Tuesday Reading Material

All About Karma and Rebirth | Part Three 6 . 19 . 18

KarmaPartThreeWEB

Click here for PDF: AllAboutKarmaRebirthPartThree6.19.18

Q&A with Thanissaro Bhikku

16. But how could a human mind possibly know these things? (to understand karma and rebirth work) There are two ways to answer this question: the typical way and the Buddha’s way. The typical way— which has been typical from ancient India until now—is to define what a human being is, or what the mind is, and from that definition to decide what a human mind can know. If, for instance, you define the mind as just a brain, and a brain is just a bunch of atoms, there’s not much that it can know for sure. But the Buddha’s approach was the other way around. As he said, if you define yourself, you place limitations on yourself. So instead of starting out with a definition of the mind, he explored the skills that the mind could develop, to see what those skills could enable it to know. That’s how he learned that there was a lot more to the mind than he had originally thought, and that it was capable of knowing many things that he hadn’t imagined possible. By his example, he’s showing how to drop some of your own cultural baggage—such as materialistic, Romantic, or Judeo-Christian views of what you are—and to try on views that will allow you to test whether he was right: by developing the same skills he did.
17. Can’t I just be an agnostic about karma and rebirth, and practice without taking a position on these issues? Even though you can’t know the truth of karma and rebirth prior to your first taste of awakening, you’re placing bets on these issues all the time. Every time you act, you’re calculating whether the results will be worth the effort. The fact that you’re expecting results means you believe in the power of karma to at least some extent. Even if you deny that you’re acting with any expectation of results, part of the mind is calculating that your denial will give good results of one sort or another. If you do something you know is unskillful, but tell yourself it won’t matter, you’re taking a position against karma. If your calculation of the results doesn’t include the possibility that they could extend into future lifetimes, you’re taking a position against rebirth. So you’re taking positions on these issues all the time. The Buddha’s simply pointing out that you’ll benefit from adopting his position consciously and consistently.
18. But karma and rebirth focus on past and future. Doesn’t the dharma teach us to focus totally on simply being mindful—fully present—in the present moment? The Buddha talks about the importance of focusing on the present moment only in the context of karma: You focus on the present because you know that there’s work to be done in training the mind in developing skillful present intentions, and you don’t know how much more time you have to accomplish that training. If you don’t train it now, you’ll suffer both now and on into the future. And it’s important to note that mindfulness doesn’t mean being fully present in the present moment. It means keeping something in mind. Right mindfulness means keeping in mind lessons from the past—either teachings you’ve learned from others, or lessons you’ve learned from your own experience—so that you can apply them skillfully in shaping your present intentions. When the Buddha discusses karma, his references to past and future almost always come back to the present. He discourages people from asking what particular actions led to their present state, or what particular future state they can expect from their current actions. Instead, he asks them to keep the general principle in mind—that skillful actions lead to good results, and unskillful actions to bad—and to focus on being as skillful as possible in the present moment, ideally for the sake of reaching awakening through the level of skill that puts an end to karma. So the present isn’t divorced from the past and future in the practice. It’s tied to the past and future through the dynamics of karma, and the goal of the practice is to get beyond past, present, and future entirely.
19. Why focus on issues of skillful and unskillful actions when we can instead open up to the sense of emptiness or space that already surrounds us? That emptiness is conditioned. It, too, is the result of actions—subtle perceptions, but actions nonetheless. The freedom that’s truly unconditioned lies right next to our freedom of choice in the present moment. The only way to know unconditioned freedom is to get more sensitive to our freedom of choice. And we do that best by trying to get more sensitive to what’s skillful and what’s unskillful in our actions. As this sensitivity develops, we’ll be in a better position to judge when we’re still making subtle choices, and when we’re experiencing something in which no act of intention was involved at all.
20. Does this mean that awakened people have no intentions? There’s no intention at the moment of awakening. But when fully awakened people return to the world of the senses, they do experience old karma. They also have new intentions, but they disolve the potential for those intentions to yield karmic results. As the Buddha did, they disolve the seeds as they arise. But to understand what that means, you have to gain awakening yourself!
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Pali Canon | The Buddha

SN 44.9 PTS: S iv 398
CDB ii 1392
Kutuhalasala Sutta: With Vacchagotta
Question:
“And at the moment when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, what do you designate as its sustenance then?”
Buddha’s Answer:
“Vaccha, when a being sets this body aside and is not yet reborn in another body, I designate it as craving-sustained, for craving is its sustenance at that time.”
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Pali Canon | The Buddha

AN 5.57 PTS: A iii 71
Upajjhatthana Sutta: Subjects for Contemplation
Considers this: I am not the only one who is owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator; but also one who — whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.
To the extent that there are beings — past and future, passing away and re-arising — all beings are the owner of their actions, heir to their actions, born of their actions, related through their actions, and have their actions as their arbitrator.
Whatever beings do, for good or for evil, to that will they fall heir.’ When one often reflects on this, the path takes birth.
One sticks with that path, develops it, cultivates it. As one sticks with that path, develops it and cultivates it, the fetters are abandoned, the obsessions destroyed.
Subject to birth, subject to aging, subject to death,
ordinary people are repelled by those who suffer
from that to which they themselves are subject.
And if I were to be repelled by those who are repelled, that would not be fitting for me to act as they do.
As I maintained this attitude, knowing the Dhamma
without paraphernalia, I overcame all intoxication with health, youth, & life
—as one who sees renunciation as rest.

