Monday, April 30, 2012

Nuns in the Buddhist Tradition - A brief history

Extracted and adapted from Modern Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun, edited by Ven. Thubten Chödron

Soon after the Buddha’s enlightenment, many people, attracted to this serene, wise, and compassionate man and his teachings, sought to become his disciples. Some became lay followers, maintaining their lives as householders with a family, while others became monastics. The Order of Nuns began with Mahaprajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother who cared for him as a child. She, together with 500 women from the Shakya clan, shaved their heads and walked barefoot the long distance from Kapilavastu to Vaisali to request ordination.

At first the Buddha declined, but after the intercession of his close disciple Ananda, the Buddha confirmed women’s ability to attain liberation, and began the Order of Nuns. This existed and flourished for many centuries in India, and later spread throughout southern, southeast, central and east Asia. Buddhism entered the snowy lands of Tibet in the 7th century, and before long Tibetan women were becoming nuns.

What is the essence of the Buddhist path, which gives meaning and inspiration to the nuns’ lives as well as to our own? The Buddha’s teaching can be subsumed in the Four Noble Truths:

Our life is filled with unsatisfactory experiences;

These have causes: the ignorance, anger, and clinging attachment within our minds;

There exists a state free from these: nirvana or liberation; and

We can follow a path to eliminate these unsatisfactory circumstances and their causes and to attain the lasting peace of liberation.

In this way the Buddha explained our present situation as well as our potential, and clearly described a step-by-step path for transforming our minds and hearts. This is a practical approach that can be applied in daily life, not just in a temple or church. We first learn the teachings, then reflect on them to ascertain their meaning correctly, and integrate them into our mindstreams through meditation. In this way, we free ourselves from negative emotions and develop our good qualities, thus bringing about our own as well as others’ happiness.

Why would someone ordain as a Buddhist nun? Reasons vary from individual to individual, but in general, these women are committed to follow the Buddha’s path for developing the mind and transforming the heart. They voluntarily take ethical precepts to facilitate this process. These precepts include the avoidance of: taking life, stealing, sexual activity, lying, intoxicants, adorning the body, and seeking distraction through entertainment. Other precepts guide the nuns’ relationship with others in the monastic community and with lay people. The nuns’ primary interest is in transforming their own minds, and through this to contribute to society and to the welfare of others.

Monastics have traditionally played a special role in Buddhist societies. They devote their lives predominantly to the study, practice, and teaching of the Dharma, as well as to maintaining the monasteries, hermitages, temples, and Dharma centres. Throughout history, the responsibility for the practice and preservation of the Buddha’s teachings has lain with the monastics. Thus the monastics serve vital roles that need to be preserved in our modern societies, East and West.

Since the Buddha’s time, nuns have played an important, if largely unnoticed, part in keeping the Dharma alive. The Therigata, or Songs of the Elder Nuns, was spoken by nuns who studied and practised directly under the guidance of Shakyamuni Buddha. In it, they reveal their spiritual longing and achievements. Throughout the centuries and in all Buddhist societies, there have been nuns who studied, practised, and in some cases taught the Dharma.

Due to the structure of society, and to the nuns’ reticence to draw attention to themselves, many of their contributions have gone unnoticed. But in recent years, we see active and vibrant Buddhist nuns in the East and West. Some are scholars, some are meditators. Some work on translations of scriptures, others do social service work in hospital, prisons, and schools in war zones or in poor areas. The nuns’ contribution is a wonderful work in progress.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Position of Women in the Time of Buddha

In ancient India the position of women does not appear to have been a very happy one. Generally women seem to have been looked upon as being inferior to men. And, at times they were considered as being on the same level as the Sudras, the lowest of the four castes. Their freedom was extremely limited. The general view appears to be that they had to be under the care of parents in their childhood, under the protection of husbands in their youth; and in their old age they had to be under the control of their sons. Therefore, it was thought that they do not deserve any freedom. Their main role was considered to be that of housewives, managing the affairs in the house according to the wishes of their husbands.

Even as a wife the life of a woman was often miserable. This was specially so when she had the misfortune of being a co-wife. Jealousies and conflicts between co-wives were a common feature in ancient Indian society. The widow's plight was still worse. Normally, a widow was not allowed to remarry. It is said that a widow had to kill herself by jumping into the funeral pyre of her husband.

Women did not have educational freedom. Education was not considered as being of any importance to women. Their religious freedom, too, was restricted. As they had only little freedom, their chances of performing meritorious religious rites, too, were very limited.

Generally a woman was considered a burden on the family because the males had to bear the responsibility of looking after her. Besides, she was incapable of performing religious rites for the well-being of the departed parents, and therefore, she was considered as being of little use. This is why the birth of a female child was considered as a sign of misfortune in a family. Parents prayed for the birth of sons, both to carry on the family name and traditions and also to perform the necessary religious rites for their benefit when they are dead and gone. How miserable the father felt at the birth of a daughter is seen from the event connected with King Pasenadi of Kosala. When this King was informed that his queen gave birth to a daughter he came to the Buddha and lamented. The Buddha had to pacify him saying that good daughters are as good as good sons.

Buddhism does not consider women as being inferior to men. Buddhism, while accepting the biological and physical differences between the two sexes, does consider men and women to be equally useful to the society. The Buddha emphasises the fruitful role the women can play and should play as a wife, a good mother in making the family life a success. In the family both husbands and wives are expected to share equal responsibility and discharge their duties with equal dedication. The husband is admonished to consider the wife a friend, a companion, a partner. In family affairs the wife was expected to be a substitute for the husband when the husband happened to be indisposed. In fact, a wife was expected even to acquaint herself with the trade, business or industries in which the husband engaged, so that she would be in a position to manage his affairs in his absence. This shows that in the Buddhist society the wife occupied an equal position with the husband.

The Buddha's advice to the King Pasenadi of Kosala, who was a close devotee of his, clearly shows that Buddhism does not consider the birth of a daughter as a cause for worry and despair.

Buddhism does not restrict either the educational opportunities of women or their religious freedom. The Buddha unhesitatingly accepted that women are capable of realizing the Truth, just as men are. This is why he permitted the admission of women into the Order, though he was not in favour of it at the beginning because he thought their admission would create problems in the Sasana. Once women proved their capability of managing their affairs in the Order, the Buddha recognised their abilities and talents, and gave them responsible positions in the Bhikkhuni Sangha. The Buddhist texts record of eminent saintly Bhikkhunis, who were very learned and who were experts in preaching the Dhamma. Dhammadinna was one such Bhikkhuni, Khema and Uppalavanna are two others.

The Theri-gatha contains numerous stanzas that clearly express the feelings of joy experienced by saintly bhikkhunis at their ability to enter the Order and realize the Truth.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Buddhism and Sexism - Can There Be Gender Equality in Buddhism?

Buddhist women, including nuns, have faced harsh discrimination by Buddhist institutions in Asia for centuries. There is gender inequality in most of the world's religions, of course, but that's no excuse. Is sexism intrinsic to Buddhism, or did Buddhist institutions absorb sexism from Asian culture? Can Buddhism treat women as equals, and remain Buddhism?

The Historical Buddha and the First Nuns

Let's begin at the beginning, with the historical Buddha. As told in "The First Buddhist Women," the Buddha originally refused to ordain women as nuns. He said that allowing women into the sangha would cause his teachings to survive only half as long –- 500 years instead of a 1,000.

The Buddha's cousin Ananda asked if there was any reason women could not realize enlightenment and enter Nirvana as well as men. The Buddha admitted there was no reason a woman could not be enlightened. "Women, Ananda, having gone forth are able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or arahantship," he said.

