22 February 2008

Recollecting the Buddha

I have been doing a lot of reading around the practice of recollecting the Buddha and making the links between this practice and the development of Buddhist mantra. The practice generally revolves around the Buddha Vandana - the list of epithets for the Buddha - which occurs in many places throughout the Pali Canon and is explained in detail by Buddhaghosa in his Visuddhimagga. The verses containing the epithets are also known as the "iti pi so gatha". My usual experience with the Visuddhimagga is that I find it turgid and confusing, however in summing up the benefits of practising the recollection of the Buddha, Buddhaghosa says:
And his body [sarīrampi], when the recollection of the Buddha’s special qualities [Buddhaguṇānussatiyā] dwells in it [ajjhāvutthañcassa], becomes [hoti] worthy of veneration [pūjārahaṃ] as a shrine room [cetiyagharamiva] - Vism VII,67.
I've been reading the scholarly literature on this subject and surprisingly none of the writers have made much of this passage. It is only one sentence but this seems to have enormous ramifications. It seems a rather remarkable thing for the usually dusty Commentator to say.

By cetiyaghara, translated as “shrine room” by Ñanamoli, we should probably understand a meditation hall with a stupa at one end, rather like the Caitya-hall at the Bhājā caves in Maharasthra. Although the dictionary definition of cetiya (Sanskrit: caitya) is "a sacred mound, cairn or monument", the term is virtuously synonymous with stupa. Allow me to labour the point here: the body of the one who is recollecting the Buddha can be treated as though it were stupa, or monument worthy of worship. The subjective imagined presence of the Buddha is worthy of the respect which was traditionally paid to stupas and relics of the Buddha. The stupa cult continues to this day and has even been transplanted in the West. It relies on the ability to imaginatively connect with the Buddha - to see the abstract shape of the monument in stone or concrete as something more than it's material form.

Even before the death of the Buddha his presence was invoked. The classic description of this comes at the end of the Sutta Nipatta where the new disciple Pingiya sings the Buddha's praises. He says:
“You see, Sir, said Pingiya, with constant and careful vigilance it is possible for me to see him with my mind as clearly as with my eyes, in night as well as day. And since I spend my nights revering him, there is not, to my mind, a single moment spent away from him" - Suttanipātta 1142
The practice of recollecting the Buddha must have been formalised quite quickly as it's representation in the Canon is rather formulaic, ie it always uses the verses from the Buddha Vandana. But in "Pingiya praises" we get a sense of the spirit behind the formulas. Once the Buddha died these kinds of practices would have taken on a new significance, the more so when everyone who had met him has also died. Within 50 or 60 years probably there would have been no one alive who had met the Buddha in person. So the person who could maintain the kind of imaginative contact with the Buddha that Pingiya could may well have been considered worthy of veneration. Some have argued that without direct contact with a Buddha that no Awakening would have been possible, but the canon itself shows that many people were liberated without having met the Blessed One. The texts I've been looking at show why this is so - given the inspiration and the method anyone can make progress in the Dhamma and be freed. Pingiya is freed by faith (saddha-vimutta) as are several of his companions.

We clearly see here the roots of the Pure Land traditions, and of Buddhist visualisation meditations. In Mahayana texts recollection of the Buddha continues to be important - Śantideva devotes a chapter of his Compendium or Śikṣasamuccaya to it. However the hearing or recollection of the name of the Buddha (or a Buddha) starts to emerge - in the Sukhavativyūha Sūtras for instance. A key moment in the history of mantra comes in the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā Sūtra or White Lotus Sutra (the earliest reference I have found) when the practice of recollecting the name of the Buddha, is supplemented by calling the name (of Avalokiteśvara in this case). Of course the easiest way to hear a name is to say it yourself. Then a few centuries later in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra the chanting of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara is equated with recollection of his name, thus setting the scene for the Tantric revolution.

If we want to experience the presence of the Buddha in these difficult and testing times, we can. Like Pingiya there is no need for you to ever feel out of contact with the Buddha - simply bring him (or even her) to mind. There is a whole vast corpus of Buddhist art which has the precise function of helping us to make imaginative contact with the Buddha. In doing so you find your meeting, and according to Buddhaghosa you become like a holy shrine in the process and perhaps will inspire other people.

Ñaṇamoli. 1997. The path of purification. Visuddhimagga. (Singapore Buddhist Meditation Centre) p.230. (=Vism VII,67.). The Pali reads: Buddhaguṇānussatiyā ajjhāvutthañcassa sarīrampi cetiyagharamiva pūjārahaṃ hoti

Suttanipātta 1142. trans. Saddhatissa 1985. The Sutta-Nipāta. (Surrey : Curzon Press), p.132.

image: votive stupa in the windhorse : evolution warehouse.

