Vassa: A blog for SCUBA

Awakened to what? Pt. 3
November 19, 2007, 1:01 am
Filed under: Buddhism, Dharma, Philosophy

When this is, that is;
This arising, that arises.

All things exist in a complex set of conditions that give rise to its coming to being. On the night of his awakening, Siddartha Gotama claimed to have observed the causes and conditions that gave rise to good rebirths as well as bad rebirths, linking the quality of our thoughts and actions with the quality of our lives in the present and the future. On that same night, Gotama’s observation led to his seeing and experiencing the entire round of birth, age, death, and rebirth in all things. On that night, Gotama probably focused on the rounds of mental states and actions that led to our dis-ease, anguish, and suffering and freed himself from this.

He later expressed it as 12 links in a chain: (1) ignorance of the causes and conditions of life, the complex matrix that we all exist in begets formation of volitional actions (karma). (2) Formation of volitional actions of the body, speech, and mind begets consciousness of feeling, perception, and mental formation. (3) Consciousness begets (6) Contact begets feelings of pleasure and pain (7) Feelings beget attachment. (8) Attachment begets existence. (9) Existence begets becoming. (10) Becoming begets arising. (11) Arising begets (12) decaying and passing away. In short,

All experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind. Speak or act with a corrupted mind and suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox…Speak or act with a peaceful mind, and happiness follows like a never-departing shadow.

And while this formula seems linear, it does not have to be. Conditioned things are also conditioning other things into becoming. This wheel of cause-effect-cause rolls on incessantly. Whatever began this original wheel rolling is not of importance, what is of importance is freeing ourselves from it.

Outside of Gotama’s expression of what he saw, we see the interdependent arising in ourselves and in everyday life. As people, we are comprised of a complex set of interacting atoms, cells, organs, and biological processes. We think and act with our thoughts guided by culture, ideologies, philosophies, the way we were raised, our family and friends. We also imprint ourselves onto these same factors. When we are aware that we are not just ourselves, not just I, and see others in ourself and ourselves in others, compassion bursts forth.

When this is not, that is not
This ceasing, that ceases.

Whatever is dependent on something else cannot last forever, and everything that is conditioned is impermanent. Our happiness that arises from being with loved ones can be blissful yet we know it can’t last. While we can put the right conditions into place to be happy, it becomes impossible to maintain and our joy that depended on the right people and the right things go away. We learn to enjoy it while we can and to let go when we must.

For Gotama, this impermanence also meant that dis-ease, anguish, and suffering could end as well. Any break in the links meant an end to the entire rounds of birth, aging, and death. The traditions have simplified this to the end of ignorance/delusion, aversion/hatred, grasping/attachment and the arising of awareness/understanding, tolerance/compassion, giving/letting go.

On the night of his awakening, Gotama experienced all of this. It was not just an intellectual seeing and acknowledgment that all things are interdependent and impermanent. It was also beyond just an emotional or non-rational feeling of the same things. What he experienced passed through his very being and it affected the way he thought, sensed, felt, and saw himself and the world around him. It penetrated into his self and completely altered him in a way that he described as beyond words and expressions and accessible only through direct experience. This is what was awakened to and this is what needs to be cultivated.


Awakened to what? Pt. 2
November 16, 2007, 12:55 pm
Filed under: Buddhism, Dharma, Philosophy

In a previous post, I wrote that the Siddartha Gotama awoke to the arising and falling of things. Things come and things go, “this too shall pass.”

When this is, that is
This arising, that arises
When this is not, that is not
This ceasing, that ceases.

While this formula for what the Buddha awakened to seems simple enough, it’s implications for our lives are anything but simple. Enlightenment or awakening is both close to us and far away. It is close because the material for our awakening already lie within us: our day-to-day experiences, compulsions, habits, memories, attachments, intentions, attitudes, ways of thinking. We find this material all around us as every moment of awareness becomes a teachable moment. There is no shortage of teachers if we see one in every sunrise and sunset or every smile and hurtful cry.

But the path is also far away because the material for our awakening is difficult to discern. “What’s a sunrise but a sunrise? It just comes up every day and goes back down at the end of the day. So what?” If we adopt this attitude we lose the present moment beauty of a sunrise or the potential of another Spring day where the flowers bloom. But the sun sets and flowers wilt, so we can only recognize it and enjoy it while we can.