Unequal Rules for Nuns

The Vinaya-pitaka section of the Tripitaka (Pali Canon) records the original rules of discipline for monks and nuns. A bhikkuni (nun) has rules in addition to those given to a bhikku (monk). These include subordination to monks; the most senior nuns are to be considered "junior" to a monk of one day.

Some scholars point to discrepancies between the Pali Bhikkuni Vinaya (the section of the Pali Canon dealing with the rules for nuns) and other versions of the texts, and suggest the more odious rules were added after the Buddha's death. Wherever they came from, over the centuries the rules were used in many parts of Asia to discourage women from being ordained.

When the orders of nuns died out in India and Sri Lanka centuries ago, conservatives used the rules that called for monks and nuns to be present at nuns’ ordination to prevent the institution of new orders. Only recently has the ordination problem been solved by allowing properly ordained nuns from other parts of Asia to travel to ordination ceremonies. However, the establishment of nuns' orders in Tibet, where there had been no nuns before, for some time met with resistance. Even today, in some parts of Asia nuns receive less education and financial support than monks.

Can Women Enter Nirvana?

Buddhist doctrines on the enlightenment of women are contradictory. There is no one institutional authority that speaks for all Buddhism. The myriad schools and sects do not follow the same scriptures; texts that are central to some schools are not recognized as authentic by others. And the scriptures disagree.

For example, the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, also called the Aparimitayur Sutra, is one of three sutras that provide the doctrinal basis of the Pure Land school. This sutra contains a passage usually interpreted to mean that women must be reborn as men before they can enter Nirvana.

On the other hand, the Vimilakirti Sutra teaches that maleness and femaleness, like other phenomenal distinctions, are essentially unreal. "With this in mind, the Buddha said, ’In all things, there is neither male nor female.’" The Vimilakirti is an essential text in several Mahayana schools, including Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.

"All Acquire the Dharma Equally"

In spite of the barriers against them, throughout Buddhist history many individual women have earned respect for their understanding of dharma.

For example, during Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism's golden age (China, ca. 7th-9th centuries) women studied with male teachers, and a few were recognized as dharma heirs and Ch'an masters. These include Liu Tiemo, called the "Iron Grindstone"; Moshan; and Miaoxin.

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) brought Soto Zen from China to Japan and is one of the most revered masters in the history of Zen. In the Raihai Tokuzui, Dogen said, "In acquiring the dharma, all acquire the dharma equally. All should pay homage to and hold in esteem one who has acquired the dharma. Do not make an issue of whether it is a man or a woman. This is the most wondrous law of the buddha dharma."

Buddhism Today

Today, Buddhist women in the West generally consider institutional sexism to be vestiges of Asian culture that can be surgically excised from dharma. Some western monastic orders are co-ed, with men and women following the same rules.

In Asia, nuns' orders are working for better conditions and education, but in many countries they have a long way to go. Centuries of discrimination will not be undone overnight. Equality will be more of a struggle in some schools and cultures than in others. But there is momentum toward equality, and I see no reason why that momentum will not continue

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How American Women Are Changing Buddhism

By Rita M. Gross

American women are taking Buddhism away from its patriarchal past, participating confidently as practitioners, teachers, and leaders. The job is not finished, says Rita M. Gross, one of Buddhism's leading feminist thinkers, but the role of American Buddhist women is unprecedented and may change Buddhism forever.

The sheer diversity of forms of Buddhism practiced in North America makes it difficult to generalize about women’s issues in Buddhism. Every denomination of Buddhism is represented in North America; Southeast Asian, Vietnamese, Tibetan, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese varieties of Buddhism are all practiced here. Some Asian forms of Buddhism, especially Japanese and Chinese, have been practiced in North America for four or five generations. Many Buddhists of other nationalities arrived only recently, after changes in immigration policy in the 1960’s facilitated immigration from Asia.

In addition, a significant number of North Americans with no Buddhist antecedents have converted to Buddhism since the late 1960’s. Initially, these converts expressed countercultural dissatisfaction with Euro-American religion and culture, and responded to the many Asian teachers who began to reach out to non-Asian audiences. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, convert Buddhists from ethnic groups not traditionally associated with Buddhism have become part of the American religious landscape. This development adds even more complexity to North American Buddhism, for their concerns as Buddhists are often quite different from those of traditionally Buddhist populations.

Many observe that for immigrant Buddhists, no matter how many generations they have lived in North America, Buddhism is a conservative force, promoting links to and memories of their Asian cultures and ancestors. Usually, they express little dissatisfaction with Buddhism as they have received it and have little interest in “Americanizing” Buddhism.

For converts, becoming Buddhist was part of their protest against conventional American values. But converts have no loyalty to Asian cultural forms either, and often find the traditional forms that encase Buddhism awkward at best. Those curious and radical enough to leave behind an inherited religion often will not hesitate to bring a similar spirit of exploration to their new religious identity. Convert Buddhists have done just that, developing approaches to Buddhist thought and practice that are distinctive to the West. For this reason, rather than because of the ethnicity of its practitioners, the term “American Buddhism” is used to describe convert Buddhism.

Throughout its long history, Buddhism has crossed many cultural frontiers and taken on forms distinctive to each culture. These new Buddhist forms have been developed by indigenous people who became Buddhists, not by the travelers and missionaries who brought Buddhist teachings into a new home. In the same way, it is natural that eventually an “American Buddhism” will evolve, and that convert Buddhists will play a massive role in this development. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the “Americanization” of Buddhism is a controversial topic. But observers agree that the Americanization will include different roles for women than have been traditional in Buddhism, and that convert women will play a large part in these developments.

To understand what is at stake for women in American Buddhism, it is necessary to understand some important features of traditional Buddhism. First, like all major world religions, Buddhism has historically been male-dominated. Traditionally, the meditations and philosophical explorations that many consider the heart of Buddhism were practiced almost exclusively by men. Although according to traditional texts, the Buddha had reluctantly initiated parallel women’s monastic institutions in which meditation and philosophy could be studied intensely, they were poorly supported, without prestige, and have died out in much of the Buddhist world. Therefore, those accorded respect and honor in Buddhist communities were almost always men.

Second, with the exception of Japan, all traditional Buddhist societies are marked by a strong lay-monastic dichotomy. Buddhism began as a religion of world renouncers, and it has never lost that flavor or the demands and values that accompany the choice to leave career, family, and worldly society behind. Female world renouncers, often called “nuns” in Western literature, are found in most forms of Buddhism, but, as already stated, they are not nearly so well supported nor do they have the prestige of male world renouncers, usually called “monks” in Western literature. For a son to renounce the world brings great honor to the family, while a girl who renounces the world to become a nun brings little prestige to the family and can even be embarrassing.

Additionally, the meditative and philosophical disciplines associated with Buddhism have been practiced almost exclusively in the monasteries, which is why they were practiced almost exclusively by men. By and large, lay practitioners, men as well as women, had neither the time nor the inclination to pursue meditation and philosophy to any great extent. Different disciplines, especially merit-making practices that would accumulate fortunate karma for the next rebirth and various devotional practices, were developed by and for lay practitioners.

To date, the way in which American lay practitioners, who also have jobs and families, have attempted to pursue the time-consuming disciplines of study and practice is their most radical departure from Asian models. For converts, Buddhism is study and practice; they have largely ignored other aspects of Buddhism developed in Asia.

Another striking departure is the way in which women participate in American Buddhism. Some Buddhist commentators claim that providing models of more equitable participation of women is the special karmic task of Western Buddhism.

