Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Are plants sentient beings?

An article in the Guardian reviews a new book Brilliant Green that asks "Are plants sentient?"  I answer with a general yes. Obviously the entire range of flora have different degrees of sentience just as the entire range of fauna have differing degrees of sentience. The wide meaning of sentience means feeling-perception-awareness, e.g., any kind of sense of environment, and the narrow meaning is self-conscious or intelligence measured by self-consciousness.

With the wider meaning, all living beings have some degree of sentience, i.e., awareness. Otherwise they would not be living beings. Traditionally, with the earlier and less sophisticated narrower views of sentience, only people were considered sentient beings having our kind of self-consciousness as our definition of intelligence, and animals and plants were not considered sentient. No recognizable self-consciousness meant no consciousness and therefore no sentience or intelligence.   However, life means interaction, relationship, stimulus and response, so I include all living beings in the category set of sentient beings because responding to the environment, no matter how simplistic or limited, is the sign of "feeling" and the presence of awareness and is thus being active in the response to the environment. Therefore to me, all living beings are sentient.

Next is the question of the degree of sentience. Obviously, there is a spectrum of sentience with mammals at one end and perhaps mold or plankton at the other end. Here, I think the question of self-consciousness is relevant. While all sentient beings are sentient, not all are self-conscious to the same degree.  However we have to watch for species-centric bias because as mammals, we humans can't even access the ranges of sentience on the sensory spectrum that some other mammals can. For example, we can't hear the range of sound that a dog or dolphins can. So there may be many areas of the field of sentience that we are unaware of. An open grass prairie and a redwood forest have different feelings to them for us, and these different feelings arise from them, not just our imagination. The different feelings that we are sensing are our limited perception of the sentient fields of those different plant communities.

In Buddhism, there is the concept of Buddha fields or Buddha lands which are of infinite variety and relate to all the fields of sentience of all the sentient beings. In addition to Buddha lands being other dimensions or other planets or galaxies, they are also other being's fields of consciousness, such as the Elephants' Buddha land where beings can communicate with stomping on the earth or dolphins' Buddha land where beings communicate by whistling, clicking, sounds.

When trying to assess a degree of sentience in terms of self-consciousness, the Buddhist model of the 5 Skandhas is helpful. All living beings have the activity of all five skandhas, (1) sensory data, (2) feeling-reception of senses, (3) perception (4) complex activity for identifying and responding to the perception, and (5) consciousness.    It is the degree of the complexity of the fourth skandha's unconscious formations and complexes that conditions the degree of self-consciousness of the fifth skandha. From our human perspective, ants, bees, and other hive creatures appear to lack an individual self-consciousness as we would understand it, yet we perceive what appears to be some kind of group- or hive-mind self-consciousness.

Again, we are high up on the predatory food chain and have "conquered" the planet according to our own species-centric assessment, yet there is much we do not understand about other creatures, both animals and plants, and when we destroy our own ability to live on the planet by pollution, climate change, or nuclear war or power radiation, there are other species of sentient beings who will survive, and then from their perspective they will be the meek who have inherited the earth.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Our Lives Matter Without Being Color-coded

These are not easy words to write. Contrary to many progressives, I did not find the Black Lives Matter disturbance at the Netroots Nation conference to be positive or beneficial. I think progressive groups need to hold their own events and not interrupt each other's events for their own agenda. I don't think the Black Lives Matter people would be as considerate as the Netroots Nation people to being interrupted by Climate Change activists or Save the Whales activists. 

Specifically, I am bothered by the demand "Say it, just say it: Black Lives Matter." To me the "Black Lives Matter" name itself is racist. I know that many of my friends and fellow travelers in progressive directions don't understand me when I say this. There is the perception that only "white" is racist because it is inherently "white supremacist," while "Black Lives Matters" can't be racist because they are not arguing for "black supremacy," only for black respect. I totally get this argument as it is the current version of the "Black is Beautiful" and "Black Power" movements of my youth, yet at the same time I totally reject this argument, now as I did then, as a basis for believing in a “black race.” A view doesn't have to be "supremacist" to be exclusive, while any exclusivity in identity between one group and another is the seed of what becomes group supremacy and racism when the categories are racial.  

I can identify with the frustration shown in this video. I can appreciate the sense of wanting to control a space as a group identified as people of African ancestry when one's whole life has felt like it has existed in a space controlled by people of European ancestry. But the seeds of racism are clearly present within that small and temporary, but racially defined, space. 

To me any argument that affirms the existence of either a "white race" or a “black race” as a separate race is an argument for racism.  The reason is that “black” or "white" is not a club, not a religion, or any other social category that a person can join voluntarily, and it is not a biological category like male and female that one should be assigned to involuntarily (as we have seen how such assignment can cause so many problems for transgendered people).   So to look at people/ourselves and assign them/us into color-coded categories of “race” is the essential activity of racism, whether or not one puts one’s own color on the top of the preferred scale. In my worldview, humans simply cannot identify as color-coded categories without calling our identified color "us" and all other identified colors "them." 

When "us" and "them" become fixed into a determinative group identity, then conflict and fighting between the groups is inevitable. "Black" and "white" are just variations on the theme of "us" and "them," but it is more pernicious than many forms of "us" and "them" because the categories are perceived as "natural" and "biological" with a real biological basis for the negative projections about the "them."