All About Karma & Rebirth | Part Two of Three | 6 . 12 . 18

CityReflection

Everything you wanted to know about karma but were afraid to ask

– Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Click here for PDF: AllAboutKarmaRebirthPartTwo6.12.18

10. Other people’s actions are experienced through the senses, which are shaped by your old karma. But you say that people have freedom to choose their actions in the present. Isn’t there a conflict here? Like you, other people are free to choose their intentions in the present, but you don’t directly experience their intentions. You experience actions inspired by their intentions, and how you experience those actions will be filtered by your past and present karma. Your good seeds may sprout in time to help you not to suffer from someone’s bad intentions toward you, or your bad seeds may be sprouting in a way that interferes with their efforts to help you.
Lotus Bud. Courtesy of Hiroshi Wantanabe/Gallerystock.
Courtesy of Hiroshi Wantanabe/Gallerystock.
11. Can the Buddha’s teachings on karma be divorced from his teachings on rebirth? Not really. If there were no life before birth, karma would have no role in explaining pleasure and pain early in life. And as the Buddha said, many people are rewarded in this lifetime for doing unskillful things—he cited people who kill the enemies of a king, or who steal from an enemy of a king, or tell a lie that entertains a king—and you can probably think of similar examples in modern politics. Sometimes the results don’t even show in the next lifetime— because the causal principle underlying karma is so complex.
12. But karma and rebirth are metaphysical issues. Didn’t the Buddha avoid metaphysical issues? There’s no word for “metaphysics” in ancient Indian languages. The Buddha avoided two sorts of issues that we would call metaphysical—the size of the cosmos and the identity of the self—because they were distractions on the path. But because he taught a path of action to put an end to suffering, he had to explain the metaphysics of action: whether it’s real, whether it gives results, what determines those results, and how far action goes in causing suffering in the first place. If he hadn’t taken a stand on these matters, he wouldn’t have been able to explain how action had the power to bring suffering to an end.
13. If there’s no self, what gets reborn? The Buddha never said that there is no self. He also never said that there was a self. The whole question of whether or not the self exists was one he put aside. There’s a common misconception that the Buddha started with the idea of there being no self and, in the context of no self, taught the doctrine of karma, which makes no sense: If there’s no self, nobody does the karma and nobody receives the results, so actions wouldn’t matter. But that’s putting the context backward. Actually, the Buddha started with the reality of karma and then viewed ideas of “self” and “not-self ” as types of karma within that context. In other words, he focused on seeing the way we define our sense of self as an action. Then the question becomes this: When is the activity of identifying things as your self skillful, and when is it not? When is the activity of identifying things as not-self skillful, and when is it not? Similarly with rebirth: He avoided talking about what gets reborn—which, however you defined it, wouldn’t be anything you were responsible for anyway—and instead focused on how it happens, as a process. Because the process is a type of karma, this is something you are responsible for, and it’s also a skill you can master: either with relative skill, reaching a comfortable rebirth, or with consummate skill, learning how not to be reborn at all.
The Buddha was very clear on the point that some of his teachings couldn’t be proven until you had put them into practice.
14. Didn’t the Buddha teach people to believe only things they can see for themselves? How can people see karma and rebirth for themselves? The Buddha was very clear on the point that some of his teachings couldn’t be proven until you had put them into practice. This means that they have to be adopted as working hypotheses. A discourse on this topic (MN 60) includes teachings on topics like these: karma, the results of karma, fatalism, the experience of formlessness, and the reality of nirvana. In each case, you have to take a position on these issues if you want to put an end to suffering, so you choose whichever side seems most conducive to following a path toward that end. Similarly, when the Buddha was teaching the Kalamas to test views for themselves (AN 3.65), the test was this: When this view is adopted, does it lead to skillful or unskillful actions? So the same principle applies to the teaching on karma and rebirth: If you adopted these views as a working hypothesis, would they lead you to be more careful or less careful about your actions? A good experiment would be to devote a year to living as if you really believed in karma and rebirth, and to see how that affected the way you lived your life.
15. Didn’t the Buddha simply pick up his ideas on karma and rebirth from the culture around him? It’s true that the word karma already existed in his culture, but the questions of whether karma was real, whether it bore results, and whether you had any control over your karma were all hotly debated. Similarly with rebirth: Some people believed in it, others didn’t, and even those who did believe in it didn’t agree as to whether karma had any impact on it. So given that there was no general agreement on these topics, we can’t say that the Buddha simply absorbed his teachings on them unthinkingly from his environment. Instead, he saw on the night of his awakening that people’s intentional actions did have an impact on their rebirth, and that if they didn’t believe in karma and rebirth, they tended to create bad karma that led to the suffering of bad rebirths. That’s why he taught karma and rebirth as the major points of basic right view.

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Pali Canon
The Buddha: On Craving and Rebirth

This sutta begins with an account of birth, noting that the birth of a human being requires not only that the parents have intercourse but also that a “gandhabba” is present. Usually in the Canon, the term gandhabba means a being on the lowest level of the celestial devas. However, the Commentary notes that gandhabba in this context means a being whose kamma enables it to take birth on that occasion, an interpretation supported by a discussion in MN 93.
Excerpt from Sutta: — SN 23.2
By introducing a “being” into the discussion, the Buddha might be suspected of introducing a “what” into his discussion of birth. However, on the level of dependent co-arising, the Buddha did not treat the concept of a “being” as a “what.” His definition of a “being” shows that he recommended that it, too, be regarded as a process:
As he was sitting there, Ven. Rādha said to the Blessed One: “ ’A being,’ it’s said. To what extent is one said to be ‘a being’?”
“Any clinging, obsession, or craving for form Rādha: When one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be ‘a being.’
“Any clinging, obsession, or craving for existence, feeling… perception… fabrications…
When one is caught up there, tied up there, one is said to be ‘a being.’

