Monday, March 29, 2010

Freedom From The Tug of Desire

The Ties that Unbind

By Andrew Olendzki

Imagine what would happen if you took six lengths of rope and tied one end of each to six creatures: a snake, a crocodile, a bird, a dog, a jackal, and a monkey. Then tie the other end of all these into a big knot and let go. What do you think would happen? Each of these animals would pull in a different direction, trying to return to their favorite haunts. The snake would slither toward its nest in the anthill, the crocodile would pull for the river, the bird would fly up into the air, the dog would head to the village, the jackal to the charnel ground, and the monkey would scamper for the trees. Can you picture such a scene?

The Buddha tells this story in the Samyutta Nikaya (35.247) to illustrate the state of the undisciplined mind, wherein each of the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind) is drawn to its own domain and to its customary feeding grounds in the pursuit of pleasure. He describes this situation as dwelling with a limited mind, wherein a person has no freedom whatsoever. The solution he offers is to drive a stake through the central knot into the ground, thus binding all six animals to the spot. The stake represents mindfulness of the body, and it is the means of attaining freedom.

How can this be? Surely this turns our ordinary notion of freedom on its head and offers something thoroughly counterintuitive, if not downright paradoxical. Usually we consider ourselves free only when we can do what we want, and we would consider being tethered to a post the worst kind of bondage. But let’s look at the image a bit more closely and try to figure out what the Buddha has in mind here.

Each of these six creatures thinks it’s free if it can go where it wants, but in fact each is bound in several ways. First, it is compelled by instinct to pursue pleasure and avoid pain; next, it generally only knows to seek its gratification in accustomed places; and finally, it can only make headway toward its desired object if it gains a temporary advantage in the tug-of-war with the others. Before long each animal will expend its energy in the struggle, and will eventually be dragged around by whichever is the strongest. (My money is on the crocodile.)

The six senses of the human mind and body are bound by an internal constraint more compelling than any rope or stake, insofar as they will always pull in the direction of agreeable objects and away from disagreeable objects. From the Buddha’s perspective, the freedom to act on compulsion is an illusory sense of freedom concocted by a constricted and profoundly deluded mind. It’s a bit like telling an addict she is free to stop using drugs if she wants, or like telling an inmate of an island prison he should feel free to go anywhere on the island he chooses.
Mindfulness practice offers the restraint necessary to overcome the tug of desire upon the senses. As we notice the mind wandering off to explore a gratifying train of thought, or as we notice the body’s urging to nudge ourselves into a more comfortable position, we gently abandon the impulse and return attention to the primary object of awareness. We do this again and again, until the mind becomes content with being fully present with what is manifesting here and now in the field of experience, rather than rushing off for some other form of stimulation. As the mind settles down it becomes considerably more powerful, and thus more empowered.

The story told by the Buddha ends in a lovely picture of all six animals lying down contentedly in one another’s company, no longer exerting themselves, no longer yearning for something else. Similarly, when the tug of sense desire and aversion has been quieted, when restlessness and sluggishness have been balanced out, and when doubts are put aside for a time, the mind is able to attend to experience more openly and with much greater freedom. With the senses no longer struggling to reach pleasing forms and no longer regarding unpleasing forms as repulsive, the mind is able to see more clearly what is actually arising and falling away.

In this mode the mind is said to be unlimited, and to be capable of experiencing a greater freedom through wisdom. Its freedom comes not from the license to broadly explore a shallow terrain, defined by its likes and dislikes, but rather from the ability to shake off the constraints of desire altogether and plunge deeply into investigating the field of experience as it is. It turns out that what one sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, or thinks is not as important as how one does so.

We are used to thinking of freedom as being free to do what we want, but the Buddha sees it as being free from wanting. We tend to think of the post as the fetter and freedom as the ability to obtain agreeable objects of sense. The Buddha considers the pursuit of pleasure to be the fetter, while the mindfulness post represents our chance to break free of its bonds. This is indeed a different way of thinking of things; but perhaps he is pointing to something worth investigating. Perhaps internal freedom is ultimately more valuable than external freedom.

Andrew Olendzki, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts. He is the editor of Insight Journal.

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Meaning of Taking Refuge

Venerable Lama Karma Samten Gyatso responds to queries:
Question: Please would you say something about Taking Refuge?

Answer: Taking Refuge is a decision of commitment to Buddhism. It is also a commitment to practice from that day forward. The principle of Taking Refuge also means a commitment of taking care of yourself and others.

When we Take Refuge it is in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Buddha is our destination and Ultimate Refuge, Dharma is the Path, and the Sangha are our Spiritual Friends. These are the Three External Objects of Refuge.
The Three Internal Objects of Refuge are your Body, Speech and Mind. Your Body is the Sangha, your Speech is the Dharma and your Mind is the Buddha. Mind is regarded as the Ultimate Refuge because, when you die, it is the mind that continues. The external objects of your Body, Speech and Mind are left behind.

Mind, in its Ultimate form, has three different aspects. These are the Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya. Dharmakaya is the Ultimate aspect of Enlightenment, Sambhogakaya is the communication aspect between the Nirmanakaya and Dharmakaya, and Nirmanakaya is the manifestation aspect.

When you analyze your mind, you are unable to find it. This part of Emptiness is called Dharmakaya. It may be un-findable but none-the-less there is something there. This is the communication aspect, the Sambhogakaya. The recognition of how-ever many thoughts arise in your mind is the manifestation aspect, the Nirmanakaya. As these three forms are the ultimate qualities of your mind, they are the Ultimate Objects of Refuge. This is what constitutes the Ultimate Refuge: Dharmakaya is the Buddha, Sambhogakaya is the Dharma, and Nirmanakaya the Sangha.

