The fire of Bodhi mind

Homa

Bodhi mind enabled by the Homa flames In Japan, a very common Buddhist practice, uses fire. The flames of the Homa fire purify our delusions and ignorance, burning them away to enable the bright Bodhi mind to emerge. This was quite a new practice for me as a Buddhist when I first arrived here. Tibetan Buddhists often use smoke in rituals to prevent the evil spirits from seeing and interfering, but the fire practice has been directly transferred from ancient India into Japanese life it would seem. It perfectly suits the Japanese ‘shinto’ character, Shinto being the original religion of Japan focusing on kami or intrinsic spirit which everyone and everything possesses.

In ancient India Homa was known as Agni, because this is the name of the fire god, and it originally came from a folk belief. Gradually, the Buddha realized what a divine tool fire was and incorporated it into rituals. Back in the Dharma article cycle I wrote about the fire festival of Daimonji in Kyoto, the lighting of lines of small fires to illuminate kanji which appear to be carved into the hillsides and serve as signposts for spirits visiting the human world briefly at O Bon time. When ignited, the flames convey the prayers to the gods and Buddha realms quickly and efficiently.

So, fire is a magical and primordial element in our human lives today, as it has always been. It fills many roles as a cleanser or purifier, it transforms and rejuvenates, it reduces and amalgamates. The candle or oil lamp flame breaks through the darkness, dispelling fear and ignorance, the epitome of altruism – providing light for others from its diminishing body. The flames of Homa, presided over by a master, can cleanse away delusions and impediments to faith so powerfully! Once they are cleared away the Bodhi mind appears like a warm moon.

I wonder if you can accept that the flames of a fire, lit with a certain intent, can have a magical effect? In fact, do you believe in magic and the mystical at all, or are you able to accept only what you or others with credentials in proof-seeking see or witness? Perhaps you need proof before you can believe, and maybe that need makes the difference between a person who chooses the secular pathway and one who chooses the sacred. We can all access the pure higher mind if we want to via meditative/reflective states and sincere wishes for the well-being of others. I certainly have retained my belief in magic and the mystical from childhood, and I feel very blessed to have been able to do that. Flames! Smoke! Transformation! For me anything is possible!

Kobo DaishiKukai, the true founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, believed in the mystical with all his being. His mind was sharpened by contact with the mystical, ritual and practice. As a teenager he became aware that the secular life was mundane and limited, so he ventured into the sacred world by visiting monastery libraries and devouring Buddhist sutras. Many of these sacred texts had not been translated from Sanskrit, so he quickly learned Sanskrit and within a few months could read fluently. He is said to have read thousands of sutras.

Then in one of these dusty libraries, he encountered a monk who referred him to one sutra especially, telling him it was the greatest and that he should memorise it because he would need it later. Kukai expressed his doubt that he could accomplish such a thing in a foreign language, but the monk taught him a mantra, which would perfect his memorization skill. Neither the monk, the illustrious sutra nor the mantra need expounding here, but needless to say, Kukai accomplished this feat and then was told to go in search of the place where this mantra would invoke its deity Akasagarbha, a place where the will of the universe was most likely to descend.

Imagine Kukai’s excitement at this challenge. He was a skillful climber, so he rushed off to climb every mountain in Japan to find such a place. Throughout the history of Japanese Buddhism, mountain asceticism has prevailed as the training ground for Bodhisattvas, so Kukai was not alone in his quest. However, unlike the other aspirants, Kukai was not looking for Shyakyamuni Buddha’s liberation from earthly desires, but what later became known as Esoteric Buddhism, which takes an entirely positive view of life exactly as it is, combined with the strong Bodhi vow of bringing all sentient beings to enlightenment. Kukai did indeed find the right place to encounter the will of the universe when the Morning Star flew into his mouth during an extended meditation, which was the beginning of Japanese Buddhism.

He was able to put logic aside and so see or notice instructions from a divine origin. We can all do this if we choose the sacred path that many of our ancestors took and that we ourselves took in other lifetimes. Then we simply fill our minds with Bodhi, the compassionate desire for the lasting happiness of all sentient beings, and every moment of life becomes a beautiful treasure. The Bodhi mind is bright and mercurial, fearless and creative, and it is filled with nothing but positive light and love. Kukai was blessed with this mind without any teachers or models. He was unique in the history of Japan, immovable 1some saying he was the only person with any imagination in the midst of Confucian ‘actualism.’

Let me take you for a moment to the Homa ceremony. The celebrant’s robes are vermillion red, the surplice a tapestry of rice fields in gold and silver, sage green and persimmon orange, and the stole at the neck pure white. She or he sits before the home hearth surrounded by Buddhist implements, vajras, various bells, offerings of leaves and spices, oils and rice all in shimmering gold. Sutra chanting begins and slowly as the many mantras flow, three recitations of each one, the massed wishes and sincere intentions of the attendees and other priests mount, and the moment to apply the holy light arrives.

The celebrant makes a large circle with the long wand carrying the flame at the end, round in a clockwise direction, round again in an anti-clockwise direction, following the flames with their intently focused eyes. Then the blessed wooden fuel arranged in the hearth is lit and the smoke rises. The flames grow and are fanned with a large sacred fan. Soon the written prayers and ritual books are brought to be blessed, and passed through the flames to be purified. The flames increase and the fuel crackles excited by the holy additives which the celebrant vigorously adds.

