Bob Schwartz

Category: Buddhism

The Furniture of Religion

When I look at the religions I practice or have a studied interest in—Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity among them—I see empty houses and furniture.

Some religions seem to begin with emptying the previously stuffed house, or at least minimizing the furniture. Buddhism and Christianity look like this, at least in the beginning. But the nature of religious evolution is to buy, borrow or build furnishings to fill the rooms, because it seems an improvement and because it is what people seem to like in their homes. And so, thousands of years later, you find plenty of variety in the Buddhist and Christian neighborhoods—some very grand constructions spiritually, intellectually, and physically, that seem a long way from the original simple houses.

Judaism, which like Hinduism harks back to a more ancient world where more is more, begins overstuffed (or in the Yiddish expression, ongeshtopt, meaning overstuffed). There have been continuing movements to strip down the Jewish furniture to basics and barer floors and walls, the most powerful of which has been the Hasidic stream, flowing from the Baal Shem Tov in the 18th century. (But in the spirit of exponential furnishing, the Hasidic movement became more and more overstuffed over the next few hundred years, leaving the Besht’s house barely recognizable.)

Regular readers know my appreciation for religion and my practice of Zen, which for me remains the best (but not only) way to clear out the furniture, or at least see through it to the basic house, or even to see through the house itself to where it sits in the universe. Once there, you can bring in the furniture you really need, whatever the period or the style.

 

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Buddhist Anarchism

Celebrated poet Gary Snyder has been a master swimmer in the cultural and spiritual currents of our times. His biography from the Poetry Foundation notes:

Gary Snyder began his career in the 1950s as a noted member of the “Beat Generation,” though he has since explored a wide range of social and spiritual matters in both poetry and prose. Snyder’s work blends physical reality and precise observations of nature with inner insight received primarily through the practice of Zen Buddhism. While Snyder has gained attention as a spokesman for the preservation of the natural world and its earth-conscious cultures, he is not simply a “back-to-nature” poet with a facile message….

Snyder’s emphasis on metaphysics and his celebration of the natural order remove his work from the general tenor of Beat writing—and in fact Snyder is also identified as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance along with Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. Snyder has looked to the Orient and to the beliefs of American Indians for positive responses to the world, and he has tempered his studies with stints of hard physical labor as a logger and trail builder. Altieri believed that Snyder’s “articulation of a possible religious faith” independent of Western culture has greatly enhanced his popularity. In his study of the poet, Bob Steuding described how Snyder’s accessible style, drawn from the examples of Japanese haiku and Chinese verse, “has created a new kind of poetry that is direct, concrete, non-Romantic, and ecological. . . . Snyder’s work will be remembered in its own right as the example of a new direction taken in American literature.” Nation contributor Richard Tillinghast wrote: “In Snyder the stuff of the world ‘content’—has always shone with a wonderful sense of earthiness and health. He has always had things to tell us, experiences to relate, a set of values to expound. . . . He has influenced a generation.”

In 1961, Snyder published an essay entitled Buddhist Anarchism. Anarchism is a slippery term, though a call to turn things upside down, or an observation of our heading there, probably qualifies. The Buddhist part is definite here. Yes, it is radical, and pragmatic history may seem to demonstrate that the vision is idealistic, impractical and impossible. Even quaint in the face of the 21st century real world and real life. But without the idealistic, impractical and impossible, where is the fun and the future?

Buddhist Anarchism

Buddhism holds that the universe and all creatures in it are intrinsically in a state of complete wisdom, love and compassion; acting in natural response and mutual interdependence. The personal realization of this from-the-beginning state cannot be had for and by one-“self” — because it is not fully realized unless one has given the self up; and away.

In the Buddhist view, that which obstructs the effortless manifestation of this is Ignorance, which projects into fear and needless craving. Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems. Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hangups and cultural conditionings. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.

No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.

There is nothing in human nature or the requirements of human social organization which intrinsically requires that a culture be contradictory, repressive and productive of violent and frustrated personalities. Recent findings in anthropology and psychology make this more and more evident. One can prove it for himself by taking a good look at his own nature through meditation. Once a person has this much faith and insight, he must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change through a variety of hopefully non-violent means.

The joyous and voluntary poverty of Buddhism becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practice of meditation, for which one needs only “the ground beneath one’s feet,” wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim and repress — and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze “moralists” and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.

Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy sees the world as a vast interrelated network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and illuminated. From one standpoint, governments, wars, or all that we consider “evil” are uncompromisingly contained in this totalistic realm. The hawk, the swoop and the hare are one. From the “human” standpoint we cannot live in those terms unless all beings see with the same enlightened eye. The Bodhisattva lives by the sufferer’s standard, and he must be effective in aiding those who suffer.

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old” — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago.

The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious, through meditation. In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks.

GARY SNYDER
1961

The Buddha on 66

The Buddha on 66

The Buddha said to Todd and Buzz
The route is wide and useful
Now a bit neglected
All things die
Even highways
Lend me your Vette
Then walk down the road
To the Blue Swallow Motel
Sleep if you must
But be sure
To wake up

Note: The route is Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Once the great American highway, it has been somewhat passed over by the Interstate, but not surpassed. Some motels and other businesses catering to travelers are gone. The Blue Swallow Motel remains, and is not mere nostalgia. It is a place that allows the past to be present, not because the past is better but because it is different. Todd and Buzz are also past, heroes of a 1960s TV show Route 66, in which they drove around the country in their Corvette, having dramatic adventures. The Buddha is the Buddha, never in Tucumcari, never drove a Corvette, though the route is the way.

Yaqui: The last piece in a spiritual puzzle?

Saying that something is “the last piece in a spiritual puzzle” is misleading in so many ways.

It is not a spiritual puzzle, there are no pieces, and they do not appear and are not apprehended in sequence. It is a mystery of mysteries, at best they are clues, which fly in and out of the seen and unseen sky like birds, some of which you recognize, but many of which you will not identify until much later, if ever at all.

I am not a fan of spiritual syncretism and I am not not a fan of spiritual syncretism. Those who go from birth to death in a single tradition have much. Those who like bees or hummingbirds go from flower to flower have much. So it goes.

As for me, continuing a metaphorical mix, I’ve looked at plans and kept to some, picked up building materials along the way, and constructed what I could from what I found or what was delivered. It doesn’t look quite like anything else, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the structure even if I could, but I might suggest it is not a terrible process. Or place to work and rest in.

Here is something about the Yaqui of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico and something from the most extraordinary of Buddhist scriptures.


Sea Aniya: The Flower World

In the spiritual heart of the “enchanted” natural world is the dream-like presence of this “blossoming” world. This realm is difficult to define in words. It is part of a ritualized symbolic language of spirit that is understood by not solely by the mind, but also by the heart. What can be said is that the Sea Aniya is the integral part of a very ancient belief that is also a part of most Mexican Indian peoples’ mythology: the idea of flowers “expressing” a spiritual message, flowers symbolizing growth (germination, budding, flowering) of spiritual awareness. Flowers are the harmony, fertility, and beauty of this world. Yaquis believe in a manifested reality so that we know this is a very real world that is located east of the sun and in a place below the dawn. It is an ideally perfected world that mirrors the grace and beauty of the desert territory.

Deer Dancer: Yaqui Legends & Myths by Stan Padilla

The Flower Ornament Scripture

The Flower Ornament Scripture, called Avatamsaka in Sanskrit and Huayan in Chinese, is one of the major texts of Buddhism. Also referred to as the major Scripture of Inconceivable Liberation, it is perhaps the richest and most grandiose of all Buddhist scriptures, held in high esteem by all schools of Buddhism that are concerned with universal liberation. Its incredible wealth of sensual imagery staggers the imagination and exercises an almost mesmeric effect on the mind as it conveys a wide range of teachings through its complex structure, its colorful symbolism, and its mnemonic concentration formulae….

[Book One] “THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Buddha was in the land of Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just realized true awareness. The ground was solid and firm, made of diamond, adorned with exquisite jewel discs and myriad precious flowers, with pure clear crystals. The ocean of characteristics of the various colors appeared over an infinite extent. There were banners of precious stones, constantly emitting shining light and producing beautiful sounds. Nets of myriad gems and garlands of exquisitely scented flowers hung all around. The finest jewels appeared spontaneously, raining inexhaustible quantities of gems and beautiful flowers all over the earth.”

The Flower Ornament Scripture, translated by Thomas Cleary

Buddha Bemidbar (In the Wilderness)

Buddha Bemidbar (In the Wilderness)

Moses is missing
In his place
Siddhartha sits.

Israelites are numbered
Can he free them?

The way in the wilderness
Is unpassable.
Can they pass it?

Too dark to sea
The waters give way
To dry ground
As if they were not there
From the beginning.

