Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Poetry and Zen, Part 2 of 3

Poetry and Zen, Part 1 left off with Ryokan sitting in a place beyond the words of even a master of poetry like himself; and yet he took the time to craft a poem that might allow us to share that view – however imperfect or incomplete words might be with respect to describing it. Why? Why did he bother? Why didn’t he simply spend the rest of his days advancing toward that buddha realm and enjoying the suchness of his mountain heaven? The Buddha himself, so the story goes, faced a similar quandary after realizing his enlightenment some 2,500 years ago. Should he simply remain where he was in that place of ultimate realization? Who was prepared to hear his teaching, after all? Who was capable of understanding it? Anyone?

Central to Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva vow – the vow to forego one’s own salvation until every other being is saved. Thus, a Zen poet like Ryokan might be motivated to make the most of his skill with words and his grasp of ultimate truth in order to be of guidance to others along the Path. But is that the only reason? Might it also be the case that the very act of creation conveys its own truth? After all, each stalk of bamboo in the grove outside Ryokan’s hermitage conveyed an aspect of truth that only it could convey – in keeping with its nature. Likewise, the moon and the smoldering incense each conveyed the truth in keeping with their nature. But what is Ryokan’s truth? What is his nature? Yes, in an ultimate sense, all is emptiness. Form is shunyata, as the Heart Sutra states. But the Heart Sutra also states that shunyata is form. How do we reconcile these two aspects of truth?


Rosan Yoshida roshi speaks of two levels of truth. There is ultimate truth, the truth of emptiness, the reality that nothing has a fixed and independent existence; but there is also conventional truth, the truth that we all agree upon as we go about our everyday lives – that you are you and I am me and this is a coffee cup and don’t you dare touch my coffee! So, in this realm of conventional truth, in this place of individuation, what does Ryokan have to give the world? What aspect of truth can only he convey? This, I think, gets to the heart of the creative process and the very nature of art itself.

The key for any Zen artist (and anyone, for that matter) is to bring the reality of their “individual” existence into accord with the ultimate truth of the universe and then to express that oneness through their art and through their life. So, how is that different from just living out our life? Well, perhaps that is the koan that each of us must solve. We each must endeavor to realize ultimate truth and then, from that vantage point, take stock of “our” unique talents and circumstances in order to actualize that realization. It is the difference between merely doing something and fully living out our nature. Perhaps that is what Ryokan was hinting at when he wrote: “Who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. After you know my poems are not poems, then we can begin to discuss poetry!” (Stevens, 1977). This might seem on the surface like so much silly Zen wordplay, but I think it conveys the difference between one who remains ignorant of ultimate truth – whose scribbled words do nothing to take us out of the realm of conventional truth – and the true artist whose work grows out of his or her experience of ultimate truth and in turn points back to it. This is, I think, what Yoshida roshi is touching on when he describes the poetry of Dogen Zenji as follows: “It is not picturesque, but picture itself, like ‘snow on red leaves.’ It is not natural, but nature itself, like ‘the endless sky.’ It is not art, but life itself or world itself” (Yoshida, 1999, p. 53).

How is it then that some words point toward ultimate truth while others simply rearrange the furniture, so to speak, here in the living room of conventional truth? Where do those truly inspired words come from – words that are “not [merely] natural, but nature itself”? In the fascicle of the Shobogenzo titled The Time-Being, Dogen (1240) recites a quatrain that he attributes to Zen master Guixing:
            For the time being mind arrives, but words do not.
            For the time being words arrive, but mind does not.
            For the time being both mind and words arrive.
            For the time being neither mind nor words arrive. (p. 81)
Human existence is a continuous interplay of causes and conditions, an ebbing and flowing of attention and awareness, a collection of intentions and actions – some more in accord with ultimate truth, some less so. What, then, is the state of mind of the poet as those words that point to ultimate truth arise?

