contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Dharma

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)

A PARABLE ABOUT A PARABLE

“A young American named Simon Moon, studying Zen in the Zendo (Zen school) at the New Old Lompoc House in Lompoc, California, made the mistake of reading Franz Kafka’s The Trial. This sinister novel, combined with Zen training, proved too much for poor Simon. He became obsessed, intellectually and emotionally, with the strange parable about the door of the Law which Kafka inserts near the end of his story. Simon found Kafka’s fable so disturbing, indeed, that it ruined his meditations, scattered his wits, and distracted him from the study of the Sutras.

“Somewhat condensed, Kafka’s parable goes as follows:

“A man comes to the door of the Law, seeking admittance. The guard refuses to allow him to pass the door, but says that if he waits long enough, maybe, some day in the uncertain future, he might gain admittance. The man waits and waits and grows older; he tries to bribe the guard, who takes his money but still refuses to let him through the door; the man sells all his possessions to get money to offer more bribes, which the guard accepts – but still does not allow him to enter. The guard always explains, on taking each new bribe, ‘I only do this so that you will not abandon hope entirely.’

“Eventually, the man becomes old and ill, and knows that he will soon die. In his last few moments he summons the energy to ask a question that has puzzled him over the years. ‘I have been told,’ he says to the guard, ‘that the Law exists for all. Why then does it happen that, in all the years I have sat here waiting, nobody else has ever come to the door of the Law?’

“’This door,’ the guard says, ‘has been made only for you. And now I am going to close it forever. And he slams the door as the man dies.

“The more Simon brooded on this allegory, or joke, or puzzle, the more he felt that he could never understand Zen until he first understood this strange tale. If the door existed only for that man, why could he not enter? If the builders posted a guard to keep the man out, why did they also leave the door temptingly open? Why did the guard close the previously open door, when the man had become too old to attempt to rush past him and enter? Did the Buddhist doctrine of dharma (law) have anything in common with this parable?

“Did the door of the Law represent the Byzantine bureaucracy that exists in virtually every modern government, making the whole story a political satire, such as a minor bureaucrat like Kafka might have devised in his subversive off-duty hours? Or did the Law represent God, as some commentators claim, and, in that case, did Kafka intend to parody religion or to defend its divine Mystery obliquely? Did the guard who took bribes but gave nothing but empty hope in return represent the clergy, or the human intellect in general, always feasting on shadows in the absence of real Final Answers?

“Eventually, near breakdown from sheer mental fatigue, Simon went to his roshi (Zen teacher) and tole Kafka’s story of the man who waited at the door of the Law – the door that existed only for him but would not admit him and was closed when death would no longer allow him to enter. ‘Please,’ Simon begged, ‘explain this Dark Parable to me.’

“’I will explain it,’ the roshi said, ‘if you will follow me into the meditation hall.’

“Simon followed the teacher to the door of the meditation hall. When they got there, the teacher stepped inside quickly, turned, and slammed the door in Simon’s face.

“At that moment, Simon experienced Awakening.”

Robert Anton Wilson Quantum Psychology Hilaritas Press,1990.

The author wrote this as the catalyst for a group exercise. First, each participant was invited to try to explain or interpret Kafka’s parable and the Zen Master’s response. Second, they were asked to observe whether a consensus emerges from the discussion, or whether each person finds a personal and unique meaning.

WOODEN TIGER, ENNOBLING TASKS

“A ferocious wooden tiger stands before the door you wish to enter, but he harms no-one”. According to the Kuan Yin Oracle (1), now is the time to put things to the proof, submit to the ordeal and separate the wheat from the chaff. It is the time of the seed and the pearl, when I am tasked to find “the hidden treasure behind the play of illusions”. The Oracle also suggests to me that it won’t be too hard to do this, because “basically, you are a realist”.

