Thursday, February 2, 2012

On Buddhism

      What are the “Four Passing Sights” that Siddhartha saw; what did they mean to him and inspire him to do?

Emerging from the palatial shelter of his royal estate, Prince Siddhartha saw first an old man, decrepit, weak and trembling.  Seeing the old man, the Prince discovered the fact of old age.  Second, he saw a person’s body lying next to the roadside, overcome by disease.  He was thus acquainted with the curse of bodily sickness.  Third, he saw a corpse, becoming aware of the phenomenon of the death of the body.  Fourth, Siddhartha saw a monk with a shaven head, wearing an ochre robe and holding a bowl.  The sighting of the monk alerted him to the life of withdrawal from the world. 

These four sightings revealed to Siddhartha the true nature of the physical plane: suffering and impermanence.  He then committed himself to seeking the Eternal and forsaking the Earthly opulence into which he was born.  He gave his life over to the quest for Enlightenment. 

2.    What are the six aspects present in most religious traditions, according to Huston Smith?  In light of these aspects, how is Buddhism unique? 

The six most common aspects of the world’s religious traditions are: authority, ritual, speculation, tradition, grace and mystery.  The Middle Way as taught by the Buddha in its original exposition is truly unique, in that it explicitly excludes: external authority, the trappings of ritual, the snare of useless speculation, blind adherence to tradition, overreliance on grace as a means of escaping human responsibility and the spiritual seeker’s distracting obsession with the supernatural.  In this way, Buddhism appears on the surface to be an anti-religion. 

3.    What is the preliminary step of the Eightfold Path and why is it important?  List the eight steps and briefly tell what each involves.

The preliminary step on the Eightfold Path is “right association.”  It is impossible to overemphasize our inextricable connection to other human beings; in remembering this connection, we realize the importance of forming and maintaining social bonds with other dedicated spiritual seekers.  We are wise to associate ourselves with seasoned and faithful practitioners who will shed more light on our paths, joint and individual.  The following quote is attributed to the Buddha: “An arouser of faith appears in the world.  One associates oneself with such a person.”  And this quote is from Huston Smith: “We should associate with Truthwinners, converse with them, serve them, observe their ways, and imbibe by osmosis their spirit of love and compassion.”  

            Below are the steps of the Eightfold Path:
A.      Right Views: The rational mind is an integral survival tool for all of us as humans, and the Buddha did not ignore this fact.  As followers set out on the Path, they need to be able walk without stumbling in the dark.  Right views are the solid framework that keeps the mind in check.  The espousal of Right Views is nothing more than consciously adopting The Four Noble Truths and keeping them in the forefront of the mind as one progresses: “Suffering abounds, it is occasioned by the drive for private fulfillment, that drive can be tempered, and the way to temper it is by traveling the Eightfold Path.” (Huston Smith, 106).  
B.      Right Intent: This second step on the Path requires the traveler to fully invest with single-minded focus in one supreme spiritual goal (ideally that of achieving enlightenment for the benefit of all).  If we think of our views as connected with the mind, we may conceive of our intent as linked to the heart.  Hence, to achieve Right Intent, we search our hearts for our primary desire and we then commit to fulfilling it with unrelenting dedication.  
C.      Right Speech: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” are words attributed to Jesus in Matthew 12:34.  This quote may just as well have been attributed to Buddha. Our speech follows on as an extension of our Right Views and Right Intent.  On the Path, great attention is paid to language.  Ideally, commitments are made to refrain from untruths, uncharitable speech, and all forms of careless speech.  Harmful speech is to be avoided in all forms, covert as well as overt.  Sugar coating, euphemism, sarcasm, “barbed wit;” all of these fall outside of what is considered “Right Speech.”  Speech is a reflection of character and our utterances should be both loving and mindful if we are committed to the Eightfold Path.  
D.     Right Conduct: Buddha encouraged his followers to acquire an objective understanding of one’s behavior before undertaking to improve it.  He directed attention to the motives that underlie all action: what is at the heart of the conduct in question?  Generosity or self-seeking?  The Five Precepts are the concise Buddhist moral code to be followed for the accomplishment of Right Conduct: 1. Do not kill, 2. Do not steal, 3. Do not lie, 4. Do not be unchaste, and 5. Do not drink intoxicants.  
E.      Right Livelihood: The ultimate expression of Right Livelihood is the dedication of one’s life to the discipline of the monastic order, however the Buddha never suggested that the monastic life was fit for everyone seeking enlightenment.  For the layperson, Right Livelihood is choosing an occupation that promotes life rather than destroying it; finding work which is “conducive to spiritual progress” as opposed to work which explicitly or implicitly obstructs spiritual progress.  The work we choose is less important than the spirit in which it is undertaken; we do not live to work, rather, we work to live.  In living the spiritual life, work harmonizes with our highest values.  
F.       Right Effort: “Work out your own salvation with diligence,” may be the Buddha’s most famous admonition to his followers.  Diligent, persistent effort has no substitute in Buddhism.  “Do or do not. There is no try,” said Yoda to Luke Skywalker.  I cannot help but think of this quote in approaching Right Effort.  Buddha gave the example of an ox trudging through the mud as it carries a heavy load; its gaze is fixed and it does not rest until it emerges from the mire.  Right Effort is full application of the will, steady as she goes.  “Velleity-a low level of volition, a mere wish not accompanied by effort or action to obtain it-won’t do” (Huston Smith, 109). 
G.     Right Mindfulness: The practice of mindfulness can be summed up as commitment to awareness in approaching every experience.  To be mindful is to focus our consciousness on our immediate experience.  If we adopt Right Mindfulness, we embrace all thoughts, feelings and sensory perceptions with focused attention.  This is achieved through a combination of a dedicated meditation practice and a refined mental approach to the activities we undertake outside of meditation.  Right Mindfulness is richly rewarding in the insights it brings: we learn that our experience is in constant flux, that our thoughts, emotions and sensations flow through our awareness like an ever-changing stream, and that we are not defined by our thoughts and experiences.  Moving forward with this knowledge, we need no longer cling to a separate identity.  
H.     Right Concentration: This final step on the Eightfold Path is the culmination of the seven others.  It is maintaining the mind in a calm and steady state, so that the true nature of reality may be perceived.  The mind becomes singularly focused and restrained, drawing all of one’s energy into a brilliant illuminating light which shines forth with laser like precision, cutting away everything superfluous so that Truth may be revealed. 
4.      Describe:

