Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 10: The Rod/Violence

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


In my commentaries, I’ve tried to focus on the Buddha’s proposed practice, one which might be called a cognitive-behavioral approach of sorts, of reframing one’s mind as well as taking up new patterns of speech and action. I’ve tried to emphasize that the mindful approach to new speech and action help with the cultivation of the new wise frame of mind, and the wiser frame of mind helps with choosing and sticking to better, more wholesome forms of speech/action. For a refresher, see my commentary on the 1st chapter, which truly holds the structure of everything that comes after in terms of the path of Dharma presented by the Buddha.

We see this proposal of change lined out clearly in this chapter about the negative outcomes of violent mind, speech, and action. The opening lines tell us to reframe our mind for empathy. This cognitive reframing is done indirectly by appealing to the reader’s emotional experience rather than making a straightforward logical argument that you need to change the way your mind sees the world. We’re told that as we feel pain and suffering, so do all other things, so do not harm them. This is a key piece of what is later known as the “hinayana”, or what we might more respectfully call the early teachings of Buddhism: do not harm others. From cultivating empathy for them, we will choose not to speak harshly or act with violence. Precisely these, speech and action, are covered in the lines after the call to empathy.

In another call back to the first chapter’s lines about hatred ending through non-hatred, we’re given a key metaphor to our understanding of what the path is ultimately about.

If, like a broken bell,
You do not reverberate,
Then you have attained Nirvana
And no hostility is found in you.
-Trans. Fronsdal (134)

The end of the line previous to this points out that harsh speech generates harsh retaliation. This metaphor of the bell follows. The bell, then, indicates that much of our action is automatic, and the retaliation from the pain and threat imposed by another flows as a reaction as automatically as the bell rocks back and forth when we hit it. It’s almost a law of human psychology presented as similar to the causation seen in physics. Here then, we see that Nirvana truly is a breaking down of the standard, a taking away rather than an achievement of something on top of what we already have/do. In other metaphors, Nirvana is a blowing out of the burning fire that is our experience of the poisons and clinging; here, it’s a breaking of the bell that is our instrument of perceiving and reacting to samsaric stimuli. Notice, the broken bell isn’t numb to the strike. It simply doesn’t react by reverberating and ringing. It doesn’t retaliate.

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In order to break the bell, we must reframe our mind. This comes from recognizing the unwholesomeness of violence, hatred, and retaliation. Again, in the first chapter, we were told that one who blames others for hurting us is stuck in samsaric hatred that cycles onward; whereas, for one who does not blame and judge like this, hatred ends. So, finding empathy for others and not inflicting pain back, even when they do it to us, is the view we need in order to step beyond retaliation and end hatred. The path is about taming ourselves, shaping ourselves to react differently. We do this by utilizing the one true freedom we have: focusing our insight on a new perspective and mindfully attending to our speech and actions, over and over again, in order to cut off the automatic nature of our lives. This is liberation.

I will point out two final things in closing this discussion. First, line 144 has a list of the qualities that the one focusing on taming the mind, speech, and action in this way will have. Second, the final line reiterates the task of the sage from our previous chapter:

Irrigators guide water;
Fletchers shape arrows;
Carpenters fashion wood;
The well-practiced tame themselves.
-Trans. Fronsdal (145)


May this help you break the bell.

Gassho!

As a side-note, all of this talk about changing one’s reactions and getting beyond the seething anger of retaliation fits well with Nietzsche’s focus on “Ressentiment”. He also wrote that Buddhism was like a psychological cleansing of these sentiments, and I wonder if it was passages like this that brought that assessment. Deleuze’s book on him is great for this topic, if you’re interested in that as well.

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 7: The Arahant

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


The last 2 chapters provided insight on what wisdom is and which friendships would help one in cultivating it. This chapter explains what someone is like who has found liberation: someone who has made it to the other shore of nirvana and has fully realized that wisdom.

Although, much of what has been said before about good conduct that doesn’t cling to sensual pleasures, cleansing of the toxins, tamed senses, and the elimination of clinging are all familiar and precisely what the other chapters have advised to aim for as the path, this reiteration of the emphasis can get muddled. Some lines in this chapter make the key repeated message of the text fall out of focus, as they sound mystical, almost magical. They speak of the arahant as being hard to trace. However, we must not be confounded by these words. The arahant is someone who has realized nirvana: i.e. “whose field is the freedom of emptiness and signlessness”. They live in a way that recognizes that everything is transitory and without the permanent existence of an identity, in other words, everything is without self: anatta. Mahayana Buddhism will fully grasp upon this idea of sunnyata (emptiness) and lack of inherent identity and develop it to its fullest expression of wisdom later on in the Buddhist tradition, but the seeds of it are here in the resting place of one who has realized nirvana. It’s not that these people have stepped into a new metaphysical place; rather, they’ve recognized and have come to abide in the truth behind the delusion of what we experience all the time, precisely the world we live in. To come to the point, the key in these descriptions of “without trace” is that the arahant has reached nirvana and has thereby been liberated from the attributes of a “self” bound by karma.

To counter the confusion of those lines, let’s focus on lines 95-97 which I find to be absolutely powerful and beautiful:

For a person
Who, like the earth, is untroubled,
Who is well-practiced,
Who is like a pillar of Indra,
Who is like a lake without mud,
There is no more wandering.

