The Buddha

Bob Thurman: We can be Buddhas

Thank you. And I feel like this whole evening has been very amazing to me. I feel it’s sort of like the Vimalakirti Sutra, an ancient work from ancient India in which the Buddha appears at the beginning and a whole bunch of people come to see him from the biggest city in the area, Vaishali, and they bring some sort of jeweled parasols to make an offering to him. All the young people, actually, from the city. The old fogeys don’t come because they’re mad at Buddha, because when he came to their city he accepted — he always accepts the first invitation that comes to him, from whoever it is, and the local geisha, a movie-star sort of person, raced the elders of the city in a chariot and invited him first.

So he was hanging out with the movie star, and of course they were grumbling: “He’s supposed to be religious and all this. What’s he doing over there at Amrapali’s house with all his 500 monks,” and so on. They were all grumbling, and so they boycotted him. They wouldn’t go listen to him. But the young people all came. And they brought this kind of a jeweled parasol, and they put it on the ground. And as soon as they had laid all these, all their big stack of these jeweled parasols that they used to carry in ancient India, he performed a kind of special effect which made it into a giant planetarium, the wonder of the universe. Everyone looked in that, and they saw in there the total interconnectedness of all life in all universes.

And of course, in the Buddhist cosmos there are millions and billions of planets with human life on it, and enlightened beings can see the life on all the other planets. So they don’t — when they look out and they see those lights that you showed in the sky — they don’t just see sort of pieces of matter burning or rocks or flames or gases exploding. They actually see landscapes and human beings and gods and dragons and serpent beings and goddesses and things like that.

He made that special effect at the beginning to get everyone to think about interconnection and interconnectedness and how everything in life was totally interconnected. And then Leilei — I know his other name — told us about interconnection, and how we’re all totally interconnected here, and how we’ve all known each other. And of course in the Buddhist universe, we’ve already done this already billions of times in many, many lifetimes in the past. And I didn’t give the talk always. You did, and we had to watch you, and so forth. And we’re all still trying to, I guess we’re all trying to become TEDsters, if that’s a modern form of enlightenment. I guess so. Because in a way, if a TEDster relates to all the interconnectedness of all the computers and everything, it’s the forging of a mass awareness, of where everybody can really know everything that’s going on everywhere in the planet.

And therefore it will become intolerable — what compassion is, is where it will become intolerable for us, totally intolerable that we sit here in comfort and in pleasure and enjoying the life of the mind or whatever it is, and there are people who are absolutely riddled with disease and they cannot have a bite of food and they have no place, or they’re being brutalized by some terrible person and so forth. It just becomes intolerable. With all of us knowing everything, we’re kind of forced by technology to become Buddhas or something, to become enlightened.

And of course, we all will be deeply disappointed when we do. Because we think that because we are kind of tired of what we do, a little bit tired, we do suffer. We do enjoy our misery in a certain way. We distract ourselves from our misery by running around somewhere, but basically we all have this common misery that we are sort of stuck inside our skins and everyone else is out there. And occasionally we get together with another person stuck in their skin and the two of us enjoy each other, and each one tries to get out of their own, and ultimately it fails of course, and then we’re back into this thing.

Because our egocentric perception — from the Buddha’s point of view, misperception — is that all we are is what is inside our skin. And it’s inside and outside, self and other, and other is all very different. And everyone here is unfortunately carrying that habitual perception, a little bit, right? You know, someone sitting next to you in a seat — that’s OK because you’re in a theater, but if you were sitting on a park bench and someone came up and sat that close to you, you’d freak out. What do they want from me? Like, who’s that? And so you wouldn’t sit that close to another person because of your notion that it’s you versus the universe — that’s all Buddha discovered. Because that cosmic basic idea that it is us all alone, each of us, and everyone else is different, then that puts us in an impossible situation, doesn’t it? Who is it who’s going to get enough attention from the world? Who’s going to get enough out of the world? Who’s not going to be overrun by an infinite number of other beings — if you’re different from all the other beings?

So where compassion comes is where you surprisingly discover you lose yourself in some way: through art, through meditation, through understanding, through knowledge actually, knowing that you have no such boundary, knowing your interconnectedness with other beings. You can experience yourself as the other beings when you see through the delusion of being separated from them. When you do that, you’re forced to feel what they feel. Luckily, they say — I still am not sure — but luckily, they say that when you reach that point because some people have said in the Buddhist literature, they say, “Oh who would really want to be compassionate? How awful! I’m so miserable on my own. My head is aching. My bones are aching. I go from birth to death. I’m never satisfied. I never have enough, even if I’m a billionaire, I don’t have enough. I need a hundred billion.” So I’m like that. Imagine if I had to feel even a hundred other people’s suffering. It would be terrible.

