Monday, June 15, 2009
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
Among the many books I have been reading lately (the stack beside the bed was about a foot high when I settled down to sleep last night) is Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Buddhism by Ringu Tulku. In typical Tibetan fashion, he explains the core concepts of the Three Vehicles (the Sanskrit word is “yana”) by commenting on existing texts. Also in typical Tibetan fashion, he devotes about 23% of the book to the Individual Vehicle, the Shravakayana (more commonly referred to as the Hinayana), about 27% to the Messianic Vehicle, the Mahayana (I’m borrowing Robert Thurman’s designations of the vehicles), and fully half the book to the Vajrayana, the Apocalyptic Vehicle. Vajrayana is the particular treasure of the Tibetan Buddhist system; the only other Vajrayana tradition, to my knowledge, is the Shingon Buddhism of Japan. Whereas Shingon is one particular sect or school in Japan, in Tibet the Vajrayana is mainstream and seems always to have been so. Also called Tantra or Mantrayana, it is essentially a magical system intended to accelerate the process of attaining enlightenment and give the practitioner conscious control of death and rebirth.
Ringu Tulku’s exposition of the Vajrayana is the first extended account of Buddhist Tantra that I’ve read. Once my head stopped spinning, I realized all over again that Tibetan Buddhism is a whole religion, a complete system, and that our Western traditions, pagan, Christian, Gnostic, magical, what have you, are instead fragmented, scattered, half-buried, perhaps lost in part. All the pieces may be there, but they are not in order, like shards of a broken stained-glass window. Is it possible to reassemble them according to the pattern? Do we even have a picture of what a complete Western tradition would look like? You can find lots of books on lucid dreaming, for example; Vajrayana teaches those techniques at a particular point in one’s development. Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes that first you take the Individual Vehicle, the basic teachings, and work on yourself; then you establish yourself in the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana, and make the liberation of all other beings your motivation for achieving Buddhahood. Only then are you ready to undertake the advanced disciplines of Tantra. Perhaps some occultists like Dion Fortune emphasized maintaining a Christian devotion, however Gnostic or heterodox, because Christ the Savior was the only Mahayana they knew, and they felt an instinctive need to ground magical development in compassion and service.
Tibetan Buddhism is my religion now, and I hope to make it to studying Vajrayana and practicing it in this lifetime. But I also hope that, given a few hundred years, we will evolve an American Buddhism that has all three vehicles, and that it will help those who aren’t Buddhists put the Western Gnosis back together again. Tibetan Buddhism models for me a religion that has all the best parts of paganism, occultism, and Christianity, combined with a surpassing wisdom and truth. I do think we once had that in Western culture, or could have had it (feel free to blame Constantine), and perhaps we shall have it again, with help from the East.
Friday, July 4, 2008
No one is watching you. No one is there to judge or punish or reward. You can act blindly, poisonously, and suffer the consequences, or you can choose to wake up and act intelligently, compassionately, freely. The harm you do others is balanced out by the harm that actions of greed, hatred, and jealousy do to yourself. If you turn to the buddhas for help, if you take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, they will help you. No questions asked. No need to propitiate them, to offer sacrifice, to balance things tit for tat. The buddhas get nothing out of helping others except the joy of doing so, and it is a joy to them, and they don't need any extraneous reward.
It's basically a very egalitarian universe. Every sentient being, every mortal being that has some capacity to think and feel, has the capacity for buddhahood. In Sanskrit it's "tathagatagarbha", literally the embryo (garbha) of The Thus-Gone (tathagata), an honorific title meaning "gone to enlightenment". In English it's usually "buddha nature". I like to think of it as buddha potential. You, me, the fly on the wall, a horse, your pet bird, and all those other sentient beings not usually part of the Western worldview--the gods, titans, hungry ghosts, and denizens of hell--all have buddha potential, the potential to wake up, become free, attain omniscience, and become creative and genuinely helpful to others. Robert Thurman, in particular, makes being a buddha sound like an awful lot of fun. Nirvana is not just sitting there in meditation for an eternity of nothing. Buddhas and bodhisattvas are busy helping others and creating new possibilities.
For so many years I had a wealth of misconceptions about Buddhism: that it was austere, ascetic, nihilistic, self-complacent, available only to monastics. Those misconceptions were based on Western scholarship of the 1950s that took Southern Asian Buddhism as the only "authentic" form and then largely misunderstood it. I am grateful to have discovered that those ideas were wrong, wildly wrong, and that the Dharma had much to offer me--a way out of so much anxiety, irritability, and stress. There is no authority to please or offend. There is no sin, only the root error of ignorance, which is clinging to the idea of a fixed, permanent self that is somehow the center of the universe. There is no one to thank and no one to apologize to except one's fellow sentient beings, all of us on the slow journey toward enlightenment. By helping others we speed our own awakening; by waking up and realizing our potential, we become more able to help others.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
--"Archaic Torso of Apollo", tr. by Stephen Mitchell
After all these years, I think I finally understand what Natalie Goldberg meant in Writing Down the Bones and her subsequent books when she wrote about writing practice, and how it is about trusting your own mind, your own experience. I think I’m finally learning to do that through this daily minimum of words–learning to look round at my life and see that it is worth sharing, worth transforming through writing.
Ken Wilber says that there are three main disciplines in the Integral Approach: art, which is discovering and expression the self; morals, the discipline of right relationship with other beings; and science, the exploration and explanation of the world around us. Or, as it may also be expressed, the Beautiful, the Good, and the True. I think each of these things may partake of the other; art is primarily about the Beautiful, but it may also teach about the Good and the True. That which is True, I find, is also Beautiful and leads us to the Good. And what is Good must partake of what is Beautiful and what is True in order for it to be virtue.
To cultivate self, culture, and nature through art, morals, and science, leading to experience of the Beautiful, the Good, and the True–in service to all sentient beings, in awareness of the Nondual. And taking refuge in the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The teacher, the teachings, and the supportive, guiding community.
At least now I know what I’m doing and where I’m going in this life, and for the next life, and so on down the line. It has taken me forty-two years, but now I know.
Maybe Douglas Adams was right about 42.