A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Monday, May 30, 2005

A New Buddhist Post

My teachers say that what we Buddhists call “compassion” does not mean a sweetness-and-light attitude toward everything and everyone. They say that when bad things need really fixed, they really need fixed, and then sweetness-and-light is merely what they call “idiot compassion” and it actually breaks one’s vows, particularly the Bodhisattva Vow.

True compassion consists of being firm and forthright when firmness and forthrightness are really needed. But, with the absence of enlightened judgment in an ordinary guy like myself, there are serious personal considerations involved when one is firm and forthright. The Bodhisattva Vow is especially difficult to keep, because you can break it merely by bad thoughts and these are not wholly under the control of most of us.

Both in my “emergency post” of nearly two weeks ago, and in another matter where a broad misunderstanding of American Buddhism was being perpetuated in a generally responsible religious forum, I had to do some rather sharp letter writing, not only to point out errors of fact, but also to explicitly rebuke what were totally unnecessary errors of ordinary good judgment toward a religion which one is not practicing—Catholicism by a fellow Buddhist in the first case, and Buddhism by a Christian pastor in the second.

These rebukes are highly dangerous to anyone’s fidelity to the Bodhisattva Vow. Luckily, there are specific remedies to repair any breaches in my vows that may have occurred from such forceful activity, and I have been availing myself of them. I won’t go into details, but the nearest equivalent would be the Sacrament of Penance in the Catholic Church, and that not all that near. I am very grateful to have such “skillful means” at my disposal. The rough and tumble of lay life makes them regularly necessary.

Buddhism is sometimes confusing to outsiders because there is a lack of separation in their eyes between Buddhist views (what Christians would call doctrine) and Buddhist skillful means. There are far fewer differences in views between the various styles of Buddhism than there are of the techniques of actual practice. As far as my limited reading can discern, the range of views between all the different styles of Buddhism is far narrower than, say, that between Unitarian Universalism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The differences in view that exist among Buddhists are also generally additive rather than direct disagreements of doctrine. The difference between the Theravadin Buddhist traditions of South Asia and the Mahayana traditions of North Asia (to which I belong) is that Mahayanists accept all Theravadin teachings, but regard the Mahayana Sutras as explicit amplification and expansion of what the Theravada only implies.

There are probably many reasons for this homogeneity of views among Buddhists when compared to Christians, but I think one of the most important has to do with the differing histories of Christ and Shakyamuni Buddha. Christ died due to persecution, and his followers endured the same persecution for hundreds of years under Imperial Rome.

The compilation of the Gospels and other books of the New Testament under these conditions left many points of Christian doctrine and dogma unclear. The various Pauline epistles, I think, are indicators that this ambiguity of doctrines and consequent conflict about them, started very early in the Christian historical timeline. And the process of strong disagreement and schism over them continues to this day.

The Buddha died of sickness, in old age, amidst a large and peaceful Sangha of monks, nuns, and laypeople. He and his Sangha were widely honored, supported, and welcomed throughout the India of his day. Following his death, this Sangha made diligent efforts, undisturbed by persecution, to preserve the Buddha’s teaching, as well as to put it into practice. This was done through both systematic oral recitation and memorization, as well as in writing on palm leaves.

The oral tradition has survived continuously for about 2500 years. To this day in the various Tibetan monastic colleges, the “degrees” of monastic study such a khenpo or geshe have explicit requirements for the complete memorization of a very large number of texts, as well as finely honed skills of explanation and debate.

This is made possible by the long-standing scholastic tradition of short and pithy “root texts” which have generated moderately long traditional commentaries. Each of these commentaries is the starting point for longer and more detailed commentorial exgesis that continues for many texts to this day. Also, the root texts themselves often come in 3-4 versions of different lengths with systematic expansion of detail from the shorter to the longer texts. With millennia of careful and continuous scholarship, these types of textual organization have maintained the high degree of continuity and agreement of Buddhist doctrine since the death of its founder.

