We have all been in gardens—even very costly ones—that we find oddly uninspiring. There are the landscapes around mansions where money has been lavished on moving trees, building pools, patios, and fire pits, and planting lush lawns, yet we don’t much enjoy being in those spaces and may even find them stale and uncomfortable. People can spend a lot for a deeply unsatisfying garden. And we have all experienced the small dead spaces outside commercial areas like hotels and grocery stores where we wonder why they even bothered with “landscaping.”
So what is the difference between these sad landscaped spaces and the gardens I talk about in this book? A garden built on Zen principles joins Heaven and Earth. This kind of garden is where we can find our true selves and where we can completely relax without losing awareness of all that is around us. In fact, the compelling sensory experiences of the garden will magnetize our attention and bring us to the present moment. Once we are awake in the moment, the serenity, harmony, and balance of the garden give us the chance to experience who we really are, to have insight into our true nature.
For me, the garden is a place that allows us access to big mind (that which is open, welcoming, and vulnerable) beyond our small mind (the ego-driven mind that is never satisfied and self-protective), a place that is sacred as it engages us with something beyond ourselves. It is a space in which we can find not only pleasure and ease but also insight and wisdom. The garden reflects the clear and quiet mind from which its design arose.
For me, the garden is a place that allows us access to big mind (that which is open, welcoming, and vulnerable) beyond our small mind (the ego-driven mind that is never satisfied and self-protective), a place that is sacred as it engages us with something beyond ourselves.
In order to create a true garden, we have to figure out what we are aiming for. We have to define what the garden is. Successful gardens have certain characteristics that we can see and feel; we should set an intention at the outset to bring these characteristics into our design. If the target we’re aiming for is unclear, we have little chance of hitting it. Though we can’t control what befalls us, we can certainly clarify what we want from our work and our lives, rather than flailing around helplessly in reaction to circumstances. The same is true for garden design. It’s useful to begin your transformation with a clear definition of your goal. When defining a contemplative garden we want to consider the following characteristics.
The Garden Is an Energetic System
A garden is defined by its location, its contents (attributes, behaviors, and relationships), and its boundaries. It is a world in itself, a complete but evolving whole. A garden is more than a way to improve the functionality or the resale value of a home, business, or institution. It has its own structure and composition and a personality that seeks expression, and it is beyond style and concepts. For example, Japanese garden styles are difficult to import to certain areas of the United States, where climate conditions and cultural references are so different. However, the underlying principles of Japanese garden design are accessible and can be employed in other cultures and environments.
The whole of your life is an energy system as well. It contains your family, friends, coworkers, and other people, the environment in which you all live, and the way you all relate to each other and to the environment. Making changes to one part of the system is going to affect the whole and all the rest of the parts.
The whole of your life is an energy system as well. It contains your family, friends, coworkers, and other people, the environment in which you all live, and the way you all relate to each other and to the environment. Making changes to one part of the system is going to affect the whole and all the rest of the parts.
The Garden Is a Quiet Place at Its Heart
While it may be a place for play and entertainment, a garden will also give us the space to connect with spirit. It is a place where everything is alive and where we come alive. Its quiet nature gives us the space to feel and live more fully. As a result, we feel joined to it. There are benefits to that connection: it can restore our energetic balance and harmony and promote relaxation of mind and body. The garden awakens our soft heart. We have a chance to see who we really are. This is only possible because the garden is peaceful, not a place for agitation or worry. The garden absorbs our attention with its beauty and vivacity, drawing us out of our self-referential state.
The Garden Is a Place That Holds Our Memories and Where We Create Memories
Once a group of priests were planning to visit a new national monument in Oklahoma, the site of an Indian massacre. Before they went, they met with an elder of the Cherokee Nation. The elder told them that they should listen to the river at the site, where the tears of suffering could still be heard. Beside the river was an ancient tree that also remembered the suffering, and the tall grasses nearby cried with the unresolved pain of the past. This elder understood that the landscape feels and remembers. And many who have visited Auschwitz or the various 9/11 memorial sites report feeling echoes of the trauma that occurred in these places.
The same can be true of the more positive memories that are made in a garden. The garden remembers our birthday celebrations, the weddings that took place there, and other happy moments. The garden retains the imprint of those who inhabit it. A well-designed garden can create the kind of calm and spaciousness that encourage insight. The repository of memories is then a force for good in our lives.
The Garden Is a Place That Fosters Connection and Relationships
A friend of ours has had to move frequently to follow her husband on business. Wherever she goes, she digs up her mother’s roses and irises and takes them along. Watching them grow and flower again in each new space brings her a sense of home and allows her to connect to the new space. In our own garden we have my mother’s cherry trees and my father’s roses. Especially when they bloom, I am linked to my home of the past and the beloved ones who occupied it. This sense of connection is an important aspect of what the garden is.
In our own garden we have my mother’s cherry trees and my father’s roses. Especially when they bloom, I am linked to my home of the past and the beloved ones who occupied it. This sense of connection is an important aspect of what the garden is.
The Garden Promotes Not Just Our Spiritual Health, but Our Physical and Mental Health as Well
A healthy organism is integrated, with every cell and every organ helping and informing the others. One reason a well-integrated organism is a healthy one is that all the parts are connected and available to one another. All channels are open. If there is a challenge to a particular part, all the other parts contribute what they can to help.
When we enter an integrated and alive environment, we immediately sense its underlying order. Our bodies and minds can respond to this and connect to our own health and inborn order.
A great deal of research has been done on the adverse health effects of the physical, chemical, and biological hazards in our environment. But a healthy, calm, orderly environment has been less studied. We go about our lives creating environments all the time—in our homes, our cars, and our cubicles at work. At an unconscious level we all are aware of how mess and disorder can make us feel unhappy and limited. What we don’t seem to realize is the degree to which we are creating a feedback loop between our environments and ourselves. Driving in a car strewn with food wrappers or papers is not conducive to calm and focused driving. Experiencing a garden filled with beauty and order will almost certainly allow us to calm and clarify our minds, and it will lift our spirits.
The Garden Is a Place That Offers the Possibility of Realization
When all of our senses are magnetized, we can experience a dropping away of mind and body and a loss of self-centered identification. This gives us the opportunity to step outside our habitual thought patterns. In a sense, our experience of who we are becomes the garden and the garden is at peace with all things. This is a very good environment for understanding something about who we are and why we are here.
In the garden, personal transformation can occur. What we are, who we think we are, and how we present ourselves are accumulations of thoughts, perceptual patterns, actions, and emotions, which get linked together and form our story line, the way we identify ourselves. From our personal story line we generate habits of thought, behavior, posture, and movement. Being in the garden gives us the opportunity to return to the present moment—to the bee’s buzz on the flower, the soft breeze—and to interrupt habitual patterns. This interruption is an opportunity for awareness to shine through to the face of unborn consciousness.
From our personal story line we generate habits of thought, behavior, posture, and movement. Being in the garden gives us the opportunity to return to the present moment—to the bee’s buzz on the flower, the soft breeze—and to interrupt habitual patterns. This interruption is an opportunity for awareness to shine through to the face of unborn consciousness.
The Garden Joins Heaven and Earth
“Heaven” is the mind—but big mind, not ego mind. It is innocent and curious and without self-reference. “Earth” is form, mass, structure: the stuff of our ordinary reality. When the two meet, the inchoate mind infuses the material world with its properties. The intention to wed these two aspects of our experience is the heart of garden design, as it is—or should be—the aspiration of any kind of design or art. When we marry Heaven and Earth, the result is a space of joy, inspiration, elegance, and delight. From the moment we enter it, we can feel we have entered a sacred space. Its peace provides a setting where we can relate to our sorrows, our losses, and our misfortunes, as well as our basic caring for our world and those around us. The sense of uplift and balance provides opportunity for renewal, regeneration, and healing.
This is not an entry into some other realm; it is an awakening to the extraordinary nature of ordinary experience. We are able to touch something that is already in us. Kodo Sawaki Roshi once said that “no matter how long you practice zazen, you’ll never become anything special.”
The garden is not Disney World or some “wow!” moment; it is a place to experience ourselves as we are, in peace, perhaps for the first time.
The garden, which reflects and exhibits not an ideal order but the natural order of consciousness itself, embraces change, growth and decay, birth and death, deep stillness, and the movement of falling water. It exists beyond time in the fragile embrace of impermanence. Since that is also the way we exist, the garden is a reflection of us, and we are a reflection of the garden.
This has been excerpted from The Sound of Cherry Blossoms: Zen Lessons from the Garden on Contemplative Design.
Alxe Noden was educated at Cornell University and Boston University School of Law, and has studied Tibetan Buddhism in the United States and abroad. See more about her here.
Martin Hakubai Mosko, ASLA, founded the landscape design and construction firm Marpa & Associates in 1974. He is a Zen monk and heir to the lineage of Tenzan Keibun Otokawa Roshi. See more about him here.
This entire book hinges on the word faith. You may assume that you know what that means. You may think that it has a single, clear definition. But words are not definitive structures: one word can have limitless—even opposing—meanings. Language morphs over time, and words take on different meanings depending on their contexts. You’ll likely find as many definitions of faith as there are people to define it. Try asking around.
Just to give you an idea of some of the possible usages for the word faith, look at a standard English dictionary, which will most likely include in the definition such terms as dogma, religion, fundamentalism, doctrine or indoctrination, confidence, trust, conviction, and spiritual insight, to name a few. People make strong statements about faith, such as, “Faith without doubt leads to moral arrogance” or “If you don’t have unwavering faith in God, you will go to hell.” Some people feel that those who claim to have faith are deceiving themselves. These people equate faith with the disempowerment that results from blindly handing over agency to an authority figure. For others, faith describes the highest expression of human consciousness that transports us beyond the petty concerns of mundane life. Upon reflection you may notice that you use the term faith in various ways. But notice too that these varied usages have one thing in common: they reflect the desire to find ease in a world you can’t secure.
Upon reflection you may notice that you use the term faith in various ways. But notice too that these varied usages have one thing in common: they reflect the desire to find ease in a world you can’t secure.
Do you think it would even be possible to live in the world without faith? Because we rely on life around us, it seems to me we have no choice but to have faith. The late Buddhist teacher Thinley Norbu Rinpoche linked faith to the nature of existence when he said, “Cows have faith in grass.”1 This statement may seem simplistic at first glance, but it has deep implications. You cannot remove faith from the equation of your earthbound relative condition. That you depend on the world in which you live keeps you living in faith, and there is no way around it.
Given the multiplicity of definitions one finds around faith and given how crucial it is to our very existence, faith is worthy of deep consideration.
The End of Faith?
At some point, after an extended period of exploring faith through personal practice and study, I decided to bring my investigation out into the world to see what others thought. I quickly learned that when I described my teaching topic using the word faith, no one was interested. In fact, once, when I was doing an online program on faith, someone wrote in on the chat, “This is just the mentality my grandmother had!” It was as though, by simply uttering the f-word, I had insulted his intelligence. For him faith was something that could only be outdated and backward. I have, by the way, noticed that the f-word does not generally go over well at Buddhist conferences either.
Subsequently, I started to call my inquiry “The F-Word”—and after that everyone wanted to talk. People are drawn to things that have a rebellious flare. And so I did what I had to do in order to draw attention to a topic that I feel is in desperate need of examination.
Subsequently, I started to call my inquiry “The F-Word”—and after that everyone wanted to talk. People are drawn to things that have a rebellious flare. And so I did what I had to do in order to draw attention to a topic that I feel is in desperate need of examination. As spiritual practitioners, scholars, and human beings looking for a sense of ease, it behooves us to reflect on the things that incite discomfort in us or that we don’t understand, rather than simply buying into or rejecting them.
Many contemporary thinkers want to do away with the word faith altogether and replace it with the term spirituality. In his book The End of Faith, Sam Harris links faith to terrorism, and reasonably so. People do unconscionable things in the name of faith. And yet I wonder, can we afford to do away with the word faith altogether? Personally I think that would be way too easy. I’m not saying the word spirituality doesn’t have its use in the English language. But if you are not careful, spirituality can quite easily allow you to bypass the human dilemma, because spirituality can be anything you want it to be, whereas faith will challenge you. It’s not so comfortable. It carries with it the undeniable tension between your search for security and the limits of your ability to know. Faith keeps your spiritual quest relevant and connected to the heart of the human predicament.
My concern also is that by narrowing the definition of faith to blind acceptance or dogma, we risk losing genuine traditions of contemplative wisdom and practice that include faith. The initial function of spirituality emerged from questioning the human condition and also from deep experiences of wonder. The word religion itself, initially meaning to “reconnect,” seems to have come from direct experiences of something larger than just a set of fixed ideas. It marked a return to something essential that we just failed to recognize in the myopia of our everyday lives. How curious that we turn experiences of awe into dogmas and stagnant ideas. That we have come to associate faith with fundamentalism, blindness, and even terrorism gives us something important to look at.
So how does one look at faith—both as an experience and a cultural narrative—without closing down around dogmas and fixed ideas? I’m glad you asked. In this book I will introduce to you some methods of investigation that will address this very challenge. The basic approach we will take can be traced back to the very moment of the Buddha’s awakening.
When the Buddha attained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India, he gained insight into the secret of the universe. It was from this insight that he revealed the powerful principle of pratityasamutpada, which is commonly known by its English translation, “dependent arising.” Pratityasamutpada describes how everything we experience—both material and conscious—arises, plays out, and falls away in reliance upon an infinite web of contingent relationships. In other words, it is because things depend that life moves and we can experience it.
For those who study and practice the Buddha’s path, his description of dependent arising has become a fresh and unimpeded way of perceiving mind and its world, and the primary understanding that makes liberation possible. It would be accurate to say that this very insight into the nature of dependent arising was the pivotal revelation of the Buddha, from which all of his subsequent teachings unfolded. It was also the wisdom that my teacher was pointing out to me through his simple gesture years ago.
It is important for me to say, and for you to understand, that although pratityasamutpada comes to us through a formal continuum of Buddhist practice and realization, it is not a dogma or a set of ideas to adhere to. Instead the wisdom of pratityasamutpada functions like a portal into a completely new way of understanding your mind and its world, based on direct experience. It is a powerful insight that you can use as a tool to free yourself from the confusions you have about your place in the world in which you live. I know that sounds like a big promise, but such insight is quite simple and natural, I assure you. In fact, once you step outside your habitual way of seeing things, you will marvel at its obvious truth.