According to D.T. Suzuki, it is the experience of satori that is central to the creation of true art. “The artist, at the moment when his creativeness is at its height, is transformed into an agent of the creator. This supreme moment in the life of an artist, when expressed in Zen terms, is the experience of satori” (Suzuki, 1959, pp. 219-220). Satori is defined by Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) as the “Zen term for the experience of awakening [see also] enlightenment” (p. 308). In his explication of Zen and art, Suzuki goes on to introduce the concepts ki-in (spiritual rhythm), myo (mystery), and yugen (pointing to that which is eternal). He ties all of these concepts together, saying: “When satori artistically expresses itself, it produces works vibrating with ‘spiritual (or divine) rhythm’ (ki-in), exhibiting myo (or the mysterious), or giving a glimpse into the Unfathomable, which is yugen” (Suzuki, 1959, p. 221).

The entry into this discussion of such things as satori and enlightenment might make it sound as though art is the domain of enlightened Zen masters, perhaps to be enjoyed by us “mere mortals” but certainly not to be engaged in at any appreciable level of quality – not before we experience satori, anyway. Maybe, maybe not. In large part, Suzuki is writing from the perspective of the Rinzai Zen tradition wherein koan study is utilized in order to bring about the experience of kensho. [Please note that Schuhmacher and Woerner (1994) state that kensho and satori have essentially the same meaning, the difference being that “it is customary to use the word satori when speaking of the enlightenment of the Buddha or the Zen patriarchs and to use the word kensho when speaking of an initial enlightenment experience that still requires to be deepened” (p. 180).] In the Rinzai tradition the arts are a means by which to communicate one’s level of spiritual attainment or understanding of the dharma. Says Iwamoto (2008), “For Soto Zen, one simply sits in meditation, stopping karma without Koan practice. In Rinzai Zen, however, monks need to express the world of their Enlightenment (Satori) or Emptiness (Mu or Ku) in some forms…. This is why the Rinzai Zen practitioners created many Zen art forms” (pp. 26-27). Even prior to the advent of Japanese Rinzai, however, the arts were used to discern the level of understanding of the artist. Stryk (1977) notes that this tendency was especially common throughout the T’ang, Sung, and Yuan dynasties in ancient China and played out with especially dramatic effect when Hui-neng, as the story goes, was selected to be the Sixth Patriarch based “on the strength of his enlightenment poem” (p. 13).

Soto Zen practitioners, practitioners of shikantaza who talk very little about such things as kensho or satori but who nonetheless are on the path of awakening – perhaps gradually over the course of disciplined practice as opposed to suddenly after having their world turned upside down with some koan – will likely relate more readily to the following passage in which Suzuki (1959) writes:
Every one of us, however ordinary he may be, has something in him, in his Unconscious [arising from individual karma], that is hidden away from the superficial level of consciousness. To awaken it, to make it work out things of great value to our human world, we must exert ourselves to the utmost and thoroughly purge ourselves of all our selfish interests. To reach the bedrock of one’s being means to have one’s Unconscious entirely cleansed of egoism, for the ego penetrates even the Unconscious so called. Not the “Collective Unconscious” [arising out of shared human karma] but the “Cosmic Unconsciousness” must be made to reveal itself unreservedly. This is why Zen so emphasizes the significance of “no-mind” (mushin) or “no-thought” (munen), where we find infinite treasures well preserved. (p. 226)
This passage seems to me to afford greater access to the artistic realm than Suzuki’s previous ‘no kensho, no admittance’ approach to thinking about the artistic process. In fact, anyone who cultivates the practice of zazen to the point of stilling their mind will likely find enhanced whatever creative urges they might have had up to that point, and perhaps even find in existence creative urges that they had previously thought were non-existent. Ah, but lest any reader begin thinking of adopting the practice of zazen in order to enhance their artistic endeavors, please be forewarned: practicing meditation with the desire for some sort of gain, even if the desire is to be a buddha, is generally considered to be an impediment to true realization. Such an approach to practice is sometimes referred to as practicing with “gaining mind.” Zen simply will not provide safe harbor to anyone who thinks they’re going to get something out of it!

