Thursday, August 30, 2012

Returning To The Source


My childhood was magical in many respects, but especially so for having fostered in me such keen awareness of the wonder of the natural world. Though we lived in a fairly developed suburban area, the family backyard opened onto a woodsy tract that has been with me either in reality or in reminiscence since I was old enough to venture beyond the confines of our little garden. Ostensibly, that plot of land was the plant cultivation area for a nearby garden supply retailer, which is why we in the adjoining neighborhood simply referred to it as ‘the nursery’. For all practical purposes, though, ‘the nursery’ was so infrequently tended and so overgrown that I experienced it then as I experience wilderness today.
 
 
A woodsy scene very reminiscent of 'the nursery'
 

 
A walk through ‘the nursery’ was a walk through a crazy-quilt of vaguely planned habitats stitched together and overlaid with whatever weeds and wildflowers and woodland succession plants happened to poke their way out of the soil. In one place there was a double row of at least a dozen oaks growing so close together that their branches overlapped – a veritable paradise for tree-climbing children. There were also sizable subplots of elm and spruce trees and shadowy caverns of juniper bushes and shrubberies. There were blackberry and honeysuckle brambles, and numerous other areas that I can only now recall as having a certain ambience created by the sunlight filtering through their leaves, or a unique scent of sap and soil, or the smoothness or prickliness or scratchiness of that which both filled and created the space.
 

I remember the stillness of those places – the silence dwelling within them regardless of whatever sound might have then been present. Stillness was there in the lonely birdcall on a sweltering afternoon, and it was there in the rapid-fire beating of wings of a grasshopper in mid leap. It was there in the blur of the dragonfly’s wings – hovering and darting, hovering and darting – and it was there in the chorus of frogs that fell silent as soon as my presence in the vicinity of their pond became known. Yes, there were ponds – tens of them – the rainwater filled holes left behind after whatever had once grown there was plucked from the earth. And in those ponds were eggs and then tadpoles, larvae and then nymphs. That which is moist nurtures life, and that which is dry welcomes rain. All of life is a transformation from one thing to another – a coming into being based on causes and conditions, and a passing away when those causes and conditions subside. Nothing exists of its own accord, and in the depths of everything is stillness.

 
These are the lessons that I learned by sitting still and allowing the world to unfold around me and within me. I sat beside those ponds until the frogs forgot that I was there and began to sing once more. I sat still enough for the dragonflies to light upon me as if I were a dead branch or a rock. I sat at the bottom of a ravine rimmed with wildflowers, watching as the clouds passed by overhead. I sat in the deep shade of a secluded hollow, letting my gaze grow soft and letting myself dissolve into the embrace of its water-shaped banks, its leafy canopy, and its tangle of fallen trees all vine-covered and green – yes, even in death.

 
Perhaps I’ve always been a Buddhist – if the natural wonder of a child exploring his existence needs to be named, that is! Ironically, it’s only after coming to know a little bit about the Buddhism “beyond words and letters” that I even try to identify that which I was with anything other than being fully and completely alive. Perhaps I should just return to living my life, being open to life, being in tune with the wonder of nature, being in tune with the stillness that is everywhere all the time (even in the midst of fury) and stop calling it anything at all. Perhaps that is precisely what the Buddha himself did such a long, long time ago.

 

 

A Child Becomes The Buddha

 
It might go without saying, but the Buddha was a great student before he became the great teacher that we know him to be. Wisdom didn’t simply manifest within him as if the byproduct of physical maturation; it required the completion of a great quest – one involving great risks to his physical well-being. Renouncing his birthright as future leader of the Shakya clan, Siddhartha Gautama left behind his princely life and commenced to living the life of a mendicant holy man – albeit, one who would one day come to understand the true nature of birth, old age, sickness, and death. He soon realized, however, that he would need to find a teacher.

 
And so it was that the future Buddha became a student of Alara of the Kalamas (Alara in Pali, Arada in Sanskrit). It is from Alara that Siddhartha learned mastery over what are often referred to as the five hindrances of sense desire, sloth & torpor, ill will, restlessness, and doubt (Gunaratana, 2011), those unwholesome states that “keep one caught up in the drama of the phenomenal world” (Kohn, 1994, p. 23). With mastery over the five hindrances Siddhartha was able to settle steadfastly into the first jhana – the first level of meditative absorption. From there he was able to progress quickly through subsequent stages of meditation before settling into one of equanimity and single-pointed concentration (Gunaratana, 2011), one of “unperturbed wakefulness” (Kohn, 1994, 23) – the fourth jhana.


