Trapped Angels

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There are so many varied stages to the spiritual experience, and it is for each of us to live through them on our own terms being sincere with ourselves every second. Hopefully we can share those transitions with others, but for the most part, we need to be silent, shifted away from such trivialities as thought, removed from the mind-field of making comparisons, and avoiding the white knuckles of attachment to the sacred teachings because they are merely a means whereby.

We can be inspired to elevate ourselves by words, ideas and by texts, but we must always remember that they are entirely abstract. They are indirect and so necessitate our correct interpretation, no matter how beautiful they may seem. We can allow them to touch us deeply, but they do not constitute our faith, our core, our true nature. They are risky accessories which if we lose our self-honesty for a split second could put us out of balance. So we have to learn to roll away the parchments, close the books, and live entirely according to ourselves, because only we humans are the way. It is for each of us to listen deeply to our mission directly. Such accessories can amplify or distort such messages.

Sacred chants and melodies built on ancient mantras in forgotten languages are more concrete, as their vibrations can amalgamate with our own and so set in motion desirable rhythms. They deep meditationare invisible, not interpretable, and so they prevent us from manufacturing concepts and then becoming attached to them. Our base human emotions are capable of rendering these sacred means into commodities, false realities or rafts, which convey us to a fixed location in the eternal, irrepressible surge of energy that is existence. We must leave the raft behind for others to use. We must close the book. We must listen to our own vibrational patterns.

Experience, it is said, is needed to bring us closer to true happiness and to have wisdom, but this can become fixed also, creating pride and narrowness. Unless we are mindful in our thoughts and words, carefully monitoring them to find a middle way, it is quite possible to create very damaging experience, which we then turn into stone out of the craving of the lower mind for permanence. For experience to be of value I have learned not to always leave it behind me like a snail trail in a linear model, but to meet it head on as the ellipse of our living moments is completed again and again. Experience has the potential to be as lifeless as thought if it always relegated to the past. Similarly, Dharmakayapredictions of elevation into the future according to prescribed systems and stages, can splinter the moment. Ever-lasting nowness is not subject to the shallow concepts of time and space. We must step beyond them into reality.

In true stillness and the great silence we can feel that the thin membrane of the skin is the only flimsy barrier between the inside and the outside. The skin pores are two-way valves so that the inside and outside become one. Similarly, the veil of death is the only other flimsy separation between the visible and the invisible. This unique feeling ‘nowness’ is reality, beyond all interpretation and comparison. It is our true nature.

Giving to others without conditions is our true nature. If we deem our human form truly Scan 4impermanent then there is no impediment to giving our lives for others for we are bestowing pure spirit or energy to one another. This is our mission. After all, the Universe and Nature gives us a chance at human life without a second thought. Due to our special qualities of divine and unconditional love, our human form then gives us the perfect opportunity to express them.

We can give of the material world because it is simply a means for us to express our divinity. But as the visible is the opposite of the invisible, and everything in the vast invisible world is reflected in the environment of matter in which we find ourselves manifest, we can succeed in our human endeavours if we notice those reflections in reality without interpreting them. We must find balance, the middle way, between our base human mind, which reflects the delusional nature of matter, and our higher mind or true nature, which reflects the invisible reality or truth of the Universe. We embody both the human and the invisible, constantly going between them to find a middle path. We must accept both equally, connecting them together to create a never-ending web of goodness and light.

We humans are indeed angels and can very easily get trapped in the world of matter because we struggle to make meaning and in so doing we may become oblivious to the subtle energies of our origins. The two-way valves in our skin pores can get blocked with such crude materials, so ellipsewe must strive to keep the divine tides ebbing and flowing despite the limitations of the mind of matter. If we do not stay awake during our visit to this dangerous material world, we may become blocked and it will become almost impossible to escape and go back to the source.

