In this piece let us attempt to see something different – something through the lens of an observer-observed, subject-object perspective. I have covered and explored the entangled relationship between the two – in the light of Buddhist thoughts (Gautama Buddha – The Tathagata) and modern science – as revealed in Quantum Mechanics (see The Quantum World; The Power of Mind).
Let us do it in the format of a conversation between the observer (Humphreys) and the observed (Visakha). The naming of these two is to remember and honor – and to orient ourselves to some historic contexts related to Buddha Dharma development. The names are only intended to honor them – in the format of a story – and have nothing to do with the actual description of their characters. A brief of their life is outlined below.
Visakha, born in an aristocratic family – was a female lay disciple of the Buddha. She devoted her whole life to promote the Dharma. To facilitate Buddha’s teaching and meditation in a beautiful garden, she founded the Migaramata Monastery in Shravasti.
Christmas Humphreys (1901 – 1983) was a renowned British judge and a Buddhist scholar who devoted his life to promote Buddha Dharma in the West (see a short introduction of him in Meditation for True Happiness).
According to the common notion of subject-object characterization – the subject observes the object, not the other way around. In this piece, let us see the roles differently. The roles in the personalities of the subject-object – are not in one-way observation or lecturing mode – rather they are in an exploratory mode of understanding each other – learning from each-other’s thought processes. The purpose is to explore some questions that often come into people’s mind. They range from different aspects of the Buddha Dharma – to its development and propagation beyond. It is built upon some articles – posted earlier on this Website (see links in Widecanvas Home Page) – as well as shown in Website Links and Profile.
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Humphreys decided to take a day off to relax and enjoy time in a quiet valley of grassland and bushes beside a tranquil lake. It was a day of brilliant sunshine with light breeze touching everything – generating little fluttery sound in the bushes. Buds of springtime wild flowers were in full blossom, giving the place a lively look of colorful mosaic of flowers and green foliage. The lake was full of ripples with ducks, duckling, geese and goslings freely swimming and diving.
A pathway passes by the place where he sat, as if it emerged from nowhere from a distant mountain of thick conifer forest. Sitting on a bench, Humphreys ate lunch and had a sip of water when he caught the sight of someone at a distance calmly walking towards the place. He got fascinated by some sort of a glow of light emanating from the person. As the image appeared close, he noticed Visakha – a shaved head middle-aged woman wearing a flowing orange robe. A prayer loop hangs from her hand – with her fingers flipping each bead as she was walking. Humphreys stood from his bench and greeted her by bowing. Visakha smiled and responded with Namaskara Mudra at her heart and bowed.
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1. Staying Calm
Humphreys: "Hello madam, I could not help but noticing you calmly walking by. Surprised to see a shining glow emanating from you. Your calm and humble posture with a smile is so contagious that people feel safe and connected to you – as I did. I am very delighted to meet you – and curious to know who you are."
Visakha: "That is so sweet of you. I am a simple follower of the Buddha, a nun. I don’t know about the glow, but perhaps you are in a calm state of mind to observe such a thing. I was doing walking Metta meditation trying to connect myself with all that belong to the Life System – the beauty and wonders of Nature. Trying to realize how interconnected we all are – trying to listen to their songs of life, joy, sorrow, anger and hope – all that define us."
Humphreys: "Ah I know now why such a glow appears in a person – and yes, one has to be in the right mood to see it. What is Metta, by the way?"
Visakha: "Metta in Pali and Maitrey in Sanskrit – is one of the Four Sublimities the Buddha taught. Metta is universal love or loving kindness to all – irrespective of who we are – all plants and living beings. It blooms when a nonviolence frame of mind takes root in a person. It is also one of the Paramitas – the Ten Perfections to Bodhi, the Buddha mastered on his way to Buddhahood. With such a set of calm mind – all negative emotions melt away – by opening the door to true friendship. The other three of the Sublimities are: Karuna or Compassion, Mudita or Joy and Upekka or Equanimity."
Humphreys: "Wow! This set of calm mind is very powerful – the power of a different kind. We hear about Buddhist meditation, it is so common nowadays. May I ask, whether you are happy being a simple Buddhist nun."
Visakha looked at Humphreys and both laughed. "You meant if I have achieved Nirvana, the eternal bliss, no I have not." She smiled: "I am happy and peaceful the way I am – no complains, no regrets, no blaming, no cursing. Like yourself, many wonder about such questions – for them having many gadgets, power, privilege, possessions are the answers to everything. For us, staying calm and temptation free in a sublime state of mind in meditation discipline are the answers. Nirvana will come, when I am totally ready for it – it may or may not in this lifetime. One may say that - perhaps I am in the stream - Sotapanna, the word Buddha used to indicate individuals who are in the Right Path to enlightenment."
Humphreys vowed respecting Visakha’s wisdom and peaceful conviction, then changed the conversation and said: "If I may, can I offer you something."
So saying, he took an apple from his pocket and offered.
Visakha: "Such a kind gesture of you to offer. But, I can only accept if you have enough for yourself."
Humphreys took the other apple from his pocket to convince Vishaka. Vishaka looked beyond into the horizon doing Namaskara from forehead, through the nose to her heart. And she did accept the offer with folded hands.
Visakha: "I do not have anything to offer you in return. But, we monks and nuns usually bless the donors by offering certain gifts of words to make them happy."
Humphreys was delighted. That was exactly what he was hoping for, saying: "That sounds very good. That is what I need – the gift of some kind words – a healthy food for my mind."
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2. Neither Aggressive Nor Passive
They walked to a bench and sat.
Humphreys: "I have few questions in my mind. We see Buddhist monks and nuns very rarely. There are perhaps many Buddhists in the world than what we know, but it is hard to recognize them as such. Because, Buddhists do not have name, dress or food codes – not even have designated regular prayer congregation days like we do – except monks and nuns who have shaved head and dress in a certain ancient way. Perhaps, that is the reason why Buddhist population is so underestimated in the prevalent method of generating statistics."
