Friday, November 30, 2007

Alaya

Recently, I started taking an active interest in Lojong practice, an Indo-Tibetan Mahayana mind training practice that focuses on 59 brief, pithy slogans, which are to be contemplated on a daily basis, as a means of training the mind toward both relative and absolute bodhichitta, that open, spacious frame of mind that enables us to take care of everyone and everything, and abandon no one and nothing. This is the practice that the Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche trained Pema Chodron in, and is the foundation of her wonderfully luminous teachings, that encourage us to bring Dharma practice into every aspect of our daily lives, and to look upon the "stuff" of life--both joy and terror of good and bad (as Shakespeare once put it) as the raw material for our practice--cultivating, that is, an attitude that looks upon daily life itself as our Teacher.

The website (linked above) has a function that allows one to randomly select one of the 59 Lojong slogans, along with commentary from a range of different teachers, to have sent to our Email in-box every day. I have found these slogans, and the associated commentary (especially Pema's, but also others') very useful to my practice.

The slogan I got today is rendered (by Trungpa and Pema) as follows: "Rest in the nature of alaya, the essence." The instructions interpret this to mean what Zen practitioners call "calm abiding"--that is, letting go of all discursive stuff, all the conceptual detritus that normally floats around in our brain, and simply, but lucidly, abiding in the immediacy of That that is.

Other teachers suggest that this is best done for brief intervals, since if we try to do it for longer periods of time, we can slip into mental torpor--abiding, not just in No Thought, but rather drifting into what Thomas Pynchon calls the "Thanatoid" state, like a listless couch potato sitting in front of the television. There's a subtle difference: the Alaya state is quiescent, but alert, in equipoise, noticing everything, without attachment to anything. The Thanatoid state is simply oblivious and dull.

But I love that word: ALAYA. This was the first time I had ever encountered it; it is one of those beautiful, magical words that is a mantra in itself, that is what it says. Just saying the word, rather like the seed syllable "Om," helps to induce the open, free, and blissfully empty mental state to which it refers.

I find it interesting--and it may be just a coincidence--that this Sanskrit (or Pali--I'm not sure which) word has so much in common with the various Sacred Names for God within the Levant --i.e "Alaha" (Aramaic); "Allah" (Arabic), and "Jah" (Hebrew, originally pronounced "YA-hu" but later adopted by the Rastafaris as "Jah" (with a hard "j") . Somehow, the word "Alaya" combines all of the above, referring to what Christians call the "Peace of God which passeth all understanding." It is also, of course, the mental state to which Lao Tzu alludes in his beautiful meditation instruction of Verse 16, rendered by Gia Fu Feng as follows:

"Empty yourself of everything.
Let the mind rest in peace.
The Ten Thousand Things rise and fall
While the Self watches their return.
They grow and flourish, and then return to the Source.
Returning to the Source is the Way of Nature
The Way of Nature does not change..."

One could continue this beautiful translation, incorporating the word "Alaya" for "the unchanging way of Nature" or what Gia Fu Feng (unsatisfactorily, in my view) renders as "Constancy." This would be as follows:

"Knowing Alaya is insight.
Not knowing Alaya leads to disaster.
Knowing Alaya, the mind makes room for everything.
With an open mind, your heart will make room for everyone and everything.
With an open heart, you will act graciously.
Acting graciously, you will attain a state of grace.
Being in a state of grace, you are at one with Tao [that is, with Alaya]
And though the body passes, Tao will never pass away.

Whatever the tradition--Sanskrit, Semitic, Christian, or Chinese--it's all the same stuff.

So Jah Seh!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sangha--A Community without Boundaries

“We practice for others.”—Anh Huong

Sangha is the sanskrit word for community of practice; it is the third of the Three Jewels of Buddhist tradition (along with Buddha and Dharma ). According to this tradition, a Dharma practitioner is advised not to go it alone, but to practice within a community, preferably under the guidance of a teacher, in order to sustain his or her resolve and to avoid the pitfalls and distractions along the path toward enlightenment. Accordingly, the first Sanghas were monastic institutions, in which practitioners took vows of poverty and chastity, meditated, chanted together, and lived by begging food in exchange for teaching the Dharma.