The process for our awakening can also be long and difficult. The material of our awakening can also be difficult to deal with. They are conditioned by events and people we may not remember or prefer not to remember. They may be disturbing, hurtful, traumatizing, and something we would rather avoid. But they always return to our lives somehow, either through a conversation, a dream, or triggered by an event, similar or not. Can we tolerate and be open to this? I have faith that we can if we accept this for what it was as well as see this in everyone else.

So awakening is both close at hand and far away. It’s closeness is encouraging because it is within our grasps. It is also chastening and humbling that we have not yet grasped it. But this is all strange in itself because there is nothing at all to grasp. How silly we are.

Zeno and the Buddha
September 29, 2007, 9:05 pm
Filed under: Buddhism, Philosophy

“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.”

“Greater in combat
Than a person who conquers
A thousand times a thousand people
Is the person who conquers oneself.”
(Dhammapada 8:103)

“Get rid of the judgement, get rid of the ‘I am hurt,’ you are rid of the hurt itself.”
-Marcus Aurelius

“All things are not-self”
Seeing this with insight,
One becomes disenchanted with suffering.
This is the path to purity.
-Dhammapada 20: 279

“Where is the good? In the will. Where is the evil? In the will. Where is neither of them? In those things which are independent of the will.”

“All the suffering of this world arises from a wrong attitude.
The world is neither good or bad.
It is only the relation to our ego that makes it seem the one or the other. “
-Lama Anagorika Govinda

While stoic has come to mean unemotional or indifferent to worldly things, it was a lively and popular philosophy to the ancient Greeks and Romans, influential to it’s many adherents. It appealed to many people of different swaths of life, from the slave Epictetus, to the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. And as we’ve seen, it shares some similarities and perhaps even connections with Buddhism. So what is Stoicism and how similar is it to Buddhism? Of course, one person’s definition of Stoicism and Buddhism will differ from another’s so you will have to bear with me as I try to make the connections.

Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in 301 B.C.E. He was a merchant who studied under the Cynics and carried with him some of their thoughts. He spoke from his porch (the stoa), and taught his students to ease their suffering by becoming indifferent or “apathetic” to the rising and falling of emotions and desires, our passions. Interestingly, passion is also equivalent to suffering in Christianity, although the meaning and use of the word may be different. While Christians are to live in line with God, Stoics were to live in line with the rational Universe, which to them was virtuous. Zeno taught that by becoming indifferent to the passions that arise in us, we learn wisdom and learn to live in line with the Universe. Ignorance of this leads to suffering.

By becoming less moved by our emotions, it seems, we learn to be restrained without emotion instead of restrained by emotions. This has translated to the modern definition of stoic. For the Stoics, living stoicly was not just to become a stubborn rock, unmoved by anything. Living in such a way means to live peacefully, with a sense of inner tranquility. This is similar to the Buddhist arahats who become awakened through renunciation and letting go of attachments and desires. Both claim to achieve a state of inner peace from suffering, which are the two traditions’ common goal. The Stoics as well as the Buddha and his disciples sought to free people of suffering. The difference however is that Zeno taught the suppression of the passions whereas the Buddha spoke of becoming open and free from passions.

Apparently, the Stoics also used meditation to practice. The Stoics used “contemplation of death, training attention to remain in the present moment” to gain that indifference that they are now so famous for. Contemplation of death is also a practice used by wandering forest monks in Buddhism. They would settle into cemeteries and contemplate the similarities of their own aging bodies with that of the corpses, the only difference being that of time. And the practice of training attention to remain in the present moment is common to all of Buddhism. Known as dhyana, practitioners begin by focusing on the in and out of the breath, eventually extending their attention to other sensations in their body and mind. It is said that a peaceful state of bliss arises during dhyana, and is emphasized in the tradition of Zen (chan, seon, thien, etc).

Stoics had one major difference in their beliefs with Buddhism. Stoics upheld, paradoxically, both determinism and free will. They believed that the Universe was rational and that it carried people along with it. While people had the free will to act in whatever way they saw fit, voluntarily conforming to the Universe led to the freedom of suffering.

It has been said that Marcus Aurelius was the last Stoic philosopher. Stoicism has since then kept itself in the background, but it’s ideas have re-emerged or taken a different representation. Examples include the French expression, “C’est La Vie”, or the Christian serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference….”

