Posts by Akuppa

“Meditation in the Wild: Buddhism’s Origin in the Heart of Nature,” Charles S. Fisher Ph.D.

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Charles Fisher has poured decades of Buddhist practice, love of nature and scholarship into this work. He leads us on a journey down the centuries and through the jungles and mountain caves of Asia, following the trail of Buddhist practitioners who have lived and meditated in the wild. The quest takes us from the Buddha himself, discovering enlightenment while sitting at the foot of a tree, right through to the modern day. He homes in particularly on the Buddha’s early disciples, the forest hermits of China and Japan, and the Thai Forest tradition. He does not claim to be making a complete survey of the Buddhist world – Korean and Tibetan Buddhism are covered only briefly in an appendix. Milarepa, that most devoted and joyous of wilderness meditators, is overlooked completely. Nonetheless, for the urban Buddhist (and we are all, by the standards of this book, urban!), the result is revealing, inspiring and daunting.

The book builds on Fisher’s earlier work, ‘Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World’, in which he argues that the Buddha’s teachings can be seen as an antidote to the existential discontent brought about by the change from a hunter-gathering to an agricultural society. You don’t need to have read this, but its thesis is never very far away in the sequel.

The book is no paean to the delights and prettiness of nature. Fisher has spent time in the wild and pulls no punches about the demands of such a life. For sure, recluses down the ages have waxed eloquent about forests, streams and mountains. But such superficial delights are not enough to sustain them. The book attends much more to the wilderness as an escape from civilization, and nature as teacher.

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He begins with a description of the forest in the life of the Buddha, which is both vivid and scholarly. While the Buddha, after his enlightenment, spends most of his time in towns or on the edge of them, he still spoke of the ideal meditation as a solitary pursuit undertaken in forests, at the roots of trees or in empty huts. The first lesson of nature is in solitude and freedom from distraction. As Ajaan Mun put it, it was not through mingling and socializing or indulgence in mirth and gaiety that Buddhahood was attained, but rather in quiet and deserted places, free from confusions and trouble.

More than this, nature reinforces our understanding of Buddhist teachings… “listening each morning to the waxing and waning of bird calls, meeting changes in the weather with little protection, knowing hunger and biting insects.” It is one thing to contemplate change and suffering in the comfort of a meditation hall, quite another to live it in the wild. Discomfort and vulnerability bring an earthiness and bright alertness to one’s practice. In nature, there is no avoiding the Buddha’s teachings.

Not only is there discomfort, but danger too. Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, cultivated his fearless heart in the depths of the forest night. More recently, the early Forest Tradition of Thailand took this on quite avidly as a practice. Fear of tigers and snakes was used as a spur to concentration. Survival of malaria was seen as a sign of the strength of one’s practice. There were monks who didn’t pass the test.

And if discomfort or fear doesn’t divert you from your practice, then nature as teacher has one more challenge. In the author’s own experience, life in nature can be “uneventful, even achingly boring.” Even Ryokan, the great Zen poet, counts the days before the snows clear and allow him to leave his hut – “how many more days must I abide before springtide?” But by sitting with the boredom, a deeper silence awaits him…

Often the moon and I sit together all night,
And more than once I have lost myself among the wild flowers,
Forgetting to return home.

Fisher cuts through any hint of sentimentality with regard to nature. Centuries of revered Chinese and Japanese teachers, recluses and wandering poets are subjected to Fisher’s razorlike acuity. There are those whose writings show genuine signs of having practiced in the wild; and there are the ‘aesthete-recluses’, one step removed from the wild and for whom nature is merely metaphor. Ryokan passes the test. Dogen fares less well, for using nature more as symbol than reality. The great poet Basho is even accused of Disney-izing in his description of a shivering monkey who seems to be in want of a raincoat.

The founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kukai, who spent ten years in his youth as a wandering monk, also comes under the spotlight. He was drawn to the inhospitable heights of Mount Koya and spent years building a temple there for the ‘practice of meditation and benefit of the nation.’ He wrote eloquently of his love of meditating in nature. But, for Fisher, he was tainted by association with civilization, his temple-building being supported by the imperial household, and dividing his time between Koya and civic duties in Kyoto.

