Bob Schwartz

Tag: Buddhism

We are all hermits now: Song of the Grass Roof Hut

Thomas Merton hermitage in Kentucky

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.

Hermit—one who lives in solitude—is from Greek erēmia desert, which is from erēmos desolate. In the fourth century, Christians dissatisfied with the artificial complexities of the Church fled to the Egyptian desert to be alone and closer to God. Thus began Christian monasticism. On the other side of the world, Buddhists in China went to the mountains, also to be alone.

Both the Christian desert fathers and mothers and the Buddhist hermits left behind a treasury of wisdom. Centuries later, in another part of the world Thomas Merton fled the chaos of civilization to build a hermitage of his own in Kentucky, and similarly provided an inspiring record of his experiences.

The following Song of the Grass Roof Hut is the work of Shitou Xiqian [Japanese: Sekitō Kisen] (700–790, China).

Song of the Grass Roof Hut

I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.
When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in – covered by weeds.

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between.
Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn’t love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.
A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can’t help wondering;
Will this hut perish or not?

Perishable or not, the original master is present,
not dwelling south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.
A shining window below the green pines –
Jade palaces or vermilion towers can’t compare with it.

Just sitting with head covered, all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.
Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?

Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.
Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut, and don’t give up.

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.
Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.
If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from this skin bag here and now.

Shitou Xiqian

(translation by Taigen Daniel Leighton)

Upgrade Ourselves: The Significance of Life at the New Year from Master Yin Shun

“Human beings can avoid evil deeds, perform good deeds and accumulate merits. We can upgrade ourselves.”
Master Yin Shun

Following is an excerpt from the work of Master Yin Shun (1906-2005).

Yin Shun was a Chinese Buddhist teacher and scholar, a primary contributor to the revival of Buddhism in China and the formation of a twentieth century Humanistic Buddhism. He is hardly known in the West because so little of his writing has been translated. About the volume of his work, Mark O’Neill writes:

His writing career started in 1942 with a treatise on Indian Buddhism and his last major academic work was in 1989, on the same topic. He wrote an astonishing seven million characters.

The Buddhism of Yin Shun is difficult to classify and belongs to no one school. His goal was to promote a Buddhism true to original dharma and fitting for the twentieth century and beyond. Western students have become familiar with many teachers with the same goal, each with a distinctive voice. The voice of Yin Shun, rarely heard in English, is among these.

This excerpt is taken from one of the few English translations of his work, Teachings in Chinese Buddhism. (Also available is The Way to Buddhahood.)


From the Miao Yun Collection, Volume 11 by Venerable Yin Shun:

However, to place the significance of life on the family, or nation, or the human race is not one that people like to do willingly. We try to hang on to something because of the fear that our body and mind will degenerate one day. But can we assure that these are the real meanings of life? If the significance of life is on the family, for those who do not have any offspring, does it mean that it is meaningless to live? If the significance of life is on the country, from the perspective of history, there were so many highly prosperous countries and civilizations, but where are they now? They have long vanished and are only regarded as anthropological evidences now! Then, what about living for the advancement of mankind? Human activities rely on the existence of the earth. Although it may still be a very long time to go, it is inevitable that the earth will degenerate one day. What is significance of life when the earth ceases to support the human activities? It seems these three significances of life adopted by most people will eventually become void….

The concept of “a future in the heaven” has been used by most worldly religions, especially religion with God in the Western countries to explain the significance of life. In these religions, the world where we humans now live, is just an illusion. Human beings that live in this world, believe in the God, love the God, and abide by His instructions in order to go to the Heaven in the future. Some religions say, the end of the world is coming, and those who have no faith in the God will be trapped in the hell of eternal suffering; whereas those who believe in the God will get into the heaven and enjoy the eternal bliss. So it would seem, all the faith, morality and good actions people do is motivated by their desire to prepare for their entry into the heaven. But this heaven is something for the future. It is impossible to go to heaven while still living as a human being. Therefore, the concept of a heaven is only a belief. In reality, heaven cannot be proven to exist. It seems rather vague to use the existence of something that cannot be proven as one’s purpose for living!