By Taking Refuge, you make a commitment to take care of and respect the teachings. This also means you take care of your mind because your mind is the Ultimate Refuge. As these same qualities are to be found in the minds of every sentient being, you must also respect all other beings as well.

So, this is the sort of discipline involved in Taking Refuge.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Taking Refuge - Becoming a Buddhist Part 4

The Refuge ceremony is reminiscent of the mediaeval ritual of swearing fealty to a liege lord. He/she offered protection and the possibility of improving one's lot in life, and the vassal offers his service in exchange. The important difference here is that you are not primarily taking refuge in the human before you, but in the Three Jewels. Also, it is up to you to maintain the relation; there are no threats involved.

You can also take refuge more than once, if you desire. Sometimes people want to renew their commitment or to have the experience with a different representative of the 3 Jewels, or in a different Buddhist tradition -- or even to get a "nicer" name. It is reported, however, that people who do that just to get a new dharma name, often find the "new" name is similar to the old!

On May 21, 2008, while at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, NY while on his first visit to the West, HH Karmapa said that there are two aspects to taking refuge: Anyone can readily Take Refuge in the 3 Jewels, but to take the Vows of Refuge, is a more serious undertaking. One must aspire to abjure certain things, such as : not to intentionally take any life; another is not to frequent bad companions; ie, those who could lead us from our chosen path.

Taking Refuge - Becoming a Buddhist Part 3

Finally, you will be given a new name symbolic of your "entering the stream" and will again repeat the formula but now with the identity of a new Buddhist.

Finally, you will be given a new name symbolic of your "entering the stream" and will again repeat the formula but now with the identity of a new Buddhist.

There will usually be an opportunity at the end, for the congregation to file up past the lama's chair or lectern for a few words, a "membership card" with the lineage of transmission and dharma name, and for blessings. The traditional greeting from you is the presentation of a thin white silk (or simili-silk -- rayon) scarf called a katta.

A katta or kathag, is a sheer white silk scarf used in the Tibetan culture as offerings to people instead of the garland of marigolds or other flowers used in India (and Polynesia.) In Mongolian practice, the scarf is blue.

Often the teacher will return it by placing it around your shoulders as a form of blessing. Those wishing to make a monetary (or other) offering to the lama can do so at this time. It is usually prepared beforehand by putting it in a white or red envelope. Then when the katta is offered you can place it on the lama's table. Otherwise, you can offer a gift of money to be passed on later by an attendant or sangha member.

This offering is, again, in the tradition of Indian guru and student. In ancient times, people desirous of certain precious teachings were put to the test. Along with patience and devotion, generosity is a very important quality in the student. They sometimes donated all that they owned in order to be adopted into the community of a renowned guru. In early days, the donation took the form of gold dust, a piece of metal work, of gemstones or of food or fuel. Today, money is a more useful offering because it can be transferred easily for use in the guru's own projects for helping others, and for the maintenance of dharma centres.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Taking Refuge - Becoming a Buddhist Part 2

The Ritual
In the presence of a representative of the Buddha' s sangha or community; that is, an ordained Buddhist teacher, priest, monk or nun, the individual asks for admission to the Buddhist community. This is usually in front of a shrine with representations of the Three Jewels on it including a statue of Buddha and offerings of food, flowers and traditional bowls of water along with incense and an offering of light in the form of a flame. A representation of pleasant sounds, usually represented by a pair of cymbals, is also present on the shrine.

The teacher explains that there are 3 objects of Refuge: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. He or she will explain why and how they are suitable Refuges. Then come the requirements, which are: You understand what they are doing, you come of your own free will (the question will be asked of you and you respond truthfully) and you will have to promise to observe the precept not to take any life intentionally.There is also advice given on how to respect the 3 Jewels.

The person desiring Refuge kneels on one knee (the right one) as in ancient Indian illustrations, that is with the palms joined below the chin. This pose is called in Sanskrit, anjali.

You then make the request for Refuge three different times, each time beginning with an identification of who it is who is asking. That is, you give your full name. (The third time, your name will have changed.) It is made using a traditional formula that the teacher or Lama will model and explain, in the language of the tradition to which they belong and/or in the local language such as English, French, Chinese, etc.
There will probably be a few people there, kneeling in a row. If there are many, it can get a bit tiring as you wait your turn for the next part of the Refuge ceremony. Older, stiffer people might want to practice getting up and down from the one-knee-up kneeling position at home before the actual ceremony.

The monk or lama will then beckon each person to approach, and a tiny lock of hair is cut from the crown of the head. The crown [very top of the head] is the highest part, and symbolizes an offering of the best of oneself. The cutting ritual is also in the tradition of those who leave everything behind, symbolically experiencing their own death to become renunciates [sannyasin] or sadhus.

Then the "new' person says a formula of thanks that is also a confirmation that he or she is doing this of their free will. It translates as "I am glad."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Taking Refuge - Becoming a Buddhist Part 1

As is the case with other systems of belief, people may think of themselves as Buddhist having been born into a family of Buddhists, or into a culture where Buddhism is predominant, and may never actually go through any ritual.

It is not necessary to give up any religious affiliation to practice Buddhism unless that religion demands actions that contradict Buddhist principles. Also, it is not generally necessary to change one's habits of diet, dress or relations with others, though some people choose to do so. Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche says that giving up other spiritual practices is not necessary to become a Buddhist. He says, "Just because you make a new friend, you don't have to give up your old friend."