Calm in mind, speech, and action,
And released through right understanding,
Such a person
Is fully at peace.

The person who
Has gone beyond faith,
Knows the Unmade,
Has severed the link,
Destroyed the potential [for rebirth],
And eliminated clinging
Is the ultimate person.
-Trans. Fronsdal (95-97)

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Even though someone has lost the attributes of a karma-bound self, they act skillfully. They’ve tamed the mind — have succeeded in the task of taming themselves from the previous chapter. These lines give us a sense of what that well-honed skillful behavior looks like, and it ties all of this to the message of cleansing the mind of toxins, cultivating wholesome mind, speech, and action, and releasing clinging as the path that we’ve revisited time and again in these commentaries.

The qualities of this person are interesting in line 95. Let’s break them out briefly:

  1. stability: “untroubled” — by stability here, I mean something that isn’t constantly moving about, as I take from the simile of the earth
  2. well-practiced: Fronsdal’s notes make it clear that this is a word that literally means something like “good ritual”, so their behavior is a mindful, life-revering action that supports peace and insight
  3. firm: “like a pillar” — Fronsdal makes clear that this is a pillar that is buried deep in the ground, making it unmovable, and furthermore, it remains unconcerned if it receives veneration or not
  4. cleansed: “like a lake without mud” — later Buddhist traditions use metaphors like this to also represent not only something without defilements but something that reflects reality clearly

Let us ponder the peace of having attained the liberation of mind, speech, and action through this description of one who has realized it.


May this give you inspiration to step farther along the path of dhamma.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 5: The Immature/The Fool

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


The title of this chapter should give us pause, as it offers us an opportunity to confront some problems that come with the overlap and distinction of concepts and where those semantics may differ in a different language, particularly an ancient, Eastern language in comparison to a modern, Western one. As Fronsdal notes: “Bāla originally meant a young child who is not yet able to speak. It is therefore sometimes translated as “the childish” (Fronsdal, notes for chapter translation). Indeed, the first translation I read was by Easwaran, and he translated this as “immature”, a translation that I very much like, as it feels less judgmental and limited in scope than “childish” but also less static than “fool” or “foolish”. What I mean by this is that “fool” as it is used in English is a word that strikes me as a character trait — one that is more or less impossible to overcome. As I hope is clear by now, that kind of understanding of “human nature” (in itself a problematically laden term for us in this philosophical journey) runs contrary to the insights that the Buddha’s teachings are emphasizing for us: one of progressive development and training the mind through effort. I feel that “immature” fits this well, as it is an inherently developmental word. An immature person can mature with effort, and in this case, it’s an effort driven by a spark of insight about nirvana and slow growth into wisdom. I will not change all of the quotes to reflect this distinction below, but keep it in mind as we go through this chapter.

An interesting piece of counsel that appears in this chapter is about walking the path with others. For companions on the spiritual path, we want either mentors who can help teach us in the ways of wisdom or at least friends who share an equal interest and effort in attaining liberation from samsara:

If, while on your way,
You meet no one your equal or better,
Steadily continue on your way alone,
There is no fellowship with fools.
-Trans. Fronsdal (61)

Interestingly, this focus on inequality in the dynamics of companionship fit very well with Aristotle’s analysis of friendship, and while I don’t have the space to discuss that at length here, I’ve gone over it before in relation to romantic relationships in this post. Compare that to the current counsel, and also ponder the dynamics of inequality in a mentor/student relationship (clearly how better and lesser would work here) and how that would work in a relationship of one following the path. This counsel rings as potentially harsh when thought through — a kind of solitude is being advised as the best way for one putting the effort into reaching nirvana because clearly most people will not be equal or better, and hence, most will not warrant fellowship.

A fool conscious of her foolishness
Is to that extent wise,
But a fool who considers himself wise
Is the one to be called a fool.
-Trans. Fronsdal (63)

This resonates with another famous thinker from ancient Greece: Socrates. In Plato, he regularly is described as knowing that he knows nothing, and this is precisely why the oracle said he was the wisest in the land. If we twist the translation with “immature” and “immaturity” here rather than “fool” and “foolishness”, the meaning transforms into recognizing how much more room one has for growth of wisdom rather than how much one is a fool. By extension, this cuts through a problem in the term “wisdom” that exists in English. For myself, the distinction between “wisdom” and “knowledge” is usually vague at best in English and, depending on who is discussing the two, seems completely opaque at worst. If we think of this in terms of “maturity” though, it’s no longer related in any way to “knowing” a set of facts, like knowledge is. Instead, it’s the result of having grown aware. This makes it a process-oriented term, rather than a measurement of the data of knowing.

Much of the rest of this chapter has to do with pointing out how foolishness abides and thrives in not yet having felt the consequences of one’s actions. Here we see foolishness and wisdom in relation to karma. Karma is the Sanskrit term for action (kamma in the Pali of the Dhammapada). The key with action as it is meant with the term is that action brings consequences — there are entailed results, but unlike the determinism of the physics of reaction and counter-reaction — Newtonian motion in billiard balls — it’s more like the growth of a tree from a seed when the conditions are right for it to grow. It takes time sometimes for something to fully grow, and as such, the results of karma may take time to be felt and cause regret. That immature state (in terms of personal view and unrealized karma) may make the future regret of poor action completely unforeseen. This is the delusion of foolishness, of immaturity. A proper view of action sees how karma unfolds and how our actions will bring joy or regret. This is wisdom.

