Posts by Danamaya

Drops in the ocean: Buddhist reflections on David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”

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cloud atlasCloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is a ripping good read with plenty of action and suspense. It’s also a cautionary tale of karma-vipāka (how our actions set up complex results, short- and long-term) and how failing to choose is itself a choice just as much as a conscious decision is.

Populated by clever and colorful characters from different places, pasts and futures, the six stories making up this diverse sampling of human experience nonetheless weave together, surprisingly, into a poignant and epic tale of suffering and kindness. From the story of a rather naïve young man on a return voyage to San Francisco from the South Pacific, in perhaps the 1800s, to a nearly Lord of the Flies reorganization of tribal life in far-future Hawaii after humans have pretty well trashed the environment, the reader is zoomed from one kind of crisis–ranging from the personal to the global–to the next. Each of the characters have challenges unique to their time, place and situation. Yet these challenges, specific as they may seem, do not eclipse their all-too-human needs and desires, which all of us share.

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-037-55072-5-0
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

When you have a landscape that covers this many diverse stories over such a sweep of time, the main point(s) of the overarching story could get lost. But Mitchell makes us care about the characters, and their grappling with their fates, not just by evoking all the richness of lived experience but by helping us connect our hearts to that of each character. In the end, what I was left with wasn’t just another display of the whole gamut of human cruelty, ignorance and greed. In each story, most of the characters realized something more about themselves and their world, prompting me to examine myself, my values, and the world around me. Putting myself in their shoes, I wondered: how can I better use awareness and kindness to respond to the confusion and unsatisfactoriness in and around me? A book that makes you question, maybe makes you squirm — that’s an excellent use of one’s reading time, no?

I felt richly rewarded with well-evoked characterizations, some who could rightly be called “a piece of work,” who employ all manner of picaresque language such as:

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

Agog is one of the basic human states, I think; it was a pleasure to live there while reading this book.

Though Cloud Atlas is not a Buddhist book, I found certain Dharmic themes reflected in the prose. The strongest of these is the Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence (impermanence, non-substantiality and unsatisfactoriness), which seem woven throughout the narratives. Or maybe, like when I first fell in love with old Volvos, I just see them everywhere. In one brief scene, from a time maybe 200 years from now, a humanoid fabricant being, somni-451, is being shuttled from safe-house to safe-house, avoiding the corporate/government authorities. She is being hunted down as the (reluctant) figure-head in an emerging revolution of the have-nots against their ‘beloved masters’. She is taken to what had been, centuries before, a monastic complex with many temples and shrines somewhere in Korea, perhaps. Visible across the river gorge is a carved, serene, seated, cross-legged figure, the worse for wear and tear, in huge bas-relief. Somni-451 comes out just before dawn, and sees the elderly headwoman who is sitting, contemplating this figure. She is the abbess, who, as a young girl, had trained briefly as a nun and is the only survivor from the time of rehabilitation (or death) of those who practiced the old, now-banned, religions. She tells somni-451 about this Siddhartha and how he taught freedom from suffering. But she can’t really tell her the stories, because they have all been lost. Nonetheless, she abides, and helps those who come to this place seeking freedom.

Cloud Atlas, written as a palindromic enigma, reveals itself gradually. Each chapter focuses on the story of a particular character, time and place, starting with the past (roughly the early 1800s). Working forward in time we reach a time in the far future (maybe 500 years?), and then the order reverses where we find the denouement of each character as we proceed, backwards in time. However, words, phrases, shadows of names, and roles of characters reverberate back and forth among the chapters. It’s exciting and also uncomfortable. I find myself once again sucked into the vortex of a dystopian vision, and find myself wondering why I am drawn to this. As the survivor of a personal apocalypse or two (although thriving now, thankfully) perhaps I can’t help being fascinated by fictional apocalypses. Even though I know there is no safe ground in saṃsāra (the world-as-we-know-it: the ocean of suffering and beauty we inhabit), and even though I deeply believe that no one is free until we’re all free and saṃsāra is emptied of the suffering of craving, aversion, and confusion, I can’t quite look away. 

This is a book of disturbing conceptions, but of such conceptions that we ought, ethically, to be disturbed by. In the paired sections named “An Orison of Somni-451,” a dystopian future is presented wherein the population of “purebloods” exists by the caring grace of the “corpocracy” and cannot survive without their “franchises and gallerias.” Meanwhile, fabricants from corporate wombtanks live in complete servitude, unable to survive without a special nourishing but soporific substance , and poisoned by regular food. They labor, die, and then become — Soylent Green-style — the food that supports the whole enterprise.

This book has riled my inner revolutionary. I want the victims rescued, injustices revenged, and the evil punished. But also it takes genuine talent for a writer to make a reader care that all the villains, no matter how contemptuous and evil, are really just so sadly deluded. This makes for some painful reading in certain moments. The truest revolution is the wish for all villains to see with new hearts and be transformed.