But as Buddhism evolved, and ramified into the various branches (Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana), and then finally as it has migrated to the west in recent years from its roots in Asiatic cultural traditions, so the concept of Sangha has evolved and ramified as well, so that today, we have Sanghas of every size, shape, and variety—some monastic, some lay, some a combination of the two; some living together in their own communities, largely isolated from the outer world; others meeting weekly or bimonthly in cities and towns, or on college campuses. The rules or guidelines governing these diverse Sanghas are likewise various—ranging from the strict and austere discipline of Zen or Tibetan monasteries to laid back, anything-goes “California-style” Sanghas or “mindfulness communities” springing up all over Europe and North America today.

But Sangha, since the time of the Buddha, has had a deeper meaning as well—a meaning, rooted in a clear understanding of the Dharma, that sharply differentiates the Sangha from any other form of human organization, religious or otherwise. A Sangha is a community without boundaries.

The three Dharma Seals—the litmus test, according to the Buddha, for authentic Dharma teachings—are Impermanence, Interbeing, and Nirvana. While the first is obvious to any honest observer—that everything changes and nothing lasts forever, the second Dharma Seal is more difficult to grasp, and the third is the hardest of all to understand, much less actualize. But this unique character of the Sangha, a community without boundaries, springs logically and directly from an understanding of the Second and Third Dharma Seal.

Interbeing—a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh as a substitute for the more difficult-to-grasp concept of nonself or anatman—refers to the concept of Codependent Origination (prattita samutpada)—summed up by the phrase “This is because that is” (and vice versa). That is, nothing in the universe of our perceptions could exist without everything else. A tree, for example, is brought into being by its interaction in space with air, water, topsoil, sunshine, and other trees, animals, plants, and bacteria, and by its dependence in time upon the seed produced by its parent tree. And so on, throughout all space and time. Nothing can exist independently from everything else.

Nirvana is frequently misunderstood as a place, like heaven, blissfully free of suffering, to which the enlightened soul sojourns after death. But Nirvana in fact means “extinction;” that is, extinction of the illusions by which we differentiate this from that. The Buddha did not “go to” Nirvana when he died; he was already there. Because “there” (Nirvana) and “here”(Samsara) are actually two different views—one accurate, the other illusory, of the same Reality—the only Reality there is. If the sentence “This is because that is” epitomizes the second Dharma Seal, the third—Nirvana—is epitomized by the familiar refrain from the Upanishads: “That art thou” (Tat tvam asi). In other words, to the awakened consciousness, there is no difference between subject and object; between knower and known; between you and everybody and everything else.

From these second two Dharma Seals, then, springs the unique character of the Sangha as a community without boundaries. Like a Moebius strip, the boundaries of a Sangha include what is inside and outside simultaneously. If your Buddhist friend Jane is in your Sangha, so is your Catholic friend Jerome. And your Jewish friend Daniel. And your Arabic friend Amir. And your cat or dog, your difficult mother-in-law, the truck driver who bears down on you from behind in your morning commute, the birds flying overhead, your boss, your students, your clients, the homeless man crouched against the wall, Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Michael Jordan, and the complete strangers you encounter every day. The operating rule for a Sangha is succinctly summaried by Lao Tzu: “Take care of everyone and abandon no one. Take care of everything and abandon nothing."

This understanding of Sangha as a community without boundaries is implicit in the recorded activities of all the great Dharma teachers. The Buddha and his original Sangha did not practice entirely in isolation; they traveled from one community to the next, teaching the Dharma to anyone who would listen in return for food, using skillful means to mediate in political conflicts, taking care of the poor and needy, inducting anyone of any caste from Brahman to Untouchable who desired to join into their order, and allowing women as well as men to practice. Similarly, Jesus and his disciples traveled the countryside healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and not discriminating between the wealthy tax collectors and the desperately poor, nor between Jews and Gentiles, in their ministry—in short, taking care of everyone and abandoning no one. Ditto for other great Dharma teachers of the various traditions—Guru Nanak, St. Francis, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to name a few.