But apparently, this is a strange paradox of life. When you’re no longer locked in yourself, and as the wisdom or the intelligence or the scientific knowledge of the nature of the world, that enables you to let your mind spread out, and empathize, and enhance the basic human ability of empathizing, and realizing that you are the other being, somehow by that opening, you can see the deeper nature of life. And you can, you get away from this terrible iron circle of I, me, me, mine, like the Beatles used to sing.

You know, we really learned everything in the ’60s. Too bad nobody ever woke up to it, and they’ve been trying to suppress it since then. I, me, me, mine. It’s like a perfect song, that song. A perfect teaching. But when we’re relieved from that, we somehow then become interested in all the other beings. And we feel ourselves differently. It’s totally strange. It’s totally strange. The Dalai Lama always likes to say — he says that when you give birth in your mind to the idea of compassion, it’s because you realize that you yourself and your pains and pleasures are finally too small a theater for your intelligence. It’s really too boring whether you feel like this or like that, or what, you know — and the more you focus on how you feel, by the way, the worse it gets. Like, even when you’re having a good time, when is the good time over? The good time is over when you think, how good is it? And then it’s never good enough.

I love that Leilei said that the way of helping those who are suffering badly on the physical plane or on other planes is having a good time, doing it by having a good time. I think the Dalai Lama should have heard that. I wish he’d been there to hear that. He once told me — he looked kind of sad; he worries very much about the haves and have-nots. He looked a little sad, because he said, well, a hundred years ago, they went and took everything away from the haves. You know, the big communist revolutions, Russia and China and so forth. They took it all away by violence, saying they were going to give it to everyone, and then they were even worse. They didn’t help at all.

So what could possibly change this terrible gap that has opened up in the world today? And so then he looks at me. So I said, “Well, you know, you’re all in this yourself. You teach: it’s generosity,” was all I could think of. What is virtue? But of course, what you said, I think the key to saving the world, the key to compassion is that it is more fun. It should be done by fun. Generosity is more fun. That’s the key. Everybody has the wrong idea. They think Buddha was so boring, and they’re so surprised when they meet Dalai Lama and he’s fairly jolly. Even though his people are being genocided — and believe me, he feels every blow on every old nun’s head, in every Chinese prison. He feels it. He feels the way they are harvesting yaks nowadays. I won’t even say what they do. But he feels it. And yet he’s very jolly. He’s extremely jolly.

Because when you open up like that, then you can’t just — what good does it do to add being miserable with others’ misery? You have to find some vision where you see how hopeful it is, how it can be changed. Look at that beautiful thing Chiho showed us. She scared us with the lava man. She scared us with the lava man is coming, then the tsunami is coming, but then finally there were flowers and trees, and it was very beautiful. It’s really lovely.

So, compassion means to feel the feelings of others, and the human being actually is compassion. The human being is almost out of time. The human being is compassion because what is our brain for? Now, Jim’s brain is memorizing the almanac. But he could memorize all the needs of all the beings that he is, he will, he did. He could memorize all kinds of fantastic things to help many beings. And he would have tremendous fun doing that.

So the first person who gets happy, when you stop focusing on the self-centered situation of, how happy am I, where you’re always dissatisfied — as Mick Jagger told us. You never get any satisfaction that way. So then you decide, “Well, I’m sick of myself. I’m going to think of how other people can be happy. I’m going to get up in the morning and think, what can I do for even one other person, even a dog, my dog, my cat, my pet, my butterfly?” And the first person who gets happy when you do that, you don’t do anything for anybody else, but you get happier, you yourself, because your whole perception broadens and you suddenly see the whole world and all of the people in it. And you realize that this — being with these people — is the flower garden that Chiho showed us. It is Nirvana. And my time is up.

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The five principles of wise communication

microphone

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Ah, not really.

Often it’s words – and the tone that comes with them – that actually do the most damage. Just think back on some of the things that have been said to you over the years – especially those said with criticism, derision, shaming, anger, rejection, or scorn – and the impacts they’ve had on your feelings, hopes and ambitions, and sense of yourself.

Words can hurt since the emotional pain networks in your brain overlap with physical pain networks. (The effects of this intertwining go both ways. For example, studies have shown that receiving social support reduces the perceived intensity of physical pain, and – remarkably – that giving people Tylenol reduced the unpleasantness of social rejection.)

See also:

Besides their momentary effects, these hurts can linger – even for a lifetime. The residues of hurtful words sift down into emotional memory to cast long shadows over the inner landscape of your mind.

