death

“Jake Fades” by David Guy

"Jake Fades" by David Guy

As Buddhist ideas become more commonly known in the west, they increasingly pervade art and literature. Reviewer Hazel Colditz, herself a Buddhist and artist, was impressed by David Guy’s new novel of impermanence, Jake Fades. Author David Guy is a teacher and writing instructor residing in North Carolina. A graduate of Duke and author of several books, he reviews books for newspapers and is a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

Jake Fades is a novel of impermanence. It is a simple yet enriching read based on the day-to-day lives of two main characters: Jake, an aging teacher of life, and Hank, his sidekick and student. Jake’s mission in life is to teach that everything will die, including himself.

Title: Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence.
Author: David Guy.
Publisher: Shambhala.
ISBN: 978-1-59030-566-9
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

Jake starts out as a young man passionate about art and intent on making his mark. Most of Jake’s training in Zen is described to Hank in flashbacks throughout the novel. He travels to the east, meets a humble landscape painter in Japan, and soon becomes his student and servant. He is taught to focus on observing life: “Learning to observe and appreciate the landscape before you [do] something so presumptuous as painting it.” With Jake’s youthful passion and energy it is hard for him to be told to sit and observe. He resists for months but eventually gives in and grows to love it, and twelve years later he is ordained as a Zen priest.

Jake always holds to the early teachings he imbibed in the monastery: “Buddha nature, true self,” he says at one point. “This practice isn’t about sitting. It’s about compassion which can’t be taught … where you naturally feel for the person, reach out to help.” Jake teaches and embodies these aphorisms.

In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence…

Hank first encounters Jake while in Maine on a vacation with his son, Josh. Josh is a typical teenager, and he and Hank are having one of those father/son vacations-from-hell experiences. While in Maine they rent bikes from Jake, who repairs bikes for a living. When Josh returns his bike he throws it on the ground in front of Jake, frustrated not just with a difficult ride, but with his parents’ divorce and the problems this brings. Jake is unperturbed by Josh’s anger or the damage he causes to the bike, and Hank is struck with Jake’s compassion towards his son. This marks the beginning of their relationship.

The following year they return and thus begins Hank’s introduction into a life as a student of Zen. Jake has a way to make people feel safer and saner by just being around him and Hank wants more. Hank, who struggles with issues of sexual craving, love, and fear of commitment, tells Jake he wants to just stop all his constant craving. Jake tells him “This is your conditioning. This is your karma. You have to see this, the nature of desire.”

I particularly enjoyed David Guy’s storytelling and how he presents Jake as a rounded human being, a profound and humble teacher, but also imperfect. Jake is not a vegetarian, he likes to kick back with a few beers, and he has a passion for desserts.

Just beginning in Buddhism myself I have always had great difficulty in trying too hard, almost forcing my perception or understanding of what a “perfect” practice might be. Am I doing the prostrations correctly? Why won’t my mind just stop wandering during seated meditation? Why can’t I be like everyone else in the room, damn it! There’s reassurance in seeing the imperfections that can exist alongside an inspiring practice.

I recognized myself in the character of Jess, a young woman working in the town bar and who struggles to find herself, and in Madeleine, who can sit in perfect posture with grace and physical ease, but who after years of training cannot sit through an entire retreat because of overwhelming fear. She is the one whom Jake feels deep compassion for, a woman whose wealth made it easier for her to escape herself. She loves Jake, although Jake always knows it was not truly him that the woman fell in love with, but the Dharma, the teachings of Buddha.

David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog…

David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog, not just through the obvious fact of Jake’s death through Alzheimer’s disease. “In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence,” Jake says, introducing a talk that Hank is to give. Hank’s response to Jake’s words on impermanence comes out in a teaching: “Our past is what we think of as our life, that whole life of thought and memory that we carry around all the time, but nothing actually repeats itself. Every moment is new, and you can’t live this moment until you die to the past one.” This is the magic of David Guy’s writing; he infuses his knowledge or understanding of Buddhism in his dialog between the characters.

