Friday, December 8, 2017

The All (Sabba-Sutta)

I will teach you the all. Listen closely. 
What is the all? It is the eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and scents, the tongue and tastes, the body and feelings, the mind and thinking. This is called the all.

Someone might say, "This all is not enough. I reject this all. I will proclaim another all. But because this is a groundless assertion, such a person, when asked about it, would not be able to show another all because that all is not within their sensorium. Such an assertion is merely a thought arising in the mind.
--- Samyutta Nikaya

This passage may be one of the earliest explications of the phenomenological  experience of reality. It also describes the buddha's criteria for how and what we can know of reality: what is the source for knowing the nature of our experience? It is the totality of our sensorium (the six sense organs and the objects of the senses) because these six senses comprise the totality of our lived experience, our lived reality as opposed to our imagined, deluded story about reality.

Whatever the reality outside of the sensory apparatus, we can only know what we know through the sensory apparatus. The raw reality -- phenomena as they are -- cannot be known directly as our senses already condition what and how we can know and experience reality. It is in this way that we can say our sensory apparatus create our lived reality/experience.

For example: you and I have been presented the same meal. I take a bite and begin to gag and feel like I could vomit. You take a bite, savor the taste, sigh and smile with pleasure. Can we say that the taste of the food was the same or different? We can imagine similar scenarios for any of the senses: a scent I find delightfully pleasant may make you gag in revulsion, etc.

Remember, the buddha is much less interested -- if he is at all -- in metaphysical speculation than the alleviation of existential duhkha. His teaching of satipatthana directs us to pay full attention to the experience of the sensorium because that is where the duhkha arises and it will be the place where it ends. As Glenn Wallis writes, "...your experience is your reality. And your experience is your reality." Thus, if your experience is pervaded by duhkha, then paying attention to the nature of your experience is much more to the point than speculating about "reality." 

This passage from the buddha also points to a fairly radical notion. The buddha is asserting that your sense organs and the data that comprise the totality of your experience is 'the all,' which is to say this all is your (lived) world! The buddha seems to be saying that those who posit another 'all,' such as a supernatural realm are misconstruing what is actually known. Those who speak of "knowing god" (or knowing "god") are not really clear on what it is that they actually know. According to this passage from the buddha, what they know are thoughts, concepts, perhaps visual imagery arising in their minds. Such mental formations are part of the sensorium and the only thing we can know. The error is the extrapolation from these mental formations to an entity that exists in the 'external' world. Recently, I read a Facebook thread where two devotees of new age thinking argued about what the "higher dimensional entities" they were in contact with thought about sexual relations for enlightened beings. One said they are beyond any such relationships while the other said they were so open as to be polygamous!

We all make all sorts of claims about the existence of things without taking the time and making the effort to look at just how we know them! The buddha is suggesting we get clear about just what it is that we know.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Awakening Life

Describing his awakening, the Buddha said: “Coming to be, coming to be! Ceasing to be, ceasing to be! At that thought, yogis, there arose in me a vision of things not before called to mind. Knowledge arose: such is form, such is the coming to be of form, such is its passing away. Recognition arose: such is its coming to be, such is its passing away. And the state of abiding in the understanding of arising and passing away; that too arose.”
---Samyutta Nikaya

In this description, the Buddha is emphasizing the deep insight into impermanence and the emptiness of phenomena. Form – the body – is the first of the five skandhas, and in an oral tradition, often, just mentioning the first of a list implies the rest of the items on that list. So, we can be assured that as with form arising and passing away, the Buddha would say the same for feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness.

When seeing clearly, with deep comprehension, the arising and passing away of the five skandhas, we come to see the empty nature of them; and in seeing the empty nature of the five skandhas, we loosen the clinging grip to the misidentification of them as “self.”

As a naturalist, I find the possible implications of that final sentence quite profound: the “state of abiding in the understanding” of impermanence may sound like a final, unchanging state of being, but he’s saying here that that state of abiding itself arose! Anything that arises passes away, so the importance of diligence becomes vividly clear: each moment we must cultivate the conditions that allow the on-going abiding in that understanding. It is moment after moment of understanding in relation to the ever-changing experiencing.

My graduate studies professor, Peter Harvey has said that the Pali would better be translated as “nirvana-izing,” as a kind of action rather than a state. This passage seems to point to that understanding. It may not satisfy a traditionalist and transcendentalist, but, as a naturalist, it is a way of understanding that I can feel comfortable accepting. Rather than seek a final "awakened" life, we can live the awakening life here/now, moment-to-moment, breath-by-breath.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Danaparamita: The Perfection of Sharing

In one of the most important and influential Mahayana sutras, The Diamond Sutra, is found one extended response from the Buddha to Subhuti who asks him:

“On what should a bodhisattva base themselves? On what should they base their minds?”