Rose-Apple Blossom


But that wasn’t all. Alara taught the future Buddha that even in this fourth jhana there remains residual attachment to subtle form.  He taught Siddhartha to focus on that subtle form and expand his awareness of it outward so as to encompass the boundlessness of space, thereby entering the fifth jhana. Alara then taught Siddhartha to bring his awareness to the consciousness perceiving that boundless space, thereby realizing the boundlessness of consciousness characteristic of the sixth jhana. From there, Alara guided the future Buddha to the attainment of the last of the meditative absorptions that he himself was capable of attaining – the perception of nothingness characteristic of the seventh jhana (MN 36, MN 121). At that point, Alara declared to the future Buddha: “I have no more to teach you. Your spiritual realization is equal to mine. Why not remain here with us, and you and I together will lead this community?” (Kohn, 1994, 24). The future Buddha knew, however, that he had not yet attained liberation from the cycle of birth and death. His understanding could be deeper still, his insight more penetrating. He thought to himself: “This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness” (MN 36).

And so it was that the future Buddha took leave of Alara Kalama and sought the guidance of another teacher, one Uddaka Ramaputta (Rudraka in Sanskrit). Uddaka was able to guide him toward an even deeper level of meditative absorption, one in which the perception of nothingness gives way to a state of neither perception nor non-perception – the eighth jhana. But even this state beyond the perception of nothingness did not satisfy the future Buddha on his quest for total liberation. He thought to himself: “This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Unbinding, but only to reappearance in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception” (MN 36). Thus, despite Uddaka Ramaputta’s offer to yield to Siddhartha his position as leader of the community, the future Buddha took leave of his teacher and headed out on his own once more.

Perhaps the next part of the story is the more familiar one. Thinking that liberation from the cycle of birth, old-age, sickness, and death must require total victory over those most natural of human urges, the future Buddha commenced to venturing ever deeper into the depths of self-mortifying ascetic practice. After nearly six years of starvation and self-denial, however, he lay perilously close to death without having gotten any closer to his goal. It was then that he recalled a childhood memory of going out into the countryside with the rest of the royal family and its entourage in order to take part in the annual plowing festival. He remembered his nurses getting so caught up in the festivities that they wandered off, leaving him alone in the shade of a rose-apple tree. And he recalled how he’d spontaneously settled into the depths of meditative absorption amidst such pleasant bucolic surroundings. In the words of the Buddha:

‘I recall… when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered & remained in the first jhana: rapture & pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’ I thought: ‘So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?’ I thought: ‘I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but that pleasure is not easy to achieve with a body so extremely emaciated.’ MN 36

Of course, the rest is ‘history’, as we say. The Buddha regained his strength and commenced to sitting as he had as a young child – albeit, one with unprecedented insight and determination. And so it was that he was able to subsequently attain the perfection of insight into the emptiness of all phenomena.
 

Rose-Apple Fruit and Blossoms
 
 
We are all innately endowed with the human form and faculties with which to witness for ourselves what the Buddha himself witnessed. We are all innately endowed with the potential to become buddhas. Practice exists so as to nurture the bodhicitta – the Way-seeking mind – that already resides within us. The Buddha recalled that pleasant childhood meditation in the shade of a rose-apple tree. I, too, recall such pleasant meditations – before I was yet “wise enough” to even know that I was meditating. The Buddha innately knew what he’d arisen in form to do. I knew, as well, and I’m pretty sure that you did too. Return to that source and nurture it. Find a natural place in which to sit in stillness. Find a group of like-minded people with which to practice. Find a teacher who can guide you along the path. And if you come to realize that your teacher can only guide you part of the way there, then follow the example of the Buddha and bid him or her adieu and find another. And if you can’t find another, then simply stay in touch with that child that yet dwells within you – the one who’s been sitting there in stillness all the while. Revitalize and further your practice by returning to the source. 
 

