Saturday, February 23, 2008

The 13th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: Great Compassion

I tried a new approach to meditation in today's session, it being the 13th of the now monthly Dharma session organized by Middle Way Buddhist Association and held at its Pinellas Park venue. Previously, I have been using the Breath method, concentrating on the inhaling and exhaling to focus the mind, with some success. Then I read in Daniel Goleman's The Meditative Mind (Putnam Book, 1988, pg. 186) that “some of the most widely used concentrative meditations employ mantras as the objects of focus.” It cited “Om Mane Padme Hum”, a pithy Buddhist mantra, as an example. And that was what I did, today.

Effect-wise, it wasn't much different from the Breath method as random thoughts and pieces of sounds picked up by my hearing still wandered in and out of my mind, breaking up my silent chanting in the process. But I heeded the lessons that I have been taught: let the thoughts and the sounds make their way through, and gently bring the mind back to the mantra chanting.

I think I began to lose track of the time toward the later part of the meditation session, until I heard the chime signaling the end of the session. Reluctantly, I reentered the physical world to attend the Dharma talk by Bhante Dhammawansha that ensued. Calling it a discussion rather, Bhante said the time for Dharma discussion is auspicious, timely, fortunate, precious, and beneficial. So was the Dharma topic today: Great Compassion, or Mahakaruna. This is the Buddhist compassion that knows no limits. Also in Buddhism, wisdom and compassion go hand in hand.

Compassion can be defined simply as the heart warming, even melting, upon seeing suffering, which then precipitates a want to help. Unlike cruelty, it takes efforts to cultivate compassion. For example, most people would just smash a mosquito on one's arm with one's palm without giving it a second thought. A truly compassionate person would have to consciously let go of that killer instinct, and softly shoo the mosquito away. Most may also rationalize their “destructive” action on the “for the greater good” argument that mosquitoes are vectors of debilitating deceases such as Malaria and Dengue Fever. However, Bhante gently reminded us that while animals have single-point poisonous parts (for example, tails of scorpions and fangs of venomous snakes) in their bodies, ours is a whole-body arsenal of poisons. That's food for thought indeed.

So many times we seek and see happiness outside of and around us, but never feel the compassion inside. We must realize that what we see outside are tools to an end, including Dharma. An oft-cited Buddhist analogy is once we have crossed a river in a raft, we don't carry the raft with us but leave it behind for others.

When we practice compassion, there is no place in our mind for cruelty, for jealousy, and all the other negative human emotions. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama humbly proclaims, “My religion is my compassion.”

But as the cliché goes, it's easier said than done. How, then, can we cultivate and develop compassion? Bhante said we can start with doing the little things such as:

1) Do little things for others.

2) Speak kind words.

Then to expand the sphere of and elevate our level of compassion:

3) Realize that we will be helpless and hopeless one day. [Here the discussion shifted to cases of people committing suicide, say through a self-inflicted gun shot, just to escape the situation to which Bhante responded that the last thought that a person leaves this world with is important in determining his/her next life, perhaps one prone to wielding the same weapon to cause harm to others then. An attendee also posited that this very act would deny others the opportunity of giving. The proper thing to do is perhaps not to expect anything in return.]

4) Think everything as impermanent, thus laying a great seed to develop compassion.

5) Know yourself. We need to take care of ourselves first [not in the sense of serving our own needs first, but so that we are in a position to help others].

6) Listen to others' lamentations, hear the crying world.

7) Put ourselves in others' shoes [Brilliant scientists who develop and program mass weapons of destruction (chemical, biological) are likened as people with knowledge but without compassion.]

8) Have a calm, peaceful personality.

At this juncture, the sky started pouring, pelting the roof to a crescendo. It also afforded Bhante the chance to liken the rain to the shower of compassion, removing the desert in the heart just like the rain would make the plants rejoice and flourish.

Adding to the above list, an attendee suggested: think inter-connectedness, to which Bhante offered the term, one brotherhood.

To conclude, Bhante suggested that we keep a journal of good deeds that we have performed on a daily or weekly basis. One such entry could read: Today I smiled back to a person who got angry with me. At the end of the year, a reading of the journal would provide a glimpse into our compassionate journey and also spur us on to aspire to great compassion in the Buddhist sense.