A bodhisattva is an "awakening being" committed to awakening for the sake of all life. The first thing the buddha reminds Subhuti is that the bodhisattva’s vows include the aspiration to help all beings awaken. However, he adds the caveat that a real bodhisattva takes such a vow while remaining uncaught in egoism, thinking that she is a being helping other beings; that in fact, though they vow to liberate all the numberless sentient beings, they must understand that in truth there are no such beings.

Then, he continues to say that the bodhisattva “ought to practice generosity (dana) without basing it upon anything…. Subhuti, when the generosity of a bodhisattva is not based upon any signs, her goodness is as immeasurable as the vastness of space throughout the ten directions.” Signs, or lakshana, are concepts that refer to something else. In The Diamond Sutra, the signs that we get attached to that must be seen through are perceptions, cognitions and emotions that arise and pass away. The problem is we often identify with these signs, creating a false identity.

He could have begun his extended answer with any number of profound teachings, and yet he begins with what on the surface can seem pretty mundane: “What’s so special about generosity? Anyone can do that!” And that is specifically the point! Whenever the buddha taught to a new audience, he began with the importance of generosity: “If you understand as I do the power of generosity, you’d not partake in a single meal without sharing it with others.” What the buddha also pointed out is that anyone, no matter their circumstances, can share with others, whether it is time, energy, or material resources; whether it’s the offering of a helping hand or a non-judgmental ear, a gentle smile or simply bearing witness, we can practice danaparamita, the perfection of sharing.

It is with danaparamita that the buddha’s teaching on interdependent origination becomes mutual inter-support. The important thing to take note of is that there isn’t a single thing specifically buddhist about danaparamita. Emerson refers to the interdependence of life when he says “The wind sows the seed, the sun evaporates the sea, the wind blows the vapor to the field…the rain feeds the plant, the plant feeds the animal.” Reading this, I am reminded of the poem, variously attributed to Hafiz, Rumi or Daniel Landinsky:

Ands still, after all this time
The Sun has never said to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.

This is the understanding that nothing ever really "belongs" to us; everything is recycled again and again: the water of our tears may have once been dinosaur piss. Every breath you take is said to contain, on average, one molecule from Caesar's last dying breath.

In traditional societies, all of life was seen as a kind of natural generosity or sharing and so the first form of economics was the ‘gift economy’ with various customs of gift giving and circulating the gift kept primal human society fluid and healthy. In it’s earliest form, the potlatch ceremony of northwestern America was a grand ritual of giving away precious possessions by the tribe on the occasion of naming a new chief.

In Pali Buddhism, there were several categories of dana. One dual categorical model distinguished sharing that is unconditional, looking for no reward or recompense and the other sullied by the motivation for personal benefit. Another categorical model was three-fold: sharing of goods; teachings; and services: we can share time, energy and material resources.

There’s a zen story about dana:

A monk asked Hui-hai, “By what means can the gateway of our school be entered?”
Hui-hai responded: “By means of dana-paramita.”
The monk then said, “But there are six paramitas. Why do you mention only the one? How can this one alone provide sufficient means for us to enter?
Hui-hai then answered: “Deluded people fail to understand that the other five all proceed from the danaparamita and that by its practice, all the others are fulfilled.”
The monk then asked, “And why is it called ‘danaparamita?’
Hui-hai said: “Dana means relinquishment.”
The monk asked: “But relinqusihment of what?”
And Hui-hai then said: “Relinquishment of the dualism of opposites; relinquishment of self and other.”

It is this relinquishment that Dogen means when he says with intimate awakening “body and mind drop away.” He’s not talking about some non-physical, dis-embodied state of transcendence. He’s talking about the relinquishment of our limited self-centered orientation. Now, this isn't to say there isn't the unique individual with necessarily permeable boundaries; there is still a ‘center,’ but it’s relational and effusively outflowing: we eat and nourish ourselves in order to be present to all life. Self-care taken with this understanding can never be selfish. For instance, as an older parent wishing to be present to my daughter as she grows up, I feel the need to do what I can (exercise, eat well and moderately etc.) in order to support her development. This is not the outflow of “obligation” nor is it “self-sacrifice.” It is rather the effusive outflow of love. Recreation or “re-creation” is a necessary practice to prevent the bodhisattva’s outflow from drying up!

For dana to become danaparamita, we must move beyond the dualistic view of separation; of binary opposition and see how the giver and receiver are equally empty of any self-nature. There is the awareness that in giving we receive and in receiving we give. It becomes a living dynamic practice of interaction; of mutual action. When thinking of dana, of sharing, we may over-consider the role of the giver, but the receiver is also practicing dana in her sharing.

Receiving a share of something, receiving a gift, we get to practice grace, gratefulness, while also giving the person sharing with us the gift of an opportunity for generosity. And acts of generosity bring joy to the giver, so we are also giving the gift of joy in our graceful and grateful reception of the gift. AND, when we give, we are receiving this precious opportunity to go beyond ourselves by the one who receives our gift.

Dogen Zenji has this to say about giving:
“When one learns well, being born and dying are both giving. All productive labor is fundamentally giving. Entrusting flowers to the wind, birds to the season, also must be meritorious acts of giving… It is no only a matter of exerting physical effort; one should not miss the right opportunity.