A.      Nirvana: The word means, “to extinguish” or “blow out.”  It is the state of total bliss attained at the end of all seeking.  It is not annihilation or non-being; rather, it is the fullness of pure being.  It is the state in which “the boundaries of the finite self” are extinguished.  Nirvana is complete and total freedom and release.  It is the realization of the Infinite. 

B.      Theravada: The word Theravada means, “The Way of the Elders.”  It is one of the two major branches of Buddhism.  After Buddhism split into two schools, both initially referred to themselves as yanas, or rafts, because they claimed to carry the members of humanity across the sea of life to the shore of enlightenment.  The Theravada school of Buddhism was initially called Hinayana, which means “little raft,” in contrast to the other more popular school of Buddhism, Mahayana, which means “great raft.”  It stands to reason that the followers of the smaller, more exclusive school of Buddhism would not want to keep the name meaning “little raft,” so they renamed their school Theravada.  The followers of Theravada are called Theravadin.  They claim to follow the original teachings of the Buddha as set out in the Pali Canon.  The Theravadin believe that the attainment of enlightenment is up to the individual alone, and that no gods exist to further our progression or support us in the universe.  In Theravada the distinguishing quality of enlightenment is wisdom (Bodhi).  The Theravadin hold that the monastery is central to the practice of Buddhism; enlightenment is mostly reserved for monastics, and not the general population.  Buddha is regarded by the Theravadin as a saint and trail blazer who illuminated the path to enlightenment.  Theravada teaching minimizes the importance of ritual and the metaphysical, and focuses on meditation as a disciplined inward journey. 

C.      Mahayana: This is the “great raft” referenced above; it is Buddhism for the people.  For Mahayanists, the prime attribute of Buddhism is compassion (karuna).  Grace is a central component of Mahayana teaching and its followers believe that a boundless and unifying power is behind the whole of existence.  The demanding disciplines of practice are motivated by compassionate concern for humanity.  To a Mahayanist, Buddha is a savior.  Mahayanists pray to Buddha and make prostrations.  Devotional practice is a part of Mahayana Buddhism.  In terms of attaining enlightenment, Mahayana holds a higher opinion of women and laity than does Theravada; it is the more egalitarian of the two schools.  Mahayana Buddhism includes metaphysical discourse and elaborate ritual, whereas Theravada does not. 

