Monday, June 18, 2012

Buddhist Nonsense?

The question mark after the title of this blog is intentional, since I am not so much claiming that an extensive body of Buddhist teachings is nonsense, as I am venturing this as a tentative hypothesis--since the truth or falsehood of any such claims about the afterlife can never be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

With that disclaimer, here we go.  Throughout the various traditions of Buddhism in Asia--from India to Tibet to the Mahayana traditions of China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, one recurrent school, or branch, of Buddhist thought, belief, and practice has been the doctrine of the Pure Land--Sukhavati--the domain of the otherworldly Buddha Amitabha, a land of pure and infinite bliss, to which, with the right kind of focused meditation practice and or ritual such as phowa,  one can be catapulted after death, and thereby escape the orbit (as it were) of karmic rebirth through the Twelve Links of Codependent Origination in Samsara--the sixfold realm of suffering...

And so on.  With all due respect to esteemed Buddhist teachers, past and present, I can say only one thing:  Give me a break!  I have the same problem with any notion of a "Pure Land" to which the most advanced and virtuous practitioners go after death as I do with the Christian concept of Heaven and Hell. My old buddy from the Renaissance, Giordano Bruno, put his finger on it when he noted that all joy or pleasure--or for that matter, grief and pain--resides not in any stasis, but rather in the transition from one state to another.  Or as Lao Tzu never tires of reminding us, happiness is rooted in misery--they codetermine one another.  So how could there possibly be a realm of infinite bliss, without suffering? Or for that matter, infinite suffering without relief? Very simply--if you found yourself  in a realm of unending bliss, sooner or later you would get bored. Likewise, if you were in a realm of infinite flames, torture, and suffering, sooner or later you would get used to it. Pain, like pleasure, results from the transition from one state to another.

This is why I have always liked Bob Marley's take on the question of the Afterlife, as a motivation for much of anything:  "If you know what life is worth/You will look for yours on Earth."  Indeed, since the present is all there is, it follows that, as Hamlet says, no man knows aught of what he leaves behind.  In short--I have no idea what will happen after I die--if anything.  I'll find out when I get there--if there is any "I" left to get there with. Without hardware (the body) how can there be software (the mind)? Who knows?  I don't.

And in fact, the real, living, magnificent, diverse world all around us--Gaia--has all of the above, in every moment, freely available to us: endless joy and endless misery. That is all we know, and all we need to know. The challenge, then, for the practitioner, is to maintain a kind of equipoise--to be compassionately aware of the vast suffering of sentient beings, starting with ourselves, while simultaneously sharing the vast, sympathetic joy of being alive, of participating in the uniquely magnificent, miraculous life of Gaia, with every flower that blooms, every bird that flies, every child that smiles.  As Sogyal Rinpoche puts it succinctly, "learning to live is learning to let go..."  And that includes, for me, letting go of nonsense, however comforting the illusions may be, or however revered the source of the nonsense may be.  The present is all there is.  The past has gone, and the future is only imagined.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Plan of Action?

A gorgeous, blue-sky day dawned this morning.   After I read some particularly grim news stories about the "law of retribution" in Libya, where the insurgents who overthrew Gaddafi are now hunting down former Gaddafi supporters, torturing, and killing them with ruthless abandon in the absence of anything resembling an actual system of justice or due process, and in Brazil, where ranchers are enslaving and brutalizing peasants and forcing them to chop down rainforests illegally, I stepped out on my back porch and caught sight of my magnificent daylilies opening up in the first light of the sun--red ochre, beige, bright yellow. These, like a fresh breeze, dispersed the vile and depressing thoughts induced by the morning's headlines and left me feeling light and bouyant, as I stepped out to water my squash patch, basil, tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, and peppers.

The world is a mess, but the Earth is magnificent still. We have not destroyed it yet.  All of these thoughts led, during my morning meditation, back to my sustaining fantasy.  What might happen if...

I created a "Dharma Gaia Circle"--an ecumenical, ecological Sangha or meditation group, based on the following:

  • Understanding " Dharma" as a Principle, Precept, and Practice, and as that which all the world's authentic religious traditions hold in common, despite their different (culturally influenced) ideologies.
  • Understanding "The Four Paths to the Sacred" as a schema for understanding and accepting every religious tradition on the planet as a legitimate Path to the Sacred. Seeing, that is, all religious traditions as as admixture of Dharma and identity politics, and on that basis, welcoming those of all faith traditions to our Circle.
  • Regular Meditation, based on the following basic injunction (on the breath): Breathe, Observe, Let Go, Abide. (Supplemented by various other Dharma Practices, at our own discretion).
  • Expansion of the above into the Tenfold Dharma Gaia Mantra as a core daily practice:
    • Breathe, Observe, Let Go (Abide)
    • Be well, Do Good Work, Keep in Touch (Abide)
    • Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.
  • Understanding and embracing "Gaia" as the Living Earth--a self-organizing, self-regulating Complex Adaptive System, unique in the solar system, and hence irreplaceable--as our first allegiance.
  • Committing ourselves to both Vertical (Body-Mind-Spirit) and Horizontal (Self-Community-Planet) healing by engaging in the Four Gaian Commitments:
    • Learning Gaia 
    • Teaching Gaia
    • Healing Gaia
    • Creating Gaia.
  • Studying and Practicing the discipline of Satyagraha as an an expression of our commitment to Heal Gaia:
    • Cultivating Self-reliance (Swaraj)--starting with our own gardens and communities.
    • Speaking Truth to Power (Satya)--starting in our own communities 
    • Engaging, when necessary, in Nonviolent Noncooperation with Evil (Ahimsa).
    • And doing all of the above mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly.
  • Once such a Dharma Gaia Circle is securely established, undertaking an effort to disseminate it elsewhere AND to reach out to any and all other religious traditions to encourage them to establish similar initiatives within the scope of their own governance and traditions (e.g. among Christians, a Mustardseed Project based on "The Parable of the Mustard Seed")
  • Establishing, when resources become available, one or more Dharma Gaia Practice Centers to provide opportunities for others in the community to Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.
This is how I hope to save the planet.  Who knows?  It might actually work--but as Gandhi ceaselessly reminded us, the important thing is to renounce the fruits of action and "just do it" with mindfulness and integrity--or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, to BE the change we hope to bring about in the world.