P.S. After a little search on the Interwebs, it seems some have already beat me to the punch. There’s even a Japanese Zen monks who wrote a blogpost noting the similarities (though I wish he had a greater command of the paragraphical indentation). There are even some class notes for a philosophy class comparing the two.

Heracles and Buddha
September 15, 2007, 4:57 pm
Filed under: Buddhism, history

Heracles: Yo, Buddha!
Buddha: Sup, Heracles. Been working out?

Part of my research at school involves looking at the rise and fall of cities, states, nations, and empires. Currently, I’m reading up on some South Asian history and came upon this strange period in history that resulted in a successful melting pot of cultures, specifically that of Greece and Buddhism. One of the kingdoms to emerge after the death of Alexander the Great was the Greek-Indo kingdom. This kingdom bordered the Mauryan empire, most famously led by Asoka, a great patron of Buddhism. The two states were very friendly, leading to a spread of Buddhism into the Greek kingdom, producing some very fascinating art, such as the one linked above.

Coins, busts, statues, Greek pillars, all became infused with Buddhist symbols and depictions of the Buddha and bodhisattvas. This cultural mixing also produced converts, the most well known of which is King Menander I, known to Buddhists as Milinda(in sanskrit). Buddhism has and is still sometimes reduced to Eastern mysticism or related to the mind effects of psychotropic drugs, as a different world ordinarily unknowable to Western minds. This, however, can stand as a successful historical example of West meeting with East, if we want to divide the world in this way. I’m sure this sycretism was made easier by the similarities between the Greek’s own Stoicism and Buddhist monastic practices and teachings. More on these similarities in the future.

Maitreya Project may displace thousands
September 10, 2007, 9:10 pm
Filed under: News

From Buddhist Channel and the Christian Science Monitor, plans for the construction of the Maitreya statue in Kushinagar, India will displace 15,000 to 20,000 local farmers:

The struggle to construct the statue and surrounding parks and facilities on roughly 700 acres of fertile land is pitting plans by devoted Buddhists against poor villagers who make their living growing rice, sugar cane and wheat on small plots of land that have been in their families for generations.

The farmers are angry, afraid and adamantly opposed to the construction of the giant symbol of love and compassion.

The sentiment lies not only with the Maitreya Project and it seems to be common throughout rural parts of India as the government clashes with local farmers over developing lands for tourist and industrial projects. The planners of the project have said they do not have any involvement with the acquisition process:

Linda Gatter, who works with the Maitreya Project’s UK office, says it is the government of the state of Uttar Pradesh, not the project organisers, who are energetically pursuing the construction of the Buddha and the development of the area.

“The Maitreya Project has no part whatsoever to play in the acquisition process which is – and which by law can only be – entirely the responsibility of the government of Uttar Pradesh,” says Gatter. ”

However, the project did choose Kushinagar as the site for construction. Struggles like this are bound to happen in developing countries like India as the old world meets the new. One local cafe owner makes an interesting comment:

T.K. Roy, a cafe owner who stands to profit from the increased traffic from pilgrims and tourists, says that about half of the people in the area are ready to give up their land, while the other half are skeptical and may need to be forcibly removed. “The whole of Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, and India will benefit, undoubtedly,” says Mr. Roy. But he adds wistfully, “the tranquility of the place will be lost.”

Some farmers, says Roy, are holding out for higher compensation packages, but that the government cannot pay those farmers a higher rate for their land without paying more to those who have already moved.

There are many vested interests that make it a complicated issue to tackle:

    The construction of the statue for supporting Buddhists
    People in the future who will benefit from the school and hospital being built
    An influx of money into the Indian economy
    Business contracts for construction
    Local business owners who benefit from tourists
    Farmers who want to stay
    Farmers who want bigger compensation packages

I’m hoping the government, Maitreya project organizers, and local farmers can settle this peacefully.

Awakened to what?
September 8, 2007, 2:03 am
Filed under: Buddhism, Dharma


During one of our meetings, a question was raised, “What is Buddhism to you in one word?”

We went around the room and came up with about three general answers: compassion, awareness, and awakening or enlightenment.

After that we went around explaining our answers. Compassion, although definitely a part of Buddhism, was thrown out as not being exclusive to practice. We can be compassionate and be Christian, atheist, or whatever faith we want to bring up. There really wasn’t such a thing as Buddhist compassion, as much as there was simple empathy for our neighbors.