15 February 2008

Confession in Buddhism

Confession in Buddhism is somewhat different than in Catholicism as we can see in the story of the fruits of the homeless life. (Sāmaññaphala Sutta - DN 2 *). In this story the conscience of King Ajāttasattu is pricking him - after all he has killed his mother and father and usurped the crown! He decides that a visit to a holy man might help him sleep better at night. After quizzing his courtiers on who to visit he decides to go to see the Buddha. As they approach they must abandon their transport and go on foot into the jungle. Since the Buddha is staying with a great company of monks, the King thinks he should be able to hear them, but all is silent - the murderer is worried about being assassinated himself! However they come into the presence of the Buddha and after a long talk Ajāttasattu goes for refuge to the Buddha as a lay follower, and then confesses his murderous actions. The Buddha's response, to the king in the first place, and to the bhikkhus after he has gone, highlight the two very important aspects of confession in Buddhism.

The Buddha says to the king:
"Indeed, King, transgression [accayo] overcame you when you deprived your father, that good and just king, of his life. But since you have acknowledged the transgression and confessed is as is right, we will accept it. For he who acknowledges his transgression as such and confesses it for betterment in future, will grow in the noble discipline."
The word accayo literally means "going on, or beyond", and in the moral sphere, means acting outside the established norms - so transgression is quite a good translation.

However once the king departs, the Buddha says to the bhikkhus:
"The king is done for, his fate is sealed, bhikkhus. If the king had not killed his father... then as he sat there the pure and spotless dhamma-eye would have arisen in him."
The King leaves feeling much relieved, having unburdened himself, having experienced remorse, and resolved to do better in the future. This is the benefit of confessing. It brings the unskilful act to consciousness and helps us to see the consequences of the action, and by reflecting like this we are less likely to act unskilfully in the future. The King is actually better off that he was. On the other side the Buddha was able to just hear his confession. Perhaps not everyone would be able to hear about someone killing their parents and maintain their equanimity, but the Buddha can. He is able to see that despite the crime, that the King is genuinely remorseful, and that it is important to witness that and encourage it. The past is gone, we can't change it, but we can change now and experience liberation in the future.

However notice that Buddha does not absolve the King. He does not because he cannot. The fruits of the action cannot be neutralised. Indeed if he had not committed the heinous act (patricide was considered a very horrible crime in ancient India) he would have experienced Insight (the opening of the dhamma-eye) after listening to the Buddha.

Equally the Buddha does not rub it in. He does not tell him, "OK you confessed, but you're still going to suffer". The Buddha is not cruel, he acknowledges a small goodness for what it is, and lets the King depart without much comment. However he does not let the opportunity pass to reinforce his message for the bhikkhus. He did not want them to think they could simply confess and get away with things. As a King, Ajāttasattu had a lot of responsibilities, and it is clear that he placed these above self-knowledge or liberation. He wanted to be the king so badly that he murdered his parents. The bhikkhus, however, have ostensibly abandoned worldly concerns and are supposed to be devoting themselves to attaining liberation. They cannot afford to be casual about the consequences of their actions. So the Buddha drives home the message by pointing out that the King is "done for" - the implication is that the consequences of his actions are going to be severe, that even a face to face meeting with the Buddha cannot save him from a great deal of suffering in the future. Most likely he is repeatedly reborn in hell realms.

There is another important point here. At the beginning of the story the king is restless, tormented by his conscience, and even a little paranoid. Unconfessed unskilfulness weighs on our conscience. We feel guilty and we fear punishment. The Buddha knows there is no need to punish Ajāttasattu as he is suffering in the present, and will continue to suffer in the future. This is a very difficult idea for Westerners. We are inculcated with the idea that guilt demands punishment. Society demands that someone who transgresses must have some harm inflicted upon them. We do not believe in an ethical universe in which everyone must live with the consequences of their actions, and in which evil definitely results in pain for the evil doer. This is not enough. We want to see justice (ie punishment) in the here and now. Christians also abrogate the notion that judgement for sins is God's prerogative. In fact the threat of punishment makes confession, makes taking full responsibility for our actions, all the more difficult. It is only when the threat of punishment is removed that we can fully confess our actions, experience remorse, and take the necessary actions to make amends or to prevent a repetition. Given that so few people wholeheartedly take on Buddhist ethical precepts, it may mean that we have limited opportunities for confession in the Buddhist sense. We may also have to exercise patience with those who seek to inflict harm on us as punishment. There is a lot more that could be said on the issue of culpability and justice from a Buddhist point of view but it must wait.