Visakha: "You have observed right. We are not loud like others. Our emphasis is on mind - the universe of mind, saying, for example, that an evil or unwholesome thought process cannot be changed by remaining faithful to the compliance of certain codes - unless the mind is trained to remain calm and pure. Because of the absence of loud practices, perhaps general establishment and media tend not to see us, even ignore us. Perhaps such seats of power do not consider us important for vote-counts – for their political power. We are non-dogmatic and tolerant – not rigid like others. You can say that the Dharma is wide-perspective Relativist; as opposed to the Absolutist singular perspective view of others. That is how the Buddha wanted it."
Humphreys: "I agree with you about politics. But, ignore you! Buddhism is not weak. Is it?"
Visakha: "On the contrary, Buddha Dharma is very powerful – but perhaps not in the conventional understanding of the term, which is primarily assessed in fire power or power of the sword. We are neither aggressive nor passive – we cultivate and depend on our own strength without seeking help from imaginary beings. That does not mean we are aloof from the society – the Dharma says that when one is wholesome – it translates to the family, to society, to the state. And, in doing so, we pursue the Middle Way – with the Buddha’s blessing in our mind. We value happiness, stability and harmony more than anything else. From childhood, we are taught to remain calm, and to be respectful to others. I reckon this way of Buddhist life may give an impression of weakness in some people’s mind. But, let us not forget that the Dharma gave birth to some earliest universities in the world, with the Buddha laying the foundation of systematic scientific way of thinking for the first time in history. Everything he taught was not merely a line or series of lines – but was justified in numerous scriptural texts."
Humphreys: "That is so refreshing to hear. It is disappointing for us that we are ignorant of Buddha’s wisdom. I remember from my old days, only half a page was written on Buddhism in high school text books – even then they were described as part of Hinduism. While such a bias was there, other religions got wide coverage."
Humphreys continued: "I noticed that you continue to use Buddha Dharma while talking. Let us use that term – the Dharma. Yes, the Dharma is neither ‘pessimistic’ nor ‘escapist’. In the West, we are often not respectful to terms akin to other cultures, are we not? Instead we tend to impose our own definitions on others – giving the impression of a dictatorial tone."
Visakha: "I am glad that you have realized the sensitiveness. About the school text, I do not know about it, as I did not go to school here. But, heard similar stories from others. The Dharma was born as a quest for wisdom and happiness in the midst of Sanatana Dharma practices, which came to be known as Hinduism (a conglomerate of many different beliefs and worships) at a later time. The Dharma was a revolution – with the Buddha’s enlightened message – telling all to have confidence in their own abilities to find peace and happiness in life. In many ways it transformed the post-Buddha Sanatana Dharma – which included and adopted many Buddhist terms and ideas – labeling them as part of Hinduism. So, there is no ground to assume that the Dharma is part of Hinduism."
Humphreys: "Hmm! I can imagine during the time of the Buddha – many people must have been angered by the Buddha saying something totally different, that has never been heard before. Even now, people react very angrily and hatefully when someone tells something different than their faith. The Buddha was able to get over all such obstacles – by his charismatic way of saying to stay calm – essentially telling all to empty the mind of inclinations and prejudices before moving on – by his love and compassion for all living beings. His deep confidence and authority in the universality of Truths he discovered must have been his great strength and power. Each word and phrase he has chosen - each symbol, metaphor and hand gesture he has formulated - each Sutra he delivered - is thoughtful and meticulous sweetened by his love and compassion for all lives."
Visakha: "Very Well said! You see, the Dharma came under attack in multiple times in history. Yet, it prevailed with Buddhist Dynasties ruling over the Indian subcontinent for about 2 millennia in one way or another. Unlike others, Buddhist dynasties did not destroy and eradicate other faiths during their rule – but this tolerant stand of the Dharma was not honored by others. In China also there were some ups and downs, but the Dharma was dominant in shaping Chinese way-of-living and culture. Chinese people do not see contradictions – in visiting different faith temples in one go, from one to the other – for that matter in other countries of East Asia. It is not like the Western concept of religious rigidity. Chinese believe that the Second Emperor’s dream of a golden Buddha image – was an auspicious sign that the Buddha wanted to come to China to bless the Chinese society. And they did accept and honored him in a profound way – including transmitting the Dharma to Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other places. There are no instances in history, where monks and pilgrimage travelers were sent to the west to look for and bring back original Buddhist texts for the benefit of Chinese society. And it is because of these dedicated traveling monks – of their detailed travel records – that we know now the extent of the Dharma – and the existence of so many temples and monasteries all over Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent."
Humphreys: "Ah, no wonder, China’s long lasting civilization and prosperity are so awe inspiring around the world. Do you think the internal and external pressures in China can hurt the cause of the Dharma?"
Visakha: "Nearly two millennia of the Dharma in China as the dominant religion – is more than long enough to make the Dharma the national identity of China – for that matter of Japan and Korea. So much so that people identify the Dharma as Chinese, Japanese or Korean Buddhism – as well as the Dharma in Tibet and beyond as Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, it was the Chinese, Japanese and Korean Diaspora who brought the Dharma to the West in the early periods of immigration. Denying one’s tradition, glorious past, culture and identity – is like denying oneself. I can only hope that calmness prevails – and that such denials under internal and external pressures – would not happen."
Humphreys: "Thank you, that is an impressive answer. I concur with you, unlike others, that rode on the power of conquests, the Dharma propagation was mostly diffusive in nature – it was the people, monks and traders – who took the Dharma with them to distant lands and cultures. Adoption and adaptation by the seats of power – followed the popular appeal. Adaptation is important, as the Buddha said, 'Be a Light Unto Yourself'. On the pressure question, yes, if such denial happens – there would be nothing left in the nation’s identity, culture and glory. Would it not? I am curious to know why attacks on the Dharma were there in the past."