A Sangha, properly understood, is thus the polar opposite of a cult. A cult strives to maintain its identity by exclusion and recruitment only. They draw a clear ideological boundary between Us and Them—between the Saved and the Damned, the Chosen and the Gentiles, the Believers and the Infidels, Christian and Pagan, Catholic and Protestant, God’s People and the Enemies of God. Even Buddhist or quasi-Buddhist fringe groups occasionally manifest this cultic ideology of Us vs. Them, sometimes with horrific consequences (e.g. the Japanese cult that released poison gas in the Tokyo subways considered themselves “Buddhists.”)

The politics of a true sangha must therefore reflect this unique, Dharma-based characteristic of a community without boundaries. While strong and inspired leadership, ritual, strict discipline, and isolation can be useful to practitioners in making rapid progress in meditation, it can diverge all too easily into a kind of authoritarianism, which can trigger the downward slide of a sangha toward dogmatism, cultic self-isolation, hostility toward other sects, indifference to the outside world, and Guru-worship. Conversely, if there is no authority or leadership, and the principles of organization and rules of conduct governing a sangha are too laid back, people soon lose interest, and it degenerates into a casual social gathering, lacking any serious commitment to Dharma practice, and subject to endless bickering over group process and goals.
In this matter, as in all others, the middle way is best. Regardless of its structure, lineage, or source of authority, a healthy sangha should ideally have the following characteristics:

--COMMITMENT to authentic Dharma Practice, based on the core teachings—the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Three Dharma Seals—and the ongoing pursuit and practice of both wisdom and compassion, toward each other and toward everybody else.

--OPENNESS to the insights from diverse points of view and practices, and openness also to anyone who wishes to participate.

--STRUCTURE: an agreed-upon protocol for periodic meetings. Ideally, the protocol should be simple and clear enough to be easily remembered, and—of course—acceptable to all in attendance. For example, one such structure, currently practiced by the Sangha with whom I practice biweekly, generally consists of (1) viewing a Dharma Talk or Dharma Discussion on DVD, followed by a brief discussion; (2) sitting meditation (30-40 minutes); (3) walking meditation in our leader's beautiful garden; and (3) open Dharma discussion (based on our experience of meditation) and/or Recitation of a Sutra. This minimal structure is sufficient to keep the Sangha intact, yet allow for people from a diversity of backgrounds and levels of exposure to Buddhism to participate.

--ATTITUDE: a Sangha should make a consistent effort, from its outset, to practice what it preaches. This means, above all, cultivating what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “deep listening and loving speech.” This means listening carefully and openly to everything people say, whether you agree or not, before answering them or contradicting them, and keeping a mindful watch on your own intentions and language, to make sure that nothing you say will offend anyone to whom you are speaking. For this reason, it may be best to postpone Dharma discussions until after meditation sessions, so that practitioners can directly experience, enjoy, and implement the fruits of meditation in respectful and compassionate dialogue. Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Fourteen Precepts of Interbeing” can be a useful tool in developing the repertoire of attitudes that can strengthen a Sangha.

--ENGAGEMENT: Finally, as a Sangha evolves and coheres, they should make efforts to make the “boundaryless” character of a true Sangha real, by extending the fruits of practice outward toward the larger Sangha—the community and the planet—in a specific and concrete way, whether (1) organizing days of mindfulness or other meditation retreats for the community; (2) volunteering for social service agencies to serve the poor and needy; (3) political or environmental activism; (4) teaching meditation classes at local prisons, retirement homes, or mental hospitals; (5) respectful dialogue and collaboration with other sanghas, churches, synagogues; and (6) educational outreach to schools, colleges, and universities—etc.

