Some of the Dharma

Some of the DharmaI first started reading Jack Kerouac in 1968, a battered paperback copy of On the Road, reprinted a decade after its original publication and kept in a pocket of a pack sack for easy reference as I hitchhiked around the country one summer.

The book enjoyed a small resurgence of interest as the early hippies imagined themselves as the spiritual descendants of the beats and enjoyed a similar flowering of art, music and literature.

For a brief while, many of the beat writers and musicians and their contemporaries basked in that renewed interest. I listened to Charlie Mingus, The Fugs, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and others almost as much as I listened to The Beatles, the Jefferson Airplane and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. I remember reading Allen Ginsburg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, William S. Burroughs and others around that time.

And, of course, Kerouac. On the Road was just the most popular of his publications (although not his first novel: that was The Town and the City, published in 1950). I quickly read The Dharma Bums then Desolation Angels (still my favourite of his 11 novels) afterwards (somewhere in my library I still have at least those two).

Around the same time, I was discovering Buddhism. I started reading D. T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Paul Reps and Dwight Goddard. The two influences – Buddhism and Kerouac – melded well for me then. They seemed a natural fit, and have continued to be factors in my own life.

Kerouac’s novels are still read, and likely every one of you has at least finished On the Road: it’s a seminal work of American fiction and not to be overlooked. It was released in an enlarged, annotated ebook edition with maps, images and more, by Penguin in 2011 (Kerouac is one of several Beat generation writers whose works have recently been of renewed interest to the reading public).

I haven’t read it myself in more than four decades, but it’s on my list to re-read this year (I know, I know: that list is already many titles long and it’s only March…).

Continue reading “Some of the Dharma”

The Blackened Nose

Buddha's faceThere’s a famous Zen tale that I was reminded of as I was reading the media release about the Collingwood Airport this week. It somehow seemed remarkably fitting.

It’s about the folly of selfishness, of thinking yours is the only way forward, of possessiveness, of narrow views.

I first came across this tale in the late 1960s, in a copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps. I still have that book; a battered paperback I have carried with me ever since. This story is only one of more than 100 in the book. It’s number 48: Black-Nosed Buddha, and, in the spare way such tales are told in the book, it goes like this:

A nun who was searching for enlightenment made a statue of Buddha and covered it with gold leaf. Wherever she went she carried this golden Buddha with her.

Years passed and, still carrying her Buddha, the nun came to live in a small temple in a country where there were many Buddhas, each one with its own particular shrine.

The nun wished to burn incense before her golden Buddha. Not liking the idea of the perfume straying to the others, she devised a funnel through which the smoke would ascend only to her statue. This blackened the nose of the Golden Buddha making it especially ugly.

Continue reading “The Blackened Nose”

The Slow Path to Happiness

Sitting

If 15 minutes of stillness change the 23 hours and 45 minutes left in your day, including your sleep and your human relations, it seems to be worthwhile.

So said Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who has spent the last 45 years in the Himalayas pursuing the goal of mindfulness. Ricard was interviewed in January, following along the lines of a TED talk he gave in 2007. You can watch that video here.

Slowing down is gaining more attention as the world speeds up in part because it’s becoming increasingly evident that we collectively find it more and more difficult to focus on things that matter. And conversely, it is increasingly easy to catch only the shiny, glittering flotsam on the information tsunami. The growing dissonance and polarization online is often attributed to people paying only surface attention to issues, making snap judgments based on fleeting and frequently incomplete information, and not taking the time necessary to delve into the depths of a topic where one can make fully-informed decisions.

Slowing down, taking time for stillness, turning off the devices, stop speaking, and just sitting can help us rise out of the turbulent jetstream of content that carries us along every minute of the day. Stillness can give us that precious time to locate serenity, a state often missing in our busy, connected, modern lives.

Speeding up to catch the current is not usually associated with wisdom. Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century that, “All the unhappiness of men arises from one simple fact: that they cannot sit quietly in their chamber.” Few of us ever take the time today to just sit quietly, busy as we are with our tablets and smartphones, tweets and Facebook status updates.

In his book, The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer writes:

Researchers in the new field of interruption science have found that it takes an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from a phone call. Yet such interruptions come every eleven minutes — which means we’re never caught up with our lives.

It doesn’t need to be meditation per se – while that is an integral part of Buddhist practice, for many Westerners it is initially difficult. Our brains never stop playing the whirligig and it’s hard to tame what is sometimes called our ‘monkey mind‘. We are not taught in schools, business or even by our parents to still it. It’s something we must each learn, individually, and often on our own. So rather than wrestling with it, just sit.*

Continue reading “The Slow Path to Happiness”

How Many Virtues?

cardinal virtuesThe Greeks had but four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude). To this, many centuries later, the Catholic church (notably Aquinas) added three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity (or love). These are the seven basic virtues of Western culture. But they’re not the only ones.

In 410 CE, Aurelius Clemens Prudentius listed seven ‘heavenly’ virtues in his religious poem, Psychomachia: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

Writing in the New York Times recently, David Brooks said.

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

Brooks adds: “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

In that sense we have two ‘resume’ virtue lists: the one we present to others, make an ostensible show of and tell people these are the virtues we pursue, even when we do not – and hope these become our eulogy list. And we have a private list of virtues we know we actually believe in, we actually practice in daily life.

But what are those virtues? Are they the four, the seven, or are there more?