Visakha: "I do not have definite answers. There could be multiple factors – weaknesses of Buddhist leaders vis-à-vis rising strengths of other powers is just one of them. The uniqueness and straightforwardness of the Dharma relying on the kaleidoscope of transience and interdependence that we all experience – was perhaps too much beyond the norm of conventional religions that depend on worshipping imaginary beings. Therefore, it is not unlikely that the Dharma caused ire in priestly class interests of other religions. Also, one needs to realize that sometimes the Truth of Sublimities is taken over by quick fixes of greed, ignorance, arrogance, anger and hatred. We, the Buddhist communities must also be honest with ourselves – in examining our institutional and organizational structures – in identification of weaknesses – to find ways to augment and reinforce our strengths."
Humphreys: "I totally agree. Perhaps, faiths and religions are not as strong as they used to be – people just use them as a label. This labeling of oneself to certain faiths – without understanding and following the core values can be very unhealthy and dangerous."
Visakha: "I Agree. I earnestly believe that true believers of any religion are very sweet and humble – and all such true believers of different faiths are close friends."
Humphreys: "Can you briefly outline the implications of the two universal Dharma Laws the Buddha discovered."
Visakha smiled: "There are many implications, if one deeply thinks about them. Let me try to touch upon two of them. The implications of both the laws become clearer in considerations of long-term sustainability perspectives. The first law (symbolized as an incomplete circle) saying that nothing is permanent in this world – implies the rationale for and the necessity of scaling and resilience as the wheel of time rolls on. Anything or anyone that contradicts this law – and do not respond to what it implies – could be in trouble in one way or another in the long run. The second law (symbolized as an eternal knot) saying that nothing exists on its own accord, all are interdependent – implies that for achieving societal peace and harmony – a collaborative effort is necessary – in order to bring everyone to the same plane of righteousness and progress. Otherwise, things will likely to veer towards the wrong direction – because those who are left out – will bring down things eventually. The law of interdependence with the rationale for collaborativeness further implies that - within each individual, there is an element of imperfection. This realization must make us humble and conceit-free."
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3. Prayer and Devotion
Humphreys: "I noticed when I offered the apple; you looked into the horizon with your folded hand moving from forehead level to the heart. What does that mean?"
Visakha: "We do that while praying to Buddha as well as looking beyond everything. The three areas of touch are – forehead cherishing wisdom, breathing area of nose cherishing life and positive energy, and the level of heart cherishing Metta and compassion. And while greeting and receiving we humbly do so with Namaskara mudra at the level our heart - this is one of 12 hand gestures in the Dharma."
Humphreys: "When you say, you are praying, what does that mean? Because my understanding is that the Dharma does not have God, gods or goddesses like many of us do."
Visakha: "When talking about different religions, we should do so with respect. All people look for happiness, comfort and hope – and strengthen these aspirations by believing in something spiritual, whatever that is. Devotion appeals differently to different people – some are taken over more by it than others. All religions have some form of devotional aspects in their scripture."
Humphreys: "Yes, that whatever is called religion. I could not agree more, we all need to respect one another. But, unquestioning devotion has been and is being exploited by some for profit and corruption. Some devotional zealotry even goes to the extent of believing that past atrocities – like slavery, colonization, and prejudices – and somewhat different modern preferential social treatments, but executed in similar veins – are the acts and dictations of God, gods and goddesses. Therefore to these over-zealous trusting individuals – one must not question such atrocities, but oblige and live by them."
Visakha: "I agree, unquestioning devotion opens the door to unscrupulous elements to creep in – who take advantage of, and cheat trusting individuals. One should also realize that - devotion gave birth to many festivals and fairs of joyous celebration in different cultures - with its beneficial elements of giving a boost to peoples' well-being and cultural cohesion. At the same time, the trend nowadays is that - some young people have begun to question their faith, customs and traditions – which in my opinion is a good sign to filtration of such practices. It is important for them to make the right choice – by not drifting into many unwholesome influences, distractions and lures – that are out there. Many customs and traditions were formulated by our ancestors for the good of harmonious living. They have served the purpose of time. Now things are changing rapidly."
Humphreys: "I am so glad to hear that from a Buddhist nun."
Vishaka: "Buddhist nuns and monks are, in many ways, different from other priestly classes. Because we do not work as an intermediary between humans and supernatural beings, nor do we put pressure on lay people to pray and obey in order to avoid punishment. True, we perform certain rituals to rise to the occasions on popular demand. But our role is to impart Buddha’s wisdom and compassion – which among others, include chanting of Mahamangala Sutta (well-being), Metta Sutta (loving kindness) and Sigalovada Sutta (righteous way of life). None of these Suttas have any element to worship supernatural beings – they all focus on how to remain wholesome in life’s pursuits."
Visakha continued: "Coming back to your question, when I said praying, I was actually paying homage and taking refuge in the teachings of the Buddha. We do not have any supernatural beings in our vocabulary that can dictate and provide salvation to us when prayed. Although I am using the word 'supernatural' to describe the invisible beings following the age-old common practice, in Buddhism such beings are not 'supernatural' at all - because they are part of and are governed by the Fundamental Laws of Nature - like all of us. Common references describe them as gods, goddesses and demons in different planes of existence. In modern times, they are often interpreted as invisible energy fields – multiples, positive and negative. Subjected to such laws, they are also unhappy like every other creatures – oftentimes succumbing to unwholesome practices, convictions and influences. Myths and folklores in different cultures are a testimony to that. Fictionalized in many exaggerations and creative colors by priestly class to invoke devotion – the practices gave birth to many religions. The compassionate Buddha says that, these beings wherever they are – also need help to liberate themselves from the difficulties of life – miseries and suffering. And the Buddha invites all to listen to the Saccha Bachana – the Words of Truth he delivered – to open their own wisdom eye."