In the second century, the teachings on pratityasamutpada were revived and energized by the extraordinary spiritual genius Nagarjuna. He designed a series of methodical investigations based upon the Buddha’s insight into the nature of dependent arising that provide a way for whoever employs them to bring together discerning intelligence with a mind of complete openness. The sole purpose of these investigations is to guide us away from the abstract realm of ideas into a direct relationship with life.
There is something important to be said here about the quality of the mind while engaged in a process of inquiry. I have often used the example of “the mind of an open question” to describe it. An open question—as opposed to a question intent on an answer—is one that has not settled on a conclusion or shut down around beliefs or doubts. Rather, when you ask an open question, you remain receptive, humble, and connected to the living and dynamic nature of things. According to this tradition, such characteristics describe a mind poised for insight. In fact, where insight is concerned, it is only an open and attentive mind that is said to perceive its object without mistake.
The purpose for saying all this here is to let you know in advance that I wrote this book as an inquiry, and so it will require some participation and curiosity on your part. In addition to sharing my experience, I will pose many questions for you and introduce several guided investigations that have been passed down by realized Buddhist masters skilled in the ancient art of meditative inquiry. I will invite you to voyage into your own experience of faith because—let’s face it—there is no substitute for the certitude that results from seeing things directly for yourself.
To put it another way, what happens when we look at the world with fresh eyes and an open heart? Furthermore, what does it even mean to look here? How does one look? We will get into that in great depth. But for now, I just want to introduce the idea of dependent arising, pratityasamutpada, as your tool for exploring faith. And I want to make sure that you understand that although the methods used in this book come from the tradition of the Buddha, there is no assertion that insight itself is the possession of any one religion. We are all prone to moments of grace and clear seeing. And so, the term insight, as I use it here in this book, simply serves to describe an inherent potential in all of us.
To put it another way, what happens when we look at the world with fresh eyes and an open heart? Furthermore, what does it even mean to look here? How does one look?
Some of the methods presented in this book may challenge the assumptions you have about language, beliefs, doubts, spirituality, and the nature of knowing. They may bring to the fore some unexamined ideas you have about faith and even prompt you to rethink how you see yourself and the world in which you live. But then what’s an exploration without challenges?
This has been excerpted from The Logic of Faith: A Buddhist Approach to Finding Certainty Beyond Belief and Doubt.
British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun
Her home and working life established, Freda threw herself wholeheartedly into her mission to free India from imperialism and to bring justice and equality to the poor and downtrodden. She traveled all over the Punjab by foot, often taking Ranga with her, going from village to village, absorbing the land and its people, raising their consciousness about the struggle for freedom. She stayed in their huts, ate their food, learned their songs, and heard their problems. Now, rather than being confined to merely looking in and talking as she had as an Oxford undergraduate, she was in a position to act.
This intimacy heightened her love of India and whetted her revolutionary zeal. “India is in a very bad way and constitutions, for all the fuss made over them, are not going to help at all. It will need something more radical. When you get into the homes of the peasants—unbelievable poverty! They live on three paisa per day—one penny, at a liberal estimate—everything inclusive. They are just ground down by starvation and the moneylender,” she wrote to Olive. Later, she added, “India has harrowed me with her festering poverty, her dirt, and her despair, and I have become a unit of the ragged army that fights against it.”
Freda’s compassion and admiration for the peasants never wavered. In her eyes they were noble souls, living a truer existence, in harmony with the soil and the rhythms of the seasons, unsullied by materialism. “Modern people would probably put security at the top of the list of what makes them happy, but the peasant is humbler and simpler in the face of the inevitable insecurities of nature and of life. The villagers, the ‘illiterates’ of India, have got that genius of simple people; they judge not from words but from the heart, from feelings, from gestures, from instinct. It is we who have been blunted by words, not they who are dull.”
Again her affinity with women—especially mothers—was strong. “Many times I have been confronted with a village woman and her child and she has given one look at me and my little boy, and we have been friends from that minute. There is something in the understanding of a woman and a woman, of a mother and a mother, which is far beyond language or skin. It is a feeling often ‘too deep for tears,’ born of common hopes, and prayers, and sufferings.”
“Many times I have been confronted with a village woman and her child and she has given one look at me and my little boy, and we have been friends from that minute. There is something in the understanding of a woman and a woman, of a mother and a mother, which is far beyond language or skin. It is a feeling often ‘too deep for tears,’ born of common hopes, and prayers, and sufferings.”
Freda’s Agenda of Reform
Her agenda was twofold: to urge “the warrior peasants of the Punjab” to agitate for land reform and fairer land revenues, and to demand their civil liberties, especially against the heartless Indian police officers, who regularly beat them. She would then bring this terrible treatment to the attention of the authorities.
Word quickly spread of the Englishwoman, dressed in a sari, and her audiences grew from a few stragglers to vast crowds, curious to see and hear this phenomenon for themselves. “When I say that in those days I addressed not just thousands but hundreds of thousands of villagers, I am not telling an untruth. It became part of my way of life. The Punjab peasant became not only familiar to me but a friend.”
A far greater challenge was addressing the students and nationalists in Lahore, but BPL urged her to do it. “He said it was nothing, that I should think of it as if I were addressing the debating society at Oxford. The first time I spoke, I was petrified. There were twenty-four thousand people waiting. And these twenty-four thousand people had very definite opinions about what they should and shouldn’t listen to. If they didn’t like the speaker, they were well known for beating the ground with shoes and sticks.
“I stood on the platform like a martyr awaiting execution and decided to speak very loudly into the loudspeaker. I can still hear the shock that went through the whole mass of twenty-four thousand heads when this rather slight, Western-looking woman suddenly bellowed at them. I found out I could go on speaking and not be drummed out of existence by sticks and shoes.”
Her True Voice
Freda had well and truly found her voice—an unusual thing for any woman of any era. She was extremely accomplished in her native tongue and loved words, but to give a speech in Hindi (albeit with a British accent) was a remarkable accomplishment. The audience was rightly mesmerized by this woman of the Raj and the wife of one of the biggest landowners of the Punjab, who was urging them on to rebellion. Decades later, people could still recall the power of her oratory. After her inaugural speech there was thunderous applause and cries of, “We want freedom.”
The audience was rightly mesmerized by this woman of the Raj and the wife of one of the biggest landowners of the Punjab, who was urging them on to rebellion. Decades later, people could still recall the power of her oratory. After her inaugural speech there was thunderous applause and cries of, “We want freedom.”
Her speeches especially resonated with the women, who took courage from Freda’s own example. Freda records how the women of Srinagar ran out in the streets, rattled stones, and frightened the soldiers’ horses. “The women became the heroines. Village women would take a club on their shoulder and stride at the head of the village ‘armies.’ There was nothing dynamic or fiery in their timid faces. But I knew inside me this was woman’s shell. When the time came, these women would be on the streets again, never faltering, throwing their powerhouse of energy into another great movement of the people. Women put their proverbial patience to many uses. They know how to wait.”
Inevitably, the authorities reacted. Everyone in The Huts lived in a constant state of tension and anxiety. The Huts were constantly threatened with demolition; Freda and BPL (and those who associated with them) were under constant surveillance and were frequently harassed by the police.
“Being a socialist in India is no joke. We all of us live on the edge of jail, and however careful you are, nothing much can be done if you do get arrested, since legal rights are rather pre-Cromwell. It is very difficult to present a picture of these terrifying days,” Freda wrote to Olive.
The Tension Surrounding Them
Ranga still remembers the tension that surrounded them all. “Mummy was trailed by plainclothed policemen all the time. In order to get her removed from her job, Fateh Chand College was subjected to all sorts of harassment and sudden inspections, but the school never submitted. It was extremely brave of them, as harboring a political activist was a punishable act. No other college dared employ her, even though a master’s degree from Oxford was no
mean qualification for a woman in India.
“They even questioned the sweepers to see if she was teaching sedition! Once, when a sweeper was taken down to the police station and manhandled, my mother marched off with me in tow and took the police inspector to task. She then insisted on making a notation in the complaint book. That evening a British police officer visited the college and threatened to arrest her. She wrote to the police hierarchy in Lahore and sent copies to the newspapers. Mummy was absolutely fearless at all times!”
It was the threat of prison, however, that most unnerved Freda. All the A-list agitators, including of course Nehru and Gandhi, were constantly being hauled before judges and jailed. BPL was no exception. He was first arrested in 1937 for some provocative speech at an outdoor meeting, and Freda soon became reconciled to the pattern. It was part of the deal they had signed up for, and what they actually wanted in order to promote their cause. As he had warned as part of his marriage proposal, Freda spent a lot of time visiting him behind bars. Once again she was stoic.
“It is not unduly oppressive and often there are some enlightened Indian officers in charge who are nationalists at heart, and so don’t give the prisoners a hard time. Of course, imprisonment is imprisonment, and it’s a suffering not be allowed to go out and lead a normal life. But BPL is cheery and philosophical, and usually has one or two good friends in jail with him. My mother-in-law, because of her age and generation, suffers even more than I do about this. We are great friends, and her loving presence makes a great difference.”
A Turn toward Civil Disobedience
By 1939, the revolution was heating up, and under Bose’s influence, freedom fighters were favoring violence as the means to achieve their goal. This was too much for Freda, who promptly turned her attention totally to Gandhi and his peaceful approach of civil disobedience. BPL, however, jumped right in with added fervor and was promptly arrested for dangerous political activity and sentenced to four years in Deoli Prison (infamous for coining the term doolally, signifying “crazy”).
Deoli was grim, situated in the middle of the Rajasthan desert, miles from anywhere, and enclosed within three layers of barbed wire and numerous watchtowers. An escapee would have to walk days before reaching the nearest village.
It was the longest sentence BPL had been given and the hardest for Freda to bear, not only because she was left alone without moral and physical support from her husband but also because she rightly knew that BPL would continue to agitate behind bars. She lived in a constant state of worry and fear for him.
Now unable to live independently in The Huts because it was too dangerous, she got permission to move into one of Fateh Chand College’s hostels, taking Ranga with her. Children were not allowed into the hostels, but Freda was popular with students and staff alike, having won their admiration and respect. Again, the college bravely agreed. With plenty of staff only too happy to look after (and spoil) Ranga, Freda was free to continue her full teaching program and carry on with her own revolution.
Wracked with anxiety about BPL in Deoli, Freda constantly badgered the prison authorities for the right to visit him. After much string pulling from two barrister friends practicing in the Punjab High Court, Freda finally got a permit for a “family” visit. She took Ranga with her. It turned into a saga of high comic drama.
Ranga recalled, “Mummy and I set off in the blistering heat traveling by train, third class, as she always insisted. It took days, with us staying at small wayside hotels, eating at bus stops and having to report to various police stations along the way. All the time Mummy was harassed so that she would abandon the trip. Finally we were put down beside a dirt track and, after an hour’s walk, arrived at Deoli Detention Camp, which was run by the army, not the police. They had no information regarding our visit and were visibly put out by the sight of Mummy in Indian clothes, the British wife of a dangerous political criminal.
“Mummy and I set off in the blistering heat traveling by train, third class, as she always insisted. It took days, with us staying at small wayside hotels, eating at bus stops and having to report to various police stations along the way. All the time Mummy was harassed so that she would abandon the trip. Finally we were put down beside a dirt track and, after an hour’s walk, arrived at Deoli Detention Camp, which was run by the army, not the police. They had no information regarding our visit and were visibly put out by the sight of Mummy in Indian clothes, the British wife of a dangerous political criminal.
“After a short while we were escorted to the commandant, a strapping British colonel whose discomfiture was even greater than that of his juniors. He said he could not allow the visit without confirmation from headquarters. Furthermore, he continued, providing accommodation for a difficult prisoner’s wife and child or acquiring transport to the nearest town was out of the question. He didn’t know what to do with us. We could see he was rattled, and confused! At sundown he relented and conceded that we could stay in the officers’ suite and would be able to meet Papa the next morning, at nine, for one hour. In the end we were given the VIP treatment, including an invitation to dine in the officers’ mess hall. Mummy politely declined.
“Mummy was up at first light, and after breakfast (served in our rooms) we were escorted back to the commandant. The atmosphere was tense. The colonel told us there had been an ‘incident.’ The political prisoners had gone on hunger strike and had had to be force-fed—with the exception of Mr. Bedi, who had aggressively resisted. They had been protesting against prison conditions, alleging it was being run like a concentration camp, with the inmates being denied the rights of political detainees.
“News of our visit had spread, and another attempt to force-feed BPL had been made at six o’clock that morning. Apparently eight people had gone to Papa’s room and found him to be calm and generally cooperative. They put together the feeding apparatus, with no protest from Papa. As the medical officer bent over him, Papa sprang into action. He kicked the attendant in the groin, carried him to the door, and threw him off the veranda, causing him to dislocate his shoulder. Two other guards were floored, and the others backed off.
“Mummy remained very calm. ‘Didn’t you know he holds the All India hammer-throwing record?’ she asked. Knowing we were there, Papa said he would eat voluntarily, but only if he could see us.’ Of the incident BPL remarked, ‘The battle lasted only two minutes, my honor was sustained.’”
The story became apocryphal among the Bedis.
“Mummy remained very calm. ‘Didn’t you know he holds the All India hammer-throwing record?’ she asked. Knowing we were there, Papa said he would eat voluntarily, but only if he could see us.’ Of the incident BPL remarked, ‘The battle lasted only two minutes, my honor was sustained.’”
Freda and Ranga finally found BPL the sole occupant of a tenfoot-square room, the last one in a long row in a barrack-like building. There was a mattress on the floor, no furniture or curtain at the window. The books they had brought him were confiscated. The meeting was warm but abysmally short. When they emerged, one of the escorting officers commented, “Mrs. Bedi, your husband is a very strong man.” Freda, polite as always and willing to connect with everyone, struck up conversation and was amazed to discover he was from Derbyshire.
After they left, BPL’s hunger strike continued for twenty-five days, during which time he received several beatings, which left permanent damage to his spine. He always walked with a cane after that.
A Turning Point for Freda
The visit marked a turning point in Freda’s life. Her marriage was founded on the vow to unite with BPL in his fight for Indian independence, whatever it took. She now decided to join him in jail. Having discussed the matter over with him in Deoli, she applied to become one of Gandhi’s handpicked satyagrahis, the select band of protestors who were willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives, to free India from colonial rule. It was the radical move, she told Olive, that was needed to get the job done and give the oppressed a voice. Freda was determined to live out her beliefs to the full, even if it meant leaving Ranga without both parents.