Reading the Air: Open up the Temple Precincts

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I wake thinking of our lovely neighbors waking up in their apartment above us. We live in the hills around Takatsuki City in western Japan – an area filled with Emperor’s tombs preserved in their beautiful enclosures. Our neighbours are pure and generous, their faces clear-skinned, their universal respect shining through gentle mushroom eyes always give me a warm feeling. We exchange local produce quite often but do not spend so much time together as we would like.

Then suddenly, I remember the temple precinct we live in and wonder if they feel excluded because they are not members/followers. The high walls of the temple loom over the whole area, its strong gatehouses manned always by young guards, impenetrable. Entering is impossible without badges and ecclesiastical proof. In other words, visitors who do not have the right qualifications cannot enter. They are excluded because the spiritual current is only accessible to those who make a commitment to it. How must they feel to have this citadel with its gleaming golden sorin visible for miles on top.

Religion and spirituality are fearful things to most Japanese so they often avoid any discussion on the matter. The Dharma Crisis here after World War 2 when all religions were sanitized, their status regulated, has made these shy, sincere people retreat in fear from religious visibility. And yet, their hearts are naturally connected to sacred things such as respect and peace. They often venerate their ancestors each day on their home altars, lighting candles and incense on their special days, ensuring that their throats are not dry with daily offerings of green tea, their stomachs not empty with rice cooked before sunrise in the first drawn water. They remove themselves back to their home towns once or twice a year en masse to prepare for the arrival of the spirits, waiting with all their loving relatives in the lantern light.

Perhaps they are right to avoid associating themselves with one particular religion, one sect, one view. Their wisdom comes from the time when our divine flame was alight and there were no divisions, only one universal faith. No-one was excluded. No membership credentials were needed. A time when each human was a spiritual leader, a god, a Buddha, a holy being.

I close my eyes and open up the precincts of the temple in my mind, removing the stout gates enclosing the spirits to exclude the uninitiated. The temple is surely a sanctified space for all beings, even animals and plants, without discrimination. It is not a place of fear and secrets. I vow to remove all boundaries in my own mind and to regard all my neighbours with exception as fellow holy beings.

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Sylvanus: 1st century Christian mystic, certainly fully embodied the Christian teachings

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Christianity has strayed far form the original teachings and the beautiful minds of the gnostics and mystics who carried forward the true teachings of the spiritual Christ. In the Middle-Ages there was a clear recognition of the misguided and manipulative ways of the Church of Rome. The Cathars referred to it as the ‘Church of Wolves’ because the teachings increasingly dwelled on sin and the material Christ, choosing to ignore the spiritual and mystical aspects of the original teachings.

A relatively recent book, ‘The Lost Child of Philomena Lee’ by Martin Sixsmith in 2009, and the film adaptation called ‘Philomena’ directed by Stephen Frears (2013), traces the inflexible attitude to teenage illegitimate births of the Catholic Church. Accidental pregnancies are even today seen as evil acts demanding severe punishment and a life devoted to atonement for committing this sin of all sins.  15-year old Philomena’s son Anthony is wrenched from her at the age of 2 to be sold for big money to rich Americans. As an elderly woman she decides to search for him on his 50th birthday. It turns out that he has died of AIDS, but as the disease progressed he returned to the convent where he was born in Philomena’s native Ireland, to try to find her.  The greedy sisters, living in luxury thanks to their illegal income, fail to tell her of this, or even that his body was buried in the convent graveyard.

The senior sister at the time of this shocking incarceration of teenage Pilomenamothers and the nurturing of their babies born without pain-killers as penance, now frail and in retirement, is finally confronted by the journalist helping Philomena with her search. Sister Hildegarde says bitterly that she has kept her vow of chastity all her life so why shouldn’t others! Celibacy is something so unnatural and unnecessary in the name of religion. Catholics seem to thrive on the suffering and self-punishment meted out by an omnipotent and ruthless King of their imagining. These are the crooked interpretations of power-seeking egos surely, as it was in the Middle Ages.