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4. The Dharma in Kaleidoscope
Humphreys: "I wonder how the Dharma nearly disappeared from parts of Europe, Central and West Asia, all the way to major parts of India."
Visakha: "Let us talk about it in the spirit of historical context. Things have changed; now there are hardly any countries in the world that do not honor multi-cultures. All of us, should have an open mind to appreciate it – because it is healthy and beneficial. Only things that are needed, more than anything else, are: mutual respect and understanding, tolerance and not trying to infringe on other religions in attempts to convert under any pretext."
Humphreys smiled: "Wow! You are so careful. Yes, apart from one’s thoughtful volitional choice – conversions that results from high emotional attachments, coercion or force should not be encouraged. Hope all of us would pursue this kind of mental attitude toward one another. The world is a very big place for many to co-exist together in true tolerance, peace and harmony. Is it not?"
Visakha: "It is. It would even be bigger if staying calm define us – if we let wisdom, love and compassion govern our thought processes and actions. Coming back to your question, I think what was a gain for Christianity during the Crusades was a loss to the Dharma. Because, after losing the Crusades, battle-hardened Muslim invaders turned their attention to the East. Buddhist dynasties were overwhelmed by the encounter, and conquests resulted in the destruction of Buddhist institutions including many earliest universities. Fear of life, torture and persecution spread like wildfire and led to mass conversions. High concentration of Muslim populations in previously held Buddhist majority regions is a testimony to that."
Humphreys: "Perhaps Muslims learned it from Christian rulers. Because, wherever Christianity went, in Europe and in most colonies around the world, they totally wiped out the existing traditional cultures and beliefs, converting people en-masse. Greek and Roman traditions extending all the way to Egypt - including the adoption of a variant of ancient Egyptian symbol of 'Ankh' as the trademark symbol of Christian Cross - are considered by the West as the foundation of their civilization – but they never condemn or regret what was done to those cultures and beliefs. Nor, they ever appreciate and recognize the enrichment of their culture by Eastern thoughts and infusions."
Humphreys continued: "Why do you think, Buddhists were the targets of conversion, while Hindus perhaps escaped the wrath."
Visakha: "Both were impacted. But, Muslims were more familiar with the Dharma. They developed more antagonism towards it, when they faced resistance to their invasion before coming to the door steps of India. It is also said that high caste Hindus cooperated to spare them of conversion – instead led the invaders toward Buddhists. Hindu Brahmins always had anger toward the Dharma, because the Buddha condemned the Hindu caste-based discriminatory system – and ordained low castes into the Sangha. Being born in a upper-echelon Kshatrya class and a royal family - the Brahmins expected that the Buddha would endorse and promote the caste-system, rituals, pujas, and animal sacrifices worshipping many multitudes of imagnary deva and devis (including the rogue ones like Shani and Kali). Such practices have deep roots in Sanatana Dhamma Hindu practices. When that did not happen and the Buddha was telling something different - the Brahmins and Shamans started to develop antagonism towards the Buddha's teaching. Further on Buddhist ordination, it also included women, which was, and still is unthinkable to the Brahminic priestly class. To be in line with one God belief, they even invented the concept of ‘Ishwara’ – as part of Hinduism."
Humphreys: "Ah that explains why the Dharma adherents were targeted. It is also possible that during the invasion, there were no powerful Buddhist dynasties for protection. Therefore, Buddhist populace was very vulnerable – and just succumbed to the threat. But, this vulnerability is no excuse to wipe out the Dharma."
Humphreys continued: "I think, not including women in priestly class is also the norm in Islam. It is only in Christianity where women were allowed – seems like borrowing this and other ideals including the teaching of Love and Compassion - and the idea of monastic communities from the Dharma."
Visakha: "Role of woman is highly lauded in the Dharma. Apart from what we talked about – there was an instance where the Buddha assured a lamenting king that a princess might prove more worthy than a prince. The 15-year reign of Empress Wu Zetian (624 – 705 CE) during the illustrious Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) – the only one Empress in the Chinese Dynastic history – was made possible by the active support of Buddhist monks – while Taoist and Confucius clergies vehemently opposed such a move. In the Filial Piety Sutra – he said, a mother’s love and care are some of the key factors in a person’s life and happiness. A child’s smile and happy face on the lap of a mother – is the most precious thing in the world – nothing compares to it."
Humphreys: "I remember reading somewhere that British Magistrates working in Southeast Asia – noted in their official diaries – that they were surprised by the work habits and status of women in Buddhist majority countries. They were surprised because they did not see as such – in Muslim and Hindu majority countries, even not so much in Europe. They also commented about Chinese women who were subjected to low status in Confucius teaching. These observations indicate that Buddhist monastic communities remained engaged with lay people to contribute to improving their life."
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5. The Ways
Humphreys continued: "Can you tell me how the beliefs of many gods and goddesses in many ancient cultures gave birth to one God in some religions. I am not talking about the term 'God' people use as kind of a phrase to mean all different things in everyday conversations."
Visakha: "I am not an expert on this to clearly answer your question. Here are my thoughts. First, one has to realize that the existence of one or multiple supernatural beings lies in people’s mind – if one believes, it is there. If one does not believe, nothing is there. It is somewhat similar like the various media platforms, if one reads or sees things presented there – it is with him or her. If one does not do so, nothing is there. And, those who do so, are affected by the contents – those who do not, remain free from such effects."
Humphreys: "Hmm, the delusion and the parallel you described have made things so clear."
Visakha continued: "All major religions that survived the wheel of time – have originated in Asia. To that extent Asia was like a fountain of spirituality and philosophy. One can distinguish three regions – the West Asia, the Middle South Asia, and East Asia. Of these, the Middle South Asia and East Asia were the lands of abundance in relative terms. The West Asia, on the other hand was the lands of arid climate."