 

 

All About Karma & Rebirth | Part One | 6 . 5 . 18

Everything you wanted to know about karma but were afraid to ask

Click here for PDF: AllAboutKarmaRebirthPartOne6.5.18

– Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Karma and rebirth are often treated as Buddhism’s cultural baggage: a set of Indian beliefs that—either because the Buddha wasn’t thinking carefully, or because his early followers didn’t stay true to his teachings—got mixed up with the dharma even though they don’t fit in with the rest of what he taught. Now that the dharma has come to the West, it’s time, we believe, to leave all this unnecessary baggage unclaimed on the carousel so we can focus on the Buddha’s true message in a way that will speak directly to our own cultural needs. However, the real problem with karma and rebirth is that we tend to misunderstand what these teachings have to say. This is because Buddhism came to the West at the same time as other Indian religions, and its luggage got mixed up with theirs in transit. When we sort out which luggage really belongs to the tradition, we find that the bags marked “Karma” and “Rebirth” actually contain valuables. And to help show how valuable they are, here are my answers to some frequently asked questions on these topics.
1. What is karma? The word karma has two meanings, depending on context. Primarily, it means intentional actions in thought, word, and deed; secondarily, it refers to the results of intentional actions, past or present—results that are shaped by the quality of the intention behind those actions.
2. How do actions determine results? Skillful intentions tend toward pleasant results, and unskillful intentions toward painful results. It’s important to stress the word tend here, since there’s no ironclad, tit-for-tat deterministic connection between an intentional act and its results. The causal principle underlying actions and results is actually very complex. Your present experience is shaped by three karmic factors: the results of past intentions—and this includes all your sense spheres; present intentions; and the results of your present intentions. Past intentions provide you with the raw material or potentials for your present experience, but your present intentions are what shape those raw potentials into your actual experiences. Because the results of many past actions could be offering all sorts of raw materials at any point in time, and because you’re potentially free to create any type of new karma at all, these conditions can interact in many complex ways. In fact, in your experience of the present, your current intention arises prior to your awareness of the senses. Without present intentions, you’d have no experience of space and time. You’d be free from their limitations. On the ultimate level, this fact is what makes awakening possible. On the immediate level, it means that even though you may have bad “karma seeds” from past unskillful intentions ripening in your “karma field,” you have some freedom in how you treat the ripening seeds so that you don’t have to suffer from them. You can be proactive in preventing suffering. This is why we meditate: to sensitize ourselves to our present intentions, some of which are very subtle. This sensitivity enables us to expand the range of our freedom in the present, training the mind in the skills it needs to create positive present karma, to deal positively with the raw material from past negative karma, and eventually to go beyond the karma of intentions entirely.
3. If your intentions influence the quality of the result, does this mean that every action done with good intentions will tend toward a good result? For an intention to give good results, it has to be free of greed, aversion, and delusion. Now, it’s possible for an intention to be well-meaning but based on delusion, in which case it would lead to bad results: believing, for instance, that there are times when the compassionate course of action would be to kill or to tell a lie, or for a teacher to have sex with a student. To give good results, an action has to be not only good but also skillful. This is why the Buddha taught his son, Rahula, to develop three qualities in his actions: wisdom—acting for longterm happiness; compassion—intending not to harm anyone with his actions; and purity—checking the actual results of his actions, and learning from his mistakes so as not to be fooled by an intention that seems wise and compassionate but really isn’t. This is how good intentions are trained to be skillful. Beyond that, there are two main levels of skill: the skillful actions that lead to a good rebirth, and those that lead beyond rebirth entirely, to the deathless.
4. Is it possible to burn off old karma? No. In the Buddha’s times, the Jains believed that they could burn off old karma by not reacting to the pain of their austerities, and the Buddha reserved some of his sharpest ridicule for that belief. As he said, they should have noticed that the pain experienced during their austerities ended when they stopped the austerities, which meant that the pain was the result not of old karma being burned off, but of their present karma in doing the austerities. Still, it is possible to minimize the results of bad past karma. The Buddha compared past bad karma to a big lump of salt (Anguttara Nikaya 3.101). If you put the salt into a small glass of water, you can’t drink the water because it’s too salty. But if you toss it into a large, clean river, it doesn’t make the water of the river too salty to drink. The river stands for a mind that has developed infinite goodwill and equanimity, grown mature in virtue and discernment, and has trained itself not to be overcome by pleasure or pain.
5. Does karma shape everything you experience? The Buddha used the teaching on karma to explain only three things: (1) your experience of pleasure and pain; (2) the level of rebirth you take after death, in terms of such things as your wisdom or lack of wisdom, wealth or lack of wealth, and the length of your life span; and (3) what to do to get out of the cycle of rebirth. The noble eightfold path is this last type of karma: the karma that puts an end to karma. Beyond that, he said that if you tried to work out all the implications of the results of karma, you’d go crazy. Because his teaching deals simply with suffering and the end of suffering, that’s as far as he took the issue.
6. Is it true that “if you want to see a person’s past actions, look at his present condition; if you want to see his future condition, look at his present actions”? That’s much too simplistic. It implies that you have a single karma account, like a bank account, with your present situation showing the running balance. Remember that karma is like seeds in a field. You’re planting karma seeds in your field with every intention, and those seeds mature at different rates. So you’ve got lots of karma accounts at different stages of development. All you can see at any one moment are the seeds that are currently sprouting. As for the other seeds that haven’t yet sprouted, good or bad, you can’t see those at all.
7. Doesn’t the teaching on karma teach people to be callous toward the sufferings of others? Since you have both good and bad seeds in your field that haven’t yet matured, the teaching on karma teaches you to ask this question instead: what’s the wisest way to view other people whose bad seeds are currently sprouting? And the answer is: with compassion. Is your compassion so rarified that you give it only to people who have never done anything wrong? If it were, you wouldn’t find anyone to receive it. So when you see someone suffering, you don’t say, “They deserve it,” and leave them to their suffering. Actions yield results, but nobody “deserves” to suffer. The path is for putting an end to suffering, “deserved” or not. You look for the potential good seeds in other people’s fields that are about to mature, and try to give them whatever aid you can that will help them not to suffer from the bad seeds. After all, that’s how you would like them to treat you when your bad seeds start to mature.
8. But can’t karma be used to justify social injustices? Only by people who don’t really believe in karma. If someone has the karma that tends to poverty or a painful death, there are plenty of natural causes or accidents that will provide an opportunity for that karma to bear fruit. But if you decide to oppress that person economically or bring about his painful death, that bad karma now becomes yours.
9. Don’t people believe in karma just because they want the universe to seem just? If they do, they’re in for a disappointment. When you sow seeds in your karma field, you get the same kind of plant whose seed you sow, but the size of your harvest will vary in line with many other factors—for example, other actions you do before or after, or your state of mind when the seed ripens. This means that a minor action might yield huge results, or a major action, small results. One discourse (Majjhima Nikaya 86) tells of Angulimala, who murdered many people but then had a total change of heart and became an arahant. The only karmic result of all those murders was that people threw things at him when he was on his alms round. The relatives of those he killed probably didn’t think that justice was served, but that was how karma worked in that case. And we’re fortunate that karma isn’t always just. As the Buddha said, if we had to pay back all the bad karma we’ve done in the past before reaching awakening, no one would ever awaken.
To Be Continued Next Week