The procedure by which one makes the choice to become a committed Buddhist however, is known as Taking Refuge. We take shelter in the protection and guidance of The Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Many people say that they experience a real sense of relief on the occasion of taking Refuge, as if they have really come in out of a storm to a place of warmth and comfort.


To prepare for the ritual, people generally bathe to feel fresh and to symbolically wash away the past. It is a traditional thing to do in many different cultures, and it helps create a feeling of purification and rebirth. Some people, knowing about the hair-cutting tradition, might arrange their hair so that the symbolic gesture of the Buddha's representative will be easy. In keeping with the aspect of renunciation, avoid the wearing of perfumes and other scented products. Also, strong odours can be distracting, even annoying, to people around you. People sometimes put on new or festive clothing. There is no requirement except to dress modestly and comfortably.

Take into consideration that the ritual postures can expose more than is appropriate, and that celibate people may be present. (We might think nothing of wearing shorts, sleeveless / form-fitting tops, hip-hugging pants that reveal too much especially when the person is seated and so on, but other people, certainly those of the older generation, may feel uncomfortable.)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Renunciation - Part Five

The question remains: how does this strategy of skillful renunciation and skillful indulgence translate into everyday practice? People who ordain as monastics take vows of celibacy and are expected to work constantly at renouncing sensual passion, but for many people this is not a viable option. The Buddha thus recommended that his lay followers observe day-long periods of temporary renunciation. Four days out of each month -- traditionally on the new-, full-, and half-moon days -- they can take the eight precepts, which add the following observances to the standard five: celibacy, no food after noon, no watching of shows, no listening to music, no use of perfumes and cosmetics, and no use of luxurious seats and beds.

Today is then devoted to listening to the Dhamma, to clarify Right View; and to practicing meditation, to The purpose of these added precepts is to place reasonable restraints on all five of the senses. The strengthen Right Concentration. Although the modern work-week can make the lunar scheduling of these day-long retreats impractical, there are ways they can be integrated into weekends or other days off from work. In this way, anyone interested can, at regular intervals, trade the cares and complexities of everyday life for the chance to master renunciation as a skill integral to the serious pursuit of happiness in the truest sense of the word. And isn't that an intelligent trade?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Renunciation - Part Four

How is this done? By bringing It out into the open. Both sides of sensual attachment -- as habitual patterns from the past and our willingness to give into them again in the present -- are based on misunderstanding and fear. As the Buddha pointed out, sensual passion depends on aberrant perceptions: we project notions of constancy, ease, beauty, and self onto things that are actually inconstant, stressful, unattractive, and not-self. These misperceptions apply both to our passions and to their objects.


We perceive the expression of our sensuality as something appealing, a deep expression of our self-identity offering lasting pleasure; we see the objects of our passion as enduring and alluring enough, as lying enough under our control, to provide us with a satisfaction that won't turn into its opposite. Actually, none of this is the case, and yet we blindly believe our projections because the power of our passionate attachments has us too intimidated to look them straight in the eye. Their special effects thus keep us dazzled and deceived. As long as we deal only in indulgence and repression, attachment can continue operating freely in the dark of the sub-conscious. But when we consciously resist it, it has to come to the surface, articulating its threats, demands, and rationalizations. So even though sensual pleasures aren't evil, we have to systematically forego them as a way of drawing the agendas of attachment out into the open. This is how skillful renunciation serves as a learning tool, unearthing latent agendas that both indulgence and repression tend to keep underground.

At the same time, we need to provide the mind with strategies to withstand those agendas and to cut through them once they appear. This is where Right Concentration comes in. As a skillful form of indulgence, Right Concentration suffuses the body with a non-sensual rapture and pleasure that can help counteract any sense of deprivation in resisting sensual passions. In other words, it provides higher pleasures -- more lasting and refined -- as a reward for abandoning attachment to lower ones. At the same time it gives us the stable basis we need so as not to be blown away by the assaults of our thwarted attachments. This stability also steadies the mindfulness and alertness we need to see through the misperceptions and delusions that underlie sensual passion. And once the mind can see through the processes of projection, perception, and misperception to the greater sense of freedom that comes when they are transcended, the basis for sensual passion is gone.

At this stage, we can then turn to analyze our attachment to the pleasures of Right Concentration. When our understanding is complete, we abandon all need for attachment of any sort, and thus meet with the pure gold of a freedom so total that it can't be described.

Renunciation - Part Three

Part of our resistance to this resolve is universally human. People everywhere relish their passions. Even the Buddha admitted to his disciples that, when he set out on the path of practice, his heart didn't leap at the idea of renouncing sensual passion, didn't see it as offering peace. But an added part of our resistance to renunciation is peculiar to Western culture. Modern pop psychology teaches that the only alternative to a healthy indulgence of our sensual passions is an unhealthy, fearful repression. Yet both of these alternatives are based on fear: repression, on a fear of what the passion might do when expressed or even allowed into consciousness; indulgence, on a fear of deprivation and of the under-the-bed monster the passion might become if resisted and driven underground. Both alternatives place serious limitations on the mind. The Buddha, aware of the drawbacks of both, had the imagination to find a third alternative: a fearless, skillful approach that avoids the dangers of either side.