Perhaps a personal story will illustrate this point: Prior to the Sanshin Zen Community building its temple in Bloomington, Indiana, Shohaku Okumura roshi traveled regularly to the area in order to lead Zen meditation retreats. Many of these meditation retreats were what Japanese Zen practitioners refer to as Rohatsu sesshin – commemorating the seven days that the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree prior to realizing enlightenment. It was after sitting my second such Rohatsu sesshin in a little cabin in the rolling hills outside of Bloomington that I was able to have a personal exchange with Okumura – a Soto Zen teacher, by the way. Somehow it came to pass that I was driving him back to Bloomington from the retreat cabin some miles away. As I recall, the drive was mostly in silence. I was still very much processing all of the places my mind had been over the course of the previous seven days and Zen teachers, in general, are not all that prone to small talk. Anyway, among the various places my mind had been was a place of great stillness during which I was able to reflect on matters that I considered of supreme spiritual and existential importance – matters of ultimate truth, if you will. I was intrigued by this state of mind in which I seemed capable of wordlessly reflecting on the deepest of matters, turning them over and examining them with clarity of mind that seemed unhindered by any worldly constraint. So, as I drove through the rolling countryside with Okumura roshi in the seat beside me, I tried to reconcile this seemingly valuable state of mind – a state of mind perhaps worthy of cultivating – with what I already knew about shikantaza and the usual admonition to simply let go of all thoughts. I don’t have perfect recall of that conversation, but it went something like this:

“So, I understand that shikantaza is about just sitting – without trying to do anything – and that when thoughts arise we’re supposed to just let them go. Of course, that makes perfect sense with respect to all those frivolous, egocentric thoughts that so commonly arise. But aren’t there times when you find yourself reflecting on matters of deep truth – perhaps its some aspect of Buddhist teaching, for instance, or some insight that’s directly related to your practice – and you find yourself thinking with such depth and clarity that it might be appropriate to make use of that time and that state of mind in order to let that insight fully manifest itself?”

Okumura roshi smiled and nodded. It was quite clear, of course, that he knew exactly what I was talking about. “Just let it all go,” he said.

What? Without even getting a poem out of it!
 

References
Dogen (1240). The time-being (K. Tanahashi & D. Welch, Trans.). In K. Tanahashi (Ed.), Moon in a dewdrop – Writings of Zen master Dogen. North Point Press
Iwamoto, H. (2008). Japanese aesthetic sense through Zen. The World Sacred Text Publishing Association
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Stevens, J. (1977). One robe, one bowl – The Zen poetry of Ryokan. John Weatherhill, Inc.
Stryk, L., Ikemoto, T. (1977). The Penguin book of Zen poetry. Penguin Books
Suzuki, D. T. (1959). Zen and Japanese culture. MJF Books
Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life – Dogen’s world – Translation of shushogi, goroku, doei. Missouri Zen Center


Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank
   

Photography Credits
Stone In The Lake photograph courtesy of Evgeni Dinev via:

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Poetry and Zen, Part 1 of 3

It seems that I’ve gotten a little off track of late with respect to my posting frequency. My apologies and kind regards to anyone who might have been wondering where I’ve been. Actually, I was under the weather all last week – with barely enough energy to drag myself off of the couch, let alone sit up writing at a computer. I knew I’d be writing about poetry and Zen, though, so I was at least able to pull a dozen or so books down from my bookshelves to sift through as I lay about in recovery. I even managed to scribble out a few pages of notes related to inspiration (which I didn’t actually have), and the unconscious mind (which I had in abundance), and poetry as a spiritual practice, and how it is that words have anything at all to do with the largely wordless practice of Zen. I was even intending to include a few poems of my own – they are Zen poems, after all. Up until a couple of days ago, though, I had no idea how I was going to tie it all together.