I started an online course yesterday, concerned with a fresh look at Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, reframed as four ennobling tasks. This course is provided by Bodhi College – https://bodhi-college.org/  –  for the Tricycle online teaching programme – https://learn.tricycle.org/ . The teachers are Akincano Weber, Christina Feldman, Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, all very experienced in this field.

As part of its mission, “Bodhi College wants to recover core insights of early Buddhist teachings, so as to develop fresh ways of understanding the Dharma today. It seeks to provide a contemplative education that inspires students to realize the values of the Dharma in the context of this secular age and culture”.

Classically, the Four Nobles truths are framed as statements about suffering (dukkha) and what to do about it. Some people don’t like ‘suffering’ as the English translation and prefer to talk about stress, ‘the painful’, that which is hard to bear, unsatisfactoriness. My sense is that dukkha covers the range. One of the course tutors, Christina Feldman, calls it “the arguments we have with all that is unarguable” – things like illness, ageing and death, as the Buddha pointed out right at the beginning.

Taught as a doctrine, the Four Noble Truths assert:

  1. The existence of suffering as an inescapable part of life
  2. The origin of suffering in four forms of attachment: to sensory pleasures; to our opinions and views; to rites and rituals at the expense of genuine spiritual experience; to our belief that we exist as a solid, permanent self
  3. The end of suffering, through taming the forces or greed, hatred and delusion either temporarily or (ideally) permanently
  4. The path to end suffering, this being the eightfold path of right (or skillful) understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

The suggested problem with this presentation is that it asks people to take a position on a set of propositions – agree, disagree, partly agree/disagree, don’t know. The invitation of the course is to look at this in another way, which the tutors say may be truer to the earliest Buddhist teaching. The suggestion here is that Buddhism needed such metaphysical formulae to become a respectable Indian religion of the day, whereas the Buddha himself may have been something of a sceptic, immersed in creative conversations with inquirers and avoiding dogma as far as possible. However, the real issue is about what kind of Buddhism people want to develop today.

Here, the proponents of my online course are very clear. The four proposed tasks can be summed up in the slogan: understand, realise, give up, develop. So far, I take this to mean that I ask myself what if anything ‘suffering’ means to me and how I might know that I am experiencing it. How, in my understanding, does it come about? What could I do towards letting go of it and in what ways might this lead to a different kind of life? This exploration is tied to an ethical quest: how do I become the kind of person I aspire to be? How can I help to create the kind of world I want to live in? (Hence the notion of ‘ennobling tasks’). These are open questions, and I work on them in my own life, rather than generating opinions about statements. Relative to many other spiritual traditions, Buddhists tend in this direction anyway. This approach simply takes the spirit of inquiry further and perhaps gives it more freedom.

I’m only at the start of one brief online course (six weeks). I do know, already, that if I’m going to be involved more in the Buddhist world, this is a direction I would want to move in. I’m encouraged.

  • Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: the Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: THE EVERYDAY SUBLIME

Stephen Batchelor explores his view that “the mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it”. For me, this discussion has a resonance beyond the ranks of ‘secular Buddhism’. The passage below is from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma in a secular age (1). I am attracted to his view of ‘the everyday sublime’ and for me at least, its relevance extends well beyond Batchelor’s specific context.

“Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime … [It] is about what is happening to this organism as it touches the environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’

“As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and ‘mine’. It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a life-long practice.

“The ordinary sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task [NB Batchelor’s reframe of the Buddhist four noble truths JN].  …

  • An open-hearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation
  • A letting go of the habitual restrictive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation
  • A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled
  • A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation in hand.

“Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.

…..

“As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and questions what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.”

  • Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015

BUDDHA AND MARA

Stephen Batchelor is my favourite Buddhist writer. He is also a model of spiritually grounded atheism. The passage below is from his Confession of a Buddhist atheist (1). I’m not Buddhist, yet I resonate with what he is saying and feel encouraged on my own path.