To sum up: in Buddhism one is encouraged to confess to someone who is able to receive the confession, this is important. Our confessor should at a minimum understand the ethical precepts we follow, and ideally should have some experience in following them. The point of confession is to experience remorse, to reflect on the consequences of our actions, with the hope that it helps us to restrain ourselves in future. In practice this results in a sense of relief. Confession does not, and cannot absolve us from responsibility for our actions, the consequences of which will still manifest. If we take Buddhist practice seriously then we try to behave ethically. An important aspect of this is to acknowledge our failures and to learn from them. Confession is indispensable in this process.

*translations are from Walsh, M. The Long Discourses of the Buddha. (Boston : Wisdom, 1995) p.91ff. There are some problems with the translation that I will regale you with in a separate essay. They don't affect my conclusions.

image: a king who got his crown illegitimately meets a holy man... from Daily Mail

08 February 2008

The Anger Eating Yakkha

Browsing through the Pali Canon one often stumbles upon wonderful little oddities. This story from the Samyutta Nikaya leapt out at me while I was looking for something else. It is a story told by the Buddha to the bhikkhus while staying in the Jeta Grove...

Once an ugly yakkha sat himself down on the throne of Sakka, Lord of the Devas (also known as Indra in Vedic mythology). The various devas were appalled by this gauche behaviour and started to grumble and complain. But the more they grumbled and complained the more the yakkha became handsome and comely, more and more graceful. Confused the devas go and find Sakka and tell him what has happened. And Sakka said to them: "that must be an anger eating yakkha! ".

Sakka goes to the now handsome and good looking yakkha, arranges his robe over one shoulder, kneels down on his right knee and with his hands raised in greeting. Then three times he repeats: "I dear sir, am Sakka, Lord of the Devas." As he spoke thus, the yakkha became smaller, and more ugly. He got more and more ugly, and more deformed until he disappeared completely! Sakka then gives voice to these verses:
I am not one afflicted in mind,
Nor easily drawn by anger's whirl.
I never become angry for long,
Nor does anger persist in me.

When I'm angry I don't speak harshly
And I don't praise my virtues.
I keep myself well restrained
Out of regard for my own good.
Isn't this wonderful? The sutta is not much longer than my summary, and most of that is repetition. The structure of this sutta is much like an Udana - a prose story followed by two pithy gathas with a simple message. The moral is simple and straightforward - it echoes many other texts which advise on how to deal with anger. One thinks for instance of the lines from the Metta Sutta which enjoin us never to wish suffering on another even though we are angry. As far as I know this is the only occasion when an "anger eating yakkha" is mentioned in the Canon.

It brings to mind the Dhammapada verse (v.5) :
Anger never ceases through anger
Anger only ceases through love
This is an eternal law.
We could see the anger eating yakkha story as a parable illustrating this principle. The way to diffuse anger is not to meet it with anger, but to see that anger feeds on anger. If we meet an angry person with anger we escalate the situation. It's hard to be around an angry person and feel safe though - angry people can be unpredictable and even dangerous. I find I just want to get some distance between me and an angry person. If I'm responding to anger with anger then this is perhaps the best strategy. Words said in anger are often regrettable. Sakka proclaims that he keeps himself well restrained, that even if he does become angry he does not allow anger to persist.

In Tantric Buddhism emotions like anger are considered to be part of the path. Anger is related to Wisdom, is transformed into Wisdom through practice. The advantage of this approach is that it recognises the energy involved in anger, and how it can be harnessed in pursuit of our spiritual goals. However I think one needs to be very careful with this approach. One might attempt to justify unskilful behaviour on the basis that anger is "just energy" for instance. If we go around acting out anger then that is not going to help anyone, and indeed will hurt other people and ourselves. In early Buddhism anger is seen as aversion to some experience which one does not want to have. It is better to allow the experience to happen and cultivate equanimity towards it. I prefer to err on the side of caution in the case of anger and find the early Buddhist approach more helpful.

SN 11.22. Bikkhu Bodhi. 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. [1 vol. ed.] Boston : Wisdom. p.338-9. [= PTS S i.237f.]

image: blogs.cisco.com (tweaked)

01 February 2008

Meditating on Arapacana

In Nov 2007 I led an evening on the Arapacana Alphabet at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre which involved a led meditation and a talk which looked at the recent research on Arapacana, especially the work of Dr Richard Salomon. In order to lead the meditation I took the text of the verses associated with the Arapacana in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, and attempted to put them into an idiom which conveyed what I perceived to be the intention in a way that would be familiar to an FWBO audience.