As one of my teachers (and Thich Nhat Hanh’s student) Anh Huong has said on numerous occasions, “We practice for others.” This, to me, is the essence of a clear understanding of Sangha.

On the Edge

Yesterday I read an unnerving piece on Truthout by Tom Englehart here that chronicles the severe droughts now afflicting multiple parts of the world, particularly Atlanta, Southern California, Mexico, Turkey, Greece, and Australia. All of these droughts are breaking historical records, and all are a long-predicted consequence of climate change. Englehart poses a very hard question, particularly with regard to Atlanta, which, unless it rains a lot, is due to run completely out of water in 80 to 120 days. The question, which nobody else wants to ask, is "What then?"

What indeed will happen if the faucets and toilets of Atlanta, a sprawling metropolitan area of more than 5 million, simply stop running? Englehart describes it as "Katrina without the storm"--a vast, unprecedented flood of desperate, thirsty refugees headed north to wherever there is water--the affluent in their SUVs, the poor...however they can. This could get ugly fast.

This article left me, yet again, with the sinking feeling that we are on the edge of a global apocalypse, a worldwide dieoff and breakdown of civilization that could happen far faster than anyone imagines. Without oil, we cannot drive; without electricity, we cannot light or heat our homes--but without water, we die--within 2-3 days! What if this vast, sprawling suburbia in and around Atlanta were to become a vast dying and killing field, with dessicated corpses everywhere and roaming, predatory gangs ready to kill for a glass of water; ready, even, to suck blood? The mind reels.

The Bush regime, of course, would seize upon its long-awaited opportunity to impose martial law and absolute tyranny--with Blackwater goons wandering the streets with impunity, shooting people on sight (especially poor, Hispanic, and Black people) to protect the beseiged fortress-communities of the super-rich, with their privatized water supplies. The flood of northward refugees would overwhelm the economies of surrounding areas, quickly spawning vigilante law among the trigger-happy southerners.

I could continue in this dark vein, imagining the horrors awaiting us as we run out of water, as oil prices skyrocket, as social order disintegrates, and as democracy yields to tyranny and repression, as we are left with a few shrinking islands of fiercely defended wealth in a growing sea of violence, destitution, and death. It all may happen, sooner and faster than anyone imagines, especially if Atlanta and other overpopulated, over-sprawled cities start running dry.

This is where my practice comes in, yet again. When these dark moods afflict me, I turn first to the Five Remembrances:

  1. I (and Gaia) am of the nature to get sick; there is no way to avoid getting sick;
  2. I (and Gaia) am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to avoid growing old;
  3. I (and Gaia) am of the nature to die; there is no way to avoid dying.
  4. I (and Gaia) am of the nature to lose everything I cherish; there is no way to avoid total loss.
  5. My actions are my only true possessions; they alone shall live on, beyond the death of my body (and Gaia).

These Remembrances, practiced sincerely and mindfully, can free me from all fear. The future may be full of horrors, but the present is all there is, and I therefore take joy in the beauty and wonders of the present moment--the classical music on the radio, my lovely wife in her Bob Dylan Tee Shirt, knowing full well that all this--in fact everything--is impermanent--and that the horrors of the future may not be avoidable, but can be mitigated, to the exact extent that I stay present, taking care of everyone and everything, and abandoning no one and nothing. Gaia will recover and live on--and the Universe will go on with its unfolding--whether or not America, or the Industrial world, or my own body, or even humanity and all the rest of the current, vertebrate biota in this incarnation of Gaia, all perish...

Saturday, November 17, 2007

My Practice

Over my years of Buddhist meditation practice, I have evolved the following (often changing) protocol, or practice regimen, which I would like to share.

In the early morning, I go up into our narrow unheated attic, which does triple duty as a guest bedroom, art studio for my wife (who is a serious painter with both acrylics and watercolor) and Buddhist meditation room, complete with a beautiful mahogany Buddha from Indonesia that we bought at Pike Place Market in Seattle, with a serene classical face and his hands in the Teaching Mudra.