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The final lines in this chapter make it clear that fools, or the immature, focus on the recognition of ego-fulfillment in action. They look to companions to praise them for their actions or follow their commands. This too is unwise. It’s a clinging to a self-identity, a glorification of it, not being aware of the ephemeral nature of the “self”, and even more so the temporary status of public recognition of the self. With this in mind, let us close again with the final line of the chapter, another poetic line that echoes the recommendation that we choose solitude rather than foolish companions and that we do not cling to recognition or any form of material gain:

The way to material gain is one thing,
The path to Nirvana another.
Knowing this, a monk who is the Buddha’s disciple
Should not delight in being venerated,
But cultivate solitude instead.
-Trans. Fronsdal (75)


May this bring insight about what wisdom is, how to approach it, and how to consider self and friendship on the spiritual path.

Gassho!

Walking along the Dhammapada — Chapter 4: Flowers

I’m taking another journey through the Buddha’s lessons on the path of the Dharma (one way you could translate the title Dhammapada). A few years ago, I wrote posts on a handful of chapters, but I didn’t go over every chapter. This time, I’m challenging myself to post on every chapter and share them here.


The title for this one and its associated metaphor are striking. I tried my best to succinctly unpack the meaning of this metaphor to encapsulate the meaning of this particular chapter. This is what I came up with: “flowers” is related to properly viewing and acting in the world. As a skilled gardener selects a flower, a follower of the Buddha who has caught sight of nirvana will select a well-taught Dharma-teaching. In other words, an insight of the goal of the end of suffering will lead to proper living in this world.

One who does not see things clearly will simply try to gather as many flowers as possible, which is lusting after sensory pleasures and clinging to them. Such people waste their lives, and continue along the samsaric path of further death and rebirth.

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In contrast, one who sees that the body is ephemeral will live wisely and will not be drawn to Mara’s flowers — cutting them away, thereby becoming undetectable to Death. This undectability repeats in the chapter, and yet again, we have a great simile for how transitory the body is: it is like foam.

Instead of clinging obsessively to sensory pleasures, one with such wisdom doesn’t cling — moving from experience to experience, and living life with the skill of simply engaging. Our example: we should move like a bee moves from flower to flower, gently gathering nectar without harming the flowers.

All of this so far more or less reiterates the messages of the first 3 chapters. Where this chapter furthers and expands the teaching thus far is from lines 50 to 59.

Do not consider the faults of others
Or what they have or haven’t done.
Consider rather
What you yourself have or haven’t done.
-Trans. Fronsdal (50)

Here, we’re not only reminded that our efforts alone are the key to walking the path and realizing nirvana, but it’s further stated that in becoming a walker of the path, one should let go of the judgments of others’ shortcomings. This is the positive corollary of letting go of the hatred of victimhood in the first chapter:

“He abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those carrying on like this,
Hatred does not end.

“She abused me, attacked me,
Defeated me, robbed me!”
For those not carrying on like this,
Hatred ends.
-Trans. Fronsdal (3-4)

Furthermore, in focusing on your efforts, the chapter then lines out that not only your mind and your actions should be in alignment, as in other chapters, or your mind and your speech — your speech and your actions should be in alignment. Early Buddhist teachings focus on purifying mind, speech, and action, and that’s exemplified here.

Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored but lacking scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitless when not carried out.

Like a beautiful flower,
Brightly colored and with scent,
So are well-spoken words
Fruitful when carried out.

Just as from a heap of flowers
Many garlands can be made,
So, you, with your mortal life,
Should do many skillful things.
-Trans. Fronsdal (51-53)

Well-spoken words should lead to associated well-done actions. Otherwise, the words are empty, lifeless, and life in itself is empty, as it doesn’t amount to anything but another cycle of death and rebirth, lacking the beautiful scent of the garlands of the noble path.

There’s one more passage that is worth highlighting directly with a quote because it is simply beautiful, one of the most artful, poetic, and inspirational in the text so far. It is the closing lines of the chapter. We too shall close this commentary with them, pointing out only that once again we have the emphasis that nirvana can be found in the daily mess of the life we’re already in: even when surrounded by the common clinging and delusion, wisdom can grow and flourish.

As a sweet-smelling lotus
Pleasing to the heart
May grow in a heap of rubbish
Discarded along the highway,
So a disciple of the Fully Awakened One
Shines with wisdom
Amid the rubbish heap
Of blind, common people.
-Trans. Fronsdal (58-59)


May this help you grow wise amidst the challenges of delusion.

Gassho!

Compassion Can Save Your Life

Compassion can save your life
Deliverance from struggle and strife
No longer living on the edge of a knife
Compassion can save your life

Open eyes–that empathize
Open heart–that can impart
Open mind–judgments unwind
Openness–knowing emptiness

Karuna inspires–not about “me”
Holding wisdom’s hand–All that be
The Way–infinite, nothing outside
No longer separate–in peace “I” reside

Waking up is difficult.
It is realization that peace and happiness were not some distant accomplishment.
They were here all along.
The Buddha resides in the burning house.
The other shore is right here, right now.


May this inspire you to compassion and presence.

Gassho!