American Buddhist women and men have taken up this task, and already American Buddhist groups look quite different from their Asian counterparts regarding the visible, active presence of women in meditation centers and other Buddhist forums. Some observers claim that this is the most noticeable difference between Asian and American Buddhist meditation centers. This claim is meant not only to draw attention to the presence of women but also to the faithfulness with which Americans have reproduced most other aspects of a traditional meditation center. The iconography is the same and the meditation practices are the same; often the liturgies are chanted in Asian languages, and, in many cases, people wear Asian robes during meditation. But women practice side by side with men rather than being isolated in an underfunded women’s practice center that has no prestige.

Undoubtedly, the strong presence of women in convert Buddhism owes something to the timing of Buddhism’s arrival in North America. Though Buddhists had been present in North America before the 1960’s and 1970’s, these decades saw the influx of many Asian Buddhist teachers and large numbers of Euro-American converts to Buddhism. These years also marked the emergence of the second wave of feminism. The women most likely to be attracted to Buddhism were not about to play a secondary, supportive role to enable men to study and practice while they provided domestic services. These women insisted that if study and practice were good for men, they would also be good for women, and they took up these disciplines enthusiastically. This coincidence, this lucky timing, has forever changed the face of American Buddhism, and may well have an impact on Buddhism worldwide.

The Buddhism that American women initially encountered seemed paradoxical to them. On the one hand, the basic teachings were gender-free and gender-neutral, and many found the practice of meditation not only gender-free but intensely liberating. To many feminist women of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Buddhism and feminism seemed to be allies, for good reason.

On the other hand, the forms through which these teachings and practices were delivered were as male dominated as those of any other religion. The teachers and other leaders were, for the most part, men. Male language abounded in the liturgies, at least those that were translated into English. And, though the basic teachings were gender-free and gender-neutral, deeper explorations into the traditional texts revealed misogynistic passages as well as a strong overall tendency to favor men over women in matters of study and practice. Many women encountered criticism and were ostracized for pointing out these facts. They were told that the dharma is beyond gender and that women were being overly sensitive and divisive when they were bothered by misogynistic stories or institutional male dominance.

The issues faced initially by convert women could be divided into two major areas of concern. They faced the problem of finding their way in a tradition that, by and large, had not been especially concerned with women’s participation in its most valued institutions—the worlds of study and practice. And convert women faced the problem of trying to integrate their traditional feminine pursuits with their desire to participate fully in the worlds of study and practice.

Most convert women who began to practice Buddhist meditation and to study Buddhist teachings in the 1960’s and 1970’s probably were not immediately aware either of the historical significance of their activities or of traditional attitudes toward women. Though gender practices were very different in their Asian homelands, the Buddhist teachers who came to teach in North America did not treat women students differently from men.

That these teachers worked with women students largely without prejudice is one of the more remarkable facets of this story. Asked later why they did not apply the more familiar Asian Buddhist norms and expectations regarding gender in North America, they gave two reasons. First, the women students asked for teachings, and that a student ask to be taught is the most important requirement. Second, given that women participated along with men in Buddhist gatherings, they assumed that North American gender norms were different from Asian norms. The lucky coincidence of feminism and the arrival of Buddhist teachers must be noted again, for if these teachers had arrived ten or twenty years earlier, in the 1950’s, the situation would have been very different.

Nevertheless, women noticed the prevalence of men as teachers and other Buddhist authorities, and the androcentric (male-centered) language of most liturgies. Those who knew more about Buddhist history and traditional teachings were troubled by teachings concerning the spiritual inferiority of women and their inability to attain liberation until they were reborn in a man’s body. However, until they had received sufficient training in the various Buddhist disciplines, women were in a poor position to challenge these views or to suggest alternatives.

Convert women employed many of the same strategies for dealing with Buddhist male dominance as Christian and Jewish women had used in their struggles. The main tasks were to work towards gender-inclusive and gender-neutral liturgies, to advance women into positions of leadership, and, ultimately, for women to become fully qualified Buddhist teachers. The two former tasks were accomplished earlier and more easily in many communities. The last was more difficult, but now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many convert women have become Buddhist teachers as well.

Though meditation is the main religious discipline practiced by convert Buddhists, chanted liturgies are an important part of many meditations. This is especially the case for Tibetan Vajrayana practice and, to a lesser extent, for Zen Buddhism. Many convert communities chant their liturgies in an Asian language, which means that gender references are less clear to them, but many other groups use English. The early translations were made before the demise of the generic masculine as acceptable English usage, and often the English translations were more androcentric than the Asian originals. Words that carry no specific gender in an Asian language were translated as “son” rather than “child,” or “man” rather than “human,” and the pronoun “he” was always used to refer to the meditator.

Once in place, these translations took on an almost canonical status among some groups. Those who objected were ridiculed and told that, as Buddhists, they should be “above such silly, worldly, unimportant issues, since everyone knows that these terms refer to and include women.” Gradually, most liturgies have been or are being changed at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

A deeper problem emerged. Chanting the names of the lineage ancestors, from one’s own generation back to the Buddha or some other central teacher, is an important part of many Buddhist services. Such chants verify the authenticity of one’s lineage and one’s own place in the transmission of teachings that go back to the foundations of Buddhism. The lineage ancestors, with very few exceptions, are men.

Many women experienced great sorrow at the lack of female ancestors and role models and searched the Buddhist records for such figures. There have been great women practitioners in the history of Buddhism, but they are rarely as prominent in Buddhist memory as their male counterparts. One of the most popular sources for convert women became the Therigata, (“The Songs of the Female Elders”). These stories and poems record the accomplishments of the first generation of Buddhist women, direct disciples of the Buddha who attained the same level of realization as his male disciples. At least one Zen Buddhist community, the San Francisco Zen Center, began the practice of chanting the names of female elders recorded in the Therigata, ending with an acknowledgment of “all the forgotten women ancestors,” on alternating days. However, some male members of the community objected that these female elders were not in the direct line from the Buddha to the teachers of this community and, though they were considered fully realized disciples of the Buddha, a crucial transmission had been given only to one male disciple, who became the direct ancestor of all Zen teachers. Most members of the community, nevertheless, continue to regard the lack of known and named female ancestors as a problem. As research continues, previously unknown, highly accomplished women emerge from historical records.

More central still is what some feminist convert Buddhists began to call “the problem of the male teacher.” This “problem” has two aspects, one of them limited to a specific time and set of circumstances, the other more fundamental. The first concerned a series of sexual scandals that devastated many convert communities in the 1980’s. A number of Asian teachers participated freely in the sexual license that characterized the 1960’s and 1970’s, conducting frequent sexual affairs with their students. In some cases, this behavior was open and known by everyone in the community, but in other cases, these affairs were secret. Although teachers who conducted secret affairs usually had many fewer partners, the secrecy proved extremely problematic in the long run. By the 1980’s, mores had changed considerably and many women expressed outrage at male teachers they felt had taken advantage of them. There was also considerable discussion about the ethical propriety of sexual intimacy between partners so unequal in power. The eventual result of this turmoil is that almost all convert communities now have explicit guidelines discouraging sexual activity between teachers and students, and the sexual safety of female (and male) students is a high priority.

The more basic “problem of the male teacher” concerns Buddhism’s long-standing practice of limiting the teaching role almost exclusively to men. Some commentators have identified the lack of female teachers, historically and in the present, as the most important issue for women in Buddhism. Historically, this lack results in the problems that occur with the absence of women in the lineage chants, as well as the lack of role models and the wisdom of women practitioners that is missing from the tradition’s teachings. The practice of having only male teachers sends a strongly discouraging message to women students. To take seriously Buddhist claims that the dharma is beyond gender is difficult if almost all those who embody and teach it have male bodies.