 

 

References
 

Gunaratana, H. (2011). The jhanas in Theravada Buddhist meditation. Access to Insight, 16 June 2011, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/gunaratana/wheel351.html

Kohn, S. C. (1994). The Awakened One – A life of the Buddha. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Majjhima Nikaya 36. Maha-Saccaka sutta: the longer discourse to Saccaka (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 12 February 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.036.than.html

Majjhima Nikaya 121. Cula-suññata sutta: the lesser discourse on emptiness (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 12 February 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.121.than.html

 
 

Image Credits

 
Entering Blackslough Wood by Graham Horn via:


Frog by Msikma via:


Dragonfly by Tim Bekaert via:


Rose Apple Bloom by mauroguanandi via:


Rose Apple Bloom and Fruit by Tatiana Gerus via:


Rustic garden gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft, Photoshop filters applied by author, via:


 

 
Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Wonder and Wondering


Gosh, I began this contemplation almost a month ago! It seems like ages. Since that time, however, I’ve been distracted by current events both negative and positive. On one hand, the killings in Aurora, Colorado would seem to represent the very worst that we humans can be. Even as I make that observation, however, I’m tempted to qualify it by noting that the recent drought we’ve been experiencing across the continental United States, and its very likely status as a human-caused climatic event, might be even more representative of the worst that we humans can be. No, the gradual destruction caused by global warming will not be as easily quantified as the loss of life in Aurora (as if even that can be quantified!), but it will certainly be no less real.



The Olympics, on the other hand, have the potential to reveal us at our best – not our chest-thumping, blood-doping, win at all cost best, mind you, but our coming together in global goodwill best. I’ve been a fan of the Olympics since I was just a little kid, so I was all too willingly sucked into spending entire evenings watching it. Couple that with the fact that it has been an incredibly hot summer during which I’ve continued to pick up my running mileage – a reality that has left me feeling somewhat drained and without my usual literary zip – and you’ve got about an 80% accounting for my dearth of posts of late. The other 20%?  Well, let’s just chalk it up to myriad causes and conditions!



Yes, the heat is waning, and, yes, the news both good and bad is fading into the past. Perhaps even the drought is beginning to break. The heat is, anyway. However, I shouldn’t lead anyone to believe that I’ll be bouncing back to a once-per-week rate of posting either this month or the next. You see, I’ve also come to realize that I’ve got a bit of editing work ahead of me. There’s enough material on this blog now that I can no longer ignore the fact that many of my posts contain no subject labels that might allow it to be easily organized. The table of contents, as well, is still incomplete. Over the course of the coming weeks, then, I’ll be doing what I can to improve this site’s searchability with the intention of making it a more useful resource to returning readers and a more accessible one for brand new readers. Have I mentioned that I’m also still putting the finishing touches on my novel? Aargh! Seriously, these are amongst the most awesome problems that I could possibly have! For now, though, let me pick up where I left off with my post entitled Wonder.




Wonder, according to Merriam-Webster, encompasses “rapt attention or astonishment at something awesomely mysterious or new to one's experience.” Such a definition might lead us to conclude that the longer we live and the more we learn, the less likely we are to experience it. Indeed, this seems to be true. Familiarity does tend to dampen our experience. It allows us to proceed on autopilot, so to speak, making note of our surroundings enough to navigate through them without really being affected by them. It allows us to recognize people without really seeing them, and value things in terms of their utility rather than the entirety of their being. This, of course, is the reason for me writing in one of my recent tweets (hey, at least I had some “literary” urges!) that “familiarity is the most impenetrable obscuration of all.”



Feelings of familiarity arise because of the activation of our memories, ideas, and concepts related to what we think we’re doing and seeing. Unfortunately, though, once our memories, ideas and concepts have been activated, real seeing ceases and wonder becomes impossible. Zen practice allows us to become more and more adept at seeing without the activation of our memories, ideas and concepts. Thus, it allows us to be more open to the experience of wonder. 



Regular readers might recall my use of the Japanese word, nen, or “thought impulse” in my post entitled The Nature Of Things (see also Sekida, 1985, p. 257). In that post I also quoted from a talk by Sojun Mel Weitzman (2000) in which he discusses three types of nen. “The first nen,” Weitzman says, “is one with activity, without reflection, just direct perception. The second nen is when we reflect on something and try to identify it by thought or think about it. And the third nen is taking another step back and developing what the second nen has thought about the first nen.” So, it seems fairly obvious that wonder is a first-nen phenomenon. Wondering, on the other hand – the more thought-filled embrace of curiosity – must involve nen of a higher order. Does that imply, then, that wondering is of lesser value than wonder? Hmmm…



Wondering is an activity that I’ve long felt has been devalued by religious leaders and practitioners alike. Back when I was trying to be a “good” Christian it seemed that the most important thing that one could cultivate was faith, something that wondering could only serve to shake. That which one was “supposed” to believe and that which could withstand the intense light of rational scrutiny were all too often very different things. Unfortunately – or fortunately, as the case may be – I was born with a very inquisitive nature. All too frequently, then, it seemed that my very nature brought me into direct conflict with that which I was “supposed” to be. This conflict percolated within me for quite a few years before I finally threw up my hands in despair (figuratively speaking, anyway) and declared that if the very intelligence and questioning nature that God has given me puts me into direct conflict with His truth, then so be it! Banish me to Hell that I might chuckle forever at the punch line of such a cruel joke as that! And so it is that I have great sympathy for one of the Buddha’s followers – Malunkyaputta.