Plus they can alter a relationship forever. Just think about the ripple effects of things said between parents and children, from one sibling to another, or among in-laws. Or between friends. For example, a good buddy once castigated me morally when we disagreed politically. We tried to talk it through, but the fact that he showed he could indeed go to that place led me to take a step a back; we’re still friends, but our relationship is smaller now since I steer clear of some major subjects.

So do what you can to protect yourself from hurtful words from others. Prevent them in the first place, if possible, by “talking about talking” with others (perhaps share the guidelines below). If that doesn’t work, try to see the underlying pain and needs that could have triggered them to “let ‘er rip,” put their words in perspective, turn toward resources in yourself and in your true friends, and shift the size or nature of the relationship if that’s appropriate (and possible).

And on your own side of the street – my subject in this JOT, because you have much more influence over yourself than you have over others – speak wisely.

How?

I’ve gotten a great deal of personal value from six guidelines offered 2500 years ago by the Buddha; you’ll recognize their essence – sometimes expressed in the same words – in other traditions or philosophies.

From this perspective, wise speech always has five characteristics. It is:

  • Well-intended – Comes from goodwill, not ill will; constructive; aimed to build up, not tear down
  • True – Not overstated, taken out of context, or blown-up out of proportion
  • Beneficial – Helps things get better, not worse (even if it takes a while)
  • Timely – Not driven by impulsivity; rests on a foundation that creates a good chance of it being truly heard
  • Not harsh – It could be firm, pointed, or intense; it could confront mistreatment or injustice; anger could be acknowledged; but it is not prosecutorial, nasty, inflammatory, dismissive, disdainful, or snarky.

And if possible, it is:

  • Wanted by the other person – If they don’t want to hear it, you may just not need to say it; but there will be other cases when you need to speak for yourself whether the other person likes it or not – and then it’s more likely to go well if you follow the first five guidelines.

Of course, there is a place for talking loosely with others when it’s comfortable to do so. And realistically, in the first moments of an argument, sometimes people stray out of bounds.

But in important, tricky, or delicate interactions – or as soon as realize you’ve gone over the line – then it’s time to communicate with care, and with wisdom. The six guidelines do not guarantee that the other person will respond the way you want. But they will raise the odds of a good outcome, plus you will know in your heart that you stayed in control of yourself, had good intentions, and have nothing to feel guilty about later.

Reflect on the six guidelines as you consider how to approach an important conversation. Then, be natural: if you simply speak from your heart, have good intentions, and keep returning to the truth as you know it, it is hard not to speak wisely! If things get heated, stay grounded in wise speech; be clear that how you speak your own responsibility, no matter what the other person does. If you stray from the guidelines, acknowledge that to yourself, and perhaps to the other person.

With time and a little practice, you will find yourself “speaking wisely” without consciously thinking about it. You might be amazed at the powerful, assertive ways you can communicate within the frame of the six guidelines; consider the well-known examples of Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And – for a little bonus here – how about practicing wise speech in the way you talk to yourself?!

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Four ways to show love

In several places in the Pali canon, the Buddha praised loving families. For example:

To support mother and father,
to cherish wife and children,
and to be engaged in peaceful occupation
— this is the greatest blessing.

And this:

Husband and wife, both of them
having conviction,
being responsive,
being restrained,
living by the Dhamma,
addressing each other
with loving words:
they benefit in manifold ways.
To them comes bliss.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal emphasizes the importance of affection in relationships, and the advice comes, poignantly, from people who have undergone divorce, as related in psychologist Terri Orbuch’s book, Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship.

In particular there are four components of affection that divorced people said were important:

  1. How often the spouse showed love.
  2. How often the spouse made them feel good about the kind of person they are.
  3. How often the spouse made them feel good about having their own ideas and ways of doing things.
  4. How often the spouse made life interesting or exciting.

The first of these, “showing love” includes “compliments, cuddling and kissing, hand-holding, saying ‘I love you,’ and emotional support.”

It’s the last three that are perhaps least obvious. It’s not hard to remember that a kiss or a hug communicates love, but helping someone feel good about the person they are is a very special and beautiful thing. And it’s something we might be inclined to forget.

One word of caution: when we see lists like this one of the first things we often do is to measure our significant other up against the criteria. This is not only unhelpful, it’s potentially disastrous. We need to focus on ourselves first. How do we measure up? What do we need to do more of, in order to be a more affectionate partner?

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The ten funniest scenes from the Pali canon

buddhist humor

The Pali Canon is profound, difficult, revolutionary: but not funny, surely. And if it is, then why? What’s the nature and purpose of Dhamma humour?

Thankfully I’m going to leave aside weighty matters of interpretation and present here the definitive list of funniest scenes. If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments. In this list I am only considering the early Suttas. There’s plenty more humour in the Vinaya, and even more in the Jatakas, but it would just be too hard to choose.