Buddha Guatama

To understand his approach, though, we have to see how Right Resolve relates to other parts of the Buddhist path, in particular Right View and Right Concentration. In the formal analysis of the path, Right Resolve builds on Right View; in its most skillful manifestation, it functions as the directed thought and evaluation that bring the mind to Right Concentration. Right View provides a skillful understanding of sensual pleasures and passions, so that our approach to the problem doesn't go off-target; Right Concentration provides an inner stability and bliss so that we can clearly see the roots of passion and at the same time not fear deprivation at the prospect of pulling them out
There are two levels to Right View, focusing (1) on the results of our actions in the narrative of our lives and (2) on the issues of stress and its cessation within the mind. The first level points out the drawbacks of sensual passion: sensual pleasures are fleeting, unstable, and stressful; passion for them lies at the root of many of the ills of life, ranging from the hardships of gaining and maintaining wealth, to quarrels within families and wars between nations. This level of Right View prepares us to see the indulgence of sensual passion as a problem. The second level -- viewing things in terms of the four noble truths -- shows us how to solve this problem in our approach to the present moment. It points out that the root of the problem lies not in the pleasures but in the passion, for passion involves attachment, and any attachment for pleasures based on conditions leads inevitably to stress and suffering, in that all conditioned phenomena are subject to change. In fact, our attachment to sensual passion tends to be stronger and more constant than our attachments to particular pleasures. This attachment is what has to be renounced.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Renunciation - Part Two

Sacrificing external pleasures also frees us of the mental burdens that holding onto them often entails. A famous story in the Canon tells of a former king who, after becoming a monk, sat down at the foot of a tree and exclaimed, "What bliss! What bliss!" His fellow monks thought he was pining for the pleasures he had enjoyed as king, but he later explained to the Buddha exactly what bliss he had in mind:

"Before... I had guards posted within and without the royal apartments, within and without the city, within and without the countryside. But even though I was thus guarded, thus protected, I dwelled in fear -- agitated, distrustful, and afraid. But now, on going alone to a forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty dwelling, I dwell without fear, unagitated, confident, and unafraid -- unconcerned, unruffled, my wants satisfied, with my mind like a wild deer."

A third reason for sacrificing external pleasures is that in pursuing some pleasures -- such as our addictions to eye-candy, ear-candy, nose-, tongue-, and body-candy -- we foster qualities of greed, anger, and delusion that actively block the qualities needed for inner peace. Even if we had all the time and energy in the world, the pursuit of these pleasures would lead us further and further away from the goal. They are spelled out in the path factor called Right Resolve: the resolve to forego any pleasures involving sensual passion, ill will, and harmfulness. "Sensual passion" covers not only sexual desire, but also any hankering for the pleasures of the senses that disrupts the peace of the mind. "Ill will" covers any wish for suffering, either for oneself or for others. And "harmfulness" is any activity that would bring that suffering about. Of these three categories, the last two are the easiest to see as worth abandoning. They're not always easy to abandon, perhaps, but the resolve to abandon them is obviously a good thing. The first resolve, though -- to renounce sensual passion -- is difficult even to make, to say nothing of following it through.

Renunciation - Part One

Buddhism takes a familiar American principle -- the pursuit of happiness -- and inserts two important qualifiers. The happiness it aims at is true: ultimate, unchanging, and undeceitful. Its pursuit of that happiness is serious, not in a grim sense, but dedicated, disciplined, and willing to make intelligent sacrifices.

What sort of sacrifices are intelligent? The Buddhist answer to this question resonates with another American principle: an intelligent sacrifice is any in which you gain a greater happiness by letting go of a lesser one, in the same way you'd give up a bag of candy if offered a pound of gold in exchange. In other words, an intelligent sacrifice is like a profitable trade. This analogy is an ancient one in the Buddhist tradition. "I'll make a trade," one of the Buddha's disciples once said, "aging for the Ageless, burning for the Unbound: the highest peace, the unexcelled safety from bondage."

There's something in all of us that would rather not give things up. We'd prefer to keep the candy and get the gold. But maturity teaches us that we can't have everything, that to indulge in one pleasure often involves denying ourselves another, perhaps better, one. Thus we need to establish clear priorities for investing our limited time and energies where they'll give the most lasting returns.

That means giving top priority to the mind. Material things and social relationships are unstable and easily affected by forces beyond our control, so the happiness they offer is fleeting and undependable. But the well-being of a well-trained mind can survive even aging, illness, and death. To train the mind, though, requires time and energy. This is one reason why the pursuit of true happiness demands that we sacrifice some of our external pleasures.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Bodisattvas of Compassion

The Taras
It was not until the adoption of the Yogachara system, taught by Asanga in the fourth century AD, that the feminine principle began to be venerated in Mahayana Buddhism. Around the sixth century, the goddess Tara was considered as a Sakti of Avalokitesvara (sometimes as his wife). The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (seventh century) claimed to have seen many statues of this deity in northern India. However, she was not accepted by followers of the Theravada, and her image is rarely to be found in Sri Lanka or in South-East Asia (except perhaps in Java, where a temple was dedicated to her in 779).

Green Tara

Many legends have sprung up around this goddess. According to one of them she was born in a beam of blue light emanating from one of the eyes of Avalokitesvara; another has her born from a lotus, floating in a tear on his face. It was believed in Tibet in the seventh century that Tara was reincarnated in every virtuous and pious woman: thus two of the wives of King Srong-btsan Sgam-po, Wencheng, who was Chinese, and a Nepalese daughter of Amsuvarman, came to be considered as incarnations of Tara. To differentiate between the two wives, the Tibetans created two distinctive Taras, white for the Chinese, with a full-blown lotus as her emblem, and green for the Nepalese, whose emblem is the blue (half-open) lotus. Each is believed to have been born from an eye of Avalokitesvara (open and half-closed). Hence they came to be considered as symbols of the day (full-blown lotus, eye open) and the night (half-open lotus, eye half-closed). But this couple soon multiplied, and 21 Taras are mentioned.