Fortunately, women teachers are becoming more common among convert Buddhists. It takes many years for a student of Buddhist meditation and philosophy to become qualified to teach, and the first students to be authorized by their Asian teachers to teach the dharma were men. But, especially among practitioners of Zen Buddhism and vipassana meditation, women were authorized to teach relatively soon after men. Only among practitioners of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism are almost no women teachers found, but almost no convert men have been fully authorized as teachers either. Many observers comment that convert practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are about a generation behind practitioners of Zen and vipassana in becoming fully trained as teachers. In recent gatherings of Western Buddhist teachers, nearly half the teachers present were women, ample indication that American Buddhism may indeed be fulfilling its potential to address some of Buddhism’s long-standing difficulties.

Even though study, practice, and teaching are at the forefront of many Buddhist women’s concerns, many convert lay practitioners are also involved in family life and therefore have unique concerns relating to that part of their lives. This activity presents different challenges to women practitioners: how can one combine child care with the demands of practice and study? Traditionally, this question did not arise because most practice was done by men; the women who practiced seriously were almost always nuns, childless by definition.

By and large, convert Buddhist communities have responded that the problem of integrating child care and practice should not be left to mothers alone. Commonly, Buddhist fathers take on significant childcare responsibilities. Dharma centers often provide child care during programs so that parents can participate more fully. Many parents find the arrangements inadequate and wish for more help and support, but nonetheless they are encouraged to continue to practice and study in a serious way while they are raising children, rather than waiting for the children to grow up before resuming their own practice. This attempt to combine child-rearing with the demands of intensive practice and study is a major Buddhist experiment. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it remains to be seen how well that experiment will proceed and whether it will persist from generation to generation.

Another problem encountered by converts who become involved in family life is how to raise Buddhist children in a non-Buddhist culture. Asian-American Buddhists also encounter this problem, but their situation is different. At least their children have many Buddhist relatives and a more cohesive Buddhist community. Converts usually live among non-Buddhists and most or all of their relatives are non-Buddhists. Furthermore, not having grown up as Buddhists, converts have little idea how to present their Buddhist practice, which is not especially child-friendly, to their children. This is truly uncharted territory for them. Larger Buddhist communities have sometimes sponsored day school intended primarily for their children, and many centers try to combine some Buddhist education with child care during meditation periods for adults.

As we survey the issues important to Buddhist women, it is easy to see why people have such drastically different impressions of Buddhism. The public face of Buddhism as seen in its Asian cultural context is very male-dominated, so much so that many women would not consider exploring Buddhism because it is clear to them that Buddhism is just another sexist religion. Others who have explored Buddhism more personally have found Buddhism so intensely liberating that they devote much of their life to its study and practice.

Paradoxically, both impressions are correct. Buddhism has been quite disadvantageous to women, and yet Buddhism can provide freedom, dignity, and peace to women. It all depends on how Buddhism is practiced, and much of that depends on the initiative, courage, and imagination of women practitioners, especially those who pioneer a gender-neutral and gender-free way of understanding and practicing Buddhism. These women practice a middle path of neither ignoring obvious sexist practices in Buddhism nor being so alienated by that sexism that they abandoned Buddhism. We will need to stay on that middle path for some time to come. It would be naive to assume that Buddhist patriarchy is gone for good in such a short period of time, given patriarchy’s venerable place in Buddhism throughout its history.

Rita M. Gross is author of the influential book Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism and many other books and articles. She is a senior teacher under Khandro Rinpoche, and also studies with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Women in Buddhism

The historical Buddha's most famous statements on women came about when his stepmother and aunt, Maha Pajapati Gotami, asked to join the Sangha and become a nun. The Buddha initially refused her request. Eventually he relented, but in doing so he made conditions and a prediction that remain controversial to this day.

Pajapati was the sister of the Buddha's mother, Maya, who had died a few days after his birth. Maya and Pajapati were both married to his father, King Suddhodana, and after Maya's death Pajapati nursed and raised her sister's son.

Pajapati approached her stepson and asked to be received into the Sangha. The Buddha said no. Still determined, Pajapati and 500 women followers cut off their hair, dressed themselves in patched monk's robes, and set out on foot to follow the traveling Buddha.

When Pajapati and her followers caught up to the Buddha, they were exhausted. Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and most devoted attendant, found Pajapati in tears, dirty, her feet swollen. "Lady, why are you crying like this?" he asked.

She replied to Ananda that she wished to enter the Sangha and receive ordination, but the Buddha had refused her. Ananda promised to speak to the Buddha on her behalf.

The Buddha's Prediction
Ananda sat at the Buddha's side and argued on behalf of the ordination of women. The Buddha continued to refuse the request. Finally, Ananda asked if there was any reason women could not realize enlightenment and enter Nirvana as well as men.

The Buddha admitted there was no reason a woman could not be enlightened. "Women, Ananda, having gone forth are able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or arahantship," he said.

Ananda had made his point, and the Buddha relented. Pajapati and her 500 followers would be the first Buddhist nuns. But he predicted that allowing women into the Sangha would cause his teachings to survive only half as long - 500 years instead of a 1,000.

Unequal Rules
Further, according to the canonical texts, before the Buddha allowed Pajapati into the Sangha, she had to agree to eight Garudhammas , or grave rules, not required of men. These are:

A Bhikkuni (nun) even if she was in the Order for 100 years must respect a Bhikkhu (monk) even of a day's standing.
A Bhikkuni must reside within 6 hours of traveling distance from the monastery where Bhikkhus reside for advice.
On Observance days a Bhikkhuni should consult the Bhikkhus.
A Bhikkhuni must spend rainy season retreats under the orders of both Bhikhus and Bhikkhunis.
A Bhikkhuni must live her life by both the orders.
A Bhikkhuni must on two years obtain the higher ordination (Upasampatha) by both Orders.
A Bhikkhuni cannot scold a Bhikkhu.
A Bhikkhuni cannot advise a Bhikkhu.

Nuns also have more rules to follow than monks. The Vinaya-pitaka lists about 250 rules for monks and 348 rules for nuns.

Historical Buddha, Misogynist?
The Rev. Patti Nakai of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago tells the story of the Buddha's stepmother and aunt, Prajapati. According to the Rev. Nakai , when Pajapati asked to join the Sangha and become a disciple, "Shakamuni's response was a declaration of the mental inferiority of women, saying they lacked the capacity to understand and practice the teachings of non-attachment to self." This is a version of the story I haven't found elsewhere.

The Rev. Nakai goes on to argue that the historical Buddha was, after all, a man of his time, and would have been conditioned to see women as inferior. However, Pajapati and the other nuns succeeded in breaking down the Buddha's misunderstanding.

"Shakamuni's sexist view had to have been completely eliminated by the time of the famous sutra stories of his encounters with women such as Kisa Gotami (in the tale of the mustard seed) and Queen Vaidehi (Meditation Sutra)," the Rev. Nakai writes. "In those stories, he would have failed to relate to them if he had held any prejudices against them as women."

Concern for the Sangha?
Many scholars argue that the Buddha was concerned that the rest of society, which supported the Sangha, would not approve of the ordination of nuns. Ordaining female disciples was a revolutionary step; there was nothing like it in the other religions of India at the time.