As I see it, the terminology of “black and white” was created by white supremacists using a white racist frame. The entire social construct of a “black race” and a “white race” was created by white supremacists. If we use the language, categories, and framing created by white supremacists, then it only reinforces the social frame of reference and cultural fiction that races even exist in the first place. There is no "white race" and no "black race" (just like there are no brown, yellow, and red races) except as a social fiction originally created by people who called themselves "white" for the very purpose of creating a justification for their supremacy as a group: the group they created and labeled “the white race."  To me, the person who identifies themselves as “white” or “black” is a person whose mind has already been colonized and brainwashed by the false and erroneous notions of white supremacy. 

The following table of a Johari window is how I have come to see my predicament of trying to articulate my perspective.
In the table, I am in Group 3. I accept that there is institutional racism but I don't accept that there are races. The Black Lives Matter people, and the many other progressives supporting them who identify as “white” or another color, are in Group 1 that accepts both that there is institutional racism and that there are races. To me, as a Group 3 person, to accept that there are races as a fact (and not a mere fiction whose time has come and gone) is the sure-fire way to continue and maintain institutional racism. To a Group 1 person, it is my view that is the sure way to continue and maintain institutional racism, because it is inconceivable to that perspective that a person can both deny the existence of race while accepting the existence of, yet opposing, institutional racism.

So while in Groups 1 and 3 we agree that there is institutional racism and that such institutional racism is pernicious and pervasive, we have a fundamental disagreement about what is the appropriate response to that institutional racism.  So if someone demands that I say “Black Lives Matter,” I do not take that demand lightly, but also I do not take as friendly, because to me there are really no “black lives,” and trying to force me to adopt the view that there is a “black race” is the work of the very same institution of white supremacy that is behind the institutional racism of today.  Based on some reactions I get, this nuance is almost impossible for the Group 1 person to perceive.

This difference between the perspectives of Group 1 and Group 3 does not even begin to address the problems in communication arising from considering the Group 2 and Group 4 people in society who do not accept that there is institutional racism, whether or not they accept or reject the idea of race as a real thing.  However, in addressing the question of institutional racism with a person who does not believe it exists, we should still bear in mind whether their denial is from the standpoint of believing in race (Group 2) or not (Group 4), because it will determine how we should approach each person in discussion. The same logic and arguments will not be received the same by the two different groups.

Obviously there is a lot more I could say about this issue that involves the arguments regarding the institutional racism with its built-in "white privilege" that we are confronted with every day, especially when seeing the institutional racism at work in and through the entire system of law enforcement in this nation.

Also there is much to be said about how to actually address institutional racism and stop it. How are we going to overcome our own mental slavery to the very idea of race?   How are we going to liberate ourselves from our own erroneous conceptualizations about humanity and our place within the human family?

But I will leave it here for now on the point that for those of us who oppose institutional racism, we need to see each other's views on the notion of race itself and learn to talk with each other about those differences if we are going to work together and be successful at ending institutional racism. 
Any comments?

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Reincarnation and karma: Buddhism, Christianity, and Science..

Here's my response to an interesting blog over at Pathos by the Christian blogger Christian Piatt titled "Do Buddhism and Quantum Theory Support the Idea of Original Sin?"  Mr. Piatt shares his ruminations about original sin and reincarnation from a Christian perspective as they were stimulated by an NPR radio program  "talking about the philosophy behind the doctrine of reincarnation." (He doesn't say which program it was but it might have been Radiolab's program "After Life.") 


Interesting to eavesdrop on the inner musings of a Christian grappling with the big picture of reincarnation/rebirth. As a Buddhist it is just now self-evident to me in the way that gravity has become self-evident after Newton put together the conceptual framework that allowed the new idea to be "perceived."

1. It is important to know that the Buddhist frame for karma-rebirth is not the same as other religious views of rebirth, such as the classical Hindu, the Albigensian or Rosicrucian Christian, Egyptian, Neoplatonist, etc. So, as you note, modern physics is catching up to Buddha’s view of reincarnation without individual entity, soul, or self. But in the Buddhist view this also means no universal soul or self as well.

2. As it stems from the first, the idea of karma-reincarnation is as complex and nuanced as genetics and understanding the genome, or understanding global weather patterns and climate change. We “understand” plate tectonics, but can’t predict an earthquake or volcano. We “understand” weather but can’t predict the formation of hurricanes or tornadoes and can’t foretell how the jet stream will modulate. Likewise, we can “understand” karma in a general way, but can’t predict how it will be formed in new rebirths in a specific space-time reference.

3. Karma and rebirth have absolutely nothing to do with morality or “learning from my past lives.” So the idea that memory should be there so we can learn from our past lives is an erroneous assumption. Karma means action, and the law of karma is no more “moral” than the laws of thermodynamics. When we put a hand into a flame, it hurts or worse depending on how long the hand is in the flame. We don’t say the flame is evil or that it was an immoral act or that the pain and blistering are “retribution” for our “sin” of putting our hand too close to the flame. Likewise, karma has nothing to do with the concept of “sin”, though unfortunately the idea of karma is too often translated into Western parlance using such ideas as sin or moralization.