Buddhists have two, intertwined lists of virtues. The first is the eightfold path:

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

The second list of ten virtues comes from the Natha Sutta:

  1. Sila: good conduct; keeping moral habits;
  2. Bahusutta: great learning;
  3. Kalyana mitta: good company; association with good people;
  4. Sovacassata: amenability to correction; meekness; easy admonishability;
  5. Kingkaraniyesu Dakkhata; willingness to give a helping hand; diligence and skill in managing all the affairs of one’s fellows in the community;
  6. Dhammakamata; love of truth;
  7. Viriyarambha; energy; effort; energetic exertion; making effort; being industrious in avoiding  and abandoning evil actions, and cultivating the good;
  8. Santutthi; contentment;
  9. Sati; mindfulness; the ability to remember what one has done and spoken;
  10. Panna; wisdom; insight.

There are other sutras that list Buddhist virtues (also called perfections, or paramitas) like the Ten Perfections of the Buddhavamsa and the Six Perfections  of the Lotus Sutra, but they are essentially the same list as above.

On the virtuescience page, 119 virtues are listed, including wonder, thrift, thankfulness, respect, responsibility, sobriety, loyalty, honesty, generosity and discretion.  A similar, list can be found on virtuesforlife and similar sites (such as the wikiversity site). In the one-upmanship often found online, there are even longer lists (up to around 160) with terms like prayerfulness, resilience, health, beauty and assertiveness.

Are all of these really virtues? Or merely attributes or qualities: behavioral traits? That depends on how you define virtue.

Loyalty, for example, is relative: like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder. Loyalty is only a virtue in someone else if they are on the same side or in the same party as you are. It’s a vice in others of different political, religious or cultural beliefs. History is replete with cases of blind loyalty where it was a character flaw, not a virtue. Think of the SS or the Soviet commissars in WWII, the Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. None of the victims would consider their loyalty a virtue. Loyalty to a small cause can equally be disloyalty to the greater good.

Continue reading “How Many Virtues?”

Death by Bacon?

Buddha’s death considered as we approach Vesak

Death of BuddhaShakyamuni died from eating tainted pork accidentally offered to him by a well-meaning lay devotee…. that story permeates Buddhist history and mythology, and has spawned many debates both about both his death and the morality of eating animal flesh. Okay, it wasn’t necessarily bacon…

This story is mentioned in the book, Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression, as well as on many online sites. Generally, the Western Buddhist sources I read accept it as factual and some take it as permission for Buddhists to eat meat.

But is it history? or is it a morality tale, meant to instruct rather than to be taken as fact? Or is there something else in it?

On the Fraught With Peril blog, it offers some insight into the challenges – and subtleties – of interpreting the tale. The meal contained something called…

…sukara-maddava, which can be translated as either “soft pork” or as “pig’s delight.” No one knows for sure what this was. It might have been pork, because the Buddha allowed monastics to accept meat as long as it was not seen, heard, nor suspected that an animal had been killed for their sake. On the other hand, it might have been a type of mushroom that pig’s also liked to eat. In any case, the Buddha tried some of this and sensed that something was wrong.

The ‘something’ that was wrong was happening inside his gut. Here’s where the modern twist enters the story. Modern doctors, reading the stories, have applied their diagnostic skills and come up with an alternative to food poisoning:

Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu has argued that it was not food poisoning after all, but rather a condition known as mesenteric infarction that was what killed the Buddha. As mentioned before, this is a condition brought on by old age in which the artery that supplies blood to the small intestines is blocked. This causes an infarction or gangrene of the intestinal wall or mesentery. Mesenteric infarction is fatal if untreated by surgery. The Buddha’s severe abdominal pains or angina during the rainy season retreat in Beluva signaled the onset of this condition. During his meal at the home of Chunda the Buddha suffered a second angina attack and at first thought the sukara-maddava was responsible. Food poisoning, however, would not be felt until at least a couple of hours after the meal and not immediately. After the meal was finished the Buddha gave a Dharma talk to his host and then took his leave. That is when other more severe symptoms occurred, and the Buddha realized that this was no mere food poisoning.

So it might not have been the food itself, but simply the Buddha’s age (he was 80 at the time), that caused the problem. Age, however inevitable, doesn’t make much of a morality lesson.

Continue reading “Death by Bacon?”

Master Shih Te’s Words

I see a lot of silly folks
who claim their own small spine’s
Sumeru, the sacred mountain
that supports the universe.
Piss ants, gnawing away at a noble tree,
with never a doubt about their strength.
They chew up a couple of Sutras,
and pass themselves off as Masters.
Let them hurry and repent.
From now on no more foolishness.

This is poem XI* from Master Shih Te, a hermit on Cold Mountain; contemporary of and close friend to the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan. This verse is translated by J. P. Seaton from his book, Cold Mountain Poems (Shambhala, Boston, Mass, 2009).

Only 49 poems attributed to Shih Te (also written as Shi De or  Shide) survive; most have distinctly Buddhist themes, but like this one, have metaphorical resonance outside the strict religious or spiritual framework.

This particular poem struck me as particularly relevant, when I read it in Seaton’s collection, this weekend. How much some people  think their own view alone gazes from the highest mountain, and all the rest of us are below them. How they think their own words are akin to scripture, and those of others are dross. But, as Shih Te says, they are merely ants gnawing at the bark of the great tree of truth, thinking their tiny jaws will topple it.

Foolishness,  he says, just foolishness.

~~~~~
* James Hargett translated it thus:

I am aware of those foolish fellows,
Who support Sumeru with their illumed hearts.1
Like ants gnawing on a huge tree,
How can they know their strength is so slight?
Learning to gnaw on two stalks of herbs,
Their words then become one with the Buddha.
I desperately seek to confess my sins,
Hereafter, never again to go astray.

** Sumeru, or Sineru, is the central peak in Buddhist cosmology and mythology: Sumeru rises above the centre of a ‘mandala-like complex of seas and mountains.’ We use a similar metaphor when we speak of the ‘Everest’ of things.