There I kneel (since my aging hips have never tolerated anything cross-legged or faintly resembling a Lotus pose) on a little green three-legged stool I bought for this purpose, and, facing the Buddha and the rising sun through the south-facing window behind it, I first bow three times to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha--the Three Jewels in Buddhist tradition. Then I usually take up my Native American Thunderbird rattle (which I received as a gift some years ago) which has the Sacred Circle (Solar Cross, symbolic of the Four Directions) painted in the traditional colors--red, white, yellow, and blue--on the bird's rawhide chest. I circle the rattle in a solar cross fashion, once clockwise, once counterclockwise, circle first, and then cross. This is just one example of a private ritual for creating a sacred space.

Then I'll normally pick up a book of Dharma readings--either Thich Nhat Hanh, or my favorite anthology, Earth Prayers, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, which I have come to think of as a kind of Gaian Book of Common Prayer. I will select a reading--either a Dharma Talk or a poem from this anthology, and read it, either quietly or aloud, to set the reflective mood. This practice helps to get my mind off of the day's distractions, and tune into my Oneness with Gaia.

Then I ring the meditation bell on a stool in front of me, and go into formal meditation, drawing my mala (a loop of 108 wooden beads) through my thumb and finger with each breath. (If I am in a rush, I do one bead with each in breath and another with the outbreath; otherwise, I'll do a whole breath with each bead). This helps to keep me from slipping into distraction. The Mala is simply a mechanical device for keeping myself focused on my breath.

Since distractions inevitably arise anyway, I often resort, during formal meditation, to various Mantras. I think of a mantra as a bone I'm throwing to my monkey mind, to keep it busy, and keep it from distracting my focus on my breath. My core mantra, which I most often revisit, is ten verb phrases:

Breathe, Observe, Let Go;
Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch;
Learn (Gaia); Teach (Gaia); Heal (Gaia) Create (Gaia).

This mantra, which I made up, happily stealing the second line from Garrison Keillor, I have found to be very powerful and useful to keep available, whether in formal meditation or simply going through the day.

The first line, "Breathe, Observe, Let Go" is derived from the Buddha's final, and all-encompassing guided meditation in his Sutra on Breathing: "Breathing in, I observe letting go; Breathing out, I observe letting go." I feel that this mantra lies at the core of all meditation practice, for it immediately brings us back to the present moment, which is all there is. The rest is commentary.

The second line, from Garrison Keillor's daily signoff on his morning radio program Writer's Almanac, is the best generic daily agenda I know of.

Be well.

In his “five remembrances,” the Buddha taught his disciples to make friends with impermanence by acknowledging their own:

1. I am of the nature to get sick. There is no way I can avoid getting sick.
2. I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way I can avoid growing old.
3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way I can avoid death.
4. All that I cherish, I will lose. There is no way I can avoid losing everything I cherish.
5. My actions are my only possessions. There is no way I can escape the consequences of my actions.

Ironically, the Buddha knew that only by acknowledging our impermanence—our inevitable subjection to sickness, old age, and death—could we truly “be well” in body, mind and spirit. He saw, that is, that “being well” is rooted in mindfulness, in compassionate attentiveness to the present moment, which will inevitably lead us to eat and drink wisely and moderately, to take good care of our bodies, to avoid intoxicants and excess, and thus to live longer, happier lives before our inevitable sickness, old age, and death.

One can “be well” not only in body, however, but in mind and spirit as well. Even if our bodies are racked by disease, (as they all are, sooner or later), we can “be well” in our minds if we continue to breathe, observe, and let go—and we can “be well” in spirit if we can say “Thy will be done” and mean it; that is, in Buddhist terms, if we can accept the current circumstances, whatever they are, as the inevitable consequence of causes and conditions going back to the Big Bang, and let go of our attachment to the subjunctive—to wishing-things-were-other-than-they-are.

