A piece of an ongoing dharma discussion with one of my closest friends...
It's meaning is sharpened because I just got word a moment ago that my
mother passed away after 10 days in hospice, after having stroked out.
After the stroke, she had one final window of pure lucidity - when I got to
share the dharma (teaching) of Shin Buddhism with her. With no background,
she heard again the story of Jessie's death, and transformation into
Buddhahood because of Amida's Vow - and she too took refuge - one
thought-moment of deep hearing (MONPO) leading her to true entrusting
(SHINJIN) in the Primal Vow of Amida Buddha.
So she's let go of the old jalopy of a body she had - and is even now
awakening in the Pure Land of Amida - a Buddha at last after endless
lifetimes of ignorance and suffering, just like us all.
With great gratitude - and great expectation of seeing her, and Jessie, at
the end of this life - I too take refuge in Amida Buddha and his Primal
Happy New Year, my friend.
Friend: Interesting questions this fellow asks. Voicing some of my own
(which is probably why you sent it to me in the first place.) I too recoil
a bit at a host of new "magical" characters, exotic words and vows; it makes
it difficult to understand, to make your own, to "Grok".
It is difficult - very difficult - to understand the CONTENT of any teacher
or teaching when we don't understand the CONTEXT.
Unfortunately, that job too often gets relegated to the scholars - or
perhaps I should say the scholastics - who all too often regard both content
and context very dispassionately through the cool lens of post-modern
To really have a discussion about Buddha and his teaching, it really helps
to begin with a leisurely stroll through Auschwitz, or a replaying of the
Twin Towers burning and people jumping off the top of the buildings, or an
experience over a week or so of watching CNN as the greatest natural
disaster in history unfolds before our eyes - and the bodies pile up and
begin to stink - hearing a woman tell the world about her terrible "Sophie's
Choice" experience of having to choose which of her two children to
surrender to the waves so that she and the other might live.
I remember distinctly an article in the NY Times after 9/11. It was about a
shift in consciousness in the New York art community. These people are some
of the coolest and most sophisticated on the planet - very much the kind of
post-modernist deconstructionists who dominate large chunks of academia.
So the content of the article was this: they've always despised the
"illustrator" Norman Rockwell - considering his flawlessly executed body of
work just sappy commercialism. But in the aftermath of 9/11, when these
very sophisticated people were breathing the dust of human remains, and
concrete, and asbestos all rolled into sickly miasma - when they had been
stunned and overwhelmed by the outworking of religious fanaticism - Osama
Bin Laden's most excellently executed plan of destruction that brought to
life the archetypal picture of the burning towers you can see on any Tarot
Card deck - all the sophisticated veneer simply crumbled.
They trembled in their beds, just like everyone else. In particular, the
article reported, they trembled as they tucked their precious children in to
sleep - children who were also breathing the dust of suffering, of hatred,
of despair - whether they were old enough to know it - or not.
And so, the article went on to say - these folks were re-evaluating Norman
Rockwell - looking with deep yearning at his work - which depicted such
subjects as the desire for simple peace - for the basic freedoms we have
known - for the connectedness of a shared Thanksgiving.
They decided he was an artist, after all.
It is the overwhelming experience of suffering, Tom, which provides the
negative epiphany necessary to begin to approach the mindset of the Buddha,
across space and time. Of course, we all know ABOUT suffering - but such
knowing is not enough to fuel us to the place where we begin to truly
grapple with all this as Buddha did.
And because we are a western people, it does take a good deal of grappling
to get over the hump of a different time and place, a different mindset and
culture, and begin to hear the teaching of Buddha on his terms, and not
ours. Even after we have consciously committed ourself to such a course, it
is still difficult to make sense of concepts that have very hardened
meanings in our own western minds.
Take, for example, a fundamental idea that comes up once we encounter
suffering deeply - an idea that deeply informs the teaching of both the
Buddha, and of Shinran - the idea of EVIL.
In the west, our understanding of EVIL proceeds out of our Judeo-Christian
heritage, our moral/legal codes from the Greeks and Romans, etc. We all
more or less get it.
But for the fully awakened being we call the Buddha, moral evil is something
that is derivative rather than primary. The very heart of evil is
ONTOLOGICAL rather than MORAL. It is the evil of our fundamental state of
being - of being endarkened rather than enlightened.
This is not a model of original sin, such as the early Christian teachers,
led by the Apostle Paul, proposed. it is not a model based on disobedience
of the primal command of a God figure - which banishes the primal parents
and all their progeny from a garden of union with their creator God.