So what happened since then? Well, I got better for one thing, and I also ended up stumbling across a poem in John Stevens’ One Robe, One Bowl – The Zen Poetry of Ryokan that provides perfect entrĂ©e into everything I’m trying to say. Ryokan (1758-1831) was something of a hermit-monk who lived a largely unadorned life. He meditated in his mountain hut; he went into town on his alms-rounds; he played with children and drank sake with farmers; and he visited with his young nun-friend, Teishin (Stevens, 1977). Throughout, he wrote some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. The poem that caught my eye is untitled, although it does appear grouped (as Ryokan had grouped it) with other selections under the heading ‘Dawn.’ Without further ado:

A COLD night – sitting alone in my empty room
Filled only with incense smoke.
Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.
The moon shines through the top of the window,
And the entire neighborhood is still except for the cry
of insects.
Looking at this scene, limitless emotion,
But not one word. (p. 43)


At first blush this poem seemed to me to evoke the enlightenment experience that Dogen described as ‘the dropping off of body and mind.’ It is clear from Ryokan’s other work that he was familiar with Dogen’s turn of the phrase, and he even used a variation of it himself in one of his poems (Stevens, 1977, p. 32). Given that overall “feel” of the poem, I was a little bit puzzled at first by the strength with which Ryokan makes his individual presence known in just that first line. My puzzlement faded, however, as the nuance of the second line began to sink in. The room, after all, is filled only with incense smoke. Okay, but doesn’t he go on to contradict himself by describing a bed and “several volumes of poetry”? What’s going on here? Well, it seems to me that by drawing our attention to a room that is “filled only with incense smoke” in spite of the obvious existence of an observer and a bed and some books is actually Ryokan’s way of conveying to us the true nature of existence. Yes, there is an observer, and a bed, and some books, but the true nature of these things is emptiness – shunyata. We can easily grasp the impermanent and unfixed, i.e. empty nature of the incense smoke, so that is what Ryokan uses to describe the true nature of the scene in its entirety. Yes, we can point to various things in the room, but their ultimate nature is impermanent and without any independent existence. In this ultimate sense they are as formless as the incense smoke.

Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.

I find it interesting here that Ryokan knows the full measure of the grove of bamboo outside his hermitage (a hundred trees), and yet the number of volumes of poetry that sit on the bed beside him remains vague. Why not the other way around? Why not merely say ‘a grove of bamboo trees’ and five (or whatever) volumes of poetry? I am convinced that this is by design. Anyone familiar with Ryokan’s life will know that his reverence for the natural world would likely have inspired him to get to know each and every bamboo tree on a personal basis. Sure, he might have taken artistic liberty in calling the number “a hundred,” but I suspect he knew the exact number. Why, then, the vagueness regarding the volumes of poetry? This, I believe, is to let us know that, in the state of mind in which he dwells in this poem, each and every bamboo tree is of utmost importance – worthy of individual consideration – even as the worldly endeavors of reading and writing poetry have become diminished. And why should that be? Reading and writing, after all, are merely about reality; they are not reality as it is – directly experienced and unobscured by conceptualizations. Words are no substitute for reality. Even a great poet can see that. Perhaps especially a great poet can see that.

Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.
The moon shines through the top of the window,
And the entire neighborhood is still except for the cry
of insects.


Clearly, Ryokan is sitting shikantaza, accepting everything, pushing nothing away. The entire world is washing over him – through him, in fact – for all is emptiness, all is shunyata. Separation between observer and observed, subject and object, is fading away. The bamboo grove, the shining moon, and the singing of insects – these begin to appear in all their glorious suchness, or tathata – referring to the “true nature of all things", reality "beyond all concepts and distinctions”, reality “perceived through the realization of the identity of subject and object in the awakening of supreme enlightenment” (Schuhmacher and Woerner, 1994, p. 364). Yes, Ryokan is very close to ‘the dropping off of body and mind.’

Looking at this scene, limitless emotion,
But not one word.