This kind of religion demands that we submit and vacate our true and natural self. We buy into such hierarchies by deferring without question to their absurd and harsh rulings. The divine spark of original Christ is extinguished forever by the blood and sweat of human suffering and punishment as followers (those who follow and have no mind/nature of their own) become merely consumers buying a material set of beliefs and idols. In the story, Philomena’s sense of goodness is strong, natural. She doesn’t blame what Martin calls ‘the evil nuns,’ and yet her whole life has been ruined by the mistake she made at the age of 15. She considers herself to be a serious and irredeemable sinner. She is so pure that she defers wholesale to the rulings of God’s dubious representatives. What profligacy is this?

Sylvanus taught clearly, as did the Buddha and other remarkable energies, that we humans have the potential to be God. His model is realizable in our daily life. He says,

‘Light the light within you.  Do not extinguish it!  Certainly, no one lights a lamp for wild beasts or their young.

Many followers of religions look to the lights outside themselves for light. They mistake their own light as ‘ego,’ or some kind of arrogance which they must eradicate or hide. There is no place for the individual in the eyes of obsessive clerics who sadly climb into positions as educators and damage the purity and natural qualities of many of their ‘sheep.’

‘You were a temple, (but) you have made yourself a tomb.  Cease being a tomb, and become (again) a temple, so that uprightness and divinity may remain in you.’

Unfortunately, the world is dominated by living tombs who have lost all contact with their own unique voices. This is why we live in a world of mass mediocrity often studded with dubious and adulated stars.

‘Knock on yourself as upon a door, and walk upon yourself as on a straight road.  For if you walk on that road, it is impossible for you to go astray. And if you knock with this one (Wisdom), you knock on hidden treasures.’

We each have all we need inside us to become living Gods and Buddhas, now, in our lifetime. We all have a sacred mission which we constantly evade while deferring to other so-called ‘leaders’ and ‘holy beings.’ As Sylvanus advises, it is important to always keep in mind that ‘everything which is visible is a copy of that which is hidden.’ The Cathars referred to the visible world as the world of the Devil, created to tempt us away from the invisible and our essential being as spirit.

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Incense Box

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A Tibetan incense box is a beautiful object. Often carved out of rosewood, long and slim with a hinged lid, the comets and crescents, stars and lotuses penetrate deeply so that once the incense is burning inside, the smoke can seep out in fronds and sinuous drifts. The devoted workmanship of Buddhist monks and nuns, a mantra for each tap of the hammer on the chisel head, is often adorned with gold and jewels, or shiny tin.

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This carving style especially allows thick purple sticks of temple incense to burn steadily, slowly, without interruption. It is not suitable for the incense rolled on to a stick, which needs to be supported vertically in some kind of holder, Indian style. These sumptuous long Tibetan sticks need long-lighting, and then are laid down along the length of the box, to burn on a bed of ash. The ash accumulates and is said to represent one’s accumulated merit, and one’s level of purification.

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When I travel, I cannot use my box because it is unwise to disturb the ash, and it is impractical to try to seal the box up to keep it upright inside luggage. I find myself with you, so I am able to start a new box. It is touching that these boxes have to stay behind and perhaps will be used by the people you leave behind. Nothing is ever fixed in the free flowing Dharma.

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It is astounding just how quickly the ash accumulates, lifting the sticks up higher and higher, and how much better they burn on the thicker bed of ash. From time to time, when it becomes full, I have to empty the box into a special urn, but I always leave a shallow layer of ash in the bottom of the box so that I can go on burning incense with alacrity. For a long time now it has represented the integrity of my watchfulness of the flow of life.

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When I start to write or read something, it has became automatic to carefully draw out a long stick from the strange thin packaging, then proceed to strike a match and to concentrate all my energy on lighting it. After the flame has flared up for a while, I blow it out but continue to blow gently so that the incense glows hard red, curling out delicious smoke when I stop.

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As I pack and plan to leave for an indeterminate length of time, I wonder whether I should try to take my box with some ash in so that I can immediately start to burn when I arrive. But my experience tells me that no matter how carefully you tape up the box and lay it flat, or wrap it in layers and layers of foil, when you arrive at your destination, the ash will have disappeared. Such is the nature of merit. There are no special dispensations or carrying forwards.