There is a sad eloquence generated by beings not considered by others as sentient. Somni-451 is not alone. It doesn’t matter if that being is different by way of gender, age, color of skin, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or genomic construction. All of that is portrayed here and often it is wryly funny. As one character, the only slightly decrepit yet elegant Veronica explains, “Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back… We–by whom I mean anyone over sixty–commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offense is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.” Ow. And I say this partly, yes, but not completely because I, too, am over sixty.

Another treat this book offers is a sort of comparison of technologies past, present, future. From our current vantage point, we can never see very far how our choices play out in the future, but maybe we should keep trying to see. Science and technology have brought wondrous things to pass. Many have been the entrepreneurs who by connecting dots have opened the way for people to make a better living for themselves and their families. Leaders and organizations can help whole communities flourish and creatively respond to challenges to the common good. And it can and has and will all go horribly wrong unless we’re smart about it and practice good ethics.

But what to do, as a practicing Buddhist, since I cannot look away–from this book, from ongoing life? I am riled, I am moved–but to what? How exactly, does the bodhisattva save living beings? I wanna know; I’m also afraid that the answer might be that it is beyond me. Truly, it does seem beyond the abilities of “me,” this un-Enlightened, ordinary, human woman.

Adam Ewing (our young guy from the 1800’s), who had both observed and suffered much cruelty from his fellows aboard ship makes it home to San Francisco determined to use his newly-awakened passion for justice for the abolition of slavery. He intends to spend his life

shaping a world I want Jackson [his son] to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit…[yet] I hear my father-in-law’s response: ‘Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam, but don’t tell me about justice. Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the rednecks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites!…You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified!…He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’

Well, okay then; whatever! But the last line in the book, the son’s silent answer to his father-in-law is strangely comforting, and perhaps our next-step-clue: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

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“Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miller

This is my first time reviewing a book for Wildmind. I agreed to write this on Bodhipaksa’s recommendation that this book might be “up my alley” since one strong interest I have is in how the Dharma works for me in my life right here and right now. This is how Karen Maezen Miller’s book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, came into my hands.

Another thing I especially delight in is books written by women. Sexism is a meme that’s still alive and well in the world, and I love coming upon anything that tends to dispel that kind of malignant influence. Dharma books by women teachers have been especially dear to me.

Title: Hand Wash Cold
Author: Karen Maezen Miller
Publisher: New World
ISBN:
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle store, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

I haven’t done a book report (fancy name for a review) since junior high school, but I remember some of the key things our teacher wanted us to address. What is this book about? Who is the main character and why do you care about what’s happening to this person? What’s the main message of this book. Should we read this book too? Or don’t bother? Why and why not?

At first, I was charmed but her use of the “hand wash cold” metaphor; but then, I began to get annoyed and also a little confused — was this a clever dharma talk? a women’s magazine confessional à la “Can This Marriage Be Saved”? I found myself saying, “Come on, where are you taking me in this story, and are we there yet?” Which is a curious thing to need — to go somewhere (anywhere!) when the main event in Zen (and really most of Buddhist practice) is to stay right here, fully attentive, in the present moment-by-moment.

At the same time I was reading “Hand Wash Cold”, I was reading “The Great Failure” by Natalie Goldberg. I often have several books going at once, and often I get rewarded by unexpected concurrences and contrasts. Now, Goldberg is a writer by profession, and you could argue that her superior technique turned my head. You might be right, too, but I think I’m seeing something other than technique that is bothering me about Miller’s story. Both used a confessional format as a way of demonstrating things that are true for all of us. But where Goldberg’s story was no less painful or baffling to her as she was living it as Miller’s must have been, Goldberg let the drama of her story be something that carried the forward pulse of the book, if you will, but this was far from the point of her telling the story. Miller’s story was dramatic but in a way that seemed to be trying to capture the experience solely from the standpoint of where she was then, in that more self-centered, egoistic voice. This made it hard to cheer her on or see where she was going with this (except to relate this to her housework metaphor). Goldberg let the maturity of her practice — that is her present experience, the benefit of the wisdom she has accumulated — inform the story of the not-wise-yet past “her” and how she wised up. It is in this way that Miller’s effort shows the limitation of making the metaphor work so hard to organize the ideas and insights that it loses its ability to zing and reframe. Yeah, we do all these ordinary tasks, and they’re great occasions for mindfulness, but in and of themselves, they’re too flimsy to hold the Dharma.

