Tuesday, 26 April 2011

the symbolic and the literal....

last night between zazen sessions, Sensei felt he had something important to share with us about light only just now being cast upon a particular aspect of his Chomon experience. the religious life, he told us, has two aspects - that which we may term an "inner" and "outer". this inner aspect may be felt as peace, or peaceful awareness, and without its core foundation we can not say we are truly living such a life. there are those, he went on to explain, who in attempting to give expression to such an inner aspect, insist on the truth of their words to the exclusion of all else. they are so focussed on this outer aspect, which may be seen as the expressive tendency, that they mistake it for and subsequently lose sight altogether of what remains the most fundamental and vital point - this peaceful awareness.
that is why figures such as Daisetz Suzuki and Kitaro Nishida always trod tentatively in seeking to give expression to this inner aspect and were often deeply ashamed or embarassed by their own words. they viewed them as only "wordly things" and after having bourne this outer aspect through, quickly moved away from and back into the fundamental peaceful awareness.

recently i've been leisurely making my way through Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian which Kyoshin kindly lent me. and i was struck, upon hearing these words of Sensei's, how central a struggle this idea of giving expression to the inexpressible has been to Knitter as a commited (no doubt some would argue otherwise!) Christian. struck, but not surprised as after all, "in the beginning was the word" and later, so we are told, the word was made flesh. what really interests me in reading Knitter is his concern not per se with a desire to express, but with an excess of expression -
"[...]the crux of my difficulties has been not in a lack of meaning but an excess of meaning; not in the possibility of meaning but in the determination of meaning. The image that comes to mind is of a beautiful tropical bird - in a cage. Able to soar, it's not allowed to.
We kill religious language when we don't allow it to soar. "
this tension between the desire to (perhaps even the necessity to) express and the dangers thereof i think always threatens to snap when we fail to realise that insofar as we attempt to express the inexpressible it is bound toward symbolic language. this language taken at a purely literal level, is equatable to (pardon the well-worn phrase) mistaking the finger for the moon. the danger that we dwell forever in the dogmatic orthodoxical wandering grounds instead of diving deeper into the experiental pools has then a greater threat of narrowing this outer aspect to an exclusive "my way only" mode of expression -
"Symbolic language is both precious and dangerous. Therefore it must be used carefully. Symbols are words we utilise to open ourselves to something that is essentially beyond words. Symbols are images that connect us with a reality that can never be contained in any one image. This means, as is often said but often forgotten, that while symbols should always be taken seriously, we need to be wary of taking them them literally. If we take them literally, we run the risk of so inflating them that we turn them into idols"
 to end this posting on a "to be continued", i was also reminded listening to Sensei talk, of that popular quote from the Dao De Jing - "those who know, speak not; those who speak know not". and i realised for the first time why such an absolute phrase, which so delighted me when i was younger, now seems to fall short of something crucial. at some stage i'll write about what i feel this something is.

namu amida butsu

Monday, 21 March 2011

the motivational condition for religious awakening...

as an after-thought to the previous posting -
the other people in a person's life are the motivational condition for an individual's religious awakening. Consequently they are those who have done a great deal for that individual's spiritual welfare. As a matter of course, one comes to understand just how grateful one should be to others. 
         - Great Living, Kemmyo Taira Sato

Saturday, 19 March 2011

unfathomable depths

one of the many pitfalls of any given path is that of complacency. this might manifest in such a readily acknowledgeable form as "put it off until tomorrow" syndrome or it may linger beneath the surface in a subtler manner.

a few nights ago, i was discussing with my Dharma mother our respective Chomon experiences. two significant steps foward during introspection are the awareness of how much suffering (knowing or unknowingly) we put those who love us through and the infinite compassion and support we have received from them in spite of such. the key thing is - although such awareness is the turning point to our taking refuge in Amida, we also know that what we are seeing is the mere tip of the iceberg - our blind passions are so deep, and the compassion so infinite that we can never fathom their depths. realising such is an extremely humbling thought.

talking through all this, she then told me that when she says the nembutsu it is not only for the compassion she is aware of having received but for all those infinite, endless examples of love and support which lie under the surface waters of our obscured by blind passions awareness. the ones we never know, never realise, never could know.