5.    How are the teachings of Zen connected to Gautama?  

Mahayana Buddhism splintered into many different sects.  One of the most well-known and influential of these is Zen Buddhism.  Of all of the sects, Zen is the most influenced by Taoism.  Zen claims to take its central perspective directly from Gautama himself (Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha).  The Zen school posits that the teachings of the Pali Canon are the ones which were popularized by the masses.   The origin of the Zen perspective can be traced back to Buddha’s Flower Sermon: standing on a mountain surrounded by his followers, he did not speak any words at all, and relied on the simple gesture of holding up a golden lotus flower for all to see.  The only person present who understood this gesture was Mahakasyapa, who responded with a quiet smile.  Mahakasyapa’s smile caused Buddha to name him as his successor.  Following that moment, the special insight carried by Mahakaysapa is said to have been transmitted down through twenty-eight patriarchs in India, then carried to China through the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma.  In the twelfth century, the teachings were transmitted to Japan and named Zen Buddhism.  The essence of this teaching is contained within a subtle and elusive “secret”; therefore, Zen practitioners shun verbal formulas and creeds. 

6.      Define:

A.      Zazen: This is a word that means simply, “seated meditation.”  Zen monks sit in the lotus posture for hours on end and day after day, in silence, their eyes half closed with the gaze focused on the ground in front of them.  They sit waiting in Zazen so that the Buddha mind may awaken, and they may then carry the benefits of that awakening over into their daily lives. 

B.      Satori: This is a mystical experience that takes the Zen practitioner on a sort of enchanted interior journey.  It is a profoundly joyful experience of freedom, a momentary escape from the prison of ordinary perception.  Upon experiencing satori, one discerns “the interpenetration and convertibility of all phenomena;” but instead of merging then and there with the infinite and shunning all other experience, the Zen practitioner returns to daily living better able to approach each moment and each activity as a “manifestation of the infinite.”  (Huston Smith, 137). 

C.      Koan: A koan is a very singular sort of problem or riddle that can take many years to be solved.  The koan is designed to produce a particular effect on the mind, causing it to venture beyond logic and reason into deeper territories.  The Zen student is given the koan by a master, and then is able to consult with the master in private in a consultation called sanzen

7.    What do you think is the most striking feature of Zen practice?
Zen manages to be both mystical and practical; Zen merges the beauty and wonder engendered by faithful spiritual practice with presence and compassion, the fruits of selfless service of humanity.  The Zen practitioner goes within to experience the bliss of pure being, then learns to translate the experience of that bliss into acts as simple as washing the dishes.  Zen teaches that we can be simultaneously mystical and mindful.  The second most striking feature for me is the joyful exuberance expressed by Zen followers: the laughter and smiles of the Zen monastics speak volumes about this tradition. 

8.     What is the most important aspect of Buddhism for you, personally? Why?
Buddhism tells us that we can experience the Kingdom of God within ourselves, here on this Earth, starting now.  The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks and writes at length on the Buddhist conception of the Kingdom of God.  He says that he does not envision the Kingdom of God as a distant place where no suffering exists.  One of his favorite sayings is, “No mud, no lotus.”  The mud is the suffering in the world that motivates us to develop compassion, for ourselves and in turn for others.  Through following Buddha’s teachings, I can touch Paradise here and now and experience a sort of salvation that will transform my life and the lives of those around me while I am still alive in this body.  Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32).  And Buddha said, “I will teach you truth and the path leading to the truth.”  Both Buddha and Jesus left behind the worldly pursuits of comfort, riches and family in this lifetime to devote their lives 100% to experiencing and expounding spiritual truth.  They not only talked truth; they walked truth.  They embodied truth.  The greatest difference for me between the Way of Jesus and the Way of the Buddha is that the Buddha’s teachings as passed down through generations of his followers are more explicit, more concrete and more immediately attainable.  This has more to do with the transmission of the message, rather than the source.  People are in desperate need of spiritual teaching that reaches them where they are and teaches them how to ease their own suffering in the here and now. 

