contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Buddhism

MAP AND TERRITORY

The Empress Wu Zetian ruled the Chinese empire alone from 690-705, the only woman ever to do so. It was the time of the Tang dynasty, when China was open to central Asian and Indian cultural influence. Wu herself had a strong Buddhist commitment.

She was curious about the world view of an esoteric Buddhist school, the Hwa Yen. In this view, all the universes were seen as a single living organism, characterised by mutually interdependent and interpenetrating processes of becoming and unbecoming. The Empress asked for a simple and practical demonstration of this complex vision.

The Hwa Yen sage Fa-tsang was given a palace room in which he placed eight large mirrors, each at one of the eight points of the compass. He placed a ninth mirror on the ceiling and a tenth on the floor. Then he suspended a candle from the ceiling in the centre of the room. The Empress was delighted at the effects thus created. ‘How beautiful! How marvellous!’ she cried. Fa-tsang explained how the reflection of the flame in each of the ten mirrors demonstrated the relationship of the One and the many, and also how each mirror also reflected the reflections of the flame in all the other mirrors, until myriad flames filled them all. The reflections were mutually identical. In one sense they were interchangeable; in another sense they existed individually. Then Fa-tsang covered one of the reflections to show the significant consequences this had for the whole. He described the relationship between the reflections as ‘One in All; All in One; One in One; All in All ‘.

Hwa Yen Buddhists also spoke of ‘The Great Compassionate Heart’. They understood it as a quality of awareness that sees all phenomena including ourselves as arising out of Emptiness, remaining part of the Emptiness whilst assuming a temporal form, and finally falling back into Emptiness and being reabsorbed. “It is a quality of awareness that quite naturally expresses itself in acts of deepest, yet quite unsentimental reverence and compassion for all that is, the just and the unjust, humans, animals, plants and stones”.*

Fa-tsang was careful to provide a ‘the-map-is-not-the-territory’ caveat. “Of course, I must point out, Your Majesty, that this is only a rough approximation and static parable of the real state of affairs in the universe – for the universe is limitless and in it an all is in perpetual, multidimensional motion”. Yet he had still taken care to provide his Empress with a beautiful, memorable and instructive map. Such maps, and the sense of ‘Great Compassionate Heart’ which they foster are of great value. They can nourish the seeker and illuminate the way, for rulers and non-rulers alike.

*Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: a Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005 (A more extended version of the story is included in this book.)

A SMALL GOD OF THE EARTH ATTAINS BUDDHAHOOD

IMG_20191011_101101_kindlephoto-8745263

I have had this statue for awhile, and intend to pay it more attention. He might be a small god. or he might be a human priest or shaman, acting as guardian of a sacred place. I imagine it as including a waterfall and springs, with  rocks and earth and trees. Either way he would be eligible to become, or realise that he latently is, a Buddha or Taoist Immortal, to use another framework from his culture of origin.

There are even rumours of his being Maitreya, the next world saviour, on account of his laughing, ecstatic demeanour. For me, this works best in a model where we could all be prompted into saving the world together. I’m not sure how best to name and describe him – what words to use, or references to make. So I took this picture instead.

BOOK REVIEW: SEEK TEACHINGS EVERYWHERE

This post is about Philip Carr-Gomm’s Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the specific topic and/or the development of modern spiritual movements more generally.

Elegantly and accessibly presented, the book testifies both to a personal journey and a key role in developing modern British Druidry. Both the journey and the role are an interweaving of Pagan and Universalist threads. PCG’s approach has been to adopt Druidry as a ‘meta-path’, one able “to transcend religious distinctions”, and allowing of involvement in other paths as well. The Jain path, shared with his Druid mentor Ross Nichols, is the one given the greatest individual attention in the book, in a long section on Druidry and Dharmic traditions. This section touches also on other Indian derived movements and practices (Buddhism, Yoga Nidra) and speculates on ancient cultural and linguistic resonances between early Indian traditions and early European Druidry. PCG dedicates other sections of the book to Christianity and Wicca, with suggestions about how they too can harmonise with Druidry.

