Perfect Vision

The following is an exerpt from Sangharakshita “Vision and Transformation” where he expounds on The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. This is his explanation of the first of the eight steps on the path. I found it interesting because here he communicates it through a series of images rather than concepts.


So what is this Perfect Vision? One may say it is a vision of the nature ofexistence, but what does this vision reveal? What is the nature of existence? This question is difficult to answer because it is easy – only too easy – to answer. This is not to be paradoxical. What it means is that only too many concepts lie ready to hand. There is so much Buddhist philosophy available. One can so easily use a few technical terms, refer to this system or that, and say this is the nature of existence according to Buddhism. But this is too slick, too easy. We must beware of the temptation to produce our concepts too readily. What one is trying to communicate is not simply a set of ideas, not a system of philosophy in the academic sense, but what the Buddha himself, in his own language, quite unambiguously called drsti – a vision.

There are two principal ways a vision can be communicated – through images and through concepts. In Buddhism there are three main images of the nature of existence. These are the Wheel of Life, the Buddha, and the Path. Since these images communicate a vision, it is helpful, in absorbing that communication, if we can ‘get the picture’, instead of just ‘thinking’ them in an abstract manner and assuming they have been understood.

The Wheel of Life
The Wheel of Life comprises four concentric circles. Within the central circle,
which forms the hub of the wheel, are three animals, a cock, a snake, and a pig, each biting the tail of the animal in front. These animals represent the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion which control our minds and make the whole wheel of mundane existence revolve. Outside the hub is a second circle, divided into two equal segments, one black and one white. The white half represents the good or ethical path leading upwards, to states of happiness. The black half represents the bad or unethical path leading downwards, to states of misery. The third circle is divided into six segments representing the different ‘worlds’ or spheres of existence within which, according to Buddhism, sentient beings are continuously reborn. These six worlds are those of the gods, titans, hungry ghosts, hell beings, animals, and humans. The outermost circle of the wheel, which forms the rim, is divided into twelve segments. These are the twelve nidanas, or links in the process which is called Dependent Origination, or Conditioned Co-production. These show in detail the whole process of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

This is the first great image, the first great symbol. This is what we begin to see when we have a vision of the nature of existence. We see the whole of mundane conditioned existence going round like a great wheel – a Wheel of Life, a Wheel of Death – with ourselves as well as all other sentient beings caught up in it. We see that the Wheel of Life in fact is us, is sentient,
conditioned existence.

The Buddha
The Buddha is usually depicted seated on a lotus flower or beneath the Bodhi tree, the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’, with its great spreading branches and its canopy of beautiful heart-shaped leaves, his body radiating light of various colours. There are also more elaborate versions of this image. One of the best known is the mandala of the Five Buddhas, which comes from the more esoteric teaching. In the centre of this mandala is the White Buddha, with theDark Blue Buddha to the east, the Yellow Buddha to the south, the Red Buddhato the west, and the Green Buddha to the north. There are even more elaborate versions of the image in the form of a ‘Pure Land’, or ‘Happy Land’ – Sukhavati – with its presiding Buddha flanked by his attendant Bodhisattvas, its rows of wonderful jewel-trees, its magical singing birds, and many other marvels.

The Path
The path of spiritual progress – or spiral path – connects the two images we have already described, that is to say it leads up from the Wheel of Life to the Buddha, or to the mandala of the Five Buddhas. These then are the three great images through which Buddhism communicates its vision of existence. Perfect Vision is a vision, first of all, of our actual present state of bondage to conditioned existence as represented by the Wheel of Life. It is also a vision of our potential future state of Enlightenment as represented by the Buddha, or the mandala of Buddhas, or a Pure Land. Finally it is a vision of the path or way leading from the one to the other – a vision, if you like, of the whole future course of evolution.

A guide to Buddhist hand gestures

Buddhist art frequently depicts Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other deities with their hands forming a number of different ritualised and stylised gestures (Mudras). They may be holding different objects as well within these gestures. Each by itself and in combination with others have specific meanings. Some of the more common ones are depicted below.

Mudra_1
One of these gestures in particular should be familiar to hard rock fans. If you think hand gestures have no place within Christianity however, think again. There is actually an extensive history of ritual hand gestures within Christian art. Here is just one example, by El Greco, of Christ offering a blessing:

El Greco, Christ blessing

How is the Christian church different?

How is the Christian church different from the Jewish synagogue, or the Muslim ummah, or the Buddhist Sangha, or the Wiccan coven? They are all words which refer to community after all. Is there any difference in your experience? Should there be any difference?