9.     Identify the following names:
Dalai Lama: The Dalai Lama is a holy figure in Tibetan Buddhism whose purpose here on this Earth is to embody the spiritual principles of compassion and mercy.  He is the incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion who was known in India by the name of Avalokiteshvara, in China as the Goddess of Mercy, Kwan Yin and in Tibetan Buddhism as Chenrezig.  I have heard Thich Nhat Hanh describe Avalokiteshvara as the bodhisattva who listens deeply to the laments of human beings who are suffering.  This being represents the symbolic taking in of our pain, our deepest worries and our cries.  As the incarnation of this spiritual being on Earth, the Dalai Lama “empowers and regenerates” Tibetan Buddhism (Huston Smith, 143).  Up to date, there have been fourteen successive incarnations, the current Dalai Lama being the fourteenth. 

Kuan Yin: She is the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy and Compassion.  She is the female form of Avalokiteshvara, as described above.  For many practitioners, she represents the Divine Feminine.  Her equivalent in Christianity is Mother Mary. 

Mahakasyapa: He was one of Buddha’s principal early disciples, and he was Buddha’s first successor.  He is the patriarch of Zen Buddhism.  His famous smile during Buddha’s subtle Flower Sermon symbolizes the Zen focus on direct experience as a means for attaining enlightenment rather than adherence to creed, scriptures and the spoken word. 

Siddhartha Gautama: Prince Gautama was born approximately 500 years BCE in India, and Siddhartha Gautama was the name given at birth to the man who became the Buddha. 

Tara: She is a female bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism.  She is known as the Mother of Liberation.  Some schools of Buddhism recognize twenty-one different forms of the Goddess Tara.  Her two most common forms are White Tara and Green Tara.  White Tara is associated with healing, long life and serenity.  Green Tara is known as the Buddha of Enlightened Activity. 

Thich Nhat Hanh: The following introduction of Thich Nhat Hanh is taken directly from a printed program handed out at one of his Dharma talks in New York: "Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most respected and recognized Zen masters in the world.  A poet, peace activist, and human rights advocate, Thich Nhat Hanh was born in Vietnam in 1926.  A Buddhist monk since the age of 16, he was one of the founders of the "engaged Buddhism" movement, choosing to live a contemplative life while working outside the monastery helping villagers suffering from the devastation of the Vietnam War.  In the early 1960's, he founded the School of Youth Social Service, a relief organization for survivors of the war.  Thich Nhat Hanh has been an expatriate since 1966, when he was banned from reentering Vietnam after a peace mission to the United States and Europe.  In 1982, he founded Plum Village, a Buddhist community in France, where he lives and teaches today.  A prolific author, Thich Nhat Hanh has written more than 85 books, including more than 40 in English."

       Define the following: The Three Jewels, The Four Noble Truths and The Middle Way.

The Three Jewels: The three jewels are Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.  Buddhist practioners are said to “take refuge in the Three Jewels.”  The name Buddha means “Awakened One.”  We take refuge in the example of the Buddha’s life and the knowledge that we too, have Buddha nature and are fully capable of reaching the state of Buddhahood; he showed his followers that a human being can attain enlightenment while on this Earth.  Dharma is the body of Buddha’s teachings and the inner realizations that are attained by practicing them; Dharma means “protection.”  Sangha is the community of Buddhist practitioners. 

The Four Noble Truths: The Four Noble Truths were the subject of Buddha’s first sermon.  The First Noble Truth is Dukkha (this is often translated in English as “life is suffering.”  It means that suffering is an inherent quality of life, or in the words of Huston Smith, life is “out of joint,” and “there is less creativity, more conflict, and more pain than we feel there should be.” Pg. 104). The Second Noble Truth is that Tanha (“the drive for private fulfillment” id.) is the major cause of suffering.  Many people, including me, prefer to put it this way: Attachment is the cause of suffering.  The Third Noble Truth is that the cessation of suffering is attainable.  Huston Smith goes further in explaining the Third Noble Truth: “the disease can be cured by overcoming the egoistic drive for separate existence” id. The Fourth Noble Truth is the path to the cessation of suffering, which is The Eightfold Path enumerated above. 

The Middle Way: Buddha said, “Here is a path to the end of suffering. Tread it!” The Middle Way is a spiritual path that avoids the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. The Middle Way is moderate, just as the name implies.  It is not the way of the ascetic or the hedonist.  It is an honest, noble journey with the Eightfold Path as the roadmap. 

Write a response to a selection of your choice from a Buddhist sacred text.

The Dhammapada is a collection of 423 verses attributed to the Buddha.  I am commenting on Verses 38 and 39. 
Verse 38:  If a man's mind is unsteady, if he is ignorant of the true Dhamma, and if his faith is wavering, then his knowledge will never be perfect.
Verse 39:  If a man’s mind is free from passion, if he is free from ill will, if he has abandoned both good and evil, and if he is vigilant, for such a man there is no danger.