The beauty of the world fills him with such joy that it is beyond description. Perhaps he is joyful as well at having nearly arrived at his destination. Yes, the Buddha was right. The patriarchs were right. Ryokan is in the midst of verifying their teachings for himself. Ah, but is it only joy? If it were only joy, then presumably he would have stated that it was limitless joy. Instead, Ryokan describes “limitless emotion.” What else could there be – sorrow at the fleeting nature of life itself, compassion for all the world continually striving, striving, striving to actualize its nature, longing for a friend with whom to share the view, regret for that which would remain undone? Perhaps the very poetry for which he was already well known then seemed to represent a poor choice – time spent with ink and paper that could have been spent playing with a child, or drinking sake with a farmer, or getting to know the birds of the forest or another grove of bamboo.

Yes, Ryokan is sitting with the full range of everything it means to be human – feeling the entire range of everything it means to be human; and yet he also sees the impermanence of and insubstantial nature of those very emotions. The hut, after all, is filled only with incense smoke. At this point, I’d like to propose the possibility that Ryokan has skillfully built a bit of ambiguity into the first two lines of this poem. Perhaps when he writes “sitting alone in my empty room filled only with incense smoke” he is saying even more directly than I have interpreted to this point that ‘I am sitting here with the full realization of my own emptiness.’

Thus, Ryokan sits on the threshold between two worlds. One world is the world of Ryokan playing with children, and Ryokan drinking sake with farmers, and Ryokan listening raptly to Teishin. The other world is that of shunyata, the world where subject and object are not two, the world where all things are without abiding identity. On one side of the doorway is the world of poetry and on the other side there is not a single word. On one side of the doorway is Ryokan and on the other side is ‘the dropping off of body and mind.’ These worlds are, in fact, the same world – it is merely mind that changes as the threshold is traversed.

A COLD night – sitting alone in my empty room
Filled only with incense smoke.
Outside, a bamboo grove of a hundred trees;
On the bed, several volumes of poetry.
The moon shines through the top of the window,
And the entire neighborhood is still except for the cry
of insects.
Looking at this scene, limitless emotion,
But not one word.

No, not one word. Ryokan sits in a place beyond the words of even a Zen master of poetry. He sits in a place of limitless emotion, glimpsing suchness, accepting everything, pushing nothing away. But has he arrived in the realm of the buddhas? Perhaps he is a heartbeat away. Surely there is a reason that he has included this poem with others under the heading ‘Dawn.’ The light of day and ultimate awakening await. Practice continues ceaselessly.

References
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Stevens, J. (1977). One robe, one bowl – The Zen poetry of Ryokan. John Weatherhill, Inc.


Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

 

Photography Credits
Blue Smoke Trail photograph courtesy of Paul Brentnall via:
Group of Bamboo photograph courtesy of hinnamsaisuy via:


Friday, March 11, 2011

Unconditioned Peace

What would it take for you to really be at peace? I’ll let the question hover in the air for just a moment…

Okay, so what did you come up with? Would it take a change of jobs – a little less stress and a little more money? Does your retirement account need to reach some certain level? Do you need to find that perfect life companion – someone who’ll make even the most mundane aspects of daily living seem just a little bit brighter? Hey, maybe all you need is for the little one to start sleeping soundly through the night! The fact is, there’s always something, isn’t there? There’s always something standing between us and contentment. There are always some conditions that have to be set up just so before we can finally be at peace.


I suspect that such tendencies are deeply rooted in our DNA. After all, in the realm of nature – red in tooth and claw – survival doesn’t go to the complacent, the contented, or the peaceful. Survival goes to the hyper-vigilant. Survival goes to those whose number one concern is for survival. We didn’t get to the top of the food chain by resting on the success of our last hunt or basking long in the warm glow of our fires. We got here because we could always feel just a little bit safer, we could always have just a little bit more, we could always watch just a little bit more closely. Ah, but what constitutes enough – enough vigilance, enough stored food, enough preparation for impending hardship? After all, we have to sleep sometime! And that is where our propensity for comparing ourselves to others most surely comes from. You see, the one who lags behind becomes the prey. The one who fails to make a straight enough spear loses the meat. The one with the smallest cache of food risks not having quite enough. So keeping an eye on what others have and how we measure up to them is a way for us to ascertain our own prospects for survival. It’s a way for us to feel assured that we’re doing enough. This is our shared human karma.