Jake teaches Hank that living in the moment is about being fully present. Jake is fully present even if his mind, because of his Alzheimer’s, isn’t. Even in his “moments of forgetting” Jake is in touch with what Hank calls “the unconscious rhythm of the universe.”

Jake connects his Alzheimer’s with his Zen practice. “Sesshin [intensive meditation] is like death,” he says. “When you can’t talk, can’t write, can’t read, give up everything that makes you you, who are you?” In an analogy Jake describes how once in his youth he is in a car accident and incurs amnesia: “The strangest sensation. I came to on a hospital table and was clearly awake, looking around, but I had no idea who I was.” Where does the memory go, when it isn’t there? Jake was scared living with his illness but was not unhappy because he had found acceptance.

“I wanted to discover wisdom that manifested as compassion.” These are Hank’s words as he describes why he became Jake’s student. He fell into the lap of Buddha so to speak. Isn’t that what we are all looking for? A life fulfilled, as portrayed in Jake Fades.

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The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight

Best of Inquiring Mind

Title: “The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight”
Author: edited by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
Publisher: Wisdom Publications (2009).
ISBN: 0-86171-551-9
Available from: Amazon.com.

As the exceptional, essential new anthology The Best of Inquiring Mind: 25 Years of Dharma, Drama, and Uncommon Insight underscores for us, Inquiring Mind journal has been both a vital and heroic effort in English-language Buddhist media.

At a quarter-century in age, the biannual is one of the longest-standing publications for Dharma practitioners in North America—a survivor, a keeper, and an example. As publisher Alan Novidor so aptly puts it in his preface, the journal is generally regarded as “beautiful, honest, provocative, and simply presented.”

Co-founded and co-edited by Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker (who also put the book together), Inquiring Mind is staffed by six part-timers and a lot of volunteers. A labor of devotion to the Dharma and to others, there is no office or headquarters—it is assembled in the homes of its editors and staffers—and published on recycled newsprint.

Freely offered as dāna, it depends entirely on reader donations; and though it has been popularized at American Vipassana centers, it is neither “affiliated with” nor “subsidized by” any particular community or tradition, opting instead for a nonsectarian, independent approach.

Expressly dedicated to “the creative transmission of Buddhadharma to the West,” contributing authors have included such luminaries as Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Allen Ginsberg, Rick Fields, Ayya Khema, Mark Epstein, S.N. Goenka, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Robert Thurman, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Noah Levine, Edward Espe Brown, and many others.

With such an incredibly rich archive to draw upon, the question can be asked: How best to distill Inquiring Mind down into a “Greatest Hits” volume? In the introduction to The Best of Inquiring Mind, Gates and Nisker articulate a sound vision: an anthology arranged into eight sections that best represent the issues and ideas pondered over in the pages of the journal. (Each issue of Inquiring Mind has revolved around one or two themes.) By doing this, the “mix of genres” and “mix of voices” that made the publication so distinctive are very well exhibited without making for an unwieldy book.

The editors are careful to note, however, that their volume nonetheless reflects gender and ethnic “imbalances” in Western Buddhism, as the authors are mostly male and white. Still, it would be difficult to fault the book for not presenting a fairly broad spectrum of genres—in particular, the inclusion of artwork at the beginning of each section highlights some other important ways of teaching dharma that are often neglected.

 Inquiring Mind is expressly dedicated to the creative transmission of Buddhadharma to the West  

The first section, “Path of the Elders: East Moving West,” seeks to chart and characterize the transmission of Theravāda Buddhism to the West. It includes interviews (with Goldstein, Goenka, Salzberg, Kabat-Zinn, and Ajahn Amaro); reflections on the great Dipa Ma (by Goldstein, Kornfield, Jack Engler, Carol Wilson, and Michele McDonald); and a conversation (between Nisker and Noah Levine). It also features a piece that should be required reading for all Western Buddhists: Jack Kornfield’s “Advice from the Dalai Lama,” which reports on the first historic meeting between His Holiness and a group of twenty-two Western Dharma teacher from various traditions.

