Saturday, June 23, 2012

Debate over the Legacy and Beginnings

The Buddha did not leave a static structure of belief that we can affirm and be done with.  His teaching is an ongoing path.  Some believe that portions of the Pali Canon and the Agamas contain the actual substance of the historical teachings, while others believe that the Pali canon and the Agamas pre-date the Mahayana sutras.
(An agama is a Sanskrit and Pali for “sacred work” or “scripture.”  There are five agamas, which together compose the Sutra Pitaka.  Different recensions of each of the five agamas parallel the first five collections (nikayas) of the Sutta Pitaka of the Theravada school’s Pali canon.  The Sutra Pitaka can refer to either: the Mahayana sutras, the agamas of various extinct schools of Buddhism, or the section of the Theravada Buddhist Pali Canon as I just mentioned.)
There is disagreement amongst various schools of Buddhism over more complex aspects of what the Buddha is believed to have taught, and also over some of the disciplinary rules for monks (“Vinaya”).  The teachings of the Buddha, or Buddhadharma, can be divided into two broad categories: “Dharma” or doctrine (earlier I referred to this as universal law), and “Vinaya”, or discipline.
            The earliest Buddhist schools into which the sangha, or monastic community (also known as the Order of Bhikkus or Mendicant Monks), initially split were due to differences concerning the proper observance of vinaya and doctrinal discrepancies- perpetuated by the geographical separation of monks as well.  These were ideological splits regarding the “real” meaning of the teachings in the Sutta Pitaka, that later became embedded in works such as the Abhidhammas and commentaries.  The Sangha provides the outer framework and the favorable conditions for all those who earnestly desire to devote their life entirely to the realization of the highest goal of deliverance.  It is of timeless significance wherever religious development reaches maturity.
            The Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, are referred to as the Three Jewels, which also form the Threefold Refuge.  These are the three things that Buddhists take refuge in, and look toward for guidance.  Buddha, depending on one’s interpretation, can mean the historical Buddha, or the Buddha nature; Dharma are the teachings of the Buddha; and the Sangha, as I just discussed, is the community of practicing Buddhists.  Taking refuge in the Three Jewls, and the simple act of reciting a formula, is generally considered to make someone officially a Buddhist.  The Pali chant goes as such:

Buddham saranam gacchami
Dhammam saranam gacchami
San gham saranam gacchami

I go for refuge to the Buddha
I go for refuge to the Dhamma
I go for refuge to the Sangha

The Mahayana version differs slightly from the Theravada:
I take refuge in the Buddha, wishing for all sentient beings to understand the great Way profoundly and make the greatest resolve
I take refuge in the Dharma, wishing for all sentient beings to delve deeply into the Sutra Pitaka causing their wisdom to be as broad as the sea
I take refuge in the Sangha, wishing all sentient beings to lead the congregation in harmony, entirely without obstruction

It is through the simple act of reciting this formula three times that one declares onself a Buddhist. (At the second and third repetition the word Dutiyampi or Tatiyampi- for the second/third time- are added before each sentence)
Buddhist scriptures are divided into three pitakas or “baskets.”  The largest and most important of these is the Sutra Pitaka or “basket of discourses,” which consists mostly of talks by the Buddha or one of his disciples.  The Dhammapada, though not considered a sutra, is included in this collection.  The other two collections are the Vinaya Pitaka or “basket of discipline,” and the Abhidharma Pitaka or “basket of metaphysics,” which touch on the philosophy propelling the Buddha’s teachings.
            Initially preserved orally, and not until 29 BCE- approximately four hundred and fifty four years after the death of Siddhartha Guatama (Shakyamuni)- was the complete extant early Buddhist cannon written down.  The oldest version of this canon to have survived is in Pali, a vernacular descendant of Sanskrit (Buddhist terms appearing in Sanskrit instead of Pali- e.g. dharma rather than dhamma, sutra rather than sutta).  So the sutras, or discourses, preserved in the Buddhist Pali canon were largely aimed at the monks and nuns of the Buddhist order.  But the Dhammapada was meant for everyone.  I leave you off with the first two verses to graze and ponder-

“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.  Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it.”

“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.  Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.”

Friday, June 22, 2012

An Introduction to a Path and Mahayana

In the Sufi Master Rumi’s Table Talk, there is this fierce and pointed passage:

“The master said there is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten.  If you were to forget everything else, but were not to forget this, there would be no cause to worry, while if you remembered, performed and attended to everything else, but forgot that one thing, you would in fact have done nothing whatsoever.  It is as if a king had sent you to a country to carry out one special, specific task.  You go to the country and you perform a hundred other tasks, but if you have not performed the task you were sent for, it is as if you have performed nothing at all.  So man has come into this world for a particular task, and that is his purpose.  If he doesn’t perform it, he will have done nothing.”