Rebirth & Current Research

A Commentary on
Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research

Author: Bhikkhu Analayo
Review: Guy Armstrong

5  .  29  .  18

Click here for PDF: Rebirth_CurrentResearch5.29.18

What happens when we die?
This question has vexed us humans for as long as we’ve been able to conceive of a future. Opinions abound. The materialist believes nothing happens; everything simply ends. The eternalist believes we will all have everlasting existence in either eternal joy or misery. The agnostic says we can’t know, so it’s not worth thinking about. Some Buddhists believe we will be reborn, and that the circumstances of one’s rebirth are influenced by past actions. These stances are often strongly held even though, if pressed, those who hold them will admit they don’t actually know.
In Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research, Bhikkhu Analayo, author of the highly regarded book Satipatthana: The Direct Path to Realization, approaches this question from multiple perspectives, examining the tenet of rebirth through early discourses of the Buddha, historical debates, accounts of near-death experiences, and modern research. Although Analayo is a deeply committed practitioner and scholar in the tradition of early Buddhism, this is no polemical tract. He writes early on that, while he is sympathetic to the idea of rebirth, “for me personally rebirth is not a crucial issue.”
Analayo’s goal is not to persuade but rather to understand “things as they really are.” As such, he writes in the balanced, dispassionate style of an academic who expects to be challenged on any statement not supported by facts. Yet Analayo does not shy away from controversy, taking up an array of viewpoints on the issue and thoughtfully considering each. This alone makes the book a refreshing approach to a topic often muddied by polarizing opinions.
Rebirth in the Buddha’s Teachings
In Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, the idea of rebirth is almost universally accepted. But in the West, practitioners are more apt to question tradition and approach foundational teachings with skepticism. Today many Buddhist teachers deny that the Buddha even taught rebirth, arguing that the numerous references to the concept in the early discourses were a later addition. Others claim the Buddha taught rebirth only to conform to the pervasive cultural belief of his day. Analayo begins his investigation by examining these ideas in light of the Buddha’s teachings on rebirth as found in the Pali Nikayas and Chinese Agamas, his sourcebooks for early Buddhism. In so doing, he contends that teachings on rebirth are integrated so fully into the early discourses that they could not have been interpolated later. The Buddha spoke of his recollection of past lives not as a speculative theory but as a truth he realized on the night of his awakening and as an insight available to anyone who trains in the required meditative discipline.
Rebirth was so central to the Buddha’s message that it was part of the standard formula for right view.
Analayo begins by analyzing the role of rebirth in the chain of causal links of dependent arising (paticca samupada), which describes in detail the genesis of suffering. He focuses especially on the link between consciousness and name-and-form. Here “consciousness” refers to the mind’s capacity to have any experience at all, while “name” is the mental capacity for naming elements of sense experience, and “form” refers to the physical body. In one discourse the Buddha asks Ananda, “If consciousness did not enter the mother’s womb, would there be name-and-form?” And Ananda replies, “No.” In other words, the Buddha taught that consciousness, continuing from the previous life, meets with a newly forming embryo in order to make possible the body (form) and cognitive process (name) of the new being.
In the materialist view, a rebirth doctrine would imply a mind-body dualism, which would be unacceptable. As Analayo shows, however, the Buddha’s understanding of the mind-body relationship is more nuanced than either a strictly unitary or strictly dualistic view would permit. The Buddha spoke of the mutual dependency between consciousness and name-and-form, comparing them to two sheaves of reeds leaning against one another. Consciousness, a fundamental aspect of mind, may be somewhat separate from body, but the cognitive process (name) is so closely tied to the body (form) as to be described as just one factor. The Tibetan Wheel of Life painting illustrates this link as two people sharing one boat.
In examining the relationship between consciousness and name-and-form, Analayo in effect refutes the materialist view, widely held in the West, which asserts that mind is simply a byproduct of the functioning of the body that ends completely at death. This belief was also common at the time of the Buddha, who in a list of wrong views in the Brahmajala Sutta called it “annihilationist.” The fact that the Buddha felt compelled to address the annihilationist view refutes the notion that rebirth was universally accepted in ancient India.
Analayo also rejects the assertion that teachings on rebirth were merely acquiescence to a popular cultural belief of the time, pointing out that it was so central to the Buddha’s message that it was part of the standard formula for right view, the first factor of the eightfold path. The Buddha told his disciples that he taught only what he considered essential to awakening: a “handful of leaves” rather than the entire forest he had come to know. If the concept of rebirth were not essential in some way, why would it have been such a prominent part of that handful? Analayo points to its centrality in the Buddha’s description of samsara, the endless cycle of birth and death, with all its attendant suffering. This has provided a compelling motivation for generations of practitioners to dedicate themselves to the goal of full awakening.
Children Who Remember Past Lives
A particularly intriguing section of the book details numerous stories of young children who recounted what they described as memories of previous lives. Such recollections often include precise, verifiable details the children could have no possible way of knowing. Researchers, including Dr. Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia, have collected thousands of accounts and, when possible, investigated them to assess their accuracy.
A proponent of rebirth might even argue that these stories represent more evidence than materialists have been able to gather in support of their view.
A three-year-old boy in Lebanon recalled having been killed in battle in his former life. He accurately reported how much money the person he had been had in his pockets at the time of his death and identified various personal articles when taken to that person’s home. A two-year-old boy in Turkey claimed he had frozen to death after an airplane crash in his previous life. The person’s family believed the man had died instantly in the crash, but when consulted, a Turkish Airlines official confirmed the man had indeed died from freezing. A two-year-old girl in Thailand remembered living in a monastery in her previous life. When taken there, she knew her way around, recognized a number of monastics, and even detailed what had changed about the buildings in the time since she had lived there. In many such cases, the location of a birthmark on the child’s body is said to correlate with an injury sustained at the time of death in a prior life.
Analayo concludes that “fraud as an explanation for all of them can be safely discarded,” adding that “the body of evidence collected … offers considerable support for the assumption that at least some of these cases do reflect genuine memories of the past.” A proponent of rebirth might even argue that these stories represent more evidence than materialists have been able to gather in support of their view.
The most compelling of the children’s stories is that of Dhammaruwan, a Sri Lankan boy born in 1968. At the age of two, he spontaneously began to sit in meditation and chant for long stretches of time. Eventually someone realized he was chanting Buddhist discourses in Pali, but in a melody and meter more akin to devotional kirtan than to the monotone cadences favored today. The boy explained he had learned the chants in a previous life in India when he served as a reciter monk, one who memorizes sections of the Pali Canon. He said he studied under the renowned monk Buddhaghosa in the fifth century and moved with him to Sri Lanka, where the elder carried out his work of compiling and translating many commentaries, including the Visuddhimagga.
Dhammaruwan’s chants were recorded and circulated, making him famous in Sri Lanka, uncomfortably so for a shy child. By adulthood he had lost the memories of the chants but was still able to recall his impressions of Buddhaghosa, whom he described as a scholar but not a meditator. While the fifth century may be too distant to verify Dhammaruwan’s recollections, Analayo goes to great lengths to analyze the chants themselves to determine whether the child could have learned them by overhearing them in this life. The book includes an exhaustive comparison of the discourses chanted by the child with four different editions of the Pali texts (from Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and London), establishing that Dhammaruwan’s versions of the texts are not found in any modern source. Therefore, Analyo concludes, the boy had no way of learning them in his current lifetime.
Dhammaruwan is now living as a monk in Sri Lanka under the name Samadhikusala. He was ordained by Bhante Gunaratana.
Buddhism has gained a foothold in the West amid a set of cultural assumptions strongly influenced by both science and Christianity, so it is only natural that the notion of rebirth would not immediately resonate for many practitioners. Yet the doctrine is such an integral part of the Buddha’s teachings that, in the spirit of open-minded inquiry that is a hallmark of the scientific approach, it deserves serious consideration. The rational presentation in Bhikkhu Anālayo’s book is well-suited to this task.
Further Reading
Do You Only Live Once? The Evidence for Rebirth, a profile of reincarnation researcher Jim Tucker
The Tibetan Buddhist View of Death and Rebirth, a teaching by Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman
The Buddhist Teachings on Rebirth, a collection of wisdom from ten Buddhist teachers
Reincarnation: Modern Research and Traditional Buddhist Teachings, a comparison
The Rebirth and Reincarnation archives on LionsRoar.com