4. The selflessness of karma and rebirth are very difficult for beginners and those attached to the idea of a self to realize. For example, take the idea “So when we die, there’s really no need any more for the ‘self’ to continue.” That represents a Western view of rebirth, because in the Buddhist view the statement is based on the false assumption that there was a self to begin with in this life. The idea of a self, is just that, an idea, an image, i.e., a self-image. Our mental processes are creating selfie images constantly and stringing them together by means of memory and this concatenation of self images is put together and called my self. But outside the mental image, there is no objective self. So since there is no self in this life, there is no self that is reborn in another life.

5. So what is reborn that warrants the prefix “re”? In the Buddhist context we can say it is the Dharmakaya, the body of reality, if we want to use religious terminology or to be poetical we simply say it is the ocean that is reborn as the wave. In the physics context we could say it is energy that is reborn. In the Christian context we can say it is God that is reborn. Every birth is the rebirth of that which is. But there is more, because there is the identity factor that connects one birth to another. And in the Buddhist context this identity factor is what creates the illusion of a self or soul passing from life to life. In our modern context of physics, we see this selfless continuity between lives in the field of wave dynamics. When a wave travels through the ocean there is no physical “thing” that is moving across the face of the waters. At any one location on the surface, such as indicated by a log or a duck, we see the object merely go up and down as the wave passes horizontally. The wave is not a “thing” at all, but the pattern of force traveling through the water creating the image of a wave. Likewise, a single life constitutes an up and down motion on the surface of the water but over “time” the up and down motions of the surface create the image of a wave traveling through the ocean, and this wave is just a force, not a thing. Thus, our rebirths are the expressions of the karmic forces that have been created and thus there is continuity without any soul, self, or entity passing from one life to another. What is reborn is just the karmic force or influence, not a thing. There is connectivity, but no “tissue,” other than what we might call God, Energy, Reality, Dharmakaya, Tathagata, Suchness, etc.

6. The burden of our forebears that we bear today is exactly right as one important dimension of the meaning of karmic fruit. We reap what we have sown and that sowing is both on the physical dimensions of earthly continuity and on the mental dimensions of continuity, but for us who live in the dimension of earthly continuity, it is more than enough to realize that our actions today will definitely bear the fruits of their development in the future generations. We are necessarily bound to those fruits as they take shape in and through the forces of space-time.

7. The idea of “sin” is very important to confront, as it is the very idea of sin that maintains sin as an influence in law of karma. This is an extremely nuanced philosophical truth that is easily and readily misunderstood by philosophical beginners and people who believe in the literalization and objectification of evil. In Buddhism, the basic “sin” is ignorance. It is the primal ignorance that creates the separation from reality that is the source of all good and evil, i.e., the source of sin. In Christian myth this is represented in the story of eating from the tree of knowledge. This myth is alive in each of us, first as our own consciousness develops form the moment of birth to our self-consciousness, and also moment to moment in our current self-consciousness. It is our own sense of separation from God (to use the Christian terminology) at any and every moment that is the continuity of eating from the tree of knowledge and is the sin of the present moment. The original sin of the separation of self and other is at the root of all suffering. Knowledge rests upon the bifurcation of our perceptions so that we can perceive reality though a frame of reference. However, the simple polarizations of perception, such as high-low, left-right, large-small, become confused with the other simple polarizations such as pain and pleasure to form complex polarizations such good and evil, and then we become self-deluded about the ontological reality of the complex polarizations because these complex bifurcations become the basis for our mentally constructed self, our self-image of our self consciousness and the separation from the “other.” Thus, the original sin is believing in the reality of our individual self as separate from others as well as separate from total reality because we have based that self on our frame of reference that includes the complex polarization of good-evil. In Zen we have a saying, that the True Good is the Good that transcends, or is not subject to, good and evil. In other words, the True God is the God that transcends the deluded dichotomy of God and Devil.

8. The idea that nirvana and heaven or analogous is correct. But suffice it to say, in both Buddhism and in Christianity both nirvana and heaven are grossly distorted and misunderstood by people who have only a superficial realization of Buddhism and Christianity, which unfortunately, means most of the people who “believe in” these religions without actually practicing and awakening to them.
Lastly, for now, the importance of understanding that all theories “are fabrications of human imagination” can not be overstated. In Buddhism, this is stated as the “mind-only” teaching of the One Mind. All views, perspectives, and constructs of consciousness are only manifestations of mind. This is not the philosophical notion of idealism, but a psychological recognition that there is no way to bootstrap ourselves out of our psyche. The very idea of a “physical world” is an idea of our psychology. This fundamental realization is so disorienting that most people flee from it in confusion or fear. It is much safer for our the stability and fixation of our self-image to believe in the stability and fixation of a physical world. However, as noted in the post, even the most sacred ideas of the physical sciences “simply break down on both infinitely large and infinitely small scales.” This is because the simple bifurcation of large-small breaks down when taken to its own ends. In fact, all oppositions and bifurcations break down when taken to their extreme ends, and this is one of the ways we can learn that the bifurcation and opposition is itself a construct of the psyche and a manifestation of mind.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Buddha Dharma Comes to the West

Thinking about Buddha Dharma coming to the West.

The Buddhism of the West, that eventually becomes identifiable as such, will be as different from the Buddhism of the “Far East” (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean Buddhism), Tibetan Buddhism, and Theravada Buddhism as they are different from the Buddhism of India before the 8th century.  Personally, I push against the trends that currently go under the labels of “naturalizing” or “modernizing” Buddhism because it tends to be too one sided leaning towards the materialism of the West.   