Or, the Buddha might have simply been protective of women, who faced great personal risk in a paternalistic culture when they were not under the protection of a father or husband.
Other scholars have suggested the Garudhammas were added to the canon later, after the Buddha's death, and were not in the original text. They point to discrepancies between the Pali Bhikkuni Vinaya (the section of the Pali Canon dealing with the rules for nuns) and other versions of the texts.

Whatever their intention, the rules for nuns have been used to keep nuns in a subservient position. When the orders of nuns died out in India and Sri Lanka centuries ago, conservatives used the rules calling for nuns to be present at nuns' ordination to prevent the institution of new orders. Attempts to begin nuns orders in Tibet and Thailand, where there had been no nuns before, met with enormous resistance.

In recent years , the ordination problem has been solved by allowing properly authorized nuns from other parts of Asia to travel to ordination ceremonies. In America, several co-ed monastic orders have sprung up in which men and women take the same vows and live under the same rules.

And whatever his intentions, the Buddha was certainly wrong about one thing - his prediction about the survival of the teachings. It's been 25 centuries, and the teachings are still with us.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead , whose actual title is "The Great Liberation upon Hearing in the Intermediate State " or "Bardo Thodol", is traditionally believed to be the work of the legendary Padma Sambhava in the 8th century A.D. The book acts as a guide for the dead during the state that intervenes death and the next rebirth. He is considered to be one of the first persons to bring Buddhism to Tibet. The Bardo Thodol is a guide that is read aloud to the dead while they are in the state between death and reincarnation in order for them to recognize the nature of their mind and attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

The Bardo Thodol teaches that once awareness is freed from the body, it creates its own reality as one would experience in a dream. This dream occurs in various phases (bardos ) in ways both wonderful and terrifying. Overwhelming peaceful and wrathful visions and deities appear. Since the deceased's awareness is in confusion of no longer being connected to a physical body, it needs help and guidance in order that enlightenment and liberation occurs. The Bardo Thodol teaches how we can attain Nirvana by recognizing the heavenly realms instead of entering into the lower realms where the cycle of birth and rebirth continue.

The following is a description of the bardo realms that one travels through after death.

The First Bardo

The first bardo comes at the very moment of death, when there dawns the Clear Light of the Ultimate Reality . This is the very content and substance of the state of liberation, if only the soul can recognize it and act in a way to remain in that state. The instructions intended to be read at the moment of the person's death are designed to help him do this. He is told, first of all, to embrace this supreme experience not in a selfish and egoistic way but rather with love and compassion for all sentient beings. This will aid him in the second step, which is to realize that his own mind and self is identical with the Clear Light, implying that he himself IS the Ultimate Reality, "the All-good Buddha", transcending time, eternity, and all creation. If he can recognize this while in this supreme state at the moment of death, he will attain liberation-that is, he will remain in the Clear Light forever. This condition is called the "Dharmakaya ", the highest spiritual body of the Buddha.

Most souls, however, will fail to do this. They will be pulled down by the weight of their karma into the second stage of the first bardo, called the Secondary Clear Light seen immediately after death.At this point, there are separate instructions to be read according to the spiritual condition of the person while in life. For an individual advanced in meditation and other spiritual practices, there is repeated over and over the same instructions as at the moment of death, enjoining him to recognize himself as the Dharmakaya.For a person who was still at a student-level on the spiritual path, there is the injunction for him to meditate on his "tutelary deity", that is, the particular god for whom he performed devotional practices while alive. Finally,"if the deceased be of the common folk", unpracticed in any spiritual disciplines, the instruction is to "meditate upon the Great Compassionate Lord", which is to say an "Avatar" worshipped by the multitude, equivalent to Jesus as conceived by the average Christian.

The Second Bardo

If the soul is still not liberated at this stage, it will descend into the second bardo , which is said to last for two weeks. The second bardo is also divided into two parts; in the first, the soul of the deceased encounters what are referred to as "the Peaceful Deities."On each of the seven days, a particular Buddha-being will appear in radiance and glory, with a bevy of angelic attendants. At the same time, on each day in turn there will shine a light from one of the six worlds of the Buddhist universe, called"Lokas" (the basic meaning is "place";our English words "location" and "locale" are derived from the same Sanskrit root).

On the first day of the second bardo, there appears to the soul the divine Father-Mother - that is, the supreme deity of the universe, transcending all dualities, including the division into sexes. The next step in the destiny of the soul is determined by his reaction to this God. If his life on Earth was well lived, he will now be in a state of purity and grace, and he will enter into the joy of the God and attain liberation. If on the other hand he has lived an ignoble and impious life, the effects of his bad karma will cause the intense radiant presence of the God to strike fear and terror in his heart, and he will be drawn instead to the softer light of the Deva-Loka, which has dawned along with this deity. This is still a fairly attractive fate, for the Devas are the Gods (or angels), and their Loka is equivalent to the Christian heaven; however, the Buddhist teaching is that even heaven is not the highest spiritual objective, because it is still only a temporary state in the manifest universe. Liberation is believed to be the only final and permanent resting-place for the soul, an un-manifest state beyond all existence.

On the second day, there appears the second-highest God in the Buddhist pantheon - in fact, he is actually the Second Person in the literal Buddhist Holy Trinity. At the same time, there dawns a smoky light from hell; and here we note that, just as the Buddhist heaven is not a permanent, eternal state, neither is its hell. Even the most wretched souls will eventually work their way out of even the deepest pit of hell, just as even the highest and purest souls will eventually lose their footing in heaven and descend again into the cycle of death and rebirth. Liberation is the only way out.

Once again, if the soul responds to the "dazzling white light"of the second God with the joy of a pure heart, he will be liberated thereby; but if he specifically reacts with ANGER from having indulged in this vice on Earth, he will recoil from the light in fear and be drawn into hell.

The pattern is repeated on the third day; this time it is the fault if egotism that will cause the soul to react to the God with fear, and he will be drawn to the human world, where his next incarnation will thereby take place. On the fourth day dawns the God of Eternal Life ; if the soul has a negative reaction to him because of miserliness and attachment, he will be drawn toward rebirth in the Preta-Loka , a world of"hungry ghosts"who have huge stomachs and throats the size of pinholes, and so they wander about in a constant state of unsatisfied ravenous desire. On the fifth day comes God in the form of an Almighty Conqueror ; this time it's jealousy that will unseat the soul, and he will be born into the Asura-Loka , a world of fierce warrior-deities (or demons). On the sixth day all the deities return and dawn together, along with the lights from all six Lokas . On the seventh day there appear the Knowledge-Holding Deities , who are more fierce and demonic-looking than those that have previously dawned;and in fact they are sort of a transitional element to the next stage of the second bardo, where the soul encounters the wrathful deities. Meanwhile, if because of stupidity the soul cannot face the Knowledge-Holding Deities, he is drawn toward the Brute-Loka - that is, he will be reborn on Earth as an animal.

In the second week of the second bardo, the soul meets seven legions of Wrathful Deities : hideous, terrifying demons who advance upon him with flame and sword, drinking blood from human skulls, threatening to wreak unmerciful torture upon him, to maim, disembowel, decapitate and slay him.The natural tendency, of course, is for the soul to attempt to flee from these beings in stark, screaming, blood-curdled terror;but if he does, all is lost. The instructions at this stage of the Bardo are for the soul to have no fear, but rather to recognize that the Wrathful Deities are really the Peaceful Deities in disguise, their dark side manifesting as a result of his own evil karma. The soul is told to calmly face each demon in turn and visualize it as the deity it truly is, or else as his own tutelary deity; if he can do this, he will merge with the being and attain the second degree of Liberation, that lesser aspect of it which is now the best he can hope for here in the second bardo.