This overall approach is reflected in the lived culture of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), which PGC has led for thirty years. He is now in a process of stepping down from the role, and so the book is a timely account of both vision and legacy. He says: “each spiritual way has gifts to offer, and some people find in Druidry all the spiritual nourishment they need. Others combine their Druidry with other approaches, such as Wicca, Taoism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism”. OBOD’s ancestry as a movement derives from Celtic and Western Way currents within early twentieth century theosophy. The Order remains true to that heritage – as evidenced by a website that actively describes synergies with other paths and provides links to them – see www.druidry.org/ .

My personal takeaway from the book concerns PCG’s substantial presentation of Jain ethics, grounded in three key principles: ahimsa, aparigraha and anekant, here described as the Triple A. PCG explains: “Ahimsa is the doctrine of harmlessness or non-violence, made famous by Gandhi, and espoused by the other Dharmic traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism”. Aparigraha, the doctrine of non-attachment, non-possessiveness or non-acquisition, likewise appears in these other schools. Anekant, a doctrine of many-sidedness, multiple viewpoints, non-absolutism or non-one-sidedness, is unique to The Jains. The three principles can be seen as completing each other – with many-sidedness an aspect of non-violence and non-attachment, and so on.

PCG recommends these principles for our time. They inform his own vision of Druidry. “We know that the world suffers from too much conflict, too much fundamentalism, and too much consumption. This suffering can be alleviated by applying the Triple A doctrines: seeking non-violent solutions, respecting and learning from others’ opinions and beliefs, and reducing consumption to sustainable levels”. In the Jain tradition, such an approach to life is supported by practices of ritual and meditation that work towards the release of negative attachments. PCG recommends versions of these as well.

Part of the beauty of this book is that different readers will find different reasons to take note and learn from it. I have found it valuable both as an authoritative record of a current in modern Druidry, and as a personal inspiration.

Philip Carr-Gomm Seek Teachings Everywhere: Combining Druid Spirituality with Other Traditions Lewes, UK: Oak Tree Press, 2019 (Foreword by Peter Owen Jones)

AT-HOMENESS REVISITED

A year ago, I wrote: “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that”(1). This post is to re-affirm this insight and to take it forward.

I wrote of a ‘flowing now’ since ‘now’ is not a frozen unit of time but a living stream of experience. Past and future can indeed be conceived and imagined, but only within the flowing now. The experience of At-Homeness can either steal up of itself or I can invite it by slowing down and attentively companioning the flow as it moves, whatever is going on. It is a way of marking this space and time as sacred. My opening and attention are a sacrament, the means through which the flowing now – all that I can be sure of in this life – is recognised and blessed.

I didn’t invent the term At-Homeness. It comes from the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’, who say (2) “that the beginning of a bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing”. For them, an enabling and loving attention to the body and its processes gives the felt sense of At-Homeness a chance to ripen. My experience of Focusing over the last 15 months tells me this is true. My experience of Headless Way (3) opens up a world of vivid shapes and colours, all boundaries gone, no self in sight. Immersed in this world, I experience a lightness of being, and stillness in a world of movement. This, too, is At-Homeness in the flowing now.

I sense now, more clearly than before, that I am not at home in the realm of abstractions and absolutes. I do not find Sophia there. I flourish, rather, in processes and relationships. I can stand as awareness only through being aware (a process) of something/someone (a relationship). I find the love and magic in the cosmos, as well as its stresses and horrors, only within the play of movement and connection.

For me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’ provides the most helpful presentation of a non-dual spirituality (4). “The insight of inter-being is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space, we call emptiness ‘inter-being’; looking from the perspective of time we call it impermanence”. Another modern Buddhist writer adds (5), “if you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation … the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

Reading this, I am pushed uncomfortably into the recognition of my own volatility. I explored this theme in October 2017 (6). However, because I found Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on long periods of sitting meditation, not right for me, I appear to have lost some of this insight, at least consciously. I am somewhat comforted that ‘At-Homeness in a flowing now’ at least preserves the gist, and the simple practices I’m using work well within an ‘inter-being’ framework. This is not so much because of its Buddhist origin, as because as an approach it seems to me to be on the side of life, relationship and movement. It brings me down to earth and closer to Sophia (Prajnaparamita, Guanyin).