Rosan Yoshida talks about karma in a little bit different way than many teachers do. He refers to it as habit energy. Karma is habit energy. Our DNA has been transmitted down through the ages – carrying with it the information necessary for our survival as human beings – passing forward that which will bring to life in each of us the habit energy that our survival requires. Then, over the course of our upbringing, we acquire new habit energy that takes this basic human form and gives it personality and individuality. We begin acquiring our own unique karma. We become our "selves."

Evolution is fascinating. Sometimes it plods along for millions of years without very much of anything happening, and then at other times enormous changes seem to happen overnight. Think about all the insects that swirl around your porch light in the summertime. Over the course of millions of years they acquired the karma, the habit energy, of seeking out the light; and for millions of years that meant moving towards the sun and its warmth and its ability to dry out dew-moistened wings. But now all over the world are millions and millions of false suns luring hapless insects toward their deaths in the scorching heat of our porch lights. They’ve not yet evolved the ability to discern the false suns from the real one. The karma that once aided their survival now dooms them prematurely. You probably know where I’m going with this, don’t you?

We humans are not all that different from the insects swirling about our porch lights. We have this tremendous storehouse of karma – of habit energy – driving us forward, making us vigilant, ensuring that we survive. The only problem is that it largely blinds us to the fact that our survival is hardly even in question anymore – at least not in developed parts of the world. No, not every disease has been conquered, and there is still food insecurity in even this wealthiest of countries. For the most part, though, no matter how affluent we become, we still approach life with the same perceived sense of lack as if we were naked in the jungle. Unfortunately, our obsession with security has become more of a liability than an asset. It is actually hastening our destruction rather than ensuring our survival.

Just as the insects need to wake up to the false suns in their midst, so we need to wake up to the peace that is already ours. We only need to open up to it. True peace is not dependent upon anything being accomplished first. True peace is not dependent upon us setting up certain conditions outside of ourselves. True peace is simply a matter of stopping what we are doing. When we engage in sitting meditation we are stopping our habit energy – our karma. Our body becomes still, our mind becomes still, our emotions become still, and as all of these aspects of our karma become still we wake up to the peace that is within us all the while – unconditioned peace – nirvana.

Rosan Yoshida refers to nirvana as the “windless state.” Usually we exist in a state in which we are buffeted by the winds of craving and aversion born of our karma-driven existence. When we bring our habit energy to a halt, though, these winds become still. Think of a candle flame burning brightly in a room without any breezes or disturbance. Such a still flame illuminates the entire room without casting false shadows. In such a state all is seen clearly, all is at peace – unconditioned peace. Oh, sure enough, our habit energy is strong, and after we rise up from zazen we soon begin feeling our karma pushing and pulling us back into our old ways of being. Our flame begins flickering and casting false shadows once again. That is why we keep sitting. Because day after day and week after week, as we catch glimpse after glimpse of this unconditioned peace, we begin to change our karma, we become more adept at discerning the false suns from the real one, and we begin to live the life that we always thought required something outside of ourselves.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

DNA Green courtesy of jscreationzs via:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Karma - Knowledge and Belief

I have a confession to make. I’m really not all that much of a believer – not even when it comes to Buddhism. Oh, generally speaking, I probably still believe far more than I actually know. For instance, I believe that the sun is 93 million miles from the earth. Sure, I could do a little research and figure out how to check the veracity of such an allegation. For right now, though, I’m okay with just believing it – as long as it stays close enough to keep me warm without getting so close that it burns me up. Notwithstanding such instances of selective belief, I do try to live my life as unencumbered by it as possible; and that’s why over the course of my lifetime I’ve grown to embrace one of the major tenets of Dogen Zenji’s philosophy – namely, cultivation and verification. Zen practice for Dogen was less about belief than it was about cultivating practice and – through the actualization of practice – verifying truth.