Buddhist drums and bells, shakujo (shaken cymbals) are played, the vajra (thunderbolt) is positioned, juzu (rosaries) are furiously counted, bringing the proceedings to a climax. The flames rise higher and the deities take all the prayers to the spiritual world. Purification and peace prevails, and the feeling that something great has been touched, that the vast invisible world has been broached, fills us with awe of the universe and our potentially enchanted lives.

Fire can be utilized in private meditation practice. It can be visualized to burn away delusions and anxieties which are replaced with pure intentions and wishes conveyed by heat and smoke into the invisible world. In addition, one of my teachers always told me to stay away from the hot flames of human emotions, to back away and not get burned by other people’s negative emotions. Both of these practices will help us to stay with the bright and wise Bodhi mind at all times.

Gassho

Bodhisattva

the moon

As you may be able to imagine, following on from the last article on Bodhi and the aspiration for enlightenment, a Bodhisattva is someone who is working towards enlightenment, or oriented towards it. He or she is the spiritual embodiment of someone who puts the Buddhist precepts (the moral codes) and practice (working to purify and cleanse Buddha nature in order to summon Bodhi and the paramitas) in the centre of their lives, and models themselves on the Buddha’s life before he became enlightened. Enlightenment? The extinguishing of all cravings and worldly anxieties.

So the first thing a Bodhisattva does is to generate the aspiration to become enlightened for the sake of all beings, making a strong vow. These words are rare in modern English – ‘aspiration,’ ‘vow,’ etc – an indication of how secular our lives in developed countries have become. But once, when there were divine beings living amongst us, to ‘aspire’ and to ‘vow’ were commonplace expressions. In the last days of the Dharma or Law however, mentioned in the first cycle of articles on Dharma, the possibility of encountering the divine in human life, is quite remote, and yet all beings have the potential to become Bodhisattvas. Some of you may already be Bodhisattvas but not realize it.

The Buddhist precepts are the basic laws of moral discipline. At first you may think they bear some resemblance to the Christian or Muslim Commandments, laid down by a divine authority. But the precepts are rational principles of sheer goodness, intended to promote human well-being. They are flexible according to the period of history, the society in which precept-abiders live in, etc. They are not laws, but a kind of warning or guidance. Remember, there is no omnipotent ‘God’ in Buddhism who exercises compassion or wrath on his flock depending on whether thy sin or not. We followers of the Buddha are each potential Buddhas, equipped with all we need to realize that potential. There is no intervention from on high! Of course, as we saw in the Dharma article cycle, we do have Dharma Protectors who vary in the nature of their support, some are strict, some compassionate, etc.

So, given that framework of moral discipline, if we follow the guidance, we can be sure we are in the right condition to become enlightened. If we break the precepts, perhaps by accident, then as there is no punishing agent, we can easily repent and vow never to make that mistake again. If we remain awake and mindful, the Dharma Protectors will make sure we are on the right course. Then, given that strong foundation of moral discipline, we simply practice.

On the Buddha’s pathway to enlightenment, as was the way in ancient India, ascetic practices were undertaken by those seeking enlightenment. Such things still go on in India today, but eventually after almost dying, the Buddha realized that his pathway should be the middle way, balanced and within human endurance. There are more subtle ways to rid ourselves of the deluded ego than acute pain or deliberate attrition. So, the core of our practice is the 6 paramitas  – which are: giving; moral discipline; patience; courage or exertion; meditation; and wisdom. These are compatible with living a normal life in society. In fact, they can be joyfully executed amongst people around us. I find I can usually generate unlimited Bodhi for all the people I encounter in my daily life.

In Japan, as we also saw in the Dharma articles, we can, through ancestor veneration, generate Bodhi for beings in the past. Especially our maternal and paternal lineages, going back through the ages. We want to take their spirits to enlightenment with us too, and they are often with us as we practice. Through my own bodhicitta generating and meditation I made contact with an ancestor of mine who belonged to a religion pre-dating Buddhism and Christianity, who led an ascetic life high in the mountains. He was a healer who people and creatures flocked to, and he handed on his gift to me. It’s true that I am qualified as an Alexander Technique (a method of body-reeducation) teacher and do use healing powers on my pupils. I feel this ancestor is very close to me, working with me towards enlightenment.

So, how can we become a Bodhisattva? You may have a feeling that you are not of this time, that the suffering both psychological, social and physical is so acute, and at times too much to bear. Remember that it is highly likely that your ancestors were Bodhisattvas, and that they exist in all faiths – Mother Theresa in Christianity, Ghandi in Hinduism, Kukai in Shingon Buddhism, and numerous other Buddhist Saints too numerous to list here. etc. Those traces of the divine are in our DNA somewhere and surface at some point. So, the spiritual path can choose us, as it did me, so that we can continue on from where our ancestors left off.

Finally, I am certain my mother and father were both Bodhisattvas, and of course after their decease I could appreciate that even more than when they were alive because of my great arrogance as a younger person. My mother became ill and died about 10 years ago and I and my two siblings were amazingly able to be with her alone when she shifted her spiritual being out of her physical body, despite the long queue of loved ones waiting outside her hospital room to say goodbye. The three of us were talking closely holding her hands, touching her tenderly, when suddenly her heart jumped in her chest and she passed away. It was a breathtaking moment for each of us as a part of her body, but it was peaceful and deliberate. My mother chose to die when only the three of us were there. Tearfully, we made a pact to carry on her bright light into the world, perpetuating the legacy.