I do a bit of gardening from time to time, and there are times I’ve been pulling weeds and think of how it’s such an apt metaphor for how we purify all our ratty, pernicious, negative habits — and how simply cutting them down leaves the roots intact and able to grow back — gotta dig right down into the dirt, get your hands dirty, and slowly but surely pull, pull, pull and then out they come, and that’s the end of it. I wrote a dharma talk one time using gardening metaphors for dharma practice and the spiritual life. By the time I was done, I was really tired of that metaphor. It ended up barely material enough for a 30 minute talk. For a whole book? No metaphor is sturdy enough to carry an entire book. I think Miller fell in love with this metaphor and then got stuck with it. It’s a danger we all face whether writing something, giving a talk or even in how we converse in everyday life. Just like the time I had made a decision to buy a vintage Volvo wagon and restore it and then saw Volvos everywhere. That was cool, for a while, but then it wasn’t, and that car needed to be sold some time later, and then I bought a Honda Fit and then I saw THEM everywhere. There are, in fact, all sorts of cars everywhere, but what we fall in love with we then see to the exclusion of other things and our world narrows.

So there’s a big long part (or it seemed long) where Miller is young and concerned with her hair and make-up and career and “having it all.” Then her marriage becomes unsatisfactory, and she tells us all about how it was unsatisfactory and she didn’t know what was what or how to make it better, and I kept thinking, “And where’s your practice?” It wasn’t clear to me when she actually began taking her spiritual life seriously — it seemed like one more thing she was doing so well — but there wasn’t a sense of increasing depth or how she saw her practice as integral to making sense of the rest of her life. The story of that would have been much more interesting. And then she’s a teacher at a Zen Center … how’d that happen? And so now everything is okay? Hmmmm… and is all her laundry fresh and sweet and all put away now?

So I think in the best, deepest sense, this book is about how we have to wash the ignorant and unskillful parts of ourselves with our own hands. That the accoutrements of modern life, which can, in our immaturity, include our Buddhist Center, teachers, sangha-members and even the Dharma and practices themselves, aren’t enough if we’re passive consumers of them. We change us, accompanied and influenced by everything and everyone that surrounds us, seen and unseen. And we accompany and influence them as well, whether we see how we do that or not. But better to see, and see more deeply and compassionately, and commit to doing so on purpose.

I wish Miller all success; I’d give this book a miss.

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From Snow White to sadhana: Growing up under the influence of Ratnasambhava

RatnasambhavaRatnasambhava is, amongst other things, the Buddha of generosity. Danamaya explores the open-handed Buddha of the south.

In some ways, I may have known Ratnasambhava all my life, although I didn’t learn about Buddhism until high school, and then only from an introductory article in a comparative religion class. But looking back I can see all sorts of important themes in my life that got their start in little experiences long before. As a kid, I loved fairy tales, especially the Grimm Brothers. There were always buried treasures uncovered, or led to for someone who’d been set an impossible task who was a small, weak or humble person but who was actually a worthy, noble person in the making.

At around that same time, when I was about 7 years old, a couple of movies came out that fascinated me. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs impressed me with the gem-mine that the Dwarfs labored in — sparkling, perfectly faceted and finished jewels of all colors, right from the black rocks. And then there was Journey to the Center of the Earth — especially the part where the explorers’ lamps are failing, and they turn them off only to find that walls glow on their own, and they wander through galleries of huge jewel-like crystal formations.

Back then, I walked to school, and got to thinking about how we never really know what’s under the ground we walk on. Why, for all we know, there could be, right in this spot, if we dug down, a chest full of rubies and pearls and gold! Who knows how long it’d been there? And all these people walking over it with no idea, whatsoever! Years later, I’d understand more about the power of the mythic and the archetypal.

 Sometimes, it’s not you who chooses your yidam, the Buddha whose visualization you will take up. They sometimes choose you!  

When I first encountered the Dharma through the Triratna Buddhist Community, I came across the Mandala of the Five Buddhas. Such a rich collection of symbols and associations, organized to reflect so many layers of meaning! About a year before I was ordained, I mysteriously began to be attracted to the color yellow — the kind of deep, rich golden yellow like turmeric or saffron. I’d go into a bead shop and get drawn immediately to the golden yellow beads — citrine, amber, topaz. And also, mysteriously there were piles of glowing jewels that appeared spontaneously in my mind’s eye with no logical reason for them to be there. Often, these events would be accompanied by a sense of being loved or feeling sudden confidence in the goodness and the bounty of the world. So, who is golden yellow, associated with jewels and bounty and joy and beauty? Oh, right! Ratnasambhava. I didn’t know it then, but sometimes, it’s not you who chooses your yidam, the Buddha whose visualization you will take up. They can choose you! Very mysterious, indeed!

