Tuesday, July 07, 2009

John Blofeld

I just finished Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin. Quite a lovely book for me. I'm considering Avalokita for my potential sadhana.

In the FWBO you get a sadhana when you join the order. You can of course visualize what ever you want, but to be given a sadhana, initiated, is a wonderful thing. I can also visualize the refuge tree, as part of the prostration practice, which is a maximal practice. Also in there have been other visualization practices done on retreat. So I wondered if Blofeld got the sadhana too quickly, without doing preliminary work, but with such a beautiful book, I think it worked out for him. This personal account is well worth reading.

I have a friend who has a tattoo on his left upper arm of Kuan Yin (Guan Yin on Wikipedia and I've also seen Quan Yin). I also have a friend who named her dog Kuan Yin.

I have a strong interest in Avalokitsvra. My first little talk in front of my sangha was about Avalokita. Avalokita is also in the Heart Sutra, which is an amazing text. The legend of wanting to save everyone in Enlightenment, and blowing up and being put back together by Amitabha, resonates with me. Amitabha's mantra is often chanted in Pure Land Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism which is more devotional. It turns out that Kuan Yin is also evoked and prayed to in a Pure Land tradition.

Blofeld write, "Do not fall into the trap of making distinctions that are meaningful only at a very superficial level. Ch'an, Pure Land and Vajrayana are not three paths to the same goal, but three gateways to the same path, or even one gateway seen in various lights." (p. 121).

He quotes someone saying, "All the sects are like beads on one rosary." (p. 84). He does come at it with a western rational mind, but comes to see Kuan Yin as something that really exists outside his mind, in the world. I appreciate his very personal struggle to make sense of the tradition he did not grow up in.

He gets a little polemical in the end:

"We must cease unctuously exposing children to boring sermons, to affirmations of belief in which we have little or no faith ourselves, to notions of vengeful deities befouled by the smoke of burnt offerings, to symbols of agonizing death quite opposite to a child's inborn conception of what is good and beautiful and joyous. Children's innate perceptions must not be smothered but set free!" (p.140).

I have had to live a lifetime under the dominance of Christianity. It did not fit with me. It wasn't until I found the dharma that I understood what everyone was going on about, I can imagine Christianity now.

To me Blofeld is persuasive about opening my mind to Pure Land, and to opening the mind to the richness of ideas outside our culture. I feel like he gets it, I feel sympatico. It makes me want to read the book on Pure Land that I got at Aryaloka.

I find it interesting the way he traces the origins of Kuan Yin to Avalokitesvra, and I wonder if there is not some American legendary figure that can be transformed into a Bodhisattva. Paul Bunyon? He might be more a manifestation of Manjushri, with his axe instead of a sword. Johnny Appleseed? He was a Christian missionary, so I won't appropriate him for Buddhism. The legendary figures of the west are too violent to be Bodhisattvas. I would say Casey Jones was too obsessed with work, he dies at the throttle. Likewise with John Henry. Roy Hobbs is too sports oriented. I can't find an American folk hero that can be an American manifestation of Avalokita.

Maybe that guy who laid down on the subway tracks to save a man, Wesley Autrey. I'm also inspired by the freedom fighters who died, like Viola Liuzzo.

Anyway, I'm not yet ready to chant their mantras to be reborn in their pure lands, but that brings to mind Bante's quote about pure lands:

"There is never going to be a kind of spiritual welfare state. The goal for everyone is to be oneself a creator of a Pure Land, not an endless consumer of spiritual goodies." (p112 Living Ethically).

I don't believe in mappo, Nichiren's idea that things have degenerated so much that we can't become enlightened. I just don't think it's a helpful idea. If it's proven true, I suppose I'd have to believe it, but I don't know how someone could prove it was true.

So to conclude, this book has many interesting angles from the slice of life in Asia, to the personal spiritual journey, to the thoughts about Pure Land Buddhism, not to mention a detailed meditation on Kaun Yin. I recommend it. It's published by Shambhala, a fine Buddhist publisher.

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