Malunkyaputta was off on his own one day – wondering, as it turns out – when it began to dawn on him that the Buddha had never expounded upon some very basic questions: Is the universe finite or infinite in both time and space? What is the relationship between the soul and the body, if indeed such things as souls exist? Et cetera. To tell you the truth, I’ve always thought that the Buddha’s response was just a little bit, shall we say, defensive:

"Malunkyaputta, did I ever say to you, 'Come, Malunkyaputta, live the holy life under me, and I will declare to you [the answers to these questions]?.... And did you ever say to me, 'Lord, I will live the holy life under the Blessed One [in return for the answers to these questions]?"

"No, lord."

"Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?” (MN 63)   



To be fair, the Buddha was not necessarily calling Malunkyaputta foolish simply for asking those questions. It was more the fact that he’d predicated his living of the holy life on the attainment of the answers to those questions that was foolish. Please read the entire account of the incident, however, and make up your own mind as to whether the Buddha thought that asking such metaphysical question was foolish in and of itself. It’s a short sutta, and a link is provided in the reference section below.



Now, whether or not you think that the Buddha actually knew the answers to these questions or not says a lot about your conceptualization of this thing we call enlightenment. In other words, does enlightenment afford us some kind of God-like knowledge of the otherwise mysterious workings of the universe, or does it afford us, instead, clear seeing of that which is before us? The Buddha, of course, goes on to avoid that more modern question, pointing out to Malunkyaputta, and us, that his teachings relate to the nature and the cessation of suffering – realities that remain unchanged regardless of what answers might be given to any of those most intriguing of questions. By the way, the aforementioned sutta contains the very insightful parable describing the man shot with the arrow, and makes for great reading if for no other reason than for that!



So, where does this unrepentant wonderer now stand? How do I reconcile my wondering nature with my intention to live at least some semblance of the “holy life” that the Buddha alluded to? I’m reminded of the answer that a teacher once gave to someone who was wondering whether the need to plan some aspects of our lives is inherently in conflict with the Buddhist “ideal” of being “in the moment.” “When you’re planning,” the teacher responded, “just plan.” Hmmm… When you’re wondering, just wonder. Know that you are wondering. Celebrate the joyous reality that you are neither hungry, nor thirsty, nor oppressed by loneliness or meaninglessness, nor in such physical pain that you are incapable of enjoying this very human capacity. On the other hand, don’t necessarily expect your wondering to provide you with any answers, either! And if an answer should happen to arise from time to time, don’t expect it to alleviate your suffering!



And that brings me to my reaction to the recent landing of the spaceship Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Despite the intense feelings of wonder that I once felt with respect to space exploration, I now wonder whether our money could be better spent alleviating our seemingly endless suffering here at home. This mindset left me cynically, but humorously wondering how many illegal dumping citations we now face given all of the hardware that we’ve left strewn around the solar system! Har har har… But then I began to see the pictures that were being sent back to earth from so very far away – from another planet altogether... And I began to wonder – the first-nen kind of wonder, mind you… And after familiarizing myself with that sense of wonder once again, I felt just a little bit wiser – not because I now know what the mountains look like up on Mars, but because I’m reminded yet again of what it’s like to feel wonder.


Curiosity rover amidst its own debris - illegal dumping citation pending. 


A wondering extension of humanity ponders the mountains on Mars.




References


Majjhima Nikaya 63. Cula-Malunkyovada sutta: the shorter instructions to Malunkya (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Tr.). Access to Insight, 14 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html

Sekida, K. (1985). Zen training: methods and philosophy. Published by Weatherhill, Inc.

Weitzman, M. (2000). Commentary on the Enmei Jukko Kannon Gyo. Berkeley Zen Center. http://www.berkeleyzencenter.org/Lectures/january2003.shtml



Image Credits


Gazing at the ceiling of the Bahá'í Centre of Learning in Hobart, Tasmania by Jalal Volker via:


Curiosity Landing Site and Subsequent Martian Landscape Image by NASA via:




Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank