Saturday, February 28, 2015

Mindfulness of the Buddha

(Udumvara flower)

This is a book review of The Life of the Buddha (Penguin Classics). As noted in a previous blog, the book was written by Tenzin Chogyel in Bhuttan about 250 plus years ago. He's in the Kagyu sect of Buddhism, so the Buddha taught the Mahayana ideals and the tantric spells. This new translation is a blessing. I think it's the first one of this text. It makes me wonder how many other great texts are out there untranslated.

The literature of Buddhism is vast and it can take a long time to read it even with what is already translated. There is even the phenomenon of book buddhists, people who read Buddhist books and find them quite enjoyable and in harmony with their aspirations. I have a similarly modern approach to Buddhism that at the beginning involved a lot of books before I took the plunge into sangha and meditation. There are also tattoo Buddhists, people who put a Buddha on their body, but don't really know much about Buddhism. There are Buddhist who think it's presumptuous to read these texts and meditate, because they've been told it's only for the monks. There's all kinds of Buddhism and there is also a unique form blossoming in America and other countries that where not traditionally Buddhist.

My experience is that Karen Armstrong's biography of the Buddha is a fair place to start. Even though she's not a Buddhist, she's a great spiritual writer. The best book is the collection of biographical elements, by Nanamoli. (The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon). There is a bibliography of recommended books that include Nanamoli and some other books I'm hoping to get to. It's fun to see the differences in this version. Like he had 32 nursemaids as a baby. Vivshpani Blomfeeld's book on the Buddha wasn't on the list, but that's a deep meditation on the Buddha that included stuff I didn't see elsewhere. Unfortunately it's not in print in America, so you can buy a used copy or an electronic version.

I can't remember the scriptures that talk about a fellow who's meditation practice was just to recall his experiences with the buddha, and thinking about the Buddha. Recollecting the Buddha is a positive thing. When I hit on a theme, I chant a mantra that is most appropriate throughout the day. I chant the Buddha mantra. You can also imagine him with you during you day.

There are issues with the miracles. As a modern skeptical person, sometimes it's not clear for me how to translate things from literal to mythical. What does it mean to be born out of the side of someone, instead of coming out the vagina? Do they think women are dirty? Is that misogyny? At the very least it signals him as someone unique who begins talking right after birth. I take it that he has done so much work in his previous lives, that he really hits the ground running.

I don't really have to make sense of it, I can just enjoy it. I've been writing about re-enchanting life, and this account of the Buddha's life certainly does that from a Bhutanese Kagyu perspective 250 plus years ago. There are some interesting little sketches: Mara doodles in the dirt after the Buddha moves past him. There are sections where the devotional writing is inspirational.

If you're looking for your first biography or even second, I might miss this one because you might get some sectarian impressions of the Buddha's life (unless that is your school, of course, or you're considering that school). But if you've read a few biographies and wish to contemplate the Buddha in a new translation, this is a pretty good little book. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Tenzin Chogyel

No much can be found about Tenzin Chogyel on line. There's a living musician with a similar name. Tenzin Chogyel lived from 1701-1767, two hundred years before I was born. He wrote a version of the Buddha's life that Penguin thought to publish a new translation. Maybe Kurtis R Schaeffer translated it, and then looked for a publisher. Either way, I'm glad they both extended the effort. This is a beautiful text that I have not read before.

There is a beautiful rupa on the cover. I took a picture of the opening.

I got frustrated with the introduction but I read most of it. The first few chapters are very inspiration, it's inspired writing. I could imagine chanting the whole book over a night, like I have read the Diamond Sutra passing the book around the shrine room.

Tenzin Chogyel was from Bhutan, and was the head man of religious affairs for a while. It's suggested that this work was meant for new students. He's part of the Kagyu sect, which is  a red hat sect, along with Gelug and Sakya. The Kagyu sect has many sub-sects.

I went on line to see if there are any flights to The Eagle's Nest, and I couldn't get a flight to Bhutan after looking at about 20 websites, but then I realized I was only looking at American flight. It looks more complicated to find flights though. Looks like they have similar seasons to the US, July is the hottest month, January is their coldest month. They're supposedly making the biggest statue of the Buddha. Wish I could just fly there now, if it was just to update Wikipedia.


The Life of the Buddha (Penguin Classics) p. 4

"Proud fools rest ever in their errors
Saying senseless things in greed hatred and ignorance."