As mentioned earlier, Buddhism denies that there is any permanent and absolute significance of life, and described life as unsatisfactory (s. dukkha) and void (s. sunyata). However, Buddha acknowledged that there is a relative significance of life, and it is through this relative and conditioned nature of life that we can achieve and realize the universal truth. According to the discourses of the Buddha, our lives, and the world, are nothing but phenomena that rise and fall. It is a process of forming and degenerating. There is nothing that is not subject to change or impermanence. Impermanence indicates that there is no eternal bliss, because even a joyous state will eventually cease and become suffering. Because there is suffering, there will be no ultimate and complete freedom. Hence, the Buddha taught about non-self (‘self’ implies the existence). The Brahmin of the Buddha’s era considered life and the world by conceptualizing that there was a metaphysical entity who has the nature of “permanence”, “happiness” and “self”. This concept was completely refuted by the Buddha and He described it as delusion. The Buddha observed the reality and taught the truth of “impermanence”, “suffering” and “non-self”. From these truths of life, i.e. impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self, how can we establish the significance of our lives?…

From the principle of cause and effect, Buddhism explains that the body and mind activity of an individual, be it good or evil, will not only affect the individual internally, creating potentially habitual tendencies (karma), but also influence others externally. When our body and mind disintegrate and death comes, our habitual tendencies (the karma), with our desire to be reborn and attachment to life as the conditions, propagates into a new composition of body and mind. This is the beginning of a new life. From continuous causes and conditions and their effects, impermanence and non-self, there is an infinite flow of life which continues from one to another. (This is different from the teachings of other religions that there is a permanent soul.) This is like a country, where there is a continuous disintegration of dynasties followed by the formation of new dynasties.

Life is dependent originated. For all the good and evil deeds we do, their results will be experienced in this life, or in our new lives in the future. The Law of Cause and Effect is the axiom. The combinations of mind and body of this life will disintegrate and die. All our actions, the good and evil deeds, will determine our future. The karma of sentient beings is continuous, be it good or evil, has a positive or negative significance which will influence our conditions in the future. Therefore, death is part of the process of life; it is not a sudden disappearance. Every act has its result, life after life, we continue to create new karma. When we experience temporary suffering or downfall, we should not feel disappointed. It will be only a temporary phenomenon. Our future may still be bright. The avoidance of suffering and the attainment of happiness can only be achieved by avoiding evil and doing good according to the Law of Cause and Effect. It cannot be achieved by pure luck nor by the help of any God.

To be able to lead a human life is actually the result of the good karma. The good or evil deeds of this life will determine the higher or lower realms of our future life. The Buddha kept telling us that “It is precious to be born as human”. However, many Buddhists sometimes misunderstand the teaching of the Buddha. They only brood over the suffering of human beings, and do not appreciate that it is precious to be born as a human being!

According to the Sutra, humans have three supreme characteristics. These characteristics are not only better than animals, ghosts and beings in the hells, but they are also better than the Devas in the heavenly realms. What are these characteristics? They are morality, knowledge and steadfast determination. In the human world, we know about suffering and are able to help those who suffer. But morality, knowledge and human determination is sometimes not completely satisfactory. It has its side effects, sometimes including a tendency for humans to self-destruct. But through these three qualities, human beings are able to develop a sophisticated culture. This is a fact that cannot be denied.

During the evolution of mankind, we have come to realize that there is dissatisfaction and incompleteness in life. This prompts us to pursue perfection and completion. Human beings can avoid evil deeds, perform good deeds and accumulate merits. We can upgrade ourselves. According to Buddhism, humans are the only beings that can renounce the world and aspire to the mind of Bodhi (Bodhicitta). Only human beings can transcend relativity and have the possibility to experience the absolute state (which corresponds to the initial state of enlightenment). How precious human life is! We should understand the value of, “It is precious to be born as human”. Then the significance of life can be well understood. We should appreciate and utilize our lives, and do our best not to waste it.

Indra’s Net

The Glowing Limit. This illustration follows the mantra of Indra’s Pearls ad infinitum (at least in so far as a computer will allow). The glowing yellow lacework manifests entirely of its own accord out of our initial arrangement of just five touching red circles.

From Indra’s Pearls: The Vision of Felix Klein by David Mumford, Caroline Series and David Wright:

The ancient Buddhist dream of Indra’s Net

In the heaven of the great god Indra is said to be a vast and shimmering net, finer than a spider’s web, stretching to the outermost reaches of space. Strung at the each intersection of its diaphanous threads is a reflecting pearl. Since the net is infinite in extent, the pearls are infinite in number. In the glistening surface of each pearl are reflected all the other pearls, even those in the furthest corners of the heavens. In each reflection, again are reflected all the infinitely many other pearls, so that by this process, reflections of reflections continue without end.

***

Towards the end of the century, Felix Klein, one of the great mathematicians his age and the hero of our book, presented in a famous lecture at Erlangen University a unified conception of geometry which incorporated both Bolyai’s brave new world and Möbius’ relationships into a wider conception of symmetry than had ever been formulated before. Further work showed that his symmetries could be used to understand many of the special functions which had proved so powerful in unravelling the physical properties of the world (see Chapter 12 for an example). He was led to the discovery of symmetrical patterns in which more and more distortions cause shrinking so rapid that an infinite number of tiles can be fitted into an enclosed finite area, clustering together as they shrink down to infinite depth.

