29 August 2012

Surangama Study Questions, 4

Back to the heart of the matter...

On Part 4, "The Coming into Being of the World of Illusion," pp. 141-166

*Here, in an exchange with Purna and (again) Ananda, the Buddha resolves many of the outstanding issues from the previous sections.  To do this, he describes the way n which the world that ordinary beings like us experience seems to arise.

*What is meant by "adding understanding to understanding"?

*What is the difference between a Buddha (one who "gets it") and an ordinary being?

*How does experience arise for an ordinary being?

*Ananda gets scolded again:  for what?  What is the Buddha trying to teach him at this point?

PS:  The chapter "The Interfusing of the Primary Elements" (pages 153-158) may make for difficult reading at first, but diligence is rewarded because in this section the teaching of Buddha nature is presented directly in clearly.  All it takes is some patience with the unfamiliar and, to some American readers, seemingly high-flown language.  Enjoy!

27 August 2012

Contemplation: Wondrous, Luminous, and Pure

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

"Know then that your mind is fundamentally wondrous, luminous, and pure.  You have confused yourself and lost track of what is fundamental.  Constantly drifting and drowning, you have become submerged in the sea of death and rebirth.  That is why the Thus-Come One says you are to be pitied."
Surangama Sutra (2009), p. 57

22 August 2012

Engaged Practice: Arlington Food Assistance Center

Members of our sangha have a longstanding relationship to the Arlington Food Assistance Center.  This is an organization that provides food to many families in Arlington who would not eat otherwise.  You can participate by contacting them directly, donating as appropriate, and in particular volunteering your time.

I strongly encourage anyone who is involved in our local sangha to participate, and for those who are at a distance to find a similar project in your neighborhood and join in.  This is an opportunity to make a meaningful connection in our community, to put the teachings into practice very directly, and quite simply to do the right thing.

Surangama Sutra Study Questions, 3

With the intention of getting to the heart of the Great Matter, another installment of Surangama Sutra study questions:  "The Matrix of the Thus-Come One," pages 89-137

*Context:  "Matrix of the Thus-Come One" in this text translates the Sanskrit term Tathagatagarbha (Tathagata means "Thus Come One" and garbha means something like "matrix," but there are other translations available).  This concept is also translated as Buddha-nature or Buddha-potential in contemporary discourse, and is a familiar doctrine in other materials we have read together such as the Awakening of Faith or the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment.

*The Buddha categorically reviews each part of the known world through several classification systems (the five aggregates and so on).  He argues in each case that nothing apparent comes into being on its own, nor by causes and conditions.  This appears to contradict the Buddhist teaching of dependent origination, according to which everything comes into being and falls away by causes and conditions, so it is important to consider this bold claim carefully.   How is it that the Buddha rejects the idea that things arise and have their being (such as it is) due to causes and conditions?  What is he getting at here?

*Meanwhile, the sutra also claims that all these categories are in themselves the Matrix of the Thus-Come One.  Is there anything that is not so, according to the Sutra?  What does it mean in practical to consider consciousness and objects of consciousness as the space or mind or potential of the Buddha?

*Checking in on Ananda:  by p. 137, he seems to be coming around to the Buddha's way of thinking and practicing.  What has he learned so far, and what does he have left to learn in your view?

20 August 2012

Contemplation: What is fundamentally you

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

Your mind makes distinctions about light and darkness and other phenomena, but the essence of your visual awareness does not make these distinctions.  Clearly then, the mind that experiences these conditioned phenomena is not what is fundamentally you.  But what is not these conditioned phenomena must be what is fundamentally you.  If it is not you, what else could it be?

Surangama Sutra, p. 57

15 August 2012

Surangama Sutra Study Questions, part 2

I found last night's discussion of the Surangama Sutra's introduction and first few chapters to be engaging, lively, and bright.  It was a joy to peek into the meaning of the Buddha's teachings together.  As before, these questions are intended to promote a thoughtful engagement with the teachings and to get into the heart of the matter.

For Part II, "The Nature of Visual Awareness," pages 41-86:

*General advice:  It helps to approach this section with a gentle sense of humor.