“For traditional Buddhists, the Buddha has come to be seen as the perfect person. He is an example of what a human being can ultimately become through treading the eightfold path. The Buddha is said to have eliminated from his mind every trace of greed, hatred and confusion, so that they are ‘cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, so that they will never arise again’. At the same time, the Buddha is believed to have acquired faultless wisdom and boundless compassion. He is omniscient and unerringly loving. He has become God.

“Yet the many passages in the Pali canon that depict the Buddha’s relations with Mara paint a very different picture. On attaining awakening in Uruvela, Siddatha Gotama* did not ‘conquer’ Mara in the sense of literally destroying him. For Mara is a figure that continues to present himself to Gotama even after the awakening. He keeps reappearing under different guises until shortly after the Buddha’s death in Kusinara. This implies that craving and the other ‘armies of Mara’ have not been literally deleted from Buddha’s being. Rather, he has found a way of living with Mara that deprives the devil of his power. To be no longer manipulated by Mara is the equivalent of being free from him. The Buddha’s freedom is found not in destroying greed and hatred, but in comprehending them as transient, impersonal emotions that will pass away of their own accord as long as you do not cling to and identify with them.

“In Pali, Mara means ‘the killer’. The devil is a mythic way of talking about whatever imposes limits on realizing one’s potential as a human being. As well as physical death, Mara refers to anything that wears you down or causes your life to be reduced, blighted or frustrated. Craving is a kind of inner death because it clings to what is safe and familiar, blocking one’s capacity to enter the stream of the path. Yet other kinds of ‘death’ can be imposed by social pressures, political persecution, religious intolerance, war, famine, earthquakes, and so on. Mara permeates the fabric of the world in which we struggle to realize our goals and reach fulfillment. Siddhattha Gotama was no more exempt from these constraints than anyone else.

“If Mara is a metaphor for death, then Buddha, as his twin, is a metaphor for life. The two are inseparable. You cannot have Buddha without Mara any more than you can have life without death. This was the insight I gained from Living with the Devil (2). Instead of perfection and transcendence, the goal of Gotama’s Dhamma* was to embrace this suffering world without being overwhelmed by the attendant fear or attachment, craving or hatred, confusion or conceit, that come in its wake.

“A clue to how this might be done is found in the parable of the raft. Gotama compares the Dhamma to a raft that one assembles from pieces of driftwood, fallen branches and other bits of rubbish. Once it has taken you across the river that lies in your way, you leave it behind on the bank for someone else and proceed on your way. The Dhamma is a temporary expedient. To treat it as an object of reverence is as absurd as carrying the raft on your back even though you no longer need it. To practice the Dhamma is like making a collage. You collect ideas, images, insights, philosophical styles, meditation methods, and ethical values that you find here and there in Buddhism, bind them securely together, then launch your raft into the river of your life. As long as it does not sink or disintegrate and can get you to the other shore, then it works. That is all that matters. It need not correspond to anyone else’s idea of what ‘Buddhism’ is or should be.”

  • Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist atheist. Spiegel & Grau: New York, USA, 2011
  • Stephen Batchelor Living with the devil: a meditation on good and evil Riverhead Books: New York, USA, 2004

 

  • Batchelor uses Pali forms rather than the more widely known Sanskrit ones – hence Siddhattha Gotama rather than Gautama Siddhartha and Dhamma rather than Dharma.

PRAJNAPARAMITA & POEM

Prajnaparamita_Java_Side_DetailPRAJNAPARAMITA AND POEM

Prajnaparamita is the Sophia of the East, her name meaning ‘perfection of wisdom’. My image* is a 13th century stone statue from Singhasari, East Java. The lotus at the right of the image holds a book of sutras. Prajnaparamita’s hands are held in the gesture of ‘wheel-turning’, from a Buddhist perspective the turning wheel of the Dharma, representing the Buddha’s teachings.

The Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, the best known work associated with her, is a foundational document of Mahayana Buddhism. It suggests that ideas of ‘personal’ enlightenment make no sense, either conceptually or ethically. The emphasis, rather, is on compassion and work towards the awakening of all beings. Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (1) offers a translation and interpretation geared to modern westerners, presenting a view of radical interdependence that he calls ‘interbeing’. He has also written a poem about it that movingly illustrates this view. (A friend sent me this poem from a Buddhist magazine many years ago. The specific political references are from the 1980’s, but they apply at least as much today.)

 

PLEASE CALL ME BY MY TRUE NAMES

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow

Because even today I still arrive.

 

Look deeply: I arrive in every second

To be a bud on a spring branch,

To be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,

Learning to sing in my new nest,

To be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,

To be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

 

I still arrive, in order to laugh and cry,

In order to fear and to hope,

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and

Death of all that are alive.

 

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the

surface of the river,

And I am the bird which, when spring comes,

Arrives in time to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the

Clear water of a pond,

And I am also the grass-snake who,

Approaching in silence

Feeds itself on the frog.

 

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,

My legs as thin as bamboo sticks,

And I am the arms merchant, selling

Deadly weapons to Uganda.

 

I am the 12-year-old girl, refugee

On a small boat,

Who throws herself into the ocean after

being raped by a sea pirate,

and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable

Of seeing and loving.

 

I am a member of the politburo, with

Plenty of power in my hands,

And I am the man who has to pay his

‘debt of blood’ to my people,

Dying slowly in a forced labour camp.

 

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes

Flowers bloom in all walks of life.

My pain is like a river of tears, so full it

fills up the four oceans.

 

Please call me by my true names,

So I can hear all my cries and my laughs at once,

So I can see that my joy and pain are one.

 

Please call me by my true names,

So I can wake up,

And so the door of my heart can be left open,

The door of compassion.

 

 

*Photographed by Gunawan Kartapranata and reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

 

  • Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) The heart of understanding: commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA, USA: Parallax Press

 

POEM: PASSING SHAOLIN HERMITAGE

PASSING SHAOLIN HERMITAGE – TO FRIENDS IN THE CAPITAL

I reined in my horse below a pine ridge

and hiked to the lookout on top

the trail appeared impassable as I started out

but once I arrived I wished it were longer

from the summit I heard a chorus of winds

in the woods I bathed in a secluded stream

the sound of a bell roused me on the Way

the evening chime cleared the clouds and mist

though my visit was brief

I finally saw what caused my troubles

but when I thought about building a hut

I knew it would have to wait for old age.

 

From In Such Hard Times: the Poetry of Wei Ying-Wu translated by Red Pine, Port Townsend: WA, USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009

Wei Ying-wu was a poet of the later 8th century CE, as we count time. It was a period when the later-remembered-as-glorious T’ang dynasty had begun to unravel. Translator Red Pine says that “Wei lived his life wondering what went wrong”, giving a melancholy tinge to many of his poems. He was distantly related to the Imperial family, a scholar in both the Buddhist and Confucian traditions who spent many years as a state official without much enjoying it.

This poem was written in 771. (In Britain, that’s 22 years before the Viking sack of the Christian monastery at Lindisfarne.) Shaolin Temple was built in the fifth century for a monk from India in a high mountain basin at the foot of Sungshan’s Shaoshih Peak. The trail from the temple to the top went right by the cave where Bodhidharma, the founder of Chan (Japanese Zen) Buddhism spent nine years in meditation.

The chime to which Wei refers was used in Chan monasteries to mark the end of a meditation period. The use of the term ‘the Way’ (Tao) wasn’t confined to Taoists – ‘Tao’ was also used by Confucians, and by Buddhists as a translation of Sanskrit ‘Dharma’. The last two lines of the poem show a tension between Wei’s Buddhist and Confucian trainings – whether to let go of worldly attachments, or whether to stay in his post and “wait for old age” before building his hut.

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