Starting a new box is difficult. It must be watched carefully. The thinnest trace of soft ash must be consolidated to make a bed to hold up the stick so that the glowing red end is supported. It goes out quickly if it extends beyond the snails trace of ash, or if the tiny support flattens out due to the weight of the stick. Then, it must be lit again and again making a practice in itself. The fragrant smoke may swell up for only a matter of seconds, and then disappear because it has gone out. The holy stick is subject to the invisible winds from the 10 worlds, just as we are.

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It is easy to see that to make a wholesome bed of ash requires a great deal of time and width of being, so this is truly an act of patience. If it is done with care and positive energy, it is a wonderful practice. But inevitably, there are scorch marks on the bottom of the box representing the imperfections of our human form, showing the blocking of the ever-flickering awareness of the Great Truth. They serve to remind us to feel remorse, and they are a signal that we are not yet perfect.

The period of burning is like a universal concentration. It is joyful and even though we know that it will be short-lived, it is so worthwhile. In fact, it is a total investment in here and now. We look down smilingly into the box through one of the ornate holes to see a red glow, but then suddenly the smell of the wood of the box scorching like a bonfire, wakes us up from our complacency, our attachment to warmth and glow.

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Each time I rise to check the box, I think of our love. I tend it. I ignite it and let its beautiful fragrance out through lotus petals or moons or comets. I believe in it totally, but then whilst I blink, it goes out leaving scorch marks. I light it again from the ever-burning candle patiently, concentrating on our love, and the delightful swirl of smoke rises almost as an apparition.

And so, this process will go on for many hours and days until finally there is a considerable bed of ash, and the thin crimson cylinders burn on and on without effort. This is a dedication to our love, but it is also a purification of your anger, a thinning of the thickened doors to your heart, a soothing of the pain that you mistakenly blame on me for leaving you.

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We must own our own pain, our own anger, just as we must work on establishing a bed of ash for the stick of incense we light for others. We must nurture and accept, receiving teaching from life, and from those teachers we have attracted to us in order to help. We can all receive, and so strip away bitter skin and decayed leaves from ourselves to reveal our eternal light, and I would love nothing better than for you to step away from your rage and insecurity, from your bitterness and resentment, and burn fully on a deep bed of ash.

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Buddhist Winter Training and Widor Toccata from 5th Organ Symphony

 

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The Dharma is everywhere. It is impossible to become attached to it because it teems all around us. How can we ever catch it and try to convert it, to reduce it, into human terms? It has to be free, to run free, and we should run with it!

Several million people come together for winter training in January. In Japan, it is the time to deepen your gratitude, your unconditional compassion for all beings, your awareness of the richness of our human existence. We are looking to be further awakened when we change our daily routine to attend special ceremonies and Dharma instruction. We keep in mind our founders who moved away from their ordinary lives to devote themselves to religious life.

Striking images surround us.

water ablutionsThe barrel of water deliberately filled and left outside in the freezing winter until a thick layer of ice develops on top. The aspirants wish to purify, so before dawn, they wake, dress in thin cotton robes, and sit by the side of the barrel. They break the ice and scoop out 100 buckets of freezing water to pour over their heads.

waterfall trainingWaterfall training. Priests walk from their monasteries or temples to isolated waterfalls. They perform a short ritual, chanting various mantras, and then step into the freezing water and move under the strong fall of snowmelt. Holding their palms together in gassho, they remain there, the water purifying them, cutting away worldly ego and making a space for gratitude and humility. Negative energies and karma are washed away, and they step out of the water regenerated, ready to go back into daily life to practice.