Western Buddhism will have to acclimate and accommodate to certain Western perspectives as well as appropriate certain Western language terminology and frames, and this will mean bridging the language and cultural divides with appropriate imagery and symbolic language.  Thus, Buddhism will need to use the language of both science and the religions of the Levant, in order to relate to Western cultures.  

The problem with much of the “modernization of Buddhism” approach is that it is appropriating the wrong parts of modernization. That is, instead of relating to the cutting edge of 21st century physics, general relativity, quantum theory, and string theory, it is just adopting a materialist inspired scientific framework of the 19th century.  In its attempts to be modern and remove the “superstition” from Buddhism, this “naturalization of Buddhism” movement has actually adopted the worst of the denatured materialistic psychology of the 20th century that has removed mind and psyche, and all depth, from psychology as just neuroscience and genetics.

Likewise, there is not much evidence of the necessary bridging of language memes with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam in Buddhism’s coming to the West.  For example, Buddhism needs to unashamedly use the word “God," but in a Buddhist sense as a synonym for such Buddhist terminology as tathagata, sunyata, or dharmakaya. This is like the appropriation of the word Tao (the Way) when Buddhism came to China.  We need to tell the followers of the Abrahamic religions, “Yes, there is God, but it is not what you think.”  God is inconceivable, and if one conceives of or has a concept of God, then that is really the basic sin of ignorance as a human being.  

In this sense, John Lennon was right when he said “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” but it is the sense that our concepts of God are the concepts by which we measure or pain, i.e., measuring our understanding of Buddhism’s First Noble Truth that Life entails suffering.   To the extent that Lennon was singing “there is no God” he was wrong, but to the extent that he was singing to remind us that our concepts of God are not what God is, then he was absolutely correct.  This is actually what the mystics of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have said all along, but Buddhists need to speak of God in such a direct manner that reminds them of the mystic truths of their own religions in order for Buddhism to convince them that Buddhism’s not having an anthropomorphic God is not anti-religious.

For the transplantation of Buddha Dharma to the West, Buddhism needs to take up wholeheartedly such Western terms as “God,” “mind,” and “reality” and repurpose them within Buddhism’s frame of reference to accommodate itself to Western Culture.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Heart Sutra without the shortcuts.

The Great Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra is the classic short sutra of Mahayana Buddhism. It is concise and condensed to minimalist perfection.  Who would dare to mess with it? 
I guess that means me. 
While the Heart Sutra sets the standard, the one thing I have always been unhappy with are the very shortcuts that give the sutra its conciseness.  It takes shortcuts with reference to the 5 skandhas, the 18 dhatus (realms of senses), and the 12 nidanas (links of causation).
For the 5 skandhas, we always (ad nauseum?)  hear the formula "form is emptiness; emptiness is form" stated and restated.  But when do we hear "sensation is emptiness; emptiness is sensation" or "consciousness is emptiness; emptiness is consciousness"? We don't because the Heart Sutra just says "the same with sensation, perception, mental reactions, and consciousness."  That shortcut of "the same with" is just what I object to.
Then when we come to the 18 dhatus and 12 nidanas we get "and so on to."
Well, I've "fixed" the problem. LOL! 
There many English translations of the Heart Sutra here is the one my sangha, Rocks and Clouds Zendo, uses with the shortcuts removed and the lists restored to their full contents.

The Great Prajna Paramita Heart Sutra

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, practicing deep Prajna Paramita,
clearly saw that all five skandhas are empty, transforming all suffering and distress.

Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form;
form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form;
sensation is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than sensation;
sensation is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly sensation;
,perception is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than perception;
perception is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly perception;
mental reaction is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than mental reaction;
mental reaction is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly mental reaction;
consciousness is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than consciousness;
consciousness is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly consciousness.

Shariputra, all things are essentially empty-- not born, not destroyed; not stained, not pure; without loss, without gain.
Therefore in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no mental reaction, no consciousness;
no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind,
no color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no object of thought;
no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, no thinking;,
no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance,
no mental reaction and also no ending of mental reaction,
no consciousness and also no ending of consciousness,
no name and form and also no ending of name and form,
no six sensory abodes and also no ending of six sensory abodes,
no contact and also no ending of contact,
no sensations and also no ending of sensations,
no craving and also no ending of craving,
no grasping and also no ending of grasping,
no becoming and also no ending of becoming,
no birth and also no ending of birth,
no old age and death and also no ending of old age and death;
no suffering, no cause of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path to cessation of suffering;
no wisdom and no attainment.

Since there is nothing to attain, the bodhisattva lives by Prajna Paramita,
with no hindrance in the mind; no hindrance and therefore no fear;
far beyond delusive thinking, right here is Nirvana.
All Buddhas of past, present, and future live by Prajna Paramita,
attaining Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.
Therefore know that Prajna Paramita
is the great sacred mantra, the great vivid mantra,
the unsurpassed mantra, the supreme mantra,
which completely removes all suffering.

This is truth not mere formality.
Therefore set forth the Prajna Paramita mantra,
set forth this mantra and proclaim:
Gate gate paragate parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Dead Differences and Living Distinctions

From, Nothing is Hidden: The Psychology of Zen Koans by Barry Magid:

Difference and boundary are not words that we normally value in Buddhism; they tend to stand in for everything we imagine we are supposed to overcome in the name of oneness and non separation.  But how we handle difference will be one of the hallmarks of our mature practice.  We can't eliminate difference and we can't blend opposites into a conflict free synthesis--or mush.