In China, this goddess was practically unknown, and was not at all common. In Japan, she was given the rank of Bodhisattva (Tarani Bosatsu), and she combines both aspects (white and green) of the Tibetan Tara. She is practically only found on mandalas or temple banners. She holds a pomegranate (symbol of prosperity) and a lotus. She is pale green.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bodisattvas of Compassion

Jataka Tales

The term Bodhisattva refers to someone on the path to Awakening. The Mahayana has conceived them as having renounced the ultimate state out of pure compassion towards all beings, and can therefore refers to anyone en route. In non-Mahayana Buddhism, it usually refers either to Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, or to the historical Buddha Gautama prior to his enlightenment - either during the life in which he became enlightened or in one of the innumerable lives before that in which he was developing the requisite virtues for enlightenment, such as generosity. The stories of these lives are called the Jatakas, or 'birth stories', and they are a very frequent subject of Buddhist art.

Among the Bodhisattvas, it is Avalokitesvara who has the largest number of forms and is perhaps the most venerated and most popular Buddhist deity. His sex, originally masculine, is sometimes considered feminine in China and Japan, although this discrimination is unsupported by any canonical text. And was often considered in China and Japan as the 'mother of the human race' and, in this respect, worshipped in the form of a woman.
Avalokitesvara is known from very early in the development of the Mahayana doctrines and, until Buddhism disappeared from India, enjoyed great favour there. His cult passed from India to South-East Asia and Java, where it met with great success, and also in Nepal, Tibet (where he arrived with Buddhism and where King Srong-btsan Sgam-po, 519-650, was considered to be his incarnation), and in China, from where he went on to Korea and Japan. All these countries imagined him in different forms according to their own temperaments and spirituality.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Shunyata - Emptiness in Buddhist Philosophy Part 5

The existence of a thing in dependence of its causes (except in the special case where we were involved in making it ) appears totally objective and does not require our participation. The causes of a car are the geological processes which produced coal, iron and copper ores. Then the miners, metalworkers, designers, component manufacturers and assembly line workers who transformed the raw material into the finished product. Unless we happen to work in one of these industries, the causal mode of existence does not depend on our participation.

Existence in dependence on parts is more subjective. We may view a car as composed of a chassis, an engine and four wheels. Or we may take a more detailed view with the engine being seen as pistons, cylinder-head, carburettor etc. These too can be analysed into subcomponents, all the way down through atoms of iron and carbon, to the fundamental particles such as protons, electrons and the photons which shine from the headlamps.
Our perception of dependence upon parts is very much determined by how we choose to subdivide the whole. The mind has to participate by applying analytical effort to generate the view of existence in dependence upon parts.

It's when we get to the final stage of perception of dependence in terms of the fundamental building blocks of matter that we come up against the very subtle (most participatory) level of dependent relationship of imputation by mind. Experiments in quantum physics seem to demonstrate the need for an observer to make potentialities become real.

Quantum shunyata
Now, fundamental particles such as electrons and photons do not have any obvious causes. Either they always have been there or else they come into existence as the result of random quantum events. Neither do they have anything in the way of observable parts (otherwise they wouldn't be fundamental). So when we examine an electron or photon, we are looking at a phenomenon in which the two grosser ways of existing are relatively inapparent. As the two grosser levels are not clamouring for our attention, Kadampa metaphysics would predict that the very subtle level of dependent relationship (in dependence of imputation by mind) should manifest itself.

It is important to emphasise that the mathematical equations of quantum physics do not describe actual existence - they describe potential for existence. Working out the equations of quantum mechanics for a system composed of fundamental particles produces a range of potential locations, values and attributes of the particles which evolve and change with time. But for any system only one of these potential states can become real, and - this is the revolutionary finding of quantum physics - what forces the range of the potentials to assume one value is the act of observation. Matter and energy are not in themselves phenomena, and do not become phenomena until they interact with the mind.

[KELSANG GYATSO 1992] The First Panchen Lama, cited by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in Clear Light of Bliss, 2nd Edition page 146 (London :Tharpa Publications, 1992, ISBN 0 948006 21 8).
[CONZE 1959] Conze, Edward (tr) Buddhist Scriptures p 146 ff; (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Ltd , 1959)
[BROOKES 1999] Brookes, Martin, Live and Let Live , New Scientist p 32 -36, 3rd July 1999.
[LOY 1996] Loy, David in the afterword to Swedenborg, Buddha of the North , page 104, (Swedenborg Foundation, West Chester Pennsylvania, 1996, ISBN 0-87785-184-0)
[KELSANG GYATSO 1995] Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang, Joyful Path of Good Fortune, 2nd Edition - page 349, (London: Tharpa Publications, 1995, ISBN 0 948006 46 3)

Shunyata - Emptiness in Buddhist Philosophy Part 4

The conclusion that all things are empty of inherent existence and appear only in dependence on our minds is not an obvious truth. So deeply ingrained is the idea of inherent existence and authority in Western culture that even when we have analysed all things as dependent on causes, and dependent on parts, we still hold back from the most subtle truth of dependence on mind. We think there ought to be 'something out there', or someone 'authoritative' who prevents the real world from being so much dependent upon our judgment. On first meeting teachings on emptiness the western mind often suspects it is the victim logical trickery or mere playing with words. Fortunately it is possible to demonstrate the true and all-pervasive nature of emptiness by examining the mode of existence of fundamental particles, the building blocks of all things in the material universe.