John Keenan on The Emptiness of Christ

Some reflections by John P. Keenan on The Emptiness of Christ :

The scriptural words of and about Jesus likewise describe him as empty of essence.

[The] function of doctrine in Mahayana theology is not to communicate a body of information about God, but to engender a sense of the presence of God beyond all words.

It is impossible to understand him apart from the web of relationships that form his life.

The scriptural words of or about Jesus do not analyze the divine nature. God is described time and again as beyond any definition. God dwells in light inaccessible. No one has ever seen God.

But this proclamation does not offer any definitive knowledge of what God is. Rather, it renders us, Job-like, aware of the total otherness of Yahweh, of the absence of any limiting definition.

Still, it is clear from the tradition that the meaning of Christ is not simply a contentless sign of an empty God.

Emptiness and dependent coarising are convertible, signifying complementary insights into essence-free being. Jesus then is not distinctive in virtue of a unique and different definition, but in virtue of his teaching, his death, and his resurrection and ascension – all of which he shares with us.

His divinity may be seen precisely in the emptiness of his personal identity, whereby he transparently mirrors the presence of Abba.

The crucial point is to remember that both the initial descriptions and the consequent theologies, both the principles and the inferences, are contextual and never absolute.

The contextual, relative words spoken by an enlightened person both hide the truth and reveal it to be other than, different from, those words.

He is the son of God as the sacramental sign of the otherness of Abba.

By disappearing in the experience of Abba and the commitment to the rule of God, Jesus embodies the reality of God in himself and for us.

In virtue of his abandonment of essence and self-definition, Christ reflects the direct experience of Abba and calls others to engagement

It is as “worldly convention-only” that Christ shares in the divine otherness of God. That is to say, it is not by clinging to an exalted, divine being, but by emptying himself of being that Christ mirrors the divine and is one with the silent Father.

[We need] tools for constructing a Christology that is at once mystical and critical.

[Mahayana Christology] avoids the old conundrums of essentialist Christology, always in danger of falling to one side or the other and always teetering on the point of presenting a schizophrenic picture of the Lord.

Western Buddha, Eastern Jesus

East meets west

More and more I find language of “eastern religion” and “western religion” superficial and outmoded, if not down right ignorant and misleading.

For starters, both Christianity and Buddhism are “world religions” that transcended their ancestral homes millennia ago. But more, their demographic centres of gravity are shifting, to the point where western Buddhism and eastern Christianity are no longer be exotic concepts for many of us. What, with China being an important growth area for Christianity and America being an important growth area for Buddhism, it is clear that some seismic spiritual shifts are going on.

How though, does this effect your understanding of Christianity and Buddhism, or for that matter, Christ and Buddha?

How would you know if your neighbour is a Buddhist?

785703-venerable-vello-vaartnou-buddhist-monk

What images arise in your imagination when you hear the word “Buddhist”?

This guy here is Vello Väärtnõu, the Perth-based head of Estonian Nyingma Buddhism.

I think it is wise to check out preconceptions about other religions from time to time. How would you know if your neighbour is a Buddhist?

Dhammapada

Not overly impressed by the Dhammapada … which I finally got around to finishing this evening. Very repeatative. Lots of do bad and you’ll be damned, do good and you’ll be blessed kind of stuff. Like the book of Proverbs without the essential grace aspect. Not nearly as interesting as the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā by Nagarjuna.

I suppose that says something kinda interesting about myself. I still find Zen fascinating, even though I moved onto Christianity some time ago. But I have to wonder how much of this is due to its Taoist roots over its Buddhist roots. For I continually find Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu and Sun Tzu arresting but my eyes start glazing over with some Mahayana texts, and even more so with some Theravadan texts. They’re not as playful or paradoxical.

I like teaching that messes with my mind. Which is why I like Jesus so much too.

An Introduction to Pure Land Buddism

Pure-land-white-pathThe following extract is from “River of Fire, River of Water: An Introduction to the Pure Land Tradition of Shin Buddhism” by Taitetsu Unno.

Pure Land Buddhism, though relatively unknown in the West, is the most widely practiced branch of Buddhism in Japan. It emphasizes tariki or “other-power”, rather than jiriki (“self-power”), which comes through entrusting oneself to Amida Buddha. Thus in some respects it is much closer to Christianity than other branches of Buddhism.