10. Saccaka gets his comeuppance

Where?

Majjhima Nikaya 35, Culasaccaka Sutta

What’s up?

Saccaka the wanderer features in a few Suttas. Here he threatens to take on the Buddha in debate on the five aggregates and not-self, giving an elaborate series of similes on how he will drag the Buddha about ‘like a huge elephant would enjoy a game of washing hemp’.

Where’s the funny?

While Saccaka is boasting, there’s no doubting his pride is due for a painful fall, and the Sutta doesn’t disappoint. He ends up thoroughly humiliated, seating and depressed. But like all good thrashings in debate, it turns out to be a necessary antidote for his pride. He ends up becoming an arahant.

9. The Boast of Brahma

Where do I find it?

Digha Nikaya 11, Kevaddha Sutta.

What’s up?

A monk searches for an answer to the question, ‘Where do the four great elements cease without remainder?’ He questions the gods, but they keep referring him upstairs (which itself is a lovely satire on the bureaucratic nature of the celestial hierarchy) until he arrives in the realm of Brahma. Brahma appears and boasts, ‘I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, Father of All…’. But he keeps dodging the question. Eventually the monk is so persistent, he takes him by the elbow, leads him to one side, and whispers to him, ‘Actually, I don’t know the answer to your question. You should have asked the Buddha!’

Where’s the funny?

It is a brilliantly accurate skewering of religious pretensions. The bluster and bombast is revealed for what it is. While the story as it stands is directed at the Brahmans, other texts make it clear the Buddha respected the good practice of Brahmans of old (after all, he must have had jhanas to become a Brahma in the first place.) The point here is that religious authority is propped up by signs and displays, and with a little dedicated and persistent questioning anyone can see beneath the surface.

8. Sariputta gets Clubbed

Where do I find it?

Udana 4.4

What’s up?

A passing yakkha sees Sariputta meditating in the full moon, his freshly shaven head a tempting target for an ogre’s club. Unable to resist, despite the warnings of his friend, he lands a blow that would split a mountain in two. Sariputta sits there unperturbed and the blow bounces off. Later, Moggallana asks him if he saw anything unusual, and Sariputta says, ‘No, but I do have a slight headache’.

Where’s the funny?

Come on. A huge troll smashing a shiny bald head in the moonlight? How is this not funny? The episode is pure slapstick, and gives an entertaining contrast between the violent religion of the yakkhas – which, let us not forget, was a mainstream cultic practice often involving human sacrifice – and the peaceful cultivation of the Buddhists. We’re left with no doubt where the real strength lies.

7. Sakka Turns Back

Where do I find it?

Samyutta Nikaya 11.6, Kulavaka Sutta

What’s up?

In the interminable war between the Gods and Titans, the Gods lost the battle and were fleeing, with the Titans hard at their heels. Their escape route led through a forest full of delicate birds, with their chicks nesting. Sakka cannot bear to endanger such innocent creatures, and so he instructs his charioteer Matali, to turn around, even though this means facing their enemies. The Titans, however, assume that Sakka has turned around because he has reinforcements. Terrified, they flee and the Gods end up victorious – and saving the birds.

Where’s the funny?

Sakka is the Buddhist version of the ferocious war god of the Vedas, Indra. He is the archetypal Aryan hero, leading his people on chariot raids, plundering and slaughtering in the joy of strength and victory. The Buddhist texts turn him, not without a struggle, into a spokesman for non-violence. Like the religious allegories, this provides, in its light-hearted way, a political allegory for the idea that non-violence can be a source of strength and political success.

6. The Humiliation of Mara

Where do I find it?

Sutta Nipata 3.2, Padhana Sutta

What’s up?

Mara tires to defeat the Buddha, but ends up routed. While later accounts depict Mara’s army as a vicious mob of monsters, this early story lists 10 purely psychological factors as Mara’s army: desire, cynicism, and the like. Mara tries to tempt the Buddha to live a life of wholesome merit and give up striving for Awakening. But the Buddha is impervious, and Mara ends up depressed, saying he couldn’t get any more entrance to the Buddha than a crow poking a stone. It ends with the unforgettable image of the ‘depressed troll’ letting his lute droop from his armpit and vanishing.

Where’s the funny?

Mara is hardly the paragon of evil we might expect by comparison with the Christian Satan. He is more akin to the Trickster figures of folk mythology; except he ends up being the one getting tricked. His inevitable defeat is a standard trope, repeated in countless stories. Like the wily coyote (another trickster figure), the fun is watching his (admittedly admirable) persistence and ingenuity, knowing all the while his efforts are doomed… I could have chosen any number of Mara tales for this spot, but I felt this major archetypal episode deserved the gong. A special mention, though, for Majjhima 50, Maratajjaniya: Mara enters Moggallana to possess him, and Moggallana says it feels like his belly is full of beans.

