Monday, 12 July 2010

E Pluribus Dhammam

Here I am with an old Dhamma-colleague, Dharma Master Heng Sure. Note the guitar. Rev. Heng Sure is a member of the Sangha of The Sagely City of 10,000 Buddhas in Ukiah, California, a vast establishment that was formerly an asylum/prison for the criminally insane. It was converted into a Dharma Realm (containing monasteries for monks and nuns, a school for children and a University) under the leadership of the Chinese Master Hsuan Hua. So this, as you might deduce, is Mahayana. A day in the City begins with paying homage to innumerable Buddhas, bodhisattvas and patriarchs in all directions; proceeds with transforming the anguished souls of the departed through the blessing power of Kwan Yin Bodhisattva, earnest sutra study and practice, and closes with a group recitation of the Surangama Mantra every evening to ward off demons. From time to time, there are Repentance Ceremonies to clear the bad kamma of previous lifetimes; the overall vision is one of transmitting the countless blessings of the Dharma throughout the Cosmos. Solid Great Vehicle stuff. To clear some kammic errors and up the merit a tad, Dharma Master Heng Sure himself did a bowing pilgrimage with another monk back in the 1970s. They proceeded (very slowly, and through all seasons) up Highway 101 along the coast between Los Angeles and Ukiah (to the amazement of passing traffic) at a rate of three steps, one full-length prostration. He also refrained from speaking throughout the two years and nine months that it took. It’s a practice that goes beyond stress-reduction – although of course there’s room for that too. But the Great Vehicle doesn’t do things in a small way. The place where this photo was taken is Abhayagiri Monastery, situated on land that was originally gifted to our community by Master Hsuan Hua.

The guitar? Since leaving the City to reside in Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, Rev Heng Sure has concerned himself with transmitting the Dharma in ways that may reach those whom sitting quietly doesn’t. He has worked extensively on translating the Sutras from Chinese to English; but the guitar is another medium of translating the Dharma to which he turns his mind. You can hear samples of his Dharma songs at

I’m still poking away at watching my breath and a few wholesome etceteras, but I am moved by the aspirations and outreach of the multiple forms of Dhamma. And USA, from which I’ve recently returned, certainly gives you the sense of celebration of plurality. Amongst a few other things, I taught a retreat at Spirit Rock with Ajahn Metta which was attended by a multi-faceted gathering of ninety-two people  – a full house of retreatants. As the retreat was held on a ‘no charge, give what you can’ basis, it allowed for a greater diversity (younger people, people of colour) than retreats that by their entrance fee tend to be limited to the more affluent – in which the middle-aged professional white strata predominate. So this was great, and one of the offerings one can make as a ‘no-fees’ mendicant.

The USA interests me by its diversity and its struggles and successes in that. Notably on the cosmopolitan coasts, the surnames of those who attend retreats reveals the breadth of origins that make up the national mix. While the heartland of the continent leans towards the conservative and fundamentalist end of the spectrum, the fringes proudly brandish options in all things. Including the diversity of kamma. The questionnaire that each retreatant has to fill in includes blanks to write in the range of previous retreats one has had (often an eclectic slew), along with three options for gender, and enquiries as to one’s therapist, current medication, record of abuse and any attempts at suicide. Here is 21st century humanity; and about the only stand one take towards it is one of awe and compassion.

Such diversity catalyses a unifying principle in the mind. For example, when I go for a cup of coffee and am conducted through a process of dialogue to arrive at a ‘Colombian medium-roast, semi-caffeinated, soya latte, tall’ (= American for ‘small’, a no-no concept) and my mind starts to go numb, I know I have to find balance in intention. I can’t expect the world to be simple, but I can find a still centre in simply letting go of my views. To be with how it is without making anything of it. Then a quietness opens that can include, but doesn’t partake of things. It sounds small, but for me it takes an intention focused on letting go of the push, pull and proliferation of the mind. A major practice.

To back that up: in the first sutta of the Long Discourses (The Supreme Net/Brahmajāla), the Buddha, having sketched out his impeccable standards of behaviour as a ‘minor matter’ goes on to expound the sixty-two kinds of views that contemplatives held over the nature of the Cosmos, the Self, the relationship between the two, and what occurs after death. And to all of these he adds the statement:
This, monks, the Tathāgata understands: These view-points thus grasped and adhered to will lead to such-and-such destinations in another world. This the Tathāgata knows, and more, but he is not attached to that knowledge. And being thus unattached he has experienced for himself perfect peace, and having truly understood the arising and passing away of feelings, their attraction and peril and the deliverance from them, the Tathāgata is liberated without remainder. (The Long Discourses of the Buddha, Maurice Walshe, Wisdom, Boston.)

Note that in the Brahmajāla, the Buddha makes his only statement that of the way to release; he doesn’t concern himself with a rebuttal of any view. We can learn from that how to handle the relative rights and wrongs of life, and get them in perspective. In my little world, many of the people I teach enter Dhamma through sitting in meditation; such folk tend to discount chanting, repentance, and rituals. There are those who advocate compassionate action and getting off the cushion; and I’m also in touch with scholars writing papers on the finer implications of the word ‘sacca’ ( is it truth, is it reality, is it honesty?) Then again there are those who celebrate the feminine; there are movements towards liberalising the tradition, and there are those who want to get back to the roots. My head spins if I try to fathom or syncretise it all; and my heart contracts if I dismiss any of it. Accordingly, I teach and practise intention: what is your awareness doing now, where is it taking a stand? Is it absolutising the relative? Or on the other hand, do we dismiss the validity of having a relative point of view? By which I mean that there’s an error in avoiding a point of view or in adopting a definite practice (such as it’s a good idea to spend some time every day sitting quietly focused on breathing). We can hold to the view that ‘all views and relative positions are invalid.’ No, attachment to that view is madness. Whilst a life bound to a point of view has little scope and growth, a life that can’t make good use of points of view has no foundation and no direction.

Hence I teach intention, and of making intention much more than an idea, but of an alignment that is clearly conceivable, heartfully felt and backed up by one’s felt embodiment. One has to stand one’s ground, such as it is, feel it down to one’s nerve endings, and know it in the gut. And for Dhamma-practitioners, that means first of all bringing body, heart and thought into connection and into harmony. Often the first step in this is to keep turning the mind in a sincere and peaceful way to the sensations in the body, or more specifically those associated with breathing. As the connection gets made, as we feel the energy and effects of our thoughts and emotions on our body, we learn a few immediate things about skilful and unskilful by the tension or buoyancy of the felt body. Then you know you have to live in a way that keeps you in touch with the wisdom of that. You have to walk your talk, and know it is purely and humbly your own. This is the entry to a life of ‘three steps, one bow.’

Then within diversity of experience, there is a central guide, or Dhamma. You realise that not only are we living in a diversified world, but each of us is a diversity – my body feels like this, my mind wants that. The mind itself is no thing, but a changing presentation of states that come and go and don’t always harmonise. Nor is there any final sublime state, or unifying self to distil out of all this. Because of this being-diversity, we can only find balance through non-attachment to any single position or statement. And that means we can meet them all, and use the ones that currently can support our intention towards peace, truth and goodness. ‘I assert and proclaim such [a teaching] as does not quarrel with anyone in the world’ says the Buddha (Honeyball sutta).

The Buddha's teachings offer ways to specifically find that centre of non-attachment and non-contention, both in ourselves and in relationship to others. Through such work there can then be a release from the diversity of mind - but not into any single state, level, or attitude. If that release can stand as our unifying intention, there’s room for action, room to work out kamma, room for you and me, and a way to the