There was a time when I really tried to be a believer. I was confirmed in my youth within the Christian faith and received communion numerous times. All the while, though, I struggled with its teachings. Ultimately, I just couldn’t accept the idea that we are born into this world for a single, fleeting existence by which we are judged as either deserving of acceptance into heaven or banishment to hell – for all of eternity, no less. Maybe such a scheme would be fair (even if not all that compassionate) if we were all born into the same set of circumstances, but we’re not. Some are born into privilege and some into poverty, some into nurturing circumstances and some into environments that communicate utter disregard for their wellbeing.  


One of the things that initially attracted me to Eastern religions – Hinduism first, and then Buddhism – was the concept of reincarnation. Reincarnation seemed to me at the time to be a much more equitable metaphysical reality – one that I would expect would be born of the mind of a just and loving God. Reincarnation allows us to learn from our mistakes, to grow towards greater wisdom, to earn a birth in a future life commensurate with our spiritual progress in this one. I was awestruck when I first read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and contemplated its description of how the soul’s navigation of the post-life bardo realm results in its choosing its own future birth – one in keeping with the nature of the accumulated fear and desire of its lived physical existence – one in keeping with its karma. This was a metaphysical reality born of a just and compassionate creator! This was the truth that I wanted to believe!

Alas, I don’t believe in reincarnation anymore. I left it behind somewhere on the empty prairie of western Nebraska, so to speak. Oh, if it turns out to be true, then I’ll try to make the best of it – just like I’ll try to make the best of any heaven or hell to which I might be relegated. Call me an agnostic Buddhist in that regard, one who recognizes that there is much that I can’t know. What I can know, however, is that any desire on my part for reincarnation to be true results from my lingering attachment to this construct called the self. Yes, part of me wants to live on after this physical life is over. Part of me wants to continue to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I want to be treated fairly within a world that is ordered and just. Yes, I want many things, but as Dogen says in his Genjokoan: “To learn the awakened (buddha) way is to learn the self. To learn the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all dharmas” (as translated in Yoshida, 1982).

And so that brings me to the title of this post: Karma – Knowledge and Belief. The belief aspect of karma relates to its being thought of as the determinant of the transmigration of the soul – the foundation on which some future lifetime will be built. Souls and transmigration and reincarnation, after all, are things of which I can have no direct experience. I can only choose to believe in them or not. So, what do I know about karma?

Karma is a Sanskrit word, the root of which means “to create” (Yoshida, 1994, p. 114), a “deed” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 175), an “act” (McKechnie, 1979). On a basic level, karma refers to the work that one is meant to do by virtue of the circumstances that one is born into. In the Bhagavad-Gita, for instance, Arjuna, despite his wishes to the contrary, finds himself surveying the battlefield on which he and the men that he loves and respects will soon be fighting to the death. Essentially, Lord Krishna – Arjuna’s spirit guide in human form – advises him simply to live out his karma, saying: “The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachments to results” (as translated in Prabhavananda, 1954, p. 45). In addition to this more basic conceptualization, karma has come to take on greater refinement as to its nature and the mechanism by which it works. For example, we can think of three kinds of karma – physical, verbal, and mental – falling into two general categories: old action (purana-kamma) and new action (nava-kamma) (Yoshida, 1994, p. 115). In his book, No Self, Yoshida (1994) states that “nava-kamma is constantly incorporated into purana-kamma, which in turn is incessantly directing nava-kamma. Nava-kamma and purana-kamma are interacting on the body for evolution and involution” (p. 115). [Kamma is the Pali language variation of the Sanskrit word karma – Pali being the presumed language of the historical Buddha in addition to being the language in which Buddhist teachings were originally transcribed (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 263)] In other words, the action that I am about to perform results from the sum total of all the actions that I have ever performed. This is the aspect of karma that is within the realm of direct experience and knowledge. We can witness its unfolding as our lives move forward from one moment to the next. Additionally, we can witness this unfolding even more clearly via the practice of seated meditation – zazen. (I’ll have more to say about that in another post.)

