Sunday, July 27, 2008

The 17th Dharma Session of Middle Way Buddhist Association: The Functions of the Nature

We arrived early at the Pinellas Park venue of Middle Way Buddhist Association on July 19, 2008 to attend the 17th Dharma session. I took the opportunity to scan the immediate environs, taking in the serene setting and enjoying the fresh morning air permeating the space as far as the eyes could see, most of which was mental since this is right smack in the midst of a built up area.

Then the throng of attendees started to file into the hall and took their respective places, either on cushions laid out on the carpet-covered floor or the chairs arranged around the edges of the carpeted space. Bhante Upananda, our Dharma teacher for the occasion, then led the meditation, the first business of the day, by guiding us in the first few minutes through the following oral cues:

During in-breadth, we are imbued with a deep sense of joy.

During out-breadth, we are immersed in a deep sense of release.

Let each arising thought pass, just watch/observe and let go, realizing that it may be the toughest thing to do.

Meditation is an awakening.

Soon we were lost in our own little world, doing our own battles with the myriad thoughts that came to pass, perhaps with varying degrees of success. And somewhere in the midst of the continuing tussle between clarity (when the ticking of the wall clock became distinct) and muddled thinking (when the humming of the air-conditioning persisted), I heard the ringing of the bell, signaling the end of the meditation session.

For today's Dharma session, Bhante Upananda has elected to speak on The Functions of the Nature (a summary of his talk distributed as a handout is reproduced below for those who were not able to make it to the occasion for one reason or another).

Our current view of Nature, as most have come to know, is perhaps rooted in the Western concept, its etymological origin being a combination of Greek and Latin according to Wikipedia:

The word nature is derived from the Latin word natura, or "the course of things, natural character." Natura was a Latin translation of the Greek word physis, which originally related to the intrinsic characteristics that plants, animals, and other features of the world develop of their own accord {empasis added}.”

Thus, we readily distinguish Nature from that's supernatural, and more intuitively, from that's artificial, which is “understood as that which has been brought into being by a human or human-like consciousness or mind”.

In Buddhism, the operative term is Tathagata, often used by Buddha when he was referring to himself when talking to his disciples. It's a combination of Tatha (meaning such) and Gata (meaning gone). In the European-led translation of the Pali Canon, the word means The Such Gone One. An alternative interpretation is The Such Come One, following from the root word, Agatha, which means come.

The above begs the question as to the original and ending destinations: where? But this may be a moot point since at the absolute level of truth, there is no movement, i.e., no coming or going.

{The term, as translated into Chinese, would correspond with the second interpretation, in the literal sense. But as wify quoted from the Diamond Sutra to me later, there is no going nor coming (see image below). I had a little discussion with Bhante during lunch over which alternative would be the preferred one, from the perspective of the mundane world, and both of us tended to gravitate toward the second, the Such Come One, simply because of the positive leaning in the coming (as in welcoming) compared to the “tinted” sentiment usually associated with going (as in parting).}

The base term, Tathata, means Suchness, and could best be contemplated as the counterpart to God. Then, Tathagata is the link to the person who embodies Suchness, or who is awakened into Suchness. Here the awakening is not the normal day awareness that we are conscious of, which is negative awakening, but rather awakening of our form out of attachment.

In this context, both Nature and Suchness share similarity in meaning and function. Our paradigm is to view things in relative perspective, which is wont to shifting even though the form remains the same. In this state of mind borne out of technologically driven consumerism, we cannot see the Suchness, which is the highest form of reality (the suffix ta, in Thata, conveys the sense of “the way it is”).

In Christianity, the connection tends to be vertical characteristic of a hierarchical system. This is not the case in Buddhism where the connection is everywhere. Once awakened into Suchness, one sees nothing as there is nothing to see.

Also, our conventional thinking follows the linear relationship of start/end/destination. But in Nature, there is no destination as eloquently couched in the following:

The past is the now gone;
the future is the now to come; and
the present is what you are going to see.

Another relevant Pali word is dassana, which means, seeing/perspective, and is constituted by what Buddha said to his disciples who had awakened/been enlightened.

We often talk about tangibility, things that we can feel. But these are not Suchness. And energy is perceived to exist in the relative realm. When there is no relativity, there is no energy. The world we are born into has been turned into a binary one, as in it's either a yes or a no. However, whatever our perspective, it does not affect what it is {as in the oft-quoted refrain, a rose by any other name is still a rose}.

Our problem lies in our inability to see whatever it is, which requires us to exercise dispassionate discernment, at the very least. The recent efforts toward achieving ecological balance, an environmental buzzword these days, is our attempts to see the Suchness, no matter how feeble they may seem now.

Most of us may find it hard to separate Siddhartha, the person, from Buddha, the Awakened One. The difference can best be thought of in the way that Siddhartha was born and died when he became Buddha while Buddha was never born until the age of 35.