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada–Chapter 23: The Elephant

Note: I’m going to move forward in the book to this late chapter and then skip back to a couple earlier sections. Also, the passage below, although long, is not the complete chapter, rather about 2/3 of it. I chose this particular selection from it to emphasize one point of content, honing the Manjushri sword of wisdom.


Patiently I shall bear harsh words as the elephant bears arrows on the battlefield. People are often inconsiderate.

Only a trained elephant goes to the battlefield; only a trained elephant carries the king. Best among men are those who have trained the mind to endure harsh words patiently.

Mules are good animals when trained; even better are well-trained Sind horses and great elephants. Best among men is one with a well-trained mind.

No animal can take you to nirvana; only a well-trained mind can lead you to this untrodden land.

The elephant Dhanapalaka in heat will not eat at all when he is bound; he pines for his mate in the elephant grove.

Eating too much, sleeping too much, like an overfed hog, those too lazy to exert effort are born again and again.

Long ago my mind used to wander as it liked and do what it wanted. Now I can rule my mind as the mahout controls the elephant with his hooked staff.

Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts. Pull yourself out of bad ways as an elephant raises itself out of the mud. — Trans. Easwaran

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The well-trained mind will take you along the path like the well-trained elephant carries the rider.

Something about the metaphor in this chapter struck me profoundly. The image of the well-trained elephant is very clear, and yet again, we have a comparison that distinguishes the path to nirvana from the other. In this first passage, the Buddha makes clear that the best quality to cultivate is a well-trained mind. This echoes the main message in the other sections we’ve discussed so far. He emphasizes here, however, that the only thing that will allow you passage to nirvana is a well-trained mind. The previous sections didn’t emphasize this destination.

Perhaps, we should take a moment here and question what exactly nirvana is. Otherwise, we run the risk of falling into undefined terms and elaborate concepts without understanding the intention of this message, rather falling prey to our own fancies and preconceptions. This task of considering nirvana may sound easy, but it isn’t and could be written about at much greater length. The word “nirvana” has a certain exotic and fantastical feel to it, at least from my perspective. I remember using it as a child to indicate having reached some ideal and unassailable state–a perfection of sorts that once attained never falls away. Such an understanding reiterates familiar metaphysical dichotomies of being fallen and transcending our state of lack to a completion in the ideal. The two phrases I just used indicate two familiar examples of this–Christianity (transcending fallen state–the lacking nature of sin–through the perfect grace of the ideal: God and Christ) and Western philosophy’s metaphysical systems in general from Plato onward (contrast of the lacking living world with the ideal one which is the Truth, the Real world behind the shadow one that we are in–appearance vs. essence). While there may be arguments for such an understanding of nirvana from passages in the Pali canon, it does not fit well with this section from the Dhammapada.

This passage makes clear that the path to nirvana is the path of the well-trained mind. The examples here show that the well-trained mind is not swayed away from the good, selfless presence in the world (as discussed in my first selection from the Dhammapada) by lust, laziness, etc. We’re shown through the metaphor of the trained elephant that the mind can be trained so that it does not wander about, and this, just this, is the path to nirvana. It’s not acquiring some special state (which wouldn’t fit with the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence anyway) or going somewhere else outside the “ordinary” world (Where would such a place be anyway???). Rather, it’s being fully immersed in the world with our mind as it is underneath all the constant layers of distractions and compulsions.

We often think of nirvana as the result of enlightenment, highlighting the profound wisdom in this path/practice (to be enlightened is to have seen the Truth), but we could also cast it as liberation; that is another, if not equally emphasized, “attainment” (there’s really nothing to attain, more like something to lose) of Buddhist practice, and with that re-thinking, we can see that the path of the trained elephant is simply that–liberation from the myriad sufferings of a confused mind. This regal animal can bear us to the core of our own happiness, revealing our own basic goodness beneath the desire, aversion, and ignorance of our untrained mind.

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Walking the path step by step…


In case we conclude that a capitalized Mind is something other than our usual one, Huang Po deflates all delusions about its transcendence.:

“Q: From all you have just said, Mind is the Buddha; but it is not clear was to what sort of mind is meant by this “Mind which is the Buddha.”
Huang Po: How many minds have you got?
Q: But is the Buddha the ordinary mind or the Enlightened mind?
Huang Po: Where on earth do you keep your “ordinary mind” and your “Enlightened mind”?”

A familiar implication is the Chan/Zen insistence that enlightenment is nothing more than realizing the true nature of the ordinary activities of one’s everyday mind. When Hui Hai was asked about his own practice, he replied: “When I’m hungry I eat; when tired I sleep.”

The Pali texts of early Buddhism do not emphasize “everyday mind” in the same way, for they often contrast the consciousness of an ordinary person (puthujjana) with the liberated mind of an awakened arahant. Yet there is the same focus on not-clinging, a notable example being in the “Book of the Six Sense Bases” in the Samyutta Nikaya. There the Buddha repeatedly teaches “The Dhamma for abandoning all.” He emphasizes that practitioners should develop dispassion toward the six senses and their objects (including the mind and mental phenomena) and abandon them, for that is the only way to end one’s suffering.

“Through dispassion [his mind] is liberated. When it is liberated there comes the knowledge: “It’s liberated.” He understands: “Destroyed is birth, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more for this state of being.””