I thus found myself at an absolute impasse. I could not change the past. I could not go forward. I could not stay still and find peace in the present. Somehow I would have to find my way out of this predicament, but I felt truly lost. Yet, as all these questions and frustrations were circulating in my mind, I remembered the Pure Land parable of the two rivers and white path. Attributed to Shan-tao, the Pure Land master of seventh-century China, it captures the existential predicament in which one is made to awaken the aspiration for enlightenment (bodhicitta). My painful struggle became slowly illuminated by this ancient parable.

In the parable, a traveler is journeying through an unknown and dangerous wilderness. Soon he is pursued by bandits and wild beasts, and he races to get away from them. Running westward, he eventually comes to a river divided into two, separated by a narrow white path. The white path is only a few inches wide and runs from the near shore to the far shore. On one side of the path the river is filled with leaping flames that reach twenty feet into the air; on the other, the deep river has a powerful current that overflows with dangerous waves. Even though the white path is the only possibility of escape across the perilous river, it is not an alternative because of lapping fire and waves. Filled with fear, the traveler cannot go forward, cannot go back, and cannot stand still. In the words of Shan-tao, he faces “three kinds of imminent death.”

Just at that time, the desperate traveler hears a calming voice right behind him on the eastern shore, urging him to go forward on the white path: “Go forth without fear; no danger exists. But if you remain, you will surely die!” Just then, he hears a beckoning call from the far shore: “Come just as you are with singleness of heart. Do not fear the flames and waves; I shall protect you!” Shan-tao tells us that the river of fire connotes anger; the river of water, greed. The two joined together make an odd picture, but
they illustrate how the overflowing abundance of greed and anger can fill our lives. In our greed we want to make life move according to our desires. When we do not get our way, our passions are stifled and anger erupts.

The eastern shore, the side where the traveler encountered his dilemma, is the world of delusion—samsara. The western shore is the Other Shore of enlightenment—nirvana. While this side is the defiled land, the far side is known as the Pure Land. Connecting the two is a narrow, white path. The tenuousness of the path shows the weakness of human aspiration to break through self-delusion into liberation and freedom.

The pursuing bandits represent enticing teachings that abound in our world, all promising immediate material benefits and psychological relief. They may provide temporary answers but no true liberation. The wild beasts manifest instinctual passions that keep us bound to this shore of delusion. Both pull us away from moving forward on the path. The voice of encouragement from the eastern shore is that of the historical Buddha, the teachings of Sakyamuni; the beckoning call from the western shore comes from the Buddha of Immeasurable Light and Immeasurable Life, Amida. As one heeds the urging of Sakyamuni, the aspiration to move forward becomes pure and powerful. And as one embodies the call of Amida, it becomes single-minded and unshakable. This aspiration for supreme enlightenment is none other than the white path, now expanded and made safe, now an open passage through the flames of anger and waves of greed.

But even though the first step has been taken on the path, the threat is not over. As the traveler moves forward, the bandits make enticing promises and the beasts offer all kinds of temptations, attempting to call him back to this shore of delusion. But, sustained by the words of Sakyamuni and the call of Amida, the traveler does not hesitate, moves forward, and reaches the Other Shore safely into the waiting arms of a good friend (kalyanamitra) who is none other than Amida Buddha.

In reflecting on the parable I saw myself as that traveler, a sojourner in life with a checkered history. Pushed by false ambitions and pursued by demons within, I now confronted “three kinds of certain death.” While being comforted to see my predicament described precisely by this parable, it did not tell me enough about how to get out of it. I began desperately searching for teachers to point the way. When I could not find anyone around me, I began a random, voracious reading of existential literature—Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche, Heidegger—and the scriptures of world religions—Buddhist literature, including contemporary intepretations, the Bhagavad Gita, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, the New Testament, and so on. Some of this was useful on one level, but none cleared the confusion that prevailed. The glaring light of day was difficult to bear, the darkness of night seemed to lessen the agitation, alcohol definitely eased the pain. At one time I thought of abandoning my studies altogether; at another time I played with the idea of becoming a monk.

