Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Focusing the Mind

  • "Through this practice I was able to......."
  • "Because of my diligence in practicing my circumstances changed..."
  • "Everything started going my way because of this Buddhism...."
Comments and experiences like this are heard frequently at SGI discussion meetings. Unfortunately, my experience of these meetings was often jaded by the leader calling each of the district members to "solicit" accounts of practical experiences, which were often exaggerated or presented in a more favorable light than the reality they represent.

These kinds of testimonies relating to the effects of a particular set of beliefs or practices are found in almost every religion.

What is actually happening, in my humble opinion, are simply practical examples of what Buddhism identifies as "dependent origination," or cause and effect.

According to Buddhism the law of cause and effect is the foundation behind the workings of all phenomena. Thoughts, words, and actions focused in a positive direction - i.e. toward a goal or change related to personal situation or environment create positive effects in the lives of individuals, leading to happiness. While thoughts, words and actions focused in a negative direction - i.e. worry about worst case scenarios, fear and self-deprecating attitudes--undermine the dignity of life--and lead to unhappiness. This is the general principle of karma.

So, quite simply, as a universal principle that was not invented by Shakyamuni Buddha, but rather DISCOVERED by him, it works whether we believe in it or not.

To set goals or to focus on a particular outcome with an undefeated mind will, undoubtedly, produce a result that will move a situation in the direction of the focus, or will bring about the fruit of that intention.

So, from the perspective of absolute reality - the maxim "For as he thinks in his heart, so is he." - Proverbs 23:7 - is a universal principle.

Chanting "Nam Myoho Renge Kyo," is not the cause of the determination or intention - but rather feeds the mind to focus on the outcome, so that it becomes one-pointed and sensitive to all related causes that will bring about the desired result.

In this day and age when people are mentally distracted by all kinds of rapid fire communication tools and massive amounts of information. A simple practice like daimoku, that helps focus the mind is invaluable and highly practical.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Recognizing the Buddha

Tony Parsons
Earlier this year I made a trip to London to visit family, and my aging father in his nursing home. It was a good visit and although it was quick and hectic I felt reconnected with my original homeland again.

Yesterday I was thinking about that trip and one particular highlight that I'd really looked forward to, enjoyed at the time, but had pretty much taken for granted until its impact struck me quite suddenly today - like a Satori experience.

I had the distinct privilege to attend a Tony Parsons "Open Secret" meeting in Hampstead. Tony Parsons is a very interesting person - a non-teacher of non-duality.

It was a mentally stimulating meeting and after it was over I sort of felt like I hadn't really gained anything but a deeper sense of something that I already knew - which, I suppose is a very good thing when you looking for answers to deep spiritual questions!

However, now that several months have passed, I am suddenly aware that meeting Tony Parsons was a direct experience of suchness - sunyata - the emptiness that is everything. Or as Tony himself describes it: "nothing being everything....."

My practice of Nichiren Buddhism is an attempt to experience the inexpressible - this temporary collection of flesh and bones that I call "myself" is trying to grasp the ungraspable. The frustration of not having an expected experience of awakening that Tony Parsons proclaims as an illusion is not enough for the "seeking" me that wants something that it can't have.....permanence.

I met the Buddha when I met Tony - he'd of course deny that - but when there is awakening present in a manifest form - there is the Buddha. The same could be true of Jiddu Krishnamurti - who'd also deny that there is such a thing as enlightenment manifested in a human form. But enlightenment is, now - in all of life. This is suchness - this is what the Buddha tried to explain. There is nothing to attain - to try to attain it is to fail to grasp it. It cannot be grasped - life cannot be possessed. It is all around us - within us and is us.

When you encounter the Buddha, in whatever form, there is the presence of wisdom and enlightenment. You cannot cling to it because it is not anywhere but right here - you cannot lose it because it is right here. There is no point in searching or seeking - there can only be it.

Tony does not want a following; disciples; or whatever you want to call devoted fans. Tony only wants to share the experience that is the end of seeking - the perfectly natural experience of reality. The full on awakening to liberation from suffering that separate existence causes.

