I would like to compare attitudes to religion across three periods of history: the traditional period, the modern period, and the post-modern period. Religions are generally associated with the traditional period, when they held sway, whereas the modern period is characterised by religion’s loss of dominance. It should be noted that different people, countries and areas of the world are at different points in the cycle: even within the same city it is possible to find modern and even post-modern people living in close proximity with traditional people.
Religion has survived in the modern period, although it has lost its dominance. Modern religion has different characteristics from traditional religion. A good place to find a systematic characterisation of modern religion is Donald Lopez’ book “A Modern Buddhist Bible” where he writes:
“Certainly, modern Buddhism shares many of the characteristics of other projects of modernity, including the identification of the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies in relation to the present. Modern Buddhism rejects many of the ritual and magical elements of previous forms of Buddhism, it stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual over the community. (p.ix)”
Lopez also points out that modern Buddhism, like other modern expressions of religion, seeks to associate itself with the ideals of the European ‘Enlightenment’ such as “reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and the rejection of religious orthodoxy” (p.x).
Regarding the modern notion of progress which identifies “the present as a standpoint from which to reflect upon previous periods in history and to identify their deficiencies”, this is in sharp contrast to the traditional religious notion of degeneration (found in both Islam and Buddhism), which views the original teaching / revelation period (via the Prophet Mohammed and the Buddha respectively) as the ‘Golden Age’ and all subsequent generations as degenerating, more or less steeply, in virtues and accomplishments. Modernism is enamoured with the idea of progress and views the present as the most progressive age, looking down upon the ‘backwardness’ of previous ages, even the times of Mohammed and the Buddha.
The trick with modernism, as with all ideological prisms, is to recognise it as such from within. It appears so neutral, so objective, yet it is anything but. For example, the project of presenting Ibn Arabi’s philosophy to a ‘modern’ audience presupposes that such an audience even exists – in fact ‘modern’ times may be over, and the assumptions of modernism may be as (ir)relevant as the assumptions of Victorian Christianity.
Unlike modernism, post-modernism is not opposed to traditional religion. Post-modernism is basically looking for good stories (texts) and religions provide these (though it is worth noting that post-modernism prefers to relativise rather than accept any one story’s claim to absolute truth). The real strength of post-modernism comes from inhabiting the text: only by immersing oneself in the text and appreciating it from its own perspective can the story exert its full weight and narrative drive. Modernism, weighed down by its positivist agenda and burden of ‘objectivity’, can never cross the threshold of the religious text – it can only view it as a ‘spectacle’, like a tourist visiting Westminster Abbey. That is why modernists cannot truly appreciate religion.
Like traditionalists, post-modernists can and do step over the threshold of participation, and experience the force of the religious text. In this respect both are the “blind followers” so derided by modernists. The difference is that, unlike traditionalists, post-modernists retain a ‘knowing’ attitude (almost like Orwellian double-think) which enables them to simultaneous immerse themselves in and retain distance from the text.
Ayurveda uses the elements as its basis for understanding human physiology. Ailments and diseases are understood as imbalances in our basic elemental constitution. Ayurvedic doctors will first try to discover your basic constitution (Sanskrit: prakruti) and then diagnose its disease condition (vikruti) http://ayurveda.iloveindia.com/prakruti-vikruti/index.html
Because Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India, Tibet, Nepal and Sri Lanka, it uses the Buddhist and Hindu elemental structure, i.e. wind, fire, earth and water. It groups the elements together to produce the three principal physiological types (Tri-Dosha):
- Vata (wind)
- Pitta (fire)
- Kapha (water and earth)
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso refers to the four elements and the Ayurvedic disease aetiology in his book ‘Heart of Wisdom’ when he says: “Internal hindrances arise from causes within our body and mind. Like the external environment our body can be considered as composed of the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind, which, broadly, have the nature of solidity, liquidity, heat, and movement, respectively. If these four internal elements are in a state of harmonious equilibrium our body is healthy. When they are out of balance our body experiences a variety of problems and diseases. It has been said that our body is like a basket containing four poisonous snakes that constantly wrestle with each other. In that situation, if one snake becomes stronger than the rest it will overcome and kill the others. In a similar way, the very delicate balance between the four internal elements that is necessary for our body to be healthy can easily be disturbed by one element becoming dominant. Because of this the internal elements of our body are a source of recurring hindrances in the form of ill health, disease, and pain.” (from the chapter ‘A Method To Overcome Hindrances’).
