Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Who the heck am I?

The sky of mind

If you’ve been reading my blog, more than likely you’ve come to realize that I’m a strange bird. I don’t fit the ordinary categories and that disturbs some people, but the truth is neither do you. But what people believe overrides truth nearly every time. I haven’t always been so unorthodox, in fact, most of my life I was just like everyone else: screwed up but not aware there was any other way. So I want to tell you a little bit how I went from normal (and screwed up) to abnormal and at peace.

In 1964 I did a terrible thing: I went to Vietnam as a Marine and killed people. What I hadn’t bargained for was that it killed me—spiritually, emotionally and mentally. For years following my two years perpetuating socially acceptable mayhem on my own human family, I suffered greatly and was eventually brought to my knees, so full of despair that on a morning 16 years later I made a decision to either commit suicide or get to the bottom of my unexplained dilemma. Obviously, I made the choice of getting to the bottom of my suffering and this took me into strange lands.

I then went to live in a Zen monastery and subsequently experienced a profound awakening, within both the framework of Zen and Christianity. The result of that dual experience opened up a doorway into a realm I didn’t know existed and allowed me to live. I then made a pledge to spend the rest of my natural life passing on the lessons I had learned. So now I share my hybrid and unorthodox strangeness with whoever has ears to hear and a receptive mind.

I have now honored this commitment by teaching, leading meditation groups, and writing (this blog) and thus far six books, the latest of which is Impostor—Living in a world of Alternate Facts, which is available free of charge by clicking here. This a part of my pledge: To give back what I’ve learned. There are many things I don’t know about and I steer clear of speaking and writing about such things. But I know a lot about transforming your mind, leaving behind a life of sorrow and discovering the wellspring of joy that lives within all people. I write about that, only. If I can pass on that, it’s enough because that can change your life and leave this world a better place.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Transformed Minds

In the letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul instructed his readers on how to discern God’s will, which we would have to consider, as he puts it, “pleasing and perfect.” The means by which this discernment was to be implemented was through mind transformation. Read it for yourself (Romans 12:2). For sure there may have been differences in how this prescription was offered from standard Buddhist teachings. However, Paul’s prescription is the same as what the Buddha taught—that unambiguous discernment is only possible through a renewal of mind: to purify and free the mind from self-centered discrimination.

It might be disturbing to both Christians and Buddhists to take the tack of mixing this instruction together under a common roof. Truth is the truth, however, and the genuine truth is not tied to anything. The truth that is linked is not truth. That would be relative opinion. Hold on! Isn’t he contradicting himself? How can he say on the one hand that everything is relative and the next that everything is absolute? Actually, these positions are harmonious—The Middle Way: Not this, Not that. Not not this, not not that. To explain...

From the perspective of original mind there are transcendent truths and from the perspective of the phenomenal world, everything is relative. A “Dharma” means to comprehend or grasp transcendent truth—truth that lies beyond conditions of Christian, Buddhist or any other limitation. So on the one hand relativity is true and on the other hand, it is false—The Middle Way.

Yes, of course, this can become confusing but let’s return to mind transformation and renewal. What is there in our mind that needs transforming? And what is the result of such transformation or renewing? Let’s take this in reverse—renewing: to make new again. And how exactly is this renewing supposed to work? That question was posed to Jesus and his answer is recorded in the 18th chapter of Matthew (verse 3). In essence, he said, unless we change and become like little children the goal will not be reached. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus told his disciples that removing the impediment of discrimination was a necessary condition for entering the kingdom of heaven—becoming like little children. And what is the state of mind of little children? Well, we’d have to look at really little children since it doesn’t take very long before their egos begin to coalesce. Before that unfortunate emergence children still have their untainted Original Minds and they are like sponges soaking up, without judgment whatever comes their way. It is a time of utter fascination where everything is new and wonderful! For little children seeing things as they are without bias is natural. They haven’t lived long enough to discriminate. Things just are what they are.

There are many ways to understand but a transformed mind is a mind made new again. It is a cleaned-up mind, made clear of impediments to clarity so that vision is possible. So long as we cling to egocentric, my-way-or-the-highway positions we are not able to discern essential truths which come from God. So long as we remain stuck in one position or point of discrimination in opposition to others we are operating from a self-centered framework. We may take the perspective that some people are God’s people and others are not but Jesus never taught that and neither did Gautama. Jesus taught that God causes the sun to shine and sends the rain equally to all regardless of discrimination (Matthew 5:44). And Gautama taught that within the realm of pure mind, all are equally buddha—without discrimination. And in a similar fashion, Jesus taught Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Do you want to know what God looks like? To know, first get rid of what defiles your heart and mind. With nothing clouding your sight, then youll see clearly the kingdom of heaven. Just yesterday the Pope said“You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.”

Transforming our mind has never been more needed than now. The mind which needs transforming (and thus renewed) is the ego-mind where discrimination and right vs. wrong rule the day. That mind is relative—completely dependent upon the center of self. A transformed mind is free of that limitation and able to discern God’s pleasing and perfect will.
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Saturday, May 20, 2017

A house of mirrors

It’s dark and you can’t see anything. Suddenly the lights are switched on. You’ve never seen light before so the glare hurts your eyes. Days go by but gradually your eyes adjust and what do you see? Everywhere you look you see people with smiling faces who seem to adore you and these people are exuding love and tenderness all directed at you. They tickle you. They feed you. They comfort you when you’re sad and play with you, and little by little you come to believe that you’re very, very, special. These people are your parents and friends and they are your mirrors.

That time is very special but it doesn’t last. Soon you move on and come in contact with other people. You and they relate to each other in the same way—as mirrors. You reflect them and they reflect you, and little by little each and everyone learns how to manipulate their own environment to glean the best outcome, the ego dance begins and our identity takes shape.