Humphreys: "I know now, where you are heading. Please continue."
Visakha: "In all cultures, the so-called Shamanic beliefs were the earliest of all religions. Fear, superstition, and magic – were the bases of these beliefs that relied upon folklores and myths. And for obedience, profit and compliance – the priestly class riding on the wagon of ruling seats of governance - institutionalized different imaginary beings on to the citadel of power. These beings were portrayed as gods and goddesses who could cause havoc when angry and upset – and can bestow favor when worshipped. These grass-root beliefs metamorphosed into Greek-Roman beliefs in southern Europe, Hinduism in India, Taoism in China and Shinto belief system in Japan – again highly dependent on the power of imaginary beings. These religions, in proper sense of the word, do not have a single founder – except perhaps Taoism. There appeared a necessity in history to see things differently – and birth of the Buddha in India – happened out of that necessity. This tells us that the Dharma was the first in history to chart a new and different way of spirituality and social living for the benefit of mankind."
Humphreys: "Yes, a rational and enlightened way - yet very practical and relevant in everyday life. And the concept of one God?"
Visakha: "The prevailing social structure in the arid regions were mostly of poverty and tribalism – again with the prevalence of widespread Shamanic beliefs. Catering to many gods and goddesses was too confusing to them, and tribal societies were vulnerable to fragmentation with prevalence of so many supernatural beings controlling their lives. So, to bind tribals to one nation, the leaders focused on one supernatural being that only works for them – thus the idea of one tribal-nation God was born. Judaism led the way – and later religions in that region – Christianity and Islam basically adopted that concept, defining their own God. Thus, the first standardization of spirituality, if you will, was born there – by prescribing rigid codes of compliance for their religious way of life. The later offshoot of Christianity – the Protestant movement in Britain further standardized the belief."
Humphreys: "Wow! It is such a reasonable explanation. We never thought in that line. So, this idea of one God and the compliance codification of practices in West Asia resulted from a sense of insecurity, is it not? The resulting concept was described as the Covenant between those cultures and God. The priestly ruling class was institutionalized as Lord Shepherd – and the status of people was reduced to that of docile lambs or sheep. This is, perhaps one of the reasons why words like 'punish' and 'punishment' are so much used in texts, rhetorics and propaganda - saying as if someone or someones of the Shepherd Club are watching to inflict damages as a punishment for disobedience. It is interesting, while Christianity sees humans as Sinners, the Buddha said something different – that humans have all the powers to rise above – like the Lotus that grow out of mud onto the air and to sunshine."
Humphreys continued: "Also, it is hard not to notice that some words like ‘blasphemy’, ‘infidel’, 'kafir' and ‘idolatry’ do not exist in the religions originated in the lands of abundance. These words – resulted from insecurity – are like a veil putting a lid on people's freedom of thinking. They are basically saying ‘you are either with us or against us’ – thus posing a challenge and threat to people who have reasons to disagree. I can imagine that such terms appeared in the scriptures of these religions – to prevent people from drifting toward the Shamanic practices. Countless innocent people were victimized and killed just because of those terms. Scriptures of these religions are termed as ‘Holy’. This word is not used by our system for the beliefs – that are born in the lands of abundance. In your opinion, why was that?"
Visakha: "Reference to ‘Holy’ says that every word in the scripture is sacred and must not be questioned, but be obeyed. If someone questions, he or she may be accused of ‘blasphemy’. In Buddha Dharma, we refer to our scripture ‘Tripitaka’ as ‘Pabitra’ or Pure. We revere it as sacred too, but there are also rooms to respectfully debate the teaching in order to understand it better – to clarify and interpret it in accordance with changes in space and time. You must have noticed that ideas and principles are understood differently by different people – it all depends on one’s intellect – and on open or closed mind set. Therefore questioning, debates and discussions are very important for clarification and enlightenment. The Dharma in East Asia and in Tibet, Himalayan countries and North Asia – has gone through cultural adaptation according to their needs. They differ in some aspects from the earlier teachings that prevail in South and Southeast Asia – although core teachings are not different. Perhaps the Dharma in the Western countries may also see cultural adaptation of some sort in the future."
Humphreys: "Ah it makes sense. Does it not? Regrettably our establishment is not respectful enough and does not use ‘Pabitra’ to refer to Buddhist scripture. The Dharma is not rigid, but has the fundamental elements of Natural Laws of Impermanence and Dependent-origination that define everything."
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6. NIRVANA and The Truths
Humphreys continued: "Where does Nirvana stand on this?"
Visakha: "Before answering what Nirvana is, let me briefly elaborate the prayer loop I am using – because it has significance to understanding Nirvana. The door to achieving Nirvana opens up when all temptations arising through the processes of Five Aggregates are controlled to an elimination level at which they flower into a sublime abode of Metta – encompassing all living beings and the environment in loving sprinkle. One’s temptation arises from 6 senses: seeing, listening, smelling, touching, tasting and mental processes – with their many qualifications and attributes – the 3 arising: unpleasant, pleasant, and neutral, from 2 sources: external, and internal in the 3 states of processes: past, present, and future. When one multiplies these 4 sets of numbers, it gives rise to a total of 108 different temptations. This description of the processes to achieving Nirvana – the eternal bliss – has given rise to 108 as the sacred number in popular Dharma. This is the reason why meditation and prayer loops are usually adorned with 108 beads. And, as you know, a staggering number 84,000 is also associated with the Buddha's teaching. It is mentioned in the Buddhist scripture Theragata - where quoting most Ven Ananda (Buddha's cousin, assistant and constant companion) - it is said that he learned 82,000 different elements of teaching directly from the Buddha, and another 2,000 from the Buddha's top disciples."