Conceived when Gandhi was working as a lawyer in South Africa, the Satyagraha movement was defined as the Force Born of Truth, Love, and Nonviolence. As his independence movement gathered increasing support, Gandhi rightly judged that a handpicked band of highly committed, disciplined individuals, his satyagrahis, would have a greater impact on public and official opinion than would mob unrest. Furthermore he would run less risk of losing control of them in the heat of the action. Freda explained, “The idea was that only the few would go to jail to protest for the many.”
It was a momentous decision, especially in light of the fact that they had already lost one child in the name of their political activities. Torn between compassion for the many and the care of her child, Freda chose the bigger picture. She reasoned that the many, suffering as they were under exploitation and poverty, had no one to champion them, whereas Ranga was surrounded by doting relatives, especially Bhabooji. In the end, as always, Freda followed the force of her convictions.
In the end, as always, Freda followed the force of her convictions.
“I didn’t want to make things worse on the domestic side, but on the other hand I felt I should back up the nationalist movement in whatever humble way I could, even if it meant suffering for some months in prison. I also wanted to support BPL and share what he was going through,” she reasoned.
Freda began to prepare. She arranged for BPL’s brother, the judge, to support her family financially while she was behind bars, and she also carefully explained to Ranga what she was going to do and why.
“Mummy swore me to secrecy. I couldn’t talk about it to anyone! I was really scared. I had this persistent raw feeling in the pit of my stomach. I remember one incident when Mummy took us to have our anti–cholera-and-typhoid injections and the doctor said, ‘Freda, it’s very wise to have these shots before offering Satyagraha,’ and the raw feeling intensified,” Ranga recalled.
Over the next few months she took her son back for extended visits to the family land at Dera Baba Nanak, where his paternal grandmother and her extended family were living, to acclimatize him to the impending separation. It was a clever move.
“I loved it at Bhabooji’s. I was given an endless supply of sweets, was allowed to stay up and sleep in late, and was given a pair of quails, and a parrot, and was made the sole egg collector. On my return to Fateh Chand College I could hardly wait for Mummy to go through with her plans.”
Accepted by Gandhi
Freda waited some time to be chosen, but she was finally accepted by Gandhi as his fifty-seventh satyagrahi—the first British woman to be admitted to his elite band. Instructions came: On no account was she to retaliate or resist if she were arrested or beaten. The main thrust of her protest, like that of all satyagrahis, was to speak out against “the crime” of involving India in Britain’s participation in World War II without first consulting the legislative assembly. Gandhi argued that to fight another nation’s war without personal choice was unacceptable. (Ironically, Freda seemed not to notice that Britain’s war was against fascism, the very thing that she, too, declared she loathed.)
She duly wrote to the district magistrate informing him that she intended to break the law by holding a mass rally during which she would urge the people not to support the military effort until India became a democracy and they could choose for themselves. But for all her outer composure, when the day came, Freda admitted she was scared.
“Suddenly I felt alone, agonizingly alone. I could have wept for my sheer aloneness. I wanted to talk to BPL, to have his cheery voice near me,” she said. “I suppose in all crises of our life we get that feeling of isolation as though we are treading a path into the future all alone, for all the love that surrounds us—when we first leave home, when we marry, when we have a choice to make at some crossroads of our life. Perhaps we feel like that when we are on the brink of death. And on the borders of that aloneness, there comes another feeling, of being given the strength to carry on, of not being alone anymore.”
“I suppose in all crises of our life we get that feeling of isolation as though we are treading a path into the future all alone, for all the love that surrounds us—when we first leave home, when we marry, when we have a choice to make at some crossroads of our life. Perhaps we feel like that when we are on the brink of death. And on the borders of that aloneness, there comes another feeling, of being given the strength to carry on, of not being alone anymore.”
Freda was buoyed up by the breadth of her vision, and the revolution she hoped she would ignite: “That spark will go on burning until it ignites a greater fire than the one from which it sprang. And you are the spark of a greater fire, although you barely know it,” she said.
The Biggest Protest
February 21, 1941, was the day Freda chose to make her biggest protest yet. However, in the hours beforehand, a comic cat-and-mouse game with the police was played out.
“First a local inspector arrived to inquire about her plans and to inform her she was being put under twenty-four-hour surveillance,” says Ranga. “Then several police surrounded the house and compound. Mummy’s response was to send tea and snacks out to them every few hours. In the meantime huge crowds were gathering, and the villagers, undeterred by the police presence, erected a small stage from which she could address the rally. The police tried to pull it down, but they could not get close enough. Their plan was to arrest her before she reached the stage.
“At four a.m., when it was still dark, the police burst into the house, but Mummy was nowhere to be found. They searched the surrounding farmhouses, but to no avail, so they started a rumor that she had already been arrested in the hope that the multitude would disperse. By now some forty thousand people had arrived by train, bullock cart, or on foot to witness an Englishwoman offering Satyagraha, and there was something of a carnival atmosphere.
“Mummy suddenly appeared, as if from nowhere. She had been hiding under the stage. It was the most dramatic event of my early life. Mummy was utterly calm, but I was shaking. She told the crowd that any form of violence or resistance to her arrest would defeat the cause and would deeply disappoint her, leading her to regard it as a failure of her mission. She went on to say she had chosen Dera because it was the home of Baba Nanak and the Bedi clan. Mummy then came over to me and gave me a big hug.”
Freda recounted, “A local policeman with a beard came forward politely. ‘Regretting it is my duty, but I must arrest you,’ he said. To his right was the English police inspector from Amritsar, who was there because they did not know how an Englishwoman might react when she was arrested. He was surprisingly small, in an unwieldy toupee and had a walrus mustache. He looked like Old Bill. I wanted to laugh, and the corners of my mouth twitched. ‘I am quite ready. Take me along with you,’ I said.”
It took Freda and the policemen at least thirty minutes to get through the throng, who were all shouting, “Freedom for India! Long live Gandhiji! Long live Comrade Bedi! Release the Detainees!” and were throwing garlands over the awaiting car. “Garlands are not allowed,” said Old Bill. The villagers peered wonderingly into the car as it sped Freda away.
At the police station the comedy continued. Following procedure, Old Bill asked her nationality. “English.” Where was she born? “Derby.” What color would she say her eyes were? “You might call them blue-gray.” She was taken swiftly on to the courtroom. The trial took fifteen minutes, with an embarrassed, red-faced young judge, fresh out of England, admitting to her, “I find this as embarrassing as you do.”
Freda looked directly into his eyes and replied, “Don’t worry, I don’t find it unpleasant at all. Treat me as an Indian woman and I will be quite content.”
After fumbling in his Defense of India rules book the judge handed her the sentence: six months’ rigorous imprisonment in Lahore female jail.
“Surely you mean Lahore Women’s Jail,” Freda replied archly, offended by his grammar.
The sentence was exceptionally harsh—no other satyagrahi was given as much. Freda reacted with customary composure, and with no anger or malice. There was even kindness. ‘Maybe it was because they wanted to make an example out of me, because I was English and the first Western woman to offer Satyagraha. Or maybe it was the ignorance of the young civil servant presiding at the trial. He gave the sentence regretfully and with many apologies. He was a decent sort of man,” she said.
Freda was just thirty years old when she went to jail. She had come a long way from the little watchmaker’s shop in Derby. In those years she had become a trailblazer, defying expectations and convention by marrying a Sikh, living in a left-wing commune, and raising literally thousands of people to insurrection by the power of her oratory—all in the name of humanity and justice.
This has been excerpted from The Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi: British Feminist, Indian Nationalist, Buddhist Nun.
The Unique Features of Buddhism
Buddhism is a unique spiritual system in many ways, while also sharing some fundamental similarities with the other Great Wisdom Traditions of humankind. But perhaps one of the most unique features is its understanding, in some schools, that its own system is evolving or developing. This is generally expressed in the notion of the “Three Great Turnings” of Buddhism, or three major stages of unfolding that Buddhism itself has undergone. These three Turnings are, first, Early Buddhism, now generally represented by the Theravada school and thought to contain the historical Gautama Buddha’s original teachings, originating in the great Axial period around the 6th century BCE; the Second Turning of the Wheel, represented by the Madhyamika school, founded by Nagarjuna around the 2nd century CE; and the Third (and final, to date) Great Turning of the Yogachara school, originating in the 2nd century CE but having its period of greatest productivity in the 4th century CE with the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu. As we mentioned, several Buddhists, particularly the Vajrayana schools, consider Tantra and its Vajrayana offshoots to be a “Fourth Turning,” which was particularly given form and sophistication at Nalanda University beginning around the 8th century CE.
Now the Madhyamika school, although critical of Early Buddhism in many ways, nonetheless transcends and includes many of its foundational teachings, while criticizing those notions it finds partial, limited, or incomplete. And the Yogachara school, particularly the 8th-century school called Yogachara-Svatantrika-Madhyamika attempted to integrate and synthesize all three Turnings. The Vajrayana schools likewise contain many of the teachings of the first Three Turnings, and then add their own deeply profound contributions, which, put briefly, focus not only on wisdom and compassion, but also luminosity and numerous skillful means.
The Fourth Great Turning of Buddhism
In other words, many adherents of Buddhism had a view that Buddhism itself was unfolding, with each new Turning adding something new and important to the overall Buddhist teaching itself. My point can now be put simply: many Buddhist teachers, agreeing with psychologists and sociologists that the world itself, at least in several important ways, is undergoing a global transformation, believe that this transformation will impact Buddhism itself, adding yet newer and more significant truths, and resulting in yet another unfolding, a Fourth Great Turning, of Buddhism. This Fourth Turning retains all the previous great truths of Buddhism, but also adds newer findings from fields as diverse as evolutionary biology and developmental psychology—but all of which are directly and significantly relevant to the field of spirituality itself (i.e., these are not just theoretically and speculatively oriented tack-ons). This new Turning, known by various names—from evolutionary Buddhism to Integral Buddhism—like all the previous Turnings, transcends yet includes its predecessors, adding new material while retaining all essentials. And what is so remarkable about this development is that it is completely in keeping with this general understanding that Buddhism has itself grasped—namely, that Buddhadharma is itself unfolding, growing, and evolving, responding to new circumstances and discoveries as it does so. Even the Dalai Lama has said, for example, that Buddhism must keep pace with modern science or it will grow old and obsolete.
This Fourth Turning retains all the previous great truths of Buddhism, but also adds newer findings from fields as diverse as evolutionary biology and developmental psychology—but all of which are directly and significantly relevant to the field of spirituality itself (i.e., these are not just theoretically and speculatively oriented tack-ons).
A brief glance at Buddhist history will show what is involved. Original Buddhism was founded on notions such as the difference between samsara (the source of suffering) and nirvana (the source of Enlightenment or Awakening); the 3 marks of samsaric existence—dukkha (or suffering), anicca (or impermanence), and anatta (or no-self); and the 4 Noble Truths: (1) Life as lived in samsara is suffering; (2) The cause of this suffering is craving or grasping; (3) To end craving or grasping is to end suffering; and (4) There is a way to do so, namely, the eightfold way—of right view, right intention, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentrative absorption.
The ultimate goal of Early Buddhism was to escape samsara entirely—the manifest realm of life, death, rebirth, old age, and sickness—by following the eightfold way and attaining nirvana. “Nirvana” means, essentially, formless extinction. The prefix “nir” means “without,” and “vana” has meant everything from desire to grasping to lust to craving for Form itself. The overall meaning is “blown out” or “extinguished.” According to some schools, there is even an extreme form of nirvana called nirodh—or complete cessation, where neither consciousness nor objects arise at all, and might be thought of as an infinite formlessness. Be that as it may, the goal is clear: get out of samsara and into nirvana.
Such was the basic form of Buddhism as practiced for almost 800 years. Until, that is, Nagarjuna, who began paying attention to this strange duality between samsara and nirvana. For Nagarjuna, there is no ontological difference between samsara and nirvana. The difference is epistemological only. Reality looked at through concepts and categories appears as samsara, while the same Reality looked at free of concepts and categories is nirvana. Samsara and nirvana are not-two, or “nondual”—two different aspects of the same thing. And this caused a major revolution in Buddhist thought and practice.
Nagarjuna relies on the “2 Truths” doctrine—there is relative or conventional truth, and there is absolute or ultimate Truth. Relative truth can be categorized, and is the basis of disciplines such as science, history, law, and so on. That water consists of 2 hydrogen and 1 oxygen atoms is a relative truth, for example. But ultimate Truth cannot be categorized at all. Based on what is known as the “4 Inexpressibles,” you can’t say that ultimate Reality is Being, nor not-Being, nor both, nor neither. You cannot say it is Self (atman), nor no-self (anatman), nor both, nor neither. And so on for any category. The reason is that any concept you come up with makes sense only in terms of its opposite (liberated versus bound, infinite versus finite, something versus nothing, implicate versus explicate, pleasure versus pain, and so on)—yet ultimate Reality has no opposite, and thus can’t be categorized at all (including that statement). Nagarjuna says, “It is neither void, nor not void, nor both, nor neither, but in order to point it out, it is called the Void.” The Void, shunyata, or Emptiness. It’s a radical “neti, neti”—“not this, not that”—except “neti, neti” is also denied as a characteristic.
Now what this does mean is that Emptiness, or ultimate Reality, is not separate from anything that is arising. It is the Emptiness of everything that is arising. Looked at free from conceptualization or categorization, everything that is arising is Emptiness, or Emptiness is the Reality of each and every thing in the manifest and unmanifest world—it is the Suchness or Thusness of each and every thing looked at directly as it is, not as it is named, judged, or categorized. Looked at through concepts and categories, the universe appears as samsara—as built of radically separate and isolated things and events, and grasping after those and attachment to them causes suffering. But looked at with prajna (nonconceptual awareness), the world of samsara is actually self-liberated nirvana. (In the word “prajna,” the “jna,” by the way, in English is “kno”—as in “knowledge”—or “gno”—as in “gnosis”—and “pra” is “pro”—so prajna is pro-gnosis, a nondual, unqualifiable knowledge or awareness, which brings Enlightenment or Awakening. Awakening to what? The radical Freedom or infinite Liberation of pure Emptiness, though those terms are at best metaphors.)