Do Good Work

This injunction, the essence of Right Effort and Right Livelihood, has two sides to it, which may be characterized by the Greek words ArĂȘte and Agapé—Doing Well, and Doing Good.

To do well means, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s words, to address any task mindfully—to “do it in order to do it, not in order to get it done.” This injunction can be applied to any task, no matter how simple or complex, and no matter how arduous. If you wash the dishes in full mindfulness, it can be like “washing the baby Buddha.” Likewise, even unpleasant but necessary tasks, like cleaning out a kitty box, can be turned into a sacrament if they are done with complete mindful attention. If on the other hand, we do things simply in order to get them done so we can do something else, we are living in the future, not in the present, and the present thus becomes that much more tedious, because we don’t want to be there. The Buddha—and Jesus likewise—understood that hell resides in the subjunctive—in wishing things were other than they are—for this is, in Christian terms, turning our backs on God’s will, and in Buddhist terms, causing Dukkha, or dissatisfaction with that that is and craving for what is not and cannot be.

Keep in Touch.

Whereas “Be Well” brings us back to our own bodies, minds, and spirits, and “Do Good Work” draws mindful attention to our ongoing daily tasks and long-term goals, the last injunction in Garrison Keillor’s beautiful mantra, “Keep in Touch,” refers us back to the indispensable cultivation of Bodhicitta, of genuine, practical, and immediate compassion for all beings, predicated on our recognition that the separate “self” which we spend so much time cultivating is in fact an illusion; that in reality, whether we can see it or not, we are one with everyone and everything we encounter: “That thou art.” Or as John Lennon put it, “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” This is the insight, of course, that lay behind Jesus’ core injunction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

If the first triad reclaims the moment (Breathe, Observe, Let Go) and the second (Be well, do good work, keep in touch) is a vow to reclaim the day, the third tetrad renews my life goals: Learn Gaia, Teach Gaia, Heal Gaia, Create Gaia.

Taken together, I find that reciting this tenfold Dharma Gaia mantra on the breath is a very powerful way to restore my equanimity, regardless of the circumstances. But like any other mantra, it is effective only if you actually focus on each word as a Dharma Window, practicing and contemplating it mindfully as you recite it. Any mantra that becomes rote repetition becomes worthless.

Once my meditation period is over (at the end of my 108 beads), I normally ring the bell, and bow once again to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

This meditation protocol, I find, is both coherent and flexible; I will frequently experiment with other mantras and practices along the way, but they all fit in.

I would encourage anyone who reads this post to share your meditation practices as well; we can all learn from each other!

Dharma Gaia??

What is Dharma?

DHARMA is the Sanskrit word that is variously translated as "truth" or "sacred duty," but the root of the word is the verb *Dha which means "to adhere." So Dharma can be broadly defined as "That to which we adhere." In ancient Hindu cultures, the word referred specifically to the "sacred duties" incumbent upon each caste of citizens--priests, warrior/aristocrats, merchants, and skilled laborers. But in its later evolution, with the rise of Buddhism, Dharma came to be synonymous with the teachings of the Buddha, who defined it in accordance with the "Three Dharma Seals"--litmus tests, as it were, for the truth inherent in anyone's teachings:

Impermanence--the truth that everything in our phenomenal experience is subject to change through time. It can be summarized as "Everything changes, and nothing lasts."

Interbeing--the truth of prattita samutpata, or reciprocal causality: that everything mutually arises with, and is interrelated with, everything else--that without everything in the universe, there could not be anything in the universe. It can be summarized as "This is because that is."

Oneness--the transcendent truth, which Buddhists refer to as Nirvana (literally meaning "extinction")--that multiplicity itself is an illusion--that there is no separate self at all. It can be succinctly summarized in the refrain from the Upanishads: "That art thou."