Saturday, February 21, 2015


Walking by a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary, I didn't have that enchanted feeling. I've been asking myself do I need to re-enchant life? There was a time when I saw a Buddhist rupa, that I wanted to bow down and prostrate to the spiritual ideals. The reverence for the wise ones had an enchanting spell. That was when I was meditating a lot, when I was reading a lot, when I was spending a lot of time with spiritual friends. I've worked myself into very alert states. But inevitably the retreat would end and I would go back to my workaday life. There were times when I would meditate at lunch, so excited from a retreat, that I ended up meditating 2 times a day, sometimes three. I have done pujas, where I felt a kind of bliss and the mantras felt magical. I can begin to approach those things. But my question is whether that is necessary. Do I need that spiritual high to sustain my life, or can I do a kind of "nothing special" approach. One of the aspects of Buddhist modernity is that I'm aware of all the choices. I don't go to the local guy and learn what he learns. In an modern open source Buddhism, I can see all the options, try them on. People will say you lose something by not committing to one tradition, and I'm sure there is more truth there than just the branding and the sectarian thinking. Any good tradition guards the deeper practices to protect the spiritual aspirant from spiritual indigestion, from eating too many rich practices. There is a system of practice. To flit from system to system, you don't get deep into the system. On the other hand some people have said it's easier to get enlightened than to get ordained into some systems, but each sect has a right to control who is teaching that sect. There are slick teachers, who turned out to be sleeping with everyone, and that shows a kind of disconnect from the ideals. Honest and sincere isn't always the slickest. Some movements don't have a charismatic leader. The system is more important than any individual teacher, which reminds me of the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. The system is the star, not the individual players on the team, the team is the star. It's quite possible the best teacher for you isn't some famous person, or even advanced person, maybe someone closer to your level who has struggled like you, and can say it was worth it, could be a better teacher.

Back to my question, does my spiritual life need to be re-enchanted? What would it give me? Would it add power and focus to my meditation? Would it help me to study more? Would it help me to find sangha? What is it about an enchanted spiritual life would be useful?

The Life of the Buddha (Penguin Classics) came in the mail today. Looking forward to dipping into this, back to basics.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

the positive side of dreams

Felt I should follow up on yesterday's post about escapism with further meditations and thoughts.

Dreaminess isn't all bad, and it's part of the process of developing your vision, reaching for am much as you can. I watched the updated Walter Mitty, based on the Thurber story yesterday with my sons, and in this version Walter Mitty changes his core personality in the end and is a doer and not just a dreamer. I think that evolution is possible for everyone.

I read a book about daydream interpretation, the point being you can interpret those as well, and that thinking about them can be really useful.

The negotiation between dreams, limited resources, planning ahead and accepting opportunity costs is all very important.

I'll end with Langston Hughes' famous poem.


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Saturday, February 14, 2015


One time on retreat, a woman suggested that sport talk radio was escapism. I was surprised at how quick the denial came out of my mouth, and I say today that sports fandom is escapism. As a person working hard to squeeze out the most meaningful life, I ended up in social work, and this has been a challenge because I can be a sensitive person. Even worse, now I'm in child welfare, which is for the thickest of the skins. No Rogerian unconditional positive regard. There are systems of condescension and blame. I thought I heard the worst stories of abuse in the female prison I worked in. Well, child welfare has them too. The secondary trauma of listening to trauma is perhaps what the social worker hopes to master as the wounded healer.

I sat down to read a book about one my new escapist subjects (How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization ), soccer, and walked into grim descriptions of hooliganism in Serbia and Croatia. At least I had been warned the book started out negative and then got progressively more positive as it went along.

And then there's the entitlement of compensatory indulgences, the feeling that I dislike being put upon so much to work, that I have the right to gork out on light ensemble friendship sitcoms while playing video games.

And then there's the pure laziness, the immaturity of only wanting to do what I want to do. There are times when I subjugate myself so much for others, that I go on strike. I actually love giving to others, but sometimes I feel needy.

My flawed human approach to Buddhism was a reflection of my own personality and sometimes what I presented gave people the impression of escapism. That should have been a sign. Life teaches you the same lessons over and over until you get it. Don't imagine my escapism tinged Buddhism is the real Buddhism, I think it's counter to that actually. Meditation is about facing your experience, instead of running after the various escapist sticks, turning to the stick thrower. Engaged Buddhism is about facing problems in society and yourself. Not escapist at all.

So like this family the father sees his face in everyone, I see myself in my escapism. It is everywhere.


Sunday, February 08, 2015

Billy Collins poem

Shoveling Snow with the Buddha (Billy Collins)

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Free Will

"Just as a ball of string that is thrown, will run away always unwinding, even so the fool and the wise running on, circling around, will eventually make an end of suffering." DN i.53-55

Jayarava has a great blog about free will, and he really reads the texts closely. Optimistic determinism of sorts as far as I can tell.