So long as anyone stays in that house of mirrors there is no alternative but to experience themselves as a reflection. But this manipulation game is complex and often times frustrating, fraught with anxiety, fear, and tension. The players don’t cooperate. They want their way instead of our way. Why are these people not adoring us but instead demanding that we adore them? Where are those adoring parents when we need them? Why can’t everyone just get along? Why can’t everyone see things as we do, think as we do, construct the world, as we want? 

And the ego dance begins to come unglued and we are lost, but what nobody realizes at that moment of loss; that identity crisis, is this is a blessing in disguise. Once that moment of disaster arrives we are ready for the mirrors to fall away and find our true natures. And then, at last, we become the wholly complete person we’ve always been: The one looking into the mirrors; not the one reflected,

Friday, May 19, 2017

Thinking Outside The Box.

From time to time its worth recycling some posts. This one in particular is such a post since it addresses the underpinnings of how life works, all of which is based on thinking. It happens so naturally we rarely connect the dots. The Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” So today here is a follow up post about thinking.

From the time of birth all the way to the end we never stop thinking. We do it while we are awake and while we’re sleeping. Only for brief moments is there a lull in this cerebral activity, and that is both a blessing and a curse. Because we think, we can imagine, and that allows us to create and invent things almost unimaginable. As we invent, others can experience and learn about our inventions and innovate improvements and create entirely new inventions. One creation serves as a building block for the next and the creative process expands geometrically. There would appear to be no end to our creative capacities. The only obstacle to this process is the one doing the thinking.

Thinking is a two edged sword. Not only does it equip us with problem solving skills, it also equips us with the capacity to create problems. Because we think, we can’t help thinking about ourselves and we do this based on the nature of thoughts. A thought is in simple terms a mental image; a virtual projection manipulated in our brains. The image is not a real thing. It is an abstraction of something real. We open our eyes and we see external images. We close our eyes and we see internal images. What we fail to realize is that all images are actually being registered in our brains. What appears as “out there” is in truth nothing more than a virtual projection being registered in our primary visual cortex where it is “seen” and based on this projection our brain tells us “out there.”

But this is not the end of the matter. These images are then subjected to cognitive processing and recording in memory.  Some experiences are pleasurable and others are not. When we experience pleasure we want to grasp and retain the experience and when it is undesirable we remember that as well, and do our best to avoid such events occurring again. This is a learning process, which we engage to do what we can to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but we soon learn that such a thing is beyond our control. What brings us pleasure in a moment brings us pain in the next. Phenomenal life is constantly changing.

This fundamental desire to avoid pain and retain pleasure is a trap that ends up creating the opposite of what we seek because we attach our sense of worth to moving targets. As the objects of desire come to an end, suffering follows. What we set out to avoid soon comes our way. And out of this ebb and flow we develop a sense of ourselves. We wonder about the one doing the thinking and make flawed conclusions. When adversity occurs we imagine that we brought it upon ourselves which is true in many cases. When pleasure comes our way we imagine that we singularly created the conditions that made it possible. Gradually we form an image of ourselves, which we’ve learned to label an ego—a self-image that is no more real than every other abstraction produced by our brains.

All images are projections—the ones we see externally, which we presume is our real world of objects, the ones we see in our mindseye and the images we develop about ourselves. None of it is anything other than abstract images recorded in our brains, not much different than the images projected onto a movie screen. All of it looks real so we respond as if it were and that results in big problems, for ourselves and people with whom we share our world. Out of this flaw of perception and processing come certain conclusions. We conclude that we can trust some people and not others. We conclude that to survive and prosper we must hoard and save for a rainy day. We conclude that greed is good and we get angry when people draw attention to this flawed conclusion that jeopardizes our egotistical plans. Life then becomes a competition with winners and losers and things turn out the same way as before: the process works to deliver what we set out to avoid. We wanted to maximize pleasure and avoid pain and the result is the opposite because our aggressive lust leads us into isolation, alienation and jeopardy with the very same people we need to insure our desires.

Thinking, thinking, thinking: it never stops from birth till death. It is both a blessing and a curse and we thus create both wondrous inventions and means of destruction. As a result life balances on a razors edge between greatness and evil. That’s life, so what’s Zen?

Long before there was science, of any kind, people were natural scientists and engaged in the scientific method. They wondered. They created hypotheses. They tested these ideas in various ways. They found out through trial and error what worked and what didn’t and they learned just like scientists do today. Now we have formal sciences and one of these is neurology: the study of the brain. Zen is the study of the mind and is conducted almost exactly as any science is conducted, through observation but not with tools. In Zen, the mind uses itself to examine what it produces: the coming and going of thoughts and emotions. When thoughts arise they are observed as unreal images. When they subside we are left with silence of what seems to be a definable observer, but in truth is simply consciousness.

We live in a time awash in technology and assume that it is based on electronics. But the principle of technology is much broader. Fundamentally technology means an application of knowledge especially in a particular area that provides a means of accomplishing a task. Anything from a simple hammer to charting the cosmos properly belongs to the realm of technology.

The common coin understanding of Zen is wrong. Ordinarily Zen is considered to be a branch on the tree of Buddhism but what many people dont realize is that Zen came first, a long time before there was such a thing as the religion of Buddhism. The original name for Zen was dhyana and is recorded in history as far back as 7,000 years. The Buddha lived around 2,500 years ago and used the mental technology of Zen to experience his enlightenment. Properly speaking it isnt Zen Buddhism but rather Buddhist Zen—the mystical form of Buddhism. All orthodox religions have mystical arms and all of them have meditation as a core principle. 

More than 300 years ago, Voltaire, famous French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher defined mediation in a way quite similar to Bodhidharma (“Zen is not thinking”). He put it this way: “Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or Pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.” While Zen isn’t electronic, it is similar since our brain works by exchanging electrical transmissions and Zen is the most thoroughgoing technology ever conceived for fathoming the human mind.