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) Peter Campbell & Edward McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) www.headless.org/

(4) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(5) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/

ENLIGHTENMENT IS NOW

“Enlightenment is always enlightenment about something. You don’t need to practice eight years to have some enlightenment. Enlightenment is our daily business. If you practice mindfulness and concentration you may get insight, or enlightenment, several times a day. Just breathing in, you can be enlightened about the fact that you are alive. To be alive is already a miracle. While breathing in and making one step, we allow the light of mindfulness to be lit like a candle in our heart. We know that to be walking on this beautiful planet Earth is a wonder. And that kind of awareness and insight can bring peace and happiness already. We don’t want anything else. To be alive, to breathe in, and to make one step, is already wonderful enough. This is already enlightenment. And with the light of mindfulness in us we become a saint, we become a Buddha, we become a bodhisattva. We are a light for the world.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

WISDOM’S FAITH

I’m asking myself whether ‘faith’ has any role in my spirituality. I think it may.

At the cognitive level I’m the kind of sceptic who holds questions open and tolerates ambiguity. I admire the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho and his school (1). Like the early Buddhists who Pyrrho met in India, Pyrrhonists steered away from metaphysical propositions. They did not seek ease through right answers, but in a space of contemplative equanimity where uncertainty can be embraced. It gave them a lightness of being. I find this good for my mental life, which is potentially freed from an attachment to views and ideologies that turns them into things – property to be safeguarded or weapons to be deployed. I am also empowered to keep asking questions and to see the value in contrary points of view.

But the cognitive level isn’t everything. At the heart level, I lean into an intuited understanding uncompromisingly spelled out by Douglas Harding : ‘God is indivisible. This is so marvellous because it means the whole of God is where you are – not your little bit of God, but the whole of God. If we resist this, it’s because we are resisting our splendour, our greatness. The wonderful proposition of all the mystics that I know and would care to call real mystics is that the heart of you, the reality of your life, the reality of your being, your real self is the whole of God – not a little bit of that fire but the whole fire”.(2)

That intuition, sometimes concerned to avoid the ‘G’ word and sometimes not, has been with me for much of my life in some form. One of the stronger prompts, almost thirty years ago, was a careful reading of The Mustard Seed (3). Here, the Tantric teacher Osho works through the Gospel of Thomas. I have loved this text ever since to the point of accumulating a number of editions and commentaries. Douglas Harding has a chapter on it in one of his books (4). But the Gospel and its commentators did not persuade me to take this non-dual Gnostic view, and nor have kundalini yoga, sitting meditation, or the Headless Way exercises*. What they have done is given my intuitive sense of knowing room to show itself. That sense of knowing has grown stronger and is now anchored in. Practice is an affirmation and celebration rather than inquiry. It’s not something I want to argue about, and I wouldn’t much mind if I was proved to be metaphysically misguided. It’s just where I’m taking my stand.

The old Gnostics had the phrase Pístis Sophia, retrospectively used to name one of their texts, (5). English translations have varied: ‘Wisdom in Faith’, or ‘Faith in Wisdom’. To many Gnostics, Sophia was a celestial being, so another option is ‘The Faith of Sophia’ (and by extension, presumably) the faith of a devotee. Wisdom says that knowledge doesn’t get us everywhere. An element of faith, which I experience as a kind of permission-giving, or surrender, is needed for this commitment.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry/2019/04/27/pyrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(2) Douglas Harding Face to No-Face: Rediscovering Our Original Nature David Lang, 2015 (edited by David Lang)

(3) Osho The Mustard Seed: Commentaries of the Fifth Gospel of Saint Thomas Shaftesbury, UK: Element, 1975

(4) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation

(5) Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Gospel translated and edited by G.R.S Mead Blauvelt, NY: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (first American edition)

www.headless.org/

DAYFLY

“The brief dayfly dies before evening; summer’s cicada knows neither spring nor autumn. What a glorious luxury it is to taste life to the full for even a year. If you constantly regret life’s passing, even a thousand long years will seem but the dream of a night.”

Yoshida Kenko A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees Kindle edition of a Penguin Classic. This is a selection taken from Essays in Idleness and probably written around 1329-31 CE. Translated into English by Meredith McKinney.