(Book review here.)

Fascinating. The valuation of words is a topic in itself. Generally, in the Zen lineage of the Buddha Dharma, words are distinguished between being living words and dead words.  So, are the terms "living" and "dead" themselves words of difference or words of distinction? Is there a difference or a distinction between the words "difference" and "distinction"?

I would say that when we see "distinction as a difference" then that is distinct and different from seeing "difference as a distinction."

This is what the Sixth Ancestor Huineng was teaching in Chapter 10 of the Platform Sutra when talking about the opposites.  We usually look at polarities and bifurcations as opposites that are different and separate.  But Huineng teaches us that seeing the opposites as a unity whose mutual distinctions are not indicative of actual or fundamental separation is the Dharma view.

Speaking about a difference between two things (dharmas) that concludes fundamental or primary separation is giving voice to dead words. Speaking about distinctions without concluding a separation at the root is giving voice to living words. To paraphrase Huineng, if one is turned around by differences, then that is delusion. If one turns around the differences, then that is the Way.

The root is the one that is equal to zero. The twigs and leaves are distinguished.

As Layman Pang said about the snowflakes in Case 42 of the Blue Cliff Record:
Layman Pang bid adieu to Yaoshan.  Shan ordered ten people who were Zen travelers to go together to the main gate to see him off.  The Layman pointed to the snow in the middle of the sky and said, "The excellent snow; flake by flake it does not fall at another spot."              
At that time there was Zen traveler Quan who asked, "At what spot does it fall?"           
The gentleman hit once with a slap.
Quan said, "A Layman too cannot get careless."
The gentleman said, "Like this you call yourself a Zen traveler. Lao-tzu has not liberated your dependence."    
Quan said, "Layman how do you make it alive?"
The gentleman again hit once with a slap and said,  "The eye sees like a blind person; the mouth speaks like a mute." 
Xuedou separately said, "At the first questioning point, yet grab a snowball then hit."

To discourse about it, the old wind-bag Huineng said (from Chapter 10 of The Platform Sutra):

“You who are ranked [as Dharma heirs], if you awaken in accord with this explanation; in accord with this functioning; in accord with this practice; and in accord with these doings; then you do not lose the root of the lineage. 
“If there is a person asking you about a meaning, and asks about existence, go to the paired opposite of nonexistence; if asking about nonexistence, go to the paired opposite of existence.  If one asks about the worldly, use the paired opposite of the saintly (the sage); if asking about the sage, use the paired opposite of the worldly.  The mutual causation of the Way of dualities, gives birth to the meaning of the Middle Way.  So, for a single question, a single pair of opposites, and for other questions the single (pair) that accords with this fashion, then you do not lose the principle.
“Suppose there is a person who asks, ‘What is taken for and called darkness?’ Reply and say, ‘Light is the proximate cause and darkness is the contributory cause. When light is ended, then there is darkness.  By the means of light, darkness manifests; by the means of darkness, light manifests.  (Their) coming and going are mutually proximate causes and become the meaning of the Middle Way.’  Other questions are without exception like this.  You who are ranked among the descendants transmitting the Dharma, by relying on this teaching of turning around the characteristics you do not lose the taste of the lineage.”

For this reason too, Zen Master Dongshan set up the Five Positions as another way to deal with this question of the appearance of differences within unity.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Let the Student Beware: There Are Different Degrees of Awakening.

Often Zen students, and even some Zen teachers, are confused about the Japanese terms kensho, "to see the nature" (Japanese けんしょう ; Chinese 見性 jianxing) and satori, "to awaken" or "awakening" (Japanese さとり; Chinese wu), and assume that the terms describe enlightenment as if there is only one kind of enlightenment.  In this way, some students may project onto the teacher the idea that because the teacher has experienced an awakening that is called kensho or satori therefore the teacher is fully enlightened and in some manner omniscient or infallible. This is a grave error on the part of the student, and if the teacher encourages such projections, then the teacher is putting the student into a straight jacket and chains.
In Buddhism (i.e., the Buddha Dharma), the Sanskrit term for the full enlightenment of the historical Buddha is anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (variously translated into Chinese as 阿耨多羅三藐三菩提;, 無上正等正覺, etc.).  Leading all beings to realize for ourselves this awakening is the goal or aim of every Buddha manifesting in every world. In discussing the Buddha's awakening, confusion arises when people misunderstand primary aspects of awakening: (1) that awakening is essential and indispensable to the path of the Buddha, (2) that awakening is sudden and immediate in that it transcends temporal-spatial perspectives, (3) that from a temporal-spatial perspective cultivation of the path takes place both before and after awakening, and (4) that there are different degrees of awakening. Here I want to mainly address the fourth point, that there are different degrees of awakening, with some comment about how the fourth point relates to the other three points.

The term anuttara-samyak-sambodhi reveals within itself four basic degrees of enlightenment:
(1)   bodhi: enlightenment, awakening, realization, etc.
(2)   sambodhi:  the “equal” or “altogether” enlightenment.
(3)   samyak-sambodhi: “unified” or “aligned” altogether enlightenment.
(4)   anuttara-samyak-sambodhi: “unsurpassed” or “unexcelled” aligned altogether enlightenment, also called the unexcelled completely perfect enlightenment.