These three Dharma seals stand in a direct logical relationship, but each, in turn, requires greater effort to understand, much less realize. One could summarize this relationship as follows:

(1) Everything changes and nothing lasts (Impermanence).
(2) The above is true because everything arises from its interactions with everything else, and these interactions are themselves impermanent. (Interbeing).
(3) The above being true, it follows that nothing is really separate from anything else. (Oneness).

This, then, is at heart, what the Buddha meant by "Dharma"--the truth that is not subject to refutation, and that is affirmed by every wisdom tradition on the planet--including modern science. The First Dharma Seal--impermanence--corresponds to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the Law of Entropy; The Second Dharma Seal--interbeing--corresponds to the First Law of Thermodynamics--the Law of Conservation of Matter/Energy. And the Third Dharma Seal has been validated by modern Quantum Physics and String Theory, and by Bell's Theorem in particular--that "separate particles" are ultimately a delusion, an artifact of observation methods.

So the Dharma is that which is true, whether we believe it or not. For this reason, Buddhist thinkers came to perceive the world of their observations and experience as the Dharmakaya--the Body of Dharma.

What is Gaia?

In 1990, acting on the suggestion of Vietnamese Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Allen Hunt Badiner edited an anthology of writings that related Buddhist practice to environmentalism, and chose for his anthology the title Dharma Gaia (Parallax Press, 1990) as a bilingual pun on the Buddhist concept of Dharmakaya. This title spoke deeply to me, because it seemed, in one phrase, to encapsulate the fundamental reality which Western Civilization has abandoned, to our collective peril, in its relentless pursuit of More Stuff: that we live on a finite, irreplaceable, and uniquely life-supporting planet, Gaia, where--as Martin Luther King put it, "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

So what is Gaia, and why not simply call it "Earth" or "The World"?

GAIA is the ancient Greek name for the primordial Earth goddess, and provides the root (ge) of all the Greek-derived words that refer to the Earth—geology, geometry, geode, and the name George, originally meaning “farmer” or “earth-worker” (ge + ourgos ) In recent years, the mythic name Gaia has been brought back from archeological obscurity and given new life by certain renegade scientists. In the late 1960s, at the suggestion of his neighbor, novelist William Golding, British biochemist James Lovelock adopted Gaia as a suitable name for his revolutionary new theory of biogenic global homeostasis. In a nutshell, Lovelock suggested that, far from being mere passengers on a planet that happened to be suitable for living things, the biota collectively and interactively sustain the far-from-equilibrium thermal, atmospheric, and geochemical conditions that, in turn, sustain life. Since 1970, when Lovelock published his first book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, the name Gaia has gained widespread currency as a metaphor for our new ecological understanding of life on Earth as a fully integrated, self-sustaining, but perishable system of which we are a part, rather than merely as a “resource” with no value until it is transformed into commodities. It thus has come to refer, not only to an ancient Greek myth and a scientific model named after the myth, but also to a metaphor based on the model, and a worldwide cultural movement based on that metaphor.

This Dharma Gaia blog, then, is a place for myself and anyone else out there in Cyberspace who shares these interests in the interface of spirituality and ecological awareness to chat about, and share information about, anything that relates to this nexus--anything, that is, that perceives the healing of mind, body, and spirit as inseparable from the corresponding healing of self, community, and planet. Welcome to the Discussion!

Friday, November 16, 2007

What is Dharma?

Dharma is a Sanskrit word that is very difficult to translate. Its literal meaning is "that to which we adhere." Originally, it referred to the ethical duties incumbent on each of the castes of ancient India; for example, it was the dharma of the Brahman or priestly class to concern themselves with spiritual matters by conducting and transmitting the complex ritual observances of the culture. The dharma of the warrior class was, of course, to fight wars; the dharma of the merchant class was to buy, sell, and keep honest accounts, while the dharma of the artisans was to make things well, and the dharma of peasants and laborers was, of course, to work the land. Even the outcastes, the "untouchables," had their dharma--to clean up the poop, stay out of the way, and do as they were told.

