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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!

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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!

Considering Connection and Lost Time

I woke from dreams yesterday, a bit confused, and lay in bed for a while to process the ideas and feelings mindfully, rather than hopping out of bed and forgetting them.

In an earlier dream, my family were all together, travelling, talking, and I spent time with my dad, catching up. A subsequent dream made the first a dream within a dream — waking up from the first, I remembered that my dad was gone, and my mom and sister were both completely lost, shattered, going through the motions of daily life, trying to make it through each one. My sister warned me not to talk to my mom about … something… and when I went to go talk with her, sure enough, she went rigid, cold, and mechanically started doing chores, almost knocking me over as she pushed forward in completing them.

This contrast and some of the associated emotional ambiance of the dream highlighted the emotional difficulties of grieving and letting go, how the process throws us out of our element enough to put us on rails of pain and heartbreak, and in my own case, it accentuated the abstract, almost surreal quality of disconnection. I mean — in my own processing of this event, recently, there have been times where something makes me think: “I can’t wait to talk to Dad about this.” Only a second or two later do I realize that that’s impossible. The few times this has happened have each been equally a moment of bitter realization; it seems the event is just too big, too much of a change of the structures of life for it to readily sink in at the new-normal operating level, even after a few months.

I think that this ultimately speaks to the one piece that I struggle to accept in losing him, the one thing that doesn’t fully digest: I regret not seeing him more since I left to college over a decade ago. There were years when I saw him not at all or only once for a few days. We were both too busy a lot of the time to readily keep up on the phone. Etc.

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That’s ultimately the problem with death, as the existentialists and Buddhists constantly warn us, it’s not operating on our time table. It can come out of nowhere, and it waits for us as soon as we are born. That’s why Heidegger sets the ultimate challenge as being resolute in the face of it, creating your life through your projects, seeing it coming, and knowing that it could pop up at any time. The mahayana path of Buddhism tells us to do similarly: start practicing now, in this moment, and be grateful for the opportunity of being alive and experiencing the truth of the Dharma. You have this one chance to lead a wise, compassionate human life. Don’t waste it.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t as mindful of this in my relationship with my dad as I could have and should have been. I feel like our relationship in the last few years is captured with “Cats in the Cradle” by Cat Stevens (I listened to a rock cover of it a lot in high school by Ugly Kid Joe). I’m sure my dad probably experienced me growing up and zooming off out of our small hometown at a more or less breakneck pace, and he was always just a bit too busy to be there as much as he would have liked, and when I grew up, it was the same for me — too busy doing other things and in places far away (so I experienced the inverse and see that now).

My point with all this is be aware and grateful of the connections you have in your life — both large and small. Try to make the time to be present for them. Reach out. You never know when your time or your friend’s/partner’s/colleague’s/acquaintance’s/family member’s time will be up, and if that time passes, there’s nothing that can bring it back.

Anxiety & Peace

Anxiety
The world – a threat
So many things to do!
So many things that are wrong!
So many dangers that could befall!
Everything must be changed
-Safer, more orderly-
Because “I” am shaken

Is peace truly
A shelter of ego?
An idealized scenario?
Don’t you know–
Everything changes?

Recovery
Finding joy in existence
Whatever arises
Letting go of ego and planning
Just sitting with
And welcoming
–No fear, rather faith–
Compassion & wisdom

Peace is not something to gain
No ordering of the universe
No forcing one’s will
It’s something to lose
The loss of “my” scurrying about

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On Friendship: Views of a Philosopher and of a Zen Priest

At times, I have been dismayed at how readily others are called friends. In this post, I’ve taken passages from Aristotle and Katagiri Roshi to examine what deep friendship is. Aristotle shows us that there is only one complete friendship–one that is an equal and mutual giving that comes from the desire to better the excellence, the good, in another; while Katagiri shows that while we walk alone through life, we can encounter true friends who show us wisdom and noble action. Katagiri tells us how to recognize them when we encounter them and how to act toward such true friends. On some level, these two expositions are dramatically different, but on some level they are the same. Katagiri emphasizes how one could be a friend for the universe with the example of the Buddha in mind. This goes much beyond the rarefied virtue of those magnanimous souls that, rare indeed, can share this equality of virtue enhancement a la Aristotle, yet is it not true that such a friend, the true friend in line with the example of the Buddha, seeks to uphold the best in all that exists, the basic goodness that underlies every sentient being, taking pleasure in this simple act of goodness for its own sake? Both indicate that this friendship is rare, but it is also clear that this is what friendship really is: sharing a deeper truth with someone who brings it out in you as well.