The participation of the observer
According to the Kadampa school of Buddhist philosophy all phenomena exist by dependence on other phenomena, which are themselves dependently related to other phenomena and so on. No matter how deeply or far back we search, no phenomenon can ever be found which is fundamental or a 'thing-in-itself'. Neither the observer nor any observed phenomenon exist independently, but are inextricably intertwined. This viewpoint is known as dependent relationship.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso [KELSANG GYATSO 1995] states that there are three levels of dependent relationship:

(1) Gross dependent relationship - causality - the dependence of phenomena on their causes.
(2) Subtle dependent relationship - structure - the dependence of phenomena on their perceived parts (including aspects, divisions and directions).
(3) Very subtle dependent relationship - the dependence of phenomena on imputation by mind.

All functioning things exist in these three ways. The very subtle dependent relationship - existence by the mind's imputation - is the most difficult one to understand, especially since for most ordinary phenomena this view of existence is masked by the two grosser levels of existence. This subtle mode of existence is always present, but only becomes apparent in those circumstances where the grosser levels do not dominate.

If we have problems with the terminology of gross and subtle, we may think of this as the degree of apparent objectivity of dependent relationship . The most gross is the most objective and the very subtle is the most subjective (or participatory) type of dependent relationship.

Shunyata - Emptiness in Buddhist Philosophy Part 3

Emptiness of natural things.
Maybe we can rescue Plato's ideas of the inherent existence of perfect forms if we assume there is a strict demarcation between man-made and natural objects, with the former existing in dependence upon the 'judgement' of the observer, but the latter existing 'from their own side'. For having come to accept that man-made things such as chariots and cars owe some of their existence to dependence on our mind, we may suspect that this is somehow because they are originally products of the human mind - as first conceived by the designer.

We find it more difficult to accept the natural things in the world, such as flowers and trees are dependent upon our minds. A rose would smell as sweet by any other name. A rose bush is a rose bush is a rose bush, and is different in its inherent nature from a plum or a cherry tree. There is no continuum between these three species and thus no necessity for our mind to make a judgment of the borderline. But is this really the case?

Leaving aside nightmare genetic engineering scenarios of octophants, elepuses and all stages in between, we may consider that there is (or was) a continuum of form between all living things. If we were to examine the fossil records of the ancestors of cherry trees and plum trees we would find that they diverged from one common ancestor. Looking back through the fossils we would seen a continuous gradation of characteristics from the ancestors of the cherry to to the ancestors of the plum, leading back to a time when they were indistinguishable. But the decision as to where ancestor ended and plum or cherry began would be totally arbitrary. And if we were to trace the common ancestor of the cherry and plum we would find convergence with the ancestors of the rose, strawberry, raspberry etc. What Darwin did for creationism he also did for biological Platonism - the biological species concept does not encapsulate any underlying truth [BROOKES 1999], and each individual species is unfindable

The ultimate unfindability of the real nature of all phenomena - their lack inherent existence, is usually referred to by English-speaking Buddhists as 'emptiness', which is a translation of the Sanskrit word shunyata (sometimes spelled Sunyata). According to David Loy the English word emptiness has a more nihilistic connotation than the original Sanskrit. The Sanskrit root su also conveys the concept of being swollen with possibility [LOY 1996]. It is therefore most important not to confuse emptiness with total nothingness. Emptiness implies the potential for existence and change. The mathematical analogy of emptiness is not zero, but the empty set.

Shunyata - Emptiness in Buddhist Philosophy Part 2

Buddha died in 483 BC. Plato was born in 428 BC. Yet it is most unlikely that Plato was aware of his predecessor's teachings. In those days there was little contact between Greek and Indian philosophy. This had to await the eastward advance of Alexander the Great around 328 BC. The first recorded contact between Greek civilization and Buddhism is the conversation between the Greek King Milinda of Bactria, and Nagasena, a Buddhist chariot dismantler [CONZE 1959].

Empty vehicles
King Milinda was a Greek and an experienced soldier who thought he knew a chariot when he saw one. But Nagasena demonstrated that if Milinda's chariot were gradually dismantled - knock a spoke out of a wheel here, a plank off there, then a bit of the frame and so on - there was no way for Milinda to decide at exactly what step in the procedure he should stop imputing 'vehicle' and start imputing 'heap of firewood'.

Nagasena said this was because the chariot had no power to define itself from its own side. Nor was there any ideal chariot form 'in the sky' which engaged and disengaged with the timber at definite stages of assembly and disassembly. Milinda's mind was the only thing that could make the distinction between vehicle and firewood. And there were no logical rules, stepwise procedures or decision trees for Milinda to decide when to cease imputing one thing and impute another.

As with chariots, so with cars. Everyone knows what a car is. A car is an assembly of parts. But what makes those parts into a car is surprisingly difficult to pin down. At what stage on the production line do the components finally become a car? Does it temporarily cease to be a car when it's in for repairs and the gearbox is several yards away from the rest of the vehicle? Is my car still a car when I wake up one morning to find it supported on bricks with the wheels missing?

Or, could I say that the essential feature of a car is that it performs the functions of a car? So does it cease to be a car when it won't start? And does it return to the state of being a car when I cure the problem by spraying the electrics with moisture repellent? Does the true essence of being a car therefore reside in an aerosol can?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shunyata - Emptiness in Buddhist Philosophy Part 1

The teachings on emptyness (Sanskrit sunyata or shunyata) find their most articulate development in the Kadampa branch of Mahayana Buddhism (Madhyamika Prasangika philosophy). To the Kadampa Buddhist nothing exists 'inherently' or 'from its own side'. All phenomena exist in dependence on three things -

(i) their causes,
(ii) their parts, and
(iii) their imputation by the mind of a sentient being.