Because of scientific advances that have occurred in our time, we know the human brain is the most sophisticated computer ever and is capable of calculation speeds a billion times faster than any computer yet built. Furthermore it is “dual-core,” computing in parallel mode with completely different methods. One side works like a serial processor (our left hemisphere) and the other works like a parallel processor (or right hemisphere). The left creates code and the right reads the code. The left is very good at analyzing, dissecting and abstracting while the right interprets and says what it all means.

Zen is the mental technology of using the mind to understand itself. The true mind watches the movement and arising of the code in order to grasp how the “machine” works. Everything perceived and processed is applied consciousness and is watched. There is a conditional and object-oriented aspect and there is an unconditional objectless aspect. Both sides of our brain have no exclusive and independent status. Only when they function together are they of much use. It is much like a wheel: the outside moves while the inside is empty and is the axle around which the outside moves. Our conscious subjective center is unseen and without form. Our objective nature has form and is seen.

In a metaphorical way, our brain could be considered hardware and our mind software. Software instructs the hardware how to operate. Together these two are mirror opposites and rely upon the other side. In Buddhist terminology this relationship is called dependent origination, which means they can only exist together. The two sides of our brain are mirror partners. An inside requires an outside. They come and go together. Neither side can exist separately. Everything can only exist in that way.

The entire universe, in infinite configuration and form is essentially empty. If you delve into quantum physics you arrive at nothing. If you go to the farthest reaches of space you arrive at nothing. Before the Big-Bang there was nothing. Now there is everything. Everything is the same thing as nothing. And this amazing awareness comes about by simply watching the coming and going of the manifestations of our mind. Through Zen we learn about both the subjective/empty and the objective/full nature of ourselves. And what we discover through this process of watching and learning is quite amazing. The primary lesson learned is that there is both an image that is not real and a conscious reality that watches the images.

We think in image forms. Thoughts are not real. They are abstractions, coded messages that represent something but are not what’s being represented. In our mindseye we see a constant flow of images and ordinarily imagine these images are real and in such a state of mind go unaware that there is a conscious faculty that watching this flow. That’s what being conscious of our thoughts means. There is one who is watching and there is what’s being watched. Neither of these (the watcher or the watched) can exist by itself. It takes both for thinking to occur.

On the left side of our brain is the image factory, creating thought images and on the right side of our brain is the one watching the images. It’s a marvelous system and both sides must function together. But since we have two sides, responsible for different functions, each side does things differently. The left side thinks in language (coded images). The right side “thinks” in pictures (interpreting the images). The left side talks but doesn’t understand and the right side understands but doesn’t talk. Together the two sides make a great team but individually they make bad company.

The problem with our world today is that we are predominantly left brain analyzers and have not been trained to make sense of what’s being analyzed. The imagined self (ego) is self righteous, self centered, greedy, possessive, hostile and angry. The problem with identity is that we assume that there is an objective and independent watcher doing the watching and we label that watcher as “me”—a self-image (otherwise called an ego). But here is where this must lead. So long as we see an image of ourselves, that image (ego) can’t possibly be the watcher because the watcher can’t see itself. So long as we see any images (self-image included) there is a difference between what is being watched and the watcher.

Education (in a normal sense) trains our language and analytics capacities but ignores the capacities that enhance compassion, creativity, and insight. Consequently we are out of balance aggressors, dominated by our egos and unaware that we are creating an abstract and unreal world that is progressively more and more violent and hostile.

The true person has no image dimension because all images are objective, whereas the true person is subjective consciousness. Subject/Object—two halves joined together into a single real person. One part can be seen (an image) and the other part can’t be seen (consciousness watching the image). An image isn’t real. It just looks that way. The consciousness part that is real—unconditionally the same in all sentient beingsis the part that can’t be seen. The entire time of remaining in this image-based realm, restricted by conceptual thought, is in fact a reflection of reality: a dream. When we move beyond thought to the reality of pure consciousness, we wake up into an imageless realm (the root from which all things emanate), that is too incredible to describe.

The Truth About Truth

In the early 1980s speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill coined the phrase “The Third Rail of Politics” as a metaphor for addressing a topic too hot to openly discuss for fear of committing political suicide. In that case the topic was the looming bankruptcy of the Social Security system. Today that third rail is about many other systems ranging from our healthcare system, even the forbidden conversation of the political system governing our nation. Sometimes in order to solve a thorny problem it is necessary to stick your neck out and risk getting it chopped off. Politicians, who depend upon the votes of the public for their survival, have more times than not chosen to say what they think the public wants to hear rather than what they need to hear. Every institution has their own “Third Rail” and Buddhism, as an institution, has one too: The Third Rail of Truth.

All of us think we know the truth (absence of falsity) and as a ordinary yardstick this works most of the time. So as a human society we have created norms and standards by which we measure the flow of life to determine whether or not something is true or false. It works loosely which means “most of the time”—but not all of the time. Sometimes what we thought was true turns about into “fake news.

Ancient Indians believed they knew about truth and expressed their beliefs in the language of their time (Sanskrit). The Sanskrit word “Dharma” has a variety of definitions. One definition is “that which upholds and supports existence.” The root “Dhr” means to grasp (like in “understand”). An alternate definition is “Truth” as in Dharmakaya (Truth Body), which means the real/absolute, unseen body of The Buddha which all acknowledged Buddhist sutras say is The Buddha womb from which everything is made manifest: the pillar of The Buddha. 

