Tag Archives: Buddhism

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.*

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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.

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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.

Happiness & Fulfillment

There are ten methods for meditating on the world, begins one scroll in the 1,300-year-old collection of Tang-dynasty sutras from Xian, China, that can lead us to happiness and fulfillment.

I realize that sounds like the opening of a New Age piffle book, but the sutras were actually discovered in a cave near a Buddhist monastery, in the far western region of China, in 1900. The scrolls were looted and sold to collectors and academia, and until 1998 were pretty much lost. Now the public can read a few selections from them in the book, The Lost Sutras of Jesus, by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore.

The majority of the scrolls were Buddhist texts from the seventh century CE. Only eight of them were Christian – the efforts of early Christian (Persian) monks who arrived in Xian along the Silk Road, bringing their faith into contact with both Buddhism and Taoism. Those sutras, their legacy, are an intriguing blend of Christian and Buddhist views.

It’s also reminiscent of the Epicurean views I’ve been reading about in classical works.

The story of the scroll is a fascinating history and I would dearly love to read much more of these works, but there are few printed sources I have been able to find.

The cross-pollination of ideas between Buddhism and Christianity has not been very well explored, and I would like to learn more. I have read there were Buddhists in Alexandria in the first century CE, whose ideas and writings may have influenced the Gnostics. Did their faith also influence early “orthodox” Christians?

And how much did Christian beliefs influence Buddhism in this era? I simply don’t know, but there is a glimmer of light in these scrolls that suggests both faiths were malleable enough at that time to absorb something from the other. Too bad there was a “hardening of the faith arteries” that prevented more sharing.

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Montaigne’s words on anger

“There is no passion that so shakes the clarity of our judgment as anger,” Montaigne wrote in Book II of his Essays (Chapter 31). “It is a passion that takes pleasure in itself and flatters itself.”

That strikes me a very Buddhist statement, a comment lifted from the Dhammapada, although Montaigne was a solid Catholic. It certainly has a similar wisdom.

I have seen that anger cloud the judgment of people in political debate, on many stages from national to local. It blinds people to the reality of the issues, and carries them on a wave of self-induced pleasure, as Montaigne saw.

When fuelled by anger, discussion degenerates into shouting matches where no one can win. They make of their anger a holy cause unto itself, closing themselves to any argument or fact that might challenge their self-righteousness. They no longer listen to compromise, or weigh alternatives. Anger outweighs all. Anger becomes ego becomes anger, a vicious feedback loop.

Montaigne also criticized those who bluster and bellow their self-righteous anger for the world’s attention:

“They go after their own shadow, and carry this tempest into a place where no one is punished or affected by it, except someone who has to put up with the racket of their own voice.”

One is reminded of Shakespeare’s line about “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…”

Anger displaces rational thought and ends any possibility of civil or civilized debate. It spews forth in puerile vituperation and accusation. We see it on social media every day.

Calm, rational thought, he wrote in that same essay, is the only way to engage one another.

“I observe in the writings of the ancients,” wrote Montaigne, “…that the man who thinks strikes home much more forcefully than the man who pretends.”

But it is difficult to crack that wall of angry self-justification.

A Compassionate Buddha?

Buddhist storyThere’s a story in Valerie Roebuck’s translation of the Dhammapada (Penguin Classics, 2010, commentary on verse 6, p 115-116) that caught my eye recently, and it made me wonder what the moral or ethical precept was buried in it.

And it makes me question what it says about the supposed compassion of the Buddha and his attitude towards animals.*

I have not found online the story exactly as Ms. Roebuck tells it**, but I have found many variations on it. It even has its own holiday: Madhu Purnima. In essence the story goes like this:

The Buddha is at the Kosambi monastery where 500 monks get into a doctrinal dispute (i.e. pissing match over minutiae) he cannot resolve for them. So he gives up and heads to the forest to find peace (first stumbling block: where’s the fabled patience?).

Meanwhile, an elephant (often described as a bull elephant), tired of living among the herd, joins him. There the elephant takes care of the Buddha, bringing him water and protecting him from predators.

A monkey joins them and brings the Buddha some honeycomb, which the Buddha accepts. The monkey is so delighted, he swings from branch to branch wildly, but in his excitement, falls to his death. He’s reborn in Tavatimsa heaven, so that’s supposed to be okay.

No indication that the Buddha felt any compassion for the animal, let alone any remorse for being the cause of its death. Personally, I’m not sure the trade-off between life and death is worth it, but maybe I’m just too attached to living. Or maybe I’m just a teensy bit too skeptical about rebirth, reincarnation, heaven, gods and so on (a la Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs).

Meanwhile, the monks come to the forest and beg the Buddha to return, which he does, leaving the elephant in the forest. Roebuck says it was “at the point where the animal might have been in danger from human beings if he had followed him.” Other texts say the elephant followed him to the edge of the city.

Again, no indication of gratitude for the elephant’s service. No thanks, no fond wave of the hand, no blessing.

The elephant dies of a “broken heart” from being abandoned. The Buddha in the tale shows no compassion or remorse. The elephant pops up in Tavatimsa heaven too, though. I suppose that’s okay.

Or is it?

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Reading the Dhammapada

BuddhaOne of the most inspirational, moving books in my library is the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha, originally from the Pali canon. I’ve had a version of the Dhammapada in my library since the late 1960s, and read it through many times. It’s good to reread it often.

My first copy I recall was Irving Babbit’s edition, published by New Directions press in 1965. It may still be hiding on a bookshelf upstairs for all I know.

It’s one of my desert island books. You know: one of the list of 10 books you’d want to have with you if you were stranded on a desert island.

Over the years, my favourite version has been the Still Point Dhammapada by Geri Larkin, guiding teacher at the Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit. (Her Buddhist name is P’arang.) I like it because it’s not simply a translation but a witty and wise commentary that clears away the clouds and makes it a very personal work. Larkin helps guide the reader towards the basic tenets of everyday Buddhism, rather than simply offer the words for us to contemplate.

The Dhammapada is not a literary narrative like the canonical gospels. It is more like the verses in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. (Gnostic only because it was found in company of Gnostic texts in the Nag Hammadi library; it doesn’t profess Gnostic beliefs, however). I also keep it with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as a book I can pick up and read at random for a shot of wisdom.

One version of the Dhammapada on my shelf is the classic Max Muller translation from 1870; popularly reprinted as a copyright-free edition. Another is an older Penguin Classics version from the 1980s. I have a couple of odd versions printed in India and Southeast Asia by Buddhist teachers, somewhere in a box.

There is a more recent Penguin edition, translated by Valerie Roebuck (2010) but I don’t have it yet (on order though).

I’ve never paid that much attention to the translation until recently. It’s tough for Westerners to appreciate whether a translation is good or bad because so few of us can read the original Pali – that falls into the realm of scholars. They may be technically adept but often not poets or even practicing Buddhists. And many of the online translations are by scholars and Buddhists for whom English is a second language. In both cases, the renderings can leave the reader feeling like something’s missing.

This weekend, while in Toronto (and scouring what few remaining bookshops I could find), I came across a new translation by Glenn Wallis (Modern Library, New York, 2007). It’s supplemented by a good reading guide with commentary and notes to help explain the translation, the original language, the various terms and symbols.

Where Larkin makes her version a personal, intimate guide, all about daily life and being in the moment, Wallis spreads a wider net, bringing in much more Buddhist practice and belief in a more scholarly manner. Both are worthwhile approaches and both authors are practicing Buddhists. Wallis is also a professor and a member of the Buddhist punk band, Ruin, which adds another facet when considering his translation.

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