Listening to this discourse, “the minds of the thousand bhikkus were liberated from the taints by nonclinging.” The absence of grasping is what liberates.

“Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.
This very place is the Lotus Land, this very body, the Buddha.”–Hakuin

Passage taken from David R. Loy’s A New Buddhist Path, pp. 50-51.

May this inspire you to train your mind and release the mind that grasps so that you too may achieve liberation–the well-trained mind will bear you on the path to nirvana.

Gassho!

Identity and Change–An Impersonal Philosophy

Here’s another philosophical jaunt through the open writing of Morning Pages.


I’m sitting here dazed. I was blinded by light as I stood in line. My eyes are still swimming from it.

What if Plato’s metaphor for seeing the truth is singularly inept? By this, I refer to walking out into the light of the sun and escaping from the cave of ignorance in The Republic. What if it’s closer to bad faith? The truth of things is always right at hand, but we don’t want to look at it. Fearing the truth of death, we instead cover it over. We build up the soul in counterpoint to the ultimately impersonal–Death. Death comes for all in every moment. It does not respect us as individuals. Every moment dies. The secret here is that Death has a Janus-mask which has opposite faces–the old, stern, grinning skull alongside the crying baby’s soft face full of potential. Death is a Janus-mask with Birth as Birth and Death come together. Separating them is impossible. Each arising signals an eventual departing. Each departing brings a new arising. The Janus-mask covers the true face: Change.

All of this, Birth, Death, Change, is utterly impersonal. It all happens no matter what we want and, sometimes, despite what we want! However, these events don’t happen due to the consideration and judgment of our personal circumstances by some divine personage who denies or accepts our pleas. They simply happen. It’s nothing personal.

We try to cope with these changes by finding meaning behind them. We ascribe some personal consideration behind them that explains them away. These prayers were answered because God had mercy, but those weren’t because in his infinite wisdom He knew better than I did and is teaching me a lesson, etc., etc., etc. With such explanations, these events have a personal story rather than the mysterious unfolding of a cosmic emergence. They become known to me rather than questions, difficulties, problems that I have to grapple with. It’s a lot easier to cover over the difficult truth–Being is mysterious, and “I” am just another dying process in the middle of it that doesn’t know/understand the significance of the whole thing–than to face it. Facing it takes an existential courage: resoluteness. It takes a willingness to look at it directly and continue despite all the niggling stories, thoughts, and ideas that come up and try to make us look away. These thoughts and ideas churn on in desire, aversion, and ignorance, and they try to make the ultimate counterpoint to this Truth; they aim at building an edifice that will provide undying security from the impersonal cosmic process of Birth/Death/Change. The ultimate security?–A stronghold, a cut off piece of territory from the whole that asserts its independence from the process of change–the sovereign nation of “Self”. It is “identity” in the strong, logical sense of “A = A”. Here Death is denied and fought off, again and again, as the attempted castle crumbles day by day, made of sand–constantly built up anew while denying that this never-ending rebuilding occurs. Identity–a form of bad faith? In a sense, the ultimate form: that which chooses to misunderstand being by overlooking the ongoing impermanence of everything.


It’s been a while since I wrote the entry above. It came out so powerfully, much more charged than many of my posts while riffing off of Plato, Buddhism, Sartre, and Heidegger all in one go.

Please don’t misunderstand, however. I’m not saying that we aren’t individuals. If I eat, it doesn’t fill your stomach. However, we grab onto our bodily existence as separate and emphasize this over and above the elaborate interconnectedness and interdependent nature of everything about existence. Your body is a product of an elaborate history that goes back to the Big Bang. Exploding stars, crashing asteroids, mass-extinctions, forgotten civilizations, and so many more moments have factored into your existence, and you breath air, shed skin, and digest other organic and inorganic matter that recycles into the Earth. Light from a nearby star powers your entire physical existence, directly or indirectly-it warms your planet, makes plants grow which feed animals (including you), and makes life on this planet possible. Furthermore, your body releases heat–IR radiation–some small amount of which vibrates out throughout the greater planet and universe. You are part of the cosmos. You aren’t separate at all. Not really. You are like a flower–growing from a seed, turning into a bud, blossoming into a wondrous natural emergence, slowly withering away, and falling off the plant. However, just like the flower, the flower is not separate from the sun that nurtures its growth, the water that falls as the rain, and the dirt which holds the rainwater for the roots and provides nutrients as well, also offering a place for the fallen flower to be shuffled back into the cycle of life. It’s all one interdependent arising. You are a process, an unfolding of the universe–a human becoming–not a thing, not an it, not a permanent identity.

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Our identities are concepts, impermanent by nature. Such concepts are clearly known in the cessation of ignorance. One does not enhance the happiness or compassion of the “I”; instead one sees through the “I” concept entirely. The Buddha said, “The tides of conceiving do not sweep over one who stands upon these foundations [of wisdom, truth, relinquishment, and peace].” In the moment when conceiving stops–especially self-conceiving–we are freed from the selfish hungers, because we are freed from the constructed self-concept that sustains them. In this moment we are freed from what practitioners of Ordinary Mind Zen call “the self-centered dream.” This freedom is possible. Indeed, if we are attentive, we will notice that freedom visits us each time the mind relaxes out of self-sustaining tensions.