The second section, “Living & Dying in a Body,” is a consistently fascinating, powerful, and unique portion of the book—in many ways, this small collection itself exemplifies what has been so special about Inquiring Mind. An exploration of “the flesh and its attendant joys and conflicts,” it immediately grabs a hold on the reader with Rick Kohn’s evocative poem “Mr. Lucky.”

Also brilliant and equally absorbing is Diana Winston’s reflection on being a nun and experiencing the “blessing” of her menstrual cycle, which served as a reminder of her “connection to the Earth and [herself] as a woman.” Former belly-dancer Terry Vandiver’s coming to grips with her age, Caitriona Reed’s meditation on gender identity, and Kate Lila Wheeler’s encouragement of us to include the “loathsome” in our practice are all also outstanding and extremely valuable in that they touch on issues and ideas not often mulled over in contemporary Buddhist writing.

Zen Hospice Project founder Frank Ostaseski’s “Stories of Lives Lived and Now Ending” and the late Rick Fields’ recollection about teaching a fellow cancer patient about the Medicine Buddha offer memorable insights from those looking death squarely in the eye. The section ends with an absolutely unforgettable piece by Ronna Kabatznik, entitled “Tsunami Psychologist,” about tending to survivors among the dead following the Southeast Asian tsunami that was caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

“Science of Mind,” the third section, considers the “new synthesis” of Eastern and Western ideas about the human mind. It includes interviews with scientists Paul Ekman and Francisco Varela, psychotherapist Epstein, and dharma teacher Kornfield. Additionally, Susan Moon contributes a fiercely honest reflection on her experience with depression as a devoted Buddhist practitioner.

 …deserves to find a home on every practitioner’s bookshelf…  

The fourth section on “The Dharma & The Drama” includes pieces about “the dramas of life…seen through the lens of Buddhist teachings.” Working from the story of Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation of his family, Norman Fischer provides a striking teaching on “the sacred and the lost.” Nina Wise vividly recalls a dinner with Carlos Castaneda that included an important lesson: “You’re perfect just the way you are.”

Gates, recognizing that “nothing can be thrown away” in meditation, composes a terrific love letter to garbage. In a very powerful teaching on facing fear, African-American teacher Charles Johnson confronts the memory of a near-lynching during a long retreat. Zen cook Brown’s funny story involving strawberry rhubarb tart cake makes for a fitting wrap-up.

The fifth section, “Complementary Paths,” delves into the issue of practicing in multiple traditions, borrowing from others, and creating new hybrid communities—distinctive trends in Western Buddhism. A typically incisive and provocative interview with Stephen Batchelor (who has practiced in the Tibetan, Korean Zen, and Theravāda Buddhist traditions) on the subject is the first of several interviews in this chunk of the book.

Also featured are interviews with Ram Dass, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and Hari Lal Poonja. Last is a wonderful conversation between Ani Tenzin Palmo, Ajahn Sundara, Ajahn Jitindriya, and Yvonne Rand about their harmonious experiences as nuns in various traditions.

“Practices,” the sixth section, showcases several riffs on specific practices and aspects of practice. Nisker reveals his rationale to practice in poetic, sometimes lighthearted form. Santikaro articulates mindfulness of breathing in technological language. Ayya Khema, Miranda Shaw, and Goldstein are interviewed about jhana practice, tantric practice, and “the undiluted Dhamma,” respectively.

Rev. Heng Sure memorably ponders humor as he recounts a three-year pilgrimage doing full prostrations for 800 miles along the California Coast Highway. This portion of the book concludes with one of Thurman’s classically quick-witted, razor-sharp teachings—this one on the importance of recognizing impermanence in practice.