Walk on
The mountain next.

The Pope and the Dalai Lama: How Did We Get So Lucky?

In a newly published interview with Die Zeit, Pope Francis talks about many matters. Including his own faith. Asked about whether he ever doubts the existence of God, he said:

“I too know moments of emptiness.”

The current Pope shows us the honesty, humility, humor, wisdom and spirit we would like to see in all our traditions and in all our leaders—and in ourselves. The same can be said about the current Dalai Lama.

You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic or a Tibetan Buddhist to be inspired by these people. And just people they are, according to them, as the Pope reminds us in the same interview:

“I am a sinner and I am fallible. When I am idealized, I feel attacked.”

Pope Francis is 80. The Dalai Lama is 81. They will not live and serve forever, as much as we would be benefited by that gift. It is possible that both will be succeeded by their equal, but we can’t know that.

So let’s enjoy them and be inspired by them while they are here, wondering what we did to deserve this.

Light the Icicle

icicles

Happy Hanukkah. Happy Christmas.


The Icicle

A zaddik told:

“On a winter’s day, I went to the bath with the master. It was so cold that icicles hung from the roofs. We entered and as soon as he did the Unification, the bath grew warm. He stood in the water for a very long time, until the candle began to drip and gutter. ‘Rabbi,’ I said, ‘the candle is guttering and going out.’

‘Fool,’ he answered, ‘take an icicle from the roof and light it! He who spoke to the oil and it leaped into flame, will speak to this too, and it will kindle.’ The icicle burned brightly for a good while, until I went home, and when I got home there was a little water in my hand.”

Martin Buber,  Tales of the Hasidim


“People ask, ‘What is the Buddha?’ An icicle forming in fire.”

Dogen Zenji

Bodhi Day Riddle: Fig Newtons

Fig Newtons

Here is a riddle for Buddhists, scientists, cookie lovers or anyone else who likes a challenge:

Why should Fig Newtons be the official cookie of Bodhi Day, the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment?

(For more serious posts about Bodhi Day, see here and here.)

Bodhi Day: The Ancient Path

buddhas-of-the-celestial-gallery

“This was the third true knowledge attained by me in the last watch of the night. Ignorance was banished and true knowledge arose, darkness was banished and light arose, as happens in one who dwells diligent, ardent, and resolute.”

“Suppose, monks, a man wandering through a forest would see an ancient path, an ancient road traveled upon by people in the past. He would follow it and would see an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds, and ramparts, a delightful place. Then the man would inform the king or a royal minister: ‘Sire, know that while wandering through the forest I saw an ancient path, an ancient road traveled upon by people in the past. I followed it and saw an ancient city, an ancient capital that had been inhabited by people in the past, with parks, groves, ponds, and ramparts, a delightful place. Renovate that city, sire!’ Then the king or the royal minister would renovate the city, and some time later that city would become successful and prosperous, well populated, filled with people, attained to growth and expansion.”

“So too, monks, I saw the ancient path, the ancient road traveled by the Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past. And what is that ancient path, that ancient road? It is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. I followed that path and by doing so I have directly known aging-and-death, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation. I have directly known birth … existence … clinging … craving … feeling … contact … the six sense bases … name-and-form … consciousness … volitional formations, their origin, their cessation, and the way leading to their cessation. Having directly known them, I have explained them to the monks, the nuns, the male lay followers, and the female lay followers. This spiritual life, monks, has become successful and prosperous, extended, popular, widespread, well proclaimed among devas and humans.”

Saṃyutta Nikāya 12:65; II 104–7
In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon

Right Trees (Bodhi Day)

buddha-comic-enlightenment

December 8 is Bodhi Day, known in Japan as Rohatsu, the day of the Buddha’s enlightenment.  

Right Trees (Bodhi Day)

Which tree
To sit under?
Study each one
Counting branches
Inspecting leaves.
Is the ground
Too soft or wet
The shade
Too dark?
Who can deny
The forest
Yet it shrinks
To dust
On a distant shore.
The moon and
The morning star
Are just enough light
To brighten the night
Waking to find
This tree
All trees
Are right.

I wondered how the Buddha knew which tree to sit under for that consequential meditation. An easy answer is that it didn’t matter, that any tree or all trees would do. Another answer is that it didn’t have to be a tree at all. Another of the infinite answers is that there was no tree, no moon or morning star, no sitting. Just waking up.