Furthermore, he is told to awaken to the fact that all these fearsome creatures are not real, but are merely illusions emanating from his own mind. If he can recognize this, they will vanish and he will be liberated.If he can't, he eventually wanders down to the third bardo.

The Third Bardo

In the third bardo the soul encounters the Lord of Death , a fearsome demonic deity who appears in smoke and fire, and subjects the soul to a Judgment. If the dead person protests that he has done no evil, the Lord of Death holds up before him the Mirror of Karma , "wherein every good and evil act is vividly reflected." Now demons approach and begin to inflict torments and punishments upon the soul for his evil deeds. The instructions in the Bardo Thodol are for him to attempt to recognize the Voidness of all these beings, including the Lord of Death himself; the dead person is told that this entire scene unfolding around him is a projection from his own mind. Even here he can attain liberation by recognizing this.

The soul who is still not liberated after the Judgment will now be drawn remorselessly toward rebirth.

The lights of the six Lokas will dawn again; into one of these worlds the soul must be born, and the light of the one he is destined for will shine more brightly than the others.The soul is still experiencing the frightening apparitions and sufferings of the third bardo, and he feels that he will do anything to escape from this condition. He will seek shelter in what appear to be caves or hiding-places, but which are actually the entrances to wombs. He is warned of this by the text of the Bardo Thodol, and urged not to enter them, but to meditate upon the Clear Light instead; for it is still possible for him to achieve the third degree of liberation and avoid rebirth.

Finally there comes a point where it is no longer possible to attain liberation, and after this the soul is given instructions on how to choose the best womb for a favorable incarnation. The basic method is non-attachment:to try to rise above both attraction to worldly pleasures and repulsion from worldly ills.

The final words of the Bardo Thodol are: "Let virtue and goodness be perfected in every way."

"Be not fond of the dull smoke-colored light from hell." - Tibetan Book of the Dead

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Bardos or Stages of the Afterlife

Tibetan Buddhism has concentrated more attention on helping the dying person cross the borders of death than any other living religious tradition. The Tibetan Book of the Dead and other sources give detailed descriptions of the stages of death and afterlife, as well as instructions about how the dying individual should confront and react to these mysterious places and events. Dealing with a tradition that contains so many lineages, deities, and philosophical subsystems in a short article will necessarily involve generalizing about the tradition. Though the material is complex and sometimes difficult to interpret for a Westerner who must rely on English sources, the author will describe the stages of death, and attempt to show how they are relevant to our discussion of spiritual travel.

The Bardos or Stages of the Afterlife
The realm of the afterlife is called the world of the bardo. The term bardo is a general term which literally means "in-between" and in this context denotes a transitional state, or what Victor Turner calls a liminal situation. The bardo concept is an umbrella term which includes the transitional states of birth, death, dream, transmigration or afterlife, meditation, and spiritual luminosity. We focus, in this essay, on the bardos of death and transmigration. For the dying individual, the bardo is the period of the afterlife that lies in between two different incarnations.

In Tantric Buddhist cosmology, existence has a foreground which consists of the many worlds of incarnation, and also a background which is the space between these worlds which is called the bardo world. The stars are the many worlds, and bardo of the afterlife is like the night sky which is the backdrop or the space where the stars are hung.

The first stage of the bardo of the afterlife follows the initial experience of the dissolution of the four elements of the physical body at the time of death. These consist of something similar to the concepts of earth, fire, water, and air in the West, and are related to the progressive dissociation of the soul from the physical body. This dissolution follows a prescribed progression: the senses fail and the muscles lose their strength as the body becomes inert and still resembling physical matter (earth), there is loss of control over bodily fluids (water), the body loses its warmth (fire), and the breath fails (air). All this is experienced in sequence by the dying person when the person is able to remain conscious during the bardo of death.

Note here that the "soul" in Tibetan Buddhism is only a collection (or bundle) of karma (credits and debits based on previous actions which mold both the habit patterns of the individual and the kinds of conditions encountered in life). In Buddhism, the soul has no substantial nature but otherwise the soul and this "collection" seem very similar and are functionally equivalent for our purposes. We therefore use the term soul above even though it is not a Buddhist term.

The First Bardo
Following this, the person's experience of the first bardo of the afterlife commences. However, for most individuals, it passes by in a split second and goes unnoticed. Only those who have undergone training in and practiced meditation, contemplative prayer, and similar spiritual disciplines will likely even be aware of the first bardo state. For some of those fortunate souls, there will be several opportunities to meet with spiritual beings and enter the realms of enlightened beings. One description of the kind of meditation done by advanced practitioners consists of a conscious effort to "dissolve space into light", which if successful will propel the dying soul into an a state of light and bliss beyond the continual cycles of birth and death to which most souls are subject. For those less familiar with such formal meditation practices, the act of remembering very bright light (such as, for example, remembering an experience of staring into the sun) and seeing that light as a source of pure awareness or divine love could produce a similar effect. A series of meditations and understandings that can be helpful as one enters the bardo can be found on our Death Meditations page.

For those experienced in spiritual travel who were able to enter spiritual states of light, sound, and emptiness during life, the first bardo may offer an opportunity to enter into these areas shortly after the time of death. Also, those with a devotional disposition who were able to develop a strong bond with a deity during life may have similar opportunities to enter into one of the heavens of that deity during the first bardo. The devotion must usually be intense and concentrated to draw the deity's attention in this circumstance. Also, those who were devoted to a guru or spiritual guide during life can call upon that being and ask for guidance. Although the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is not primarily devotional, it like most of the world's great religious traditions contains devotional aspects where practicianers are encouraged to focus on powerful teachers or saints of the past or present as well as dakinis, bhairavas, Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, and other helpful beings.

The spiritual aperture that opens briefly at the time of death presents a wonderful opportunity to those who can control their thoughts as the first bardo begins. This is probably why there is a common folk belief in the Hindu tradition which puts much emphasis on controlling and directing the last thought of the dying person. If this thought is strong, clear, and of a spiritual nature, it may permit the person to enter through this doorway into a spiritual world immediately at the time of death, and thus avoid the confusion of the second bardo.

The Second Bardo
If the first bardo passes and attempts to access spiritual states were unsuccessful, the next bardo begins. The second bardo or the "bardo of becoming" is a stage in which the desires of the individual are said to carry the largely helpless soul through a great variety of intense emotional states. Good thoughts bring great bliss and pleasure, and hateful or negative thoughts bring great pain and desolation. The soul bounces from thought to thought as a torrent of thoughts and feelings come like a waterfall. Existing thought habits and desires are said to define the experience of the soul during the afterlife in this way.

Spiritual Travel and the Second Bardo
It is here where some experience and training in spiritual travel and out-of-body experience may be of greatest help. It may first help the individual maintain a state of detachment. The spiritual traveler who has experienced the inner world during life can take the whirlwind nature of inner world following death with more calm and detachment. Those who have read examples of the kinds of states encountered in spiritual travel located on other pages of this site will understand that some experimentation and discovery in the inner worlds may prepare the soul for many of the dynamics of the states it may encounter after death. The similarity of certain aspects of the near-death experience (a temporary bardo state) and elements of spiritual travel experience (the "tunnel" experience for example) show some common qualities between certain spiritual travel states and these bardo states.