“Artists & Jesters of the Dharma,” the seventh section of the book, looks at how the arts and humor are being used as “teaching tools and expressions of realization” here in the West. Judith Stronach, for example, finds koans in Pablo Neruda’s poetry, and an infectiously adulatory Patrick McMahon makes a case for Jack Kerouac as a Dharma ancestor.

There is also Anne Waldman’s astounding poem-cum-elegy about sitting with the corpse of her friend Allen Ginsberg, and Gates’ piece about all that “laundry-line images” evoke for her.

Movie buffs are sure to appreciate Andrew Cooper’s hilarious and imaginative film noir spin on the sutras as well. There are also three stimulating interviews in this section on Buddhist tricksters (Steven Goodman), the “music of sound” (John Cage), and teaching Beat poetry in China (Ginsberg, of course).

The last section, “Tending to the World,” brings forwards pieces that offer a sampling of the various ways socially engaged Buddhist practitioners have articulated what it is that they are doing. There are fabulous interviews with Joanna Macy, Gary Snyder, China Galland, and prison administrators Kiran Bedi and Lucia Meijer, as well as excellent conversation pieces on environmentalism (Julia Butterfly Hill and Ajahn Pasanno) and indigenous voices (Eduardo Duran, Lorain Fox Davis, and Tsultrim Allione). In addition, gardener Wendy Johnson, prisoner Jarvis Jay Masters, and public school teacher Naomi Baer offer colorful glimpses into their lives and work.

The Best of Inquiring Mind is a completely engrossing read and a significant record of a magnificent journal’s work. It’s rare to be able to say that a book deserves to find a home on every practitioner’s bookshelf, where it can continue to motivate and otherwise benefit the reader…and I can say that without hesitation about this book. I’ll be revisiting and drawing inspiration from it for a long, long time. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another twenty-five years for Volume II.


Rev. Danny FisherRev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), has written for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review; The Journal of Buddhist Ethics (forthcoming); The Journal of Religion & Film; Eastern Horizon; Dharma Life; New York Spirit; elephant journal; and many other publications. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the ecumenical Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008, and is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. Visit him online at https://chaplaindanny.blogspot.com. [Photo by Pierre Rene Bouchard.]


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Richard Wagner: “We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word.”

richard wagner

Wagner’s advice, that we need to learn to die, may bring up thoughts of our mortality: thoughts we may not be comfortable dwelling upon. But Bodhipaksa suggests learning to die really means learning to live fully, embracing the ungraspable flow of life.

“We must learn to die, and to die in the fullest sense of the word. The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness,” wrote Richard Wagner.

In Wagner’s epic Ring cycle, Siegfried is the hero precisely because he lives by a code: never to let your life be shaped by fear of its end.

Religion is often supposed to free us from fear of death, and yet that doesn’t always happen. A recent study of patients with terminal cancer revealed that those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to insist on receiving intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion. Those who prayed most were most afraid of dying.

That’s rather sobering. Those who you think might be most happy to meet their end — so that they could meet their God — were those who most resisted death and clung desperately to life.

 …never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind.

This is ironic, and not just in the obvious sense; those who insist on heroic measures being taken to prolong their lives experience greater levels of psychological and physical distress because of the invasive nature of the medical and surgical interventions they insist upon. Clinging leads to suffering. Seems like I’ve heard that before, somewhere.

Siegfried’s code could, I think, be expanded into something wider — never let your life be shaped by fear of any kind, with death being just one particular thing to be afraid of.

Life is full of “little deaths.” There are million things in each and every day of our lives that we can either cling to, or let go of.

Every thought we have, every sensation we experience, every feeling and emotion that arises is an opportunity for either clinging or for letting go. There are a million opportunities for experiencing fear: a million opportunities to live heroically, in small ways.

