Let no one deceive another or despise anyone anywhere, or through anger or resistance wish for another to suffer.

05 December 2010

Bodily acts

"Therefore, Rahula, you should train yourself: 'I will purify my bodily acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my verbal acts through repeated reflection. I will purify my mental acts through repeated reflection.' That is how you should train yourself."
MN 61
When I first went into a Buddhist meditation hall, I was struck by the presence of the Buddha image. It seemed larger than life and I had an immediate sense of panic. I noticed others bowing and felt uncomfortable and a little caught out by the ritualised nature of these actions. My precious personality was on show. I was full of half baked ideas and un-arisen fears. I realised I needed to work hard to overcome this ego-driven rigidity.

In Jack Kornfield's excellent book Living Buddhist Masters, Thai meditation master Ajahn Chah makes a very strong point about the reasons why bowing occurs in Buddhism. Bowing is a good remedy for conceit and pride. By bowing there is recognition of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. In mind this is a recognition of the qualities of purity, radiance and peace. The outer action trains the interior state. The mind and body are brought into harmony. The mind is rigid when resisting the simple gesture of bowing. Bowing is a sign of internal ease. Becoming harmonious means moving beyond exterior form. What Ajahn Chah means is we can seek through a simple gesture to get beyond selfishness, beyond opinion, beyond a sense of entitlement, of exemption from the nature of the world.

Language traps us into concepts of difference, of discrimination, such as size, importance, race, religion, pretty, ugly, black, white, north, south, east, west. These language concepts are created from craving, they arise in response to craving. Craving arises from ignorance. This is so all along the chain of dependent origination. The formula runs “from this comes that,” but in truth it means “from this comes this:” no distinction is involved.

Along the Noble Eightfold Path, the simple act of bowing connects the mind to Right Resolve (Samma sankappo):

"And what is right resolve? Being resolved on renunciation, on freedom from ill-will, on harmlessness: This is called right resolve."
To bow, in the Buddhist context, is therefore not to grovel before an idol or a god. It does not mean blind obedience to an ideology or a teaching. It means instead a willingness to examine the greed, ill-will and clouded thinking that has arisen, or remains un-arisen, in order to favour the arising of renunciation of what is harmful; filling the heart instead with kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, in place of animosity, pride, jealousy, infatuation, or worry; clearing the mind of ignorance, in expectation of the arising of equanimity and wisdom.

Top image link. Lower image link.

04 December 2010

Freed from crooked things-a revision

Tucked away in the Tipitaka, in the esoteric Khuddaka Nikaya, is an extraordinary collection of 264 short poems in 1,291 stanzas called the Theragatha. The many and varied voices of the monks who extemporised these free flowing verses over two thousand years ago are a revealing testament of the Buddha's mission in action. Selected over time to be included in the Tipitaka, no doubt for their emphasis on practice and persistence, and as a testimonial to the efficacy of the way of the Tathagata, the verses speak of a thriving and open intellectual environment, more or less free of hierarchical domination. It is hard to find anything similar anywhere else in the history of thought. It is true to say that there are no critical voices included among the verses (if there were any to begin with, which is a sceptical position with no basis), or nothing that could at least be called a critique of the philosophy underlying the practice and austerity the creators of the stanzas are undertaking. This does not make them propaganda. The authors many times reveal their own weaknesses and struggles. A party line would have them all saying bland things in formulaic ways about Dhamma and the Blessed One. They would all at least make great claims for their own abilities. This is far from the case. The modesty and self-effacement of such presumably senior monks is striking. This humility, expressed in such a variety of voices, combined with the relative strengths and weaknesses of their verse-making, and the many varied stages of both intellectual development and meditation prowess on display in the verses, is what makes them so compelling as historical figures.

(It is to my personal shame that when I wrote this article I was not aware of the companion verses of the woman of the early sangha, the bhikkhunis, to be found in the 73 poems - 522 stanzas in all - of the Therigatha. Here is further primary evidence, definable proof, of the revolutionary, transformational and egalitarian nature of the Buddha's Dhamma and its impact on dominant social structures:
"So freed! So freed! So thoroughly freed am I — from my pestle, my shameless husband & his sun-shade making, my mouldy old pot with its water-snake smell. Aversion & passion I cut with a chop. Having come to the foot of a tree, I meditate, absorbed in the bliss: 'What bliss!'"-Sumangala's Mother. (Thig 2).
Never before and hardly since, in religion or philosophy, even into the twentieth century, have the true and candid voices of women been heard, so freely expressed and without the restrictions or moderation of a manipulative patriarchal hierarchy. For a thorough exploration of these truly inspiring feminist voices, read Vijitha Rajapakse, The Therigatha: A Revaluation. Whatever small merit that may accumulate in revising this article to include the voices of the ancient elder women, can only be dedicated to all women, particularly those contemporary Bhikkhunis who continue to struggle to be heard and recognised as equal companions on the Noble Path.)