My favorite principle of Buddhism is equanimity.  When I first studied Buddhist meditation, I was instructed to meditate on the quality of equanimity, which can be described as an attitude of loving-kindness and neutral acceptance towards all living beings.  The suffering generated by our thoughts and emotions comes from our habits of attachment and aversion.  When we are free from the pull of desire and the push of aversion, we are at peace.  If we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, we notice that our mental attitudes towards other people are most often imbalanced; we feel attracted to certain people and repelled by certain others.  Still yet for others, we feel indifference.  The passions of the mind and emotions cause us to cling in desperation to the objects of our attachment and to abuse in anger the objects of our aversion; when we are controlled by our passions we love selfishly, or we hate, doing violence to both ourselves and others.  Equanimity is an attitude that can subdue the passions of the mind and emotions, leading us to the experience of freedom.  When we are free, we do not need to run after good and flee from evil.  We can simply be, in complete security.  

        Write a description/impression of your Buddhist site visit:

In May of 2009 I attended a weekend retreat at a Kadampa Buddhist Temple and Retreat Center in Glen Spey, NY.  Kadampa Buddhism falls within the Mahayana tradition and is very strongly influenced by Tantra.  It is noteworthy that Kadampa Buddhism is a highly devotional school and it is not sanctioned by the Dalai Lama.  I had taken several months of courses taught by Kadampa Buddhist teachers in White Plains, NY.  In March of 2009 I had attended a Prajnaparamita Empowerment where I recited a bodhisattva vow in a group.  (Prajnaparamita is a female Buddha who is the manifestation of Buddha’s perfection of wisdom.  Her mantra is commonly known as the Heart Sutra, and it is the mantra of the perfection of wisdom, Tayatha Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Soha). This was a large ceremony lasting several hours, which could also be considered a site visit.  Here is the ritual prayer we recited three times, containing the Bodhisattva vow: 

I go for refuge to the Three Jewels-Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and confess individually all negative actions.  I rejoice in the virtues of all beings and promise to accomplish a Buddha’s enlightenment.  

Because I was gaining so much from the classes at that time, and practicing daily meditation according Kadampa teachings, I was curious to attend the May retreat with Buddhist monks from all over the country and the world.  Most of the monks and practitioners at the retreat were from the US, but there were a good number of monks from the UK and South America as well.  The laypersons dressed in plain clothes and the monks wore the traditional crimson robes.  The temple itself is quite large and it sits on an 82 acre parcel of land.  The temple is named, The US World Peace Temple.  It is one of three traditional Kadampa temples in the world.  The architecture is described by the Kadampists as “holy,” and the temple’s design is based on the mandala of Buddha Heruka, who is the Compassion Buddha of the Highest Yoga Tantra.  There is a very large gold statue of Buddha Shakyamuni at the front of the temple.  There are other statues around the inside of the temple, and the one that struck me the most was that of Manjushri, a male bodhisattva wielding a flaming sword in his right hand; the sword represents the realization of transcendent wisdom which cuts down ignorance and duality.  All of the statues were artistically elaborate, ornate and beautiful.  The services I attended were quite formal, with chanting, singing, prayer and prostrations.  The closest type of service I can compare them to would be a formal Catholic mass.  I learned a lot about Kadampa Buddhism that I had not known before, simply by taking in the energy of that temple and the ceremonies.  I felt slightly ill at ease since I did not share the devotional attitude of most of the other people present.  For the most part, I felt blessed, purified and at peace following the services, but I also felt a twinge of guilt because of the idolatry warnings from the Christian faith.  The golden statues did not help in this regard. 
The founder of the New Kadampa Tradition, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, gave this description of the temple when it was first opened and dedicated in 1997: 

“At the very beginning when we were designing this building we based it on the mandala of Buddha Heruka, who is the Compassion Buddha of Highest Yoga Tantra. From this point of view it has many special preeminent qualities that indicate it is not an ordinary building. The Temple has four doors, and is surrounded by eight auspicious signs. On top of the wall, on each side, are two deer and a Dharma Wheel. At the very top there is a golden five-pronged vajra. These things indicate special preeminent qualities which reveal that this Temple is a holy place.” 

I also felt that the temple was a holy place and I was very grateful for the experience. 

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