Later after the funeral as so many family members and friends filed out to say thank you to us, some of them were visibly shocked when they shook my hand because they thought I actually was my mother! I had always had a strong physical resemblance to her and a similar energetic character, but as they remarked I truly felt I was my mother.  The DNA, the spirit, all amalgamating into one! Bodhisattvas begetting Bodhisattvas, continuing on the goodness of enlightenment and the Bodhi mind. She certainly loved everyone equally and did everything she could to make them smile, their dreams and pain being singularly her own. She was not a practicing Buddhist herself, but before she died I did talk to her about general Buddhist ideas and she accepted them.  I am certain this made her passage into the spiritual world smooth.

two water pots

A story:

There were two water pots: a watertight one and a leaky one. The water carrier would carry the two pots filled with fresh water on a yoke across his shoulders every day to the king. By the time they arrived, the leaky pot was half empty. This pot was very unhappy feeling guilty that he couldn’t do the job expected of him; was failing in his life’s mission. But the kind water carrier advised him not to worry, and instead to notice the beautiful flowers along the pathway on his side. The water pot noticed them, but still felt uneasy that he was a failure in some way. He told the water carrier about his dissatisfaction, but the carrier asked him if he noticed how healthy and abundant the flowers he passed were, and how everyday they could be picked and taken to adorn the king’s palace. Perhaps the leaky pot didn’t realize his real mission in life, which was to water the flowers rather than supply a full pot of water to the king.

Every Bodhisattva has a unique mission which Buddhist practice to attain a Bodhi mind will reveal.

Bodhi-Awakening. The secular or the sacred?

Bodh tree

wish fulfilling jewel

It has been claimed that there are two types of life: the secular and the sacred. The secular is the human life with all of its rites of passages, its successes and failures, its temporal joy and sadness, its gains and losses; the other is the sacred life with its realisations and steady travel along a spiritual pathway towards an enlightened state, its spiritual training, its transformations under the guidance of a greater power. My life has definitely been the second, though of course I have become immersed in the secular periodically, and even at times been convinced that this was the route I should take. So, it’s interesting to look back and see what awoke me from going in the secular direction, what distracted me from aiming to achieve high status, fame and wealth, and material comfort.

The potential for the arising of Bodhi, or the ripening of the seed for enlightenment, is something every single human being possesses because we all have Buddha Nature, the universal uncorrupted true self, as we saw in the series of posts on Dharma. So why do we choose the secular way which is stuffed full of suffering, fractured by disappointed expectations and often tragic outcomes, with the sorrow of its losses and the ephemeral joy of its gains. There is a famous story from ancient sources, which may help to elucidate this phenomenon in a deep way, from a meta position. Story is without doubt the most powerful way to reach the unconscious mind, as the great religious adepts recognized – Jesus, the Buddha, Allah, often told parables as they taught.

A poor and good man tried desperately to provide for his family, prepared to do whatever work he could find to be able to feed them. But in his neighbourhood he couldn’t find any work, so he was forced to travel to a different land where he had heard there was work. He set off on foot to his new destination, and as soon as he arrived he found a lot of work, and was overjoyed at earning more than enough money to support his family. He worked diligently, was always honest and respectful of his various employers. In the meantime, he dutifully sent almost all the money he earned back to his family.

One day, a messenger came from the local Lord inviting him to work in a more senior position and on a permanent basis. He was delighted and gradually he was entrusted with more and more responsibility. He started to enjoy his new life, and gradually, although he continued to send money back to his family, he forgot about his family. Eventually, he forgot about them entirely and the sending of money stopped. He found a new wife and lived a luxurious life.

Then one day, unexpectedly, someone betrayed him and he lost his wealth and position. He became poor again and blacklisted so he couldn’t get any work. His newfound friends deserted him and he fell into despair. He was left with no choice but to return home, reluctantly exchanging the rich high quality clothes he had become used to wearing for the rags he first arrived in. Once home, although he had abandoned them, his family welcomed him back, his wife forgave him and his children shed tears because they had missed him so much. But still they didn’t have enough money to eat or live comfortably.

Soon he received news that his mother had died. He went to her house and as he was her only child there was a box waiting for him there. He opened it affectionately but at the same time regretfully because of his neglect of her, and fingered the few trinkets she had left for him. At the bottom of the box he found a letter. He opened it slowly and found the words,

You need look no further than your own heart to find all the riches you need. Please take a knife and cut open the lining of the jacket I made for you and you will find exactly what you have been looking for all along.

He was perplexed, but took off his ragged coat wondering how this poor garment could provide all he needed. He carefully opened the lining, and there to his amazement, he found a priceless diamond which his mother had secretly placed there. The tears rolled down his face as he realized that he had had all he needed if only he had opened his eyes. He vowed to make sure he kept his eyes open forever more, and thus his seed for enlightenment had started to germinate. He was awake!

This story exemplifies how easily we look outside ourselves for answers and solutions when all the time we have them inside us. How readily we blame others when instead we should reflect on our own shortcomings. In fact, our Buddha nature, if we polish, respect and trust it, is all we need to find true and lasting happiness. Buddhism is unique in that we don’t need to look anywhere but our true nature to find wisdom and real happiness. If we polish ourselves by putting the needs of others before our own, allowing our natural goodness to surface, then that gem we also have sewn into the lining of our coat, will shine and provide all we need.