With the rise of Buddhism, the word Dharma took on a new set of connotations, seemingly more restricted but in actuality far broader and more inclusive than the original meaning. Its restricted meaning was simply the teachings of the Buddha; hence it is often translated as "doctrine." But this translation, I feel, is misleading--because the Buddha was not an ideologue, like Paul of Tarsus or Lenin, who took a party-line, "my way or no way" approach to things. Rather--almost alone among the charismatic founders of the great world religions, the Buddha's final message was not "follow me." Rather, it was "be a light unto yourself." In other words, you're on your own, buddy!

So again, what did the Buddha or his followers mean by "Dharma"? On the one hand, the word was used, in the small case, as 'twere, to simply mean something like "phenomenon" or "thing." Hence the frequent saying, as in the Heart Sutra, that "all dharmas are empty" or "all dharmas are impermanent." On the other, when capitalized, it referred to the universal and inexpressible truth to which the Buddha's teachings point, "like a finger pointing to the moon" as the saying goes. Hence, the early Buddhist traditions spoke of "87 Dharma Doors" referring to 87 different approaches to enlightenment. But of course, even this number is arbitrary; it could just as easily be 87 thousand, or 87 million different approaches to the same universal truth.

But wouldn't this strip the word "Dharma" of any useful meaning at all--since it simply refers to all things, or to all teachings? Well--not quite. The Buddha was a bit more explicit in offering us a set of litmus tests--which he called the Three Dharma Seals--for knowing whether or not any given teaching rings true--that is, whether it is authentic Dharma or not. The Dharma seals are as follows:

1. Impermanence--the observable and irrefutable fact that everything we see or know is subject to change, and does not stay the same. The doctrine of Impermanence corresponds quite closely to the Second Law of Thermodynamics--the law of entropy--and it is the easiest to grasp intellectually. But of course, we resist it emotionally--we all want to stay alive, yet we will die; we all want to keep what we have, yet we will sooner or later lose it all; we all want to stay healthy and happy, yet sooner or later we will be sick or sad or angry or frustrated or grief-stricken. This is why impermanence brings us suffering--yet that suffering is alleviated when we acknowledge and accept the reality of impermanence, rather than wishing it were other than it is.

2. Interbeing (or codependent origination)--the not-so-observable, yet equally irrefutable fact that everything we see or know--including ourselves and our own (impermanent) bodies--is what it is by virtue of its ongoing interaction with everything else. As the Buddha put it, "this is because that is." And vice versa. This corresponds to the First Law of Thermodynamics--the law of conservation of matter/energy--that is, that nothing is ever gained or lost--it is simply transformed from one state into another. We are who we are, now, only because of the ever-changing moire pattern formed by--
--the food we eat, and the topsoil that grew it;
--the oxygenated air we breathe;
--the water we must drink every day;
--the ongoing expression of the unique genotype bequeathed to us by our parents;
--the reciprocal influence on us of our family, friends, and everyone else we encounter;
--the language, values, and traditions of the culture into which we were born.
--the experiences we have had in the past, as they are stored in our memory and expressed in our habitual responses.

Without, or with a change in even one of these, we would not be who we are. Without many of them, we would not exist at all.

3. Oneness (or Nirvana). When it comes to understanding this one--forget it. It is utterly beyond our intellectual or affective grasp, since our feelings are formed from within our bodies, and our thoughts by our own minds, shaped by our own experience as separate selves. At best we have only brief glimpses of this awareness, in peak moments, where our sense of separateness from everything else simply disappears, and there is only One of us. There are several words in various languages and traditions pointing to this transcendent awareness--including "nirvana" (which means literally "extinction" of the illusion of separateness), Samadhi, Satori, etc.

But if it is any consolation, the third Dharma Seal follows logically and inevitably from the first two--as can be expressed in the following enthymeme: IF everything is impermanent BECAUSE it is both brought into temporary manifestation and subsequently dissolved through continuous reciprocal interaction with everything else, THEN it follows that everything we see, including ourselves, is in reality, only One Thing.