Many enlightened persons have used different names for this Truth Body. Huang Po called it “The One Mind,” without defining characteristics, Ch'an Master Linji Yixuan (Zen Master Rinzai) called it True Man without rank,” and Master Bassui Tokushō would simply ask, “Who is it that hears? I call it Mind Essence (Bodhidharmas choice). In an unexpected way these definitions of truth are not counter to the ordinary yardstick—the absence of falsity. But there are important subtleties to this understanding which open the “Dharma Gate” and allows the flow of wisdom, and one of the most critical subtleties pertains to attachment to truth itself. The question is both simple yet profound: Is truth absolute? Relative? Neither? Both? Transcendent to both absolute and relative? Easy to ask the question but not so easy to answer, at least in a way that doesn’t entail touching that third rail. But today we will rush in where angels fear to tread.

We pride ourselves as being moral people and as such we cling to ideas about what it means to be moral. This moral (sila) framework has been institutionalized with Buddhist precepts, one of which has to do with truth telling, so we use this as a guideline to govern our conduct. So how much of the truth do we tell? All of it? None of it? Some portion? Which portion?

Mark Twain, in his whimsical fashion said,“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” Distortion seems to have now become the norm, even without getting the facts. Suppose we are talking about complete truth telling about ourselves. How exactly would that be done? Would we push the play-back button and share the second-by-second litany of every single moment of our present life? Do we share selected and edited versions? Edited according to what criteria? Who edits? Do you see the problem here? There is no solution to this dilemma when approached from the perspective of conditional reality. The matter is beyond comprehension.

In the sixth chapter of the Diamond Sutra The Buddha said an incredible thing regarding truth telling. He said, “..if these fearless bodhisattvas created the perception of a dharma (truth), they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul. Likewise, if they created the perception of no dharma (no truth), they would be attached to a self, a being, a life, and a soul.” To this Kamalashila wrote, “According to the highest truth, dharmas do not actually appear. Thus, there can be no perception of a dharma. And because they do not appear, they do not disappear. Thus, there can be no perception of no dharma. This tells us to realize that dharmas have no self-nature.” Let’s rephrase that: Truth does not have an independent status cut off from life. Truth is not a separate/abstract thing. Truth is a real thing which is reflected in the confused and unpredictable messiness which is life. Without wisdom this confusion becomes a Gordian knot so complex it is impossible to untie.

The ordinary way to fathom this complexity is to hold the feet of flow to the fire of inflexible standards and watch the sparks fly with the loud grating noise of friction. The infusion of wisdom turns this conflict upside down and allows the unfolding messiness to determine “expedient means” where the end (emancipation) dictates the appropriate (expedient) means. Life is not a one size fits all situation. Chi-fo (aka Feng-seng) says, “Before we understand, we depend on instruction. After we understand, instruction is irrelevant. The dharmas taught by the Tathagata sometimes teach existence and sometimes teach non-existence. They are all medicines suited to the illness. There is no single teaching. But in understanding such flexible teachings, if we should become attached to existence or to non-existence, we will be stricken by the illness of dharma-attachment. Teachings are only teachings. None of them are real.” To this Daoxin added, “Therefore the sutra (Nirvana sutra) says: ‘Since there are numberless (types of) capacities among sentient beings (the buddhas) preach the Dharma in numberless ways. Since the Dharma is preached in numberless ways, the meanings are also numberless. Numberless meanings are born from the One Reality. The One reality is formless, but there is no form that it does not give form to: it is called the true form. This is total purity.’”

This “One Reality” is of course the Body of Truth—the Dharmakaya: non-applied consciousness/Mind; the wellspring of all truth which is applied and conforms to the unfolding of life. Our ordinary human nature desires certainty and predictability, but life is fluid and complex. Every sentient being has a unique track of causal linkages and karma, which defines unique forms of illness. Daoxin said, “I expound this teaching (e.g., Essential expedient methods for entering the Path and pacifying mind) for those whose causal conditions and capacities are ripe for them...In the Prajna Sutra Spoken by Manjusri it says: World Honored One, what is the one-practice samadhi? The Buddha said, Being linked to the realm of reality (Dharmakaya) through its oneness is called one-practice samadhi. If men and women want to enter one-practice samadhi, first they must learn about prajnaparamita (e.g., perfect wisdom emanating from the unity of pure consciousness) and cultivate their learning accordingly. Later they will be capable of one-practice samadhi and, if they do not retreat from or spoil their link with the realm of reality, of inconceivable unobstructed formlessness.

To summarize this teaching. Truth is both absolute and relative. It is absolute within the realm of the Dharmakaya—the wellspring of all truth, where oneness reigns. And it is relative within the realm of our individual differences, where karma and causal conditions prevail. When our minds are pure (without retreat or spoilage; defiled with thought/non-thought) the Dharma Gate is opened and prajna flows freely. Prajna (e.g., wisdom) alone, the product of awakened awareness—the pipe-line from the Body of Truth—is capable of untying the Gordian knot of life’s complexity. Short of this we need guidelines, yardsticks and precepts and a tolerance for flying sparks and the loud grating noise of friction.
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Thursday, May 18, 2017

What’s there?

Seeing through the fog of delusion.
“Look straight ahead. What’s there? If you see it as it is You will never err.” These were the words spoken by Bassui Tokushō, a Rinzai Zen Master just before he died in 1387 in what is modern-day Kanagawa Prefecture in Japan. You might say these words were his chosen epitaph that summed up the essence of his life.

“Seeing what’s there” sounds incredibly easy. How could we not? We all have the same eyes and the world we see is the same world. Yet if we all saw the world “as it is,” instead of the way we would like it to be, or a way that confirms our preconceived beliefs and biases, it would be like Shunryu Suzuki referred to in his famous book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

There’s a fresh or innocent perspective when we see as a child sees: an honesty that is neither right nor wrong. In such a state of mind there is no axe to grind, imbedded beliefs to defend, nor convictions to uphold. Things just are, as they are. 

