The Five Skandhas, or, Sometimes you can’t see the Trees for the Forest

Forest Trees - Trees Forest

 

There is the argument of conventional wisdom; over yonder is the forest. Don’t get caught up in seeing the trees, or you’ll miss the forest! One of the challenges of Buddhism is to turn this around, to point to the forest and ask, “What is that?”, and not cease until we arrive at a conclusive answer. There is a spirit of vigorous and unrelenting inquiry involved in Buddhist phenomenology.

One might begin the contemplation of a forest as a forest, and then proceed to identify that as a grouping of trees, and then proceed to identify that further by taking into account that there are not only trees in the forest, but there are also flowers, and other flora, and animals, and insects, and soil, and oxygen, and sunlight, and minerals, and so on.

This begins to point to the teaching of interdependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda), which states that all dharmas (i.e. things/phenomena) arise in dependence upon other dharmas.

“If this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.”

For the sake of convenience we say “forest”, but if we push beyond that, even just a little, it starts to break down.

Where can the forest be found?
Continue reading

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Teacher of Gods and Humanity

Buddha, Indra, Brahma

Buddha, Indra, Brahma

Śāsta deva-manusyānam – “teacher of gods and men (i.e. humanity)”. This is one of the titles of Buddha Shakyamuni. While many may be familiar with Buddha Shakyamuni’s role as a teacher for human beings, it is interesting to note that in traditional Buddhist cosmology, many of the the gods and goddesses (i.e. devas and devis) are themselves not fully liberated from samsara. Buddhadharma speaks of the Three Realms or Three Worlds (Trailokya); the Kāmaloka (Desire Realms), Rūpaloka (Form Realms), and Arūpaloka (Formless Realms). The Kāmaloka is further categorized into the Six Realms, thus:

Deva-gati, the God Realms

Asura-gati, the Titan Realms

Manusya-gati, the Human Realms

Tiryagyoni-gati, the Animal Realms

Preta-gati, the Hungry Ghost Realms

Naraka-gati, the Hell Realms

According to lamrim teachings, all of these six realms are samsaric in nature, meaning all six realms are tinged with dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness) to varying degrees. According to this view, while devas and devis (gods and goddesses) may live an incalculably longer existence than humans, and may enjoy pleasures and delights unheard of in the human realm, they too die, and by the force of their karma, may again take rebirth in one of the six realms.

When generating bodhicitta, Buddhist practitioners will often contemplate the various realms, and the forms of suffering related to them, and with the vast expanse of beings in mind, generate compassion for them all. It is also not uncommon for Buddhists to do practices to prevent them from taking rebirth in the god realms because this can be seen as a distraction from attaining full liberation and enlightenment (i.e. becoming a Buddha). The human realm is considered ideal because it is, in a sense, “mixed” in that there is both pleasure and pain, joy and suffering readily evident. This can awaken the intention to attain liberation. Comparatively, in the hell realms the suffering is so great and constant that it is extremely rare for a being in these realms to take up Dharma practice, and in the god realms, the joy is so great that practice is often neglected as well, and the fall from such an existence, the loss of the enjoyment of the god realms, often provokes deep suffering.

May all beings have happiness and its causes.
May all beings be free of suffering and its causes.
May all beings never be separated from bliss without suffering.
May all beings be in equanimity, free of ignorance, attachment and aversion.

Karma, Part 1

Endless Knot

“Kamma should be known. The cause by which kamma comes into play should be known. The diversity in kamma should be known. The result of kamma should be known. The cessation of kamma should be known. The path of practice for the cessation of kamma should be known.”

[From the Nibbedhika Sutta – Penetrative Insight. AN 6.63]

Despite its popularity as a term in contemporary language and conversation, our understating of karma is often misinformed, or lacking profundity.

There is the thought “If you squash a bug, in your next life you will be reborn as a bug and get squashed.”

There is the thought “My life sucks; it is full of obstacles and disappointments. I must have some really bad karma.”

There is the thought “Those evil guys will get what’s coming to them. Karma’s a bitch.”

From a Buddhist perspective karma is more nuanced, complex, and intricate than what is typically being expressed in the above examples. Additionally, karma is not an intelligent being, like some Lawgiver in the sky who is tallying up all of our good and bad behaviors in a cosmic account ledger, and deciding upon our death if we will go to the good place or the bad place. Karma is not about retribution, punishment, or vindication. Karma is not about guilt and the possibility of salvation. These are ideas that have been grafted onto the concept of karma held in some societies, especially stemming from (but not limited to) Western cultural influence, traditions, and worldviews.