5. The Doctrine of Dighanakha

Where do I find it?

Majjhima Nikaya 74, Dighanakha Sutta

What’s up?

Dighanakha approaches the Buddha and without ado declares his doctrine to him. With a name like ‘Long-nails’, you know this is not going to end well. His doctrine is, ‘Nothing whatsoever is pleasing to me’. The Buddha responds with one of the best one-liners in the Suttas: ‘Well, this view of yours, is that pleasing to you?’

Where’s the funny?

The Buddha’s response is sharp, witty, and cuts to the heart of the matter. Like the best humour, it’s not just amusing, but it points to a deep truth: religious people often claim to have let go of the world, but it is their attachment to their religious ideals that is really holding them back.

4. Ratthapala’s Wives

Where do I find it?

Majjhima Nikaya 82, Ratthapala Sutta

What’s up?

Ratthapala is the son of a wealthy family. He is permitted to go forth by his parents only after he nearly starves himself to death. When he returns to his family after attaining enlightenment, they try to tempt him to return to worldly things, placing a large pile of gold before him and serving delicious food. Ratthapala’s former wives come to attend him, intent on seduction. They ask, ‘What are they like, the divine maidens for whose sake you are following the holy life?’ Ratthapala says, ‘Sisters, we do not live the holy life for the sake of divine maidens.’ They cry out, ’He called us “sisters”!’ and collapse in a faint.

Where’s the funny?

Your mileage might vary! Yes, it’s a standard ‘woman tempts ascetic’ scenario; but I don’t think it’s as sexist as it might appear out of context. The bulk of the sutta has Ratthapala dealing with his clinging parents, and later with a king. The wives only appear in this one scene, and are a transparent narrative device. I just find the image of the wives crying, ‘He called us sisters’ and fainting to be so over the top. They’re vapid valley-girls; and for me the humour lies in the naivety of their response, in stark contrast with the strong, wise women found elsewhere in the Suttas. It strikes me as a throw-away bit of camp, contrasting beautifully with the sombre and profound teachings that the sutta ends with. The sutta as a whole is one of the most dramatically accomplished in the whole canon, and the effect is partially accomplished with the fusion of dark and light elements. Anyway, if you still think the story is proof of the sexism of the Pali Canon, perhaps you’re not familiar with…

3. Mutta’s Song of Freedom

Where do I find it?

Therigatha 1.11, Muttatheri

What’s up?

An awakened nun sings of her freedom from the three crooked things: the mortar, the pestle, and her crooked husband.

Where’s the funny?

Sexual politics have, it seems, changed but little. The short verses segue blithely from the mundane to the sublime, speaking with wit and pith of the reality of domestic disappointment. Rather than offering a Cinderalla-solution (the handsome prince will take you away and you can live in a castle – with someone else to do the cooking and cleaning), this offers a genuine solution: freedom from birth and death.

2. Citta’s Faith

Where do I find it?

Samyutta Nikaya 41.8, Nigantha

What’s up?

Citta, a highly intelligent and capable lay disciple, goes to see Mahavira (known in Pali as Nigantha Nataputta), the leader of the Jains and the Buddha’s chief rival. Mahavira asks him whether he has faith in the Buddha’s claim that there is a state of mind so still that all movement and applied thought has vanished? Citta replies that he does not go by faith in the Buddha’s claim. Mahavira is delighted in this, puffs out his chest, and declares, ‘See, even the Buddha’s followers don’t believe him!’ And he praised Citta for his honesty. Citta, however, asks Mahavira, ‘Which is better, faith or knowledge?’ Mahavira agrees that knowledge is better. Citta then declares that whenever he wishes he enters the second jhana where there is no movement or application of mind, and indeed enters even higher attainments. So he does not need to go by faith: he speaks from personal knowledge. Mahavira is devastated: he glances aside at his following, and says how deceitful and insincere Citta is.

Where’s the funny?

Unfortunately, neither the Jain nor Buddhist scriptures record that the Buddha and Mahavira ever met in person, so exchanges such as this are the best we have. As well as the usual pricking of religious pretensions, Citta exposes some of the flaws of the Jain system as seen by the Buddhists. By focussing so much on self-torment, they do not have the tranquillity necessary for deep meditation, and so cannot see the truth. Moreover, Mahavira bombastically claims to be all-knowing, yet he can be so easily fooled – and by a mere layman at that.

1. The Love Song of Pancasikha

Where do I find it?

Digha Nikaya 21, Sakkapanha Sutta

What’s up?