Regardless of what spiritual journey you are currently undertaking, the main message that Rumi sought to convey is that we are here on this earth for one purpose, and one purpose only- and that is to achieve union with our fundamental, enlightened nature.  Rumi’s passage can be interpreted in a number of ways, but what came to my mind today was the Mahayana goal of spiritual development: to achieve the enlightenment of Buddhahood in order to help all other sentient beings attain this state.  This is known as the bodhisattva path.
            True spirituality also is to be aware that if we are interdependent with everything and everyone else, even our smallest, least significant thought, word, and action have real consequences throughout the universe.  The whole universe, in regards to subatomic interaction, is nothing but change, activity, and process- a totality of flux that is the ground of all things.  All of our thoughts, our intentions, actions, dreams, desires- energetically- have a force; a continual dance of creation and annihilation, of mass changing into energy and energy changing into mass.  This is emptiness; this is impermanence.  Whatever we do or say or think has an effect on ourselves directly- biologically, physiologically- and on everyone else.
             Although there is no definitive Mahayana canon, some have traditionally considered the earliest Mahayana sutras to include the very first versions of the Prajnaparamita series (Sanskrit: “The Perfection of (Transcendent) Wisdom”)- a central concept in Mahayana Buddhism, and essential to understanding the principles of the Bodhisattva Path.  Mahayana scriptures are largely preserved in the Chinese Buddhist canon, the Tibetan Buddhist canon, and in Sanskrit manuscripts.  The prajnaparamita sutras, the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra are considered most fundamental to the Mahayana traditions.  Without getting into any of the Mahayana sutras, I’ll make a wide-sweeping oversimplification about the Dharma (universal or natural law): The Dharma is the Teaching of Deliverance in it’s entirety, as discovered, realized and proclaimed by the Buddha.  It is a no-nonsense, all encompassing practical guide for transforming your life; a teaching of Enlightenment based on the clear comprehension of actuality.  The Dharma offers a realistic system of ethics, a shrewd analysis of life, philosophy, and practical methods of mind training.  This will set you on your way to changing your thoughts and changing your life.  I will get more in depth in later posts.
Great importance is placed on lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, on the unbroken chain of transmission from master to master (comprises the teachings of the three vehicles of Buddhism: the Foundational Vehicle, Mahayana, and Vajrayana).  That is not to say that just because you don’t have a master, you can’t be a practicing Buddhist.  It should not be understated, of course, the importance of having a master, or even how destructive it can be jumping around from lineage to lineage without any sustained continuity or dedication.  My point is, at least, that these teachings are there for everyone, Buddhist or non-Buddhist.  Lineage serves as a crucial safeguard: It maintains the authenticity and purity of the teaching.  Nearly all the great spiritual masters of all traditions agree that the essential thing is to master one way, one path to the truth, by following one tradition with all you heart and mind to the end of the spiritual journey, while remaining open and respectful to the insights of all others.  All I hope to provide is some insight into another world, into another spectrum of consciousness that people of all religious backgrounds can relate to.  Buddhas, masters, and prophets which emanate the truth can exist anywhere- in any experience, a smile, an angry person you encounter on the street- the key is to remember your spiritual practice, to let it guide you unwaveringly, so that eventually the inner teacher, who has always been with us, manifests in the form of the “outer teacher”- and we solidify the bodhicitta mind of enlightenment- the altruistic intention to become enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings.
                         Aztecan Rooftops of Tranquility and Full Moons

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Mind as a Field to be Sowed

Quote from the 6th verse of Vasubandhu’s Twenty and Thirty Verses:

“The quality of our life
depends on the quality
of the seeds
that lie deep in our consciousness.”

The initial process of trying to wrap your head around the varying Buddhist schools of thought and scripture can be daunting.  In regards to all Buddhist philosophy, every sentient being who has a mind and consciousness has the potential to become a Buddha.  This subtle consciousness is called Buddhaseed or sugatahridaya.  This is the basis of Buddhism in general and Mahayana Buddhism in particular.  Two major branches of Buddhism are recognized: Theravada (Hinayana) (“The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”).  The Mahayana is further divided into Paramitayana and Vajrayana, which are also known as Sutrayana and Tantrayana respectively.  For all Mahayana schools, the emphasis is on altruism, or bodhicitta, the desire to achieve Buddhahood in order to serve or help other sentient beings.  The difference between them is the speed with which this goal can be accomplished.  All these Buddhist traditions originated in India and were transmitted to Tibet, where they were preserved and practiced.
            In regards to scripture, Mahayana recognizes a loosely bound collection of sutras and texts.  So, for the sake of keeping things simple in this first post, we’re going to focus on the fundamental principles of Mahayana doctrine: the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
Our ultimate aim, our ultimate purpose in the world is to find happiness.  It is an emotion upon which we base many of our actions, many of our thoughts, in the hope of achieving that state.  But where happiness is concerned, you can focus on either happiness of the moment, or on happiness that transcends lifetimes.  This brings us to the Four Noble Truths, which essentially states that suffering exists, and there is a path to liberation from suffering.  This is what the Eight Verses are about.  They teach us how to deal with our negative emotions and subsequently improve our mind.  This leads us to Right Effort.

There are four practices associated with Right Effort, part of the Noble Eightfold Path that the Buddha taught as the path to liberation:
·      Prevent the unwholesome seeds that have not yet manifested from manifesting (“unwholesome means not conducive to liberation)
·      To help the unwholesome seeds that have already arisen in our mind consciousness to return to store consciousness
·      To find ways to water the wholesome seeds in our store consciousness that have not yet arisen, to help them manifest in our mind consciousness
·      Maintain as long as we can the mental formations that have already arisen from wholesome seeds on the level of our mind consciousness

It is so so very important that we remain mindful and water the seeds of happiness, love, and all positive seeds throughout our day.  Our happiness and the happiness of others depends on it.