The soul experienced in spiritual travel is less likely to be disoriented by this inner torrent of psychic experience. To put it another way, while the spiritual traveler or yogi swims through the ocean of consciousness, the inexperienced soul may feel more like it is drowning in that ocean. But as with a drowning person, the most important thing is to have a direction in which to swim to safety. The point of orientation or goal for the person in the second bardo may be a deity, a mantra, a prayer, a heaven, a guide, or some similar spiritual goal but the spiritual traveler must be able to focus and move towards that goal using meditative techniques learned and practiced during their former life in the physical world. This is the active approach of the spiritual traveler.

The second advantage is that the spiritual traveler has entered the waters of consciousness consciously on many occasions and is practiced at directing his or her experience in the inner worlds.

The greatest problems of the soul in the second bardo are negative emotions like guilt and fear (which results from a lack of familiarity with the inner worlds), and lack of conscious control over its own experience. Fear is particularly harmful because it fragments the self making concentration on one thing difficult or impossible, and this can lead to confusion and loss of conscious control.

The soul in the second bardo is many times caught in a dream state sometimes unaware that it has died, and incapable of taking action to raise its state of consciousness to a threshold level of awareness where it can direct its attention towards spiritual states.

This is one of the reasons it is important to do a regular spiritual practice during life. Doing meditation or prayer every day establishes a pattern of spiritual activity. It then becomes automatic and the habit of seeking after the divine reality continues during the after-death state where it can have powerful results. A daily spiritual practice differs from other more common spiritual practices such as going to church or temple because it is done more often than once or twice a week. Meditation therefore establishes a stronger habit pattern in the individual and is a valuable addition to group oriented spiritual activities such as attending church.

Regular meditation can also be more powerful because it is usually a less passive activity than church since it fully involves the individual in the meditative process rather than making a spectator out of him or her.

What the soul in the second bardo needs to do is "wake up", as in a lucid dream, and begin a meditation or mental exercise that draws it towards a desired stable and more conscious state of awareness where it can have some control and continue to evolve spiritually. The opposite of conscious control is a dream-like state where the individual experiences only the results of his or her previous actions, and mechanically moves from thought to thought based on thinking patterns developed during life.

Waking up within a dream is one of the activities the spiritual traveler practices when he or she leaves the body to travel the inner planes. Beyond this, the traveler is also always practicing and perfecting the art of directing his or her attention towards some desired state. It is the contention of the author that experience with meditation and actual spiritual travel experience during life can both be of great help in rising above the semi-conscious state characteristic of the second bardo, and moving into a more conscious and desirable state following physical death.

For those who practiced a devotional tradition in life, some will semi-consciously repeat a religious or a meditative ritual asking gods or intercessors to draw them out of the second bardo world. We see an example of an attempt to create such a ritual in the Catholic rosary, where Mary as intercessor is requested to

Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death ...
This phrase is from the Hail Mary Prayer. One effect of the repetition of this prayer fifty times in the rosary is that such a prayer for help and intercession may become an automatic process, which will repeat itself in the bardo.
For those fortunate enough to be more conscious in these bardo states, a petition to a god, guru, guide, saint, or intercessor can be made in hopes that the individual will be lifted or guided out of the bardo worlds by one of those entities. But here again, the call must be concentrated and the ability to ignore the surrounding chaos somewhat developed. When such grace is given, it is a form of salvation where the individual is saved from the discomfort and confusion of the "outer darkness" of the bardo by a powerful entity - usually one that individuals formed a bond with in their former life. To use the swimming analogy, here the individual calls out to a lifeguard in hopes of being rescued from the turbulent waters of the bardo state. This is the more passive approach of the devotee.

We should also note that souls in this bardo are thought to be very sensitive to the thoughts and attitudes of those they knew during life. The Tibetans therefore put great effort into doing chanting, reading of sacred texts, and other religious rituals to help the dying soul on its journey in the afterlife. Praying for the peace and happiness of the dying person therefore has great value and provides a benefit to both the living and the dead. This process of sending good wishes to those who have recently died can create a positive spiritual atmosphere which can orient and bring peace to the person in the bardo realm, and can also counter some of the sorrow and upset that accompanies the loss of a loved one.

The Third Bardo
The third and last bardo consists of the stage of reincarnation where the soul is pulled into another body to start a new life, often but not always in the physical world. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the most desirable world to be born in is the physical world, since it affords the most opportunity for spiritual growth and realization. The third bardo consists of a series of images determined by the soul's karma that lead to psychic vortices that draw the soul into a womb. The soul's reaction to the images (attraction or repulsion) determines which vortex the soul enters and in which womb the soul ends up. The Tibetan tradition gives detailed advice on which representations to choose and which to avoid in order to gain a desirable rebirth. Once reborn, the karma of impulse manifests to influence the person's actions and reactions in their new life.

This ability to choose a good incarnation requires discrimination, and a certain degree of conscious awareness. The new age approach to reincarnation which claims we choose our new incarnation is idealistic and not always true from this vantage point. Many souls desperate to escape the confusion of the second bardo will grab on to the first opportunity that presents itself like a swimmer who grasps a log in dangerous rapids in hopes of making it to calmer waters. Choosing the first object (or incarnation) that comes along may not be the wisest choice.

The average person is said to spend a period of about forty-five days in the second bardo. However, passionate souls with strong desires or those responsible for evil acts in their most recent life are said to reincarnate almost immediately. In exceptional cases, the individual can stay in the bardo state for longer periods, and be drawn into its currents awaiting rebirth.

If the individual does not reincarnate in the physical world, he or she will go to one of the other five worlds of rebirth. These are the heaven worlds, the hell worlds, the world of hungry ghosts, the asura (demigod) worlds, and the animal worlds. Each of these is believed to be limited and inferior to obtaining another body in the material world. This is because they exist mostly to receive good or bad karma (the results of previous actions), and are not considered places to create new karma.

The least familiar of the above worlds is the asura world which is a place of conflict and struggle where kings, knights, and warlords battle each other for dominance. Persons who were fascinated with gaining and exercising power over others during life are said to be likely to incarnate in the asura realm.

The asura realm also offers the potential for rapid learning where the individual's actions produce clear and dramatic effects without generating the powerful karmic ripples that would normally occur in the physical world. It can thus be a kind of remedial world for those who are caught in negative repeating patterns which incline them to make bad decisions in the physical world incarnation after incarnation.

The hungry ghost realm is a place of need and desire where souls are denied fulfillment or given only small rewards. Here souls experience states of continuing anxiety and frustration. The animal world is reserved for those whose extreme instincts for violence, gluttony, or sexual gratification dominated their previous lives in the physical world to the extent that they devolved into the instinctual and unreflective state of animal existence. The heaven and hell worlds have wide variations, but it is interesting that the Tibetan tradition has both burning hells (as in the Christian tradition) and freezing hells (present in Dante's Divine Comedy but not commonly known in Christianity).

We will also note here that the hell normally described by Catholic and Protestant clerics is based on folk tradition. Their descriptions of hell as a fiery place of punishment are taken mostly from the Apocrypha (specifically, the Book of Enoch), Dante's Divine Comedy, and the Book of Revelation with its "end of the world" prophesy. This folk view of hell as a place of burning punishment and demons is unsupported by the Bible except for a few apocalyptic passages in the last six chapters of the Book of Revelation. These passages are very inconsistent with the concept of hell in the rest of the Bible. Reading what the bible actually says about hell may reduce the anxiety of some Christians about the afterlife. It is explained on the page titled Confronting Mistaken Concepts of Christian Hell.

Returning to Buddhism, we note that heavens are not entirely desirable in many Buddhist traditions because they are places where little learning takes place, and they do not allow for much creativity or compassionate action. They are thus viewed as vacation spots that promote happiness for the inhabitants but accomplish little in the way of spiritual maturation. They are also viewed as temporary and not eternal.