Giving is to transform the mind of living beings… One should not calculate the greatness or smallness of the mind, nor the greatness or smallness of the thing. Nevertheless, there is a time when the mind transforms things, and there is giving in which things transform the mind.”

The root of danaparamita is bodhicitta, the aspiration and action towards awakening for the sake of all beings. This is not the self-centered motivation for our own peace and joy, but the realization that at the most fundamental root, none of us is free if all of us are not free.

The thing to keep in mind, as we look to practice danaparamita, is that we do not need to wait for some big realization or experience. You and I can practice dana, the sharing of trust and respect just as we are. Do so as if it were perfected, and it is indeed perfected. We practice “as if” even in the smallest acts, opening the door for someone, answering the phone, volunteering at a soup kitchen,  listening deeply to others, demonstrating in the streets. The only prerequisite is the will do to so.


Friday, September 22, 2017

What "Energy" Are You Talking About?

One of the confusions I find in contemporary New Age, Yoga and Buddhist communities relates to the misuse of the word “energy.” It would be helpful if the members of these often overlapping communities would understand and admit that their use of the word is metaphorical. The word “energy” has a very specific definition in science which gives us a very definite way of measuring it:

In physics, energy is simply the ability to do work. Objects can have energy by virtue of their motion (kinetic energy), by virtue of the position (potential energy), or by virtue of their mass (see E=mc2). None of this can be said of qi, prana, or any other alleged 'vital life force.' When someone talks about the "energy of a group of people" and they are speaking metaphorically we can -- for the most part -- understand what they are saying when they say "the energy of this group is very strong."

The confusion arises when new-agers talk about "non-material energy" and invariably refer to Einstein's famous equation: E=mc2 using it incorrectly to assert it is saying that material mass can be turned into nonmaterial energy (and vice versa). In fact, the equation is stating that energy is a quantifiable property of a material object. That is to say, a material object doesn't turn into energy, but into other material objects that carry energy.

Einstein's equation is the 'rest energy' of an object that has mass. It is stating the possibility of extracting E amount of energy from m kilogram of mass. One kilogram of uranium sitting in a stock pile has no energy, but if it is lifted several feet off the ground, it now has some potential energy and once it's made to enter into nuclear interactions, it's mass turns into energy carried away by the nuclear particles produced by the interaction. There is no place for woo. So, when I say, upon entering a room of new yoga students, that the energy seems "strong" or "high" I am simply saying that there seems to be a general excitement shared by the group that I can sense.

However, when new-agers and spiritualists use the term "energy" as in reference to one's body's "energy field," they're really saying nothing even remotely meaningful. Yet, as Brian Dunning has written, "this kind of talk has become so pervasive in our society that the vast majority of Americans accept that energy exists as a self-contained force, floating around in glowing clouds, and can be commanded by spiritualist adepts to do just about anything." For instance, alleged Qi or Chi Masters are said to be able to move objects without touching them. A whole school of martial arts is supposed to be based upon the control of qi where a master can take down a slew of opponents without touching them. Of course, if you have complicit students willing to believe anything can seem possible then near miraculous effects can be simulated, but when such woo fantasy meets reality, reality wins. Ironically, the MMA martial artists who exposed the delusion of this qi martial arts "master" was excoriated by many in China for insulting tradition!

Dunning suggests that "when you hear the word "energy" casually used to explain a mystical force or capability, require some clarification. Require that the energy be defined. Is it heat? Is it a spinning flywheel?

He offers this good test: "When you hear the word energy used in a spiritual or paranormal sense, substitute the phrase 'measurable work capability.' Does the usage still make sense? Are you actually being given any information that supports the claim being made? Remember, energy itself is not the thing being measured: energy is the measurement of work performed or of potential."

Dunning gives a good example from a claim made by Kundalini Yoga adepts:

The release and ascent of the dormant spiritual energy enables the aspirant to transcend the effects of the elements and achieve consciousness.

He writes: "This would be a great thing if energy was indeed that shimmering cloud that can go wherever it's needed and perform miracles. But it's not, so in this case, we substitute the phrase "measurable work capability" and find that the sentence is not attempting to measure or quantify anything other than the word energy itself. We have a "dormant spiritual measurable work capability" and no further information. That's pretty vague, isn't it? For this claim to have any merit, they must at least describe how this energy is being stored or manifested. Is it potential energy stored in the chemistry of fat cells? Is it heat that can spread through the body? Is it a measurable amount of electromagnetism, and if so, where's the magnet? In any event, it must be measurable and precisely quantifiable, or it can't be called "energy" by definition." 

Dunning continues: "There's a good reason why you don't hear medical doctors or pharmacists talking about energy fields: it's meaningless. I think it's generally good policy to remain open minded and be ready to hear claims that involve energy, but approach them skeptically, and scientifically. The next time you hear such a claim, substitute the phrase "measurable work capability" and you'll be well equipped to separate the silly from the solid."