The Buddha referred to himself as the Tathāgata, a compound word composed of “tathā” and “gata.” Various translations of this Sanskrit word have been posed, one of which is called reality as-it-is. In this case the term means, “the one who has gone to suchness” or “the one who has arrived at suchness”—the quality referred to by Zen Master Bassui and Shunryu Suzuki: “Seeing what’s there.”

While apparently easy, in fact to see things as they are requires moving beyond the ideas we hold of ourselves and others, pride of ownership in positions to which we become attached, bigotry that colors clarity, fears of ego threat, and preconceived beliefs, all of which serve as clouded lenses through which we see. These ideas swirl around the ego, like a wheel swirls around a central axel. When these ideas are removed, the world appears just as it has always been. Here is how Ch’an Master Hongzhi put this to verse:

“Right here—at this pivotal axle,
opening the swinging gate and clearing the way—
it is able to respond effortlessly to circumstances;
the great function is free from hindrances.”

The challenge is to stay at this central core as the world swirls and changes around us. What IS easy is to become trapped in the allure of holding fast to dogmas of inflexibility, defending our points of view and responding in kind to insults, and attacks. The hard part is staying fully present in the ebb and flow like balancing on a surf board, leaning neither to the left nor the right. You can read an expanded version concerning such understanding by clicking here.

There are times, given their extreme nature, that dictate actions we might not see as virtuous. “Expedient means” may seem to violate teachings thought to be fundamental to our convictions, but as a prior politician once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He was no Zen Master but he did articulate the essence of seeing things as they were and calling for expedient means. After all is said and done the best advice for steering clear of conflict and getting sucked back into ego defense comes from Mark Twain: “Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” All of us can be stupid when we lose sight of what’s there.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Deluded Mind

In the commentary on The Diamond Sutra, Hui-neng says, “A bodhisattva doesn’t practice charity for his own happiness but to break through miserliness within and to benefit other beings without. But the Tathagata says that the perceptions of self and other are ultimately subject to destruction and not truly real. Hence, all beings are fictions. If one can get free of the deluded mind, there are no beings to save.” 

I’ve read and puzzled over that statement for a long time and then I decided to just pay attention to that last part, “If one can get free of the deluded mind, there are no beings to save.” The question is what’s the difference between a mind that is deluded and one that isn’t? Apparently a deluded mind imagines something that doesn’t exist, like seeing heat waves on the highway and concluding rippling water. In this case The Buddha is saying that we likewise imagine entities called self and other which we mistake as being real. In other words what we take to be real is actually fictitious.

The teaching of “no self” is deeply imbedded into Buddhism. It’s a fundamental tenet. In our deluded state of mind we imagine a separate and independent being that is the same thing as a body. It looks real and it looks separate from every other body. How can it not be real and mutually discrete? Yet The Buddha says this perception is not real. It only looks that way and this conclusion is apparently emanating from a deluded mind.

How can this be understood? To answer that puzzler we have to take a step backward and consider how The Buddha understood the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. The what isn’t part is that things don’t exist independently. Instead everything is arising dependently, based on something else. The extended thought is that everything is thus empty, meaning that a self is not an isolated matter. By itself it is empty (non-existent). Only when joined with something else does it exist.

It is somewhat easier to grasp this distinction with a simple example. Up and down are obviously discriminately different yet they don’t exist independently. These two define each other. Neither up nor down could exist independently yet both exist in relationship to each other. That is essentially the Middle Way: Not up. Not down. Neither not, not up. Neither not, not down. Both are true together. Neither are true apart. That relationship is known as dependent origination and the implications of that principle are far-reaching. We, of course, embrace independence (which is foundational to our nation) and fail to see the connection.

How then does this understanding inform this matter of self and other? If we apply this criterion to a person, the question is what is the connective tissue? If I’m not independent what is the other side of me? Or of you? Obviously we have a bodily form, which we are looking at and that part certainly looks real and independent. Yet the Buddha said no. It is neither real nor independent. By itself a body is no more real than up apart from down.

To answer this question we need to switch over to another Sutra—The Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra, which says that form=emptiness. We know what our own form is. It’s our body. But this sutra says that this bodily form is empty (e.g., not real, not independent), instead it is mutually dependent with this thing called emptiness. Neither of these is real by itself and both are real together. So how can we define and understand the empty part? The truth is you can’t define or conceptually understand emptiness. It can only be experienced because emptiness is your primordial mind, which can’t define itself.

The father of Zen (Bodhidharma) said this, “To say that the real Dharmakāya of the Buddha resembles the Void is another way of saying that the Dharmakāya is the Void and that the Void is the Dharmakāya ... they are one and the same thing.... When all forms are abandoned, there is The Buddha ... the void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma. This spiritually enlightening nature is without beginning ... this great Nirvanic nature is Mind; Mind is The Buddha, and The Buddha is the Dharma.”

The other side of us all is this spiritually enlightened mind. It can’t be seen or understood by our thinking mind, but without that we (the bodily part of us) couldn’t exist. Without that part, we would be nothing more than a fiction. This mind is what produces, not only our bodies but everything else. This mind is spiritually integrated with everything.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A Christian upgrade.

Unless you’ve recently been asleep at the switch you are without doubt aware of the “ransomware” computer attack that has disabled thousands of Microsoft users. Why did this have such a broad-spread impact? Because PC users never took the time to install the upgrade released by Microsoft. The result has effectively rendered users of the Microsoft operating system null and void, unless they pay a ransom.

This may seem like an odd lead-in to the topic of a “A Christian upgrade.” So allow me to clarify, and to begin let me ask a simple question. What is the relationship between the Old and New Testaments? Not a particularly difficult brain twister but an important question that has a parallel to the current ransomware crisis.