With these concepts seemingly blowing way over our heads (or is it just me?), the Dharma session came to a close. And we streamed to the back hall to partake of the vegetarian dishes, thanks to all the volunteers who had made the feast possible.

To conclude, here is the full test of the handout with my own notes sprinkled throughout {in curly brackets}:

The Functions of the Nature
Buddhism does not accept a creator of the world or the universe but the Nature itself is the creator, if a notion of a creator is necessary for the ordinary mind to rely on yet on the grassroots level. It is not un-Buddhist to {refer to} the Nature as the Creator. The function of the nature is scientifically explained in the Buddha's teachings as a correlative function of Five Natural Orders or Laws (Pali: Panca Niyama Dhamma), namely:

1)The meteorological/Seasonal Order (Utu Niyama) [literally Season Law] {not governed by any particular person}

2)The Botanical/Biological Order (Bija Niyama) [lit. Seed Law] {including living things}

3)Physical/Causal Order (Dhamma Niyama) [lit. Reality Law] {e.g., gravitation force, everything that is not included in the other four; also dependent origination (causes, effect, conditions, which are bigger but less manifest factors but help the causes in creating the effects)}

4)Psychological Order (Citta Niyama) [lit. Mind Law] {functioning of the mind}

5)Karmic Order (Kamma Niyama) [lit. Action Law] {the footprints of 4 above}

{All Five orders are parallel/co-functional, even though they may exhibit relative dominance. We can alter these orders, but with severe consequences (e.g., depletion of the ozone layer, global warming). }

All these, more or less, govern us, hence governing orders. Even though the teachings of these laws are of no wonder, thousands years ago, they were, of course, they still are, as they are one of the best indicators of the fact that the Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma) is the Science of Buddha.

The corresponding Pali terms shall be explained in class.

{We need to transcend the reality of everything/nothing, a duality that is not helping us to see things as they are. The highest order of Buddhist practice is to do it right away.}

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Let Kindness Heal the Wounds, the Tzu Chi Way

The scourge of widespread riverine flooding has hit the US Midwest region again. The weeks of torrential rains have tested the mighty Mississippi River and its many tributaries at its upstream end beyond their conveyance capacity (a jargon used in hydraulic engineering to denote the ability of a river cross-section to pass the upstream flow downstream without spilling its banks) such that the surging flood flow either erodes the river banks leading to house collapse or worse, breaches the levees resulting in extensive inundation of the low-lying built up areas abutting its banks. Thus far, flooding has affected Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Wisconsin, causing untold devastation in terms of fatality and property damage.

As an immediate response, physical aid has been rushed to the affected areas to help the flood victims. At the same time, many relief organizations have initiated donation drives to provide financial aid to the flood victims to tide over these difficult times. Tzu Chi Foundation, a Buddhist Compassionate Relief headquartered in Taiwan, is one such entity. Coordinated by its US Office, many area branches have marshaled their local members and volunteers to initiate donation collection at locations frequented by people.

The Tzu Chi Relief Poster but with new background images from here.

In Florida, the efforts were led by the Orlando office, and the donation drive in Tampa was entrusted to Yu Huei who polled the Tampa volunteers pool and prepared a roster to man the donation drive scheduled on July 6, 2008 at Sam's Club located on Dale Mabry Highway. We gladly accepted the opportunity to do our bit and were assigned the shift from 12.30 pm – 2.30pm.

Armed with boxes of fried rice prepared by Wify as lunch for the volunteers (Sister Connie also prepared fried meehoon for the same purpose, which I partook of), we arrived dutifully at the scheduled time. After donning the Tzu Chi's trademark vests, we positioned ourselves at the exit end of Sam's Club and started appealing to the loving kindness of patrons. While not exactly old hands in this endeavor, we have had participated in several of these efforts previously (see here) and soon eased into our assigned role without much inhibition.

As I have said before, greeting strangers and appealing for donations for whatever reason in public is a humbling experience. As long as we believe in the good cause we are doing and put ourselves as just one human trying to help another, driven by compassion that is inborn in each of us, then we would not be bothered by the perceived humiliation of being ignored, which from our limited experience is rare indeed. Most people who for one reason or another did not donate on the spot would invariably decline politely and apologetically. We then offer them the alternative of making the donation online by passing out pamphlets. I reproduce here the website for those who wish to do likewise: Tzu Chi Foundation, USA.

Thanks to the Management of Sam's Club, all the patrons that came our way, the Tampa volunteers (listed in the images below), and the Tzu Chi Volunteers Corps from Orlando for making all these possible.

From left to right: Brian Low, Connie Low, Yu Huei (Tampa area organizer), Wify and Yours Truly, standing at the exit of Sam's Club. Not in the pic are Julie Huang and Celia Fan who were in the morning shift and Viky who stood at the entrance to hand out the pamphlets. Thanks to all for all your kind efforts.

Yu Huei (second from left) and Wify posing with the Tzu Chi Volunteers Corps from Orlando dressed in blue shirt and white pants, the assigned dress code for the Corps.