No - Buddha never created nor described the "backstory" of our EVIL in those
terms - but simply said that we were endarkened rather than enlightened -
and our endarkenment expressed inself in persistent EGOTISM - the EGOTISM of
endless attachment - of endless CRAVING for this - and endless AVERSION for
Our egotism - our cravings and averssions - are not moral evil in
themselves. But they leave us utterly exposed, and entirely vulnerable, to
terrible suffering over and over again. This suffering arises when life
doesn't align with our endless CRAVINGS and AVERSIONS. It is when we don't
get what we crave - or when we get what we are averse to - that our
ontological endarkenment becomes terrible suffering - whether inflicted upon
ourselves - or others.
After seven years of the most intense pursuit, this the Buddha connected the
dots between our suffering - and the ontological evil that is our common lot
as non-buddhas - or non-enlightened beings.
And he spoke as someone who had completed his endless journey and left his
cravings and aversions behind entirely. He still has a self-structure, or
an ego in modern psychological parlance. He knew who he was, and who his
family was. But he no longer had any egotism. His suffering had vanished,
he could see clearly at last - he was living in a state of compassion and
wisdom - a gentle and serene coolness that is called nirvana (nibbana in
Pali) - which simple means "cessation".
Suffering, for this being, had ceased entirely. He had come to the end of
his endless search - and was no longer entrapped in the matrix of egotism
that we are all still entangled in.
And not only was his suffering done - but his ignorance as well.
One of the defining features of endarkenment is that we are entangled in a
MATRIX of perceptions - just like the movie of the same name - a MATRIX of
delusions and obscurations. We don't even know what we don't even know. It
is difficult to have even one moment of pristine clarity - of spacious
Even those people, Buddhist or otherwise, who cultivate such spacious
awareness, using various mind traning techniques of one sort or another, do
not have the ability to maintain this outside of the matrix "view".
Egotism for them is no more destroyed than it is for any of us "average"
There is an unending, and very tragic, parade of stories, from within
Buddhism and without, of gurus and teachers who are revered as more or less
awakened beings, and yet succumb to the same mundane egotism that plagues us
all - often causing a psychic tsunami for their spiritual community.
Indeed, their plight is often WORSE than ours, because their whole life
depends on perpetuating the lie that somehow they have conquered our common
egotism - when in fact they have not - and they CANNOT - no matter how many
days, weeks, months and years they spend in meditation, chanting , or
various other practices.
And that is not to say that all teachers and gurus are morally corrupt or
compromised. But whether they are MORALLY compromised, they are, each and
every one, ONTOLOGICALLY compromised - strapped, just as we all are, to the
wheel of endless rebirths, and unable, by their own efforts, to bootstrap
themselves into buddhahood - enlightenment - the extinguishing of egotism -
cessation of suffering.
This, my friend, is our common problem...our ontological EVIL. This is the
CONTEXT of Buddha's understanding which creates the CONTENT that got
revealed in Buddha's final teaching - a teaching for us who live in an age
where bootstrapping ourselves into Buddhahood is simply not possible - even
though it was possible when he walked the earth.
FRIEND: Yet there seems to be some essential truth here, some explanation
for the random suffering. The mechanisms of birth/death cycles, the
assurance that Buddhahood awaits; why?
There IS assurance that Buddhahood awaits.
As to the big WHY question, I can't answer it adequately. Buddha DID answer
it, but even as he did, he warned that as non-Buddhas we simply weren't
going to be able to grasp the answers he gave.
WHY did my own beloved Jessie suffer so terribly, and die so horribly?
Why the holocaust? Why the Towers? Why the tsunami?
After the Buddha had pierced the veil of endarkenment, and woken up
entirely, he reported that he was able to see into his past lives - in the
same kind of linear way that you could look at an old home movie. He saw
his progress, and his regress. He saw himself in a life in which he had
murdered someone. He was able to see the rise and fall of his own karmic
"bank account" - the acquisition of merit, and the dissolution of merit.
And he saw himself strapped to the terrible wheel of endless rebirths in
ignorance that continued up until this last life, when he left endarkenment
behind once and for all - and embarked upon the life of full
self-actualization, full buddhahood - that was waiting as potential always.
Even as he explained the dharma of karma and rebirth, he warned people that
it was impossible for a non-buddha to look at someone's suffering and come
to any firm understanding of WHY such a life narrative was so unfolding. He
warned that the attempt, by a non-buddha, to figure such things out, would
lead to madness.
I found his warning very useful in the time of my own deep grief. It would
have been impossible for me to parse the WHY question adequately, when
considering why Jessie had suffered so - and why I was suffering so - and
her sister was suffering so - after her death.