Humphreys: "Ah yes, defining mind as the sixth sense is unique in the Buddha’s teaching. Thanks for explaining the rational bases of the numbers. Many people are not knowledgeable about them."
Visakha continued: "When one is able to empty the mind of all these temptations for good, one is totally liberated and reaches a state of eternal sublime bliss, called Nirvana. It’s a rarely achievable stage where reversibility of processes becomes irreversible – by conquering the Samsara Wheel. At Nirvana – there is no cause, no arising, no birth, no decaying, no demise and no rebirth – everything is in complete balance without residuals – in the eternal tranquility of universal unity. One can imagine Nirvana like a rarely existing expanse of still and tranquil clear water in perfect equilibrium – as opposed to the ubiquitous prevalence of agitated water of action-reaction – sometimes covered with moss and dirt – in continuous motion searching for ways to reach equilibrium. The intertwined duality of the opposites – the Yin-Yang – the Wabi-Sabi – is the Dharma characteristic depiction of the nature of things - imperfection, asymmetry and incompletion – the universal driver of all existence – in transience, unhappiness and emptiness."
Humphreys: "Thank you, such a clear explanation - how the Duality in all existence melts into the tranquility of Unity in Nirvana! What are the Five Aggregates?"
Visakha: "The Dharma says that our thought processes, speech or talks, actions and reactions happen through a very systematic process – the processes of Five Aggregates. The five, from arising to fruition, are: matter, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness. Matter consists of the elements of solidity, fluidity, heat, wind, and the 5 body senses."
Humphreys: "Very clear! I have those questions in my mind for long."
While talking, both walked to a bench closed to the lake.
Humphreys initiated another conversation: "Unlike others, Buddha gave power to individuals for their own liberation."
Visakha: "You are right. The Four Noble Truths are very clear on that. The First Truth says that, for all different reasons including Natural causes, the reality of unhappiness, sorrow or suffering is a prevailing impression in human mind. That life’s experiences are scarred with many episodes of difficult times – and this experience is ubiquitous – irrespective of who we are – rich, poor, young, old, etc. etc. Because of this ubiquitous experience as identified in the First Truth - the Dharma is developed as a quest for happiness. The second says, the cause of this reality can be traced to ignorance. This Second Truth is the reason why the Dharma stresses so much on the light of Wisdom to overcome the darkness of ignorance. The Third Truth says that humans must be confident that they have all the strengths and capabilities to liberate themselves from the cobweb of unhappiness. No references to or worshipping God, gods or goddesses for one’s salvation are made. This Truth is one more rationale for the Buddha to declare the non-existence of any pre-ordained rigid soul in an individual. In the presence of such a rigid soul – an individual loses freedom and confidence of his or her capability – for example, to transform oneself from evil pursuits to good ones. In ancient Sanatana Dharma Hinduism practices – the concept of a rigid divine soul was used to establish - the caste-based discrimination - the superiority of Brahmins and inferiority of Dalits. The Fourth Truth lays down the Way to liberation – the Right or the Middle Way."
Humphreys: "Can you elaborate Buddha’s discovery of the Middle Way, please. I have heard about the Noble Eightfold Path – as the Wheel of Dharma or the Wheel to Happiness. And all post-Buddha religions have 8 as a sacred number – indicating the influence of the Dharma far beyond its borders – far beyond than most of us know, or are told. It was perhaps the legacy of global Buddhist emissary pursuits of Mauryan Emperor Ashoka, the Great."
Visakha: "The Middle Way – the Eight Interconnected Virtues leading to happiness can be grouped into three. The first as a way to achieving the Purity in View consists of: (1) Right Thought and (2) Right Understanding. The second as a way to achieving the Purity in Morality consists of: (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action/Reaction and (5) Right Livelihood. The third as a way to achieving the Purity of Mind consists of: (6) Right Diligence, (7) Right Mindfulness, and (8) Right Meditation. As you see, the Way is a lucid direction to achieve harmony of mind and body."
Humphreys: "Ah the Way of life is fully dependent on one’s conduct – without references to worshipping any supernatural being. Our conventional system of thinking does not hesitate to label it as atheist - without ever pointing out how rational and practical this way of life is - for harmonious peaceful living. Buddha used Right for each of the Virtues, which perhaps gave birth to the word, Righteousness. What are the reasons for that?"
Visakha: "Right or perfect is stressed each time for at least two reasons. Right is emphasized as a necessity to deeply view things as they are – by maintaining the exact balance with neither being too tight nor too lax. Thus Right is interpreted as the Middle Way – as a way of balance, symmetry, stability and harmony. The Middle Way leads the duality of all existence to melt into the tranquility of non-duality or Unity, with the subject-object beocoming one. Right also means to traverse the Path in the Right Direction to become peaceful, happy and joyous – and to let others enjoy the same."
Humphreys: "Enlightenment leads to all these aspects. Does it not?"
Vishaka: "Yes. Enlightenment has seven elements (delivered in the Bojjhanga Sutta). That’s why 7 is considered a sacred number in popular Dharma."
Humphreys: "What are these seven?"
Vishaka: They are: "energy, investigation, equanimity, mindfulness, meditative concentration, joy and tranquility. Achieving enlightenment or Bodhi requires one to be calm to go beyond – utterly beyond in investigative zeal with energy. Mindfulness and meditative concentration are part of this process that must be conducted in joyful pursuit – only then the tranquility of Enlightenment is blessed. Note that joy is very important – because in a calm joyous mood, mind opens up to grasp things as they really are."
Humphreys: "How Pagoda developed and evolved into different shapes in time?"