For the purposes of this exercise I decided to use "experience" as a translation of "dharma" - that is dharma in its aspect as phenomena or element, and in particular mental phenomena or element. I also made the caveat that in a meditation one often makes categorical statements which are not meant to literally describe Reality, but simply to be the subject of reflection. Finally I had to admit that this is simply my reading of a text, and that as far as I know there is no living tradition of meditating in this way.

We began with some samatha meditation focussing on the body and breath. Then having calmed down and become concentrated to some extent we reflected on each of the letters (or more accurately syllables) in turn, although only the first five: a ra pa ca na. As you may know each letter is the initial letter of a word in Sanskrit, which fits into a sentence that provides a reflection on the nature of experience. My method will become more clear as we look at the examples.

The letter A (the short vowel sound in the English word cut), according to the text, is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning (adyanutpannatvat). I take this to mean that even though we undeniable have experiences, no 'thing' - no ontologically solid and lasting entity - arises as a result. So rather than thinking, for instance, there is "the in-breath" and "the out-breath", we can reflect that there is no 'thing' called breath, there is just the experience, the physical sensation of breathing. Instead of thinking in terms of "this feeling is in my body", try to think in terms of "there is a physical feeling". Using verbs rather than nouns helps this I think. Focus on the experience, that is the flow of sensations and perhaps mental activity, rather than extrapolating from the experience to something solid.

RA is a door to the insight that all dharmas are without dirt (rajas). In this stage of the meditation we reflect that although we have experiences which are either pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, the feeling tone is not intrinsic to the experience. Something done once might be pleasant, but done a dozen times may be unpleasant; one day it might thrill us, the next it might bore us. Experience is just experience, and therefore it is "pure". We tend to be attracted to pleasant, and repulsed by the unpleasant. We want to hold onto what attracts us, and to push away what is unpleasant. It is these attempts at holding and pushing away which cause us to suffer, not the bare experience of pleasant or unpleasant. Ultimately experience is just experience.

PA is a door to the insight that all dharmas have been expounded in the ultimate sense (paramārtha). This aspect took me a little time to understand. What I think it means is that when you reach out to determine what underlies experience, or what lies behind it, you can only have another experience. So for instance although I feel embodied I might want to confirm that I have a body. I might reach out my hand and touch myself - this is simply a touch sensation; or I might look down at my body, and this is simply a sight sensation. It's as if we look behind the mirror to see if we can find the object in the mirror, only to find another mirror. This is the true nature of things, the ultimate (paramartha) explanation - we are immersed in experience, and there is nothing beyond this.

CA is a door to the insight that the decrease (cyavana) or rebirth of any dharma cannot be apprehended, because all dharmas do not decrease, nor are they reborn. Because we now know that no 'thing' arises, then we should see that the corollary is that no 'thing' ever ceases. The best we can say is there is experience. Once we start trying to talk about this experience, or that experience; my experience or your experience we are already dividing things up (vijñana) and attributing thingness to them. If there is just experience, then what is it that arises, what that dies?

NA is a door to the insight that the Names [i.e. nāma] of all dharmas have vanished; the essential nature behind names cannot be gained or lost. Since all we can be aware of is a ceaseless flow of experience, changing from moment to moment, how could any name apply to anything. By the time we have though of a name, the experience has passed and been replaced by another. The very act of conceiving a name is simply a mental experience.

There are of course another 39* letters in the Arapacana alphabet and each was associated with an aspect of experience and meditated on in turn. At the end however the text makes it clear that one is to contemplate how each letter is merely a facet of a larger truth, that each letter is in the long run identical in meaning to all the others. All experiences are impersonal and impermanent. And they are all we have.

One thing I did not mention in my talk was the way in which this meditation practice developed after the Large Perfection of Wisdom text. In the Mahavairocana Tantra the meditation begins in the same way (although substituting the Sanskrit consonants for the Gandhari ones), but then one imaginatively places the letters around the body while visualising oneself as the Buddha. The Sarvatathagatatattvasamgraha Tantra pares the whole thing down to just meditating on the letter a. It is this latter meditation which became important in Shingon, and other Vajrayana lineages - the whole shebang boiled down to contemplating that no things arise.

A recording of my talk and the led meditation are available on the Cambridge Buddhist Centre website. See also other things I've written on the Arapacana Alphabet.

15/3/08. I've just added a page to visblemantra.org which pulls out the bits of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Sūtra related to the Wisdom Alphabet meditation, with a few added comments.

*Various versions of the alphabet differ. There are 44 in the Large Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, although the same text when discussing the meditation practice talks about the 42 letters! Other texts have 43 letters. The variation is likely to be related to difficulties representing the sounds of Gandhari from a Sanskrit perspective.

image: alphabet by Kukai from visiblemantra.org
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