Examples: I’m driving to a class I’m teaching, going smack on the speed limit. A car behind me is driving too close, looking for an opportunity to blast by me. I’ve lost the “safe space” that I like to have between my car and the vehicle following. Fear arises. Will I just let this discomfort arise and pass, or will I tense up, start cursing the other driver, or speed up to try and put some distance between us, or slow down in order to get revenge? If I just keep driving, allowing the fear to exist, I find I can be comfortable with discomfort. I don’t, after all, have to fear the loss of the sense of ease that I previously had.

The driver passes me. I experience the loss of the sense of being in front of someone. I fear a loss of status. It seems absurd, but that’s what happens. And it’s OK. I remind myself that driving’s not a competition (a useful mantra, I find). I wish the other driver well.

We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

A few minutes later in the same drive, and I feel a little bored. I’ve lost my sense of enjoyment. I fear the boredom. Will I turn on the car radio and see what’s on?

Maybe instead I’ll go deeper into my experience, take enjoyment in the quiet sensuality of driving, notice the movements in my body, the scenery passing by.

The vast majority of the time we don’t even notice these opportunities, nor do we notice when we capitulate to fear. These examples may seem trivial, but my point is that life is composed, in the main, of these supposedly trivial things.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness.” In each of the examples I gave above there’s an opportunity to love. I can relate to my own fear and discomfort with love. I can cultivate lovingkindness for the driver who tailgates and then passes me. After all his bad driving habits are no doubt being fueled by his own suffering. I can remind myself to appreciate (love) the ordinary experiences involved in driving, rather than assuming that I have to look outside of myself for fulfillment.

Wagner said we have to learn “to die in the fullest sense of the word.” I wonder if the fullest sense of the word “dying” is to die in every moment. Every time some experience arises that we can cling to or push away, we simply accept it and allow it to pass. And in doing so we have an opportunity to create moments of love that fill our lives.

Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to let clinging and aversion die. Maybe “to die in the fullest sense of the word” is to live in the fullest sense of the word.

If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling.

“The fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness” because when we attempt to hold on to something that can’t, by its very nature, be held on to — and ultimately nothing can be held on to — we’re unable to appreciate. We can be busy resisting change — or we can love. We can’t do both.

Wagner, in the same letter where he talked about the necessity of learning to die, pointed out that the lesson we must learn is “to will what necessity imposes.” If we can’t hold on to anything, then it’s necessary to stop trying to cling. In order to live fully we have to learn to let go completely, to make it our “will” to embrace change and to cease clinging.

But what about “real” death. Siegfried embraced life, but the death that he didn’t fear was a literal one. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, frequently reminds us that “meditation is a preparation for death, and that death is a state of enforced meditation.” Learn to let go in life and we won’t end up like those sad terminal cancer patients, unable to accept the inevitable. We’ll perhaps be able to love death itself and see it as another opportunity to let go.

The next time you’re meditating, look at what’s going on as an illustration of the truth that you can either try to hold on, or you can love. When you feel frustration because your mind’s busier than you want it to be, realize that you can instead simply appreciate and love the sheer busyness of your mind. When you find yourself longing for some joy that has now passed, realize that you can instead simply love whatever happens to be present in your experience, and in that way experience a renewed joy.

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Ursula K. Le Guin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Everything’s impermanent, but rather than be depressed by this fact we can use it to our advantage. Bodhipaksa looks at the Buddhist practice of developing lovingkindness and offers six lessons that can help us keep love alive.

Lovingkindness meditation presupposes a number of factors that cause love to grow. If you’re not familiar with the practice of lovingkindness meditation I wholeheartedly recommend that you try it. This kind of meditation is a gentle but powerful way of working with our emotions, and I’ve noticed the following principles embedded in the form of the meditation:

  1. First, we have to pay attention to ourselves. If we’re not aware of ourselves and our feelings then we’ll lack the responsiveness that allows us to love others. In the formal practice we bring our awareness into the body and into our hearts.
  2. If we don’t cultivate a basic sense of caring for ourselves and our own well-being then we’ll also find it hard to love others. So we need to start here and develop a wholesome relationship with ourselves. The sitting practice of lovingkindness always begins with us cultivating love for ourselves.
  3. Then we have to give others our attention. We can’t include love in a package of multitasking. We need to spend time with others, and to give them as best as possible our full attention. When my attention is divided between my daughter and, say, some article I’m trying to read, an unpleasant tension arises that can easily lead to impatience. It’s much better just to put down what I’m doing and focus just on her. The more we give people our undivided attention the easier it is to cultivate love for them.
  4. We need to relate to others as feeling beings, and to take their happiness seriously. When we see others as being either means or obstacles to our own happiness we’re not relating to them as feeling beings. To love is to take another’s well-being seriously, and we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge the need others have to be happy.
  5. We need to communicate that we love others. In lovingkindness meditation we commonly repeat phrases like, “May you be well. May you be at ease.” Even if we never speak those words to the other person they have an effect on how we feel. But outside of meditation it’s even more powerful to communicate with another person that we love them. This doesn’t have to be done in words, of course. A glance or a kind act can be an effective way of communicating a sense that we love others. But the words themselves are less ambiguous and often more powerful.
  6. We need to repeat the above frequently. Love, if it’s not being cultivated, is beginning the slow process of withering. We need to bear others in mind as often as we can, calling to mind our love for them. We need to spend as much time as we can with those we love. In this way, our love can keep being reborn and our irritability, intolerance, and indifference towards others can fade quietly away.

Buddhism teaches that everything’s impermanent, which can seem like a real downer until you look more closely into what that means. At first glance it can seem rather depressing: I’m impermanent, and everything I love is impermanent too. I’m going to die. Everything I love is going to die. Love itself is impermanent. Oh, oh! Here comes bleak existential despair!

But the fact that everything is impermanent is actually the most wonderful thing about life. If anything about me was not impermanent then that would be something I couldn’t change. If my personality was not impermanent I’d never be able to change it. I’d be stuck with those aspects of my personality (like my irritability and my distractedness) that cause me most suffering. And the same’s true for you. If you have a tendency to depression, or to over-eating, or to anxiety, those tendencies are impermanent. They can be changed. They can become less predominant in your life. They can even disappear entirely.

What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events…

Love dies, but it is also reborn. Hatred is reborn, but it also dies. What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events being born and dying and being reborn again.

We tend to think of death and rebirth in “macro” terms — about the end of one life of the beginning of another, but actually death and rebirth are taking place in this very moment as cells, sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts are coming into being and passing away. Left to their own devices — without our conscious intervention — the overall texture of our personality won’t tend to change much over time. Things keep changing, but they change in such a way that the stay the same, much as you can look at an eddy in a river and see that in every moment it’s different, but it still has about the same size, shape and position.

Generally it takes conscious intervention to bring about a change in the balance of the various mental factors that constitute a personality. A mindful awareness of our mental states, combined with skillful action, helps shape the process of death and rebirth that’s moment by moment unfolding within our consciousness. Something as simple as letting go of a critical and angry train of thought helps that part of ourselves to pass on into oblivion. Choosing to think about what we’ve achieved helps bring about more happiness. Contemplating the fact that, just as we do, others experience suffering and wish to be happy helps to bring into being the forces of compassion and love.

Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do.

Events can shape us, of course. Tragic events, unpleasant events, unexpected blessings, and the responses of others can bring about profound changes in our personality and outlook. But it’s the way we respond to outside events that is the true shaper of our being. It’s we, ultimately, who change ourselves.

It’s good to bear all of this in mind when we contemplate love. Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do. It’s not a “thing” that lives inside of us and can be left to its own devices. It’s an action. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.

If we are not bringing love into being, it is in the process of dying within us. If we don’t sustain our love, it withers — slowly perhaps, but inexorably. We have to pay attention to love in order that it continues to live and grow within us. And this means that we have to pay attention to others in order that our love continue to flourish.