And the sentient mind is NOT a physical construct or epiphenomenon of matter . The mind is clear and formless and has the power to know phenomena in a qualitative way [KELSANG GYATSO 1992], and hence give meaning to them.\

To Kadampa Buddhists all things are totally empty of any defining essence. Consequently all things have no fixed identity ('inherent existence') and are are in a state of impermanence - change and flux - constantly becoming and decaying. Not only are all things constantly changing, but if we analyse any phenomenon in enough detail we come to the conclusion that it is ultimately unfindable, and exists purely by definitions in terms of other things - and one of those other things is always the mind which generates those definitions.

Kadampa Buddhism regards the persistent delusion of 'inherent existence' as a major obstacle to spiritual development, and the root of many other damaging delusions. One of these delusions is the materialist belief in an objective reality existing independently of mind. By asserting that the universe exists inherently as a brute fact, materialism denies that subjective experience has any relevance to or influence on the universe, or indeed any existence at all.

The delusion of inherent existence is deeply ingrained our our culture. It was embedded into western philosophy by the Greek philosopher Plato, who was born about sixty years after Buddha's death.

Plato's view of reality is that for any class of objects there is a defining ideal form which is fixed, permanent and unchanging. All physical instances of objects tend to be imperfect. For example the wilting, mildewed roses in my garden are imperfect instances of an ideal rose which exists in a perfect realm of eternal forms. It is only by reference to this authoritative 'specification' that my mind is able to identify and name the transient physical phenomena, which 'participate' in the ideal form's attributes.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Purifying Karma - Power of Remedial Action

"The Bodhisattva's Confession of Ethical Downfalls."
Power of Regret
Power of Reliance/Repairing the Relationship
Power of Determination not to Repeat the Action
Power of Remedial Action

White Tara

The fourth opponent power is the power of remedial action. Here we actively do something. In the context of this practice, we recite the names of the 35 Buddhas and prostrate to them. Other purification practices include such activities as reciting the Vajrasattva mantra, making tsa-tsas (little Buddha figures), reciting sutras, meditating on emptiness, helping to publish Dharma books, making offerings to our teacher, a monastery, Dharma center, or temple, or the Three Jewels. Remedial actions also include doing community service work such as offering service in hospice, prison, volunteer programs that help children learn to read, food banks, homeless shelters, old-age facilities – any action that benefits others. There are many types of remedial actions that we can do. - Thubten Chodron

Purifying Karma - Power of Determination Not to Repeat the Action

"The Bodhisattva's Confession of Ethical Downfalls."
Power of Regret
Power of Reliance/Repairing the Relationship
Power of Determination not to Repeat the Action
Power of Remedial Action

The third of the four opponent powers is the force of determining not to do it again. This is making a clear determination how we want to act in the future. It’s good to pick a specific and realistic length of time for making a strong determination not to repeat the action. Then we must be careful during that time not to do the same action. Through making such determinations, we begin to change in evident ways. We also gain confidence that we can, in fact, break old bad habits and act with more kindness towards others.

With regard to some negative actions, we can feel confident that we’ll never do them again because we’ve looked inside and said, “That’s too disgusting. Never again am I going to do that!” We can say that with confidence. With other things, like talking behind other people’s back or losing our temper and making hurtful comments, it may be more difficult for us to say confidently that we’ll never do again. We might make the promise and then five minutes later find ourselves doing it again simply because of habit or lack of awareness. In such a situation, it’s better to say, “For the next two days I won’t repeat that action.” Alternatively, we could say, “I will try very hard not to do that again,” or “I will be very attentive regarding my behavior in that area.” -Thubten Chodron

Monday, March 08, 2010

Purifying Karma - Power of Reliance/Repairing the Relationship

"The Bodhisattva's Confession of Ethical Downfalls."
Power of Regret
Power of Reliance/Repairing the Relationship
Power of Determination not to Repeat the Action
Power of Remedial Action

The way to repair the relationships we’ve damaged with ordinary beings is by generating bodhicitta and having the wish to become a fully enlightened Buddha in order to benefit them in the most far-reaching way.

If it is possible to go to the people we have harmed and apologize to them, that’s good to do. But most important is to reconcile and repair the broken relationship in our own mind. Sometimes the other person may be dead, or we have lost touch with them, or they may not be ready to talk with us. In addition, we want to purify negative actions created in previous lifetimes and we have no idea where or who the other people are now. In other words, we can’t always go to them and apologize directly.

Therefore, what’s most important is to restore the relationship in our own mind. Here, we generate love, compassion, and the altruistic intention for those whom previously we held bad feelings about. It was those negative emotions that motivated our harmful actions, so by transforming the emotions that motivate us, our future actions will also be transformed - Thubten Chodron

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Purifying Karma - Power of Regret

"Do not think a small sin will not return in your future lives.
Just as falling drops of water will fill a large container,
The little sins that steadfast accumulate will completely overwhelm you.

Do not think a small virtue will not return in your future lives.
Just as falling drops of water will fill a large container,
The little virtues that steadfast accumulate will completely overwhelm you."

"The Bodhisattva's Confession of Ethical Downfalls."
Power of Regret
Power of Reliance/Repairing the Relationship
Power of Determination not to Repeat the Action
Power of Remedial Action

Purification is done by means of the four opponent powers. The first one is the power of regret for having acted in a harmful way. Note: this is regret, not guilt. It’s important to differentiate these two. Regret has an element of wisdom; it notices our mistakes and regrets them. Guilt, on the other hand, makes a drama, “Oh, look what I’ve done! I’m so terrible. How could I have done this? I’m so awful.” Who is the star of the show when we feel guilty? Me! Guilt is rather self-centered, isn’t it? Regret, however, isn’t imbued with self- flagellation.