Samsara and Nirvana
Since there is no radical separation between samsara and nirvana (samsara and nirvana being “not-two,” or as the Heart Sutra summarizes nonduality, “That which is Emptiness is not other than Form; that which is Form is not other than Emptiness”), liberating Emptiness can be found anywhere in the world of Form. One no longer has to retreat to a monastery—away from the world, away from Form, away from samsara—in order to find Liberation. Samsara and nirvana have been joined, united, brought together into a single or nondual Reality. The goal is no longer the isolated saint or arhat, but the socially and environmentally engaged bodhisattva—which literally means “being of Enlightened mind”—whose vow is not to get off samsara and retreat into an isolated nirvana, but to fully embrace samsara and vow to gain Enlightenment as quickly as possible so as to help all sentient beings recognize their own deepest spiritual nature, or Buddhanature, and hence realize Enlightenment.
The goal is no longer the isolated saint or arhat, but the socially and environmentally engaged bodhisattva—which literally means “being of Enlightened mind”—whose vow is not to get off samsara and retreat into an isolated nirvana, but to fully embrace samsara and vow to gain Enlightenment as quickly as possible so as to help all sentient beings recognize their own deepest spiritual nature, or Buddhanature, and hence realize Enlightenment.
In one sweep, the two halves of the universe, so to speak—samsara and nirvana—were joined into one, whole, seamless (not featureless) Reality, and Buddhist practitioners were set free to embrace the entire manifest realm of samsara, not avoid it. The vow of the bodhisattva likewise became paradoxical, reflecting both pairs of opposites and not just half—no longer, “There are no others to save,” the arhat’s chant, but “There are no others to save, therefore I vow to save them all”—reflecting the truth of a samsara and nirvana joined, no longer torn in two.
The Madhyamika Notion of Emptiness
The Madhyamika notion of Emptiness became the foundation of virtually every Mahayana and Vajrayana school of Buddhism henceforth, becoming—as the title of T. R. V. Murti’s book has it, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (although “philosophy” is perhaps not the best word for a system whose goal is to transcend thought entirely).
But there were, nevertheless, still more unfoldings to occur. Particularly by the 4th century CE, the question had become insistent: granted that the Absolute cannot be categorized literally in dualistic terms and concepts, is there really nothing whatsoever that could be said about it at all? At least in the realm of conventional truth, couldn’t more systems, maps, models, and at least metaphors be offered about Reality and how to realize it?
Already, in such brilliant treatises as the Lankavatara Sutra, the answer was a resounding yes. The Lankavatara Sutra was so important it was passed down to their successors by all 5 of the first Chan (or Zen) Head-Founders in China, as containing the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. In fact, the early Chan school was often referred to as the Lankavatara school, and a history of this early period is entitled Records of the Lankavatara Masters. (Starting with the 6th Head-Founder, Hui Neng, the Diamond Sutra—a treatise solely devoted to pure Emptiness—displaced the Lankavatara, and in many ways Zen lost the philosophical and psychological sophistication of the Lankavatara system and focused almost exclusively on nonconceptual Awareness. Zen Masters were often depicted tearing up sutras, which really amounted to a rejection of the 2 Truths doctrine. This was unfortunate, in my opinion, because in doing so, Zen became less than a complete system, refusing to elaborate conventional maps and models. Zen became weak in relative truths, although it brilliantly succeeded in elaborating and practicing ultimate Truth.)
The Yogachara school came to fruition in the 4th century CE with the brilliant half brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu. Asanga was more a creative and original thinker, and Vasubandhu a gifted systematizer. Together they initiated or elaborated most of the tenets of what came to be known as Yogachara (meaning “practice of yoga”) or Vijnaptimatra (“consciousness only”) school of Buddhism, the Third Great Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.
What all schools of Yogachara have in common is some stance toward the relation of Emptiness and Consciousness. Given the fact that Emptiness and Form are not-two, then Emptiness itself is related to some everyday aspect of Form that the ordinary person is already aware of—in this case, pure Consciousness or unqualifiable everyday Awareness. All schools of Yogachara either equate Emptiness and unconstructed Consciousness directly and ultimately, or at least relatively as a useful orientation and guide for practitioners. For example, the Wikipedia article on Yogachara (I know . . . ) points out both the ultimate and relative view of the connection between Emptiness and Consciousness (or “Mind” with a capital “M”):
In this view, the Madhyamika position is ultimately true and at the same time the Mind-Only view is a useful way to relate to conventionalities and progress students more skillfully toward the ultimate. . . . [As for the view of an ultimate connection,] while the Madhyamaka held that asserting the existence or non-existence of any ultimately real thing was inappropriate, some exponents of Yogachara asserted that the Mind (or in the more sophisticated versions, primordial wisdom) and only the Mind is ultimately real. Yogachara terminology is also employed by the Nyingmapa [school of Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism] in attempting to describe the nondenumerable ultimate phenomenon which is the intended endpoint of Dzogchen practice. . . . [The point is that] the ultimate view in both schools is the same [Emptiness or Suchness, or pure, unqualifiable, nondual Empty Awareness], and each path leads to the same ultimate state of abiding.
(One of my favorite stanzas from Tibetan Buddhism summarizes all of this as follows: “All is Mind. Mind is Empty. Empty is freely manifesting. Freely manifesting is self-liberating.”)
The Yogachara extends this notion of unconstructed fundamental Consciousness into the idea of 8 (or 9) levels of consciousness, each a transformation of foundational consciousness. The first transformation gives rise to the storehouse consciousness, or the alaya. This contains the resultant experiences of all human beings, and the seeds for all future karmic ripening. The second transformation is called (by the Lankavatara) the manas, which is the self-contraction and self-view, which then looks at the alaya and misinterprets it as a permanent self or soul, and causes the alaya-vijnana to become tainted. The third transformation creates the concept of objects—of which, in standard Buddhist psychology, there are 6—the 5 senses, plus the mind (which in Buddhist psychology is treated as another sense) and its conceptual objects (the manovijnana), giving us 8 levels of consciousness (or 9 if you count the original, pure, unconstructed Consciousness as such, or primordial empty wisdom).
It’s important to realize that for Yogachara, it’s not phenomena (or manifest events or the elements of samsara) that cause illusion and suffering, but rather viewing phenomena as objects, viewing them through the subject-object duality. Instead of viewing objects as one with the viewer, they are viewed as existing “out there,” separate, isolated, dualistically independent, tearing the wholeness of Reality into two realms—a subject versus objects. This—a product of the dualistic self-contraction of the manas and the tainted alaya-vijnana—converts Reality in its Suchness or Thusness or pure Isness into an illusory, broken, fragmented, dualistic world, attachment to which causes bondage and suffering.
This state of bondage, itself illusory, can be seen through by—quoting scholar Sung-bae Park—“a sudden revulsion, turning, or re-turning of the alaya-vijnana back to its original state of purity. The Mind returns to (or is recognized as) its original condition of non-attachment, non‑discrimination, and non-duality” (Buddhist Faith and Sudden Enlightenment [Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1983]). In other words, by recognizing the ever-present state of Emptiness. Although most Yogacharins insisted that the end state of Emptiness of the Madhyamika is the same as in Yogachara, there is an unmistakably more positive tone to the Yogachara—certainly in the concept of Mind-Only, but also in how nonduality is conceived. For Madhyamika, nonduality is an utter blank—at least to the mind’s conceptions, although that blankness is actually seeing Reality exactly as it is, in its Suchness or Thusness, without names, concepts, categories, or prejudices. While Yogachara wouldn’t specifically disagree, it more positively defines Emptiness and nonduality as “the absence of duality between perceiving subject and the perceived object.” Again, it’s not phenomena that are illusory or suffering-inducing, but seeing phenomena as objects, as items set apart from consciousness or the subject, and existing as independent entities out there. Once they are separated from us, then we can either desire them or fear them, both eventually causing suffering, alienation, and bondage.
Tantra and the Flowering of the Third Great Turning
Now this slightly more positive view of Emptiness, not to mention its connection to Consciousness (as Zen would put it, following the Lankavatara Sutra, “The ordinary mind, just that is the way”), acted to unify Emptiness and Form in an even stronger way than Madhyamika’s revolutionary nonduality. And this had a direct hand in the creation of Tantra (and its close cousin, Vajrayana Buddhism), the real flowering of the Third Great Turning.
Tantra was developed primarily at the great Nalanda University in India from the 8th to the 11th centuries CE. For Tantra, what Early Buddhism (and most other religions) considered sins, poisons, or defilements were actually, precisely because of the union of Emptiness and Form, in reality the seeds of great transcendental wisdom. The poison of anger, for example, instead of being denied, uprooted, or repressed, as in so many other approaches, was rather entered directly with nondual Awareness, whereupon it discloses its core wisdom, that of pure clarity. Passion, when entered and embraced with nondual Awareness, transmutes into universal compassion. And so on.
Where the First Turning was the way of renunciation—denying negative states as part of despised samsara—and the Second Turning was the way of transformation—working on a negative state with wisdom until it converted to a positive state—the Third Turning and its Tantric correlate was the way not of renunciation or transformation but the way of transmutation—of looking directly into a negative state of Form in order to directly recognize its already-present state of Emptiness or Primordial Wisdom. The motto here is “Bring everything to the Path.” Nothing—absolutely nothing—is taboo—food, alcohol, sex, money—all are to be deeply befriended and lovingly embraced (within, of course, sane limits) as being ornaments of Spirit itself, direct manifestations of the ultimate Divine or Dharmakaya. And all of this because the sacred and the profane, the infinite and the finite, nirvana and samsara, Emptiness and Form, are not two different and separate and fragmented realms, but co-arising, mutually existing, complementary aspects of one Whole Reality, equally to be embraced and cherished.
Where the First Turning was the way of renunciation—denying negative states as part of despised samsara—and the Second Turning was the way of transformation—working on a negative state with wisdom until it converted to a positive state—the Third Turning and its Tantric correlate was the way not of renunciation or transformation but the way of transmutation—of looking directly into a negative state of Form in order to directly recognize its already-present state of Emptiness or Primordial Wisdom.
It was that view, which was a foundation of Tantra and Vajrayana—still prevalent in Tibet (or, alas, the Tibetan community, with Tibet brutally overrun by the Chinese) and truly radical in its nature—that many considered a genuine “Fourth Turning.” It was as if the secrets of the world of Form—too long denied, repressed, negatively judged, blamed for all sin and illusion, and ultimately rejected—actually began to give up their divine secrets when viewed as being a manifestation or ornament of Spirit itself. The ultimately wildly Free nature of Emptiness was conjoined with the radically luminous and Full nature of Form (where Emptiness is not something different than Form, but the actual Emptiness of all Form) to divulge an infinite Wholeness of self-existing, self-aware, self-liberating, radiant Reality of What there is and All there is, with the secrets of the Form side of the street providing endless new varieties of skillful means (or upaya) when directly recognized (yeshe, rigpa) as self-liberating Spirit (Svabhavikakaya, or Integrated Body of Truth, and Vajrakaya, or ultimate self-liberating Diamond Truth). Every single phenomenon, when viewed and experienced apart from Spirit, was a source of pain and suffering (dukkha), while the same phenomenon, seen as an ornament of Spirit, was a source of potential wisdom, compassion, skillful means, and playful luminosity, all arising as textures of the Primordial Buddha—to give one painfully abbreviated summary of an extraordinarily rich topic.
So, what of a possible New Turning of the Wheel? After Vajrayana and Tantra, where we bring everything to the path, what else is possibly left to bring to Buddhism that it doesn’t already have? Is this for real, or is it just some inflated, arrogant nonsense?
Well, let’s see.
This has been excerpted from Integral Buddhism: And the Future of Spirituality.
A Commentary on The Way of the Bodhisattva by H. H. the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Many Kinds of Wisdom
All these branches of the Doctrine
The Enlightened Sage expounded for the sake of wisdom.
Therefore they must cultivate this wisdom
Who wish to have an end of suffering.
There are many kinds of wisdom. There is, for example, the relative type of wisdom gained through the study of the five major traditional sciences. There is also the wisdom of working for the benefit of others. When Shāntideva says here that “all these branches of the Doctrine were expounded for the sake of wisdom,” he is referring to the wisdom that is the realization of emptiness, the true nature of things. This is absolute wisdom.
In order to realize emptiness, we do not actually need the first five pāramitās, and they are not even essential for developing clear insight for vipashyanā. But as we shall see, they are necessary if we wish to benefit other beings.
Nāgārjuna says in the Seventy Verses on Emptiness:
Thus the Buddha said:
All things arise from causes and conditions;
To view them as real is ignorance
From this arise the twelve interdependent links.
Further, it is said in the Four Hundred Verses:
The seed of existence is consciousness;
Phenomena are the field of consciousness.
If we see the nonreality of things,
We destroy the seed of existence.
These passages can be interpreted in various ways, but according to the tradition of Chandrakīrti, which is the one to which Shāntideva adhered, the teaching of Nāgārjuna and his lineage says that to cling to the self as a real entity is to be ignorant, and the ignorance of believing that phenomena truly exist constitutes one of the twelve interdependent links. This gives rise to saṃsāric existence, which in turn is another of the twelve interdependent links.
The second passage states that the seed of this saṃsāric existence is the kind of consciousness that has objects, or phenomena, as its field of experience. If these objects are understood to be devoid of ultimate reality, this seed of existence is undermined, and it is completely destroyed when the wisdom of realizing that phenomena are without true existence is perfectly developed.
All schools of Buddhism, with one minor exception, agree that the notion of a personal self, the “I,” is dependent upon the five aggregates. They reject the belief in a self that exists independently of these aggregates. The theory of selflessness, however, goes much further than the denial of the personal “I.” For one must aim to realize that all phenomena are empty, or devoid of true existence, and have in fact a mode of being that is extremely subtle.
As we have said, when we see that phenomena or objects of consciousness are devoid of any true entity, the seed of existence is destroyed. The reverse of this understanding is to cling to the belief that things have a solid reality, and this is the definition of ignorance.
Freedom from Negative Emotions
It is a mistake to believe that those who practice the lower vehicles are unable to free themselves from negative emotions and thereby attain liberation from saṃsāra. Indeed, to think like this is a major breach of the Bodhisattva precepts. When those who follow the paths of the Shrāvakas and Pratyekabuddhas become Arhats, they completely rid themselves of the obscurations engendered by negative emotions. They must also have a realization of emptiness, otherwise they would not be freed from samsāra. The wisdom of understanding emptiness in fact gives rise to three types of enlightenment: that of the Shrāvakas, that of the Pratyekabuddhas, and that of the Bodhisattvas.
When Shāntideva says, “All these branches of the Doctrine / The Enlightened Sage expounded for the sake of wisdom,” he is referring to the wisdom of the Bodhisattvas and not to the mere insight into emptiness cultivated by the Shrāvakas and Pratyekabuddhas as they progress upon their respective paths. What, then, is special about the Bodhisattvas’ wisdom? Why do they meditate on emptiness? Bodhisattvas aim to rid themselves not only of the obscurations created by negative emotions but also of the obscurations that are obstacles to knowledge. They must free themselves from the former before they can deal with the latter.