during otsutome the following morning it felt as if with each nembutsu the doors had opened wider and with deep shame i offered each syllable in gratitude, not only for all i can recall of what has been done for me, but all the infinite, endless, unfathomable depths of compassion i have received from Other.

namu amida butsu

Friday, 4 March 2011

Pure Land as Sangha

I was given a wonderful opportunity to meet some erudite priests from the Shinshu Otani-ha (Higashi Honganji) branch of Jodo Shinshu during my recent stay in Japan. I had been invited to an event to begin the preparations for this year's commemoration of the 750th Memorial for Shinran Shonin, and very kindly several of them spent some time with me afterwards. I was quite inspired by their energy and enthusiasm to communicate Shin Buddhism through a sincere appraisal of the life of Shinran Shonin. The reason I  mention this in the context of this post is that I was pointed in the direction of some of the Otani-ha English language websites of which one contains some essays by Dr Nobuo Haneda. I have long struggled with Dr Haneda's writing but having recently re-encountered essays by Manshi Kiyozawa, Haya Akegarasu and Sogo Ryojin and found a new appreciation of their sometimes challenging way of presenting Shin Buddhism, I have begun reading anew Dr Haneda's collection of essays called Dharma Breeze

As we have recently been discussing our thoughts on the nature of the Pure Land both here and at Echoes of the Name I was interested to read Dr Haneda's essay entitled 'What is the Pure Land' which gave me much needed pause for thought in the light of this ongoing dialogue. At the heart of this essay Dr Haneda equates the Pure Land with the Sangha stating "I believe the Pure Land is a symbol of the Sangha". Initially to be honest I found this to be a rather shocking assertion however with some thought it has now given me a new and lively sense of the Pure Land as lived reality in the context of our encounters with others. The passage which really caught me was this in which Dr Haneda recounts the words of Rev Rijin Yusuda:
"People say various things about birth in the Pure Land. But could there be any greater 'birth in the Pure Land' than the fact that we are now sitting and learning sitting and learning the Dharma together? This place where we are listening to the Dharma together is the Pure Land. Our being allowed to be part of this place, of this Sangha, is 'birth in the Pure Land.'
Do you think that you can have anything greater than this in your life—the fact that you are listening to the Dharma as a member of the Sangha? Some people may speak about the wonderful things to be obtained in the Pure Land after death, but those things are nothing but projections of human greed. The fact that we are privileged to be part of the Sangha is our liberation, our "birth in the Pure Land.'"
 Dr Haneda goes on to write:
Now I have said that the Pure Land is a symbol of the Sangha—a place where a teacher and his students are wholeheartedly seeking the Dharma. In short, it is a place where we can have true friends.
What could be a greater vision of the Pure Land than that?

Thursday, 17 February 2011

experiencing true encounter...

"Taya life is a way of living daily life in which one experiences true encounter."
Fragrant Light No.257
well, it's a matter of days now until i move down to London and enter into taya life. no doubt it may well be a prevelent theme in my postings here over the coming months. a Dharma friend recently asked me to tell him a little bit about its significance and i replied that the best i felt i could do was to share this essay, "The Meaning of Taya" by Rev. Kemmyo Taira Sato with him.

it's funny really that in talking with Kyoshin recently (whose latest postings over on Echoes about his temple stay in Japan you should read asap), i realised i am only just coming to understand how profoundly important a part encounter plays within the Shinshu tradition. to illustrate from Rev. Sato's essay -
"In personal encounter, two people become united at a deeper level than before, through their confrontation or facing one another. Through confrontation both people become themselves. In other words, through encounter one discovers oneself in a deeper dimension by letting the other person be himself / herself just as he / she is. Ideally one might thus achieve complete self-development. The two people are two and one at the same time."

as you may know, this idea of acceptance, of  "letting the other person be himself / herself just as he / she is" is something which i've been struggling with of late and will no doubt come up against during my time there. although in any other circumstance i would feel daunted at this thought, amongst good Dharma friends and in the light of the Tathagata, i am confident a space in which to move forward positively will reveal itself.

namu amida butsu

Friday, 11 February 2011

the value of interfaith...

oh boy, Egypt. it looks like things are close to tipping point over there and i hold the people in my thoughts. there's already plenty of excellent analysis out there and i don't feel i could really add anything worthwhile to it. there is one thing which caught my eye though. i think it's safe to say that all of Blathering Nonsense's contributors hold the matter of interfaith dialogue very close to their hearts. so naturally, i find the coming together of muslims and christians during this revolution moving and inspiring. there are many things we can be learning from the people of Egypt right now and one of the most important is that, beyond the differences of religious identity and belief, underneath we all share the same potential for compassion, love, support and respect to one another. here's what the people have to say (full article can be read here) -

"During the fiercest clashes on January 28, I found a guy about my age guarding my back, who I later found out was a Christian," Yahia Roumi, a 24- year-old protester from Cairo, told IPS. "Now we're best friends; we never go to the demonstrations without one another."