Like a person flung out to sea in the tsunami, clinging to a piece of wood
in the water, I clung, during that terrible time, to the assurance that
And more specifically, that for me, as a person of true entrusting - of
SHINJIN - that Buddhahood would await at the end of THIS life - my LAST life
as a non-Buddha.
Friend: Do squirrels experience this as well? Dolphins? As populations
increase, is there a "soul factory" somewhere, manufacturing these durable
spiritual identities that forget their fleshy memories, yet store the
progression (or regression) in some cosmic account? What happens when
populations decline? Do the souls awaiting the next life go into a Buddhic
In the Larger Pure Land Sutra - also known as the Larger Sutra of Amida
Buddha (because there is a second, smaller Sutra of Amida and the Pure Land
as well) - Buddha explains to many of his disciples something of the
vastness of the cosmos that we simply cannot see, even with our Hubble
There are, according to the Buddha, literally BILLIONS of worlds with
sentient life of some sort or another - each overseen by their own Buddha
figure. In other teachings, Buddha described the sentient universe in terms
of "Six Realms" in which beings took endless rebirths - three more
favorable, and three less so. In other teaching, Buddha talked about how we
continually cycle through endless rebirths into consciousness realms of
"form", "no-form", and "formlessness".
I can guess what all this means, and of course there has been endless
commentary by scholastics through the years. But the bottom line is that
the subject, once again, is too vast for a non-buddha to comprehend fully.
Only true buddhic vision is capable of piercing the veil of unknowing that
your questions point to Tom.
But there are enough clues in Buddha's teaching for me to have at least a
tentative answer to the questions you ask about squirrels and dolphins - and
also about some of the great gurus and teachers who have some kind of grasp
in the realm of being able to slip easily enough from the realm of form to
the realms of formlessness or no-form, more or less at will.
But even with that - my own personal experience of moments of consciousness
shifting - or adepthood - and my reading about REAL adepts - The best I can
do, ultimately, in all of this, is to embrace Socrates' essential position
when he said, with both boldness and great humility, "I know that I don't
At the same time, when we begin to grapple with the enormity of these
question, it stirs up in us the sleeping desire that stirred in Prince
Gotama as well: to end our lifetimes of ignorance and endarkenment once and
But many of us simply give up - once confronted with the enormity of that
task - and our lack of capacity to truly be such heroic piercers of the
We are - my good friend - only ordinary human beings after all.
Friend: And always the question: Why?
Yes. I'm reminded of the WHY? question, as phrased by the British poet W.H.
Auden, in "Law Like Love":
Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.
Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a trebly tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.
Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.
Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as Ive told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.
Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is Good morning and Good night.
Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.
And always the laud and angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.
If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
Of I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserable
That the Law is
And that all know this,
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,
No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition
Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To starting timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.
Like love we dont know where or why,
Like love we cant compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.
Like law...like love...like suffering, my friend.
In our common endarkenment, we simply don't know where...or why.
Such contemplation as we are doing here together is a beginning...a good
It opens a difficult door - a door most of us would simply rather shut.
And yet it opens - and will not stay shut no matter how we try...even as it
would not stay shut for that young prince 2500 years ago, living in his own
version of a gilded cage - like the movie character Truman in the Truman
My own belief is this: at some point, in some lifetime, each being begins
to yearn - sometimes in a very inchoate, inarticulate way. At the point of
yearning, the being becomes interested in a life stance of H.O.W. - honesty,
It's time to drop the personas, drop the bullshit, drop the attachment to
who we are, what we've done, what we know, how far we've come along on
whatever path we've taken. It's time to simply stand there, with open mind,
open heart, and open hands - willing, and even eager, to listen with all our
Archimedes said: give me a leverage point, and I can move the world.
This existential stance of H.O.W. is such a leverage point: it opens the
mind and the heart to listen deeply, with the depth of one's entire being,
to both the diagnosis of our essential problem, and the opportunity to solve
it once and for all.
That was the Buddha's singular purpose in setting out on his own journey in
his last life - to find out, once and for all, what we needed to know about
SUFFERING, and the END of suffering at last.
That existential stance of H.O.W. is what prepares us for what Shinran
called MONPO - deep hearing of the dharma. Not the kind of study done by
the scholastic - but the hearing of one who is being awakened by
heartbreak - the heartbreak which is our common lot in this particular world
we have been born into.
That's where the "grokking" starts, to borrow Heinlein's term from "Stranger
in a Strange Land".
And yes (grin) you are showing your age when you borrow it.
My best to you, and thanks for being my friend for all these years...