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So there are three species of friendship, equal in number to the kinds of things that are loved; for in accordance with each, there is a reciprocal loving which one is not unaware of, and those who love one another wish for good things for one another in the same sense in which they love. So those who love one another for what is useful do not love one another for themselves, but insofar as something good comes to them from one another. And it is similar with those who love on account of pleasure, since they are fond of charming people not for being people of a certain sort, but because they are pleasing to themselves. So those who love for what is useful have a liking based on what is good for themselves, and those who love for pleasure have a liking based on what is pleasant to themselves, and the other person is loved not for what he is, but insofar as he is useful or pleasant. Therefore, these are friendships of an incidental kind, since it is not insofar as the one loved is the very person he is that he is loved, but insofar as he provides, in the one case, something good, or in the other case, pleasure. Hence, such friendships are easily dissolved, when the people themselves do not stay the way they were, for when the others are no longer pleasant or useful they stop loving them. And what is useful does not stay the same, but becomes something different at a different time. So when that through which they were friends has departed, the friendship is dissolved, since the friendship was a consequence of that.

But the complete sort of friendship is that between people who are good and are alike in virtue, since they wish for good things for one another in the same way insofar as they are good, and they are good in themselves. And those who wish for good things for their friends for their own sake are friends most of all, since they are that for themselves and not incidentally; so the friendship of these people lasts as long as they are good, and virtue is enduring. And each of them is good simply and good for his friend, since good people are both good simply and beneficial to one another. And they are similarly pleasant since the good are pleasant both simply and to one another, for to each person, actions that are his own and such as his own are according to his pleasure, while the actions of the good are the same or similar. And it is reasonable that such friendship is lasting, for all those things that ought to belong to friends are joined together in it. For every friendship is for something good or for pleasure, either simply or for the one who loves, and is from some sort of similarity, and in this sort all the things mentioned are present on account of themselves, since in this sort the people are alike, and all the rest of it; and what is good simply is also pleasant simply, and these things most of all are loved, and so the loving and the friendship among these people is the most intense and best.

But such friendships are likely to be rare for such people are few. Also, there is an additional need of time and intimate acquaintance, for according to the common saying, it is not possible for people to know one another until they use up the proverbial amount of salt together, and so it is not possible for them to accept one another before that, or to be friends until each shows himself to each as lovable and as trusted. Those who quickly make gestures of friendship toward one another want to be friends, but are not unless they are also lovable and know this, since wishing for friendship comes about as something quick, but friendship does not.

Affection seems like a feeling, but friendship seems like an active condition, for affection is no less present for inanimate things, but loving in return involves choice, and choice comes from an active condition. And people wish for good things for those they love for those others’ own sake, not as a result of feeling but as a result of an active condition. And by loving the friend, they love what is good for themselves, for when a good person becomes a friend, he becomes good for the one to whom he is a friend. So each of them loves what is good for himself, and also gives back an equal amount in return in wishing as well as in what is pleasant; for it is said that “friendship is equal relationship,” and this belongs most of all to the friendship of the good.

–Selections from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII, Chapters 3 & 5, translator: Joe Sachs


The Buddha also taught that if you come across a true friend–one who is noble, fearless, thoughtful, and wise–then walk with that friend in peace. If you find such a friend, you can walk together for life. But don’t be too eager to find such a friend. If you become greedy for such a friend, you will be disappointed, and you will not be able to live in peace and harmony with others.

Learning to live alone also means that, whatever the situation, you have to live quietly. All you have to do is just walk, step-by-step. It’s not so easy, but it’s very important for us. And if we are not too greedy, the good friend will appear.

In ancient times in India, people would look to find such a good friend meditating in the forest. If they found such a person, they would sit with him. This is how it was with Buddha. As people began to gather around him, he called them shravakas, which means “listeners.” The relationship between the Buddha and those who came to listen to his teaching was not like that of a boss and an employee or a parent and child. It was more like that of a master and an apprentice. If you go to see and listen to such a wise friend, you are not a student, exactly; you are just a listener. The idea of being called a student came about in a later age.

At the time of the Buddha, there were four castes of people, and depending on caste, there were many formal rules for how people should address one another. But the Buddha was beyond classifying or discriminating among people. He used the same kind, gentle, and polite form of expression to address everyone, no matter what the station. He only said, “Welcome.” That’s it. People didn’t go through any particular ceremony that certified them as followers of the Buddha. They just received this simple greeting. This is the origin of the sangha.