For those who don’t know, the word “testament” means covenant or contract: Two different religious operating systems; an old one and a new one. To be a genuine Christian means abiding by the standards set forth in the “new one,” but not both at the same time. The old was intended to be replaced by the new, but unfortunately too many never took the time to install the upgrade, and the result, just like with the ransomware attack, has rendered Christians null and void without paying a price.

And what is the price? Faux Christians who clearly do not comply with the standards of the New Testament and end up coming off as a hybrid, blending of “an eye for an eye”/tit-for-tat, vengeance seeking, hostile, and a quasi sometimes-professor of Christ: A really bizarre composite which is neither here nor there, which led Gandhi to sayI like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Just sayin.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Way We Think

Given the critical nature of thinking, it’s imperative to properly grasp what thinking is all about and how thinking (properly understood) leads us all to our true nature. So let’s take a stroll together down the reality road and examine the goal of seeing things as they are, without distortion or delusions. For our stroll we need to begin with an agreement—to remove customary lenses, with which we are habitually comfortable. For the duration of our stroll we make a pledge to set aside all preconceived views and be open to a new way of seeing.

First let’s describe the terrain in Buddhist terms. What we are going to see in our minds-eye must be considered from within the framework of how Buddhists define reality, and once we establish this framework we’ll accept this definition until the end of our stroll. Following our stroll you may, if you wish, return to your ordinary way of looking at life.

Buddhists don’t accept the notion that things (contents) exist apart from context. To imagine that they do exist in such a manner is a delusion. This beginning premise has vast repercussions. The correct view is that nothing has an independent nature which is exclusive and uncaused. Another way of saying this is that things arise together—are originated interdependently and are caused by other things or events. Thus a thinker only has meaning in terms of what a thinker produces (thoughts) and the converse—thoughts require one who thinks. Thoughts have no independent nature and neither do thinkers. These two arise together simultaneously. Thoughts are causally linked to perceptions, which in turn are causally linked to consciousness. Without consciousness there would be no perceptions and without perceptions there would be no thoughts and without thoughts a thinker could not exist.

But words are devices which themselves have no independent nature. They too arise together with one who writes, speaks or hears. Words are mere devices used to extract and communicate about something. All of the words you are now reading only exist in your mind where they will bear the fruit of imagination. They are not the something itself. Words are reflections or abstractions which join my mind with your mind. Words have no intrinsic self-nature. They too are causally linked to thoughts.

Instead of using a word like “thinker” we could easily substitute another name like “subject” and instead of using a name like “thoughts” we could substitute another name like “objects.” The relationship between thinker/thoughts is the same as between subject/object, the point being that it takes a subject to perceive an object just as it takes a thinker to perceive thoughts, and perception depends upon consciousness.

So we could then say that since one half of these relationships (e.g., thinker apart from thoughts, or subject apart from object) is an impossibility, that such a split is “empty” of independent existence. It would be nonsensical to speak of a thinker without thoughts and in the same way it would be nonsensical to speak of a subject without an object. None of these halves possess a self-nature except conceptually. And all of the foregoing pertains to our stroll down reality lane. Why? Because such conceptual distinctions are not real, only imagined.

This manner of speaking has a name. It is called dependent origination and occurs within the conditional realm, which itself has no self-nature. Just as a thinker has no meaning without thoughts, conditional reality has no meaning without unconditional reality. Everything is subject to this interdependent framework.

So given this, what would happen if we did away with one of these sides? For example let’s say that we did away with thoughts. If that happened, by definition, the thinker would cease to exist. But wait a moment. Where does this relationship of thinker/thoughts exist, except in our minds. Outside of mind there are no thoughts and therefore no thinkers. Both thinkers and thoughts are manifestations of mind and mind exists within our bodies. So if we stop thinking (and the thinker disappears) what does that suggest about our identity? Is it possible for us to disappear when thinking/thoughts disappear? Obviously not. So it is clear that the real us can’t be the thinker, otherwise we would disappear when thoughts cease, which is precisely the whole point. In fact this non-thinking entity is how Bodhidharma defined Zen: Not thinking about anything is Zen, and that is who we truly are: A non-thinking entity that thinks thoughts, or no-thoughts. Sounds strange but when we cease conceptual thought what we are left with is The One Reality: Our True Nature.

So obviously the real us is independent of this thinker/thought arrangement. But if so, then this real us must exist outside the framework of conditional existence since a thinker/thought arrangement is a condition. Where does this stroll then lead us? It leads us into the unconditional realm which is known as the realm of the tathagatakaya (body of the Buddha Lankavatara Sutra) and accessed when we leave conceptual thinking behind...beyond thought and non-thought. To explain: The idea of thought is a thought. The idea of a non-thought is a thought about not-thinking. Both are thoughts and all thoughts are ideas about something but not the something which is thought about.

Why does this matter? It matters because when we become attached to what we perceive and think, and empower these images with notions (another thought) as being real we are subject to clinging to ephemeral and fleeting phantoms which produce suffering. Both things (and particularly thoughts about things) are fleeting. But the distinction between things and thoughts about things, is that things are just things (neither good nor bad—just what they are—suchness) but thoughts about things become judgements of good and bad. We like the good things (and try to grasp and retain them) and dislike the bad things (and try to resist them). Both grasping and resisting are forms of attachment to fleeting existence and attachment creates suffering.

Now let’s shift gears somewhat and come at this from a different perspective by thoroughly considering what is meant by unconditional. The obvious starting point is to understand that something which is unconditional is not dependent upon anything for existence. Anything would include (but not be limited by) time, space, circumstances, birth, death, form, emptiness—everything and nothing. Unconditional means transcendent to all conditions. No beginning, no ending, no circumstances, no form, no right or wrong. Every aspect or defining characteristic would have no place in a realm of unconditional reality, yet unconditional reality must be said to be empty of self since it is a form of complete emptiness and depends (yet it doesn’t depend) upon conditions through dependent origination. 