Nevertheless, it may be said that in certain circumstances negative emotions provide the occasion for a good result, as when the cherishing of others arises through desire. As the proverb says, “Foul sewage from the city of Serkya fertilizes the fields of sugarcane.” In fact, however, the Bodhisattvas’ real enemies, and the greatest hindrances in their work for others, are the obscurations that veil omniscience. But since these consist in the residual traces left by negative emotions, it follows that the latter must be abandoned before the obstacles to knowledge can be removed.
Thus, when Bodhisattvas meditate on emptiness, their aim is mainly to dispel these obstacles to knowledge. In order to do this, it is not enough simply to have an intellectual understanding of the subtle nature of things. The wisdom that dispels these obscurations must be supported by such practices as generosity and the other pāramitās. The Buddha taught these different practices so that Bodhisattvas could attain the clear insight through which they might dispel obstacles to knowledge and then work for the benefit of others.
Generating Wisdom to Put an End to Suffering
In talking about generating wisdom to put an end to suffering, Shāntideva is referring to the suffering of all beings. After all, this text is about the activities of the Bodhisattva, and have we not only recently discussed what is wrong with cherishing oneself and why it is important to think of others?
When generosity and so forth are practiced as pāramitās, are practiced with an understanding that the subject, object, and the action itself are all devoid of true existence, these acts become very profound and completely transcend ordinary generosity and so on.
We should note that Shāntideva talks about generosity first and places the topic of wisdom only at the end. He had a reason for this. In the Compendium of All Practices, just before beginning his exposition of emptiness, he shows with numerous quotations from the sūtras that the Buddha himself, before broaching the same subject, would speak about the unattractiveness and impermanence of phenomena and about the nature of suffering. One might almost think that the world of phenomena was the main subject of his teaching, for it was only in conclusion that he would say that things have no true, objective existence. There was, however, an extremely important reason for his proceeding in this way. To begin with, he would discuss the positive and negative aspects of things, laying the ground for a clear understanding of the unfailing functioning of relative truth, according to which things do indeed exist. It was on the basis of their relative existence that the Buddha explained that phenomena are empty by their nature. Only where there is a basis is it possible to assert emptiness. As it is said: “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” Because there is form, we can talk about its nonexistence. If there were no form, there could not be emptiness of form. As there are phenomena that we can talk about as being empty, we say there is a basis for emptiness. Without that basis, emptiness would be inconceivable.
An explanation of the practices of the first five pāramitās, starting with generosity, gives us a clear view of the basis for emptiness.
When, for example, we practice generosity to remove for ourselves and others all suffering due to poverty, we are cognizant of the relative truth of cause and effect. When it is subsequently explained that, in absolute truth, all this is actually devoid of real existence, we are already firmly grounded in relative truth and are thus protected from erring into the philosophical extremes of nihilism or eternalism.
Relative and ultimate,
These the two truths are declared to be.
The ultimate is not within the reach of intellect,
For intellect is said to be the relative.
A distinction is made, with regard to knowable things, between the relative (conventional) and the absolute (ultimate) truth. According to the root text, absolute truth cannot be perceived by the intellect.
As we find in the Prajñāpāramitā:
The pāramitā of wisdom is inconceivable, inexpressible, and indescribable.
It is not born; it does not cease; it is like space.
Only the awakened mind can comprehend it.
Before the Mother of all the Buddhas, I bow down!
Again, the Vajra Cutter Sūtra says:
The absolute nature of the Buddhas,
The absolute body of the spiritual guides,
Cannot be understood by the intellect.
The reason for this, as Shāntideva says, is that the intellect is something that exists on the level of relative truth. However, the interpretation of this point is delicate, because later in the text we shall read about another kind of intellect and intelligence. Shāntideva continues:
In light of this, within the world, two kinds of people are observed:
Those with yogic insight and the common run of people.
In this regard, the views of ordinary folk
Are undermined by yogis who themselves are in the world
(Within whose ranks
The lower, in degrees of insight, are confuted by the higher)
By means of the examples that the yogis and the worldly both accept.
And for the sake of the result, analysis is left aside.
When the text speaks about insight or intelligence, it is referring to the understanding of lack of true existence. In the use of discriminating wisdom to analyze phenomena, the different schools gain different levels of this understanding, and those with more advanced philosophical views confute those with less advanced views.
Types of Discriminating Wisdom
Again, there are two kinds of discriminating wisdom. One discriminates things concerning relative truth, and the other discriminates things concerning absolute truth. Here in the text, insight, or intelligence, refers to discriminating wisdom that analyzes the absolute nature of things and not intelligence in its more general sense concerning relative phenomena. And if the verse is considered in terms of the profound path and the vast path, it is the profound path that is referred to.
It is said in the Entrance to the Middle Way: “One who is at the level further to go has superior intelligence.” When a Bodhisattva reaches the seventh level, which is called further to go, his intelligence surpasses that of a Shrāvaka or Pratyekabuddha. Until then, Bodhisattvas on the first level upward surpass the Shrāvakas and Pratyekabuddhas because of their family, not because of the power of their intelligence, or their understanding of emptiness. Only when they reach the seventh level is their intelligence superior. It is also said that at this point they surpass the Shrāvakas and Pratyekabuddhas in their ability, in a single instant, to enter into and arise from the concentration of perfect cessation.
When Shāntideva says that absolute truth cannot be perceived by intellect, he is referring not to the intelligence that discerns absolute truth but to the obscured intelligence that conceives the dichotomy of subject and object. Absolute truth is something that we have to experience with a mind free of concepts and in which there are no such dualistic notions. Relative truth is what is perceived by the conceptual, dualistic intelligence.
Absolute and Relative Truths
The non-Buddhist traditions of ancient India also talked about absolute and relative truths. The Sāṃkhyas, for example, regarded the primal substance as absolute truth, and the rest of the twenty-five objects of knowledge (such as the Self) as relative truth. Even between the different Buddhist schools—the Vaibhāshika, Sautrāntika, Chittamātrin and Mādhyamika—the two truths are explained in slightly different ways.
The term relative is sometimes called an obscuring truth and sometimes a conventional truth, depending on the context. And absolute truth can also have many different meanings. The Treatise on the Center and Extremes speaks of absolute absolute truth, practiced absolute truth, and attained absolute truth. Again, in the supreme Mantrayāna one speaks of the absolute luminosity. Moreover, to explain the specific practices of the Mantrayāna, the two truths are explained in different ways. For example, the illusory and temporary aspect of phenomena is related to relative truth, while their aspect of primordial continuity is related to absolute truth.
So when we talk about the absolute truth, we should always do so with reference to the context, whether Sūtrayāna or Mantrayāna, and if Mantrayāna, to the particular tantra. We should then gain a precise understanding of absolute truth within that context. This is very important. If we try to apply only a general understanding of absolute truth to some specific text, we can get very confused.
It is said in the Root Verses of the Middle Way that the teachings of the Buddha rely on the two truths: the truth of the relative world and the supreme, absolute truth. This is explained in detail in the Entrance to the Middle Way, which says that, as all phenomena are perceived both correctly and mistakenly, we apprehend their nature in two ways. What is correctly perceived is absolute truth, and what is perceived incorrectly is relative truth. This refers to the findings of nonconceptual experience, related to absolute truth, and those of conceptual analysis, related to relative truth. It is on the basis of these that we establish our understanding of emptiness. But here we are only talking about the nonconceptual experience of the absolute truth. With this exception, the ways of distinguishing the truths are the same as in the Entrance to the Middle Way.
Why do we need to realize emptiness? We do not wish to suffer, and we know that the root of suffering is the untamed mind. Because the mind perceives and understands things mistakenly, negative emotions arise and the mind is never at peace. This is why we suffer. To avoid this, we must develop the unmistaken mind, the intelligence that perceives the true nature of phenomena. Mistaken perception arises because we fail to see things as they are.
Much of what we perceive we perceive in a mistaken way, seeing things not as they truly are. This is how we become deluded. To avoid this, we should not accept our perceptions just as we experience them. It is very important to analyze and investigate whether we are seeing things as they truly are. We should ask ourselves what our perceptions are masking. If we do this, an understanding of the two truths will arise in our minds.
All we perceive—mountains, houses, and so on—affect us in one way or another. We need to investigate their real nature. Our perceptions, and the positive and negative aspects that we attribute to them, constitute relative truth. Relative truth is what we find when we experience the multiplicity of phenomena in a relative way, without going any further in analyzing their nature. The findings of the analysis by the conventional mind constitute relative truth.
If, according to absolute truth, things have no true existence, why do we speak of relative truth as truth? Because it is true for the perceiver. It is true for the mind clouded by ignorance, which believes in the reality of its perceptions. As the Entrance to the Middle Way says, that which is altered and obscured by ignorance and is perceived as real is called relative truth.
For which mind is the multiplicity of phenomena true? It can only be the confused ignorant mind that believes that things exist objectively. The true nature of things is obscured by the mind’s ignorant clinging to things and to the way they function. Thus, relative truth is based on the findings of the mind that examines things in a conventional way. If we analyze further and try to see the true nature of phenomena, we can find the ultimate nature of reality. Here we distinguish between the way things appear (relative truth) and the way they are (absolute truth), which is what is perceived by the undeluded mind.
There are two ways of approaching absolute truth: a positive idea of it can be gained through listening, reflecting, and meditating, and an understanding of it in terms of negation can be gained by analysis. It stands to reason that if one can find through analysis anything that truly exists, one should also be able to find it through listening, reflecting, and meditating. But the fact is, what one can find through listening, reflecting, and meditating cannot be found by analysis. The absolute nature, for example, is something that can be experienced through listening, reflecting, and meditating. When one investigates the nature of the individual and of all phenomena, one finds that their nature is emptiness. This emptiness is an absolute truth that is apparent to the mind. One can see it with one’s awareness. Once it has been experienced, it is not necessary to demonstrate it again. By referring to one’s experience of this nature, one can recall it. Its existence is true, and one does not have to rely on argument to prove that it exists. So when one has some confidence that no phenomena truly exist, one does not need to have this explained again or to repeat the investigation. This absolute nature that is established through listening, reflecting, and meditating is something we can experience.
The Emptiness of Emptiness
However, when one looks for this absolute nature or emptiness, and tries to find where it is, one cannot find it. Its nature is nonexistent. When one makes the absolute nature (that one experienced through listening, reflecting, and meditating) the object of analysis, one cannot find it. This is why it is called nonexistent by nature. To take an example, we can say that a vase has the nature of emptiness, but when we look for that emptiness, it is nonexistent. All we can find is the emptiness of emptiness, but we cannot find emptiness. What has been found by experiencing it through listening, reflecting, and meditating cannot be found through such analysis.
This is an important point. The understanding of absolute truth that comes from listening, reflecting, and meditating is something that exists and can be experienced. But in the absolute truth that appears through the analysis even of emptiness itself, there is nothing that exists.
This has been excerpted from The Bodhisattva Guide: A Commentary on The Way of the Bodhisattva.
The Buddhist, Black Experience
Originally published in 2014
What I propose is a spiritual revolution.
—His Holiness the Dalai Lama
The State of Black America
In his 1970 work, Buddhist Ethics, Hammalawa Saddhatissa writes in the preface, “Strictly speaking, Buddhism is not a religion in the generally accepted sense of the word, and it would be more accurate to describe it as an ethico-philosophy to be practiced by each follower. And it is only by practice, by an uphill spiritual struggle, that happiness in life either present or future, as well as the goal of Nibbāna, can possibly be attained.” For this conference, I was asked to discuss some of the implications of this ethical philosophy for black America, and also ways it might relate to the civil rights movement. These issues are matters that I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about, but for me this is not merely an academic discussion. Rather, I see it as a matter of life and death for black Americans. Let me try to explain what I mean by that.
Like the narrator of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, many black Americans today possibly feel “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The reason is because, as Eugene Robinson explained in an April 4, 2008, article in the Washington Post, there are actually two very culturally different black Americas as this new millennium begins.
In one profile, black Americans appear in every walk of life and profession. They are millionaires, even billionaires, having earned their wealth in business, sports, and entertainment. (Beyonce Knowles last December gave her husband, Jay-Z, whose fortune is worth $450 million, the most expensive car in the world, a Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport priced at $2 million; a month later Oprah Winfrey premiered her own network, appropriately named OWN; and Kanye West just spent $180,000 for a watch in his own image, which is only slightly less than the $250,000 that rapper Usher paid a New York luxury watch company to create a timepiece with his face on it.) But in a different, grim, and depressing portrait, 25 percent of black Americans live in poverty. That percentage in 2011 may become even higher after what we call the Great Recession, which pushed members of the fragile black middle class into the ranks of the poor. 71 percent of black babies are born out of wedlock and over half of black children (56 percent) are fatherless. In America’s prisons, where on average the 2.25 million persons incarcerated in 2006 had fewer than eleven years of schooling, about half are black. One in nine black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-four is in prison. While black people represented 13 percent of the US population in 2005, they were the victims of 49 percent of all murders, 15 percent of rapes, assaults, and other violent crimes nationwide, and most of the black murder victims—93 percent—were killed by other black people. In 2008, the black male high school graduation rate in Baltimore, Maryland, dropped to 25 percent, was 50 percent in Chicago, and in California ten thousand black students (42 percent) quit school. And to these dire figures we must add the fact that nearly six hundred thousand blacks have the AIDS virus, with their rate of death two and a half times that of whites who have been infected.
A report published last November  by the Council of the Great City Schools, entitled “A Call for Change,” states that “the nation’s young black males are in a state of crisis” and describes their condition as “a national catastrophe.” This report shows that
black boys on average fall behind from their earliest years. Black mothers have a higher infant mortality rate and black children are twice as likely as whites to live in a home where no parent has a job. In high school, African-American boys drop out at nearly twice the rate of white boys, and their SAT scores are on average 104 points lower. In college, black men represented just 5 percent of students in 2008.
Commenting on this situation, Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, said, “There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten. They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.”
The Quest for Identity and Liberty
The “sociological and historical forces” Ferguson refers to were also identified as the origin of this contemporary problem a few years ago by Adjoa Aiyetoro, then director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers, who said, “One of the issues we deal with every day is the vestiges of our enslavement, and our post-enslavement in this country has been such that it has beat us down as a people in so many ways.” If there was an essence or eidos for black life during slavery and the seventy years of racial segregation that followed it, that invariant meaning would have to be craving, and the quest for identity and liberty.