In Sanskrit the term sangha literally means “group.” It was used to refer to religious groups as well as political groups. When the Buddha visited different regions, the people would gather together to listen to his teaching and to practice together. Then, after he left, they would settle into small groups or take up traveling.

Today, how do we find a wise friend? I don’t know. There is no particular pattern. But even though you might not find a good friend in the world, still you can find a good friend in the example of the Buddha. And if you do come across such a friend, walk with him. Just remember, if this person is a good friend for you, he is also a good friend for others, so don’t attach too strongly to him.

You can feel something from such persons as you walk with them. And remember, though they are human beings living now, through them you can meet the Buddha. And through the Buddha, you can see such a good, pure friend.

–Dainin Katagiri, You Have to Say Something: Manifesting Zen Insight, pp. 54-55.


May this set of thoughts give you insight into friendship and how to act as a friend. May you aspire to being a noble, fearless, thoughtful and wise friend who takes pleasure in the good of others rather than the incidental connection of usefulness or mundane pleasure.

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!

Love, Rebounds, & Relationships: Part 4–“The Love of My Life”

“The Love of my life” is a familiar term–the person who stands as the greatest inspiration of (romantic?) love in a lifetime. It is the superlative relationship, partner, or desired. The Beloved. Perhaps, we cannot help but think in such comparative of superlative terms, yet in this post, I hope to call this label and evaluation into question to some extent.

In one of my last face to face conversations with my ex, I told her that I was afraid that she was the Love of my life and that I would spend the rest of my life looking back at her and our time together. She batted away such concerns and said that I would find someone else who would be amazing–with such certainty as though it were verified as a scientific constant. Writing this now, both stances seem so black and white, and this is precisely why we were both wrong.

I was wrong because it’s silly to worry so intensely about something that is totally uncertain. There’s absolutely no way for me to say whether she’s the love of my life or whether I’ll die tomorrow–what lies in the future is unknown to me. I’ll be able to say for sure who the greatest Love in my life was with my dying breath, but before that, life can and will unfold as it will. It’s not something to feel such fear about.

She was wrong precisely because she also can’t say what will happen with such certainty. There are simply some things that will never happen again in life. For instance, I ran a 4:34 mile in high school. Even if I trained really hard every day for a year, I doubt that I’m physically capable of doing this again. I’m a bit too old now–that time has passed. Likewise, I might search the rest of my life and never find another person who sparks feelings of romantic Love like she did, or maybe, I will have a chain of lackluster relationships despite trying my best in each, or… There’s simply no way to say what will happen, but it’s a definite possibility that some high point in my life is over. Again, who’s really to say until it’s all over? Until then, life can and will unfold as it will.

Worrying about whether someone is the Love of your life or continually thinking that that person is out there somewhere to be found is living in a hypothetical realm, a fantasy world in which you can compare and evaluate your whole life, yet underneath this lie those simple samsaric elements that drive so much of our activity: desire and aversion. In one version, we’re afraid of losing what we have now–aversion–so we cling to it. In another, we’re tired of what we have and want something else. We hope that it’s out there and run toward this hope–desire. Of course, the second can be a bit more of a mixture of desire for something else and aversion regarding the familiar. Pop advice says that “hope” is better, but they both drive the same game and keep us locked in fear of/hope for the life we don’t have.

That is the ultimate silliness of this entire thing. You are always who you are in this moment–not in the past or the future. We may yearn for or fear the changes that come, as nothing (not even atoms, according to science) lasts forever. However, we fear change or run towards new changes in order to have something that we want to hold onto–something that if we try just hard enough will defy this one absolute law of flux. Basically, at the heart of all this is a yearning for or fear of death, yet each moment is born and dies, passing by without our notice much of the time. We would do better to welcome life as it comes and be open to it no matter what arises, rather than getting lost in comparisons of “my ideal life”.

So, is the person you’re with the “Love of your Life”? Don’t worry about it, one way or the other. The one thing that is certain is that your relationship with him/her will end–no matter what; even if it’s just the ending of death due to old age 70 years from now. That end could come at any time, so treat them with love, kindness, intimacy, and appreciation now. Don’t get trapped in comparisons with the future that might be or the past that was. Those are dreams of whimsy or nostalgia. Be here now. Be with your partner. Treat him/her with love and work towards a future of growth, wisdom, compassion, and truth together, and at the end of it all, that person may just be the Love of your Life. You can’t say till then. You never know, one way or the other…

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May this bring you the courage to be present in your romantic relationships and light them up with wisdom and compassion. May this ground you, rather than allowing you to float in the samsara of fantastic or nostalgic comparison.

Gassho!

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