The Tibetans preserve the form of the palm leaf texts in their pechas, as well. The texts are written or printed parallel to the paper length, on long narrow pages, and kept together in loose-leaf form wrapped in cloth. This is not mere empty tradition with no point to it besides preserving the approach of the past. Pechas are far more functional than Western bound books when reading, studying, or reciting while seated on the floor behind a low flat table, as in most monasteries and dharma centers like mine, which is where many of the Buddhist practices that use the texts also take place.

Nothing is more amusing in my own center than to watch all of us fumbling with loose-leaf 81/2 by 11 inch notebooks of those texts that our parent monastery has yet to have printed in pecha form. This is particularly true if an ongoing practice requires us to manipulate a hand-bell, or other ritual implements, and make the beautiful and complex ritual gestures known as mudras. Many of the Buddhist “deities”, which are the focus of Tibetan-style practice, have more than two hands, and, when practicing rituals with Western style notebooks, most of us sincerely wish we did too.

The Western book, bound on one side, with text perpendicular to the page length, in the traditional sizes of folio, quarto, octavo, or duodecimo, is the product of the Monastic scriptoria of the Middle Ages. The copy stand, where the pages were produced by hand lettering, was nearly vertical, and large pages of folio, about 15 inches high, were favored both for the obvious convenience of the scribe making letters large enough to read clearly, and for the beauty of the illuminated miniature pictures which graced and honored the texts.

The large books that resulted were read reverently--by single individuals who were standing up--on bookstands that still survive as the platforms for unabridged dictionaries in many libraries. And the basic proportions of length to width carried over into the age of printing as the books got smaller when Aldus Manutius of Venice produced the first octavo books that could be carried in a pocket--about 9 3/4 inches. These “Aldines” were fairly large books still, from our vantage point of trade paperbacks, but the pockets of the Renaissance were larger, too.

Pechas also store more compactly than Western books, and very conveniently for access. They are typically stored stacked and short side out. Treated this way, the entire Buddhist canon in Tibetan, which includes both root texts and primary commentaries, can be stored on one long wall of a moderately large room with every text available to hand.

While the doctrines of the various schools of Buddhism mesh quite closely with one another, the training methods often vary considerably. All Buddhist traditions practice one form or another of meditation to calm and concentrate the mind. Some, like my Tibetan teachers or the Zen teachers begin with a focal point in the body—the Zen practitioner concentrates on the hara or d’an tien below the navel, the Tibetans concentrate on the breath going in and out of the nostrils. A Japanese Pure Land practitioner may simply concentrate on the repetition over and over of a praise to Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light: Namo Amida Butsu. Besides their other applications, all these techniques foster a calm and concentrated mind. The rest of the traditions of practice all have something similar.

Generally speaking, it is at this point that the training methods diverge. Some schools put the now concentrated mind to work thinking of things like fresh corpses, rotting corpses, and bleached bones. These reflections undermine attachment to sex and other physical pleasures. Other traditions use a pattern of systematic philosophical analysis to undermine the naïve beliefs we have about the reality of either ordinary objects or the “self” which supposedly perceives them. Still others encourage the systematic study of Buddhist sutras.

My teachers, the Karma Kagyudpa, have a sequence of elegantly summarized repeated contemplations, to practice with a concentrated mind, that are called The Four Thoughts That Turn The Mind To Dharma. The first of these is the “precious human birth”, which is precious because we have found the Dharma, have at least some time and leisure to practice it, and have the motivation to do so because we are dissatisfied with our world.

The second thought is the “inevitability of death”, which is coming closer to us with each passing minute, might come at any moment, and is the reason not to waste our time, but to corral every spare moment we have to practice the Dharma.

The third of these is “karma, cause, and effect” which means that we are making our future right now, and immediately after we die we will not be able to control where our prior actions will lead us. So practicing Dharma is essential to insure that this uncontrolled process after death will have good and meaningful results for us.