The past is over, and the future is uncertain. What we have to work with is the present. It is ALWAYS the present. Ten days ago it was the present for me then. If I am around tomorrow, “tomorrow” will be “today”, and it will be the present. This is the way our consciousness works–moment to moment, each moment being a moment of now. Even if we are reflecting on the past, or contemplating the future, we are doing so now, not some other time. This is obvious, yet we somehow often miss it.

Karma, in a Buddhist sense, refers to action, its causes, conditions, and results. Karma is indubitably linked to our intentions. Buddhist ethics is rooted in this understanding of karma, which in turn is rooted in the understanding of the interdependence of all things (Skt. Pratītyasamutpāda).

In future posts I hope to expand upon these ideas, and unpack them a bit for further exploration.

The Noble Eightfold Path

Dharmachakra

The Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes represented symbolically as the eight spokes of the Dharma Wheel. And just like each spoke of a wheel does not work on its own, completely independently and in isolation from the rest, but rather they all act together as a support for the entire wheel, so too, each step on the Noble Eightfold Path acts in conjunction with the rest as a support in ones life for the Dharma. Remove one spoke and the wheel is not as strong. Remove several spokes and the wheel may even collapse. They are all equally important. To follow the Noble Eightfold Path means to be mindful of each of these ‘spokes’ or steps, to put them into practice, day in and day out. Gradually, over time, if we persist, each area of our lives will become more in line with the Dharma until ultimately we are free of suffering and liberated from the unsatisfactory nature of samsara.

The Noble Eightfold Path has been further grouped into three sections, sometimes called the Three Higher Trainings. These are Wisdom, Ethical Conduct and Meditation. Right View and Right Intention are part of Wisdom. Right Speech, Right Action and Right Livelihood are part of Ethical Conduct. Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are part of Meditation.  Continue reading

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha Shakyamuni

Buddha Shakyamuni

It was Siddhartha Gautama, a young prince of the Shakya clan, child of King Shuddhodana and Queen Mayadevi, who became the Buddha, the Awakened One. There were many spiritual teachers before him and there have been many spiritual teachers that have come since. So what makes Gautama special? What makes him the Awakened One? To know this, one can examine the nature of the Buddha’s claims and see if there is any truth to them. The essence of the Buddha’s teachings, what he realized while meditating at the Bodhi Tree, is contained in the Four Noble Truths. These Four Noble Truths are:

The Truth of Suffering
This realization is easy to see, yet we attempt to mask it from ourselves all the time. That is part of the problem. The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering – the pain of birth, aging, sickness, death, association with the unpleasant, losing or not getting what we desire – all these are forms of suffering. This is part of everyday life.

The Truth of the Origin of Suffering
Suffering has a cause, an origin. The cause of all suffering is craving. This means desire to hold on to pleasurable things or experiences and to be rid of unpleasant things or experiences. This is further elucidated by the Three Poisons, which are ignorance, attachment and aversion.

The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering
The Third Noble Truth is that suffering and its causes can cease. There is a way out of this mess. There is a possibility of complete and total liberation, an end to suffering.

The Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering
The Fourth Noble Truth is the path that leads to the end of suffering. This is called the Noble Eightfold Path.

Renunciation

Release

Renunciation is the root of liberation. It is the decision to be free from the repeating cycles of rebirth, sickness, old-age and death, to be free from the uncontrollably spinning wheel, to be free from samsara. Liberation becomes possible when renunciation has arisen in your awareness.

I learned from my teachers that one possible translation into English of the Tibetan word for renunciation is “definite emergence”. There is a sense of great urgency about renunciation. A metaphor that is sometimes used is that your renunciation—your decision to be free from samsara—should be as strong as if you were standing in a fire and wanted to get out of it. There is no debating (Do I want to get out? Maybe I will get out tomorrow?), it is direct, immediate, and determined. Sometimes this immediacy is described as being a ‘”spontaneous” motivation, meaning that it arises naturally and without obstruction. More often, renunciation is something that requires cultivation.