Sakka wants to ask the Buddha some questions, but can’t seem to arrange an interview as the Buddha is on retreat. Pancasikha the gandhabba offers to help, and standing neither too close nor too near, he serenades the Buddha with a song extolling the ‘Buddha, arahants, and love’. He sings of his beloved Suriyavacchasa, ‘maiden fair of thighs’, whose glorious beauty he covets ‘as the arahants love the Dhamma’. His desire grows as does the merit of gifts given to arahants; and were he to be made one with his beloved, he would rejoice like the Buddha attaining Awakening! Despite the outrageous inappropriateness of the song, the Buddha rewards him with a nice compliment: the sound of your voice blended well with the sound of your lute. Sweet, and neatly avoids commenting on the content of the song. (Incidentally, certain later myths make this lute of Pancasikhas none other than the very lute that had dropped so ignominiously from Mara’s armpit in the episode mentioned above. Not so implausible, perhaps, as both events are closely related with the of the Buddha’s Awakening.)

Where’s the funny?

A love song in the Pali Canon! Though the verses are perhaps the earliest attested love song in Indian literature, they are clearly playing with well-practiced tropes. Even when the song doesn’t directly speak of Buddhism, it uses standard Buddhist imagery: like an elephant plunging into a cooling lotus-pond, Pancasikha longs to plunge into the bosom of his beloved. Foreshadowing later Indic literature such as Ashvaghosa, the verses are ironically aware of their own tension: her love will grant him sweet release like water cooling flames, but at the same time he is like a fish stuck on a hook, his heart bound, and his thoughts confused. You can read it either as a genuine erotic song, or as an exposure of the sufferings of lust. And, like the Ratthapala Sutta, the narrative is sophisticated enough to move from such light fare to the weighty matters that are dealt with later on.

From the blog of Bhikkhu Sujato.

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“A little bit pregnant”

Woman holding her hands in a heart-shape over her pregnant belly.

In the Buddha’s day, many people got enlightened quickly. Some people would say this is because the Buddha was such a great teacher, and to some extent that’s got to be true. What better than to have an expert around? But most of the monks and nuns and householders would have had very little contact with the Buddha. After all, he couldn’t be everywhere!

What they did have, that was every bit as helpful as the presence of the Buddha, was the belief that enlightenment was possible. Having the Buddha around was helpful, perhaps, not so much because he was a “personal trainer” who was around to say just the right thing. It was more that he was a living example of what was possible. And as a result of the confidence this brought about, people awakened.

Even when people at the time of the Buddha talked about getting awakened in future lives, they didn’t talk in terms of the “countless lifetimes” that the Mahayana later came to regard as being necessary. They usually expected to get enlightened very soon, perhaps in the very next life. But the focus was very much on awakening here and now.

Nor did people at the time of the Buddha talk about deferring their own awakening until all others were awakened. This is another peculiar Mahayana idea that I believe makes enlightenment seem further away. It in fact makes enlightenment impossible. You just have to look at the Buddha’s own life to see how hollow this concept is; after all, the Buddha didn’t defer his own awakening! It might sound very noble and compassionate to say that we won’t get enlightened before others do, but surely the most compassionate thing we can do is to wake up right now, so that we can help others free themselves from suffering.

Now the first stage of enlightenment is traditionally held to be not far away from where we are. This use of “stages” of enlightenment can be confusing for people. We don’t always know there are stages to awakening. We think it’s all or nothing. Once I was teaching a class and I mentioned the traditional stages of awakening, and someone said, “Can you be a bit awakened? Isn’t being a bit awakened like being a little bit pregnant?” Actually, pregnancy’s a good metaphor. There is a big difference between having just conceived and being nine months pregnant, and between that and giving birth, and between that and having a toddler or a teenager. In other words, just as having a child is a process, so too awakening is a process. We’re all involved in this process of conceiving Buddhas, in giving birth to Buddhas, in giving birth to our own awakened selves.

So there are these stages in the process of awakening, of which the first stage is called “stream entry.” Like getting pregnant, this first stage, stream entry, is not that difficult. Well, stream entry is a bit more difficult than getting pregnant, at least for most people. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, encourages us to take stream entry as a “doable” goal for this life. It’s a significant goal because it’s irreversible. Up until stream entry our movement in the direction of awakening is reversible. We make progress, and then we fall back. We begin to wake up, and then we fall back into a sleep. Perhaps the dreams are interesting! But at stream entry there’s an unstoppable momentum behind the change, because you’ve really seen the truth of the marks for yourself. You’ve seen something, and you can never unsee it.

We’re all, I’d say, half way to that point of no return. Stream entry is a doable goal. It’s quite concrete, and quite achievable. Even non-Buddhists seem to be able to attain this.