The son of an administration official, Kenko was born Urabe Kaneyoshi and served as  guards officer in the Imperial palace. He became a Buddhist monk in later life, living in a hermitage within a Zen monastery. He has been seen as the most important Japanese literary figure of his day, retaining something of a secular lens on the world despite his monastic standing.  He also wrote: “it is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” I like him for writing that sentence, and I like being able to read it.

PYRRHO, SCEPTICISM, ARNE NAESS

In my last post  https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/spiritual-truth-claims/ ‎I introduced Pyrrho of Elis, a Pagan Greek philosopher who, returning from an extended visit to India, sounded a new note in Greek philosophy. In the Greek cultural context, this was heard as a variant form of Scepticism. Originally a skeptikos was “a seeker, one who inquires or examines, considers, deliberates etc.” (1) though over time Scepticism came to signify a kind of compulsive doubting, as it does now. The extract below shows the distinctiveness of Pyrrho’s project, and its likely debt to Buddhist ideas of the time.

“Pyrrhonism is commonly confused with Scepticism in Western philosophy. But unlike Sceptics, who believe there are no true beliefs, Pyrrhonists suspend judgement about all beliefs, including the belief that there are no true beliefs. Pyrrhonism was developed by a line of ancient Greek philosophers, from its founder Pyrrho of Elis in the fourth century BCE through Sextus Empiricus in the second century CE. Pyrrhonists offer no view, theory or knowledge about the world, but recommend instead a practice, a distinct way of life, designed to suspend beliefs and ease suffering. Since beliefs are attachments to what is not evident, they say, and are therefore distorting, uncertain, and subject to challenge and contradiction, they generate anxiety and fear, compounding suffering. By suspending judgement on beliefs, Pyrrhonists seek to liberate themselves from attachment to things nonevident; having achieved this, they claim a certain tranquillity (ataraxia) follows. Only appearances are evident, they say, these being sensations and thoughts which we cannot help having, which are involuntary, and it is by them rather than by our beliefs that we should live.

“Pyrrhonism bears a striking similarity to some Eastern non-dogmatic soteriological traditions, particularly Madhyamaka Buddhism. Indeed, its origins can plausibly be traced to the contacts between Pyrrho and the sages he encountered in India, where he travelled with Alexander the Great. Even though Pyrrhonism went on to develop in a Greek idiom without reference to Eastern traditions, the similarity is remarkable, suggesting a commonality of insight not much explored. Although Pyrrhonism has not been practised in the West since ancient times, its insights occasionally have been independently recovered, most recently in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. They remain relevant, perhaps more than ever, as an antidote to today’s cultures of belief.” (1)

Arne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher now associated with the the deep ecology movement and coiner of the term ‘ecosophy’, was a modern admirer of Pyrrhonism and wrote a book about it in 1968 (2). I intend to follow this up in my continuing inquiry, partly to find out how his engagement with Pyrrho and Greek Scepticism may have informed his later development..

  1. Adrian Kuzminski Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism New York: Lexington Books, 2008
  2. Arne Naess Scepticism Abingdon: Routledge, 2015 (First published 1968)

See also:

https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/arne-naess-as-philosophical-vagabond/

 

 

 

 

 

SPIRITUAL TRUTH CLAIMS

Traditional spiritualities tend to be organized around metaphysical propositions that can neither be convincingly demonstrated nor refuted. Stephen Batchelor (1) gives examples: ‘God is love’, ‘creation arose from the breath of the One’, ‘bliss is eternal union with Brahman’, and ‘you will only come to the father through me’.

In the specific case of Buddhism, Batchelor questions the classical understanding of how craving causes suffering: “Craving is the origin of suffering because … it causes actions that lead to your being born, getting sick, growing old and dying”. These existential realities in themselves, and not simply how we deal with them, are included in the word dukka, which we translate as suffering. The overall claim makes sense only within the metaphysical framework of karma and rebirth.

Batchelor worries that, with a proposition of this kind, “one finds oneself in the language game ‘In Search of Truth’.” If you believe them to be true, then you qualify to be a Buddhist. If you don’t, you don’t qualify. “One is thus tacitly encouraged to take a further step of affirming a division between ‘believers’ and ‘nonbelievers’, between those who have gained access to the truth and those who have not. This establishes the kind of separation that can lead to cultish solidarity as well as hatred for others who fail to share one’s views. ‘When the word truth is uttered’ remarked the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo, ‘a shadow of violence is cast as well”.