"In Tahrir, I've met many young Muslim activists - even some from the Muslim Brotherhood," Boutros, who preferred not to give his last name, told IPS. "They explained how Islam commands Muslims to protect Christians and Christian places of worship. I learned from them that the Muslims don't have any beliefs that threaten our rights or should frighten us as Copts."

"I'm protecting these churches as if they were mosques, because, according to Islam, we should respect Christian places of worship," Rageb told IPS. "As an Egyptian Muslim, I have no reason to hate Christians. We've always been neighbours here, and our relations are excellent."

and perhaps most tellingly -

"The regime is responsible for the sectarian problems suffered by Copts," Kamel was quoted as saying. "Proof of this is that no church was attacked during the unprecedented absence of security (following the police withdrawal)."

"This corrupt government was behind 90 percent of the problems between Egypt's Christian and Muslim communities, which had coexisted in harmony for hundreds of years," agreed Rageb.

Boutros said: "This uprising won't only bring freedom to Egypt; it will also do much to dispel sectarian tension - of which the ruling regime was the only beneficiary."

namu amida butsu

Monday, 7 February 2011


last week, whilst browsing the mighty internets i came across the following joke - What's the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist? A Buddhist knows there is none. a brief smile, but then i got to thinking about it a little bit more and something began to bug me. of course, jokes aren't meant to be taken seriously but i saw no good reason why that should stop me so let's plunge forward...

first off, i'm not sure how true it really is. we'd like to be able to say "i know there's no difference between you and me" but speaking for myself here, i bloody love the label of "Buddhist". i don't approach it as some kind of evangelical trip (at least, god, i hope i don't but then maybe some of my friends might say otherwise) but i make no qualms about hiding the fact. in a sense there's nothing wrong with that - anything which plays a big part in who we are in life  then we'd naturally want to share with those close to us. but "Buddhist" can be just another identity we construct for ourselves, one of several we take out of the bag depending on the occassion. so what's supposed to guide us towards some truth instead becomes another cloak of misdirection. and boy, i sure do love my Buddhist identity! it's much more appealing than shedding all these illusory constructs and standing naked and ugly.

the second thing which got me is how contradictory such a joke is in its tone of smarmy elitism - "oh poor unenlightened fools, they think there is a difference whereas i, uber-compassionate bodhisattva wonderman know there is none". let's be clear about this, as Buddhists we're not smarter, not more loving or compassionate, not wiser, not less attached, not more immune to fucking up on numerous occassions. to think so is bullshit. even the things i'd be tempted to pin a difference on - awareness of impermanence, awareness of suffering, perhaps some insight into the cause of suffering - aren't certainties. what is certain is that there are non-Buddhists out there who - gasp! - are far more Buddhist than me. about all i can say with any confidence then, is that just like anyone else i don't want to suffer but as a Buddhist i believe the Buddha taught a way to free oneself from such and on the rare occassions i'm on the ball, i try to be mindful of and implement his teachings.

all this ties in with the issue of honesty, which has somewhat been on my mind of late. the problem with prior reflections is that i'd been bemoaning a lack of honesty in our encounters with ourselves on the Dharma path and subsequently somewhat unintentionally constructed this ideal of the ubermensch to aspire to and become. when we get down to it though, each person comes to the Dharma with their own history, their own problems and their own hang-ups. in bemoaning that someone may struggle to confront themselves "as they are", i'm really just expecting them to live up to the nonsensical ideal i've foisted upon myself. worse, i'm ignoring the real value that can lie in the struggle. far better to quit all the bullshit, welcoming and accepting others for who they are just as i have been myself. Amida's Vow is non-descriminating.

namu amida butsu