At quite a young age, Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was bored by the secular life, so he chose the sacred way. Buddhism had hardly been heard of in Japan except in monastic circles, but he knew to search for indications of his pathway in sacred texts. He quickly mastered Sanskrit and is said to have read all the sutras written and translated by that time, and then he came across Dainichi-kyo, the Mahavairochana Sutra, one of the greatest sutras of all, and his pathway became clear. He was listening with all his might to indications using his higher self.

He had already found the gem sewn into his coat and was determined to polish it until all dust and detritus had disappeared. Neither was he remotely afraid of the unknown, unlike the poor man who became so desperate. He was so convinced that this mighty sutra held all the answers to all his questions that he set off to study Esoteric Buddhism in China and quickly became a Master, or Great Achariya.

If we tune up our higher selves through meditation and altruistic practices, putting aside our fragile human egos while supported by the Dharma, we can each hear what our mission in this short human life is. The Bodhi mind sprouted in me when I was a child and I have tried to listen to my life ever since. 8 years ago I lived and worked in London, and then suddenly out of the blue, a colleague invited me to apply for a teaching post in Japan. I had never been to Japan, did not speak or write Japanese, although I had often wanted to come to see where my Japanese students lived, but I applied and got the post. I knew I had to come here, not merely to work.

Before I departed for Japan, I went to the Japanese embassy in London to collect my visa and asked for posters of Kyoto to take to hang in my new office there. The attendant was able to give me only one as stocks were low. It pictured a beautiful temple pagoda in Kyoto, the city of 30,000 temples and shrines, at Cherry Blossom viewing time. I was excited at the prospect. So, I duly packed up my 2 suitcases and embarked on my journey. I knew it was right though most people tried to dissuade me from making such an upheaval in my life at my age.

I was in fact tuned into something amazing, because almost as soon as I arrived, I was connected to my Dharma Master, who had inherited the Dharma Stream from Kukai in an unbroken succession. I encountered the Nirvana teachings, the last teachings of the Buddha, and my final destination! Then I soon discovered that the beautiful temple poster I had been given was of Daigo-ji Monastery in Kyoto, founded by Kukai, who I had never heard of before leaving Britain, and that my new Dharma Master had completed all his spiritual training there!

Everything is planned if you can fine tune your higher self and listen to the Dharma!

Finally, our future lives are important in Buddhist practice because of our karma. Everything we do, think or say now, in this moment, will affect our future existences. If we cultivate the Bodhi mind now, if we nurture our aspiration to find Nirvana as quickly as possible, we are creating wonderful conditions for our future, as well as the future of all sentient beings. If we bring all the contacts we have ever made, in our daily life, in our dreams, in our imagination, into our meditations; if we take them all with us on our way with loving thoughts, then we can change the destiny of thousands. All those diamonds in their various states of defilement and dirtiness can be purified and polished with our compassion, for they are just a reflection of ourselves.

The generating of such a glorious Bodhi energy starts with our own seed of enlightenment. We need look no further than our own mind and controlling it. Santideva, an 8th century Buddhist monk and poet, in the Bodhicaryavatara, one of the greatest Bodhi texts, says:

Rutting elephants roaming wild do not cause as much devastation in this world as the roaming elephant, the mind, let free, creates in Avici and other hells.

But if the roaming elephant, the mind, is tethered on every side by the cord of mindfulness, every danger subsides, complete prosperity ensues.

The secular? The sacred? Which path do you choose? Will you tiptoe into the mystical pool?

The Dharma; practising wisdom and compassion

image4.jpg

massive diamond

In this series of articles of the Dharma, we have looked at it from many different perspectives: Dharma in 21st century Japan; Dharma at O Bon time; the Dharma Stream past, present and future; the Dharma Protectors; Dharma Crisis; the Dharmakaya; Dharmata or Tathata; and on Hearing the Dharma. For the final article, and as a preparation for the next series based on Bodhi (the aspiration for enlightenment), I would like to write about what it means to actually practise the Dharma.

After the Buddha’s Parinirvana and the demise of his physical body, his disciples and followers split into two basic factions. The first was completely satisfied with the Buddha’s teaching, and deeply interested in the different doctrines he had taught them. For these Buddhists, the Four Nobel Truths, the Eightfold path, etc., all the verbal teachings, were the Buddha Dharma. But the other group, though they totally accepted the Buddha’s verbal teachings, thought there was more to the Dharma than that.

They considered the actual life of the Buddha was an important aspect of Buddhism. They had personally witnessed his constant equanimity in any situation, his unconditional compassion for everyone, and his tireless generosity and kindness, as a human. So, it became important for Buddhists to possess both wisdom – the ability to debate and understand deeply, and compassion – the selfless concern for the sake of others.

The Dharma is packed with compelling wisdom, but if it remains simply in the form of concepts and ideals, then who will benefit from it? It can only be of benefit intellectually and conceptually. We will never reach Enlightenment, reach Nirvana – the extinction of all delusions – if we stay only in our heads, in a way seeking enlightenment on our own terms. This is not what the Buddha intended. He was a brilliant debater and an eloquent speaker, but he lived out the wisdom he advocated with his words. His words and his actions were completely congruent.

So, this second group, concerned with the compassion of the Buddhist teachings, later became what is known as Mahayana Buddhists. They vowed not only to become enlightened themselves, but for the sake of all sentient beings. This sentiment, this vow, of putting others before yourself, or of aspiring for enlightenment exactly to help others to find their own enlightenment, is the most glorious thing of all.