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“Exploring Karma and Rebirth,” by Nagapriya

Exploring karma and rebirth, Nagapriya

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

The Dalai Lama, has a great interest in science and believes that both the scientific method and Buddhism are attempts to discover how things really are. He has even gone so far as to say that when science and traditional Buddhist teachings part company, it is Buddhism that has to change.

In some cases these adjustments have already been made: people 2,500 years ago in India may have thought that Mount Meru was the center of the world and that there were four continents, but there are no contemporary Buddhist fundamentalists crying out for school text books to carry disclaimers stating that geography is “only a theory.” We’ve let that one slide.

See also:

It’s relatively easy to recognize in the face of modern scientific findings that a cosmological model has outlived its usefulness, but there are a number of trickier areas where science and traditional Buddhist perspectives do not mesh, and an exploration of these areas is perhaps overdue and important.

Two of those areas are the related fields of karma and rebirth, and an examination of these is important because they are – unlike the Ancients’ conception of geography – central to Buddhist teachings, not just as concepts but as the underpinning for Buddhist practice.

Nagapriya‘s book has, I confess, been languishing on my shelf for too long, and deserves to have been reviewed much earlier because it represents an important step forward in examining the relevance and usefulness of the concepts of karma and rebirth to modern, western Buddhists. It is a text I think all practitioners would benefit from reading.

Nagapriya begins by putting the theory of karma into its historical context, showing that the concept existed prior to Buddhism but was reinvented in a Buddhist way. Karma, for example, moved from being seen by the Brahminical tradition as ritual actions aimed at placating the gods to being seen by Buddhism as ethical or unethical actions: the difference between the two kinds of actions being the state of mind underlying them. He shows how non-Buddhist understandings of karma have crept into the Buddhist tradition and caused confusion, and also how the concept has come to be understood differently at different times.

He also places karma in the wider context of the Buddhist teaching of conditioned coexistence, showing that it is a specific instance of a more general teaching about how phenomena come into being.

To be brief, it’s as important to say what karma is not as it is to say what it is, and Nagapriya does both with a convincing clarity and elegance.

Nagapriya goes on to critically examine the teaching of karma. He teases out what is useful in our specific historical context, drawing on the Buddhist scriptures, examples from fiction, and his own experience. In this examination he manages to express the teaching in a way that is easily comprehensible to the modern mind and also profoundly useful. Consider the following admirably clear way of expressing the essence of the teaching, for example:

Karma rests on two important assumptions about human character. The first assumption is that human character is not fixed, and so it may be modified. The second is that willed actions are the means by which character is modified.

He goes on to take a similar approach to the concept of rebirth, looking at what Buddhism says lies beyond the “undiscovered country” that is death, examining what is said to be reborn, looking at the traditional Buddhist teaching of the six realms of rebirth, and taking us on a quick tour of some differing historical perspectives on what (if anything) lies between death and rebirth.

Nagapriya concludes his examination of rebirth by looking critically at some of the evidence for life after life and by speculating that rebirth may be a less tidy affair – one consciousness dying and then coasting into a new body – than is generally understood. His discussion here is highly stimulating but too detailed for me to recount.

Much of the value of this book comes from the fact that Nagapriya’s approach is critical – meaning not that he is hostile to traditional Buddhist teachings (he’s not) but that he bears in mind at all times (or almost all times) Buddhism’s central purpose of addressing the problem of human suffering, and that he constantly attempts to examine whether traditional teachings are useful in that regard.

He is also very rational, in the sense that he does not gloss over contradictions in the tradition but takes those contradictions as an incentive to think more deeply. For example, he rightly questions a Tibetan Rinpoche’s outrageous assertion that those who were exterminated in the Nazi death camps “must have done something very bad in earlier lives.” This kind of teaching is common in certain Buddhist circles, but Nagapriya strongly questions the spiritual usefulness of this kind of “blame the victim” mentality as well as its validity (it’s a pretty absurd belief when you start to really think about it) and its orthodoxy (it directly contradicts the Buddha’s own teachings).