Unconditional reality is a profound paradox. For it to exist, conditional reality must exist, but in itself it is dependent upon nothing. Thus it is said to exist and yet not exist. It neither has a self (intrinsic, independent nature) yet it does. In Buddhist cosmology this unconditional realm is know as Tathagatagarbha which means Buddha Womb/Buddha Matrix and is explained by The Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra to refer to the True Self or Essence of the Self within all sentient beings—the unconditioned, boundless, nurturing, sustaining, deathless and diamond-like Self of The Buddha, which is indiscernible to worldly, unawakened vision, as a result of conceptual obscurations (e.g., thoughts), inappropriate mental and behavioral tendencies and unclear perception.

Such a composite can only be understood as both conditioned and unconditioned, which means the unified source of both: an aspect with defining characteristics and an aspect without defining characteristic which arises simultaneously just as a thinker arises with thoughts. The aspects of Buddha-Nature with defining characteristics is the nirmanakaya—Buddhist vernacular for our physical being... (Incarnate Buddha) and the sambhogakaya—The mind-stream link to the Dharmakaya. Both of these are said to be subject to birth, death, and other conditions. The physical and psychic aspects of Buddha-Nature come and go. These aspects have form, but form and emptiness are a single thing. Form can’t exist without the context of emptiness. They arise together. An object (form) can only exist in space/time (emptiness). That form may be either physical or psychic. A thought is a psychic form—an abstraction, whereas physical forms appear to have substance and intrinsic/independent existence, but from a Buddhist point of view, not even physical form is real (meaning independent from emptiness).

From this point of view all forms (physical and psychic) are manifestations of mind and lack intrinsic existence. The aspect which is without form is called the Dharmakaya (Body of truth). This aspect can only be seen by a Buddha and those who have advanced to the highest state of consciousness since it is unconditional. What is conditional (anything with form) can’t see what is unconditional (emptiness—like space can’t be seen). This articulation is an attempt to understand the trikaya—the three aspects of Buddha-Nature. But this is a provisional attempt using form (words) to speak of something beyond all form so the attempt is flawed from the outset. As Lao Tzu stated, “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.” The nameless is the Dharmakaya or Mind essence. In truth these aspects are a single, indivisible reality but for convenience sake we speak of them as separate.

The Dharmakaya goes by many names. Often times the name One Mind is used. It is always present yet never found. Mind has no conditions nor limiting qualities yet is always present and functioning. Bodhidharma called it mind essence which may be a better expression since essence has a connotation of infused transcendence. But names and handles are not important. What is important is the essence to which names and handles point; like a finger pointing to the moon. To transcend all names and thoughts (abstractions) and access directly what is, without condition is what tathagatakaya means. Tatha means thusness or suchness—things as they are in their fullness (both conditional and unconditional). Tathagata is an alternative name given a Buddha: one who sees things as they are without delusion

There is a story about the second Zen patriarch (Hui-k'o) who asked Bodhidharma to help him make his mind stop. Bodhidharma said, “Show me this mind of yours, and I’ll make it stop.” Hui-k'o responded, “I’ve looked everywhere for my mind but can’t find it.” Bodhidharma said, “There. I’ve stopped it for you.” The point is that mind/Dharmakaya is not to be found. The idea or thought of mind must be stopped to access mind. When we look at objects (a thought is an object) we see just objects: the perceptible form; the abstraction, but we don’t see essence because it can’t be seen. The purity of mind is what sees, not the tools we call eyes. Objects are containers of essence but not essence itself and our eyes see objects (but not essence). Meister Eckhart (famous Christian mystic) made this same point in distinguishing ideas from essence.

Each of us exists in fullness. We are not just decaying form. Fullness includes the essence dimension of Buddha-Nature—the Dharmakaya. Without this, no form could exist (because of dependent origination). When this is understood we see that we are both transient and eternal. We are both subject to beginning/ending and we are not. We are both subject to suffering and we are not. We both have no self/intrinsic nature and we do. Both subject and object fuse into a single thing. SELF and self are different yet the same. We, and all of nature, are the great mystery of life.
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Sunday, May 14, 2017

In the world: enlightened social responsibility.

Covered with the slim of injustice
There appears to be a contradictory challenge in many spiritual pursuits. Picking and choosing often seems like resisting just action resulting from self-inflicted karma of the past. And by resisting we attempt to alleviate our own suffering by violating the principle of karmic justice, thus contributing to more bad karma and corresponding suffering. We rarely recognize how such suffering leads to the eradication of the ego and on to a higher level of spiritual life.

On the other hand there is a temptation to avoid appropriate social responsibility based on the flawed notion that those who suffer deserve to suffer because of their own past karma and by interdicting this process we merely exacerbate their own learning process, sparing them from spiritual advancement. Closely aligned with this avoidance comes the matter of discrimination and judgement. We know that to discriminate between good and evil seems to necessarily involvement judgement. So how do we walk this razors edge between enlightened social responsibility while not tampering with the karmic process leading to a heightened spiritual awareness?

There is a delicate balance between being in the world but not of the world: the fine line of being flawed and not flawed at the same time. To explicate this seeming dilemma it is perhaps helpful to turn to a couple of ancient stories and a few contemporary examples. 

The first story concerns Huike the second Chán patriarch. He was a scholar in both Buddhist scriptures and classical Chinese texts. Huike met his teacher Bodhidharma (the first patriarch) at Shaolin Temple in 528 CE when he was about 40 years of age. Legend has it that Bodhidharma initially refused to teach Huike who then stood in the snow outside Bodhidharma’s cave all night, until the snow reached his waist. In the morning Bodhidharma asked him why he was still there. Huike replied that he wanted a teacher to “open the gate of the elixir of universal compassion to liberate all beings.” Bodhidharma refused, saying, “how can you hope for true religion with little virtue, little wisdom, a shallow heart, and an arrogant mind? It would just be a waste of effort.” Finally, to prove his resolve, Huike cut off his left arm and presented it to Bodhidharma as a token of his sincerity. He was then accepted as a student, and Bodhidharma changed his name from Shenguang Ji (his secular surname) to Huike, which means “Wisdom and Capacity.” Try to imagine the depth of anguish Huike must have endured prior to this that inspired him with such motivation and determination. Can any of us, in honesty, say that we show that sort of resolve?