Ayurveda uses a variety of remedies to rebalance the elements. Many of them work via the sense of taste, because taste is method for absorbing elements from the external world. Ayurveda divides tastes into six categories: sweet, sour, salty, pungent (hot), bitter, astringent. These tastes are produced by combinations of the elements in our food (e.g. pungent = fire + air, astringent = air + earth). The full set is listed here http://www.sanatansociety.org/indian_vegetarian_recipes/ayurveda_six_tastes.htm
Geshe-la mentions the construction of tastes in ‘Great Treasury of Merit’ when he comments on the line from ‘Lama Chopa’:
Nutritious food and drink endowed with a hundred flavours
And delicacies of gods and men heaped as high as a mountain;
“The text says that we offer food ‘with a hundred flavours’, which literally means a hundred and eight flavours. There are six principal flavours: sweet, sour, bitter, astringent, hot, and salty; and each of these can be produced in combinations such as sweet-sweet and sweet-sour, making a total of thirty-six flavours. Each of these flavours can be strong, middling, or weak — making a total of a hundred and eight different flavours.”
The Food Guidelines on ayurveda.com provide a breakdown of which foods offer a balanced diet for each physiological type. For example, the foods recommended for Pitta types emphasise bitter, astringent and sweet tastes, i.e. those tastes which do not include the fire element.
The story of the Indian Buddhist master Atisha and his insulting cook sheds light on the practice of indicting the self. When Venerable Atisha took Buddhism from India to Tibet he also took a rude cook with him who was in the habit of insulting Atisha. The Tibetans, who held Atisha in high esteem, were astonished at the cook’s behaviour and offered to find a replacement but Atisha told them that he needed this man. Everyone else was so polite and respectful to Atisha that this rude, contemptuous cook was a precious resource.
Atisha was a practitioner of training the mind, a special branch of Buddhist practice that subsequently became known in Tibet as lojong. Practitioners of training the mind are very skillful at transforming adverse conditions into the spiritual path – at making positives out of negatives. The heart of this practice is indicting the self. This is what Geshe Chekhawa means when he says “gather all blame into one” in Seven Verses of Mind Training. Atisha and his followers, known as the Kadampa Geshes, recognised that all of our problems, suffering and unhappiness are caused by our false sense of self-importance. Therefore it is appropriate to indict or blame this false sense of self.
Atisha’s cook was a valuable resource because he reminded Atisha of the negative aspect of himself while everybody else was busy venerating and respecting him. Because Atisha was a humble spiritual practitioner he would not have lightly dismissed the cook’s insults, thinking “I will accept these insults patiently but really I know that they are false.” Instead, Atisha would have considered the insults carefully, examining his own self for faults. If the cook accused Atisha of arrogance, heartlessness, or fakery then Atisha would have scrutinised himself, suspecting that the cook may be right. This is why the cook was such a precious resource. Atisha advised us not to think about our own good qualities but instead to think about the good qualities of others, and not to think of the faults of others but instead consider our own faults and purge them as if they are bad blood.
If we do not indict our false sense of self-importance it will inflict misery on ourselves and others. The Koran calls the self (Arabic: nafs) in its raw state “the self that commands to evil” (Sura 12:53). The next state is the “self-accusing self” (Sura 75:2). This corresponds to the Kadampa practice of gathering all blame into one. The self-accusing self is our conscience, which is able to objectively see our own faults. Objectivity is key, because it is important not to turn the practice of indicting our self into a process of beating ourselves up, causing low self-esteem. We should identify and analyse our own faults, skillfully turning negative situations into opportunities for personal growth, but we shouldn’t invent faults that aren’t there. Atisha would have taken his cook’s insults seriously, and checked to see whether he really had the faults he was being accused of. However, if he concluded that the fault wasn’t present then he wouldn’t have engaged in caustic over-analysis or self-berating.
By gathering all blame into one through indicting the false sense of self, we reach the stage the Koran calls the self “at peace” (Sura 89:27). We achieve a happy and peaceful mind and are no longer subject to misery and fear, because we have eliminated its root cause, our false sense of self-importance.