The vow to spread the Buddhist light in the world is such a thrilling mission. It is called Bodhicitta in Sanskrit, and it is possible to generate this deep wish, this commitment to all sentient beings, leaving no one or nothing out. We must strive until all beings find perfect happiness in their time as human beings. So, we could say that the Dharma is both the elegant theory developed by the Buddha during his long ministry as a teacher, and the practical compassion, kindness and tireless generosity he extended to all beings in practice.

The Buddha was a living Bodhisattva (enlightenment being). His wisdom functioned in the way he related to all beings around him. His mind was engaged equally with his body and his speech in extending kindness to all beings unconditionally. Bodichitta first arose in Prince Siddharta of the Shyakya clan when he felt so uneasy about his privileged life behind the palace walls. Then, when he witnessed human life outside the walls for the first time, and saw the suffering being human entailed, he aspired to find true enlightenment for the sake of all living beings. He put his own desires aside and found a way of dealing with human suffering.

Bodhi literally means awakening, but it is often translated as enlightenment. It is the awakening of supreme knowledge as experienced by the Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi tree. The Bodhi tree is also known as the tree of awakening. Bodhisattvas, those who vow to never cease to practice until all sentient beings are brought to true happiness, walk a special path. It is both glorious and humble. Perhaps in the acute suffering of our times, in the most dreadful times of samsara, choosing to take this pathway is the only true way we can help, calling on invisible powers.

This deep urge to be enlightened, the arising of transcendental Bodhicitta, is something that all Bodhisattvas share. It is not unique to individuals. Sangarakshita, one of my esteemed teachers, calls it,

a sort of cosmic will, a universal will to universal redemption.

(‘What is the Dharma,’ 1998, Windhorse Publications)

So, in the midst of the all-encompassing Dharma, the suchness of all existence, using the skillful tool of meditation, we can all create the conditions for this cosmic force of pure goodness to well up inside us. We are each blessed with a Buddha Nature, an innately good and innocent nature. We can choose to allow it to become sullied or buried beneath ignorance, greed or anger, or overcome by evil and spiritual interference. Or, we can use the Buddha’s wisdom to polish that nature to create exactly the right conditions for Bodhicitta to arise in us as it did in him.

My Nirvana guru sculpted many exquisite images of Buddha, including the Nirvana Buddha reclining on his deathbed. As he sculpted, he strengthened his vow with each tap of his chisel to bring all beings to enlightenment. He sculpted the Buddha into the heart of each of his disciples out of pure compassion. These works are a constant reminder of the unsurpassed compassion and wisdom of the Buddha, and the ever-presence of my guru attests to this. I am protected and deeply loved by all enlightened beings, who strive to bring me to enlightenment at the expense of their own physical lives.

The Bodhi mind, the awakening mind, is the most precious thing of all. This priceless gem, the sum of all the Dharmas, is inside all of us. We cannot easily control outside events unless we join the arms race or befriend the drug barons, things have come to such a stage. But we can control and train our own minds to revert to their pure state, and to be empty of delusions, taking the middle way. If we undertake such training, we can live with a transparent heart as the Buddha Shyakyamuni and other great spiritual leaders did and do.

What an incredible opportunity this is, and if you are reading now, remember it is not accidental. You can reach out and take refuge in the Buddha and Dharma, take shelter from the perpetual wandering through the hell-realm of samsara, a world in which our massed delusions are manifested.

Hearing the Dharma: the turtle.

turtle

singing bowl

In Buddhism, sound is a powerful key to enlightenment. Everyday, twice a day, we chant extracts from the sutras. We strive to keep our mouths pure at all times so that we can pronounce these ancient syllables brought along the Silk Roads from India to China, then Korea and Japan, by the Buddha’s disciples after his physical death. They risked life and limb to convey the rites and rituals, and the sutras, to the ends of the earth for us. We would not have encountered the Dharma if it were not for their incredible feats of survival and determination.

When we chant, we strike the singing bell tenderly to mark the end of one mantra and the beginning of the next. The bell sounds out in the midst of the everyday bustle and stress of daily life. The resonance of the simple bell opens the flower in our heart into full bloom instantly. It signals that the break from meditation is over, and so we can continue on with our peaceful cleansing meditations.

Sound is concrete and cannot be argued with or misinterpreted. The Buddha knew that, saying that sound nourished the roots of faith. In the sala grove in the last few minutes of the Buddha’s physical life, the king of demons Mara Papiyas who had unmercifully plagued the Buddha during his quest for enlightenment, was finally convinced of the Buddha’s goodness and wisdom. So he entreated everyone in the congregation to cast away all evil.

He threw himself at the Buddha’s feet and vowed to protect all sentient beings seeking the Buddha’s pathway. As was customary, he offered the Buddha food and drink, but the most important thing among his gifts was a special mantra to subdue evil. The Buddha accepted his precious offering of sound above nourishment.

If we are truly awake spiritually, then we can hear the messages and commands emanating from the Dharma clearly, and take their meaning into action into the way we live our lives. Of course, we have the gift of seeing also, but the busy eye can be easily overcome by stimulation and become attached to everything entering its field of vision. We can easily become envious or greedy if we allow the eye to roam without discipline, and this creates fertile ground for delusions to sprout. Whereas the ear receives vibrations deep in the head, and vibrations are what the universe is constructed of.