The fourth thought is the “sufferings of continued rebirth” which points out that, given the reality of our precious but perilous situation at the moment, any distracting pleasure that makes us forget that we are inherently dissatisfied with life, and keeps us from Dharma practice, is like a fine last meal before execution.

The ultimate point of all these techniques is what is called vipashana, or insight, which is, in all Buddhist traditions, the direct perception that the “self” that supposedly constitutes our innermost being simply does not exist, and the direct erasure of our habitual emotional desire to make it exist somewhere.

In my tradition, and other Mahayana traditions, vispashana also includes the direct perception that the world of objects is “empty” of any permanence or fixity, and the supposed objects within it are “mere appearance”, the karmic products of our prior mental fabrications stemming from our belief in, and our emotional attachment to, our so-called “self”. This “insight” or “realization” is the first definite and unequivocal step on the path to full and complete Buddhahood.

The Zen masters call this insight kensho or satori and the Zen techniques consist of an agonizing, effort-filled, and absolutely determined use of the basic calming meditation, over long, intense periods of time, to forcefully push the mind through that wall of mental fabrications and directly into insight. Sometimes the nonsense riddle known as the koan is used as a point of mental focus, rather like a hardened steel drill, to bore through that mental wall. The most well known of the koans is Hakuin-zenji’s, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

The Pure Land practitioner expects to achieve this basic insight by constantly turning to Amitabha Buddha, who, it is said, made the vow before Buddhahood that anyone who did so would be reborn in Amitabha’s paradise realm, or “pure land”, through the power of Amitabha’s own enlightened mind. Such a rebirth automatically confers this basic “insight”, and the practitioner can proceed from there, either in the pure land itself, or in future and deliberate rebirths elsewhere. The Tibetans also preserve this tradition.

My own, and the other Tibetan traditions, have a wide variety of “skillful means”, which are chosen and tailored to the needs of the particular individual, and evolved as a pattern of practice by both the student and the teacher (the “lama” or the “guru”) between them in a relation of great intimacy requiring great mutual trust. It is this need for such intimacy and trust which has given it the name among Western, and non-Buddhist, observers of “Lamaism”, and fostered the incorrect belief that these traditions are not “really Buddhist”. I can assure you, from the inside, that they are.

The particular package of “skillful means”, specific to each student, acts to globally dissolve the net of mental fabrications gradually, but surely, to achieve insight. These techniques may involve the visualization of “deities” like Chenrezig the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion and Loving Kindness, as well as more arcane practices of outer physical, and inner mental, Buddhist yoga.

From the outside, these traditions of Buddhist practice look radically divergent, but, from the inside, they are all pointed toward the same goals. Many who are not Buddhist have been glamoured into thinking that these different traditions must totally oppose one another like, for example, the various schisms or divisions of Christianity have done in history. This isn’t so. Practitioners of the various traditions, of course, favor the practices that they are closest to, but there is little, if any, sense of “orthodoxy” versus “heterodoxy” of views.

Which may be why, generally, and with only a very few exceptions, Buddhists of all traditions have lived in peace with one another, and have attempted to cultivate an attitude of tolerance for other religions. And, unfortunately, it may also be why Buddhist teachings are more limited in appeal to fewer in number than many other religions. For Buddhism is, in that sense, circular, and the insight which is gained by practicing it diligently is essentially an expansion of the impulse of tolerance and good will which brought one to the Dharma in the first place.

May All Beings Benefit.


Anonymous TheAnchoress said...

You should consider renaming your blog, Joe. You write about the spirit quite as much as you do politics! :-)

11:17 AM  
Blogger Joseph Marshall said...

Actually, Anchoress, that's not quite true, there are only now twelve posts out of dozens that have addressed Buddhism directly.

Admittedly, they are closer to my heart, but even then, they are overtly political, given our current religious and political climate.

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