Tag Archives: buddha

Buddhist suffering is not pain and grief

The first of the Four Noble Truths attributed to Buddha is life is suffering (dukkha).

But what is meant by this? Is every moment in life suffering? Am I in perpetual sadness?

Obviously, no. I am happy, or at least not sad at this moment. For most of my life I have been fairly happy and content. I can see that others also are not suffering or in constant pain.

What Buddha meant by this that at any moment we are susceptible to suffering. This susceptibility is what is meant by dukkha. Actual instances pain and happiness are “clues” to impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the self as an illusion.

The Life of The Buddha

The founder of Buddhism was a historical figure from two-and-a-half millennia ago. Siddhartha Gautama, which is his birth name, was born a prince of the Sakya Clan. He was born in Lumbini, a forest, while his mother, Maya, was returning to her family. With no more reason to continue the journey she returned to Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakya Kingdom.

All the soothsayers predicted that Siddhartha would either become a great king or a great leader of the world, except one. This lone soothsayer predicted that he would definitely become a great leader of the world. Worried, Siddhartha’s father, Suddhodana, wanted to make sure his son would succeed him as king by sheltering him from ugliness of the world. The king was able to shelter his son until he was 29. Siddhartha was about to marry and to have a son. Finally given some freedom he saw the outside world – reality – for the first time. What is saw was sickness, old age and death, the truth of existence his father had wanted to conceal from him. Siddhartha also saw an ascetic who was radiant with happiness and contentment. Siddhartha wondered how this could be.

Around the time of his son’s birth he had decided to find the truth and happiness which does not rely on the things of the world. He left his palace and comfortable lifestyle to seek and follow the best teacher of the day. Siddhartha, now called Sakyamuni (The Sage of the Sakya Clan), mastered two of the leading ascetics’ teachings in a short time. And was offered successorship, both of which he declined. He left them behind and continued to seek enlightenment on his own. Following a routine of extreme asceticism he slowly wore his body down to the point of dying. Concluding that he may well find enlightenment at the point of death he also realised this would mean nothing if no one can know and find the truth. Siddhartha decided that both decadence and asceticism were unrealistic ways to the goal, and that the only way is one which is neither self-indulgent nor self-deprivating. This is The Middle Way of Buddhism.

At age 35, with his health restored and with full concentration of mind and body he became enlightened, and he, now called The Buddha (The Enlightened One), taught the way to enlightenment to others for the next forty-five years until his death at age 80.

Meaning

You know, nothing really has meaning.

What I mean by this is that within context things make sense. But what if you expand or contract the context? The meaning changes. So this in itself is an indication of the inherent instability of meaning.

So meaning is contextual. It is empty of any independent “substance”. Nothing new about this. Socrates said something similar about words in Cratylus. As did Buddha. And so the jump to this conclusion is not hard to reach.

Is The Buddha a god?

The Buddha was born a prince. His mother died soon after giving birth to him. So there is no claim of divinity of any kind. He was an ordinary man with ordinary problems just like you and me. And therefore he is not a god. Nor should he be worshipped as such.

Buddhist iconography was something which arose after his death. And temples are not places of worship. Both of these are created to help us understand his teaching, the dharma, which is we alone can liberate ourselves from unhappiness through attention to the nature of one’s body and mind.

This then means that Buddhism is not about faith but practice. The practice espoused was to look after the mind as much as we look after our body. This Buddhists do through meditation. Meditation does not have any special powers as such but only allows one to focus the mind to see clearly what the mind and body are. Some kind of basic understanding is necessary of course, but essentially it is that everything is impermanent, without self and suffering. Nothing including Buddhism lasts forever. That includes the self which many people cling on to. The self is an illusion. And that is perhaps the greatest of all roots of our suffering. Understand that this is what existence is then we can proceed to find the happiness which does not diminish.