Now people still try to see stream entry as being more distant than it is! It’s quite extraordinary how we try so hard to make goals unattainable. Some people take the idea of stream entry and raise it up to a kind of perfection. They imagine the stream entrant as being close to perfect: not capable of being unethical, never getting into bad moods, never getting anxious, never annoying anybody, never having cravings. But that description is more like full Buddhahood (with the exception of annoying people — the Buddha really annoyed a lot of people). To get to full awakening, we have to break ten fetters, and these include ill will and craving, and those are going to be there for two out of the four stages of awakening. To get to stream entry we only have to break three fetters, so we still have greed, hatred, and a lot of delusion to overcome.

At a guess I’d say a reasonably diligent practitioner — not a monk, but someone with a job and family, for example — could go all the way to stream entry in 15 to 20 years. Some people think that’s a long time and get demoralized. But what are you going to do with your life anyway? And it might take much less time. Insight can come out of the blue. It involves a slight shift of consciousness. It could happen right now, right this very moment!

Although meditating is important, awakening probably won’t happen for you when you’re meditating. It’s more likely to happen when your mind is wandering, or when you drop something, or when you hear something and suddenly you see things in a different way. In the scriptures it’s recorded that some people awoke when they were depressed, or even on the point of suicide. For me it happened when I was putting my daughter to bed.

I think it’s supremely important to believe that enlightenment is possible for us, and that it’s not too far away. If you believe something’s impossible for you, it effectively becomes impossible. Once awakening happens, the thing that strikes you most about it is how easy it all was. Once it’s happened — once you’ve seen the truth that your “self” is not a “thing,” but a beautifully unfolding process — you wonder why it took you so long. The truth was sitting there in plain view the whole time, but for some reason you never looked.

So I’d urge you to open to the idea that awakening could happen anytime. That it’s just around the corner. That it’s a slight shift in perspective away. Once you accept that, anything can happen.

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The first western portrayal of the Buddha?

Twitter still has its uses. While keeping an eye out for new Fake Buddha Quotes to document, I came across a link to a post at a rather eclectic blog called Obsidian Wings. The post was written by someone who calls himself Doctor Science, who I know little about Doctor Science except that he’s from New Jersey and has an MA in theoretical population genetics.

He’s not an art historian or religious scholar, but he’s spotted something interesting in Pieter Aertsen’s Adoration of the Magi. Pieter Aertsen, in case (like me) you haven’t heard of him, lived from 1508 to 1575, and was a Dutch historical painter. According to Wikipedia, “He was born and died in Amsterdam, and painted there and in Antwerp, though his genre scenes were influential in Italy.”

One of Doctor Science’s “sprogs” (children to non-Brits) commented that the young man in the center looked like the Buddha. And the sprog seems to be right.

Could this be an image of the Buddha, given the time? It’s worth bearing in mind that in 1954, archaeologists excavating a Viking ruin in Helgö in Ekerö Island in Lake Mälaren in Sweden found a 10 cm (4″) Buddha statue that scholars have pinned to the Swat valley in North-western India. That wasn’t the only exotic artifact found at that site. Items from Byzantium and Egypt were also excavated. Although at the time Aertsen was active, Dutch trading with Asia had not yet begun — the first Dutch expedition round the Cape to the far east took place in 1595, it’s not inconceivable that artifacts could have made their way, through other means (which I’ll discuss shortly) to Europe.

Doctor Science hypothesizes that Aertsen may have seen a Buddha statue, and made a quick sketch, not quite understanding what he was seeing with respect to the Buddha’s hair-style, which is portrayed in the painting by a kind of “helmet” made of straps, along with some kind of top-knot.. To shaw what he might have been trying to represent, here’s a 15th century Buddha head from Thailand, with the Buddha’s hair shown in tight curls, along with a top-knot. The resemblance is striking, and it’s easy to see how Aertsen might have thought this was a helmet.

The figure Aertsen paints is very androgynous, which is not uncommon in Buddha statues, especially from Thailand. Aertsen says that this figure is “an attendant to the old King who’s greeting Jesus.” Interestingly, he’s the only person in the room who’s being looked at, besides the infant Jesus; the younger attendant to the old King is gazing at him. Doctor Science says that the three Magi can to be seem as representing Europe, Africa, and Asia, with the oldest of the three being Asia. This connects the “Buddha” as an Asian figure.

The “Buddha” is in vaguely military garb, with a breastplate and kilt, which is obviously very different from how a Buddha statue would portray the Buddha’s dress. This makes me wonder if Aertsen saw not a full-body statue, but merely a head, like the one shown above. Perhaps, thinking that the Buddha’s “do” was a helmet, he decided to portray the rest of the body in this “military-lite” fashion. The scanty armor of the “Buddha” would fit with him being more of a prince than a mere attendant, which is perhaps why he’s being looked at by the boy servant holding “Asia’s” robe.

