You may have heard this word ‘Dharma’ bandied about, but see it as a rather vague and perhaps mysterious term which only people in the know are qualified to use. Actually, the original Sanskrit dhr means ‘to support or bear.’ It is recognized as a term of great significance, which relates in two ways to the Buddha Shyakyamuni’s enlightenment. First, it refers to the actual reality the Buddha experienced as he sat in meditation, determined to reach enlightenment, for 6 days; and second, it refers to his conceptual and verbal expression of that enlightenment experience which is represented by his teachings in the sutras and discourses.
Another way to say this is: first, The Dharma is the universal truth or law or principles – an objective way of looking at the Buddha’s experience; and second, The Dharma as the doctrine or the teaching – the way the Buddha expressed his experience solely for the benefit of others. In a non-Buddhist context and beginning with a small ‘d,’ with relation to ancient India, dharma has many meanings – phenomenon, law, thing, mental object, state or condition of existence (which we are particularly concerned to control in Buddhism), and so on. If you go to India today you will hear it used often. But as Buddhists need above all to practice Buddhism, then we should not get too academic about the meaning of this phrase, ‘The Dharma.’
I should tell you that ever since I started to practice and use this term The Dharma, I experience a tingling sensation behind my eyes and around my heart when I pronounce it! Truly, I feel the power of these ancient syllables reaching me from 2,600 years ago when the Buddha Shyakyamuni became enlightened.
I think an important image of The Dharma is the wheel of Dharma with its 8 spokes representing the Eightfold Path, a recipe for reaching Enlightenment in stages. A wheel has no beginning and no end, and neither does The Dharma. It is not bound by intellectual man-made limitations of time or space. Since the Buddha’s first teaching, The Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Law, this wheel has been in motion. Later, you will learn about the significance of the second and third turnings of the wheel of Dharma. But for now, I think it is useful to see The Dharma as a well-lubricated wheel, turning without end.
So, as the heading of this post implies, The Dharma is everywhere and everything. It is the past, the present, the future. It is me. It is you. And all sentient beings, all beings who sense, or feel, are part of this huge spinning wheel of Dharma. The Nirvana Teachings, the very last teachings of the Buddha given on his deathbed, insist that we should embrace all beings regardless of whether they are friend or foe. And if we look closely, tenderly and without emotion, we can see that we all have the potential for the same gifts and the same shortcomings as each other. That’s due to the Buddha nature which each of us has. Our Buddha Nature is our essence, which is perfectly good and pure, as is the Universe itself.
So, each of our vastly different real natures are interchangeable, are part of the timeless, ‘spaceless’ Dharma! This is a lot to take in if you are new to Buddhist ways of thinking and being. But perhaps while you are digesting this exciting and mysterious concept, which I will come back to again and again, let me allow you to experience one aspect of this continuum via Japanese customs.
I believe that all Japanese people, regardless of whether their religious views are engaged or not in the way they live, greatly revere their ancestors. As we saw in the last post, August is the high point of the celebration of ancestors in Japan. Tonight I am on my way to join in a special celebration for the ancestors, mine too, in Kyoto. I will be trying hard to let you experience this through this post. But first, a little about ancestors, or ‘those who came before us.’
In the west, most of us tend to forget about our ancestors because we can’t see or feel them. In a way, perhaps we refuse to feel them because we are scared of ghosts and so tend to sublimate any thoughts of spirits or non-human phenomenon as ‘the paranormal.’ This is quite understandable as our intellectual prowess and status is paramount, and our education is a matter of our identity like our job and our wealth.
But by refusing, we are blocking the acknowledgment of the vastness of the entire invisible world, and instead becoming rigidly attached to what we see, what we can prove, what we know in our heads. In other words, inhabiting a world of concepts, in one of the rooms of the mind, which is rather closed.
One way we have recently come to classify such invisible things is through the notion of DNA, the genetic fingerprint, which each sensing human being is endowed with. Now, we can precisely identify our uniqueness, which has become a keen tool in solving crimes, identifying biological parents, and other extreme situations that occur in human life.
So, what about facing up to the fact that each of the infinite number of our ancestors also possessed our DNA, and that it is impossible to destroy that link we have with them. According to this, we are therefore the most recent version of our ancestors. No doubt we can only see a small collection of ancestors in photographs or paintings to check our likeness with, but the fact exists that we are indisputably the product of our ancestor’s lives. Without their struggle to survive and their desire to procreate, without their spiritual merit and virtue, without the beating of their hearts, we could not exist!