 

Directed and Undirected Meditation 5 . 22 . 18

PinkLotusWEB

Directed and Undirected Meditation

For PDF click here. DirectedAndUndirectedmeditation_5.22.18
Sutta: The Buddha
Commentary: Andrew Olendzki
The venerable Ananda arose early one morning, and taking up his robe and bowl approached a certain settlement of nuns, where he sat down on a seat that had been prepared. A number of nuns approached the venerable Ananda, and after greeting him, sat down to one side. So seated, these nuns said this to the venerable Ananda: “There are here, Ananda sir, a number of female pracitioners who abide with minds well established in the four foundations of mindfulness. Their understanding is becoming ever greater and more excellent.”
“So it is, Sisters, so it is!” replied Ananda. “Indeed for anybody who abides with a mind well established in the four foundations of mindfulness — it is to be expected that their understanding becomes ever greater and more excellent.”
[Ananda later relates this exchange to the Buddha, who approves of his response and then elaborates:]
Here, Ananda, one abides contemplating body as body[*] — ardent, fully aware, mindful — leading away the unhappiness that comes from obsessing for the things of the world. And for one who is abiding contemplating body as body,[*] a thought regarding the body arises, or bodily distress arise, or mental sluggishness arises and this unfocuses one’s mind sending it here and there. Then one should direct ones’s mind to some satisfactory image. When the mind is directed to some satisfactory image, happiness is born. From this happiness, joy is then born. With a joyful mind, the body relaxes. A relaxed body feels content, and the mind of one content becomes concentrated. One then reflects: “The purpose for which I directed my my mind has been accomplished. So now I shall withdraw directed attention from the satisfactory image that has created within myself contentment and concentration.” One withdraws, and no longer thinks upon or thinks about the image. One understands: “I am not thinking upon or thinking about anything. Inwardly concentrated, I am content.” This is directed meditation.
And what is undirected meditation? Not directing one’s mind outward, one understands: “My mind is not directed outward.” One understands: “Not focused on before or after; free; undirected.” And one understands: “I abide observing body as body — ardent, fully aware, mindful — I am content.” This is undirected meditation.
And so, Ananda, I have taught directed meditation; and I have taught undirected meditation. Whatever is to be done by a teacher with compassion for the welfare of students, that has been done by me out of compassion for you. Here are the roots of trees. Here are empty places. Get down and meditate. Don’t be lazy. Don’t become one who is later remorseful. This is my instruction to you.
* These passages are repeated for the other three foundations of mindfulness:
feelings as feelings;
mind as mind;
mental states as mental states.