It was a remarkable synthesis, in which ideas from the most diverse areas of mathematics revealed startling connections. Moreover the work had other ramifications which were not to be understood for almost another century. Klein’s books (written with his former student Robert Fricke) contain many beautiful illustrations, all laboriously calculated and drafted by hand. These pictures set the highest standard, occasionally still illustrating mathematical articles even today. However many of the objects they imagined were so intricate that Klein could only say:

The question is … what will be the position of the limiting points. There is no difficulty in answering these questions by purely logical reasoning; but the imagination seems to fail utterly when we try to form a mental image of the result.

The wider ramifications of Klein’s ideas did not become apparent until two vital new and intimately linked developments occurred in the 1970’s. The first was the growing power and accessibility of high speed computers and computer graphics. The second was the dawning realization that chaotic phenomena, observed previously in isolated situations (such as theories of planetary motion and some electronic circuits), were ubiquitous, and moreover provided better models for many physical phenomena than the classical special functions. Now one of the hallmarks of chaotic phenomena is that structures which are seen in the large repeat themselves indefinitely on smaller and smaller scales. This is called self-similarity. Many schools of mathematics came together in working out this new vision but, arguably, the computer was the sine qua non of the advance, making possible as it did computations on a previously inconceivable scale. For those who knew Klein’s theory, the possibility of using modern computer graphics to actually see his ‘utterly unimaginable’ tilings was irresistible….

Klein’s tilings were now seen to have intimate connections with modern ideas about self-similar scaling behaviour, ideas which had their origin in statistical mechanics, phase transitions and the study of turbulence. There, the self-similarity involved random perturbations, but in Klein’s work, one finds self-similarity obeying precise and simple laws.

Strangely, this exact self-similarity evokes another link, this time with the ancient metaphor of Indra’s net which pervades the Avatamsaka or Hua-yen Sutra, called in English the Flower Garland Scripture, one of the most rich and elaborate texts of East Asian Buddhism. We are indirectly indebted to Michael Berry for making this connection: it was in one his papers about chaos that we first found the reference from the Sutra to Indra’s pearls. Just as in our frontispiece, the pearls in the net reflect each other, the reflections themselves containing not merely the other pearls but also the reflections of the other pearls. In fact the entire universe is to be found not only in each pearl, but also in each reflection in each pearl, and so ad infinitum.

As we investigated further, we found that Klein’s entire mathematical set up of the same structures being repeated infinitely within each other at ever diminishing scales finds a remarkable parallel in the philosophy and imagery of the Sutra. As F. Cook says in his book Hua-yen: The Jewel Net of Indra:

The Hua-yen school has been fond of this mirage, mentioned many times in its literature, because it symbolises a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated interrelationship among all the members of the cosmos. This relationship is said to be one of simultaneous mutual identity and mutual intercausality.

Lock Screen Pure Land

“If you are a smartphone user, you look at the lock screen—the opening screen you swipe to get into your phone—maybe a hundred times a day. Just a second at a time, but seconds add up to a real experience and impression. The pre-loaded images on lock screens are pretty banal, meant to show off the screen’s high-resolution capability without offending or overexciting anyone.”
The Art of the Lock Screen

A while ago—okay, a long while ago in Digital Time—I wrote about the creative possibilities of the lock screen on your mobile devices. Since then, my own devices have gone through a lot of different lock screen looks.

My latest lock screen art is shown above. It is a Tibetan thangka circa 1700, done in ink, pigments, and gold on cotton, depicting Amitabha in Sukhavati Paradise. Amithaba (Amida in Japanese) is the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. Sukhavati Paradise is also known as the Pure Land, and is a centerpiece of Pure Land Buddhism—not as well-known in the West as other traditions such as Zen, but the dominant Buddhist tradition in Japan.

What the Pure Land is, where the Pure Land is, and how to get to the Pure Land are big topics for another time. But just look at that image. Even if you know nothing about what it means, seeing it each time you open your phone can certainly be a help in making things better.

The Eight Awarenesses: A List for Enlightenment

Handy lists of ways to think and behave are found in every tradition. Buddhism has plenty, including the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

The Eight Awarenesses, also known as the Eight Realizations or Eight Awakenings, comprise an effective and easy to understand list. The list is notable for being part of the Buddha’s final teaching in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, spoken before his death. It was also the subject of the final writing by Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, before his death.