In so-called developed communities, we are often deluded into thinking that we have created ourselves, with all our hard work and cleverness, and these days I must confess that I see this as arrogance. We would be nothing without our ancestors, and our ancestors would not exist if it were not for the elements that make our world possible like the sun, air, water, etc. So, it’s really simple to just accept that this is true, and feel the blessings that our forebears had and have passed on to us.
Once we can accept that The Dharma consists of the invisible as well as the visible, and can generate trust in our unique ancestral line and the part it has played in the evolution of the human species, we can start to cast off some of our arrogance which an untrained mind often creates.
Standing looking over the rooftops of Kyoto with many local people last evening, eagerly awaiting the start of the Daimonji celebration of ancestors, I was so moved. There were many young lively children excited by the dark rooftop, and many older, more fragile people, perhaps a little scared or exhausted by the incredible heat (around 37 degrees). We waited together for our ancestors to arrive for their visit.
Our party consisted of many foreigners: Brazilian, Nepalese, English, Japanese, etc., but it was no coincidence whatsoever that we were there on that rooftop overlooking the sweltering basin of Kyoto, flanked by the Kyoto hills. The spirits of all of our ancestors are intimately connected. This realization can bring us together in one heart, in one massive Dharma congregation. As we waited, I felt strongly part of everyone around me, even the strangers, and was overjoyed to be so! This is The Dharma at its most breathtaking.
Briefly, there are five massive Chinese characters built into the sides of the hillside in Kyoto, first created about 500 years ago. They consist of lines of small fires forming the strokes of each character, and at a certain time on 16th August every year, these many fires are lit, and one kanji is illuminated after another during a period of 40 minutes. Each of these symbols will guide their brief trip around the mountains of the human world, known as samsara by most Buddhists.
Dai, the first symbol to appear, represents the human or spirit arriving from the spirit world. Of course, it represents all sentient beings, starting out on a journey.
Next is Myo Ho and Renge Kyo combined. This represents the Lotus Sutra, the penultimate teachings of the Buddha before his death, which largely prevails in Japan. At this point, the spirit travelers pay reverence to the Buddhist teachings.
Third is the ship, Fune-gata. This is where the travelers can board this vessel and voyage around the human world.
Fourth is Hidari Daimonji, a mirror image of the first image, meaning that we can see our spirits, connect with them and with our karma.
Finally, is Torii, the gateway. This signifies that it is time for the travelers to return to the spirit world, taking with them all the prayers and blessings of the human world, as well as supplies of food and drink.
So, in the 21st century in modern Japan, with all its super-technological advances, its aspiration to be a world player, the importance of ancestors continues to exist. Some Japanese people may say that this is simply a matter of custom, and that they do it automatically, unconsciously. But the fact that they have not rejected it outright as outmoded, as fanciful, speaks volumes.
I admire this spirit, which exists even amongst young people. (see Gratitude and Reverence to Ancestors: the belief abides in 21st century Japan, Linden Thorp, 2008, Kyoto Sangyo Daigaku, Journal of Humanities, in ‘works’) In this paper, in a survey I conducted amongst young university students recently, one of the respondents said,
“If it is (‘it’ is the return of the ancestral spirits at O Bon) true, are we also to return to the human world to see our descendants? …..if it is true, I want to see my ancestors to know what kind of people they are, and also I want to see my descendants when I die.’
This notion of the onward motion of the generations is inspiring, positive, life-giving. This is The Dharma, the laws of the good majestic universe, being put into everyday practice. Gratitude is so important if we are to live with grace, with awareness, to live fully. This simple notion can change our ways of thinking, of being. Having gratitude is acting, actively stepping outside the closed room of our mind.
Nurturing that small sacred space inside our hearts, feeling even a twinge of emotion for the incredible efforts of our forbears as they prepared the way for our comfortable lives today, is like lighting a small candle to chase away the shadows of doubt and mistrust, of fear and isolation! It’s like giving some new feeling to our lives outside the busy thinking and highly conditioned mind. So, please explore and become aware of the diverse nature of The Dharma, both in form and no-form, both visible and invisible.
The importance of fire as a purification rite in Japan will be discussed in more detail later. If you want to explore the Daimonji Fire festival in more detail, please read the extract from ‘Temple of the Phoenix’ in works.