Here are some of Tony's words that help see the pointlessness of seeking:
“To translate the inexpressible into the doctrinal is to attempt to transform a song of freedom into a dogma of limitation. When the bird has flown, the essence of its song is often mislaid and all we are left with is an empty cage.”
"All of this silly circus is simply the eternal play of oneness apparently seeking itself. It is the wonderful cosmic joke oneness plays on itself by pretending to be an individual seeking something called “not being an individual”.
"When it is suddenly and directly rediscovered by no-one that liberation brings with it the realisation that there is nothing to seek and no one to become liberated, then there is much laughter."
I can't help laughing - perhaps that's the ultimate daimoku of liberation.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

All Aboard The Buddha Train

"The Lotus Sutra is the teaching that enables all living beings to attain the Buddha way……. 
When one has had the rare good fortune to be born a human being, and the further good fortune to encounter the teachings of Buddhism, how can one waste this opportunity? If one is going to take faith at all, then among all the various teachings of the Mahayana and the Hinayana, provisional and true doctrines, one should believe in the one vehicle, the true purpose for which the Buddhas come into the world and the direct path to attaining enlightenment for all living beings."
- "Embracing The Lotus Sutra," WND Vol.1, p.59-60

Attaining the Buddha way……is to attain enlightenment. 

In Nichiren's terms, enlightenment is not achieving something abnormal or super-human.

Enlightenment is the full expression of our human-ness.

The full potentiality of human nature.

Nichiren Buddhism is the purest expression of the Bodhisattva path; the compassion of the Buddha.

Its teachings reveal that all living beings inherently possess the Buddha nature. The Lotus Sutra is Buddha's teaching that affirms this reality. It teaches that Shakyamuni's experience of enlightenment was not a supernatural achievement, but simply a dropping away of the delusions that hid him from the true realization and recognition of his inherent nature. Nichiren makes the case that by single-mindedly chanting Daimoku while focusing on the Gohonzon as the mirror of our mind, we can reveal our true nature and overcome the delusions that block the expression of our full human potential.

Buddhism is not about salvation - it’s about waking up to the realization that we don’t need to seek salvation for we already have it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Salvation from Being Saved

I awoke this morning at 5:45 - the sunrise over the lake was breathtaking. Today is probably the most beautiful day of the year so far.....

I arose and while preparing for the day I began thinking about the concept of "salvation." 

Yesterday evening I was reading a little on Shin Buddhism, another product of the medieval reformation of Buddhism that took place in Japan in the 13th Century. It's founder Shinran Shonin, was a contemporary of Nichiren Daishonin, and focused his devotion on the mythological aspects of the character of Amida Buddha instead of  focusing on the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, which was Nichiren's practice.

Shin Buddhism, although not well known in the West, would seem to be the kind of Buddhism that Evangelical Protestants might be drawn to. It is a devotional Buddhism focused on salvation by an outside power - where Amida serves the role of a Messiah-like Bodhisattva who saves all who call or recite his name - a practice called Nembutsu. the chanting of Namu Amida Butsu. 

Most of the Buddhist temples in Chicago are Shin Buddhist - with some blending of Zen Meditation - this seems to appeal to the "recovering" Christians who seek Buddhism as a refuge from the more inflexible dogma of Orthodox Christianity.

Coming from an Evangelical background I found Shin to be refreshing. However, as my knowledge of Buddhism grew I was drawn to the more humanistic approach of Nichiren, away from the concept of relying on a benevolent savior to a practice of self-actualization. Shin Buddhism tends to focus on some future blessing that is always some place and time other than here and now. Not all Shin Buddhists believe this - but it is definitely the emphasis of much of the teaching found in the west.

The question I asked myself the morning was: "Why do we need to be saved at all?" It would seem to me that what we really need to be saved from is the belief that we need to be saved.

The Lotus Sutra points to a Buddha-nature that is already the case - it is our ignorance of it that causes the suffering, and it is not a case of only being free of suffering after death. Enlightenment is already here waiting for us to discover it. Chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is a tool, an expedient means, for observing our mind and removing the obstacles of our own making.