Ratnasambhava is one of the Five Transcendent Buddhas, sometimes known as the Five Jinas (Victorious Ones), who are depicted as a Mandala. The Five Buddha Mandala is thought to have originated early in the Mahayana renaissance, perhaps in the 4th century CE. Amitabha and Akshobhya were the first to be portrayed as visualizations of Wisdom and Compassion. In the Sutra of Golden Light, two more figures, Dundubishvara and Ratnaketu became Amoghasiddhi and Ratnasambhava, respectively. Vairocana emerged as the central, unifying concept, although all five were regarded as aspects of the Dharmakaya — as manifestations of reality. As archetypal figures, they are evocative of the deepest, purest qualities we all have, at least in seed-form, in the depths of the heart of our psyches. Contemplating the Jinas, dwelling in their mandala, it’s possible to reorient ourselves towards true refuge.

 Ratnasambhava’s hand is tipped so far forward that nothing could ever stay in that hand  

Located in the South of the Mandala, in his Pure Land Srimat, the Glorious, the Harmonious, Ratnasambhava is the great jewel-becoming, jewel-producing Buddha of Generosity and Beauty.

Incandescent golden yellow as the noon sun on Midsummer’s Day, he sits on a yellow lotus which is supported by four splendid horses in the vast blue sky of Boundlessness. And yet he is Earth Element purified. He purifies the skandha of vedana (feeling/emotion). He transforms the addictive poisons of arrogant pride, avaricious greed and the three conceits (I’m better than everyone, I’m worse than everyone, I’m the same as everyone). These become Ratnasambhava’s wisdom of the equality, the boundless sunya nature, of all things.

Clothed in russet silk robes, embroidered with gems, his left hand holds the Wish-Fulfilling Gem, the Bodhicitta. His right hand stretches out over his knee, palm outwards. This is the varada mudra, the infinite giving of the greatest gift, which is always just the very thing that’s needed, and no holding anything back. A friend once said that she finds it compelling that Ratnasambhava’s hand is tipped so far forward that nothing could ever stay in that hand — something I have found immensely beneficial to reflect on. If I want to become that — become the perfection of generosity — how could I give so completely that nothing could ever stay in my hand?

 I’ve never seen his face in meditation — and I think that’s him teaching me not to get conceptual  

There are said to be four types of generosity. You can give material objects or aid such as food, money or items. You can give your time and energy. You can give the Dharma. And you can give the gift of fearlessness. The perfection of such giving is when there is no difference experienced between the giver, the receiver or the gift! It’s the act itself, spontaneous, selfless.

Dana paramita (perfect, egoless giving) is also a wonderful antidote to craving. Looking at the world, all the catastrophes, all the suffering, it is so easy to slip in to thinking that there is never enough, there are too many wants and needs. This is a hazard in the spiritual life — craving caused by poverty-mentality. It’s delusion, of course, and our challenge is to see through these confusions — not only are there so many resources of so many types, and even though they’re strewn around, right under our noses, we can easily get stuck on the material aspects or how little time or energy we think we have, forgetting that there are those two other types! Think of it — truth and fearlessness–how far those could take us!

 Selfless open-handedness is far from mindless…  

I also think there is such a thing as ‘bad’ generosity. ‘Bad’ not in the sense of evil; more like something that’s gone bad in the fridge, maybe. It gets that way when the motive is corrupted, such as when a person gives in order to be liked. The second precept encourages us to abstain from taking the not given. But I’ve also been thinking about how unskillful it is to try to give what other people neither want nor need. For instance, if you don’t believe you can get your own needs met, or have developed the unskillful habit of ignoring your own needs, it could be easy to then project that onto others and focus your energy on ‘helping’ them. Perhaps it’s one of the types of co-dependence. Selfless open-handedness is never mindless and it is always kind. Awareness is our friend in so many ways.

After coming home from my ordination retreat in 2002, I set about finding out how to integrate this whole experience of ordination, of taking on Ratnasambhava’s sadhana (visualization) practice, of now being Danamaya and not this other person I had been, but not different, exactly. Choosing, or, in my case, being chosen by, a transcendental figure, is not your everyday experience. What remains with me now, from that magical time when I was formally ‘introduced’ to my yidam, is that there’s just an awful lot a human being can’t really know. It’s not straightforward. For one thing, I’ve never seen his face in meditation — and I think that’s him teaching me not to get conceptual about it. But then, he will ‘appear’ as the light between the cracks in the world, between one thing and another — expanding my heart from the center outwards. Relaxing into how things are, their essential nature, right now: boundless, endless, free.

How Ratnasambhava and I ‘chose’ each other is another story, for another time, but that I have been changed (and continue to be!) by my experience of this beautiful and immense Jina is a continually unfolding delight for me. We are all on our own mythic journeys. These great archetypes are wonderful guides and protectors. I am content to be ‘under the influence’ and also under the protection of Ratnasambhava.


DanamayaOrdained in 2002, Danamaya practices at the San Francisco Buddhist Center, where she regularly leads evenings on chanting, ritual, and sometimes themed Dharma study series in which multimedia art figures strongly.

By day she works as a nurse practitioner at a multidisciplinary clinic serving youth 13-22 yrs. She also plays viola in a local orchestra.

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