I had the feeling throughout reading this book that I was in a seminar with a highly intelligent, inquisitive, mind, and one that has above all an abundance of intellectual integrity.

The book is not perfect, but then, none of them are. There are a few minor errors of fact (Leonard Shelby in the movie “Memento” had problems making new long-term memories and hadn’t “lost his short-term memory”) and a number of cases where I thought the wrong word had been used (surely he meant to talk about the “culpability” of the Nazis and not their “liability”). There were also a few times when I wished he’d made connections that were absent (he often fails to connect the Buddha’s teachings on karma with the ultimate purpose of Buddhism, which is to address our suffering), and he dismisses the concept of the dharma-niyama as “not clear” when I think he has the capacity to bring a great deal of clarity to the subject. But often these “flaws” are actually a good sign – Nagapriya’s book has got me thinking and making connections, just as a good seminar should.

Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

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Witness to a cremation (National Public Radio)

Announcer: When commentator Ted Rose moved from New York City to the Shambhala Mountain Center, a Buddhist retreat in the Colorado Rockies, people talked about the meditation schedules and the communal eating. No one mentioned the center’s open-air crematorium.

Ted Rose: The invitation I received to watch a corpse burn on a funeral pyre came as a complete surprise. I wasn’t in a foreign country and had no connection to the deceased. I had assumed the unusual ceremony was just for family and friends. In fact, I was told it was open to the public.

I walked by Shambhala Mountain Center’s funeral pyre often. It is located just a few hundred yards away from the beat-up old trailer I’ve lived in for the past year, since trading my New York life for one at this Buddhist retreat in the Colorado Rockies.

The pyre is a simple structure: a concrete slab with room at the bottom for wood and a grate near the top for a body. It looks like an oversized barbecue pit, which is precisely what it is. Despite our religious diversity, we Americans tend to treat our dead bodies quite similarly. When my grandfather died, my family left the details to professionals. I took only about five seconds to commune with my father’s father, lying in his casket at a home. And within a couple hours, I was standing on some AstroTurf at the cemetery, watching a shiny wood box descent into darkness.

The whole idea of an open pyre ceremony made me uncomfortable, so I begged off attending that first one. Then a pioneering Buddhist psychologist and teacher named Ed Podvol succumbed to cancer and his cremation was scheduled. This time I did not have an easy out. The center employed me as its resident shrine keeper. I would witness this cremation on the clock.

The day of the event was windy and cold. The crowd gathered on a meadow. A truck pulled up and six pallbearers reached inside. They emerged with a body wrapped in a white shroud. Ed Podvols’ hips dropped slightly and his knees rose as they moved him. He looked less like a corpse and more like a newborn baby. I wasn’t witnessing as much as gawking.

The scene felt a little like a civil ceremony, but it was also like a car crash where some guilty curiosity was being sated. A teacher introduced the ceremony and led the assembly in some chanting. Five minutes into the service Shambhala‘s head fireman lit the dry wood. The pyre erupted. There was no avoiding the scene. If I closed my eyes I still heard the wood crackling. If I plugged my ears I still smelt the condensed butter fat used to fuel the fire. If I pinched my nose, the cold dry air still pounded my bones.

The scene felt undeniably foreign but I couldn’t figure out why. Americans have plenty of opportunities to see dead bodies. And these days corpses are cremated all the time. I suspect it was the unusually blunt combination: an import from the Indian subcontinent designed to acknowledge the finality of the situation — the end of this human life.

At one point a white stick jutted out from the pyre. It was a remnant of Ed Podvol’s right arm. I experienced a minor freak-out. I was watching a human body burn, I told myself, so of course it is a little messy, just as a human birth is messy. This neat rationalization made some sense, at the time.

I don’t know whether I’ll attend the next cremation. I’m no longer the shrine-keeper so I’ll be free of that obligation. On the other hand I recently joined Shambhala’s fire crew. The next time the center has a body to burn, if the head firefighter needs help, he may end up asking me.

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