As many of us come from a Christian background, one of the main things we consciously or unconsciously expect from a religion is forgiveness. Christianity’s starting point is our imperfection, our inability to keep moral laws (mitzvah), the fact that we are ‘sinners’. Christ embodies God’s forgiveness. His role is to restore our relationship (Covenant) with God despite the fact that we are unable to keep moral discipline ourselves.
I think we can say with some confidence that some of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s disciples have trouble keeping moral discipline. Some of us are ‘sinners’ who need forgiveness. We need to forgive ourselves, and we would like to be forgiven by others. When forgiveness from others is in short supply it can be difficult to have the confidence to forgive yourself.
The opposite of forgiving yourself is blaming yourself. It took me a long time to stop blaming myself for my failure to keep my moral discipline and fulfil the mission my spiritual guide had given me, of setting up Dharma Centres in Mexico. Learning not to blame myself doesn’t mean ignoring the faults that led to my downfall. For me it means looking at the wider context, and understanding that my downfall was a dependent-arising, and my own faults were just part of the story.
Given the type of person I was, with the limited skills I had, it was almost inevitable that I would fail. But as Hazrat Ali said, “failure is my greatest teacher”. I have learned a lot about myself as a result, and I have been forced to look at some of the parts of myself that I least wanted to see.
I think that one of the real challenges for Buddhism in the West – not just the NKT – is whether it can incorporate forgiveness. If it cannot, then maybe it will not flourish here. As with all these things, we are the ones who have to make it happen, we can’t be waiting around expecting others to do it. We need to forgive ourselves and others. If we can truly practice forgiveness then us `sinners’ can make Buddhism in the West great. Christianity is a religion for sinners which has produced great saints. Can Buddhism be the same?
A few years after I disrobed I had a dream. The dream was set 500 years in the future (about 2500CE). Kadampa Buddhism was flourishing. A group of historians were reviewing the different phases of its development. They concluded that the first generation, the Old Kadampas, were saints. The second generation, the New Kadampas, were scholars and yogis, and the third generation, the New New Kadampas were criminals! They had succeeded BECAUSE they were able to come to terms with and deal with their impurity — they had not made the mistakes of denial and holier-than-thou pretence.
Wishful dreaming on my part, no doubt. And there are many New New Kadampas practising purely to whom the word criminal certainly doesn’t apply. But to those of us who are ‘criminals’ I think we have a great part to play if we can really learn to forgive ourselves and others.
“The things we normally see do not exist” is one of the phrases for which Geshe Kelsang Gyatso would most like to be remembered. it is a wake-up call to us all, heartfelt advice that we should integrate into our daily lives and our way of perceiving the world.
The reason why “the things we normally see do not exist” is because the things we normally see appear to exist inherently, independent of their parts and the minds which perceive them. During his Universal Compassion teachings in Summer 2008, Geshe Kelsang explained how we can overcome our ignorant grasping at inherent existence. He described how we should analyze with wisdom the way things normally appear to our minds. The following paragraphs are my edited notes from his teaching:
“What does it mean to search for things with wisdom? Through wisdom we develop the sincere wish to understand the way things really are, which is called ultimate truth. With this wish, if we search for things, then we are doing so with wisdom. This is called an ultimate search.
“When we search for things that we have lost such as our car we are searching for things with ignorance. This is called a conventional search. If we lose our car we believe that the car we normally see is lost, but this car does not exist! This is ignorance. Then we believe we have found the car that we normally see. This is also ignorance! We should know that although we see things, our way of seeing things is mistaken.
“When we see a car we see a car within its parts. In reality a car does not exist within its parts because neither the individual parts nor the collection of parts is the car. If we search with our wisdom eye we will not find the car. We will realize that it does not exist in the way we think. We will realize the emptiness [Sanskrit: shunyata] of the car. We meditate on this single-pointedly for as long as possible until we develop deep familiarity.
“In the same way we see our body. Whenever we see our body we see it within its parts. In reality our body does not exist within its parts, because they are the parts of the body not the body itself, however there is no body other than its parts. Through understanding this we will perceive the emptiness of our body.
“In the same way when we see our self we see our self within our body and mind. In reality our self does not exist within our body and mind because they are our possessions and our self is the possessor. However there is no self other than our body or mind.
“We can apply this to all phenomena. Then we will realize the emptiness of all phenomena. We should meditate on this and hold it without forgetting.”
