

As a result of the co-arising, our perception of reality through the five sense consciousness is often colored and distorted by our sixth consciousness, with accompanying good and bad thoughts. These then lead to good or bad karma, and retributions. In this regard, it is the one most responsible for our fate. The principle of causality enshrined therein is a central canon in Buddhism, and is somewhat akin to the western refrain, what goes around, comes around.

A good example of our sense limitation is we can only see a tiny range of the entire electric-magnetic wave spectrum, the visible light. Outside this visible light range, a wide assortment of EM waves ranging from microwaves to X-rays that we are blind to have been tapped to maintain and advance our well-being. But when we do not understand the limitations of our senses, we become ignorant.

Venerable Jian Hu then related a personal story of talking a little girl out of consuming meat. The girl was holding a puppy and admitted to not wanting to hurt it when asked. But her eyes swelled with tears when she was asked whether a chicken would feel pain when its leg is cut off. So often we are so used to seeing a small part of reality, in this case, a golden yellow drumstick on our dinner plate, we become detached from it. But if we are able to see a bigger picture, through a larger window to the world if you will, we can generate compassion within us and behave compassionately toward others.

The 8th consciousness is the Alaya or storehouse consciousness. It is also a field, akin to one from which farmers can reap harvest. It always metamorphoses, changing our perspective. As a storehouse, it is a repository of “karma seeds” created by the first seven consciousness. As a field, it can preserve the karma seeds, and when the conditions are ripe, the seeds will grow and bear fruits (karmic retributions).

The 7th consciousness is the Manas or self consciousness. In everyday lingo, it's the ego, a rather irrational one, through clinging to the 8th consciousness. Unfortunately, it's not the real self.

On the other hand, awareness, that fundamental perception that lies at the base of consciousness, does not change. We are equal at the fundamental level, but diverge through alterations by cultural conditioning. To realize your true self is to empty yourself.

Venerable Jian Hu concluded the talk by offering the following advice:

Your can only convert your enemy through compassion.
Work as a way to serve humanity.
Life is impermanent. Accept it.
Do something for the departed by doing good deeds and dedicating the merits to them.

We left the session at the conclusion of the talk and did not stay to witness the Taking the Three Refuges, but I'm sure those who did have had a very blessed night.

Here I would like to conclude with one of the two poems on consciousness from the handout of Venerable Jian Hu:

There are eight brothers from one womb,
One is smart, one is dumb,
Five are out there doing business,
one stays home keeping the account book.

Can you name each of the eight consciousness as described?