Often what we hear touches us more deeply than what we see: the words of our loved ones, symphonies and songs, bird-song, a mountain stream or waterfall, thunder, a scream of distress. Human speech, the words we say to each other, are precious, but because of our delusions, often we squander them. We speak carelessly, not considering people’s feelings, or selfishly, not giving others time to speak. We tell lies or deceive, we praise ourselves instead of others, we blaspheme, gossip and defame others without thinking.

Buddhists, and before them Hindus and Sikhs of Vedic India, have always chanted or recited mantras. A mantra is a command from the Buddha or Divine one. It is a protection of mind, which enables us to eliminate negative karma. On simply hearing mantras or Dharma teachings of any kind, we can reach Nirvana. We then develop the aspiration to find goodness and truth in our everyday lives.

Mantras if repeated can protect our minds from delusions such as anger, ignorance, and greed. We may be provoked to anger by what someone says, but if we accept what they say without reacting as a victim of their words, then we break the cycle of stimulus and reaction. When provoked in this way I find it useful to recite a mantra silently, deep in my heart. It’s not that we are blocking out the provocation, but that the mantra helps us to accept what is said without judging it.

It is nothing to do with your human will that you are reading these words now. The gurus and Dharma Protectors are working through me so that you can hear good Dharma in my voice across the airwaves. And by simply reading and taking in these words, you are creating merit for yourself. Every time we hear or read the soundless voices of Dharma, more negative karma is cut and we accumulate merit, which will take us one step nearer to enlightenment, to Nirvana, to emptiness. This is not a cheap trick; it is the truth.

If we offer ourselves up to the resonant sound of the bell, any bell, the Dharma Protectors will wake our sleeping hearts, and we will be able to notice something we could not notice before. It is because all sentient beings have a Buddha nature that we are each part of the same truth, and if we become aware of the workings of the Invisible world in our lives, we will find ourselves listening to the Dharma more and more.

People around you speak to you, or to others. The words they say are coming from their Buddha Nature, which may either be soiled, corrupted by negative karma or delusion, or in pristine condition. Their words are messages from the Buddhas and protectors, signals to help us find our way. Imagine, we are surrounded by living Buddhas, without whose kindness and support we could not exist. Their kindness may not always be apparent to us in the words they say, but if we listen more deeply, the voice of the Buddha is there resonating from the Dharmakaya.

All sentient beings are cut from one cloth – the fabric of the Universe, so we are each a reflection of each other. Therefore we are all capable of the huge range of behavior we witness every day around us. Surely that puts us in no position to judge anyone else. Loving acceptance is the way to live comfortably within our sentient network.

Finally, my hearing the Dharma for the first time goes back to when I was a child. At lunchtime on school days my brother and I would go home where my father was waiting for us with a meal. When we had eaten we would all play cricket together in our back yard while listening to the radio (there was no day-time TV in those days). This is when I first heard the following words, which I confirmed much later.

Encountering the Buddha Dharma in human life is as unlikely as a sea turtle spotting a floating log in the great ocean and swimming up to poke its head through a hole in it to view the sky.

This was the beginning of my journey, by simply hearing these words. I had no idea what they meant intellectually, but I recognized that this ‘Buddha Dharma’ was something indeed rare! Perhaps the game of cricket woke me up so I was ready to notice these strange words and drink them into my young mind. At that point I had no clue what the Buddha was let alone the Dharma. I hardly knew what a turtle was living among the dark satanic mills of Lancashire in northern Britain.

The allusion to turtles continues with Mara Papayas. At the Buddha’s Parinirvana, when he offered the Buddha a mantra to protect all sentient beings following in the Buddha’s footsteps, he said that his protection would keep people,

as secure as the six appendages (head, tail and four legs) of a turtle that have folded into its shell.

The power of sound is something wondrous! Sound is the very fabric of the Dharma so please listen out for it in the voices of the people around you, and feel safe in your turtle shell of protection when you recite mantras.

Dharmata or Tathata: the essence of enlightenment

Tathagata

Dharmata or Tatatha: the nature or essence of fully enlightened Buddhas.  

So, what is a fully enlightened Buddha? It sounds scary and unreachable for most of us. It also may seem outmoded and unlikely in today’s modern world. How can there be Buddhas around sitting at computers, strap-hanging on commuter trains, shopping in super-markets? Yes, material life seems remote from Buddhas and enlightenment, much like it would be strange to have a vision of Christ or Allah at the laundrette.

But this is the amazing thing about Buddhism – it doesn’t date, and it is not constrained by culture or language. It is totally adaptable to any time and any place exactly because it is formless and ceaseless. It transcends our comparatively puny human conceptualization of time and space, and it embraces the mystic at the same time as being highly practical. Something for everyone we might say.