Commentary

This text is interesting for a number of reasons, though it seems not to be particularly well known or often referred to.
The framing story shows clearly that women were diligent and successful practitioners of insight meditation in the Buddha’s time, and that they were well-supported in this pursuit. Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and life-long assistant, was a great champion of the women’s causes and would often visit communities of women to encourage their dhamma practice. The Buddha seems to take the opportunity of Ananda’s report to expound on some of the details of mindfulness technique.
What he says here about directed and undirected meditation is particularly interesting in light of the modern integration of metta practice with vipassana practice. The Buddha seems to acknowledge that mindful awareness is sometimes difficult to come by, and that there are times when one’s “mind becomes scattered” by the arising of challenging mind states (has this ever happened to you?).
His response here is not the warrior’s tone sometimes found elsewhere in the texts, whereby the practitioner should just overcome the unwholesome thoughts and rouse up sufficient heroic energy to re-establish mindfulness. Nor is it the gentler response we often hear in the dhamma hall, to just be aware of what is arising, without judgment of any kind, gently returning our attention to the breath or other primary object of meditation. Rather the Buddha’s suggestion is a deliberate re-direction of our attention to a “satisfactory image.”
The pali words (referring to image) here are pasadaniya nimitta. A nimitta is an image or manifestation that appears in the mind — something akin to a sign, a vision or an appearance of an object in the “mind’s eye.” It is the term used in visualization meditations, and has a connotation of recollecting something in the mind.
The adjective pasadaniya is translated by Woodward elsewhere as “pleasurable,” but this sort of term is too easily misconstrued in Buddhist contexts. I don’t think the Buddha is suggesting here that we seek something pleasant in order to avoid the arising discomfort, but is rather suggesting a short term strategy for the practical disarming of the mind’s defense mechanisms.
The commentator Buddhaghosa suggest that the image of the Buddha might be an example of a satisfactory image, but probably anything wholesome and not productive of strong craving (of attachment or aversion) will do. The idea is just to re-direct the mind to a pleasant state that allows relaxation, contement and then concentration.
The practical effect of this re-direction of attention is the natural calming of the mind and relaxation of the body. Only from tranquillity can true alertness arise — otherwise the mind’s attentiveness is just busy or restless.
But as the sutta confirms, this excursion into the deliberate cultivation of a specific satisfactory inspiring image, directly effect the body in a relaxing way that then lead back to concentration. The image can be naturally released as the restoration of concentration has been fulfilled.

 

Nurturing the Intelligent Heart | Part Two 5 . 15 . 18

Click here for PDF NurturingHeart_PartTwo_5.15.18

-Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel

Absolute Bodhicitta

Absolute bodhicitta refers to the sixth paramita of wisdom, which specifically means seeing the nature of reality without mistake. This isn’t something philosophical or highfalutin; it has to do with being realistic about the ways of the world and who you are in it.
At the dawn of the Buddha’s awakening he said something curious and potent. He said: “This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that becomes not; from the cessation of this, that ceases.” A simpler way to frame this is to say that everything arises, presents itself, and falls away due to infinite causes and conditions. In the sutras the Buddha used the analogy of two bundles of reeds leaning up against each other to illustrate that if one were to knock over one bundle, the other would, as a result, fall to the ground. Everything “stands” by virtue of something else. In essence, everything leans. This being, that becomes—and because this falls, that falls.
The Buddha referred to phenomena’s mutual dependency as pratityasamutpada: “dependent arising,” “the nature of contingency,” or “dependent origination,” among other translations.
At first glance, dependent arising sounds simple and obvious, but it has deep implications. The Buddha is saying that what you call “experience” or “life” is generated by the activity of causes and conditions—infinite elements bumping up against, interrupting, and influencing each other. If you were to explore dependent arising in a nuanced way, as is done in the Mahayana tradition of analytical meditation, you would find that there is no singular thing that is whole and not made of parts. You would also find that because everything shares a relationship of mutual dependency, inertia is not possible. It is because everything leans that movement, perception, and creative expression can even happen.
For a moment, try to imagine the world: perhaps you envision the earth as seen from space or recall images from the morning news. But you would be hard pressed to find “the” world, because “it” is not a singular, permanent, or independent “thing.” We all perceive life differently depending on our mood, physical constitution, cultural background, and beliefs. There are as many worldviews as living beings, but who could possibly verify if any one of them is “true”? Yes, you have views—everyone does—but life will always continue to burst from the seams of your ideas.
To the degree that you assume things exist as you think they do, you will also walk through life with less and less sense of wonder. In contemporary culture, capturing truth is paramount; we don’t put a lot of value in wonder and awe. You might appreciate those moments when you look up at the stars and feel amazed by the mystery of what might lie in such a vast expanse. But you might also think that the mind of humility and openness have little practical purpose amid the gritty realities of daily life where you have to make serious decisions to work and survive.
The teachings on absolute bodhicitta, however, suggest otherwise. Awe and humility actually provide a critical function when it comes to our own and others’ wellbeing. When you deprive your mind of curiosity and openness, even your noblest endeavors become militaristic and righteous.
Because we misunderstand the open-dimensional nature of contingent relationships, we at times try to fix the world. You might sweep into a situation in order to put things in order with a strong conviction that you know what’s going on and how you will change it. Perhaps you think you’ve got all the players pegged and already know what motivates them. But when all of your ideas congregate around the truth of your own hypothesis, it won’t even occur to you that someone may have something else to offer or that there is something you yourself can learn.
The flip side of thinking you can fix things reveals something altogether different. In your failed attempt to change a situation, you might fall into despair. Suddenly, the world and all its problems overwhelm you. You only see things in a singular way and feel doomed. In forgetting that life is far from singular, you will miss the beauty of an autumn leaf falling from a tree, or fail to notice someone courageously risking her life to help another. You will forget about the laughter that comes from seeing the irony of things and of the resilience of others despite their challenges of being alive. Absolute bodhicitta reminds us that the world is many things—as many things as you can possibly imagine it to be. The practice of absolute bodhicitta is to bear witness to this infinite complexity, and to allow the beauty, poignancy, and pain of it all to touch you.
The practical nature of awe allows the mind to bear witness to the fathomless nature of contingency without shutting down around definitive conclusions. Such a mind is humble and curious, poised to recognize the nature of reality and protected from fundamentalism and doubt. You will recognize the practical nature of awe when despair becomes compassion; righteous indignation transforms into openness and humility; and the tendency to want to fix things turns into a natural, unhindered longing to respond.
Bodhicitta is the path of understanding who you are in the fathomless nature of infinite contingency, and then developing the skills to navigate this reality—your life—in a way that is awakening for both yourself and for others. If you understand that everything leans, you will also understand that everything you do matters. This is why the bodhisattva engages in a fierce commitment to serve others, by doing so emerging from the confusion of a separate, confined self.
So you might ask yourself, as a citizen of the great nature of infinite contingency, what might you do with your life? How can you utilize it in a meaningful way? How will you burn with love in this unfixable world?