What I definitely want to point out in this post, however, is that the ideas related to karmic unfolding as described above (in which new karma blossoms out of old karma which, in turn, becomes the ground from which further new karma takes root) have been incorporated into the domain of modern science – the domain of verifiable knowledge. In his bestselling book, Flow, University of Chicago psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (1990) lays the groundwork for his primary thesis by describing in Western psychological terms the nature of human consciousness and its creation of this thing we call the self:
Where is the I, the entity that decides what to do with the psychic energy generated by the nervous system? Where does the captain of the ship, the master of the soul, reside? As soon as we consider these questions for even a short while, we realize that the I, or the self as we shall refer to it from now on, is also one of the contents of consciousness…. The self is no ordinary piece of information, however. In fact, it contains everything else that has passed through consciousness: all the memories, actions, desires, pleasures, and pains are included in it. And more than anything else, the self represents the hierarchy of goals that we have built up, bit by bit, over the years…. At one point we are saying that the self directs attention, at another, that attention determines the self. In fact, both these statements are true: consciousness is not a strictly linear system, but one in which circular causality obtains. Attention shapes the self and is in turn shaped by it. (pp. 33-34)
At the risk of stating the obvious, I will simply point out that “everything else that has passed through consciousness” as referred to by Csikszentmihalyi (1990) bears more than a passing resemblance to the purana-kamma as described by Yoshida (1994). Likewise, the circular causality referred to seems very much like the process by which nava-kamma is incorporated into purana-kamma, subsequently to give rise to further nava-kamma.

In Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Begley (2007) reviews the recent history of neuroscience and concludes that new discoveries in that field are moving it in the direction of truths that have long been known by Buddhist practitioners; namely, that there is no fixed and unchanging self, that the human brain – once thought to be static from a time shortly after birth – is actually quite malleable. These changes can be predicted and measured and, therefore, they are within the realm of knowledge. Thus, karma is within the realm of knowledge. We merely need to pay attention to how it plays out in our lives.

The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, has hosted a series of Mind and Life Conferences in Dharamsala, India – his city of exile since being forced to leave Tibet. The goal of these conferences is to foster dialog between Buddhists and Western scientists. He writes in the foreword to Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Begley (2007):
I have found that [Buddhism and modern science] have a great deal in common. By some accounts, both traditions are motivated by an urge to relieve the hardships of life. Both are suspicious of notions of absolutes, whether these imply the existence of a transcendent creator or an unchanging entity such as a soul, preferring to account for the emergence of life in the world in terms of the natural laws of cause and effect.

In conclusion, there are aspects of karma that exist within the realm of knowledge and direct experience, and there are aspects of karma that are incorporated into systems of belief. Each of us has our own internal barometer, so to speak, that guides us with respect to how much to rely on the former and how much to rely on the latter. Oh, if only my own barometer had allowed me to believe just a little bit more! Perhaps then I’d have been able to stay up in the gorgeous mountains of Buddhism for the rest of my life without ever crossing Nebraska! Yes, belief is such a comfortable refuge. Alas, it is not my karma.

References
Begley, S. (2007). Train your mind, change your brain: How neuroscience reveals our extraordinary potential to transform ourselves. Ballantine Books.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial.
McKechnie, J. L. (Ed.). (1979). Webster’s new twentieth century dictionary (2nd ed.). New World Dictionaries/Simon and Schuster.
Prabhavananda, S., Isherwood, C. (1954) The song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. The New American Library. (Original publication date unknown)
Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Yoshida, R. (1994). No self: A new systematic interpretation of Buddhism. The World Sacred Text Publishing Society – Tokyo.
Yoshida, R., Eilers, J., Ganio, K. (1982). Gaku-do-yojin-shu: Collection of cautions about learning the Way. Missouri Zen Center. (Genjokoan originally published 1233)



Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank




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