In the midst of discussion, several attendees also touched on the issue of being vegetarians in consonance with the Buddhist precept of no killing, even though Buddha did not decree that one should not consume meat explicitly. As a matter of Buddhist Edict, Buddhism does prohibit eating meat prepared when one has witnessed the killing of the animal, one has heard the killing of he animal, and one has ordered the killing for the meat preparation, or that the animal was killed because of me. Then there are views that merely the act of consuming meat alone, even though it is not in violation of the Buddhist Edict, is tantamount to creating a demand for meat, and the same act is amounting to condoning the killing, or letting others kill for you. Another attendee also pointed to the moral high ground that some self-righteous activists position themselves to judge others. This is a complex, highly charged and emotion-laden human interaction that is surely beyond the ambit of this discussion to resolve. But Bhante's exhortations through the Buddha's words and his teaching are sobering:

No harm to others because of me.” .... The Buddha

Do not have a differentiating mind.

As usual, the attendees feasted on a vegetarian lunch prepared by the various volunteers during which more exchanges of views, doubts, and explanations took place; but these would remain as private discourses among lay Buddhists since none of us have the “credentials”, as yet, to say one way or the other. But the contents did provide fodder for more self investigation through experiential learning.

A doubling of Wify with Arnold (left), and Sandra (right), two fellow attendees.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Spiritual Dinner

This evening we participated in the International Dinner and FundRaiser for the benefit of Dhamma Wheel Meditation Society (DWMS) to realize its aim of expanding its meditation hall. The event was held at the Unity Church of Clearwater, located just next to the DWMS venue, which also serves as the residence of Bhante Dhammawansha, the resident monk of DWMS.

Wify prepared two dishes for the occasion, and we promptly brought them to the cafe area of Unity Church to be arranged along with numerous dishes from other volunteers. A brief ceremony was first held in the sanctuary, started off by the host, Rev. Leddy Hammock, the minister of Unity Church.

She first spoke of peace, succinctly contained in the following seven points:

1)War and violence do not work, and are counter-productive to the wellbeing of the human race.
2) Our worldview must change as treaties do not guarantee peace.
3) To do that, we have to change the human thought, our consciousness.
4) And we have to change our thoughts individually.
5) Love is the only thing that works.
6) One filled with love can overcome anger.
7) And when anger is released, we feel peaceful

She then led the attendees through a peace prayer session. Bhante Dhammawansha next talked on self love, it being the remedy for everything. Self love comes from within, and its cultivation brings unity. He enumerated the following ways through which self love can be cultivated:

1) Cultivate the mind to avoid unwholesome thoughts and deeds.
2) Have a sense of humor, as it infuses one with self love.
3) Be humble and let go of your ego.
4) Appreciate your human life, one that's endowed with so many good qualities.
5) Cultivate non-violence.
6) Do others' duties.
7) See the suffering in the world.

In the words of the Buddha, “No harm to anybody because of me.”

He then invited his fellow Sangha members in attendance on to the stage to deliver a joint blessing in Pali. Thus blessed, all were invited to a spiritual dinner hosted at the cafe area.

The start of the vegetarian dinner. We were feted to music entertainment courtesy of the organist who was shielded from view by the waiting line to the right.

Bhante Dhammawansha (second from left) were seated at the library area just next to the cafe area with his fellow Sangha members, and they were having their own spiritual dinner indeed.

The dinner was a vegetarian fare, which we partook of mindfully. Thus ended a blessed evening, for a noble cause, spiritually fulfilled.

Oh yes, we each took a fortune cookie. And mine read: You will be pleasantly surprised soon. But I'm already.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Great Buddhist Practitioner and Scholar

Garma CC Chang is a name that we first came across in an email from a Buddhist friend, inviting us to attend a two-hour special program delivered by his wife, Mrs. Helena Chang. We were intrigued by the brief biographical sketch of Prof. Chang given therein:

He went to eastern Tibet to study Buddhism at age 16 and stayed there for 9 years. Master Chang was professor of Eastern Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. He had made tremendous contributions in bringing Buddhism to the western world.”

Wishing to learn more about the remarkable journey that Prof. Chang had carved out for himself on his chosen Buddhist path, we did the most natural thing in the Internet Era: googling. Starting from his English name, we managed to locate his name in Chinese, after a few twists and turns in the virtual world. The first impression we got is that his Chinese name seems familiar. Then a whole slew of information unraveled when we googled his Chinese name.