Legal segregation ended a little less than fifty years ago, within living memory for some of us. And today, the syndicated columnist Bob Herbert, writing about the dismal education report published in November, described this current situation in the post–civil rights period as a “raging fire that is consuming the life prospects of so many young blacks.” “Cultural change comes hard,” he said, “and takes a long time, but nothing short of profound cultural change is essential.” This feeling that a new way of thinking is necessary was expressed even earlier by one of the icons of the civil rights movement, John Lewis. “If King could speak to us today,” Congressman Lewis said in 1994,
he would say, in addition to doing something about guns, he would say there needs to be a revolution of values, a revolution of ideas in the black community. He would say we need to accept nonviolence not simply as a technique or as a means to bring about social justice, but we need to make it a way of life, a way of living.
So this is an old problem, one I’ve witnessed my entire life; and, like John Lewis, I’m old enough to remember Dr. Martin Luther King’s concern with the interplay between the personal and the political. “We must work on two fronts,” he said. “On the one hand we must continually resist the system of segregation—the system which is the basic cause of our lagging standards; on the other hand, we must work constructively to improve the lagging standards which are the effects of segregation. There must be a rhythm of alteration between attacking the cause and healing the effects.” And in his sermon “Rediscovering Lost Values,” delivered on February 28, 1954, at Detroit’s Second Baptist Church, King railed against “relativistic ethics,” “pragmatism” applied to questions of right and wrong, and the “prevailing attitude in our culture,” which he described as “survival of the slickest.” King knew that we have a “culture” for young black males that catches them up in gangs, despair, fatherlessness, drugs, prison, anti-intellectualism, and antisocial behavior by the time they are eight years old. We have created obstacles, traps, and racial minefields for young black men, and long demonized them as violent, criminal, stupid, lazy, and irresponsible. This conversation that “people are unwilling to have” is obviously one that we must begin if we want young, black American males to no longer be “an endangered species,” as some people have described them, and if we want them to survive in the highly competitive, global, knowledge-driven economies of the twenty-first century. I’m convinced that in terms of what we traditionally call “ethics,” the twenty-six-hundred-year-old Dharma of Buddhism must be part of that conversation.
In 2003, Turning Wheel, the journal of socially engaged Buddhism, devoted a special issue to “Black Dharma.” In that issue, Rebecca Walker, the daughter of the writer Alice Walker and a well-known Buddhist writer herself, interviewed the Vajrayana teacher Choyin Rangdröl. Last year, Rebecca informed me that she and Lama Rangdröl, whom she met at the first black American Buddhist retreat in 2002 at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California, are now married. During that interview, she asked him, “What led to your decision to bring the Dharma to African Americans?” He replied, “When I discovered that it was possible to avoid becoming ensnared in the mentality of an angry black man by applying Buddhism, I felt I had found a great treasure not just for me but also for resonance in millions of black people’s minds.”
Equally interesting is a 2003 interview in Tricycle with George Mumford, a sports psychologist who teaches vipassana meditation to the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, and who overcame years of drug and alcohol addiction. “I came to Buddhist practice because I had dukkha, dukkha, dukkha,” said Mumford. “Excuse my language, but my ass was on fire. My life depended on meditation practice. . . . I got into Twelve Step recovery and lo and behold, I had pain, I had to deal with a lot of chronic pain—migraines, headaches, back aches. And emotional pain and spiritual pain.” Mumford then discovered vipassana, the practice taught worldwide with such success by Satya Narayan Goenke. Mumford reports, “I learned that I could control my mind. No matter what happened to me, I could choose my response to it. I had lived in fantasy all my life. Once I started getting involved in meditation, I realized that I did have an alternative. It was the first time I had a sense of control in my life.”
“I think the main benefit of meditation for inner-city African Americans,” he added,
is impulse control. The inner city is a pressure cooker, full of tension and anxiety. It’s easy to go off or to reach for something to ease the pain. Meditation helps people understand the operation of their minds and emotions. It teaches us how to detach ourselves from outside provocation and from our habitual patterns of reaction. Now, I’m not suggesting that we should take abuse and racism and all that other stuff, and just breathe in, breath out. That’s something else. But the first thing we have to do is have control of ourselves, and then we can choose with a clear mind.
Just in passing, I think it’s important to say that Mumford states that all his uncles were alcoholics and died at a young age. His father was an alcoholic, too, and violent toward his family. Mumford confesses, “I knew the taste of beer before I could walk. At fifteen or sixteen, I started snorting heroin.” The dilemma he faced is one that is not uncommon for all the at-risk young black men I mentioned at the start of this talk, the ones who succumb in adolescence (or preadolescence) to the group pressure of gangs, substance abuse, and criminal behavior. But Mumford discovered vipassana, a tool for analyzing and rebuilding his world at its source: the mind. This is one of the beauties of the Buddhadharma. Instead of simply proclaiming what we should do, it shows us how to extend compassion from ourselves to even our so-called enemies through spiritual techniques and algorithms—for example, the five steps of the metta meditation. I believe young black males (and females) should begin the practice of meditation at the earliest age. In 2010, researchers at the University of Cambridge took 155 boys from two schools in the United Kingdom, and put them on a crash course in mindfulness training. After the trial period, the fourteen-and fifteen-year-old boys were “found to have increased well-being, defined as the combination of feeling good (including positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, interest and affection) and functioning well.” The researcher behind this project, Professor Felicia Huppert, said, “We believe that the effects of mindfulness training can enhance well-being in a number of ways . . . calming the mind and observing experiences with curiosity and acceptance not only reduces stress but helps with attention control and emotion regulation—skills which are valuable both inside and outside the classroom.”
Vipassana has also proven to be effective at the William G. Donaldson Correction Facility, an overcrowded prison in Alabama. There, one third of the fifteen hundred inmates convicted of murder, sex offenses, and robbery are on death row or serving sentences of life without parole. The inmates at this facility were the subject of a 2007 documentary called The Dhamma Brothers, and what they have done has become a model for other prisons. In 2002, forty inmates met four times a year in the prison gym for an intense ten-day course in mindfulness training. Dr. Ronald Cavanaugh, the prison’s treatment director, reported that after this experience, “the inmates are less angry, better able to conduct themselves, they’re more mindful of themselves and others, and overall there has been a 20% reduction of disciplinary action for those who have completed the course.”
The Relevance of Dharma to Black Suffering
The historical and present-day suffering experienced by black Americans creates a natural doorway into the Dharma. Dr. Jan Willis has been identified as the first black American scholar-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism. She is an esteemed scholar of religion and East Asian studies at Wesleyan, where she has taught for thirty years, and is the author of a moving memoir entitled Dreaming Me: From Baptist to Buddhist, One Woman’s Spiritual Journey. In 2009, she received the Outstanding Woman in Buddhism award for her work on behalf of Buddhist nuns, specifically her cofounding in 1995 a nunnery that houses fifty Buddhist nuns ages forty-two to eighty-three in India. “People of color,” said Willis in an interview, “because of our experience of the great and wrenching historical dramas of slavery, colonization, and segregation, understand suffering in a way that our white brothers and sisters do not.” That understanding, she said, provides a kind of “head start” in comprehending essential elements in Buddhist philosophy.
For Dr. Willis, like Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhism and Christianity, the religion historically associated with black Americans, are not in conflict. “I can use Buddhist methods,” she said, “to practice Baptist ideals.” This sidestepping of an apparent conflict based on dualistic thinking is made possible because the Dharma—or teachings—is wisdom not monopolized by the cultures of the Far East. For a Buddhist, this approach of “both/and” as opposed to “either/or” is made possible by the condition of dependent origination, pratitya samutpada, which describes all conditioned phenomena as arising from a concatenation of causes, and this makes all phenomena interdependent and interconnected. Thich Nhat Hanh, who has an image of Jesus in his place of meditation, refers to this ontology as “interbeing.” So aspects of the Dharma are as easily discovered in Western and black American culture as they are in Eastern ones, in Christianity as well as Islam, because the Buddhist experience is the human experience. If one looks closely one can see some of its elements in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius; in the Rhineland sermons of Meister Eckhart; in Hume’s critique of the self in A Treatise of Human Nature; in George Washington’s advice on how best to select one’s friends (which echoes the advice offered in the Rhinoceros Sutra); and in the aphorisms the writer Jean Toomer published in his book Essentials and in his 1937 poem “Blue Meridian.” In other words, we only call ourselves “Buddhists” for the sake of convenience in a world attached to labels. Some practitioners simply say they are “students of the Dharma.” Others do not identify or label themselves at all.
Jan Willis, Lama Rangdröl, Mumford, Walker, the Zen teacher Angel Kyodo Williams, and the approximately fifteen thousand black practitioners of Soka Gakkai (Nichiren) Buddhism, who chant chapters of the Lotus Sutra, belong to the first black generation in America to recognize the relevance of the Dharma for the specific historical and existential forms of suffering that are the residue of slavery and racial segregation in a very Eurocentric country; and they believe this practice may satisfy John Lewis’s call for “a revolution of values . . . of ideas in the black community,” a revolution that encourages nonviolence as “a way of life.” Like their black predecessors, the law of their lives—their historical inheritance—is the quest for liberation. They wish to be free. Truly free. This first-wave, new generation of black American Buddhists includes in its ranks politicians like Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson, a member of Soka Gakkai International; entertainers such as Tina Turner; and the jazz great Herbie Hancock, who in a 2007 interview for Beliefnet said,
The idea of cause and effect, which is what Nam-myoho-rengekyo is about, made sense to me. I’m a guy that’s always been attracted to science—and cause and effect is what science is about. . . . The cool thing is that jazz is really a wonderful example of the great characteristics of Buddhism and the great characteristics of the human spirit. Because in jazz we share, we listen to each other, we respect each other, we are creating in the moment. At our best we’re nonjudgmental. If we let judgment get in the way of improvising, it always screws us up. So we take whatever happens and try to make it work. . . . At the same time—and just think about this—within the life of a human being is the universe. So, we all have the universe inside at our core.
Clearly, Mr. Hancock does not have an image of himself based on his being in any way “inferior” or a “victim.” Those conceptualizations can poison the mind and the human spirit. He is not mired in a past that cannot be recovered or a future that will never come, but instead works to anchor himself “in the moment.” Like Lama Rangdröl, he is not ensnared in the debilitating, bitter, polarizing, clichéd “mentality of an angry black man.” And Hancock’s comparison of his egoless listening and nonjudgmental approach as a jazz musician to the Dharma reminds us that Buddhist practice has much in common with the process we associate with creating art, which demands openness to all phenomena.
Creating a “Beloved Community”
The black American practitioners I’ve presented, all representing different branches (or traditions) of the bodhi tree, have seen in Buddhist practice the most revolutionary and civilized of possible human choices, one that extends King’s dream of the “beloved community,” especially in terms of the Dharma’s emphasis on addressing the “second front” Dr. King told us we must not neglect. One thing that is essential for this spiritual revolution is ahimsa, doing no harm to other sentient beings and ourselves. You need only to pick up today’s newspaper to see that the world in which we live, and our enveloping culture, is saturated through and through with violence, all manner and degrees of violence in our dualistic ways of thinking, our actions, our speech, and even in our forms of popular entertainment. And this has been so for a very long time. I mentioned slavery and segregation, two social arrangements that could only be maintained through systematic, institutional violence. But I could also mention the political violence in our time, from the assassinations of King, Malcolm X, both Kennedys, and so many others in the 1960s to the recent shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killing of six others, including a nine-year-old girl, in Arizona. Historically, we are a violent nation. And it is violence and anger more than anything else that we must “let go.” But we need clear, practical guidelines to do that.
In the Buddhist world, the Ten Precepts are commonly found among many traditions. They are taken by laity and monks alike, and I took them in the Soto Zen school with the mendicant monk and peace activist Claude AnShin Thomas. The first ten vows are as follows:
1. Do not kill.
2. Do not steal.
3. Do not engage in improper sexual conduct.
4. Do not lie.
5. Do not indulge in intoxicating substances.
6. Do not speak of others’ errors and faults.
7. Do not elevate self and blame others.
8. Do not be withholding, but instead generous.
9. Do not give way to anger.
10. Do not defame the Buddha, the Dharma, or the Sangha.
Whenever I describe these precepts to friends in the academic and art worlds, many of them balk and say, “I can’t do that” when they hear number 5 (“Do not indulge in intoxicating substances”), numbers 6 and 7 (“Do not speak of others’ errors and faults,” and “Do not elevate self and blame others”), and especially number 9 (“Do not give way to anger”). In their honesty, they admit that being nonjudgmental, as Hancock said of his practice, is extremely difficult in our society—a society that so often portrays the angry person as a powerful person, and finding fault as a proper intellectual activity that demonstrates our critical acumen, shows our intellectual superiority and, by virtue of that, feeds our egos. In this culture, then, it is difficult to let go of pride (maana), and anger, which is a form of violence and one of the three defilements, along with greed and ignorance, though Saddhatissa points out in Buddhist Ethics, “By allowing anger to arise I am like one who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement and by so doing either burn or soil myself.” Although simple and straightforward (and, of course, demanding), the precepts embody the spirit of the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the paramitas, and in them we can see the distillation of Buddhist metaphysics.
The faintest experience of Nirvana or sunyata—the emptiness at the heart of all things—extinguishes like a candle’s flame the craving and thirst (trishna) described in the First and Second Noble Truths. For Mumford, who said his “ass was on fire,” this extinction of craving allowed him to tame Vivekananda’s conditioned and erratic “monkey mind,” and to understand through mindfulness the operations of his own consciousness—how we perpetually see through the veil of our ideas or Samsara, which Mumford called “fantasy.” Black American Buddhists understand that the reality we experience is our creation, and how we respond to it is our personal responsibility. They are as politically sophisticated, aware of the history of oppression, and concerned with social justice as their predecessors. But they have located a “middle way” between withdrawal from social life, on the one hand, and surrendering to the egoistic pursuit of things cheap, banal, and self-centered, the vulgar hedonism and desire for ephemeral baubles promoted 24/7 by capitalism and America’s adolescent youth culture. As Geshe Wangyal might put it, they live in “detachment without denial; involvement without indulgence.”
Why Is Buddhism Attractive?