Huike did not immediately display wisdom but instead struggled to find The Way. It took some years before he found the key that unlocked the gate of the elixir of universal compassion to liberate all beings. On one occasion Huike said to Bodhidharma, “My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.” Huike said, “Although I’ve sought it, I cannot find it.” “There,” Bodhidharma replied, “I have pacified your mind.” Upon hearing this Huike realized enlightenment.

The second story involves ten stages of the gradual Chán school (Soto) illustrated by Chinese Chán Master Chino Kukuan, who painted ten pictures illustrating the steps to emancipation. The movement from anguish to freedom has been depicted in many ways since Buddhism began to take shape but in essence the key that unlocked Huike’s gate of the elixir of universal compassion is the same gate in these ten-fold stages. And that key entails a seemingly strange illusion: being liberated from the beginning yet remaining unaware until the true mind realizes it has never been imprisoned in the first place. If we are already whole, then we can’t become whole. Nevertheless, the quest to become whole and emancipated is an ageless and futile proposition because the true mind is what is seeking. Trying to find your true mind is like looking for your eyeglasses while wearing them. 

These ten pictures depict the search for an ox, an allegory for the search of our true nature. Although awakening is instantaneous, the practice, which precipitates it, may be experienced as occurring in a series of stages. This may be understood as gestation and then suddenly birth. The ox-herding pictures are an attempt to aid the progress toward enlightenment by exemplifying certain steps , which begin in darkness and proceed in stages ending in enlightenment and a return to the world (which was never left). But having gone through suffering associated with being in bondage of the mind, the return is accompanied with a radically altered view of what bondage is and an appreciation of genuine compassion.

Now we are in the world and the question becomes, “What role do we play in this vast drama of life?” Do we intercede? Or do we accept things as they are, regardless of how they appear? Do we have a responsibility to fight injustice and evil, or stand apart and watch with detachment the destruction of society? And to answer this thorny question we turn to Plato and his allegory of The Cave

Plato wrote this allegory as a part of The Republic around 380 BCE. The larger purpose of The Republic concerned Plato’s ideas of justice, as well as the order and character of both a just man and a just city-state. The Cave specifically addressed the effect of education, and the lack of it, on our true nature. The allegory is structured as a dialogue between Socrates and Plato’s brother Glaucon. The setting for the story involved people who have been imprisoned in a cave (their own mind), chained in a fixed position so they can’t move, with a fire at their back, which casts shadows on the cave wall of themselves. They are left to see only their shadows and thus come to believe they and their shadows are one and the same thing.

The two observe this situation while Socrates points out to Plato’s brother the despicable nature of the prisoners plight as well as the civil, spiritual and political obligation by those who see the truth to those remaining in bondage. When the truth is pointed out, the prisoners lash out and excoriate those who wish to free them claiming that they, instead of their intended deliverers, are right while their liberators are wrong. They would rather remain chained and protective of their convictions than be set free. Such people surround us to this day; denying what is crystal clear.

Given this conundrum, Glaucon asks Socrates why the delivers need endure the slings and arrows of the prisoners but instead just enjoy the truth and let those in bondage remain pleased and in bondage. And it is here that Socrates states his case for a just man and his duty to society. According to Socrates/Plato, a just man is one who has found the truth and rather than “taking the money and running” returns to honor his duty to assist those trapped in their ignorance, which just happens to be the same definition the Buddha offered for a Bodhisattva: a suffering servant (also the name given to Jesus).

The Cave conjures up the antithesis of just men in the contemporary characters of congressional members who do “take the money and run,” and of Paul Ryan who reflects the teachings of Ayn Rand who saw little need for government. In his eyes there are “takers,” dependent on the entitlements of government. The view of a just man and his duty to society held by these gentlemen (and a host of others) was the opposite of the view held by Plato. Just let them eat cake (Qu’ils mangent de la brioche in French) is their mantra.

So back to the questions: “What role do we play in this vast drama of life.” Do we intercede? Or do we accept things as they are, regardless of how they appear? Do we have a responsibility to fight injustice and evil, or stand apart and watch with detachment the destruction of society? To many, the answer moves along the path of self (ego) preservation and the easy way: the safe way where they can avoid challenges to their tightly held dogmas of destruction. To them there is a clear right and a corresponding clear wrong: “makers” and “takers.  But there is another way: the way of the just Bodhisattva who fights for the rights of those still in bondage, trapped by the shadows of the mind, in spite of the slights and arrows cast at them. They have seen a light of truth and know it is not theirs to possess. They gladly become suffering servants because they have been in bondage themselves and know in their marrow how ignorance is not bliss. When they see injustice, evil and self destructive actions taking place, they do intercede and fight for those unable to fight against tyranny of the mind and are covered with the slime imposed on them by those who care only for their own profit regardless of inflicted harm to others. 

There seems to be a subtle and fine line between liberating people in physical bondage and bondage of the mind. We must fight for those who are physically imprisoned in one way or another, be it oppression of race, gender, sexual preference, politics, religion, finances or any other form of unjust discrimination, yet recognize that until people are freed from bondage of the mind, there will never be ultimate freedom and liberty for all. The mind is everything! We must be in the world but not of the world.  If we, who have endured suffering and found release, don’t help those in need, we too will continue as doomed to a hell we deserve.