These specks of liberation multiply and link together as understanding grows. This is the alchemy of non clinging. Sometimes, too, there is an avalanche of awakening, which may be sustained by the steadiness of mind engendered by meditation. In the moment of liberation, we cease to cling to an imagined stability or security in what is always changing. We cease our quest for pleasure in what is painful and for an enduring identity in the flux of personal and social fabrications. In the absence of clinging something wonderful is possible.

Beyond the hungers and ignorance is a very high happiness. The self is no longer birthed, in this life or in others. More simply, we cease to believe in the dream of “me” that the mind continually weaves. In this joy, rapture and equanimity conjoin. Wisdom vanquishes constructed identities which liberates generosity and love from the anchors of self. There is acceptance without greed, discernment without rejection, and stability without the illusion of permanence. This is an ongoing moment in life’s process that the Buddha described as “beyond reasoning” and “sorrowless” and “the stilling of the conditioned–bliss.” Nirvana is also called the deathless. It is what my teacher Ananda Maitreya simply referred to as coolness. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, an American Buddhist monk and translator, refers to nirvana as unbinding.

It is tempting, almost unavoidable, to idealize this unbinding. We take it to be inhuman, almost sterile in its purity. But logic and the very earthy stories of the Buddha’s later years tell us otherwise. Even when ignorance has vanished as a dominating force in our lives, we still have bodies, and they still defecate, age, and hurt. We still engage in relationships, and it is still complex. The body still hungers, and the mind still constructs. The key difference is that we do not react to the hungers of the body and heart, and we do not believe the constructs of the mind. We remain human–just not ignorant.

–Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, Gregory Kramer, pp. 67-69.

May this help others see Truth without being blinded by their own stories.

Gassho!

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada–Chapter 14: “The Awakened One”

“Avoid all evil, cultivate the good, purify your mind: this sums up the teaching of the Buddha.” – Chapter 14, Verses

All right. We can go home now. Here’s the teaching, and it’s easy… Wait! No, it isn’t. What does this mean? What is evil? What is good? How do I purify the mind?

I’ve chosen my first two commentaries on the Dhammapada with the hope of making these clearer, but let’s try to untangle them. Here’s our Manjushri sword to cut through this Gordian knot: the Buddha said again and again that he taught the truth of suffering. This was his whole teaching. Also, “The Four Noble Truths”, his four part analysis on the nature of suffering and how to be liberated from it, was his first sermon.

So, his teaching is about liberation from suffering, but it can also be summed up as the three tenets above. However, how are these related? If this sums up his teachings, yet his teaching is that of the truth of suffering and the path of liberation from it, how do we understand them together?

To put it simply, the three point summary offered in this chapter of the Dhammapada is the direction of the path to liberation from suffering. To some extent, to live is to be in pain: we all will undergo the pain of birth, death, illness, and aging. However, we cultivate suffering through our own actions and, perhaps more importantly, reactions. These activities keep us walking in an endless circle of suffering, and our desire to gain a secure setting where “I” am gratified is at the center of this circle. This is our orbit of samsara.

The Buddha offers a path that goes beyond this endless orbit: a path to nirvana. This path is precisely the three points in the quote:

  1. Avoid all evil: Evil has been clearly presented in the Dhammapada as selfish thoughts and actions. Sorrow will always follow these–they keep us locked in samsara’s orbit.
  2. Cultivate the good: the good has been shown since the opening to be selfless thoughts and actions. We might readily think of this as being a martyr. However, a martyr is still caught in the game of “self”–sacrificing him or herself, sometimes for recognition, sometimes for self-gratification. The Buddha’s questioning of self is more radical. He questions the enduring entity of “I”, of atman–revealing that the self is a process that can be mastered, not a static entity. As he says in Chapter 20:

    All states are without self; those who realize this are freed from suffering. This is the path that leads to pure wisdom.

  3. Purify your mind: This one follows from the other two. The task of the spiritual path is to master yourself–recognizing that you “are” an unfolding karmic set of conditions and acting in such a way that recognizes this impermanence, this ongoing flow: “states” without self. To put it simply, we can offer two verses from the opening chapter of the Dhammapada as guiding principles–lanterns lighting the path of purifying your mind:

    For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time; hatred ceases by love. This is an unalterable law.

    There are those who forget that death will come to all. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end.

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I would suggest an interpretation of the first that moves past more standard understandings of these words. If we think of love as the greatest connection to what “I” like, we’ll remain lost. This keeps us rooted in the reactive patterns of suffering that the Buddha tries to free us from–desire, aversion, and ignorance. If love is just a cultivation of the “I”‘s desire, then we’ve understood nothing. Instead, for us to love, not from the love of attachment and I, me, and mine, we have to develop the wisdom of insight–coming to realize that although in a sense you and I are separate (when I eat, it doesn’t fill your stomach), ultimately we are both part of the same unfolding moment, part of the universe’s emergence right now. We’re both part of an intricately interdependent set of conditions not separate in the slightest and not enduring as we “are” in this moment. If we can see this, even for just brief moments from time to time, we can move from “hate” which is the aggressive push for “my” illusory position/preferences as reality over and above those of others to “love” which is a recognition of the interdependence of All and the illusion of separation as well as the delusions of our myriad other stories. In short, I take “love” here to be closer to what is standardly expressed as “compassion” in Mahayana Buddhism–mostly because “love”, as it is standardly understood, is an extremely loaded term for us.