The other two, awareness and awakening were generally agreed to be unique to Buddhism, but we were unsure exactly what it meant. I went with awareness, awareness of my actions, impulses, compulsions and how they affected myself and others. I was pretty satisfied with this answer for a while but felt that it still wasn’t complete. With such an awareness, I could choose to be more compassionate, although it was not necessary. Without the goal of compassionate living, a person can be very self-aware but still act maliciously. Awareness or awakening in itself was only part of the answer.

So now I’m wondering, aware of what? Awakened to what? What was it that the Buddha was awakened to, that led to his freedom from suffering, his turning of the wheel of dharma, and the beginning of his teachings that still persist 2500 years later?

I put off answering this question, but came up on something during my summer reading that could answer it. On the night of his awakening, the Siddartha Gautama awakened over the three watches of the night. In the first watch he gained knowledge of his past lives and of the cycle of death and rebirths. In the second watch, he awakened to karma and the effects it had on people’s rebirths. In the third watch he awakened to dependent origination. Since I don’t have much of a penchant for the supernatural, I only garner significance from the last two. Gautama, in the second and third watch of the night, became aware of the karmic conditions of suffering and to dependent arising, or dependent origination, or the contingency in everything. From there, Siddartha was awakened and declared himself the Tathagata.

These conditions of suffering came from the karmic result of our actions, of which the Buddha put emphasis on our intentions. He puts so much emphasis on intention that he equates it to karma. Awareness of our selves, of the mind, then becomes of prime significance to living a good life. Ethics and morality are centered more in the quality of our intentions, which we each can have control over, rather than in ritual deeds over which a priest-class has monopoly.

The third watch makes the most sense to me, not only because it is lacking any overtly supernatural cause, but because it puts the whole message of Buddhism in an understandable context. Karma, emptiness, impermanence, interdependence, the four noble truths, and other things make sense in light of the awakening in the third watch. They all seem to be ways of stating the doctrine of dependent origination which is nothing more than this:

When this is, that is
This arising, that arises
When this is not, that is not
This ceasing, that ceases.

What could be simpler than that? So this is what I think the Buddha awakened to. Of course, I could be overlooking something. But that’s what this blog and teachers are for.

August 31, 2007, 5:56 am
Filed under: Buddhism, Experiences

By Oz

In all my limited readings on Buddhism, only once have I ever come upon a writing on friendship and dharma practice. I find this strange since my short time of Buddhist practice has been almost completely through friendships. Maybe it is not so strange to not see anything written on paper about friendship and dharma practice since writing it down limits a changing subject to the reflected squiggles on dead trees. Still, I see people who have taken refuge together refer to each other as dharma brothers and sisters, and I myself am inspired by friends, Buddhists or not.

For some, I am inspired by their kindness and sincerity. Others, through their experience or dedication. Some, just because they listen and keep me level-headed. Reciprocally, I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper. Good friendships keep us together, keep our spirits lifted, and keep us firmly on the path, like something out of the Wizard of Oz, the fellowship the Lord of the Rings, the Journey to the West or any other narrative of companions. Common to all of these stories, I think, is the power of friendship to uplift, heal, and strengthen in the face of adversities.

The Buddha himself had a cadre of fellow practitioners who abandoned him but eventually rejoined after his awakening. This following grew to include his family members such as his cousin Ananda, people from the bottom drudges of the social castes, and even royalty. This came to comprise the Sangha, the community of practitioners, and I would imagine, a brotherhood and sisterhood, or a fraternity of disciples. The Buddha declared that after his death, the dharma would suffice as the Sangha’s teacher, so the fraternal relationships must have become even more important.

While early monastic life was characterized as eremetic, there were also periods of settled of living, such as during Vassa. During these times, fellow wanderers would meet up again to share experiences and learn from each other, mutually supporting each other in their practice. The Sangha comprised of only these people, this nomadic lifestyle and nothing else. It was not until settled village monks were patronized with plots of land did it become more or less a permanent fixture. Still, the buildings and lands were only there to support the practice and without the community of people, these buildings would be empty, in more ways than one.

If off on an adventure, working for a common goal, or just seeking camaraderie, friendships naturally crop up. Maybe that’s why not much has to be written on it. More just needs to be done for it.