For Nirvana Buddhists, a Tatagata, a being fully enlightened to all of the Dharma, has certain qualities.  He or she trains consistently in order to attain Nirvana. The last words of the Buddha as he lay on his deathbed in the sala grove 2,600 years ago,  later captured in the Mahaparinirvana sutra, clearly describe the following 4 inspiring qualities of a being who has reached Nirvana:

First, Permanence, jo in Japanese. This is exactly as it sounds. Eternal. Infinite. In other words, we become like the Dharmakaya ourselves. The field of energy that makes us each unique is in fact indestructible, because energy is. It is recyclable, but cannot be erased according to nuclear physics. Therefore, as sincere Buddhist practitioners, we should have no fear of the death of the physical body. Of course, it is very difficult to be born human – think of the development of a baby in the womb – claustrophobic, dark, the sounds are muffled; and then the exit through a narrow birth-channel; and finally the onslaught of stimulation – bright light, huge temperature changes, clarity of sound, the cutting away of the nourishing tube which has connected the baby to its mother for 9 months, and so on.  Then after birth, there are the numerous lessons we must learn to prevent us descending into the lower realms of existence. Of course, as humans we usually suffer, and if we remain trapped in our own view of reality,  we may spend our entire life in great fear of the annihilation that death brings. We become so easily attached to our human form and life, that we cannot bear the thought of losing it.

The second is Bliss, raku in Japanese. This can be interpreted as joy, extreme joy, but is more akin to rejoicing than merely being happy. And this joy emanates from the realization that our love and compassion for others is much more important than for ourselves. In other words, if we work in our hearts and thoughts for the true happiness and comfort of others, then the great powers of the Dharma will look after us personally. This is connected to dedicating oneself to being a Bodhisattva, with a pure heart. (Bodhi  will be the topic of the next series of articles.)

The third is True-self, ga in Japanese. This means that we have to be entirely sincere, to be ourselves at all times. Of course, honesty is an important aspect of practicing any religious pathway, but it sometimes takes courage and needs grace to execute so that others are not hurt in the process. This also refers to working to polish our intrinsic Buddha Nature, the natural pure loving core that every human being is endowed with, which in turn will allow us to realize all our potential. We are capable of anything if we become balanced and uncover our basic goodness and gifts. And add to this a deepened focus on our mission.

Finally, the fourth is Purity, jo in Japanese. This perhaps speaks for itself. We are actually pure, but that quality may become covered over with negative karma, which we fail to purify. This quality is difficult in the present conditions of samsara where the power-crazy run riot with the result that bullying and cheating often drive purity underground. Remaining pure is a challenge today, but we have to find the courage to let our True-self shine through. The Buddhas are pure, the Dharma Protectors work hard to keep that so, and as we each have the potential to become a Buddha this purity is also our True nature. These four qualities make up Nirvana, which literally translated means ‘the extinction of delusions.’ It is the goal of all schools of Buddhism.

Permanence, Bliss, True-self and Purity. It may sound easy, but the only way to attain these states is by consistent and focused training with a qualified guru; in other words, by hearing the Dharma. If one tries to reach such a state only in the mind, then there is a serious risk of careering seriously off the path altogether on to a path made by your human ego. On this web site, I have no choice but to use words and images to describe ideas and my experience, etc. But it is absolutely certain that any Buddhist practice is experiential, and as you can imagine, it takes time like anything worthwhile.

You also need the continual support of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha (spiritual community). It is the most marvelous steady process of transformation. If you want to read in more detail about this steady process, you may be interested to read my novel, Temple of the Phoenix (see ‘works’ on the main menu at the top of the Home Page) which is about exactly that.

Next article, On Hearing the Dharma.

Dharma-kaya: the body of Truth

Dharmakaya Dharmakaya 1 Dharmakaya 2

The world is filled with beauty – beautiful skyscapes, landscapes, people-scapes, both microscopic (not visible to the human eye) and macroscopic (visible to the human eye). We are all momentarily moved and excited by such a thought I’m certain. However, because of our intellectual ability to store everything away in the computerized store-cupboard of our mind, we then make ourselves separate from that beautiful scene or sight. We sit in our armchairs and bring out an album we have made and browse and dream. We forget that such a beauty may be just outside our room if we put the album down and walk outside. It is as if the beauty is in fact nothing to do with us, but nice to have a copy of. We greatly prize mental photographs (or even camera versions) custom-designed to suit our interior.

The tool of the human intellect is remarkably developed as our species evolves, but it is important to realize that it is only one of the many tools at our disposal. If we use only that one tool, we will become more and more disconnected from true reality, and instead come to view our own brand of reality as the truth. Another way to put this is that most of us live our lives in a meta (indirect) way, because we are so adept at creating concepts in our unique style. Imagine a world full of people each with their own brand of reality, custom-made to suit their needs, trying to interact with each other! It is truly amazing that there is any harmony or peace in the world at all.

All this is easily said, you may be thinking as you read, but so difficult to change. Most of us have become so conditioned to living in this indirect way that we think it’s perfectly normal. I used to be inured in this mode of being also, but I recognized something was not right, that life seemed empty and finite once a challenge had been met, an obstacle overcome. Like Prince Siddhartha, (Gautama Buddha) of the Shyakya clan who wanted for nothing in his privileged life, I was restless and felt powerless when I considered the great suffering in the world. So, I packed up the material things I really needed into a rucksack, sold my house, car and business, and went traveling to try to get to the bottom of this troubled feeling in my heart.

I spent the next 2 years living in different cultures all around the world, and of course, as many people do while traveling there, I confirmed my Buddhist pathway in India. However, in order to illustrate the notion of this article – Dharma-kaya (the Body of truth; the nature of all reality; the Buddha’s mind) – I will briefly describe an incredible adventure I had which jolted me out of living at a distance to reality. You can find a full version of this story in my novel, Easy-Happy-Sexy (see above ‘works’).