We learned that he was born into a well-established family of military repute in China. His mother was a devout Buddhist, whose reverence for the Buddhist teachings had rubbed off on him in his formative years. He was proficient in Chinese, English, Tibetan, and Sanskrit, a very rare combination of linguistic fluency these days. This rare endowment, some no doubt acquired with tremendous perseverance, had placed him in good stead to help bridge the subtle differences among the original and various translated Buddhist scriptures to get to the common underlying themes. Equally important is his eminently ambassadorial role in helping to propagate the Buddhist philosophy to the West, which he had fulfilled exemplarily, by both delivering Dharma talks and writing English Buddhist texts. One of his early Chinese Buddhist texts, What is Dharma? (translated from Chinese), has become a very popular introductory text on Buddhism. He passed away in 1988, leaving a wealth of legacy to guide lay buddhists like us.

Because of our seeming familiarity with his name in Chinese, wify started looking through her collection of Chinese Buddhist texts, and located the above text published by the Buddhist Association of US, the provenance of which (as in from where) we are unable to trace.

Unlike other texts in the same genre that relies on historical development, this rather thin text (numbering less than 100 pages in the B5 format, about half the size of a foolscap paper) employed an effective three-pronged approach to elucidating the salient facets embodied in the Buddhist teachings.

Prof. Chang first resorted to comparative analyses involving other major faith systems to evoke the uniqueness and profundity of the Buddhist teachings. Next, the Mahayana tradition that posits everyone as imbued with the Buddha nature was employed to explain why we have yet to attain Buddhahood, and to illuminate why meditation is the foundation from which stillness, consequent upon taming the mind, will emerge, thereby laying a viable path, paved with wisdom, toward enlightenment. This “straight to the gut” approach provides a direct conduit deep into the essence of Buddhism.

The third variant then pinpointed our errant ways of living that delude us into embarking on the wrong path and identified several modes of Buddhist practice that, when incorporated into our daily routine, would help put us on the right track.. The last experiential approach is meant to make us realize the meaning of Dharma through self actualization.

I finished the entire book in less than an hour of continuous reading, the speed no doubt aided by my prior exposure to similar contents. I particularly like the presentation in this version (unfortunately it's undated, but see the cover, which is different from this electronic text) where concise statements culled from the gist of a particular section are laid out on top of every page for easy and quick reference. Some translated examples follow:

A beginning is only relevant in the context of a particular event.”

Buddhism is the belief of rationality; Dharma is the pursuit of wisdom.”

The Buddha is not omnipotent. He is merely our teacher, and only our own efforts can truly liberate us.”

The Buddha is the great emancipator through the elimination of greed, anger, and delusion. The Buddha will not be enraged into meting out disasters as punishment for our misdeeds.”

If we descend into hell, it's because of our own karmic pull toward retribution. Such a cause leads to such an effect.”

Equality, Tolerance, and All-inclusiveness lie in the core of the Buddhist Teachings.”

Our experience through life is nothing but a journey of zero sum game of emotions and rationality where one can only grow at the expense of the other.”

The co-arising of great compassion and great wisdom is the common goal of our learning efforts as lay Buddhists.”

Our delusions are like torrents that escape our detection before we practice meditation.”

The cause we plant in this life, may not reach fruition in this life. The effect in this life may also not be due to the cause we have planted in this life. “

I have also located his second Chinese Buddhist text on the Net: Buddhist Teachings in Four Communications (translated from Chinese), which will be my next reading assignment.

Prof. Chang also had several English books to his credit, one of which is entitled The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, translated from the Tibetan text. According to Wikipedia, Jetsun Milarepa (c. 1052-c. 1135 CE) is “generally considered one of Tibet's most famous yogis and poets, a student of Marpa Lotsawa, and a major figure in the history of the Kagyu (Bka'-brgyud) school of Tibetan Buddhism. The essence of Milarepa lies in his writings rather than the legends that have grown up around him. The writings, often referred to as the Songs of Milarepa, are canonical Mahayana Buddhist texts and in particular emphasize the temporary nature of the physical body and the need for non-attachment.”

Then this morning I read this quote of him cited in Christina Feldman's The Buddhist Path to Simplicity (Thorsons, 2001, pg. 62):

Long accustomed to contemplating compassion, I no longer see a difference between myself and other.”

And the barricade that we have placed around us, the so-called I/Ego, becomes emptiness. Instead, separate bodies and minds become connected and inter-dependent. This is the logical end that the noble path of compassion would take us, as was the case for Milarepa.

We are indeed fortunate and blessed that we have been invited to partake of the life of this great icon in the annals of Western Buddhism, through the words of his beloved wife, Mrs. Helena Chang. And we look forward to attending the occasion.

This image of the lotus flowers by wify is our tribute in memoriam of the late Prof. Chang.