Buddhism 101: Emptiness

2016/02/25

Believe it or not folks, this entry was one of the main reasons I started this series, and it will probably be the last post of it for a while. I still might intersperse some Buddhism 101 stuff as I go, but I’m wanting to start posting about other stuff again.

This was a weird post to write, I actually discussed with my teacher if I could write it, and got permission. Technically it’s against a vow I’ve taken, I’m not to discuss Emptiness with people who don’t understand. Seriously. The reason of this vow is a historic one, back when the tantric side of Buddhism was far more secretive than it is now, most people who weren’t Buddhist didn’t know the concept of Emptiness, and even many Buddhists didn’t focus on it (which boggles me). The trouble is, as you’ll see later in this post, if I say “All things are Empty” unless you know what that means in a Buddhist sense, you might misunderstand. In fact, it kind of sounds bleak doesn’t it. It’s all empty, nothing is real…what’s the point? This is why the vow says don’t talk about it, because people will misunderstand it, and it will discourage them. Who wants to practice a religion that says you’re empty and not real?

That said, the secretive nature of tantra is changing, for better or worse, and part of that is the fact that a lot of people are familiar, at least in passing with the idea that Buddhism says all things are empty. This post is actually a response to that.

First things first: Emptiness, also known as Sunnata in Pali, Shunyata in Sanskrit, and Stongpa nyid in Tibetan. It literally translates as Emptiness, it’s not a translation problem like “Suffering.”

While the doctrine of Emptiness is important in my understanding of Buddhism, it seems like it’s something that grew in important. It gets very little treatment in the Pali canon, mostly just interpreted into stuff. By the time of Mahayana it became more important, the understanding being that all things are Empty. Then into Vajrayana not only are all things Empty, but Emptiness is the true nature of reality, and in the quick (dangerous) path to Enlightenment you need to learn to experience it.

It’s most popular expression is from the Prajnaparamita Sutra (The Book of Perfected Wisdom) which states “Form does not differ from emptiness, and emptiness does not differ from the form. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.”

Simple enough.

I’m going to discuss it mainly from a tantric position, also, because Tibetan Buddhists are really good at classifying and nitpicking I’ll point out there are literally dozens of types of Emptiness we recognize. I’ll be discussing generalized Emptiness, but there are more specialized forms of it.

It is translated in English alternatively as Emptiness, Nothingness, and more recently Openness. None of these translations do the concept justice. When using the term Emptiness in Buddhism it isn’t a reference to a hollowness or a lack in the way one might say that the bottle is empty. Nothingness is not the same in Buddhism as it is in Western thought, it doesn’t refer to a void or non-existence. Openness has a bit more of a poetic truth to it, but still does not hit the mark.

Unfortunately due to the centrality of Emptiness in Buddhism, and its long history, several classifications and types have been categorized and written about. It is not a concept easily explained, but it can be pointed to and overtime a practitioner can truly experience it and understand what was being acknowledged.

On the simplest level Emptiness refers to being empty of an inherent and distinct individual nature, it is essentially in this form the flipside of Buddhist Interdependence. To borrow and abuse Plato’s classic example of Form take a table. We might all know that a table is a table, but what makes it so? What is the inherent nature of a table? What makes it distinct? Why is it a table and not a footstool? What makes it separate from everything else? Now add in a dash of an abstraction of the sorites paradox. If we have a table and cut it down the centre it is no longer a table, but what happened to its “table-ness?” If the table-ness was real how could a cut undo it? If we cut the table in half through the legs we still have a table, but one half as tall as before, how is this still a table when it is missing half its height? How short could we make the legs before it stopped being a table? Even without human agency if we watch a table over time it will rot, fall apart, and become a pile of rubbish, and that pile of rubbish is not a table, yet we cannot say where the table-ness went nor identify the moment it was a table, and the moment it was not.

From a Buddhist perspective the table is Empty, it is Empty of inherent characteristics, it is made up of a combination of elements; material, a surface, supports, purpose, and understanding, and as those elements change we realize the table is not a table, it is just a unit of temporarily coherent elements we think of and use as a table.

Now take yourself as a person. What is your inherent distinct individual nature? You know you are you, but what makes you you? If you were to suffer a brain injury and lose your memories or mental faculties, would you still be you? Some would say yes, and some would say no, but if you had a true inherent existence, then there could be no disagreement. If there was a “real” you, there would be no question. Look back at the person you were a year ago, five years, ten years, are they still you? But how many things have changed? How can that person and you be the same? On a physical level in the last decade every cell and particle in your body has been recycled, destroyed, and built a new, there is not a particle in your body that was there ten years ago, yet you say you are the same person despite having not a single particle in common with 2006 you. When you were a child you a fraction of your height and weight, but if that child was you what were they missing, or what do you have now since you’re twice their size? If you lost a finger in an accident, would there be less you? If you forgot a vacation you went on, or got over a temper problem, would you still be you? It is hard, or arguably impossible to point to what you really are.