In order to appreciate why the theologian Paul Tillich once called Buddhism “one of the greatest, strangest, and at the same time most competitive of the religions proper,” and why it is attractive to black Americans in the post–civil rights era, we must see that Buddhism neither accepts nor rejects the idea of God. Why? First, because one’s happiness and salvation, awakening and liberation from suffering, rests entirely in one’s own hands (i.e., the karmic cause and effect relationship that so impressed Herbie Hancock). Second, the understanding of anicca, or impermanence, contained in the Buddha’s observation that “whatever is subject to arising must also be subject to ceasing,” is the ontological starting point for Buddhist reflection on all things. This begins with the experience of emptiness or the lack of an enduring, separate, immutable, and unchanging essence or substance in everything. That realization, which was systematically expounded by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, leads naturally to the perception of dependent origination. In this vision, the “self” we struggle so hard and long to bolster and sustain is discovered to be a construct at best. Static (racial) identity is an illusion. We are constant change, reborn moment by moment. We have no nature, no essence, no self, no substance as our identity—and no relation whatsoever to the evil, racist iconography that caricatures black people in popular culture and the national consciousness. It is that kind of essentialism that gives rise to attractions and revulsions, our attachments and clinging, and to prejudices that lead to dukkha. In his article “No Religion,” Buddhadasa Bhikkhu presents a provocative interpretation of the meaning of birth, death, and being reborn. “For example,” he says,
think like a criminal and one is instantly born as a criminal. A few moments later those thoughts disappear, one thinks like a normal human being again and is born as a human being. If a few moments later one has foolish thoughts, right then one is born as a fool. . . . Thus, in a single day one can be born any number of times in many different forms, since a birth takes place each and every time there arises any form of attachment to the idea of being something. Each conception of “I am,” “I was,” or “I will” is simultaneously a birth.
Something also attractive to black American practitioners is the fact that in its proto-empiricism and with its flavor of phenomenology, early Buddhism rejects any reliance on apta vacana (received opinion) or appeals to an authority. As the Buddha says in the Kaulama Sutra,
Do not go by oral tradition, by lineage of teaching, by hearsay, by a collection of scriptures, by logical reasoning, by inferential reasoning, by reflection on reason, by the acceptance of a view after pondering it, by the seeming competence of a speaker, or because you think, “The ascetic is our teacher.” But when you know for yourselves, “These things are unwholesome, these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; these things, if undertaken and practiced, lead to harm and suffering,” then you should abandon them.
The Buddha also taught:
You are the Light itself.
Rely on yourself.
Do not rely on others.
The Dharma is the Light.
Rely on the Dharma.
Do not rely on anything,
Other than the Dharma.
We can take the first small steps toward this inward revolution called for by the Dalai Lama, and the cultural revolution in black communities called for by Congressman Lewis, by mindfully changing the way we talk to each other—precepts numbers 6 and 7—by eliminating the unwholesome violence and disrespect in our speech. I would like to suggest a simple test for whatever you want to say before you say it. Think of this test as being three questions—or three doors—your speech must pass through before you make it public. The first door is, Is it true? The second door is, Is it necessary? And the third door is, Will it cause no harm?
The goal of the Buddhadharma is to extinguish the war within, and to help Americans black and white realize complete liberation—even from the concepts of the Dharma, if they cause us to be attached or to cling to that which is impermanent and unsatisfactory. More radical than any other “religion,” it also makes clear that when Buddhist ideas such as the Four Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path, the practices and paramitas have served their purpose, these are ethical guidelines that we will eventually “let go,” like the proverbial raft that carries us safely across the sea of Samsara, for once we reach the other shore, it is no longer necessary to carry even that vehicle on land. Ironically, and like no other religion or philosophy, the Dharma enables us to free ourselves even from itself.
This has been excerpted from Taming the Ox: Buddhist Stories and Reflections on Politics, Race, Culture, and Spiritual Practice.
Charles R. Johnson is an American scholar and the author of novels, short stories, screenplays, and essays, most of which have a philosophical orientation. Johnson won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1990, making him the second black American male writer to receive this prize. See more about him here.
From Compliance to Choice
All experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer . . . than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But . . . it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
—Declaration of Independence
What Is Freedom?
Freedom, at its most basic, is the right and ability to make and act on our own choices. The philosopher John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, distinguished two ways of experiencing freedom. First, we are free to act according to our own choices and wishes. Second, we are free when we are not coerced or restrained. Thus, there is a freedom to and freedom from. The former is in the certitude that we have the power and agency to act. The latter is in freedom from inhibition, fear, habit, or compulsion—obstacles to freedom. We explore both these options in this chapter and the next.
We begin with how we are sometimes controlled by our own beliefs and inhibitions or the power we have given others over us. Jared, age twenty-seven, realizes he is not really free. He feels compelled to stay in a job that has no future “but pays the rent.” This fits with his lifelong “safety first” belief, a wise truth but one that can go too far when it crimps the full range of our freedom. Jared is also quite skilled in photography and has recently been able to sell some of his work. He is afraid to launch out on his own because of his fear-leading-to-compulsion to hold on to a sure thing. This feels safer than gambling on the success of his own creativity and ingenuity. Jared can take that chance and reduce his anxiety by using some helpful practices, such as those discussed above. He, and any of us, can make use of stress-reduction techniques that address our fear. We are then able to do the very opposite of what we fear, to jump without a net. We can launch out instead of staying put, letting the chips fall where they may. We can deal with the consequences of our actions and so learn to stabilize ourselves in the midst of any hazards that arise. As a result, we are dealing with our fear of not being capable of self-care—the origin of the compulsion. We now trust ourselves when we arrive at a threshold, when we find ourselves in a pinch, when we dare to take a chance. We keep noticing the contribution of self-trust to becoming free.
Jared is controlled by his beliefs. Some of us find ourselves easily controlled by other people. We may be in a relationship in which we are controlled by our partner. We may feel ourselves controlled by our children, our employer, our friends. These are all forms of compliance, the cancellation of freedom. When we allow ourselves to be controlled by others, we are giving up on our natural longing for liberty.
Why Are We Afraid of Freedom?
As we wonder why we let ourselves be controlled, we begin to see how we might be in on it. It seems as if we are being intimidated by those who are controlling us. We imagine that we are afraid of them. Yet, in reality we might be afraid of having freedom and personal power. In the poem by Emily Dickinson entitled “We never know how high we are,” the poet delves into the question of why we don’t stretch to the full dimensions of ourselves. She concludes that each of us carries around a “fear to be a King.” In other words, we fear our own power.
Predators, especially in relationships, will notice that fear in us and take advantage of it. But as we look carefully at the transactions between us and them, we see that they are not simply controlling us; they are, on another level, keeping us safe from the threat we feel about having a license to be who we really are. By being under their control, we never have to face the responsibilities and challenges that come with free choice. Our fear is not about how they will harm or leave us if we don’t obey them but about the risk of being fully free. My fear is not of them but of me.
Our Unspoken Laws
On a related topic, we also notice that in civil life we follow laws that are just and reasonable because they are for the common good. However, there are unspoken laws regarding behavior and belief that are imposed on us within society, family, and religion that may not be for our best good. It is a task of healthy adulthood to examine these rules to see if they fit with our individual sense of personal liberty and happiness. For instance, we might have been born into a family that has inculcated rabid prejudices into us against certain groups because of their religion, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. As adolescents and adults it is up to us to decide whether we will maintain those biases. This takes self-informing and deep examination of our own sense of what is right and good. It is only then that we are honoring our longing for true freedom.
The religion we were born into may have imposed such restrictions on how we think and see the world that now we are inhibited in imagination, thought, or behavior. It will be up to us to examine beliefs and moral proscriptions one by one to see which ones reflect our own values now. Freedom is moving from compliance with others to personal choice. That transition is what we long for. A healthy, mature adult will not be content to operate out of blind obedience.
Our gender-based behavior might also be highly regulated by societal directives. For instance, girls early on learn the carefully constructed rules about how a woman should look and act. This runs the gamut from having their hair done to needing to shave their legs and underarms. There are rules about which shoes to wear with which outfits, which jewelry, which handbag, and which makeup. The rules are exact, even extending to which nail polish goes with which lipstick. All these fashion and grooming styles, or rules, are rightly criticized by feminists as oppressive. Yet, we can also acknowledge that a woman might, consciously and out of personal preference, choose to follow some or all the conventions, and that does not mean that she has lost her freedom. On the other hand, women who choose not to follow the norms/rules represent an equally authentic model of what is included in being feminine.
The bigger issue for women is that the freedoms allowed to men—for example, freedom over their own bodies—are still denied to them in so many ways. Political, religious, and familial freedom for women the world over is still not secured or even widely acknowledged as legitimate. That calls for continual protest, and all of us can join in that struggle. All five longings are legitimate human rights, so all of us can work toward their becoming available equally to all people.
For boys and men, freedom to be themselves was perhaps inhibited by a set of imposed rules about the posturing that is defined as manliness. Such “manliness” is, of course, nothing more than a set of rules, directives, and restrictions we were schooled—or scared—into following. The strict code was inculcated by peers, family, society, movies. They fooled us into thinking that the macho-manly, often aggressive style was the right one for all boys. Unless we have seen through this imposition, we might still admire masculine-macho men and lament that we are not able to be like them. Their intimidating manner in any confrontation may lead us to believe they are stronger than we are, so we keep ourselves at a disadvantage in that way too.
The rules extend to every part of our lives: how we dress, how we walk or sit, which words or what tone of voice we use, how we gesture, how or which feeling we show, how we behave, how we are sexually. There are carefully drawn boundaries around each of these.
We had many models, especially the guys around us who gave the appearance of successfully living by the tribal rules. They formed an in-group and the rest of us were outsiders. Being on the margin often led to a sense of shame. We wished we were like “the guys,” who appeared so effortlessly manly. Knowing we never could be like that pillaged our self-esteem. But how free were the manly guys who had to follow such severe regulations?
I have observed how the manliness rules-of-the-role in adult life can interfere with intimate relating. In my experience working as a therapist with couples on how to improve listening/communicating skills, I’ve sometimes encountered a man who will say the appropriate thing but in a crusty tone and with no eye contact. I can see that speaking tenderly is difficult for him. I am aware that one of his regulations is a John Wayne tone of voice. How much freedom does a man have if even the tone of his voice is carefully calculated by others? To be free is to have access to the full range of human emotions. We don’t enjoy that range if our words, tone, and gestures are already assigned to us from outside, and ever so stereotyped, sources.
The character of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful example of a manly guy who is tender in his speech and whose actions are not tied to the standard requirements of manliness. He shows us that manliness is not a combination of toughness and ego with a list of mannerisms and attitudes to be scrupulously adhered to. It is unique in each man with an individually designed style of strength and sensitivity.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow noticed that self-actualized men and women were resistant to enculturation. Carl Rogers used the phrase “fit vanguard” to describe the self-actualized people who lead the evolution of our species into new freedoms. To fulfill our longing for freedom will take being ourselves no matter what the consequences, an enterprise requiring pluck and audacity. Here we see another example of how the fulfillment of a longing is in our own hands. We also see how the recommendations of the self-help movement regarding self-acceptance and self-affirmation are geared to the actualization of our longing for freedom.
Longing for Deliverance
From an individual-cosmic perspective, the exodus theme of longing for deliverance remains alive in us, as it was for the ancient Israelites and for the Civil War slaves. But in personal life, deliverance can only come from within ourselves. We recall Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., in his poem “The Chambered Nautilus” advising, “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul . . . Till thou at length art free.”
Finally, a bodhisattva is an enlightened person who chooses not to enter nirvana until all beings come along with him into liberation. In the style of a bodhisattva, our longing for freedom includes wanting all men and women to be free. None of us is really free until all of us are free. There is a direct connection between fulfilling this personal longing and dedicating ourselves to social justice and equality. We keep noticing that longings are not simply wishes for what we want. Each of the five longings is a calling to repair the world. This means aligning ourselves with the intention of evolution: more consciousness, more connection. Then our cosmic purpose is revealed to us: cocreating a world of love, meaning, freedom, happiness, and growth.
I have sworn upon the altar of God an eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
—Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1800
The Anatomy of a Common Tibetan Ritual:
The lhasang—literally ‘‘higher purification offering,’’ which may be glossed as ‘‘invocation of the higher beings’’—is one of the most common rituals in traditional Tibet. While some rituals are performed strictly for temporal ends and others for spiritual ends, the lhasang is interesting because it is performed for both mundane and supermundane purposes. And, while most rituals are directed to a particular being, the lhasang is a broad invocation that calls upon all the various ‘‘good spirits’’ and well-intentioned deities, as well as upon the various buddhas, bodhisattvas, protectors, and departed teachers of the buddhadharma. Because of its broad conception, the lhasang is multipurpose. On the one hand, it is performed by laypeople: in times of duress or special need, the male head of the household will do a lhasang on behalf of the entire family. On the other hand, lamas will also perform the lhasang on various special occasions, before a journey, on a special holy day, to support the construction of a building, to bless an important object. In the Western practice of Tibetan Buddhism, the lhasang is a popular and often-performed ceremony both because it is applicable to almost any situation and because it is simple and accessible.
The purpose of the lhasang may be described as twofold. First, it is a ritual of purification, cleansing people and places of any obstructions, obstacles, or negative forces. The fire and the purifying smoke are held to embody a powerful energy that dispels the defilements and negativities of those present. Second, the lhasang is an empowerment in that it brings down blessings in the form of wisdom, efficacy, and power. Juniper is typically burned in the lhasang fire, and the fragrant smoke travels up to the heavens, attracting the higher beings of samsara and the enlightened ones; thus the smoke becomes a kind of passageway or lightning rod down which their blessings can descend, filling participants with a sense of well-being, understanding, and happiness. Many different lhasang rituals were used in Tibet, depending on locale, lineage, and specific purpose. The following summarizes the general format typically possessed by lhasang ceremonies.
Prior to the actual lhasang ritual, a hearth or fire pit is constructed, usually out of doors. The green boughs of juniper are collected and laid out by the ritual site. Juniper is typically selected—sometimes along with other aromatic woods such as cedar—because its smoke is especially fragrant and pleasing to the gods. The fire is lit and allowed to burn down so that the heat of glowing coals predominates, rather than open flame. The juniper may be doused with water, as wet juniper produces a heavier and more aromatic smoke. When the officiant is prepared to begin the invocation, the boughs are laid on the coals, and, within moments, the white, fragrant smoke begins to billow up to the sky.