Nurturing the Intelligent Heart | Part One | 5 . 8 . 18

Click here for PDF | NurturingHeart_PartOne_5.8.18

Nurturing the Intelligent Heart | Part One

-Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel
Bodhicitta is the jewel of Mahayana Buddhism. While the term is usually translated as “awakened mind,” my teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, has often referred to bodhicitta as “intelligent heart” in that both wisdom and compassion are equally necessary for spiritual growth to occur.
It is important to understand that bodhicitta is not some “thing” you either have or don’t have, or something that you need to acquire. It is a way of relating with mind and the world that is based on seeing the nature of things in an unconfused way. Its purpose is a test of what we can become—the greatest unfolding of our human potential.
Those who actively practice bodhicitta are bodhisattvas. I sometimes use the phrase “burning with love in a world we can’t fix” to remind myself of what being a bodhisattva actually means. Bodhicitta is often misunderstood to mean compassionate activity alone, but it is much more than that. Bodhicitta contains an aspect of wisdom through which we can address questions concerning the human condition, such as: What if I want to burn with love but my heart feels like a dry seed? What do I do when I feel overwhelmed by the suffering I see in the world? How can I make a difference in a world that doesn’t lend itself to being fixed in a determinate way?
Such questions can be explored through the traditional presentation of three interconnected parts that provide the infrastructure for awakening:
1. aspirational bodhicitta
2. engaged bodhicitta
3. absolute bodhicitta.
Aspirational Bodhicitta
On the path of bodhicitta one holds an aspiration: “Beings are limitless, I vow to free them all.” This is a challenging statement. From the outset you are presented with a task that seems impossible to achieve. In addition, you may wonder what it means to “liberate” someone—doesn’t it sound a bit presumptuous? Furthermore, isn’t freedom something one must discover for oneself?
But if you sit with this aspiration for a while, you may discover that the vow to free limitless beings from their suffering asks you to do something unexpected, remarkable, and within your reach. It invites you to move outside the barriers of ordinary logic and enter into a unique way of seeing things.
In his famous text The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva explains that just as your limbs extend outward from the trunk of your own body, you can include all conscious creatures as extensions of your ever-expanding self. In other words, serving others doesn’t mean you have to give up self-care. In fact, you don’t have to get rid of your ego at all. All you have to do is make it big enough to include all beings in the realm of your care, and make them the recipient of the love and protection you usually reserve only for yourself.
In this spirit, try to frame the vow in this way: “Yes, beings are limitless and their suffering is limitless. I will therefore have to expand the realm of my care limitlessly in order to include them all.” A mind set on this aspiration transforms the vow to serve all beings into a living practice.
That practice, however, will take some training. After all, as much as it sounds meaningful and liberating to burn with love, your heart may often feel barren or indifferent. The path of aspirational bodhicitta provides the infrastructure that, when put into practice, creates the causes and conditions for natural compassion to release from within your being. I have found that this path comes alive in me when I make the significant shift away from the thought “I am suffering” to the recognition that “there is suffering.” This shift often takes place when I am able to bear witness—without judgment but with deep acceptance and humility—to how I contract into a puny, self-focused existence. Such witnessing can feel painful or harsh, but the transformation caused by recognizing the universal nature of suffering expands my mind and heart to include others and evokes tenderness, purpose, and warmth.
When such feelings break through the indifference, pain, and despair of a contracted heart, the transformation is immediate. In valuing the potency and sanity of such an experience, you may wonder: “Why not make that the focal point of my life?” You might decide to pursue the practice of aspirational bodhicitta by committing yourself to reciting the vow formally every day on the cushion. When that is not enough for you, you might also decide to structure your day in order to pause and remember the vow, even just for moments at a time. As the warmth of your aspiration continues to sustain you, your devotion to this way of being will naturally grow, bleeding into your ordinary life and changing the way you move about the world. It may be that one day, like the great bodhisattvas of the past and present, you will burn with this aspiration in such a way that it drives your every thought and deed.
Engaged Bodhicitta
As you begin to explore the bodhicitta vow, the longing to reach out to others will arise sometimes with the spirit of playfulness and sometimes with a sense of urgency, but always with a deep sense of care. This kind of responsiveness is not a matter of principle; it is a matter of the heart. You could call this feeling love, but love as an idea is already a bit formed. Responsiveness describes the step before ideas; it is natural, unconditional, and raw.
Engaged bodhicitta refers to this responsiveness as it manifests in the ways in which you navigate life and relationships. In the formal teachings on engaged bodhicitta, you find the six transcendent activities, or paramitas: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. The first five paramitas are a list of suggested means to channel your aspirational bodhicitta into direct action. In engaging these paramitas you are presented with the creative aspect of bodhicitta—how you bring your actions together with your intentions to awaken through service. Such actions are predicated on the experiential insight that your own liberation is inextricably linked to others, and are driven by the question: “How can I serve?”
intelligent heart bodhicitta bodhisattva
Illustration by Irene Rinaldi