Deeply and carefully reflecting on the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind Toward the Dharma—the precious human rebirth, impermanence and death, the nature of suffering, and karma—aids in the cultivation of renunciation. Taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is only possible with renunciation, because you must first be determined to be free of suffering before you can actively and meaningfully embrace the Three Jewels as reliable supports for liberation. In addition, we need renunciation to be able to generate Bodhicitta, the Mind of Enlightenment, or the Great Compassion.

Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind Toward Dharma

Illuminated Mind

Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind Toward Dharma

1) Precious Human Life
2) Death and Impermanence
3) Karma (Cause and Effect)
4) Suffering (Unsatisfactory Nature of Samsara)

PRECIOUS HUMAN LIFE
In Buddhist terms, a “precious human life” signifies specific freedoms and endowments, such as a reflective mind (the ability to reason, contemplate, analyze, etc.), having all the human sense faculties, having access to Dharma teachings (living in a time and place where the teachings are available), and cultivating an interest in those teachings.

DEATH AND IMPERMANENCE
Death is certain. All beings who are born will experience death. We may try to put it out of our minds, trivialize it, or exaggerate it, yet you and everyone you have ever known will die. Honestly embracing this reality can transform your perspective of life itself.

KARMA
Karma means “action”. Actions arise due to causes, and actions give rise to their attendant effects. This applies to deeds, but also to speech, and thoughts – what Buddhists call “body, speech, and mind” (i.e. what you do, what you say, and what you think). Actions of the body, speech, and mind can be skillful (positive), unskillful (negative), or indifferent (neutral). The motivation and intent behind ones actions is an important factor. With wisdom we can discern between skillful and unskillful actions, cultivating the former, and diminishing the latter.

SUFFERING
Life is pervaded with many types of suffering. There are obvious examples (such as physical pain, sickness, mental anguish and so forth) which are all referred to as “suffering of suffering”. These are apparent to everyone.

There are also more subtle forms of suffering. For example, things that bring you happiness. This may seem counter-intuitive, yet consider for a moment anything that you take great pleasure in – money, sex, status. It could be anything really, even people or other beings – like a loved one, a family member, friends, or a pet. Let’s say it is a loved one (a partner, spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend). This more subtle form of suffering is due to the nature of impermanence. This means that any pleasure or happiness you might feel in regards to your loved one is ultimately tinged by the fact that nothing remains, nothing endures and there are no guarantees. Your partner might change or you might change. There might be infidelity, irreconcilable differences, breaking up, divorce, death, etc. These types of things happen all the time. This is called “suffering of change”. What this means is that anything in which you find great pleasure or happiness in, anything you hold onto, grasp after, cling to, will ultimately cause suffering because it changes, ceases or passes away.

There is also another type of suffering that is even more subtle than this. It is called “all pervasive suffering”. This third type of suffering means that all experiences within conditioned existence – whether painful, pleasurable, or neutral – are ultimately pervaded by suffering due to ignorance, attachment, and aversion.

From a Buddhist perspective this whole cycle happens again and again and again. Over and over since beginningless time our mindstreams experience birth, life, death, and rebirth. Once reborn, we again face old age, sickness, and death, as well as all the other types and forms of suffering. This recurring cycle is called samsara. It is often depicted as a wheel, spinning round and round unceasingly. Liberation, in a Buddhist sense, means liberation from suffering.

For further information, consider investigating the Four Noble Truths.

DEDICATION
I offer this writing to my venerable Dharma teachers, known and unknown, for the kindness they have shown me and countless others. All mistakes and errors are my own. I also offer this to those who are interested in Buddhadharma, yet may not know where to begin to navigate this wonderful Path.

May all beings be free from suffering, and the causes of suffering.

A humble householder striving in the Way.

The Rimé Movement

Jamgön Kongtrül

Jamgön Kongtrül (1813-1899)

The Rimé movement arose in the late 19th century. While many have considered the Rimé approach to be that of a homogenizing eclecticism, minimizing differences, and trying to blend the unique characteristics of the various lineages into one, this is a misconception. Great luminaries of the Rimé movement would often cite the primary lineage they were initiated into, though they also studied other lineages in depth as well. I think this is an important distinction. Rather than dismissing the differences between the teachings and methods of the various lineages and schools as inconsequential, and trying to promote an ‘everything is really the same’ approach, the Rimé movement emphasized the uniqueness of the various lineages, while simultaneously making the teachings available to others who might not have been exposed to them due to sectarianism. See more here.

[Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé was one of the founders of the Rimé movement]

Bodhicitta

“Bodhicitta satisfies with all the varieties of happiness
And cuts free from all suffering
Those who are deprived of happiness
And those endowed with many sorrows.”

[Shantideva, from the Bodhisattva-caryavatara]

Shantideva

Shantideva

What is this strange word, bodhicitta? Where does it come from and what does it mean? Etymologically speaking, we can break it down like this: It is a Sanskrit term that combines the word for “awakened” (bodhi) and the word for “mind” (citta). Taken together, this reads as Awakened-Mind. It is sometimes also translated as the Mind of Enlightenment. This is helpful for us to begin to apprehend what bodhicitta is about, and yet, this is only a beginning, an initial step in the right direction, an intimation towards a reality that is beyond all words, beyond all dictionary definitions, and beyond all abstract thought processes.

The seed of bodhicitta is compassion, which is the wish for all beings to be free of suffering and its causes. Yes, all beings, not just those who are close to you, or those who treat you like you want them to; not just those who reciprocate your kind feelings, or say nice words to you, but all beings (even that punk who cut you off on the road the other day, even that lover that left you sad and lonely, even that father/mother/sister/brother that doesn’t talk to you anymore, even that co-worker or associate that just grates on your nerves, even that…well, you get the point).

Bodhicitta is an orientation, a direction, a motivation that infuses and informs our body (what we do), speech (what we say) and mind (what we think/feel). When we have firmly established bodhicitta, everything we do, everything we say, everything we think and feel will be dedicated to the liberation and enlightenment of all beings. At that point bodhicitta becomes second-nature, it arises spontaneously and effortlessly in all aspects of our lives. Yet we have to begin where we are. For most of us (including myself), we have not yet fully established this level of bodhicitta. But I’ll let you in on a little secret, that is OK. We can get there. It takes time, but we can get there. Keep working on it.

We start out by cultivating compassion. As mentioned above, compassion can be thought of as the wish for all beings to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. One method of cultivating this is through meditation. You can sit quietly, calm your mind and then begin to generate compassion. You can think of those you love to get you started. Think of someone close to you, someone you really care about. Feel the compassion arise in your heart and mind. In time, you can begin to add people who you have an aversion towards, someone who makes you angry, or someone who has hurt you. Begin to generate compassion for them as well. Then you can also add people who you are indifferent towards—people you don’t feel one way or the other about. Generate compassion for them as well. Once you have stabilized compassion in your mindstream then you can begin to cultivate bodhicitta. Whereas compassion is the wish for all beings to be free from suffering, bodhicitta is dedicating all of your energies towards attaining enlightenment so that you can aid all other beings towards liberation and enlightenment as well.

There are two main levels of bodhicitta. The first level of bodhicitta is called Aspiring Bodhicitta. This is where you want to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, but yet, you still are not quite ready to engage in all of the practices to get there. Yet this is still a valuable step. Informed by the compassion you have generated, you sincerely want to do it. You are moving in that direction. The second level of bodhicitta is called Engaged Bodhicitta. This is where you not only want to do it, but you actively engage in the Dharma practices that will carry you all the way to enlightenment, for only a Buddha, an Awakened One, can really help all beings to become Awakened as well. And to get to this state, to attain Buddhahood, we are guided by bodhicitta.

Essence of the Tathagatas

Jestsun Taranatha

Jestsun Taranatha

“So, from primordial time, all that is ultimately consumed within the exalted dimensions, types of pristine awareness, qualities, and enlightened activities abides within the essence of the tathgatas. When someone becomes a Buddha, these are not then newly acquired but are merely separated from the defilements that have eclipsed them.”

[From The Essence of Zhentong by Jetsun Taranatha]

In other words, according to this teaching the innate quality of your mind is ultimate clarity, or Awakeness. However, for most of us this Awakeness is obstructed by habitual patterns, conditioning, and various forms of obscuration. This situation has been likened to a mirror covered in dust and grime. The mirror is there beneath the dust. Wipe the dust away, and the mirror will shine forth.

According to this teaching, buddha-nature is not something you presently lack, and can later acquire. Buddha-nature is something you already have, it is the very essence of your mind. The difference between ordinary beings and fully enlightened buddhas is that the latter have removed the obstructions that prevent this Awakeness from shining forth. This is a task of Dharma practice, to remove the obstructions and obscurations. There are innumerable methods available for doing this, applicable to beings of different capacities and dispositions.

OM AH HUM