The Freedom to do Spiritual Travel in the Afterlife
One factor that helps the soul achieve the freedom of conscious control and spiritual travel during the afterlife is acceptance of death. Those who have not accepted death will resist the process of dying and introduce conflict into the bardo stages. This is why it is important for people to take care of any unfinished business as they near death so they can let go of life completely.

In Brahmanical Hinduism, there is a stage of life called the forest dweller or vanaprastha stage in which the older individual who has finished raising a family is supposed to begin letting go of pleasures and attachments to life in preparation for death. However, in the West the goal is to keep spending money and maximize enjoyment up to the end of life. This makes it difficult for many to make a graceful transition into death. Intense attachment to the material world makes it difficult to do spiritual travel both during life and after death.

It also usually helps to have faith in something beyond the material world at the time of death. Those with a strong faith in Jesus or another religious figure will be more calm and relaxed as they enter the bardo realms. While the religious person can look forward to heaven at the time of death, the spiritual traveler who has been trying to do spiritual travel all his or her life can also look forward to death in certain respects. This is because the opportunity for exploration and spiritual travel will hopefully be greatly expanded after death when the physical body and its needs will no longer be a major distraction. Of course the areas the spiritual traveler wishes to explore are the heavenly areas and beyond, and in that sense, he or she has much in common with other more conventional religious people.

Both have a distinct advantage over the secular individual because they expect to enter into a positive afterlife (heaven), and expectations have great power in the inner worlds. This expectation combined with love and devotion towards some religious ideal can propel the religious individual towards a heavenly state just as the practice of spiritual travel does. The secular individual with no faith or expectation of heaven is more likely to flounder after death and get stuck in some intermediate gray area surrounded by thoughts and emotions from the past waiting for something to happen.

A brief mention of ethics is appropriate when discussing the state a person enters at death. In general, both the state of mind of a soul and the world it inhabits is presumed to be the result of its past thought patterns and actions (karma). Trauma and intense pain whether experienced by the soul, or inflicted on another during life will tend to fragment the self and make conscious control after death difficult. Violence, cruelty, and hatred expressed towards others in life will almost certainly have a limiting effect on the soul's freedom both in the after death state and in subsequent existences . This is true even for souls who have become proficient in spiritual travel during their life. Unethical actions during life seem to separate the soul from the knowledge and wisdom attained while living, and leave it helpless to experience the results of its actions in the afterlife.

Interestingly enough, some of the Western ideas of heaven and hell can be accounted for by the Tibetan notion of the second bardo. The saint or righteous soul will find itself in places of bliss, happiness, and light based on the kinds of thoughts it was in a habit of thinking, while the evil person will lead an existence of fear, anger, and torment in the afterlife. However, the second bardo is a temporary transitional state that actually precedes the longer term experiences of heaven, hell, or rebirth in the physical world which can occur following the third bardo.

Spiritualism as an Alternative View of the Afterlife
The focus of Buddhism in the afterlife is similar to its approach to earthly existence. The emphasis is on passion, and its restrictive and destructive consequences. It is therefore not surprising that the Buddhist view of after death states concentrates on desire as the mechanism which turns the dead into machines who must live out a karmic destiny in the afterlife. These individuals will exist in a depleted state of awareness with little freedom of choice during the bardo.

As an alternate and competing view of the afterlife, we will briefly examine the Western tradition of spiritualism which has been around for more than one hundred years, and is still popular in some quarters today.

The central conclusion of the data provided by the spiritualists and trance mediums is that dead people have scarcely more insight and wisdom in death than they had while alive. Such a proposition emphasizes the importance of learning spiritual skills such as spiritual travel while alive instead of hoping for spiritual redemption and transformation after death. Though the spiritualist's view differs from Buddhism in the specifics, it supports the contention that people should not wait until death to begin learning since such a delay can result in a very limited and routine afterlife. We examine the spiritualist's view on the page titled A Spiritualist's Approach to After-Death States.

Kabir, the Hindu-Muslim poet of India, talks about the afterlife in an ambiguous way describing it as the "city of death" which could be consistent with either the Tibetan or Spiritualist's view of the afterlife. He offers the following words which support the notion that a person who is limited in life will also be limited in death.

O friend! Hope for Him whilst you live, know while you live, understand while you live: 
for in life deliverance abides. 
If your bonds be not broken whilst living, what hope of deliverance in death? 
It is but an empty dream that the soul shall have union with Him because it has passed from the body: 
If He is found now, He is found them, 
If not, we do but go to dwell in the city of Death. 
If you have union now, you shall have it hereafter. 
Bathe in the Truth, know the true Guru, have faith in the true Name. 
Kabir says: 
      It is the spirit of the quest that helps; 
      I am the slave of the Spirit of the quest

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bardo: The Experience of Nowness

by Francesca Fremantle
Adapted from Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Originally bardo referred only to the period between one life and the next, and this is still its normal meaning when it is mentioned without any qualification. Later Buddhism expanded the whole concept to distinguish six or more similar states, covering the whole cycle of life, death, and rebirth. But it can also be interpreted as any transitional experience, any state that lies between two other states.

Its original meaning, the experience of being between death and rebirth, is the prototype of the bardo experience, while the six traditional bardos show how the essential qualities of that experience are also present in other transitional periods. By refining even further the understanding of the essence of bardo, it can then be applied to every moment of existence. The present moment, the now, is a contin­ual bardo, always suspended between the past and the future.

Bardo can have many implications, depending on how one looks at it. It is an interval, a hiatus, a gap. It can act as a boundary that divides and separates, marking the end of one thing and the beginning of another; but it can also be a link between the two—it can serve as a bridge or a meeting place that brings together and unites. It is a cross­ing, a stepping-stone, a transition.

It is a crossroads where one must choose which path to take, and it is a no-man’s-land belonging to neither one side nor the other. It is a highlight or peak point of experi­ence and at the same time a situation of extreme tension caught between two opposites. It is an open space filled with an atmosphere of suspen­sion and uncertainty, neither this nor that. In such a state, one may feel confused and frightened, or one may feel surprisingly liberated and open to new possibilities where anything might happen.

Such moments as these occur continuously in life, unrecognized; this is the inner significance of the bardo states as the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught. He spoke of them as periods of uncertainty between sanity and insanity or between the confusion of samsara and the transformation of confusion into wisdom. “They are the heightened qualities of differ­ent types of ego and the possibility of getting off ego. That’s where bardo starts—the peak experience in which there is the possibility of losing the grip of ego and the possibility of being swallowed up in it.”

Wherever there is the death of one state of mind, there is the birth of another, and linking the two there is bardo. The past has gone and the future has not yet come; we cannot catch that in-between moment, yet it is really all there is. “In other words, it is present experience, the immediate experience of nowness—where you are, where you’re at.”

According to this tradition, the six bardos are the bardo of this life (or birth), the bardo of dream, the bardo of meditation, the bardo of dying, the bardo of dharmata (or reality), and the bardo of existence (or becoming). Other traditions recognize some additional ones, but the principle is the same. The bardos are distinguished from each other in this way because they indicate different modes of consciousness, just as the waking consciousness differs from the dreaming consciousness.

These states can last for a short or long period of time, as long as a whole lifetime in the case of the first one, yet they all share the mysteri­ous and immensely powerful quality of “in-betweenness.” Or we could say that, by learning to see these stages of our lives as bardos, we can gain access to that power, which is always present, unnoticed, in every moment of existence