Because there are these distinguishable degrees of awakening, Zen Master Hakuin related stories of his own multiple great satoris as well as many minor satoris.   The traditional depictions of training stages such as the Eight Jhanas, the 10 Bodhisattva Bhumis (Stations) or the 10 Ox Herding Pictures depict variations of the steps of cultivation both before and after awakening.
When we talk about step-by-step cultivation before awakening, we are talking about learning of and opening our mind to the possibility of awakening, developing our faith and confidence in awakening as a real experience, and taking the steps necessary to realizing awakening in our actual life. However, no matter how much we may wish it were so, there is no plain and simple formula for this step-by-step cultivation that is like a step-by-step process for learning to crochet or drive a car.  Because awakening is essentially an unraveling of or seeing through our delusions and bifurcated false conceptualizations, and because our delusions and bifurcated conceptualizations have both a social and individual component, the general formulations of the step-by-step cultivation before awakening can only address those socially shared aspects of our ignorance with the final unraveling of our individual delusions and illusions occurring in an unformulated process. That is why Zen teacher Robert Aitken would say enlightenment happens as if by accident, but that our training makes us accident prone.

When we talk about step-by-step cultivation after awakening we are talking about the realization of the different degrees of awakening from initial bodhi to fully matured and complete anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.  In Zen, the system known as Dongshan’s Five Positions (A.K.A., Tozan’s Five Ranks) is one such description of cultivation after initial awakening.

A Zen student should practice with a teacher who has at least an initial awakening kensho, and this is essential. A student may practice with another student who has not “seen the nature” but should not consider that fellow practitioner in the way as their teacher.  Students should only look to someone with a modicum of awakening, whether called kensho or satori, at their teacher.  However, students should not be deceived (by themselves or another) into thinking that all awakenings are equal and fungible or that training after initial enlightenment is unnecessary. This is why Zen Master Torei said:

Look! Why did the Buddha kindly, clearly, and in detail point out for you the stages of the Way? All of them are means to advance and progress in true training after Satori – the skillful means of no means, the grades of no grade. The same holds true for Tozan’s ‘Five Ranks’, for Rinzai’s ‘Four Positions of Person and Circumstance’, and his ‘Four Positions of Guest and Host’. All are stages after Satori. (From Yoko Okuda’s translation of The Discourse on The Inexhaustible Lamp of the Zen School by Zen Master Torei Enji.)

The words of the Buddhist scriptures and the Zen ancestors are the superbly skillful means of measuring the degree of our awakening.  To read the Sutras is to check our own understanding against the words of the Buddha, and if there is anything that we do not understand or comprehend, then that is the measure of the shallowness or depth of our own degree of awakening. This is why Torei said:

So as to test the Dharma-Gates you have attained to, you have to check them against the Buddha's Sutras and the Treatises (Shastras), and study these again and again in detail and with insight. Always ask yourselves whether what you have attained tallies with what is said in the Sutras and Treatises.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Intimate Idea of the One Vehicle


In the transplantation of Buddhism to the West, the One Vehicle of the Buddha Dharma is often misunderstood.  The terms “the West” and “westernization” are admittedly problematic generalizations in themselves, but are handy labels for the cultural world view into which Buddha Dharma is now being transplanted from the Eastern countries of Japan, Korea, Vietnam, China, Tibet, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, etc.  This accommodation, acclimation, and acculturation process is sometimes called the modernization or naturalization of Buddhism, and when focused on Buddha Dharma in the USA is often called the Americanization of Buddhism. 
Western/American Buddhists need to address justifications of their existence as a distinct group within Western/American culture. The cultural conditions of India were not the same as the cultural conditions of China, Korea, and Japan, and none of them are the same as the cultural conditions of the West. It is necessary for Western Buddhists to reach some form of accommodation with Western values and sociopolitical structures and functions in order for Buddha Dharma to take root and thrive in the Western cultural ground. In China, the two main streams of cultural conditions and values that Buddhism had to address were Confucianism and Daoism.  In the West, the two main streams of cultural conditions and values that Buddhists must address are the Judeo-Christian God-based theologies and scientific materialism. 
On the one hand, we in the West need to engage in the two-pronged hermeneutical process of first identifying the teaching of the Buddha Dharma and then correctly interpreting it. On the other hand, we need to make accommodations to Western languages and perspectives that allow for the transplantation of Buddhist ideas without corrupting their meaning. Already in the last 50 years, we have seen examples of both successful and corrupted accommodation strategies. In my view, one of the most promising bridges for transplanting Buddha Dharma to the West and making sense of the apparently confusing variety of Buddhist schools and practices is the One Vehicle.

To understand, appreciate, and support this process of transplantation, we should look at the history and prior experience of how Buddhism came to the East (i.e., to China) from what was considered their West in India. And to understand how the Chinese made sense of the confusing diversity of Buddhism we must have an appreciation of how the Chinese "analyzed the teachings" (panjiao) as they received them in unorganized and disorganized piecemeal translations from missionaries of different lineages and sects. However, none of the Chinese analyses of the teachings (panjiao) can be understood without appreciating the role of the One Vehicle.  Likewise, on the other hand, all of the limitations and shortcomings of the traditional Chinese taxonomical systems for the teachings may be understood by their mistakes related to the One Vehicle.