Furthermore, our second lantern from the quote is giving up our quarrels by seeing that we all will die. This reveals our own impermanence and the pettiness behind our strife with others. Realizing that we all will die leads us, much like Stoicism, to understand how those things that we struggle for and suffer over are ephemeralillusory, and empty (Tibetan Buddhist dream yogis would express this by telling us life is a dream–see my related posts here and here. Be careful though! Don’t misunderstand what this statement about existence means!). So, we can learn from this insight to let go of our selfish plans–locking us into suffering of desire, aversion, and ignorance. Through this shift, we can purify our minds.


While writing this post, I read a passage by Dainin Katagiri on these three precepts of the Awakened One. His own commentary offers an excellent companion to my own, and the synchronicity of reading the passage made me feel that I should add part of it here for further elucidation and another voice. The rest of this commentary can be found in his You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight (“Buddha’s Mind” pp. 40-42):

At the beginning of practice, you might believe the precepts are moral rules. But you must learn to take them as expressions of the Buddha’s activity. In doing so, you will study your everyday life, and before you are conscious of it, these teachings will penetrate your life. In this way, you can live naturally the life of a buddha.

The first two precepts are to refrain from what is unwholesome and to practice what is wholesome. The third precept is to purify your own mind. In order to perfect these, and the other precepts, we have to sever three ties. The first of these is doubt, or wrong view, which occurs whenever we attach to our cherished or tightly held ideas.

In Buddhism, human life is seen in light of the teachings of impermanence and cause and effect. These teachings seem contradictory, but actually they work together. On the one hand, everything is impermanent, so there is nothing we can grasp or cling to. On the other hand, there is cause and effect. If you do something, it will very naturally have results. These two seeming contradictory teachings account for much of why we are confused by human life.

Whatever we plan for our lives, we must take impermanence into account. It’s a basic fact of existence. Impermanence doesn’t have any form or color or smell. We only see it in the process of continual change. It’s a kind of energy–always moving, functioning, working. This impermanence–this continuous movement, change, this appearance and disappearance–is what supports our lives. We have to care for our lives with impermanence in mind. We cannot attach to the results of what we plan.

People tend to ignore these teachings of impermanence and causation. This is called wrong view. But we have to accept them. They are facts of life.

The second tie to be severed is selfishness. To be selfish means we attach to our self as our first concern. It’s very difficult to be free of this.

… … …

The last tie we need to sever in order to perfect the precepts is superstition. This is expressed in the precepts of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, or the Triple Treasure. To take refuge is not about escaping the human world. True refuge is seeing the depth of human existence. True refuge is where everyone meets.

A buddha is any person who understands human life on the basis of impermanence and cause and effect. If you live like this, you are Buddha. Everyday life is difficult. We are loaded with preconceptions, prejudices, customs, and hereditary factors. This is why we have to come back to this moment and take refuge in living the life of a buddha. A buddha’s efforts never cease.

Dharma is the teaching given by any person who understands the human world on the basis of impermanence and cause and effect. All we have to do is hook into this teaching and grow. To do this, however, we need help. We need the sangha.

The sangha is made up of those who come together to practice the Buddha’s Way. Without this, Dharma teaching will not be transmitted to future generations. So all of us are needed to practice the Buddha’s Way.

When we take up the Buddha’s Way, the precepts are not rules but ways to manifest ourselves as buddhas. In our daily life, we must return to the precepts again and again. This effort is very important. It’s the effort of simply walking forward, step-by-step, just like the tortoise.

May these words help guide you with the lantern’s light upon the way, the light of the Awakened One, enlightening and purifying your own mind.

Gassho!

“Whatever arises”

This is another passage taken from a recent morning pages session. Again, I’ve skipped past some initial words to get to the insightful part.


So, I feel a bit tired this morning–also due to a couple extra hours at work last night. However, I’m glad to show up again today, no matter what arises. “Whatever arises” is a mantra I’ve had in mind a lot recently. Ultimately, I feel that it captures the liberation from samsara of the Buddha way. The Buddha resides in the burning house. The Buddha’s path doesn’t lead to some special place beyond the world we live in or transcend it through some sort of sleight of hand: appearing here but residing elsewhere. No, the Buddha experiences nirvana in samsara. He merely presides with joy, with loving-kindness, calm-abiding, no matter what arises. In explaining equanimity like this to friends, they misunderstood it as complacency. I understand why one might think that, but that’s not it. The Buddha is not telling us to not walk a path, to not cultivate certain ways or positions. Reading The Dhammapada quickly makes it clear that the Buddha way requires an ongoing engagement that prefers the greater joy over the lesser. However, a great part of this joy is in meeting the challenges of change and the snares of Mara with a peaceful smile–nonattachment to conditions being any particular way. Come what may; whatever arises.

It may be easy to rail against this again, but a look at the Tao Te Ching or even the Stoic works of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius would bring us to similar, if not the same, conclusions. Equanimity does not mean non-action or passivity: complacency. Imagine Buddha walking across India again and again for 45 years after his enlightenment, teaching everywhere he went. Imagine Marcus Aurelius writing his “Meditations” at night on the battlefront. Wu wei, the right action of skillful means, requires seeing reality as it is–the unfolding flux of Tao, emptiness’ dance–and flowing with that change without attachment. This is doing without doing: not forcing the world, rather acting along with whatever arises. It’s not inaction or reactivity; rather, it’s working in accordance with nature, a properly attuned action with Tao. This is a key to the Way of the Sage, the Way of the Buddha, and the Way of the Lover of Wisdom (a philosopher).