It is a cliché to say that the voice of history tends to be that of kings, priests, prophets and the powerful. To balance this, historians always look for the voices of the real, the asides made in the wings of the great play of events, as a way into the minds, not of the great, but of the everyday person. These candid, informal voices are rare, hence their immense value. In this context the verses of the Theragatha and the Therigatha are invaluable insights into actual Buddhist praxis in the lifetime of the Tathagata in all its gritty reality.

The verses are, more often than not, witness statements to the daily grind of going forth with dhamma. It is if each contributor has been tapped on the shoulder by an interviewer and asked to give a quick appraisal of how they are getting along, how they are finding things so far, what they do to keep themselves going, what advice they follow, or what advice they might have for others. The verses, viewed this way, are less like poetry and more like the often-found poetics, so to speak, of statements taken verbatim from the field.

“Outside of this path,
the path of the many who teach other things doesn't go to Unbinding as does this:
Thus the Blessed One instructs the Community,
truly showing the palms of his hands.”
- Nagita (Thag. 1.86).

The often cheerful, sometimes slightly clumsy spontaneity of the verse is perhaps the most enduring, charming, singular aspect of the Theragatha and Therigatha. This can often produce imagery and sentiments of concise beauty and precision.

“The earth is sprinkled with rain,
wind is blowing,
lightning wanders the sky,
but my thoughts are stilled,
well-centered is my mind.”
- Vimala (Thag. 1.50).
“Even with all the whistles & whistling,
the calls of the birds,
my mind doesn't waver,
for my delight is in oneness.”
- Ramaneyakka (Thag. 1.49).

The casual, informal quality of many of the stanzas does not make them any the less powerful as verse, or any less persuasive as evidence of the personality of the Bhikkhu or Bhikkuni, glimpsed between the lines, struggling with his or her task.

“Going forth is hard;
houses are hard places to live;
the Dhamma is deep;
wealth, hard to obtain;
it's hard to keep going with whatever we get:
so it's right that we ponder continually
continual inconstancy.”
- Jenta (Thag. 1.111).

“So freed!
So freed!
So thoroughly freed am I from three crooked things:
my sickles,
my shovels,
my ploughs.
Even if they were here,
right here,
I'd be done with them,
done with them.
Do jhana, Sumangala.
Do jhana, Sumangala.
Sumangala, stay heedful.”
- Sumangala (Thag. 1.43).

It is difficult to establish exactly how these verses came to be compiled, for what precise reason, and over what period of time they were drawn together. That they were mainly gathered together in the time of the Buddha is beyond dispute. Rahula, the Buddha's son, contributes two verses. Contributing Bhikkhus, such as Vangisa, the nominal poet-laureate of the early Sangha, appear in separate suttas and feature in post-canonical works. If the dates of the other suttas are in dispute then the whole chronology of the canon falls apart.

As to the purpose and role of these verses, it must be seen that poetic expression, although not stated explicitly, was considered part of Right Speech.
"Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?
"It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will."
The Buddha himself breaks into spontaneous verse on numerous occasions. For the nature and purpose of Buddhist poetics to be better understood, it is worthwhile looking particularly in the Udana sutta. In case there is doubt about the voice heard in the suttas, whether it is really the Buddha speaking, or some later summation of his message, at least it can be said that there is in the design of the suttas, a form which gives the discourse, first as expansionary prose and then summed up in verse. This indicates that poetic imagery made up a significant part of the aesthetic sensibility, the common cultural expression, of all classes, known to householders and Brahmans, regardless of status. Buddhism may be many things, but it is never elitist. Indeed, egalitarian equality, a common touch, a readily understandable teaching, are at the heart of its ethos. Therefore, this versification can't be seen as some form of literary convention, applied to the suttas when they were written down, as some way of summarising the meaning within the text as it began to appear on the palm leaf pages, but instead it must be affirmed that spontaneous, spoken verse arose at the time of the creation of the discourses, as both a means of emphasising the point of the sutta and as a method of mnemonic reinforcement.

It is not the case that this verse form was a Buddhist invention. The courts and assemblies of various princes and kings, even rich merchants, no doubt found a home for poets. This sensibility spilled out into all levels of society. But in particular, verse making was a popular activity for the young and well-heeled, many of whom became attracted to the Buddha's message, as Vangisa himself reveals:
"Intoxicated with skill in the poetic art, formerly we wandered from village to village, from town to town. Then we saw the Awakened One and faith arose in us." - Va"ngiisa (1&2).
The epic and colloquial poetic tradition in India is a rich one. Knowledge of the Buddhist contribution to this form of expression is limited within the academic world, and sadly among Indians generally, due to the dominance of the Vedic/Hindu tradition following the diffusion and the sometimes violent dissolution of Buddhism within India from the 7th and 8th centuries of the common era onwards. The texts themselves persist, however, and the small voices of the monks of the early Sangha can still be heard, and may still inspire.

"Knowing what comes first and last, Knowing well the meaning, too, Skilful in grammar and in other items, The well-grasped meaning is examined.  
Keen in patient application, strive to weigh the meaning well. At the right time make the effort, And inwardly collect the mind." - Ananda (1028-1029), Thag. 17.3.

Top image: Studying suttas, Inle Lake, Burma. Lower image: Alms round, Laos.