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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Advaita and Zen Buddhism (2)

 Going deeply into a few more details, there is a concept called Apranahita in Buddhism. In English, it is translated as “aimlessness” by some authors. I do not understand what it means. However, the context in which this word is used suggests that this is a state of our consciousness at which all edges gave merged and therefore no separateness of form and therefore no separate identification marks (animitta).   All dualities have ceased, and one is in touch with reality as it is, at the very foundation of everything. This concept is based on the interconnectedness of things.

In the Advaitic philosophy, this state is called turya. However, this concept is described in relation to states of consciousness in some texts and in relation to the individual body with life, mind, and consciousness in other texts. In relation to consciousness, it is called the Turya state. This is the state on the basis of which one is aware of one’s wakeful, dream and deep sleep states.

In relations to the body, it is related to several “sheaths” or kosha. It is the “inner-most” absolute existence called anandamaya Kosha. Its outer coverings include the following sheaths from outside in – annamaya kosha as the body, pranamaya kosha as life, manomaya kosha as the mind and vignana maya kosha or consciousness.

Since this state is beyond any description, beyond form and a name, one has to refer to it only in a negative way (via negativa). Vedic texts used the words: “neti, neti”(meaning, this is not, this is not). Buddhism said this is animitta, without signs or apranahita, aimless.  This state indicates a stage at which edges of multiplicity of forms merge. One sees the universal in the individual.

Buddhist teaching has another concept called sunyata. In precise translation this word means “absence of anything”. “Thay” translates sunyatta to mean “empty of ”.  He asks: “empty of what?” and goes to explain that “everything we see is empty of itself”, because everything we see is made of other elements. For example, a flower we see is made of substance from the earth, water from the rain, the sunshine etc., If you trace backwards, you will see that everything is made of something else until you see its true nature, which is called “suchness” in English and thathata in Pali. In other words, everything in the phenomenal world is empty of intrinsic existence.

I have read that some schools of Buddhism have translated the word “sunyata” to mean “nothing”. Extending this further they say everything is a mental construct out of moment-to-moment awareness, nothing is permanent, and  that the entire world is an illusion etc., That is nihilism. That was what Adi Sankara disagreed with in his Advaitic philosophy.

He said that something could not have come out of nothing.  That One is Brahman. Brahman pervades everything in this universe. He/It/That is without qualities, nirguna. In individuals, it is seen as Atman. That One appears to be many because of maya (to be explained later). 

Sankara argues that atman (Self) is different from the mind because this Self (atman) understands several states of mind such as “I am sad, I am happy” etc., It is the basis of our awareness and continuity through the wakeful dream and sleep states. It is also common experience for all of us to feel “I know this” and “I do not know this”. Therefore, knowledge and absence of knowledge themselves are objects of knowledge of a “knower”. The Self of man (Atman) is that knower. Thinking cannot reveal Atman because the process of knowledge depends on a knower (Atman). Atman must be posited before knowledge. Atman is the “witness” and the light of the witness.

He went on to refute the Buddhist idea that there is no atman as follows: “ When one accepts the position that both Brahman and Atman are illusions, not real…….all that remains are a group of impermanent things; permanent happiness and someone who can realize that permanent happiness cease to exist”. He further said: “Emptiness (sunyata) and absence of self (anatman) of Buddhism are dark and bleak concepts. If you can see Brahman in everything it is blissful and full of light”.

In my own thinking, sunyata can be aligned with the nirguna concept of Brahman in Advaita. Brahman is Atman according to Advaita. The name Advaita or “no-two” things or non-duality itself means that concept of oneness of Brahman and Atman.

To explain how that one Brahman became many, Adi Sankara came up with the concept of maya. He said that the world we see is “not real but appears to be real” due to maya. It is not to say that the world is an illusion. But to say that there is a truth in the phenomenal world (vyavaharika satyam, also called Reflected Truth or pratibhasika satyam)  and there is the cosmic, eternal truth, Truth as is, which is called Paramartika satyam. This cosmic eternal truth is probably the “suchness” of things in Buddhism referred to earlier.

In the Buddhist literature, the corresponding words are samvritti satyam for relative truth and paramarta satyam for the cosmic truth. (to be continued)

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Advaita and Zen Buddhism (1)

                 One of our regular followers asked me about the similarities and differences between Advaita and Zen Buddhism. Here is a summary of my understanding. Please feel free to correct my errors or wrong understanding. Thank you.

From the beginning of my journey into spirituality, I thought that it is better to read the original sacred texts of various traditions, if you can, or an authentic translation, and try to understand them rather than depend on or get confused by the explanations and discussions by later scholars. With that in mind, I have read several originals or primary translations of sacred texts from the Vedic schools and Buddhist schools. I have also read scholarly articles and books on the similarities between Advaita philosophy of Adi Sankara and Zen Buddhism. Here is what I know at present.

Zen Buddhism is an offshoot of Mahayana branch of Buddhism which originated in Japan in the early part of the 11th century. The word Zen is a variation of the Sanskrit word dhyan which became Chan in China, Zen in Japan, Sŏn in Korean, and Thien in Vietnam. Also known as Zazen, in which Za means “sitting”, Zen is meditation or sitting meditation.

Bodhidharma (probably from the southern part of India), who took Mahayana Buddhism to China in the 5th century, emphasized the importance of seeing and experiencing the “true nature” of things through meditation, not relying on words and concepts. His teachings are in accordance with the Upanishadic teachings which emphasize gnana marga (intellectual approach) with emphasis on meditation.

Buddha’s teachings were focused on how to reduce human suffering and live a life of peace and harmony in this world. In the process, he looked both inwards looking at how human mind works and also outwards into the true nature of things. But it was not easily taken up by the masses. As Adi Sankara pointed out almost 1,000 years later, Buddhism was not appealing to the masses because of its perceived nihilism, and its emphasis on asceticism and intellectual approach. Most wanted to keep on to some of the symbols and rituals of the Hinduism prevalent in those days. This resulted in early divisions within Buddhism. For example, the Tibetan type of Buddhism is indeed full of images of Bodhisattvas and rituals. Mahayana Buddhism and Zen Buddhism went back to the meditative aspects of Buddhism.  Both were considered heterodox and atheistic since Buddhism rejected many of the basic teachings and rituals of the Vedas.

Venerable Thich Naht Hanh (popularly known as ““Thay””) was from the Zen school (Thien, Vietnamese school)  of Mahayana Buddhism. This school emphasizes the practice of meditation as the way to awaken our inner nature and grow towards compassion and wisdom. “Thay” popularized the idea of “mindfulness” as a path to meditative practice. He also practiced what he called “engaged Buddhism” to help people live in this complex world and to promote compassion and non-violence

Zen teaches that all of us are already enlightened beings, and we just have to realize it by meditative practice. Enlightenment is attained when one goes beyond all names, forms and dualities and experiences the “oneness” at the base. Enlightenment cannot be explained in words or reached through logic. “It can only be experienced” says Zen.

This is exactly what Adi Sankara also said in his Advaita teachings. In Vivekachudamani, he says that the Absoute Truth, (sat chit Ananda) cannot be reached through logic, discussion, and actions but only through experience.

Both Adi Sankara and Buddha were critical of excess emphasis on rituals and emphasized asceticism. Both leaned towards the Upanishadic intellectual approach to gnana marga. Both  wanted people to think on their own. Both said that it is possible to reach the blissful state in this life by touching the “suchness” of things through meditation. This blissful state of sat-chit-ananda (Absolute Truth, Absolute Knowledge, Absolute Bliss) is Brahman in Advaita and thathata and nirvana in Buddhism. (to be continued)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

More thoughts on Meditation and Faith

 

More on Meditation

Meditation, it seems to me, to be a personal journey in which I am seeking inside of me a sense of something that is sacred, an abiding energy which is always there. By that definition, that abiding energy, that sacred something must be present in every life and everything.

During a guided meditation with “Thay” on “Sitting with the Buddha”, the words he suggests for helping to focus are: “I am sitting with the Buddha; I am breathing with the Buddha”. I found myself asking “Who am I?” and also “What is that I?”

If I ask myself: “Who am I?”, the answer I get is: “I am an impermanent historical entity made of several elements which came together to make this body with life and those elements will go back to nature when the body is gone”.

If I ask myself: “What is that I?”, the answer I get is that it is that sacred abiding energy which is at the base of this “I”, and of all the “I”s and of all there is in this Universe.

In the epilogue to his famous sloka called Manisha Pancakam, Adi Sankara relates to body, life, and the abiding energy (spirit) as follows: “Oh Lord, in the form of the body I am your servant. In the form of life, I am part of you. You are within me and within every other life in the form of soul/spirit.”


More questions on Faith

“Thay” says: “Do not try to be peaceful. Just Be Peace”

“J.K” says: “Do not try to be yourself. Just be that You”

Buddha, Sankara, Jesus, Ramana and other realized souls ask us to have faith in our inner self and experience the Divine within. Is it possible to have faith in oneself without getting arrogant and self-righteous? Those Divine figures could do it. Can we, ordinary people, do it?

If we cannot reach that level of experiencing the Divine in oneself and yet stay humble, like they did, our faith is more likely to lead to intolerance and harm to others, and even to oneself. This is one reason given in the Vedic Hindu tradition to stay with and learn from a Guru, an enlightened one, so one can learn humility in addition to knowledge.

Putting our faith completely on an external source is also not without its problems. It is not conducive to growth since we lean on others and do not think on our own. It may also be dangerous as we have seen over the centuries with faith-based wars. But it is an easier path. And, if things go wrong, we have someone else to blame!

 



Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Japamala (Rosary)

 I learnt from a Buddhist teacher that when using a japamala (rosary), the focus must be on the interval between the beads and not on the mantra (the words you use) or the beads you are touching when you say it. That interval between the beads is for silence. The goal should be to prolong that silent interval and “touch” the thread that connects those beads.

I just read a passage in Laghu Vakya Vritti of Adi Sankara (Sloka 9) which gives support to this teaching. It says: “Pure consciousness is like a string that holds together many pearls. That string can be seen between those pearls. Similarly, the Pure Consciousness is hidden by the modifications of the intellect and can be seen clearly in the interval between modifications (thoughts mental formations) of the mind”.

The focus must be on the silence between thoughts. One can start with focusing on the interval between breaths by prolonging that interval gently and slowly. Then one can try to prolong the interval between in-breath and out-breath. The next step is prolonging the interval between thoughts. 

Later in this book, Adi Sankara uses the word “nirodha”, which means "suppression". In sloke 11 he says: “Suppression of mental modifications (thought) must be practiced to be able to see the string between the pearls.” Patanjali maharishi also starts his book on Yoga Sastra with the aphorism that “Yoga is for control of the mind”. I doubt these great masters meant "suppression of the mind." We all know how difficult it is to suppress thoughts and how it can be unhelpful. Suppressed thoughts tend to show up at unwanted times. Besides it sounds violent, suppression.

Is it possible that the word "nirodha" is meant to indicate "to restrain, to channelize" rather than "to suppress or annihilate".  That is what Buddha did. Buddha asks us to focus, channelize, look deeply at the objects of the mind rather than annihilate thoughts. This is more non-violent. 

He asks us to be just an observer of thoughts. In the Vedic philosophy also, we are asked to be a "witness to the thoughts". Buddha asks us to be a non-judgmental witness, not clinging to those thoughts or trying to suppress them or escape from them. He said: “just observe it with loving kindness, like a mother will handle a crying baby. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Name it. Later look deeply into it to know what it truly is. Let it be. Let it go”. Of course, there is more to it than this. Yet this is more compassionate, realistic and attainable.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Indra, Virochana and Prajapati

 There is a story about Indra, the chief of the gods (sura), Virochana, the chief of the demons (asura) and Prajapati (the primordial progenitor) in Chandogya Upanishad, Book 8, Chapter 7, section 12. I have read it several times and do not have a grasp of it yet. This is my latest take on it.

Indra and Virochana go to Prajapati to learn about Atman. Prajapati says: “ ya yesho akshini purusho drishyata yesha atma iti”. Word by word translation will be: “that Person who is seen in the eye is Atma” or “the Person that is seen in the eye is the self”.

As I understand Sanskrit, pashyati means seeing (active seeing) and drishyati is passive, to be seen or perceived, become visible, to be seen with the mind. If I am correct, Prajapati is saying “that which is the basis of what is seen is Atma”. Let me see whether subsequent passages support my understanding.

Indra and Virochana ask: “is it the same as what is seen as reflection in the water or in a mirror?” Prajapati’s answer is that “the Seer referred to is the same perceived in everything” (sarveshu anteshu parikhyayate)  Both students mistake this to mean that Prajapati was referring to the body, the lower self. Virochana is convinced of that interpretation and goes to his group and starts teaching this point of view.

Indra is not satisfied. He goes back to Prajapati and says: “No sir, your answer does not help because when I look at the reflection in water or in the mirror, the body appears to be adorned when I am adorned. It appears to be crippled when I am crippled. How can that be when you say that the Self is devoid of any blemish?”

Prajapati makes Indra stay with him for 32 and then says: “the one who, being adored, moves about in the dream, is the Self”. As indicated in intervening texts, Prajapati is taking his student gradually though stages. He is now teaching about the dream state.

Indra goes away, thinks about this teaching, comes back to Prajapati, and says: “that cannot be true because in the dream state, the body is not crippled even if my real body is crippled. When I have running nose and eyes that dream body does not have them. The body suffers happiness and unhappiness which the dream-body does not. I need a better answer”.

Prajapati makes him stay with him for 32 more years and then says: “When one is in deep sleep in such a way that he has all organs withdrawn and is tranquil, he does not see any dream. That is the Self”. Indra is not satisfied with that answer either because he reasons: “This one in deep sleep is not aware of himself or of any other thing. He is lost as it were. I do not find it acceptable”.

Now that Prajapati has taken Indra through the Awake, Dream and Deep sleep stages (jaagra, svapna and sushupti), is ready to take Indra to the fourth or the turya stage. Prajapati asks Indra to stay with him for five more years (now this adds up to 101 years from the start of the first discussion). Finally, Prajapati agrees and says this body is indeed mortal. But the Atman which is beyond all these three states namely awake, dream and sleep is indeed the ground state based on which one becomes aware of and experiences those three states. Atman is immortal and cannot be just this body. “Atman is yoked to this body just as a horse or a bull is yoked to the car” says Prajapati.

Extending this further, I interpret the final answer to the initial questions as: “Atman is the basis of what you see and is the ground of your consciousness and your perceptions of the external world”.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Why would anyone want to live on the Moon or the Mars?

 During a nature walk, when I was experiencing and enjoying the colors of flowers, the sounds of birds, the cold gusts of wind and the warm sun, my thoughts jumped from this beautiful planet to the moon and spacewalk.

I wondered why anyone would want to live in a Lunar colony or Martian colony? I can certainly understand the curiosity and the exploring nature of us humans. A visit to the moon or the Mars is OK. But why would I want to live there?

These planets do not have such beautiful bounties of nature like we have on Mother Earth. What beautiful mountains? What beautiful waterfalls and rivers? How many varieties of trees and flowers with so many colors and fragrance? How many beautiful birds and animals? Even the volcanoes have their own beauty if we stay away from them. How about the rainbows and the aurora borealis?

Why would I – for that matter anyone- want to go to a barren land without any scenery and live there? Come to think of that, we cannot even live in those places without our own oxygen supply, temperature control and food. Why would I want to live in any place other than earth?

This is not to disagree with space exploration. This is to keep space exploration in proper perspective while appreciating the wonders of nature right here on earth and protecting her for future generations.

How about exploring our own planet and our own “interior landscape” with respect and better understanding?

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Understanding of Human Mind in Buddhist Teachings

 “A cloud never dies” is the name of a documentary on the life of Venerable Thich Naht Hanh narrated by Mr. Peter Coyote. Watching it was a moving experience since I have been in the presence of “Thay” on  two occasions for extended periods listening to his Dharma talks and taking part in his morning walking meditation on two occasions.

Reflecting on my own growth in spirituality, I know how much his teachings helped me. I consider him Buddha reborn in the 20th century to re-establish the original teachings. “Thay” calls his approach “engaged Buddhism”. It is a perfect designation.

I consider myself a spiritual person at this stage in life. I was born and brought up in a traditional Hindu family immersed in the daily rituals of worshiping the Divine in everything. I have delved deeply into my tradition. I have also read extensively about other traditions from both the east and the west. I am no scholar. But have reflected deeply looking for common  threads, and messages of peace, and harmony in the various traditions of the world.

Based on my readings and reflections, it appears that Buddhist tradition is one which places emphasis on living a wholesome life in this phenomenal world and at the same time makes us aware of the spiritual dimension of the universe and of ourselves. It emphasizes respect for all forms of life. Buddhist psychology (called abhidharma)  tries to understand the way human mind works. These ancient ideas have been substantiated by modern neuroscience to the point that Buddha is now called the “Physician of the Mind”.

Buddhist meditation techniques offer practical methods, simple to practice and accessible to everyone. One can use it for body relaxation or pain reduction. One can use it for understanding oneself and others and develop compassion and loving-kindness. One can use these techniques to make connections between the historical elements and the Universal elements. It can help overcome the pitfalls in human perceptions, reasoning, and actions without demanding absolute faith in any dogma, even its own.

One other attractive and useful approach of  Buddhism-inspired meditation (particularly the Mindfulness idea) is that it starts with helping to build on one’s strengths before touching the weaknesses. This is the opposite of the approach of traditional psychology and psychiatry, which focuses on the “problem” area, trying to find its cause in the psychology and behavior of the individual.

In Buddhist abhidharma, we learn that all of us are born with 51 mental formations. Some of them are wholesome and helpful, such as loving kindness, compassion, and mindfulness.  Some are unwholesome and harmful, such as hate and prejudice. All of us have all of them in our “store consciousness” as seeds. We have to learn how to water the “good” seeds. Meditation techniques have been developed and practiced over centuries to help “water the good seeds” in us.

Because of the reasons I have listed in the previous paragraph, these ideas can be practiced by anyone from any religion, tradition, or culture. Hopefully the abhidharma (spiritual psychology) of Buddhist teachings which should be acceptable to all cultures and traditions can become the foundation for peace and harmony in the 21st century.