Some thoughts on Right Speech

Sometimes – more often than not – Right Speech means silence in a matter, not in ignorance or in ignoring something (not wanting to know or wishing its nonexistence) but refraining from speaking in the understanding that to talk about it will not help the situation, and that speaking out may even make the situation worse.

Some thoughts on the Arhat and the Bodhisattva

I started out in Buddhism with Zen Buddhism. I think it has a lot to offer. But at the same time one should think about what it doesn’t offer. One should weigh the pros and cons.

One of the interesting developments in Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen is a part of) is that of the Bodhisattva and its (it is both a he and she. And it is a non-existent person) ideal. A bodhisattva is said to strive to save all beings before its leaves this world into Nirvana, the final extinction.

In contrast the Theravada has the Arhat ideal. An Arhat is anyone who has vowed to become enlightened, the highest ideal that leads to contentment. Mahayana sees the Arhat ideal as selfish which is why they developed the Bodhisattva ideal. This was a later development after the Buddha’s time.

So if you ask me which is “correct” I will say both.

I doubt The Buddha meant for his teaching to be selfish (the supposed Arhat ideal interpretation) in any way. But neither did he mean for it to be an active and engaging teaching (the Bodhisattava interpretation) either.

This life is limitless

This is a Dharma talk by my master, Harada Tangen Roshi. It is on the phrase “kono inochi kagiri nashi” which means roughly “this life is limitless”. Roshi sama (a title meaning ‘venerable teacher’) has used this phrase “this life” in many of not all his Dharma talks. Everything should focused upon this life we are living and none other. It doesn’t mean ‘think of what our goal is – enlightenment’, but often he means it to be this very moment and none other. For if one is living in the past or future one is not doing one’s utmost. This lies the essence of the Buddha’s Teaching.

Trilakshana – the marks of existence in Buddhism

If ever there were important discoveries they are these.

The Buddha said there are three marks of existence – impermanance, suffering and no-self. Everything (yes, everything) in the world is impermanent. There are no exceptions to this. We suffer because we think there is something permanent. It doesn’t matter what that thing is, if one thinks it is permanent then we suffer the consequences for that belief. More often than not the thing we believe most to be permanent is the self. And The Buddha unequivocally states even this is impermanent.

Know that there is no self would end suffering which in turn leads to the understanding of impermanence.

But coming to this understanding is harder than it sounds. It usually takes years of training. When you have achieved this, though, rest assured you will be enlightened. Good to know, isn’t it.

Is it The Buddha or Buddha?

I cannot say I am a great fan of Western comics (excluding comic strips) and the medium. But one that truly had struck me as a piece of fine literature was Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (BDKR).

Different to previous Batman comics he is referred constantly to as “The Batman” throughout the story. While you may think this is a trivial matter I think it is important. Otherwise the author would not have made such an effort to be consistent. After all, that is what makes literature literature.

The point of the subtle name change is that it is to signify that this Batman is different to previous versions of the character. And indeed he is. He is an older (until BDKR the various versions of Batman had not aged), wiser, less tacky and more violent. So there is (good) justification on literary grounds for the name change.

In Buddhism (at least in English) there is a similar problem facing the believer – is it The Buddha or just Buddha? More common is the former use because the word ‘buddha’ means ‘enlightened one’. As a name, then, Buddha with a capital ‘B’ must mean ‘Enlightened One’. As the “founder” of Buddhism then it is important to distinguish him from other enlightened beings. But in English to call him ‘Enlightened One’ without the ‘The’ sounds strange as he is unique in the context of the religion. That is why we use the translated version of his name we refer to him as The Enlightened One. And by extension to call him The Buddha is more common and accurate.

Does the Hinayana have Buddha Nature?

“Does a dog have Buddha Nature?” a monk asked.
“Mu (No),” replied Master Joshu.

This is usually given as a first koan to Zen practitoners. It is the first koan in the Wu Men Kuan (Japanese: Mumonkan), one of the most important collections of its kind. A koan is a short example of sayings by Zen masters which reveal something of the truth. They are used as an aid to bring about Enlightenment. Zen students, particularly of the Rinzai School of Zen, are given koans to help them attain Enlightenment.