Vishaka: "Buddhist system of installing Chatya came after the Mahaparinirvana of Buddha - as a monument of veneration and worship. Named as the Stupa - a dome-shaped earthen mound - it symbolizes an inverted Lotus Flower. An inverted Lotus Flower says that the open Lotus Flower Jewel, the Buddha is no more - instead his teachings and relics are preserved in the Lotus core. This dome shape - and its variant the peaked triangular shape - inspired the architecture of many different Buddhist and non-Buddhist religious and non-religious establishments and structures including doors, window arches, arched foot-bridges, etc. In time, it took the shapes of a bell, and of multi-storied pagodas with eaves and overhanging multi-layered roofs and Tibetan style pagodas."
Humphreys: "I read somewhere that the architecture of the multi-layered overhanging roof system of pagodas originated in Nepal - with its cultural adaptation by many East Asia countries."
. . .
Humphreys: "Buddha laid emphasis on mind – as the forerunner of everything one does. We are only learning now what the Buddha said more 2.5 millennia ago – the mind-and-matter mutual nourishment and interdependence – in everything that we do – everything that defines us. Therefore training the mind through the systematic pursuits of meditation has become the central focus of the Dharma."
Visakha: "You have touched upon a very crucial theme of the Dharma – it’s unlike any other faith. Buddha said, apart from Natural causes, a significant part of unhappiness has its root in our thought processes or mind. Therefore mindfulness and meditation are stressed so much in the Noble Eightfold Path. The benefits that one accrues from meditation practice are immeasurable."
Humphreys: "Can you elaborate on meditation, please. You were on Metta meditation while walking."
Visakha: "The purpose of meditation is to train the mind to be happy and let others become happy. A simple way to understand it is like this: as we cleanse our body to remain healthy – so do we need to keep our mind clean by emptying it – of unhealthy elements of unwholesome mental formations, delusion, and bad distractions and influences. Such requirements ask for mind training meditation pursuits to achieve a clean pure state of mind. What are achieved, can be identified as consisting of three: Emptying, Relaxation and Nourishment that lead the mind-and-body towards a mutually nourishing peaceful state of life. The pusuits have 3 stages. It starts with ‘Parikamma’ or preparatory stage – like freeing oneself from daily contingencies to totally immerse into the process. The ‘Upacara’ stage follows after that when Samma Sati or mindfulness is exercised by emptying the mind of all distractions and hindrances. This practice benefits the meditation practitioner’s life in multiple ways – he or she becomes relaxed because the mind is calmed – and starts to see things as they are. In the third stage, the ‘Appana’ the practitioner becomes one with the object of meditation. At this stage, the practitioner has two options to choose – the purpose of these two is to be happy."
Humphreys: "What are these two options?"
Visakha: "One is Samatha – or the Let Go Meditation. This type lets one to totally relax by freeing himself or herself from all sorts of attachments – including the emotional baggages that pull one down like arrogance, anger, hatred, jealousy and greed. Meditation by immersing into the four heavenly states of Metta, Karuna, Mudita and Upekka – belong to this group. The other is Vipassana – or the Why Meditation – letting one to be happy by knowing the Truths. In this type, meditative concentration is focused on an object to know the truth for its existence. The object can be any of Buddha’s teachings – we talked about, for example, the Four Noble Truths, Laws of Impermanence and Interdependence, Nirvana, etc."
Humphreys: "I can imagine that such concentration is very useful not only in meditation perspective – but also in any investigation and research – like Einstein termed it as the mind experiment. In these two general types of meditation – where does Chan or Zen practice fit?"
Visakha: "Chan and Zen represent an integration of these two types we talked about. They are very popular – and are a cultural adaptation that comes with the creation of different calm and disciplinary environment to facilitate meditation. The beauty and tranquility of Green and Rock Zen gardens in Japan is some of the awe inspiring environments. It also comes with the artistic design of different regular-use artifacts and tea ceremony – making Zen as a way of day-to-day life. Everything: like eating, talking, listening, working is done with the Zen spirit of mindful attention. Emptiness is one of the popular themes in Zen meditation. The Chan meditation also gave birth to the Martial Arts techniques at the Fabled Shaolin Monastery. This technique develops as an intuition out of total meditative concentration – that enables the practitioner to make fast and agile responses to aggression – to deter predators and rogues without using any weapon."
Humphreys: "The reality of Emptiness attracts people widely in all walks of life. What is the easy explanation of this reality?"
Visakha: "Emptiness or Sunyata is a logical conclusion of the Law of Dependent-origination. In simple terms – it says that if all are interdependent in transience, each entity by itself is Empty of Essence. It establishes the Buddha’s teaching – about the absence of desirable degree of happiness, and the absence of any pre-ordained soul as part of divinity in all of us. In the Dharma, soul is seen as the Bodhi – something wholesome – cumulative, transient and transformative. Bodhi is characterized by the six: tranquility, wisdom, malleability, wieldiness, proficiency and integrity. If one interprets it further together with the Law of Impermanence, one soon realizes that – space and time, the definition and entanglement of the two – also cannot exist independent of each other."
Humphreys: "I have read that the concept of Sunyata gave birth to number ‘zero’ under the auspices of and works at the Nalanda University. Also an indication of Impermanence or incompleteness, what are the implications of the reality Emptiness?"
Visakha: "Understanding the reality of Emptiness – makes one calm and patient, humble, keeping balance in the attachment of things, and in realization of the fluidity of our opinions and judgments as demonstrated by the observer-observed relationship. Bamboo is symbolized as the reality of Emptiness in the Dharma – it is hollow, empty, yet strong and upright. Its strength and stability is ensured by the interlinks of knots. One of the favorite places of the Buddha’s rainy season meditation retreat was the Bamboo Groove Monastery in Rajgir, Magadha."
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8. Bodhisattva Ideal and The Lotus Connection
Humphreys: "How Bodhisattva ideal took root in Northern and Eastern school of the Dharma."