The Eight Awarenesses

1. Having few desires

2. Knowing how to be satisfied

3. Enjoying serenity and tranquility

4. Exerting meticulous effort

5. Not forgetting right thought

6. Practicing samadhi [one-pointed attention]

7. Cultivating wisdom

8. Avoiding idle talk

“The Awarenesses are indeed the awarenesses of the enlightened person. A buddha, finding no separation between herself and other beings, very naturally acts in this way. Feeling no separation from others, a buddha naturally has few desires. Feeling no separation from others, from our surroundings, from what is happening right now, of course we can’t help but be satisfied, enjoying the serenity of life as it is. When we know the oneness of ourselves and others, effort becomes right effort, our activity becomes the embodiment of wisdom, and no talk is idle talk.”
Taizan Maezumi Roshi, The Hazy Moon of Enlightenment

I pay particular attention to avoiding idle talk (more successfully sometimes than others), given how much I talk and write, and given how much of it is easily categorized as idle.

In the Qu’ran, this is one of the descriptions of paradise:

They shall hear no idle talk therein, but only “Peace!” (19:62)

 

Happy Buddhaday to

The celebration of Vesak, also called Buddha Day, varies in detail from place to place around the world, from Buddhism to Buddhism, from Buddhist to Buddhist. This year it is May 18 or May 19 or another date. It is the Buddha’s birthday or the date of his enlightenment or the date of his death or all of them.

As a birthday, this is a Buddhaday poem. Sing the song and eat some cake.


Happy Buddhaday to

how many candles
on the Buddhaday cake
not one
not two

©

Four Reliances: How to Discern the Real Thing

When it comes to teachings and texts, when it comes to our own thoughts and conclusions, how can we tell the authentic from the inauthentic, the worthy from the unworthy?

The Buddha spoke and taught, and many of those discourses were recorded or remembered by those close to him. But over the centuries, as those discourses were passed along, changes were inevitably made. Later others spoke in the Buddha’s name, and still others spoke on their own, with the Buddha as guide and inspiration. The same can be said within other traditions.

How are we determine what is the real thing—not just in Buddhism, not just in religion, but in all facets of our lives?

Buddhism developed the universally useful Four Reliances to help in this quest and questioning. Whether you are reading a scripture from different traditions, or texts of any kind on any subject, or are hearing the news of current events, these are valuable guidelines.

Here is the succinct formulation from Red Pine, found in his translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra.

Rely on the teaching and not the author
Rely on the meaning and not the letter
Rely on the truth and not the convention
Rely on the knowledge and not the information

Around the Worlds in 108 Beads (mala)

Around the Worlds in 108 Beads (mala)

Each bead a smooth and perfect sphere
Lustrous blue with floating continents of gray
My finger lingers then travels on
To a different world the same
I circumnavigate the strand of 108
Ten thousand splendid worlds within
Ten thousand splendid worlds
I have been to all and none
Beads in mind beads in hand

©

Note: A mala is a strand of 108 beads used in Buddhism and other traditions for chanting, contemplation and meditation. The mala can be carried, or can be worn as a necklace or bracelet. The beads are made from a variety of materials, including gemstones, wood and bone.

Malas are beautiful and powerful. I carry a short mala of 54 tiger’s eye beads in my pocket, the same pocket in which I carry my phone. When I reach for my phone, I am reminded that however wondrous that digital marvel appears to be, it is no match for a strand of beads.

MeruBeads is a premier maker of malas. The lapis lazuli mala pictured above is just one of the many they craft and sell. Please visit.

The Buddha Endorses Poetry

Gatha: A metrical unit of Indian verse that can be anywhere from two to six lines in length. It is sometimes used as a stand-alone poem and sometimes to restate preceding sections of prose.

From The Diamond Sutra, Chapter Thirty-two, translation and commentaries by Red Pine:

The Buddha speaks:

”Furthermore, Subhuti, if a fearless bodhisattva filled measureless, infinite worlds with the seven jewels and gave them as an offering to the tathagatas, the arhans, the fully-enlightened ones, and a noble son or daughter grasped but a single four-line gatha of this teaching of the perfection of wisdom and memorized, discussed, recited, mastered, and explained it in detail to others, the body of merit produced as a result would be immeasurably, infinitely greater.”

Red Pine writes:

The Buddha returns to the comparison he has made throughout this sutra, whereby an offering of the most valuable objects in the world is compared to an offering of a single poem that expresses the truth. As the extent and value of material offerings have steadily increased, the fearless bodhisattva has been presented as the most likely member of the Buddha’s audience to understand the greater value of a good poem. How ironic that at the end of this sutra, the merit of a fearless bodhisattva fails to compare to that of an ordinary person. For even a fearless bodhisattva can become attached to the net of jewels of an illusory world. But the message the Buddha wants to leave with his audience is that the body of merit synonymous with the Buddha’s own diamond body is accessible to anyone, that such a body is a four-line gatha away.

Bell

Sensoji

the sound of breathing
easy or labored
the temple bell rings

©