(For more detailed teachings on emptiness, please refer to Heart of Wisdom by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, available from http://www.tharpa.com)
In a separate teaching Geshe Kelsang Gyatso has said that the mind which is completely mixed with the emptiness of all phenomena can validly be called God (see my article God and Buddhism). So, when the veils of illusion are removed, what remains is God.
In a poem called The Theophany of Perfection by Ibn Arabi, God addresses the disciple, revealing the veiled truth behind “the things that we normally see”.
“Oh, my beloved! How many times I have called you without your hearing Me!
How many times I have shown myself without your looking at Me!
How many times I have become perfume without your inhaling Me!
How many times I have become food without your tasting Me!
How is it that you do not smell Me in what you breathe?
How do you not see Me, not hear Me?
I am more delicious than anything delicious,
More desirable than anything desirable,
More perfect than anything perfect.
I am Beauty and Grace!
Love Me and love nothing else
Let Me be your sole concern to the exclusion of all concerns!”
(quoted in An Ocean With Shore by Michel Chodkiewicz, State University of New York, 1993)
In his Lojong teachings Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says that we can see this world as a Pure Land of Buddha, because for a Lojong practitioner every situation provides a perfect training opportunity. However in his Mahamudra teachings Geshe Kelsang emphasizes the impurity of this world.
During his Mahamudra teachings in the summer of 2007 Geshe Kelsang taught about sleep. He said that sleep is a subtle mind which causes sense awareness to cease. While awake we use our five sense awarenesses but
“these sense awarenesses, normally, for ordinary beings, always perceive inherently existent forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile objects”.
These are the five objects of desire.
“We are like flies, always wanting, seeking these objects.”
Our mind is always grasping at these objects, therefore we have no opportunity to experience inner peace during waking, instead we experience unpleasant feelings such as worry, attachment, anger and dissatisfaction.
“We are like a negative person during waking.”
When we sleep our gross minds such as our sense awarenesses cease. All the problems we experience during waking cease. Deep sleep activates our very subtle mind, which functions to perceive emptiness (shunyata), but we cannot recognize it because we have insufficient mindfulness. Therefore we need to train in Mahamudra meditation to activate our very subtle mind during waking. This involves trying to replicate the sleep process by causing our sense awarenesses and other gross minds to cease. (Please see Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s books Mahamudra Tantra or Clear Light of Bliss for a detailed explanation.)
Geshe Kelsang says that the path to liberation taught in Mahamudra Tantra is different from that taught in Sutra, because in his Sutra teachings the Buddha never mentions subtle or very subtle minds. In fact, in the Sutras the Buddha teaches that liberation (nirvana) can be attained by working with our normal (i.e. gross) perceptions. For example, in the Rohitassa Sutta (Samyutta-Nikaya (I, ii, 3.6)) Rohitassa, the some of a god (deva) asks the Buddha if there is some place
“where, lord, does one not get born, nor grow old, nor die, nor leave one’s sphere for another, nor get reborn? Now is one able, lord, by walking to come to know the end of the world, or to see it, or to get there?”. The Buddha replies that there is no such place, but that “it is in this fathom-long carcass [i.e. the human body], friend, with its impressions and its ideas that, I declare, lies the world, and the cause of the world, and the cessation of the world, and the course of action that leads to the cessation of the world.”
In the Sutras the Buddha therefore recommends, as a path to liberation, meditative practices which work with our normal sense perceptions and mental awarenesses, such as the four ‘close-placements of mindfulness’. (For more information on these close-placements please read the book Satipatthana – The Direct Path to Realization by Ven. Analayo.)
The idea that this body is a suitable basis for achieving liberation is in accordance with the Abrahamic religions. At the core of all of these religions is God’s creation of Adam and Eve in His own image or form. According to Muslim tradition God fashioned man from clay and then breathed life into him. Muslims believe that man has a privileged place in creation because God taught man “all the names” (Qur’an:2:31).
“To say that God created man in his own form implies that man’s meaning is designated by God’s all-comprehensive name, which denotes both the Essence and all the divine attributes. When the Qur’an says God taught Adam “all the names,” this means that he taught him all the names of God and creation. These names designate God as the One/Many, the single Essence that comprehends all reality, what Ibn ‘Arabi commonly calls “the Divine Presence”.” (from Ibn ‘Arabi – Heir to the Prophets by William C. Chittick, OneWorld 2005, p74).
It is because God taught man “all the names” that man has the potential to achieve perfection (i.e. liberation).