Kukai falls foul of Fisher’s sometimes over-rigid dichotomy between wilderness and civilization. His
engagement with worldly affairs is treated as mere compromise, disqualifying him from the author’s roll of honor of the true wilderness practitioners. Yet it would be much more in keeping with Kukai’s own tantric Buddhism to see his political engagement as part of his practice rather than a distraction. He was willing to go beyond his own preferences for mountain life out of a desire to make the Dharma widely available. This was no compromise between wilderness and civilization, but rather a transcendence of it.

After all, the Buddha himself, for all he praised meditation in the forest, spent almost all of his later life in and around human settlement. He allowed patrons to build sheltered settlements for his monk followers. He concerned himself with society’s welfare, and for him this outweighed the ideal of dwelling in the forest. His teachings may have been born in the forest, but were meant for the welfare of the many.

So I suggest a note of caution to the reader. Let’s be inspired by the wilderness tradition but not idealize it. Nor let us take the icon of the forest meditator as a literal standard by which to judge our practice or that of others. (Is it such a great idea anyway to send young Buddhists to their deaths in the jungle?) Human society is where Buddhism is most needed. We may live in towns and cities for a whole mix of motives – comfort and compassion both among them. But to really practice in the city is no soft option, no second-best Buddhism. We can be inspired by the wholeheartedness and vigor of forest meditators. But forests and mountains are not necessarily where we need to spend most of our time.

This book might move more of us to immerse ourselves more adventurously in the wild, at least from time to time, to brighten and vitalize our practice. I hope it does. More than that, I hope it inspires us all to bring a wilderness of the heart to our Buddhist practice, wherever it may lead us.

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“Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place” by Melvin McLeod

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Mindful Politics: A Buddhist Guide to Making the World a Better Place by Melvin McLeod, editor. (Wisdom Publications, 2006. Paperback, $16.95).

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There are some books on engaged Buddhism that tend to be rather polemical or academic in style. ‘Mindful Politics’ is not one of them. Its editor hopes that it will serve as a guide or a handbook for those who wish to draw on Buddhism to help make the world a better place. His hopes are well justified. It is an anthology that draws on the accumulated experience of much learning – rich in flashes of insight and practical wisdom. Anyone who feels some connection between the transformation of self and world is sure to find some fresh perspectives and directions among its many and varied contributions.

All but a few of the contributors are American or America-based. Given the subject matter of the book, it is perhaps surprising that this bias is unexplained and barely acknowledged. And yet its rootedness in the American Buddhist experience is also a real strength. This is a book that could not have been compiled twenty or thirty years ago. It bears witness to a generation of practice in the West and engagement with real-life suffering in the world. It is a sign that the Dharma has not only taken root outside of the East but has begun to bear fruit, too. The result is a collection of pithy writings that have an immediacy and accessibility to any Western reader.

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It is not, as several contributors point out, that Buddhism offers an alternative political program, nor even that it has the answer to every political question. Most of the book is about how we might bring about change, rather than what change we might seek to bring about.

There are some notable exceptions to this. The cause of peace has long been widely accepted as a Buddhist political value. To this end, the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh both advocate a more effective, democratic United Nations. The Dalai Lama suggests that we each need to develop a sense of ‘universal responsibility’ for humanity. This means thinking beyond both individual and national self-interest.

Are there other basic political principles that we can agree on as Buddhists? Stephanie Kaza makes a clear, concise case for environmentalism, via non-harm, interconnectedness and systems thinking. Sulak Sivaraksa also cites interconnectedness in his response to globalization. Jigme Thinley, Home Minister of Bhutan, enlarges on the idea of ‘Gross National Happiness’ as an alternative economic agenda that his government is trying to pursue. And David Loy introduces his incisive analysis of institutionalized greed, ill will and delusion. This is the idea that the traditional root poisons can take on a collective dimension, and that they need to be addressed on that level as well as in our own hearts. All of these writers offer tools for clear thinking. Their ideas will be useful not only to those who are actively involved, but also to those who simply wish to make sense of politics, or figure out for whom to vote.

One of the most direct and thought-provoking pieces comes from the feminist political thinker bell hooks. She sees Buddhism as a means of letting go of all forms of ‘dominator thinking’. In order to do that, however, the institutions of Buddhism in the West need to transcend the ‘politics of race and class exclusion’ with which they themselves are permeated.