*A sangha member, Kansei, describes this section as being like a Socratic dialogue:  Ananda puts forward a proposition, and the Buddha demonstrates how that proposition is upside-down and backwards.  What does this method tell us about the Buddha's approach to teaching and learning?  How does the Buddha expect people to learn?  Another way to approach this question:  What is it that Ananda has avoided doing in his own practice?  What is the Buddha trying to teach Ananda, and through his example, us here and now?

*The question, "What is the nature of visual awareness?" is considered at length in this section.  Why is this of concern?  What is the purpose behind laboring over this particular point?

*What is the nature of visual awareness, according to the Buddha?  Why does this matter?  Related question:  What does it mean to be "without outflows"?

13 August 2012

Contemplation: Whatever Moves is Like Dust

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

Then the Thus-Come One told everyone in the assembly, "All beings need to understand that whatever moves is like the dust and, like a visitor, does not remain.  Just now you saw that it was Ananda's head that moved, while his visual awareness did not move.  It was my hand that opened and closed, while his awareness did not open or close.  How can you take what moves to be your body and its environment, since they come into being and perish in every successive thought?   You have lost track of your true nature, and instead you act out of delusion.  Therefore, because you have lost track of your mind's true nature by identifying yourself with the objects you perceive, you keep on being bound to the cycle of death and rebirth."

Surangama Sutra, p. 45-46

08 August 2012

A little bit on vipashyana...

A few weeks ago, I posted a gatha from the Vajrasamadhi Sutra here and elsewhere online.  This brief verse opens onto many different kinds of meaning.  One of them has to do with the practice of seated meditation.

There are two aspects to meditation in our school:  shamatha and vipashyana, or "calming the mind" and "discerning the real" respectively.  Calming the mind is just that, you take up an object and concentrate on it until the mind is stilled.  Much of the contemporary discourse around "mindfulness" is actually about this kind of calming function.  The point of calming the mind is to come to some understanding of the nature of mind, which is to say, you calm the mind in order to discern the real:  to recognize one's real condition.  I think this gatha gives excellent advice on vipashyana:
Objects that are produced by causes and conditions,
Those objects are extinguished and unproduced.
 Take thoughts for example.  Thoughts are objects of mind that are produced by causes and conditions.  If you recognize them as empty in their nature, then they resolve into emptiness without effort.  You do not have to force it or get involved in it.  Simple recognition is all it takes.  Even scary or painful thoughts and feelings arise and resolve, and there is no problem at all.  And this is so for all objects (objects of sight, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching too), any kind of life situation, not merely objects of thought.  What happens when you do get mixed up in it, trying to actively put out the fire?  The second half of the gatha tells you:
Extinguish all objects subject to production and extinction,
And those objects will be produced and unextinguished.
If you take the phantasmagoria of emotions and thoughts in your mindstream as real and actively engage with them, pushing them away for instance, then all you do is create problems for yourself.  The point is not to negate or deny or transcend somehow the world of the senses, thoughts, and feelings.  The point is to understand their nature as the movement of mind.  To do that, it really helps to relax.  That is why we have calming the mind in tandem with discerning the real. 

06 August 2012

Contemplation: The Practice, 8

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take the following as your object of contemplation:

Though he attains Buddhahood, turns the wheel of the Dharma, and enters nirvana, in fact he never forsakes the bodhisattva way--such is the practice of the bodhisattva.

Vimalakirti Sutra, p. 74, translation altered slightly

Surangama Sutra Study Questions, part 1

Our sangha is reading the Surangama Sutra, in the 2009 Buddhist Text Society edition.  These questions are intended to promote a meaningful discussion of the most important aspects of the text.  I will post more as we advance through the sutra.

For pages 5-28 (including the Prologue, "The Request for Dharma," and "The Location of the Mind"):

*What is going on with Ananda?  What is he up to?  What is his problem?

*How would you describe Buddha Shakyamuni's teaching style in this section?

For pages 29-38 ("The Conditioned Mind and the True Mind"):

*What is the difference between the conditioned mind and the true mind?

*Does this distinction shed any light on Ananda's present situation and his attempts at spiritual practice?