As Doctor Science points out, Aertsen worked in Antwerp from about 1535 until 1556 or so, and from 1508 Antwerp was the site of a Portuguese “factory” which served as a northern European distribution center for Portuguese spices from Asia. It’s certainly conceivable that Portuguese traders brought a Buddha statue back to Europe while returning from one of their spice runs.

Doctor Science asks, “There’s a great project here for someone who can find and read the primary sources: is there any direct evidence that images of the Buddha arrived in Europe before 1600, or even 1700?”

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Violent Buddhists and the “No True Scotsman” fallacy

mel gibson in braveheart

Mel Gibson: Definitely not a “True Scotsman”

I recently had a conversation on Google+ (it’s a social network that’s — in my opinion — a much better alternative to Facebook) about Buddhist violence in Burma. Following the alleged rape of a Buddhist woman in Burma by members of that country’s Muslim minority, there was an outbreak of violence in which 2,600 homes were torched and at least 29 people died.

I condemned this violence unequivocally. There is no justification in the Buddhist scriptures for violence. There is no Buddhist doctrine of “just war” or even of “righteous anger.” The Buddha condemned all forms of violence, and famously said that even if bandits were sawing you limb from limb, you should have compassion for your torturers. In fact he said that anyone who had any anger in such a situation would not be one of his followers.

Now that seems kind of crazy, because every single Buddhist experiences anger. I know I do. Does that mean that the Buddha has no followers? I don’t think so. I think what the Buddha meant was that in the moment of being angry you are not following his teachings. In the moment of being angry we are not pursuing the path of mindfulness and compassion.

But back to that discussion on Google+.

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The original thread I was commenting on was started by an atheist, and she had a number of atheist followers who chimed in, citing the violence as evidence that Buddhism is a bad thing (“full of shit”) was one phrase used. I had a feeling that there was a generalized disdain of religion which was being uncritically extended to Buddhism.

But in what way does it make sense to criticize Buddhism itself because of the behavior of people who call themselves Buddhists? If Buddhism (i.e. the Buddha’s teachings) said “violence is wrong unless…” then, sure, I’d accept the premise that Buddhism is full of shit. But it doesn’t. The Buddha was completely uncompromising on the question of violence. When people are violent they’re not following the Buddha’s teachings.

I articulated the point above, and was accused of employing the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. In case you’re unaware of this fallacy, it runs like this:

McTavish says, “No Scotsman would refuse to help an old lady crossing the road.”

Smyth says, “I witnessed, just yesterday, a Scotsman who refused an old lady’s entreaties to help her cross a busy thoroughfare.”

MacTavish replies, “Ah, but he was no true Scotsman.”

What our dear friend McTavish is doing here is trying to justify an unsupportable generalization when challenged with examples contradicting it. [Full disclosure: I am a True Scotsman.]

So, what does that mean in terms of Buddhists who are violent? Well, given that I would never make a generalization of the type “No Buddhists are violent” I don’t need to backtrack as McTavish did. My statement (and the Buddha’s) is more akin to a definition: “The Buddha’s teaching is to practice nonviolence. When someone is violent, they are not practicing the Buddha’s teaching.

So if I said “Scientists do not falsify results” that could be challenged by someone pointing to examples of scientists falsifying results. I could then fall back on the “No True Scotsman” fallacy by arguing that those cheating scientists are “not true scientists.” I’m attempting (using a fallacious argument) to justify a false generalization.

Now if I say that scientists who falsify results are not doing science, there’s no fallacy involved. I haven’t made a false generalization that I am trying to defend. I’ve made a fairly precise statement about what science does and does not consist of.

Similarly, people who are acting violently are not “doing Buddhism.”

The Buddha’s teachings provide no “excuses” for violence — not even the “he did it first” or the “I was just defending myself” types of excuses. There’s no use of the “No True Scotman” fallacy here — just a clear definition.

Now if only we could remember, as Buddhists, that when we express hatred we cease, at least for a while, to be Buddhists.

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‘Buddha’ goes to the hospital: A convergence of science, history and art

Emi Kolawole, Washington Post: The hospital admissions sheet simply read: “Name: Buddha; DOB: 1662.”

The 350-year-old patient’s visit started with a routine x-ray in the summer of 2008. But doctors discovered there were signs of an unknown mass inside his head and yet another inside his stomach – objects that his new caretakers were intent on identifying and extracting if at all possible. The x-ray wasn’t detailed enough to make a proper diagnosis, so doctors at Shands at the University of Florida in Gainesville cleared the schedule and ordered a CAT scan.

After a trip through the scanner, receiving a radiation dose higher than …

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