The Chinese correctly understood that the One Vehicle teaching was the orienting principle that make sense out of the diversity of the Buddhist teachings, however, they still fell prey to the human weakness of sectarianism. This is especially ironic because the One Vehicle movement itself was formed as the response to Buddhist sectarianism in India as exemplified by what was called "the 18 Schools."  However, when the One Vehicle came to China, the Chinese commentarial masters all too often failed to fully appreciate the One Vehicle and lost sight of the forest for seeing the trees. 

So while they often, and correctly, saw the One Vehicle as the "complete" or "perfect" (as in the perfection of a circle) teaching, they failed to see and understand the One Vehicle's universal inclusiveness, and instead they either took the One Vehicle as a separate teaching, distinguished from the other vehicles or took the One Vehicle as primarily attached to one Sutra and then claimed that that their favorite one Sutra was the superior sutra to all others.  Both these ideas are deeply mistaken. Thus, analyses of the teachings were created that gave "pride of place" to the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Flower Garland Sutra (Avatamsaka, Huayan), etc. But by putting a single One Vehicle Sutra above the other One Vehicle Sutras, these systems revealed that they really did not understand the purport of the One Vehicle. 

Also, some of the commentators argued that the One Vehicle was a "fourth vehicle" that was separate from and in addition to the Three Vehicles. This, too, was a grave mistake.  To understand the One Vehicle is to see that all the One Vehicle Sutras are equal without any of them being above the others, and to realize that the One Vehicle is not a separate vehicle but is the perspective that includes and embraces the Three Vehicles harmoniously.

Of the Chinese developers of the panjiao analyses of the teachings, only Guifeng Zongmi (780-841)developed a classification system that understood the One Vehicle as a nonsectarian movement that was the essence of the Zen, and the Zen motto of not being established on writings. Thus, his analysis of the teachings was not established on one sutra or another, but on the teachings as they were organized across and throughout the sutras.  Zongmi was both a master in the Huayan school and the Zen school, so he was uniquely situated to see that the One Vehicle was not solely appropriated to the Huayan Sutra (the Flower Garland Sutra) but was the essential teaching presented in all the One Vehicle Sutras such as the Flower Garland, Lotus, Nirvana, Lankavatara, Samdhinirmocana, etc.  Bodhidharma, the ancestral anchor of all of the Zen teaching lineages was said to have brought the "One Vehicle lineage of Southern India" to China for the correct understanding of the Lankavatara Sutra.

Especially troubling within some of the systems for analyzing the teachings was the creation of a spurious category called the "separate" teaching of the One Vehicle. This idea proclaimed that the One Vehicle was a fourth vehicle wholly separate from the Three Vehicles of disciples, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. Most, but not all, of the Huayan commentators adopted this erroneous view, however, due to his Zen training Zongmi did not.

I recently translated a small section of the  Samdhinirmocana Sutra on this point. The  Samdhinirmocana Sutra is a One Vehicle Sutra that is often mistakenly called a "Yogacara Text" because it was adopted by the Chinese Yogacara proponents who appropriated certain sections of the Sutra to their Yogacara doctrines.  In this Sutra, the Buddha engages in questions and answers with ten bodhisattvas including Subhuti, Maitreya, Avalokitesvara, and Manjusri.  In the section of exchange with Avalokitesvara, Avalokitesvara asks about the One Vehicle teaching because it seems that the Buddha is saying all the prior teachings are within the One Vehicle and not separate from it.  The Buddha makes it clear that the vehicle of the disciples and the vehicle of the bodhisattvas are themselves not really separate, but only appear separate because of the way they are taught. Here's my translation:


Avalokitesvara bodhisattva again addressed the Buddha and declared, “World Honored One. it is such that the World Honored One articulates as if the Listener-disciple Vehicle and again as if the Great Vehicle are only the One Vehicle. What is the intimate idea of this?”

Buddha told Avalokitesvara bodhisattva saying, “Good Son, it is as if from within the Listener-disciple Vehicle, that I proclaim and articulate the own-nature of every kind of the various things (dharmas), and actually designate the five clusters (skandhas), or the internal six loci, or the external six loci, and such are the classifications. Then accordingly, from within the Great Vehicle, I articulate that Dharma that is identical with the One Dharma-realm and identical with the One Universal Principle.

"For that reason, I do not articulate that the nature of the vehicles is different, or from within them that there are such words by which the false meanings may give rise to discriminating one classification [of vehicle] as aggrandized and one classification as diminished. Or again, that from various vehicles, different principles of the Way are designated that oppose each other and thus are unfolded to convey and generate disputations. So within this is what is called the intimate idea.” (T16n0676_p0708a13 to a21)


[Note: The internal six loci are the six "places" of sensory reception, and the external six loci are the six "places" of sensory data, and together the six inner loci and six outer loci are the twelve loci, the twelve ayatanas (十二處) or locations within the field of the mind.]
Thus, all the commentators who argued that the One Vehicle was a separate teaching of the principles of the Way were in direct opposition to the actual One Vehicle and specifically to this sutra's presentation of the One Vehicle. The One Vehicle does not pump up the Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and deflate the teachings of the Two Vehicles of Arhats (fully accomplished disciples) and pratyekabuddhas. If anyone claims that the Great Vehicle is enlarged by the One Vehicle, while the vehicle of the disciples and Arhats is lessened by the One Vehicle, then that person does not perceive or receive the intimate idea of the One Vehicle.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

It's a One Vehicle Day

I have finished the first draft of my English translation of Guṇabhadra's Chinese translation of


Wherein Is Articulated The Severance Of All Doubts, The Certainty Of The Complete Meaning, And
The Entrance To The Way Of The One Vehicle

I've written the following dedication for the translation.