Slowly, however, after months of indecision and uncertainties, I began to find a faint sense of direction. The weight of my family background—generations of Shin Buddhist priests on both my mother’s and father’s sides—became decisive. Until that point my interest in Buddhism was primarily academic; in fact, I had little interest in the solace it promised, especially in its Pure Land form. But now my focus became a personal quest. As I moved forward on the white path, the world of Japanese Pure Land opened up. Welcomed by fine teachers and exemplary lay devotees, they helped me to formulate answers, however tentative, to the three questions that had arrested the course of my life. But the process of finding inner peace was not easy because of the maze of abstruse doctrines and technical religious terms that I needed to unravel. I needed to reduce them to the point that they resonated with the pragmatic turn in my nature. My varied excursions since that time into philosophical, religious, and psychological fields have focused on pursuing answers within the framework of the three basic questions concerning death and dying, the meaning of true compassion, and my karmic existence as infinite finitude.

What do Buddhist’s believe?

wheel-of-life-buddhistFollowing is an extract from “The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path” by Sangharakshita. I find it helpful as an introduction to Buddhism as it highlights how the Buddhist understanding of “right vision” can be understood in terms of images as well as concepts.


There are two principal ways a vision can be communicated – through images and through concepts. In Buddhism there are three main images of the nature of existence. These are the Wheel of Life, the Buddha, and the Path. Since these images communicate a vision, it is helpful, in absorbing that communication, if we can ‘get the picture’, instead of just ‘thinking’ them in an abstract manner and assuming they have been understood.

The Wheel of Life

The Wheel of Life comprises four concentric circles. Within the central circle, which forms the hub of the wheel, are three animals, a cock, a snake, and a pig, each biting the tail of the animal in front. These animals represent the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion which control our minds and make the whole wheel of mundane existence revolve. Outside the hub is a second circle, divided into two equal segments, one black and one white. The white half represents the good or ethical path leading upwards, to states of happiness. The black half represents the bad or unethical path leading downwards, to states of misery. The third circle is divided into six segments representing the different ‘worlds’ or spheres of existence within which, according to Buddhism, sentient beings are continuously reborn. These six worlds are those of the gods, titans, hungry ghosts, hell beings, animals, and humans. The outermost circle of the wheel, which forms the rim, is divided into twelve segments. These are the twelve nidanas, or links in the process which is called Dependent Origination, or Conditioned Co-production. These show in detail the whole process of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

This is the first great image, the first great symbol. This is what we begin to see when we have a vision of the nature of existence. We see the whole of mundane conditioned existence going round like a great wheel – a Wheel of Life, a Wheel of Death – with ourselves as well as all other sentient beings caught up in it. We see that the Wheel of Life in fact is us, is sentient, conditioned existence.

The Buddha

The Buddha is usually depicted seated on a lotus flower or beneath the Bodhi tree, the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’, with its great spreading branches and its canopy of beautiful heart-shaped leaves, his body radiating light of various colours. There are also more elaborate versions of this image. One of the best known is the mandala of the Five Buddhas, which comes from the more esoteric teaching. In the centre of this mandala is the White Buddha, with the Dark Blue Buddha to the east, the Yellow Buddha to the south, the Red Buddha to the west, and the Green Buddha to the north. There are even more elaborate versions of the image in the form of a ‘Pure Land’, or ‘Happy Land’ –Sukhavati – with its presiding Buddha flanked by his attendant Bodhisattvas, its rows of wonderful jewel-trees, its magical singing birds, and many other marvels.

The Path

The path of spiritual progress – or spiral path – connects the two images we have already described, that is to say it leads up from the Wheel of Life to the Buddha, or to the mandala of the Five Buddhas.

These then are the three great images through which Buddhism communicates its vision of existence. Perfect Vision is a vision, first of all, of our actual present state of bondage to conditioned existence as represented by the Wheel of Life. It is also a vision of our potential future state of Enlightenment as represented by the Buddha, or the mandala of Buddhas, or a Pure Land. Finally it is a vision of the path or way leading from the one to the other – a vision, if you like, of the whole future course of evolution.

The Buddhist vision of the nature of existence can also be communicated in terms of concepts – though perhaps less vividly than through images. Perfect Vision is thus traditionally explained in terms of seeing and understanding the truth of certain doctrinal categories, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence, karma and rebirth, and the Four Sunyatas. In grappling with these conceptual explanations we should remember that here we are not concerned with any merely theoretical understanding. We are trying, with the help of these doctrinal categories, to obtain a glimpse of the Truth – to achieve some kind of vision of the nature of existence.

Christmas Buddha

Santa-buddha

I just thought I’d share this photo from a Christmas party with my folks and rellos last weekend. They were a bit short on mangers and raindeers obviously. I’m not sure who co-opted the enlightened one but in any case he seemed oblivious to the proceedings. I’m thinking it needs an engrish caption.