In the Lotus Sutra (Chapter Three)  there is a parable that compares this world; our environment, to a burning house: 
"Thus spoke the Buddha:

A great man had a great house. The house, since it was old, was in a state of collapse: the halls were lofty and precarious, the bases of the pillars crumbling and rotten, the beams and ridgepoles aslant, the stairways and landings disintegrating, the walls and partititions cracked, the clay and paint peeling off, the thatch worn thin and in disarray, the rafters and eavepoles coming loose, totally misshapen, and full of assorted filth. Kites, owls, and eagles; crows, magpies, pigeons, and doves; newts, snakes, vipers, and gribbles; centipedes and millipedes; lizards and myriopods; weasels, badgers, and mice milled back and forth in a crisscross. Places stinking of feces and urine overflowed with their filth, with may-bugs and maggots clustered on them. Here and there and all about were ghosts and demons, poisonous insects, and other malignant birds and beasts.

This old and decayed house belonged to one man. The man had gone a short distance from the house when, before he had been gone very long, in the rear rooms suddenly a fire broke out, from all four sides at once, raging in flame. The ridegepoles and beams, the rafters and pillars, shaking and cracking broke asunder and fell, while the walls and partitions collapsed. The ghosts and demons raised their voices in a scream. The malignant beasts and poisonous insects milled about in a panic, unable to get out. Stinking smoke, with its foul odor, filled the place on all four sides. In this way that house was extremely frightening, with calamities, conflagrations, and many other troubles occurring all at once.

At that time the householder, standing outside the door, heard someone say, "Your children a while ago, in play, entered this house. Being little and knowing nothing, they are enjoying themselves and clinging to their amusements."

Having heard this, the great man entered the burning house in alarm, to save them from the catastrophe of burning. He coaxed his children, explaining the many calamities: the demons, insects, snakes, foxes and dogs. "This is a woeful and troublesome place; how much the more so with a great fire!"

The children, knowing nothing, though they heard their father's admonitions, were still addicted as before to their pleasures and amused themselves ceaselessly. The great man thought to himself, "This house has not one pleasant feature, yet the children, steeped in their games, and not heeding my instructions, will surely be injured by the fire."

Then straightaway announced to the children, "I have various precious playthings, one for each of you, here outside the door. For one, a goat-drawn cart. For one, a deer-drawn cart. For one, an ox-drawn cart. Come out, all of you! For your sakes I have made these carts, following the desire of your own thoughts."

When the children heard him tell of carts such as these, racing one another, they ran out of the house, reaching an open place, far from woes and troubles. The great man, seeing his children able to get out of the burning house, sat down and joyfully said to himself, "Now I am happy! These children were very hard to bring into the world and raise. Addicted to their games, they were in danger of great calamity. But now I have saved them, enabling them to escape trouble."

At that time the children went before their father and addressed him, saying, "We beg you to give us the three kinds of carts that your promised us a while ago, saying, 'Children, come out! I have three kinds of carts in accordance with your wishes.' Now is the right time. Please give them to us!"

The great man, being very rich, and having treasure houses filled with gold and silver, giant clam shells and agate, had a sumptuous carriage built, decked with ornaments, surrounded with handrails and shielding, with little bells hanging from all four sides and golden cords intertwined; with pearl-studded netting stretched out over the top, and gold-flowered tassles dangling here and there; with soft and fine silk and cotton made into cushions; with superbly fine mats, their value in the thousands, pure white and spotlessly clean; with great white oxen, fat, and in the prime of life, and endowed with great strength, their physical form lovely, yoked to the jeweled carriage.

The children danced for joy, and climbing up on the carriage, they cavorted in the four directions, playing and enjoying themselves, forgetting all about the carts their father had promised them to bring them from the burning house.

I tell you, I, too, am like this. All the living beings, all my children, are profoundly addicted to worldly pleasure and have no wise thoughts. The world is just like a house afire, being full of many woes most frightful, constantly marked by birth, old age, sickness, death, and cares -- fires such as these, raging without cease. But the Buddha, having already left the burning house, is quiet and unperturbed, dwelling securely in forest and field. Even though I teach and command, my children neither believe nor accept. So addicted are they to their tainting desires that I, by resort to expedient means, preach the three vehicles* to them, causing them to know the woes of the world, and demonstrating and setting forth the One Vehicle (eka-yana) of illumination.