In a teisho (Dharma Talk) by Yamada Roshi he states that the answer should be obvious: all things have Buddha Nature (Buddhata). But here Joshu denies this when asked by a monk. Why? Because the monk is fixated on the answer and not the truth, to use a Zen analogy, mistaking the reflection of the moon in the water for the moon itself. Joshu was trying to “wake” the monk up from his delusion. And in this way Zen is a truly profound.

But the history of Buddha Nature has bothered me for some time now.

The school closest to the historical Buddha, Theravada (also called Hinayana) does not teach Buddha Nature nor is it a concept not within its discourse. The Pali Canon, the oldest writings based on the Buddha’s teaching, does not include this concept. It is only in the later works, the Mahayana writings, that we begin to find this concept. In other words, there is a probability that the concept was a later formulation. I say probability because there is also the probability that the Pali Canon may have ignored this teaching for reasons unknown. We can never be sure of this as we have lost important sources of information about the formation of the sutras.

All Mahayana schools believe that Buddha Nature (Buddhata) is inherent in all beings. However, some schools extend this to cover all things unconditionally. So to summarize there are three three possible views on this:

  1. Buddha Nature does not exist.
  2. Buddha Nature is inherent in all beings but not things.
  3. Buddha Nature is inherent in all being and things.

Given that there is no agreement among Buddhists some doubt then must be entertained as to its authenticity. This questioning must not be done out of one-upmanship but out of the true spirit of enquiry as to what the true nature of the self is. This idea is something akin to Dogen’s simultaneous acceptance and denial of Buddha Nature. It is a paradox but a paradox worth pursuing in order to come closer to Enlightenment, the highest ideal of the Buddha’s teaching which all schools do agree upon.

So does a dog have Buddha Nature? Well, the answer depends entirely on whether you are a Hinayana Buddhist, Mahayana Buddhist or non-Buddhist. If you are a Hinayana Buddhist the answer is, “What is Buddha Nature?” If you are a Mahayana Buddhist the answers is “Yes and no, but only if you are unenlightened, and you have to think about it, or if you have to ask”. If you are non-Buddhist the answer is “Who is this Buddha guy?”

Do we need an Ecological Buddhism?

Coming back to blogging here I had to rethink what exactly am I trying to achieve here. Why do I want to write about ecology and Buddhism? Are they compatible or is this just one person’s argument?

Let me start by asking then ‘was Buddha an environmentalist’? An easy question with an easy answer. No, not in the conventional sense. In Buddha’s time and place conservation or environmentalism as a concept simply did not exist. It has been pointed out that he was one against the some of the dominant contemporary ideas of the time, especially within Hinduism. But there is much more to Buddha and his thought than that.

Would he have been an environmentalist if it had existed in his time? I think asking such questions really is irrelevant. He may have been but this is only idyll thought, a game that even Buddha would have rejected as a waste of time.

So then is ecology and Buddhism compatible, and should these two words be said in the same breath? Buddhism, as a lifestyle, has many similarities to ecological conservation or ecology, and is perhaps one of the gentlest lifestyles without going to extremes. It most certainly was influenced by the other popular then contemporary philosophy, Jainism, which tries to not affect the environment by wearing masks and carrying brooms so as not to harm other life.

Clearly Buddhism respects all life in a way similar to ecology, but that does not mean all Buddhists are ecologists. The question of whether there is such a thing as Ecological Buddhism (or Buddhist Ecology) is only a matter of names. It just so happens that I like both ecology and Buddhism, but I don’t think it is possible or even necessary to consciously combine the two, just as there is not a need to combine Buddhism and ethics to create a philosophy of Buddhist Ethics.

Buddha would probably not deal with these questions. More than likely he would have thought them unnecessary. So let’s stop here and get on with the important issues.