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For comparisons with the comments on wu wei at the end, look at my posts on the Tao Te Ching, particularly: Tao a Day–Verse 8: In Accordance with Nature, Tao a Day–Verse 26: Inner Virtues, and Tao a Day–Verse 63: Doing without Doing.

May this inspire you to be at peace, whatever arises.

Gassho!

Path of the Dharma: Dhammapada – Chapter 12: “Self”

Disclaimer: This book has 26 chapters, and I highly recommend you get a copy and read them all. I’ve had to pick and choose, and in so doing, much is passed over. I only hope to emphasize what is key for getting to the other side, but even in my choices, it would be too long to write out each whole chapter, so I have to pick selections from them as well.


Learn what is right; then teach others as the wise do. Before trying to guide others, be your own guide first. It is hard to learn to guide oneself.

Your own self is your master; who else could be? With yourself well controlled, you gain a master hard to find. (Chapter 12, Verses 158-160)

Stephen Ruppenthal introduces this chapter in my translation with an analysis of how the Buddha does not specify his position on what the self is; he cites the Buddhist scholar/philosopher par excellence, Nagarjuna. The Buddha, indeed, does not posit: “The self is X”. However, both here and in the opening lines of the first verse, (“All that we are is the result of what we have thought” see my previous post on the first chapter here), the Buddha makes clear that the self is something that can be trained. As such, it is something that can change; thus, it follows the Buddha’s emphasis on impermanence as does all else. The Buddha does not posit here that there is no atman (a soul), but he does say that the self is something that can be trained, mastered, and he indicates that the spiritual path is one in which you master yourself. The Buddha doesn’t posit anything about the self’s nature, as that would go entirely against the point (i.e. positing something that “atman is”.). Rather, he indicates selflessness, or as is often described as the Buddha’s position: no-self. As he says later in chapter 20: “All states are without self; those who realize this are freed from suffering.” He displays to us that what we label self is not fixed or permanent, rather a dynamic process: one that can be trained and mastered. A permanent, unchanging thing is not open to such dynamism. A biography I have recently read about the Buddha expressed the subtleties of this stance very well:

This was the last thing Gautama wished to communicate. He believed that in this life we inherit the karmic consequences of our actions in past lifetimes, and that when we die, our future existence will depend on our moral state in this one. Having been brought up to believe implicitly in rebirth, this didn’t raise for Gautama or his listeners the metaphysical problems it brings to many who hear these ideas today. He was trying to get away from metaphysical abstractions and point people towards the kind of experience they could detect and observe. Of course, Gautama was saying, every person, including a Buddha, thinks, feels and experiences; the point is that how we think and feel shapes the kind of people we become in the future. The self, therefore, is a process and the task is to shape it. The wanderers should stop asking of life, ‘What is it?‘ or ‘Where is the true self?‘ They should look, instead, at their actual experience and ask, ‘How does it work?‘ Sue Hamilton succinctly encapsulates Gautama’s approach: ‘That you are is neither the question or in question: you need to forget even the issue of self-hood and understand instead how you work in a dependently originated world of experience.’ (Blomfield, Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One, p. 151)

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The self is a process that changes with time like the flow of a river (read Hesse’s famous “Siddhartha”) or the waves ebbing and flowing on an ocean. Note: the flux of some processes can take a very, very long time–such as the erosion of a mountain. That does not make the mountain a permanent, solid entity…

In the quoted passage from Chapter 12, as elsewhere in the Dhammapada, the Buddha tells us to guide ourselves to develop our own wisdom (especially if no wise people are around to guide us–he clearly states it is better to go alone than follow the spiritually immature) and master our own minds. No one else can master them for us. This is the most fundamental aspect of the path–the aspect that wholly depends on our own efforts and no one else’s.

The evil done by the selfish crushes them as a diamond breaks a hard gem. As a vine overpowers a tree, evil overpowers those who do evil, trapping them in a situation that only their enemies would wish them to be in. Evil deeds, which harm the doer, are easy to do; good deeds are not so easy. (Chapter 12, Verses 161-163)

This injunction to not do evil comes right after the call to master the self. How are they connected and what exactly are we supposed to avoid? The answer could readily be seen in the twin verses of the opening chapter already discussed in my previous post. Self-mastery, the proper way to guide yourself, is to tame your thoughts in such a manner that will bring you away from sorrow and closer to joy beyond death–nirvana. It’s a taming that cultivates selfless thought–thought in accordance with the Eightfold Path, rather than the selfish thoughts that our mind is constantly lost in as untamed monkey mind. Selfless thought shapes the mind in a way that brings joy and nirvana. Selfish thought molds the mind in a way that brings sorrow and samsara.


May this help you see your “self” in a light that allows you to cultivate joy for yourself and others. May you be inspired to read through this great spiritual work and find the path to liberation from suffering. May you have the generosity, energy, discipline, patience, meditative insight, and wisdom to walk it.

Gassho.

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