By means of this parable, I have preached the One Buddha Vehicle. All of you, if you can believe and accept these words, shall without exception attain to the Buddha Path!"
Many interpreters of this parable focus on the "escaping of the house," as the cause of liberation, but actually it is the "One Vehicle of Illumination" that is the point of the story. Notice that the "great man" (as Buddha) does not save the children from the fire by extinguishing the fire - in other words, changing the environment, so that the children can continue with their play - rather he utilizes their very desire to play as the means of their rescue. Their desire to possess a superior carriage, or vehicle, became the cause of their liberation. By revealing to them the fullest expression of their playful natures and illuminating their understanding they became free of suffering.  The "great man" did not enter the house to change the circumstances of the situation, i.e. put out the fire, but rather drew out the children so that they could save themselves based on their own illuminated understanding.

Thus, the call of the Lotus Sutra is to apply the Buddha's wisdom to transform ourselves, not based on the will of another - but on the illumination of our current human condition to see the truth for ourselves.

Salvation is not a matter of blindly accepting someone else's sacrifice or of taking someone's word for it that we are in need of saving - it is awakening to the reality of the fulness of our humanity that is already the case.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fixing a Hole....

My favorite Beatles' song, when I'm pressed to choose one, is  "Fixing A Hole."

I don't know the full history or the inspiration behind the lyrics. But I've heard that Paul McCartney wrote these lyrics while he was fixing his leaking roof and it made him think about some of the more important things in life. 

I can see that - I often find myself "taking the time for a number of things that weren't important yesterday" - but are eternally important in the scheme of eternity.

We only have a short time in this life - it seems so wasteful to spend it in resentment, anger and fear.

The petty irritations that become repetitive patterns of thought that distract us from what really matters - these can be some of our biggest enemies.

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in 
And stops my mind from wandering 
Where it will go
I'm filling the cracks that ran through the door 
And kept my mind from wandering 
Where it will go
And it really doesn't matter if I'm wrong I'm right
Where I belong
I'm right Where I belong.
See the people standing there who disagree and never win
And wonder why they don't get in my door
I'm painting my room in the colourful way
And when my mind is wandering 
There I will go
And it really doesn't matter if I'm wrong I'm right
Where I belong I'm right 
Where I belong.
Silly people run around they worry me
And never ask me why they don't get past my door
I'm taking the time for a number of things
That weren't important yesterday 
And I still go
I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering 
Where it will go
- John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Do You Believe What You Believe?

"Truth is not a belief to be adopted, but a reality to be accepted”

One of the systemic problems that I continue to have with most religions and belief systems is that generally they require some acceptance of fundamental beliefs that so often cannot be verified or proven with direct experience.

This no longer seems to be a valid model for navigating the ways of the universe. I admit that there are many things that I do not know or even have the capacity to understand - but I cannot “stake my life” on what I cannot prove to be true, or in a worst case, what I cannot see as having had a good effect on the world around me over time.

Christianity is one of those that I’ve tried to embrace with great earnestness - but I am continually faced with the dark reality of so much hypocritical, despicable, and shameful behavior from a representative number of the “faithful” leadership that it tells me, in actual fact, that many of the leaders and authority figures REALLY do not believe what they claim to believe. If they, who claim to have the evidence, deny the truth - then what persuades me to believe it?

In every religion there is hypocrisy - which does not mean that the religion is invalid, but it does mean that it is not having any effect on those who claim to be “practicing” it.

Nichiren Buddhism is no exception. The SGI has some skeletons deep in its closet. Which is why I practice independently.

I do not proclaim Nichiren Buddhism as the ONLY way to salvation, or enlightenment. I do not even claim that it is the ultimate truth. I can only say, that practicing it, from my experience, helps me to remember that there is a greater purpose to all of life and it helps me focus on the ultimate truth - which I can’t say is something I really understand, but it is something that I know deep inside because I somehow KNOW that I will recognize it when I see it!!