The ritual now begins with an invocation to all-powerful and helpful forces, both those within samsara and those beyond it. The invocation is a way of calling these beings to attention and inviting their presence at the liturgical performance of the lhasang. The invocation will usually address general categories of beings and also more specifically particular protectors, bodhisattvas, departed teachers, local deities, and so on. On the general level, then, the lhasang might call upon the three jewels (Buddha, dharma, and sangha), the three bases of Buddhist practice (gurus, yidams, and dakinis), and whatever gods and sages there may be. More specifically, one might invoke certain protectors, the three bodhisattvas most important to Tibetan Buddhism (Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani), Guru Rinpoche, other lineage figures, and the like.
Once the invocation has caused the multitude of helpful beings to gather, offerings are made. The offerings consist both of actual physical substances and those that are conceived with the imagination. The actual or material substances that are offered into the fire vary depending on the intentions of the ritual and the elaborateness that is desired. The juniper, of course, is already being offered, and this consists of the basic offering ingredient. Other material substances may include different kinds of grains, other desirable food substances, varieties of alcohol, and other things that may be deemed attractive to the invited unseen guests. At this time, mental offerings are made, consisting of the visualization of all the good and fine things that the world has to offer. Sometimes to Westerners, the imagined offerings seem less consequential and important than those that are physical. In a Buddhist context, however, the act of holding precious things in mind and then offering them can be equally powerful, whether they are material or not.
The Supplication for Assistance
The invocation has gathered the unseen beings, and the offerings have formed a link between those beings and the human practitioners of the ritual. Next follows the request for assistance, which usually includes two parts. In the first, one supplicates for protection against obstacles and other forms of negativity. This negativity itself is both inner and outer. Inner obstacles or obstructions might include illness, emotional disturbances, resistance, and any other inner impediments to well-being and successful dharma practice. Outer obstacles—as articulated in Tibetan tradition—include the enmity of others in the form of curses, lawsuits, warfare, and other forms of attack, as well as disasters such as failing crops, plague, or famine.
While the first kind of request made in the supplication is for purification of oneself and the removal of external obstacles, the second is for empowerment. Now one requests that one be filled with both mundane and transmundane power and well-being. On the mundane level, one asks for health, material prosperity, and happiness. On the transmundane level, one supplicates for the increase of successful dharma practice, insight, compassion, and a closer relation with one’s lineage. In Buddhism, it is of course believed that all things occur based on causes and conditions. However, the beings of the unseen world, each in his or her own way, are powerful participants in the realm of causality. Worldly deities represent critical, vulnerable points in the way things transpire in the world. By invoking them, making offerings, and supplicating them to provide assistance, it is as if one were relating to a worldly monarch who is all-powerful. Though still within the web of causality, he is able in a unique way to bring about effects and respond to one’s needs.
When it is great bodhisattvas and enlightened beings that one is supplicating, their power is that much greater. Particularly within a Western context and with our ‘‘otherworldly’’ religious heritage, one might question whether it is appropriate to ask buddhas for help with, for example, sickness. Aren’t they only interested in enlightenment? It is the same as asking whether a realized master would care about our physical suffering and have any interest in helping us recover. For Buddhism, physical and emotional obstacles, while they are with us, can be powerful teachers. But they can also prevent us from engaging in the practice of dharma and from helping others. Poverty, political oppression, and other obstacles can similarly be impediments to the ultimate welfare and spiritual progress of oneself and others. In the traditional Tibetan context, it is believed that the buddhas and bodhisattvas, as well as the human teachers and gurus, look with kindness upon human woe and its relief. They will help where it is appropriate and where they can. At the same time, in every human life, there are sorrows and sufferings that remain our companions; these the practitioner is to regard as expressions of the compassion of the awakened ones, who are holding us closely to teach and train us.
Mantras That Bring Down Power
Typically, the supplication is followed by the repetition of various mantras, series of syllables often with no rational meaning. These are often in Sanskrit, considered the original language of Buddhism and thus particularly holy and efficacious. These mantras are mostly drawn from various powerful sources within Tibetan Buddhism. For example, at this section in the lhasang one might find the syllables om mani padme hum, the universally known and revered mantra of Avalokiteshvara, or om ah hum vajra guru padma siddhi hum, the most important mantra of Padmasambhava. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the mantras embody in sound the essence of particular buddhas, protectors, or departed gurus. In saying them, one is directly and powerfully connecting with those beings to whom one is making the supplication.
As the mantra section of lhasang is being chanted, participants may circumambulate the fire, circling it in a clockwise fashion, allowing the juniper smoke to wash over them and bring a more tangible sense to their purification. At this time, it is also common for people to pass various objects through the smoke to purify them, such as clothes one might wear on important occasions or implements used in religious work, such as paintbrushes, sculpting tools, and so on. Trungpa Rinpoche comments, however, that it would not be appropriate to include in this process ritual implements such as malas (rosaries) or bells, which are already pure by their very nature.
The lhasang now concludes, perhaps with a restatement of what is desired, perhaps with a particularly powerful mantra. The following particularly sacred Sanskrit mantra might well form part of this coda:
om ye dharma hetu-prabhava hetum tesham
tesham ca yo nirodha evam vadi mahashramanah
This mantra represents one of the oldest statements of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teaching, found in the Pali canon and elsewhere. Roughly translated, it means, ‘‘Whatever phenomena (dharmas) arise from a cause, the cause of them the Tathagata has taught, as well as the cessation thereof. Just so has the great ascetic declared.’’ The coda puts the finishing touches on the lhasang liturgy and seals its intentions.
Rituals are performed in Tibetan Buddhism for many different purposes, both spiritual and temporal, and the atmosphere surrounding them obviously varies depending on the situation. General rituals, such as the lhasang described here, are occasions for enjoyment and celebration. This is a natural result of the character of ritual as festive and social in the broadest sense. In the lhasang, the usually invisible powers that undergird and transcend our world are invited as guests of honor. The offerings that are made to them represent a kind of feast that reestablishes one’s connection with them and invites their participation in the life of the community. Through the ritual, one is led to take a larger view of one’s life and one’s world. In Tibetan ritual, one experiences a shift in perspective—sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic. This shift feels like a diminishing of one’s sense of isolated individuality and an increase in one’s sense of connectedness with other people, with the nonhuman presences of our realm, and with purposes that transcend one’s usual self-serving motivations.
In the lhasang, the shift in perspective can often be quite tangible. Perhaps as the smoke rises up to the sky, the wind abruptly picks up; perhaps a bank of clouds suddenly comes over the mountains or a cloudy sky breaks up and a brilliant burst of sunlight appears. Perhaps an eagle is suddenly seen overhead or the air abruptly becomes more sparkling. Whatever the signs, if the ritual has been done with a whole heart, some kind of confirmation from the nonhuman world may be expected. The shift is also atmospheric, giving birth to relaxation, humor, and expansive joy.
Ritual is a way of reconnecting with the larger and deeper purposes of life, ones that are oriented toward the general good conceived in the largest sense. Ironically, through coming to such a larger and more inclusive sense of connection and purpose, through rediscovering oneself as a member of a much bigger and more inclusive enterprise, one feels that much more oneself and grounded in one’s own personhood. Through ritual, one’s energy and motivation are roused and mobilized so that one can better fulfill the responsibilities, challenges, and demands that life presents.
This chapter has been excerpted from Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism.
by Tias Little, author of Yoga of the Subtle Body
What is Fascia?
In the same way that a fish swims in water and a bird flies through the air, fascia is the way we move. Every time you practice triangle pose or the camel, you stretch an entire network of cellophane-like tissue (“cling-wrap” if you are in the UK) from your feet to the crown of your head.
Fascia, or connective tissue, is everywhere in the body. It wraps around bone, encases all the organs, and enshrouds every muscle, nerve, and blood vessel. In some areas, the connective tissue is loose and delicate like the silky threads of a spider’s web. In other places, it is fibrous and dense having the resilience of a steel cable.
Fascia and Movement
All of the internal arts, including tai chi, qi gong, and yoga generate flow in the fascia. Like a baker kneading bread, we make the fascia elastic by alternately pulling, twisting, squeezing, and molding our connective tissue. When we apply heat and pressure, the “dough” of our connective tissue rises and expands. This provides a feeling of levity, joy, and well-being.
Fascia is highly adaptable. Just in the course of a day, connective tissues are in flux—at times clenching and hardening and at other times softening and spreading. Connective tissue can change shape and consistency in the midst of seemingly simple daily events. For instance, if you are on an elevator and someone threatening stands next to you, the fascia around your hamstring and buttock may tighten and the visceral membranes around your kidney, stomach, and intestine may constrict. If you are lying in the grass at the park with close friends, then the connective tissues in your back and belly soften. At the end of the day, if you practice Viparita Karani (legs up the wall pose), then the fascia around your diaphragm, jaw, and spine relax and melt backward toward the floor.
Fascia, together with the musculature, is called myofascia and it is our primary mover. Along with enabling us to dance, swim, and shoot baskets, fascia also has a significant sensory component. The matrix of the fascia is supplied with sensory nerve receptors that help determine balance, spatial awareness, pressure, and pain. The bones cannot stand without the supportive webbing of the fascia and for this reason the fascia, quite literally, holds us together.
The Feeling of Being “Me”
As a result, fascia plays a central role in determining the feeling of being “me.” Body image is based on the shape, mobility, and responsiveness of fascia. This has important ramifications for yoga, because as we stretch and expand our fascia in practice, working our tissues in multiple directions, we “shape shift” and change the fascial mold we live in. The teachings of yoga suggest that the self is not a fixed thing, and the practice of yoga postures helps create a self identity that is fluid and changeable.
This process of working the connective tissue is critical as we age; over time, fascia becomes pasty—muscles glue together, tendons stick to bone, and organs adhere. When fascia adheres it is like pasta that isn't cooked enough—the “linguine” of our connective tissue becomes rigid and clumps together. You may like your pasta al dente, but when fascia gets plastered together, the supply of blood and nerves is inhibited and it hurts.
When fascia is healthy, tissues slide over one another like fresh fish in a basket. This is because the very nature of fascia is to permit flow and glide. When we move in a vinyasa practice from one pose to the other, the muscle bundles in the body should glide. Internal glide of the connective tissues brings about feelings of ease, effortlessness, and internal flow.
Another key function of the fascia in the body is in establishing boundaries. For example, as fascia encapsulates the liver, it separates the liver from other adjoining organs, such as the stomach and small intestine. There is also a vertical sheath of fascia (called the falx cerebri) in the cranium that divides the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The fascial stocking around the latissimus dorsi muscle separates it from the underlying trapezius muscle.
Because fascia establishes boundary on the the physical level, it in turn helps establish boundaries on the psychological level. By repeatedly delineating the fascia in yoga practice, mindfully defining its scope and limits, the “boundaries” of the psyche are clarified. This is particularly true when a yoga practice is guided by its founding principles of nonharming, nonstealing, and the nonappropriation of sexual energy. Just as fascia contains all the structures in the body, it helps provide a container for psychological states of being.
As the well-known columnist Ariana Huffington notes, “We take better care of our smartphones than we do ourselves.”
When you take care of yourself, you are saying to yourself that you matter. Engaging in self-care doesn’t mean you are selfish. You can’t care for anyone else until you first take care of yourself. Then you can model for others how to take care of themselves.
Be For Yourself
When a phone’s battery is almost out of power, the phone will alert you to charge it so it will continue to work. Similarly, when a car is almost out of gas, an icon on the dashboard lights up or flashes, alerting you to the need for fuel. Unlike phones and cars, there is no visual indicator light that tells you when you are depleted or almost empty—physically, mentally, or emotionally.
Being for yourself is a way to help yourself have a healthy mind and body. Even when others aren’t cheering you on or helping you succeed in life, you can be for yourself! One prime way to be for yourself is to engage in self-care.
Self-care is defined as giving attention to your physical and psychological well-being. Self-care activities are positive behaviors or things you do that make you feel good, nourish you, and fill you up. Interestingly, what some people think of as self-care can be quite harmful. If you engage in an activity that harms you physically or mentally (for example, cutting, sexting, binging, or purging), that isn’t self-care—it’s self-harm.
Here are some examples of positive self-care activities:
• Do something that makes you smile.
• Listen to your favorite (uplifting) music.
• Engage in a hobby you enjoy.
• Spend time with people who build you up, such as friends or family members.
• Take a warm bath or shower.
• Have a nice warm drink, like a cup of tea.
• Spend time looking at or being with nature.
• Eat something healthy.
• Get a restful night’s sleep.
Right now, think about some self-care activities that you do for yourself, and write at least five self-care activities on a piece of paper.
Using A, B, or C from the following list, indicate when you could do each of your activities.
B. This week
C. This month
Follow through on performing your self-care activities according to your list.
Level I, II, III, and IV Self-Care Activities
Another way to work with self-care activities is to think of how much time it takes you to do each one. You can consider activities that take from one to fifteen minutes as Level I and those that take longer than fifteen minutes—usually a half hour or an hour—as Level II. The idea is to do at least one Level I activity a day and at least one Level II activity a week. Consider activities you like to do when you tell someone you are doing nothing for the day or are taking the day off as Level III. The idea is to take a half to full day off once a month and engage in activities that are on your Level III list. Level IV asks you to take a half to full day, once a month, to spend time with a friend or family member who nourishes and supports you. Of course, you can do more each level, but these are recommendations for starting off.
LEVEL I EXAMPLES
- Playing with a pet
- Taking a bath or shower
- Making a healthy snack
- Taking extra time for grooming
LEVEL II EXAMPLES
- Taking a nap
- Going to a yoga, dance, or exercise class
- Reading a book or magazine not related to school or work
- Going to the movies
LEVEL III EXAMPLES
- Salon or spa visit—nail care, massage, facial, haircut
- Watch movies or TV
- Lie around, nap, sleep
- Garden or spend time in nature
LEVEL IV EXAMPLES
Consider people who fill you up and bring you happiness, peace, and joy in the following categories:
What Level I self-care activity can you do each day this week? What Level II self-care activity can you do once this week? What Level III activities will you do when you have your next day off or down day? Who will you spend time with at least once this month when you do your Level IV self-care? Remember, you can always pick new activities from each of the first three levels; they don’t have to be the same each time.
It is important to care for yourself as well as, if not more than, you would care for your smartphone. Practice bringing self-care into your life every day.
This excerpt has been excerpted from Be Mindful & Stress Less: 50 Ways to Deal with Your (Crazy) Life.
Gina M. Biegel, MA, LMFT, is a psychotherapist who teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in multiple settings. She adapted the MBSR program typically for adults for a teen population, and created Stressed Teens. Find out more about her here.