Deep regret is essential to purify our negativities. Without it, we have no motivation to purify. Thinking about the suffering effects our actions have on others and on ourselves stimulates regret. How do our destructive actions hurt us? They place negative karmic seeds on our own mindstream, and these will cause us to experience suffering in the future. The second opponent power is the power of reliance or the power of repairing the relationship. When we act negatively, generally the object is either holy beings or ordinary beings. The way to repair the relatings was damaged by our negative action and the thought behind it. Now we repair that by generating faith and confidence in our spiritual mentors and the Three Jewels and taking refuge in them. - Thubten Chodron

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Skillful Speech

Skillful speech begins by refraining from lying, slander, profanity, and harsh language. We should avoid language that is rude, abusive, disagreeable, or malicious, and we should abstain from talk that is foolish, idle, babble, or gossip. What remains are words that are truthful, kind, gentle, useful, and meaningful. Our speech will comfort, uplift, and inspire, and we will be a joy to those around us. -Allan Lokos "Skillful Speech"

I have always thought that gossip is kind of fun. Not malicious and hateful behind your back gossip, but just knowing and telling the scoop about what's going on with my friends type gossip. That seems innocent enough, but talking about people when they are not present can be considered meaningless idle chatter. Good or bad, if I am talking about someone who is not present, it is unskillful use of speech. As I am writing this, I am remembering all the gossip I engage in on a regular basis and I am a little shocked at how much I do it. It makes me feel good, like I'm really "in the know" about things. But, some of the things I say might hurt someone, if they knew I was talking about them. And yes, if I am talking about someone who is not present is not good. For them, for me and for my spiritual journey. Gossip is a distraction.

You can hardly help but hear gossip about famous people, its everywhere. Of course, they say that most of celebrity gossip is untrue, but sometimes its fun to hear anyway. However, I am doing my best to let that kind of talk go in and immediately go out of my mind. I don't want to give it any consideration at all. One of my favorite tv shows is The Joy Behar Show...the show is all about the hot topics of the day. I wonder if watching it is a way of participating in gossip? I think it is. Should I stop watching it? Probably.

I am now thinking about Facebook. My first thought is that its okay because everyone is talking about themselves. But I think the idea of Facebook needs to be considered. Huh.

Thursday, March 04, 2010


Milarepa is one of the most widely known Tibetan Saints. In a superhuman effort, he rose above the miseries of his younger life and with the help of his Guru, Marpa the Translator, took to a solitary life of meditation until he had achieved the pinnacle of the enlightened state, never to be born again into the Samsara (whirlpool of life and death) of worldly existence. Out of compassion for humanity, he undertook the most rigid asceticism to reach the Buddhic state of enlightenment and to pass his accomplishments on to the rest of humanity. His spiritual lineage was passed along to his chief disciples, Gambopa and Rechung. It was Rechung who recorded in detail the incidents of Milarepa's life for posterity. The narrative of his life has thus been passed down through almost a millennium of time and has become an integral part of Tibetan culture. In addition to Rechung's narrative of his life, summarized below, Milarepa extemporaneously composed innumerable songs throughout his life relevant to the dramatic turns of events of himself and his disciples in accordance with an art form that was in practice at the time. These songs have been widely sung and studied in Tibet ever since and have been recorded as the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa. His faithful devotion, boundless religious zeal, monumental forbearance, superhuman perseverance, and ultimate final attainment are a great inspiration today for all. His auspicious life illumined the Buddhist faith and brought the light of wisdom to sentient beings everywhere

Those who have no mental vigilance,
Though they may hear the teachings, ponder them or meditate,
With minds like water seeping from a leaking jug,
Their learning will not settle in their memories.
- Shantideva -

End of Shantideva's Words

Wednesday, March 03, 2010


Examine thus yourself from every side.
Note harmful thoughts and every futile striving.
Thus it is that heroes in the bodhisattva path
Apply the remedies to keep a steady mind.
- Shantideva -

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Great Mother Prajnaparamita

Take advantage of this human boat;
Free yourself from sorrow's mighty stream!
This vessel will be later hard to find.
The time that you have now, you fool, is not for sleep!
- Shantideva -


All those who slight me to my face,
Or do me any other evil,
Even if they blame or slander me,
May they attain the fortune of enlightenment!
- Shantideva

Four Armed Avalokiteshvara

My body, thus, and all my good besides,
And all my merits gained and to be gained,
I give them all away withholding nothing
To bring about the benefit of beings.

- Shantideva -
Dorge Shugden, Dharma Protector

Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But leather on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.
Likewise, it is not possible for me
To restrain the external course of things.
But if I restrain this mind of mine
What would be the need to restrain all else?
- Shantideva -

Amitayus with Gurus and Dieties

As long as space abides and as long as the world abides, so long may I abide, destroying the sufferings of the world.
- Shantideva -


All the suffering in the world comes from seeking pleasure for oneself. All the happiness in the world comes from seeking pleasure for others.
- Shantideva -

Monday, March 01, 2010

Words of Shantideva

The hostile multitudes are vast as space.
What chance is there that all should be subdued?
Let but this angry mind be overthrow
And every foe is then and there destroyed
- Shantideva -
You should consider this well because it is not just words from the mouth, but sincere advice from the heart. If you practice like this you will delight me, and you will bring happiness to yourself and others. I who am ignorant request you to take this advice to heart.
End of Atisha's Advice
Meditate according to the advice of your Spiritual Guide and dry up the river of samsaric suffering.