Belief in the Dharma is not belief in the personality of the Buddha - but rather the confidence in the practical aspects of what he taught from experience. His enlightenment, although romanticized and mythologized over 2500 years, was actually quite ordinary in the sense that he realized something that actually should be quite obvious:
  • all life is connected 
  • nothing is permanent 
  • suffering comes from expecting things to be different than they actually are 
  • learning to live compassionately with and through things as they are is the key to happiness. 
This morning, I read this from the Lotus Sutra:

“I give light to the world.
I am honored by countless multitudes,
For whom I teach
The signs of the true nature of things.
You should know, Shariputra,
I originally took a vow,
Wanting to enable all living beings to be equal to me,
Without any distinctions.
In accord with this vow of long ago
Everything is now fulfilled,
For I transform all living beings
And lead them all into the Buddha way.”
- The Lotus Sutra, Gene Reeves Translation, pg. 89 

The Buddha teaches “the signs of the true nature of reality” - he points to it but does claim to be outside of it like a God, and he claims no supremacy, for his vow was to “enable all living beings to be equal to me.” Thus his enlightenment did not make him superhuman - it made him realize the fullness of his humanity.

Buddhism doesn’t make me right by any means, and it does not require that I declare it as immaculate truth - rather it encourages me to question myself constantly. Do I believe what I believe? Buddhism is about applying the experience that you have to gain natural wisdom that you may otherwise overlook.
  • Belief without thought or reason is dangerous. 
  • Belief can separate us from reality. 
  • Beliefs divide us. 
  • Beliefs unite us against others who do not believe as we do. 
  • Belief is never a substitute for knowing. 
  • Creeds are often based on beliefs that we only hope are true. 
  • Belief does not change reality - reality always is - belief changes. 
  • Belief changes - Truth does not. 
  • Truth can be believed - but Truth should never divide. 
  • Truth is not a possession - it’s the practice of constantly seeking.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Compassionate Reason

"Reason is nothing less 
than the guardian of love” 

Sam Harris

This weekend I started reading a book that I've had on my "to be read" list for sometime. "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris. 

When I called myself an Evangelical Christian I would shy away from anything by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins, and any other author that was classified, in Christian circles as part of the "New Atheist" movement.

That decision, as I look back on it, reflected a weak faith, rather than a dislike of the authors and their works.

So far I've read just a few chapters of Harris' book and already I can share many of the same opinions that he has on the subject of religion. Here are a few quotes:

“Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence what so ever.”
“It is time we admitted, from kings and presidents on down, that there is no evidence that any of our books was authored by the Creator of the universe. The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology. To rely on such a document as the basis for our worldview-however heroic the efforts of redactors- is to repudiate two thousand years of civilizing insights that the human mind has only just begun to inscribe upon itself through secular politics and scientific culture. We will see that the greatest problem confronting civilization is not merely religious extremism: rather, it is the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.

“It is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.”

There are many more quote-worthy passages in the book. There are also sections of the book that delve into the historical record of various religions and the accounts are horrific and basically distasteful - not in how they're recorded, but in the facts of what despicable acts some religious leaders and believers have perpetrated upon other people in the name of their religion.

Sam Harris makes a strong case for modifying beliefs with logic and reason.
“It is time we recognized that the only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-minded way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts.”
Nichiren Buddhism has its beliefs and traditions - but practitioners are encouraged to seek proof in the practice; to seek tangible results and benefits. Emotional energy is to be applied to action and not to establishing theories that try to explain the unlikely or improbable.

I must admit that some of Nichiren's writings, coming from a medieval environment, are full of superstitious ideas and I have to reject these. Ideas that faith controls the weather, or that there are demons that control reality. I see no evidence of this reality - so I don't accept it.

The bottom lines of Buddhist beliefs - Compassion, Mindful living, Transformation of Character - these are the important things that reason justifies.

I have not lost reason - I guess that's why I'm no longer an Evangelical Christian, it was hard for me to remain a believer when I subjected my beliefs to reason and logical facts.

I don't condemn Christianity - I just cannot hold those beliefs without reason anymore.
"Reason is nothing less than the guardian of love” - Sam Harris