I have noticed for myself that even in modern paths, where experiential and inquiry methods are favoured over blind belief, there can be a powerful narrative of ‘getting it’ or ‘not getting it’. There is no recognised space for getting something else. To me this suggests a continuing immersion in the language game ‘in Search of Truth’. I follow Stephen Batchelor in taking a secular turn partly for this reason, and my solution is a stance of positive sceptical openness. An ancient Western tradition, Pyrrhonism, supports this view. Its founder, the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, developed this teaching after returning from India, where he had accompanied the army of Alexander ‘the Great’. Pyrrhonism was understood in the Greek world as a variant form of the influential Sceptic school. It has parallels with currents in early Buddhism, sharing the notion of an inner peace linked to freedom from attachment to beliefs. But Greek philosophers were not monks, and it did not create a renunciate religious culture of the Indian kind. I will look at this tradition more closely as part of my continuing inquiry.

  1. Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017

 

DEFINING ‘SECULAR’

Stephen Batchelor’s Secular Buddhism (1) explores what a “nonreligious, this-worldly, secularised Buddhism” might look like. This post is part of my own inquiry into what it means to feel ‘secular’ whilst  engaged in ‘spiritual’ practices and connected with modern Paganism. Batchelor uses ‘secular’ in three overlapping senses:

  1. A general contemporary usage where ‘secular’ stands in contrast to whatever is ‘religious’ – the two terms being clearly polarised whilst not very clearly defined.
  2. A Latin derived sense of ‘this age’ (saeculum) – referring to “those concerns we have about this world, that is, everything that has to do with the quality of our personal, social and environmental experience of living on this planet”.
  3. A Western, historical-political sense, acknowledging a 2-300-year period of ‘secularisation’ that has transformed the whole culture to the point where most people can live “almost their entire lives without giving religion a thought”.

Stephen Batchelor talks about an “uncompromisingly secular reading” of the Buddha’s teaching, in which “one returns to the mystery and tragedy of the everyday sublime. Instead of nirvana being located in a transcendent realm beyond the human condition, it would be restored to its rightful place at the heart of what it means each moment to be fully human”. He is an admirer of Ludwig Feuerbach, a student of Hegel who came to reject his teacher’s emphasis on the primacy of Spirit in the unfolding of history and advocated instead a liberal, materialist and atheist view of the world. “Feuerbach’s basic idea is simple. ‘Religion’, he wrote in the preface to his most famous book, The Essence of Christianity (1841) ‘is the dream of the human mind. But even while dreaming we are not in heaven or the realm of Nothingness. We are right here on earth’”.

In this way, Batchelor acknowledges all three senses of ‘secular’: a distancing from traditional religious belief, an affirmation of the world and time, and the rise of modern secular belief systems – Feuerbach was an early influence on Karl Marx. I like the way Batchelor teases out these meanings, especially his acknowledgement of ‘movement in time’ aspects as well as ‘not religious’ ones. I am more open and agnostic about the language of ‘heaven or the realm of Nothingness’ alongside that of being ‘right here on earth’. If we treat these as states rather than places, then I can see them intertwined dimensions of being. But I do not hold this as an ideology.  I stand, rather, in openness and unknowing: the direct experience of At-Homeness in a flowing now is my ground and source, with or without a cosmic warranty.

Another sense, that of interconnectedness in the web of life, grows out of my At-Homeness – and this is firmly situated in place, time, and history. That place and time, right now, is one of distress, division and confusion, facing runaway climate change as a collective existential threat. My inquiry asks to to be alive to this collective wounding, and to contribute to a healing. In previous inquiry phases, I worked with modern Druidry and Paganism, focusing largely on the ‘nature’ aspect, but also on the powers of imagination and deep cultural stories. I then turned to other paths with a stronger emphasis on contemplative practice and its benefits. There is a treasure trove of resources in all of these these explorations, and I shall continue to draw upon them in my new inquiry cycle.

(1) Stephen Batchelor Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2017

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