Putting on simple black robes sitting at a red lacquered chanting table. Lighting the candle, the thin stick of incense, holding juzu beads in the left hand where they touch the 5 elements at the clairvoyrant Buddhabase of each finger. Sitting for long hours in the seiza posture, the legs folded, knees bent, feet crossed behind, hands pressed lightly together in gassho. Awakening to the warmth inside and the cold outside; the protection of a roof, a soft mat to protect legs, the incredible good fortune to have encountered a wonderful teaching and so to have the opportunity to polish our Buddha nature. To follow the ancients, who have handed on the Dharma in perfect condition from master to pupil for thousands of years. To have the honour to be connected into such a faultless Dharma stream; to have guidance, to learn how to reach higher, purer states until we reach the other shore of Nirvana, and go beyond.

Everything is in place. The instruments of practice are close at hand:

The beads crafted with love, strung together with compassion for others, then blessed by Holy Beings. Each bead a blessing in itself.

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The incense packed beautifully in a sacred box, sticks of exact length and thickness, the substance made of a mix of ingredients tested through many hundreds of years to give the thickest and most fragrant smoke. Then the means to light it, convenient, clean and efficient. The time and place to light it, to know when to load the prayers and penetrations, the foci arranged in front of us to simply connect with. So easy, so perfect. The realization that this ritual has nothing to do with intellectual beliefs. It is primitive, provided, and I have been chosen to sit here. There are no questions to ask. Doubts are trinkets manufactured from a curious and distracted intellect, which have no business with the invisible world.

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The candle-light. Candles manufactured from the Earth to give light. The magic of fire is remarkable. Combustion making a flame alive in the air. The flame burning brightly from the inert cylinder of yellow bee’s wax. Science can never adequately explain the magical qualities of an ignited flame. The Masters burned candles on their forearms in the height of blistering summer until the wax melted on to their skin to purge their human ego and unite with the invisible world. Again, there is nothing to believe or not believe about this. It is a ritual handed down in tact from Master to Pupil.

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Mantras: these are deigned for protection of the mind. No thought or question/answers are required. Their repetition is a signal to the deep conscience, the higher mind, like a hand signal or mantra. The mantra is enunciated into the invisible world, into massive sound banks of the energy of sound which build up resonances and vibrations to keep the material world in balance. The voiceless voices of good altruistic energy. A mantra unites voices and focuses aspiration. It has no business with the intellect. It brings equilibrium like salt and vitamins, light and moisture, virtue and merit.

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The Dharma is not limited by man-made concepts like ‘form’ or ‘space’ or ‘time.’ It is ever-present and indestructible. I switch on internet radio and listen to a pipe-organ recital. The mighty church organ intricately built, massive in stature and volume, designed to fill to capacity the vessel of God’s House. The massive cathedrals and basilicas built of stone, vaulted ceilings and domes, arches and screens carved in hardwood, with spires reaching high through the sky towards God, are receptacles for the divers resonances of this instrument.

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Charles-Marie Widor’s Toccata from Organ symphony No. 5 (click link to hear)  fills my wide heart. It is the glorious Dharma, indestructible, releasing power beyond the imagination, beyond the small locked room of belief. Belief is the ‘dare-you’ of the intellect! This gigantic glorification of God, of all deities, of all facets of the invisible world, does not ask to be believed in. It’s glory is evidence, if any is needed, of man’s need to reach out into the invisible world of spirit with the greatest diversity of sounds ever possible, beyond barriers and borders, creeds and cults. If we surrender ourselves to this panoply, this tear-jerking array of sounds, allow it to become our environment without conditions or questions or other intellectual paraphernalia, then it becomes the way, and we are the way. This stunning music would not exist without our hearts and minds to catch it. It is for us and of us.

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It can never be said that we are not surrounded by magic; that our lives are not fused with alchemy and energies of transformation. This music is proof that we are each part of the whole and that this is where we should stay, turning away the beckoning finger of the prosaic one-dimensional intellect. Here we can rest briefly in the supremacy of love, and then carry it around forever after. Like a mantra or the ring of a meditation bell, it is concrete, indestructible and completely unforgettable. Once you have immersed yourself in it, you will never be the same again. All senses can recall it beyond the visible – in the sky, in the ocean, in a delicious taste or irresistible odour, in the eyes of a loved one.

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The Dharma; practising wisdom and compassion

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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.

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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?