Most of the contributors focus on issues that may arise for the practitioner who might engage in politics, or who might even in some small way wish to be a positive influence. What if, for example, I find myself consumed by anger – how do I not bring more rage into the world? There is a wealth of practical wisdom in this book on that subject from which to draw. Pema Chodron, Ken Jones, Ezra Bayda, and Rita Gross all speak from many years of personal experience and give very useful from-the-heart advice and reflections on cultivating patience and non-enmity. These are teachings we need to constantly remind ourselves of if we really want to break the cycle of reaction, polarization, and revenge.

Other questions may arise. I want to change the world, but where do I start? Do what you care about, advises Stephanie Kaza. How do I know what is the right action in a situation? Don’t be afraid to stay with ‘not knowing’, advises Bernie Glassman. And do I protest like Allen Ginsberg or engage in the system to transform it, as advocated by Chogyam Trungpa? Do whatever works, suggests Joseph Goldstein – whatever helps you to cultivate mindfulness, compassion and wisdom.

Some of the contributions paint a picture of what a politically engaged Buddhist might be like. Charles Johnson describes the ideal as someone who is ‘peace embodied – nonviolent, dispassionate, empathic, without attachment to recognition or results. David Loy identifies the three important Buddhist contributions as spiritual practice, nonviolence and the humility that comes from a sense that our liberation is inseparable from that of all others. And from the Order of Interbeing come the fourteen mindfulnesses, or political precepts. These are very practical guidelines for involvement in the world. Any of these chapters would be worthy of careful study, particularly by any group of engaged practitioners.

There is a still deeper level of questioning underlying all of the contributions to this book. What can it mean to live in a world of great suffering and danger? How can I seek happiness and peace in such a time? How do I even stay sane? Occasionally such questioning comes to the fore, as in Margaret Wheatley’s ‘four freedoms’. From her own years of practice, during which she has borne witness to much suffering, she describes how she has learned to practice being free from hope, free from fear, free from safety and free from self. Somewhere beyond these is the place we need to be coming from. There lies the wisdom that does not seek results and yet contains the most potential for change. The most poignant glimpse of it, containing, perhaps, the crux of the whole book, comes through a passing quotation from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche – ‘when you recognise the empty nature, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns, uncontrived and effortless.’

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“Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism,” by Thich Nhat Hanh

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Vietnamese Buddhist monk and human rights activist Thich Nhat Hanh has a way of speaking with simple, direct compassion. In this response to the age of terror, he eschews complex political analysis or critique of institutions and talks about the response of the individual human heart. In place of isolationism based on fear, he has a vision of an America at ease with itself and the world. He addresses himself to soldiers, entertainers, Members of Congress, but mostly to ordinary American citizens of all political and religious persuasions.

He begins by looking deeply at the nature of suffering, drawing from his realization during the Vietnam War that the Americans, as well as the Vietnamese, were suffering. When he saw this, he found that his anger turned to compassion. Nowadays, seeing that America’s action in the world is still based on misunderstanding and fear, he suggests that the way to lessen it is not through ever-tighter security, but through understanding and compassion. He then goes right to the roots of the problem, exploring the consequences of ordinary day-to-day actions, such as the food we eat and the movies we watch. He invites us to consider our deepest desires in life, to be more conscious of our minds and actions. There will be peace in the world, he says, when we truly come home to ourselves.

In places, the truths spoken in the book sound as if they come from wide-eyed unworldliness. Yet they come from a man whose counsel has been sought by very powerful people, and who inspired Martin Luther King to make public his opposition to the Vietnam War. Truth is at its most telling when simply stated and when free from blame or hatred.

Thich Nhat Hanh seeks to understand the fear and anger of ordinary people. He sets out constructive suggestions that honor our need for security, while not ignoring our deep need for peace and well-being. These include both individual actions, as well as ways in which we can come together more harmoniously.

To those in the peace movement, the book is a challenge to see peacemaking as a continuous process, resisting the tendency not to do anything until the worst happens. And the book ends by drawing attention to an often neglected and yet momentous subject—a plea to reassert the ideal of the United Nations as a true family of nations, where national interests can be put aside in the name of global community.

This is a book for anyone who wishes to heal the fear and divisiveness born of our current world situation, either within themselves, or in other people.

Akuppa is a Buddhist who works on peace and ecological issues in the UK and is author of “Touching the Earth: A Buddhist Guide to Saving the Planet.”

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