I had the good fortune while traveling in Australia to join a project. The objective of this venture was to help a group of indigenous Australians (known as aboriginals, or original people of Australia) to move into the very centre of Australia to resume their traditional life-style. The tribe consisted mainly of elderly sick people and young children, the young adults having been integrated into white Australian life. Their leader, Ninija, was determined that it was time that her people walked away from western style values which had been forced upon them by immigrants (see also my short story, Caretaker: the Departure, which is featured in the side bar).

Our task as white Europeans was to assist them in moving from their settlement deep into the outback, by building shade shelters where they could rest during the incredible heat of the day. The centre of Australia is the hottest place in the world, so, we used modern means – transport, equipment, materials – to quickly build shelters ahead of them as they slowly walked. We had plenty of time to get to know these people and to get close to their vision of the world, because we could only work at night due to the heat. I can certainly testify first-hand to the fact that they seldom use the tool of the intellect, and as a result are gifted in terms of their psychic ability, magic and survival powers, but that’s another story.

One night, in order to celebrate the good progress we had made along our route, they used boomerangs to hunt an elderly emu, which we cooked on a big bonfire. As we sat around the fire, I was pre-occupied looking up at the huge number of stars and gigantic moon in the sky, when one of the tribal women nudged me hard with her elbow. She asked me what I was looking at, and I told her quite naively that I had never seen so many stars in my life! She growled and laughed and poked me at such a response, which surprised me. She then gave me my first lesson in living directly. She said,

Those are not stars (there is no translation for the English word ‘stars’ in her language)! Those are the campfires of the dead as they travel on in the sky. It’s cold up there so they light small fires to warm themselves and to let us know they are journeying on.

Of course, indigenous peoples who live in close contact with nature without modern conveniences, are not separate from their universe. They do not make concepts at all, but believe that they play a key role along with all the phenomena around them created by The Great Mother, as they call Mother Nature. That the Great Mother will provide everything they need if they protect those phenomena and live in harmony with the Creation stories. There in the silent desert with only the crackling of Emu cooking, away from pollution of any kind, I suddenly realized that I needed to stop obsessively making concepts in my head. They would certainly block my way to real freedom. But most importantly, they would block my entrance to reality and the Dharma-kaya.

Meditation is one of the other tools Buddhists use to bring their minds under control and to live fully in the Dharma stream (see article 4: the Dharma Stream). Then, once the mind is reasonably stable, another tool we use is the Dharma-kaya, or the ever-presence. Briefly let me explain what this is, although perhaps my personal experience will transmit this meaning in a way which you can relate to more easily.

For the record then, after the Buddha’s Parinirvana, (his physical death) he bequeathed the body of his teachings to guide us onwards. As we saw in the last article -6, The Dharma Crisis – the sutras became his visible legacy to us, and they continue to be highly revered until this day. However, in terms of the invisible, the Buddha remains with each of us eternally in all of the Dharma that surrounds us. His presence is formless, perhaps better understood as an energy field, which has always existed and will always exist, and which transcends all perception. In other words, the Buddha is ever-present, around us every moment.

This energy field can manifest the Buddha emanations we need to keep us focused on our pathway, and that is why there are so many Buddhas depending on which tradition you come from: in Japan the fierce Buddha Achala, the compassionate Buddha Kanon, the all-seeing wise Buddha, Shyakyamuni, to name but a few. These emanations of the Dharma-kaya guide us in our practice in co-operation with the Dharma Protectors (see article 5). All of these guides are watching over us constantly, hoping we will notice the signs and signals they leave in our daily lives, much like the Creation figures of Ninija’s reality in the south Australian desert. As her people do, we need to just immerse ourselves in them so that we can nurture our higher selves and live a truly enchanted life right here and now on earth.

The most important thing for me in my daily life is the feeling that I am so loved by all these enlightened beings, not exclusively Buddhist deities but universal deities of Christianity and Islam and The Great Mother. And that I have a crucial part to play in the universe, in the tapestry of all life. Such unconditional love, such protection, allows me to fully recognize my potential as a human being. Unlike Saul from the film Take (see article 6), I do not have a choice in this. Through my meditation training, my human will has mostly dissolved as I become aware of its redundancy day by day in my short embodiment as a human being. I am loved unconditionally, so I must love unconditionally in return. I receive so much love, which fuels me to give out love unconditionally to every being in existence. It’s so simple really, and glorious, which always brings the tears of gratitude and bliss on like my devout Catholic grandmother.

Finally, the guru, the Master, is an emanation of the Dharma-kaya. The guru we devote ourselves to is the distillation of the Buddha’s teachings and life. He or she, living or deceased, is the key link with the Buddha, is directly connected to the Dharma Current. They are qualified to take this role because of the uninterrupted succession to the Dharma Stream right back to the original Buddha 2,600 years ago. The guru is ever-present every moment of our existence, witness to every breath we take, and is single-pointedly committed to showing us unconditional love forever.

The ever-presence of the guru is something wondrous to me. At certain important moments in the calendar of Buddhist events, which are at the centre of my life, my guru appears in the universe, manifest smack in centre of the Dharma. In Japan it is common for gurus to appear in extraordinary phenomena in the sky, in cloud formations, or as halos around the sun or moon. My guru often appears in cloud formations in the form of a phoenix rising from the raging fires of samsara, an important image in the teaching since his decease.

Who says we don’t have Creation Stories any longer in the developed world?