As you begin to feel increasingly touched by your own longing to respond to others, service can gradually become the sole lens through which you focus your life, and you will begin to see opportunities to serve all around you. Responsiveness doesn’t have to be grand. You might ask if someone wants to “jump into” your lane during a busy time at the pool, or offer your seat to someone on the subway. People often feel stunned at the most simple gesture of care, and it can sustain them (and you) for the entire day. As you extend tenderness to others, you may also begin to recognize how it brings out tenderness in them. Life begins to look more like a mother gazing at her infant child with deep adoration. The child smiles back, which makes her heart even brighter, and the child responds with laughter. All of a sudden the world begins to look very different. You find that you no longer have to ask the question: “How can I bring dharma into my daily life?” Engaged bodhicitta is not about fixing the world. In fact, if we take a realistic look at the nature of life, we find that the world is not a resolvable place. I don’t mean to say that the world is broken, but that both the mind and the world are too lively and rambunctious for the likes of our ideals. And so we will never be able to bring the world to our notion of a static state of perfect equilibrium. This may challenge your ordinary sense of what it means to evolve. You may see evolution as things getting better in a linear way, but that’s not a realistic look at how things actually work. Yes, we may accomplish many extraordinary things in life: someone might invent a new vaccine or rocket off to the moon, or you might find an opportunity to help someone out of a sticky or dangerous situation—some real victories, in fact. But in the end we will all succumb to old age, sickness, and death, and the world itself will continue to express itself in ways that push against your preferences. This brings us to bodhicitta’s wisdom aspect.
Next week we look at: Absolute Bodhicitta
Absolute Bodhicitta
Absolute bodhicitta refers to the sixth paramita of wisdom, which specifically means seeing the nature of reality without mistake. This isn’t something philosophical or highfalutin; it has to do with being realistic about the ways of the world and who you are in it.
At the dawn of the Buddha’s awakening he said something curious and potent. He said: “This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that becomes not; from the cessation of this, that ceases.” A simpler way to frame this is to say that everything arises, presents itself, and falls away due to infinite causes and conditions. In the sutras the Buddha used the analogy of two bundles of reeds leaning up against each other to illustrate that if one were to knock over one bundle, the other would, as a result, fall to the ground. Everything “stands” by virtue of something else. In essence, everything leans. This being, that becomes—and because this falls, that falls.
The Buddha referred to phenomena’s mutual dependency as pratityasamutpada: “dependent arising,” “the nature of contingency,” or “dependent origination,” among other translations.
At first glance, dependent arising sounds simple and obvious, but it has deep implications. The Buddha is saying that what you call “experience” or “life” is generated by the activity of causes and conditions—infinite elements bumping up against, interrupting, and influencing each other. If you were to explore dependent arising in a nuanced way, as is done in the Mahayana tradition of analytical meditation, you would find that there is no singular thing that is whole and not made of parts. You would also find that because everything shares a relationship of mutual dependency, inertia is not possible. It is because everything leans that movement, perception, and creative expression can even happen.
For a moment, try to imagine the world: perhaps you envision the earth as seen from space or recall images from the morning news. But you would be hard pressed to find “the” world, because “it” is not a singular, permanent, or independent “thing.” We all perceive life differently depending on our mood, physical constitution, cultural background, and beliefs. There are as many worldviews as living beings, but who could possibly verify if any one of them is “true”? Yes, you have views—everyone does—but life will always continue to burst from the seams of your ideas.
To the degree that you assume things exist as you think they do, you will also walk through life with less and less sense of wonder. In contemporary culture, capturing truth is paramount; we don’t put a lot of value in wonder and awe. You might appreciate those moments when you look up at the stars and feel amazed by the mystery of what might lie in such a vast expanse. But you might also think that the mind of humility and openness have little practical purpose amid the gritty realities of daily life where you have to make serious decisions to work and survive.
The teachings on absolute bodhicitta, however, suggest otherwise. Awe and humility actually provide a critical function when it comes to our own and others’ wellbeing. When you deprive your mind of curiosity and openness, even your noblest endeavors become militaristic and righteous.
Because we misunderstand the open-dimensional nature of contingent relationships, we at times try to fix the world. You might sweep into a situation in order to put things in order with a strong conviction that you know what’s going on and how you will change it. Perhaps you think you’ve got all the players pegged and already know what motivates them. But when all of your ideas congregate around the truth of your own hypothesis, it won’t even occur to you that someone may have something else to offer or that there is something you yourself can learn.
The flip side of thinking you can fix things reveals something altogether different. In your failed attempt to change a situation, you might fall into despair. Suddenly, the world and all its problems overwhelm you. You only see things in a singular way and feel doomed. In forgetting that life is far from singular, you will miss the beauty of an autumn leaf falling from a tree, or fail to notice someone courageously risking her life to help another. You will forget about the laughter that comes from seeing the irony of things and of the resilience of others despite their challenges of being alive. Absolute bodhicitta reminds us that the world is many things—as many things as you can possibly imagine it to be. The practice of absolute bodhicitta is to bear witness to this infinite complexity, and to allow the beauty, poignancy, and pain of it all to touch you.
The practical nature of awe allows the mind to bear witness to the fathomless nature of contingency without shutting down around definitive conclusions. Such a mind is humble and curious, poised to recognize the nature of reality and protected from fundamentalism and doubt. You will recognize the practical nature of awe when despair becomes compassion; righteous indignation transforms into openness and humility; and the tendency to want to fix things turns into a natural, unhindered longing to respond.
Bodhicitta is the path of understanding who you are in the fathomless nature of infinite contingency, and then developing the skills to navigate this reality—your life—in a way that is awakening for both yourself and for others. If you understand that everything leans, you will also understand that everything you do matters. This is why the bodhisattva engages in a fierce commitment to serve others, by doing so emerging from the confusion of a separate, confined self.
So you might ask yourself, as a citizen of the great nature of infinite contingency, what might you do with your life? How can you utilize it in a meaningful way? How will you burn with love in this unfixable world?