Visakha: "There are two aspects that define these schools of the Dharma. First, aspects of Buddha’s teaching – such as wisdom and compassion are manifested in the persons of some legendary enlightened monks of the past dating back to the Buddha’s time – who had been the champions of those aspects of Dharma. The compassion manifestation also took the form of a female image in some sects of popular Dharma. Such visualizations are considered important to remind Buddhists of their importance. In Bodhisattva ideal, again many legendary monks of the past dating back to the Buddha’s time – who were very advanced enlightened practitioner of the Dharma are honored. They devoted their life to impart the Dharma to others to help them find liberation. This ideal has led to the custom of taking Bodhisattva vow by many monks and nuns. Apart from this, as you know, the Dhammakaya of Shakyamuni Buddha is believed to live in Sukhavati - the highest realm in Buddhist cosmology - as the Amitabha Buddha."
Humphreys: "Yes, the belief in Amitabha Buddha has given birth to the Pure Land Sect of the Dharma. The Arahant and Bodhisattva ideal is similar like Sainthood in Christianity."
Visakha: "The buzzword among the Buddhist communities now is: one Buddha, one Dharma – many traditions. This theme is being promoted in many annual Buddhist conferences and congregations across the globe."
They started walking as Humphreys continued: "I am so fortunate to meet you and learned a lot about the Dharma. You made many things so clear – the compatibility and complementarity of the Dharma teaching. The Dharma taught by the Buddha more than 2.5 millennia ago – is still very relevant today – and the Truths have a timeless appeal. The Dharma will never become old. I have a final question on Lotus flower and its metaphorical importance in the Dharma. This flower has so much historical significance in many cultures. Yet, in the West, we always refer to it as ‘water lily’ – disregarding the Lotus name (this name is common, while local names in different languages differ. For Example, Padma in Pali and Sanskrit; and Pema in Himalayan languages; Lianhua in Chinese; Rotasu in Japanese; and Loteoseu in Korean; at least three countries – Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India – have enshrined Lotus as their national flower; Bangladesh's national flower is Shapla - a close cousin of Lotus) – as it is known and has such religious significance in large populations on the planet."
Visakha continued: "You are so kind again. I too, feel very fortunate and learned a lot from you. We rarely come across highly knowledgeable people like you. As the Buddha said, the Dharma can best be realized by experience – it’s Ehipassiko, come and see for yourself Dharma. Teaching and discussion can only help somewhat – experience is the best teacher."
She smiled: "About Lotus, yes, its significance is huge in the Dharma. Lotus flower had been used by the Buddha as a metaphor for Enlightenment. Like the Lotus plant growing in the mud surfaces on to the air and sunshine in full bloom – so is the potential for any one to bloom to find his or her own Bodhi. The process to enlightenment is like reaching the Lotus core of Mani or Jewel."
Humphreys: "There are many varieties of Lotus plants. Are there not?"
Visakha: "Yes, there are. Among some 200 varieties, the two most familiar ones are: in one, the flower juts out of water on a long stem surround by pad leaves, in the other the flower with the pad floats slightly above the waterline. There are also different color varieties."
Humphreys: "Since its sanctity status declared by the Buddha – it has been used by all religions in the lands of abundance. One can say that Lotus connects all the peoples of Middle South Asia, Southeast Asia, Himalayan countries and East Asia – all the way to southern Russia and Mongolia. Among the many outstanding Buddhist architectural masterpieces around the world – standing, rediscovered from ruins and rehabilitated as the world heritage sites - the 2nd century BCE Ajanta Caves in India, the Bagan in Myanmar, the Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, the ancient capital of 13 Chinese Dynasties - is Borobudur in Java Indonesia – that stands out as one of the greatest – in grandeur and magnificence."
Visakha: "You have said it right. Statues, temple architecture, frescoes and wall carving – all have the Lotus motif in them – including in Mogul monuments in India."
She smiled: "Yes, we, the large population on the face of planet Earth are connected by one single flower – the beautiful Lotus. Like the Buddha did at the closing of each of his teaching arrangement, let us finish by saying: Sabbe Sattva Shukinu Bhavantu – let all sentient beings be happy."
. . .
So, after exploring each other’s thought processes, Visakha and Humphreys parted – taking with them pleasant memories of enlightened discussions that will enrich their abilities to see things from wide perspectives. Visakha invited Humphreys to visit her modest nunnery sometime, to experience the Dharma in action – where meditation retreats are offered to interested individuals. Humphreys gladly accepted the offer and promised to go to the retreat sometime.
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This is the 4th piece of the annual series I have posted on the Buddha Days. The Days, like today on 5 May 2023, mark the celebration, remembering and honoring Shakyamuni Buddha – His auspicious Birth, the Enlightenment, and the MahapariNirvana. A beautiful image of the lotus flower field with blossoms and buds adorns this piece (image credit: anon). The previous posted pieces on the Buddha Days were in: 16 May 2022 The Tathagata; 26 May 2021 the Enlightenment and 7 May 2020 Revisiting the Jataka Morals.
On the eve of Vesak – the Buddha Day celebration, the current UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (1949 - ) wrote . . . let us seize this moment of spiritual renewal, and honour Buddha’s wisdom by coming together as one, in solidarity, and shaping a better, more peaceful world for all people . . .
Finally, I like to finish it with a remarkable few lines of wisdom from Ven. Nichidatsu Fujii (1885 – 1985) – the famous founder of World Peace Pagodas around the world: Civilisation is neither to have electric lights, nor airplanes, not to produce nuclear bombs. Civilisation is not to kill human beings, not to destroy things, nor to make war; Civilisation is to hold mutual affection and to respect each other.
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Happy Vesak the Buddha Day!!! On this Auspicious Full-Moon Day on 5 May 2023 – let Metta touch everyone’s heart to bring Peace and Harmony across the Globe. Have a joyous life in Appamada – in conscientiousness, heedfulness and diligence – whenever – wherever – whatever
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- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 5 May 2023