Dedication Of The Lion’s Roar

 The Lion’s Roar of the Tathagata pervades the whole universe,
resounding right here – now.
We give thanks to The World Honored One,
To Queen Srimala,
to all the generations and ancestors
of the lineage of the One Vehicle, and
to all the True Children of the Tathagata
for protecting and handing down this Lion’s Roar.
We sincerely and humbly dedicate the meritorious-virtue
arising from receiving, maintaining, reading, and reciting
this Lion’s Roar
to all beings everywhere,
so that they may Accept the Real Dharma
and directly and personally be able to hear and proclaim this Lion’s Roar.
All Buddhas throughout space and time,
All Awakened Beings, Great Beings,
The Perfect and Complete One Vehicle.

Separately, I composed the following verse in praise of the One Vehicle. 

Ode to the One Vehicle

Wanderers in the Way,
Hear the One Vehicle  (Ekayana) of the Tathagata’s lion’s roar.
Everyone of the multitude of beings in every case has Buddha Nature
And without exception are led to enter the Way of the One Vehicle.

That One Vehicle
Always abides in the Dharma realm,
Always silent and always illuminating.

The immeasurable and innumerable expedient methods of the Buddha Dharma,
Indeed in every case, are for the reason of the One Buddha Vehicle.
Directly pointing to one’s own mind immediately reveals true nature,
And opens the knowing and seeing of the Buddha.

Great master Bodhidharma transmitted the lineage of the One Vehicle of Southern India
Without self and without other,
With the worldly and the sacred one and the same,
Only the Bodhidharma lineage transmits the inheritance by means of mind.
The mind is the fountainhead of the Dharma.

Grreat Master Huineng instructed to use establishing no thought as the lineage.
Those who see the essence of no thought see the lineage,
Then thought after thought in every case is the One Buddha Vehicle.
If that mind is entirely extinguished,
There is no vehicle as well as someone in the vehicle.

If you want to choose the One Vehicle,
do not hate the six dusts. 
All things are completely the evidentiary things of the One Mind.
The One Mind is completely the One Mind of all things.
All things completely then are True Mind.
By flowing unobstructed, consequently all things are wonderful medicine.

The true mind of root enlightenment is like the brightness of the mirror.
There are no appearances that can be obtained.
Therefore all things are like appearances in the mirror.
The essence of the one true heart-mind
Is indeed one’s own essence of true suchness.

That which is Dharma knows one’s own nature.
That which is Dharma knows the real truth.
That which is Dharma knows the One Vehicle.
In every case consider the Dharma of the One Vehicle as the real truth

The deep necessarily includes the shallow;
the shallow does not reach the deep.
Likewise, the One Vehicle necessarily includes the various vehicles;
While the various vehicles do not reach the One Vehicle
Because the various vehicles immediately are the One Vehicle,
Those who gain the One Vehicle
Gain the unexcelled unified equality-enlightenment (anuttara-samyak-sabodhi),
Always abiding in the Dharma-realm,
Able to touch and yet immediately to pass through.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

To see in black and white is to be colorblind

In an important essay on our Summer of White Supremacy , author  surveys the United States of Fear that many of our citizens must live within.  However, by its own terminology and frame of reference, the article contains the seed of its own failure because it adopts the falsehood at the core of white supremacy, that is, it assumes the very core of the model of reality, i.e., the premise of "race," that white supremacy created to foster its ideological goals. As long as we continue to assume the framework that race exists, then we have adopted and clothed ourselves in the framework of the white supremacy movement, and we are subtly promoting the very perspective that we are against. 

Put another way, a black and white television is a colorblind television; so if we don't want to be colorblind, then we need to get out of the framework of seeing the world of human diversity in the colorblind terminology of "black" and "white."  The very slogan "the denial of black humanity" actually does deny the humanity of everyone in the category of "black" by its own framework.  Humanity can not be divided into "black humanity" and "white humanity," and to divide humanity so only falls into the scheme created by white supremacy.  Thus, even as one would argue for the equal humanity of black humanity, one has already given into and adopted the falsehood of the ideological model of the white supremacists, i.e., that there is a "white humanity" and a "black humanity" instead of only one humanity that comes in many different colors, none of which are "white" or "black." 

Here's a simple test. If you think you are "white," then just place your hand on a sheet of plain white paper and tell me that your hand is the same color. Obviously, it is not.  When you can state the color of your hand as it really is, without using the word "white," then you will have liberated yourself from the colorblind state of mind that the white supremacists have brainwashed people with for centuries.

Similarly, for those who of you who think you are "black." When you can state your own skin color without using the word "black" and refer to people of European ancestry without the fake name "white", then you will have liberated yourselves from the colorblind state of mind that the white supremacists have brainwashed us with for centuries. 

Until we throw off the imaginative and linguistic shackles of the mind that force us to view people and speak of them as "white" or "black," we will never be able to free ourselves from the worldview created by white supremacists and prevent white supremacy from continuing to reign supreme in our land.