Going back to the table, it’s not just a matter of the form of the table, but its composition that make it empty. The wood from the table used to be a living tree, but now it isn’t, when did it cease being a tree and begin being a table? Both tree and a table are empty, but you can see how they are connected. The tree did not become a table by a miracle, a person cut down the tree (either by hand or through a mechanical device), so that person is as much a part of the table as the tree is. The sun’s light nurtured that tree, so the table is composed of sunlight as well.

When you look at the particles in the tree it might contain carbon that was once in the lungs of Caesar Augustus, or part of the body of a forest animal, those are all part of the tree, and the table, and those all show how the table and the tree are empty. The table could not exist without all of those things, and an infinite chain more. The table is empty of its own nature but instead is an aggregate of everything. Your table is not a table, but your table is also the saw blade that cut it, the mountain that metal was mined from, and the person who dug it out. Your table is the person who crafted it into a table, it’s the carbon distilled from the air as it grew, the water used to transport material inside the tree, the sunlight, the star that exploded over four million years ago to produce the particles that would be recycled into the earth, and thus the tree, and thus the table. All of this, and many many more things make up your table. Your table is empty of an inherent being, but through that it is connected to everything.

All things are Empty. They are always Empty, it is merely a matter of being aware of it, and accessing it.
Emptiness could be described both as Empty, but also Full, filled with everything. It is an undifferentiated potentia.

It is common in many Buddhist practices to “dissolve into emptiness” or to “rest in emptiness.” This does not mean Nothingness, but that state of infinite potential and connection. When you see yourself as empty it does not mean to be hollow like a tube, or to cease to exist. Instead it means to recognize that you do not exist independent of anything, but infinitely connected to, and not separate from anything else. You are connected to everything and anything. When you dissolve into Emptiness you still exist, but you enter a state of understanding that you do not exist in any inherent or independent way, you exist in relationship to every element of everything else.

By accessing Emptiness, that infinitely connected and undifferentiated reality as the basis of all things, you can also create anything. When you dissolve into Emptiness, you can then reform yourself in any way, looking the same, but being composed of the stuff of the gods or divine archetypes. You dissolve into Emptiness, so that you can arise and reform yourself into anything.

Emptiness is also very important to the understanding of Compassion in Buddhism. After all, how can you not express and experience Compassion for other people when you realize that both you and them are Empty, and thus connected, even the same. You are them, they are you. Put poetically: The heart of Compassion is Emptiness.

If you’re curious for a bit more detailed of a look, I recommend The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra by Thich Nhat Hanh

This is just a very basic explanation of Emptiness. Considering it’s broken down into over twenty categories, and is still a huge part of Vajrayana debates you can tell it’s a complicated topic. Hopefully though my middling explanation of it though will help you understand that when Buddhists say something is Empty/Void it isn’t a nihilistic thing, but an infinitely connected perspective, one meant not to instill a sense of nihilism or depression, but connection and compassion.

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Buddhism 101: Karma Followup

2016/02/21

My entry on karma had some good comments I wanted to address.

Harry, from The Unlikely Mage, corrected me in my use of terms. That technically Karma is cause, and Vipaka is result, at least historically. I don’t find that supported in Vajrayana Buddhism. In fact despite the language I used about karma being the result, we frame it as both the cause, and the effect.

While it might be easy and convenient to split things up into cause and effect, there really isn’t a distinction. Every cause is an effect, and every effect is a cause, and even if we take a specific event, like the punching analogy from the first entry cause/effect blur into an infinite sequence.

We tend to think of it as I punch you, you get mad and dislike me. But really it’s I get mad (effect), I’m mad (cause) so I punch you (effect), I punch you (cause) you fall back (effect), you fall back (cause) and get angry (effect), you get angry (cause) and dislike me (effect). Even that sequence could be broken down thousands of times into smaller units of both thought and action. As is I started part way into the sequence with me getting mad…but what caused that? And what caused that? And what caused that? This plays into the Buddhist concept of interdependence that I want to talk about next post, but basically everything is infinitely connected and entwined. There is no way to separate anything, so we see karma as cause, and effect, because they’re not different really, just a different point on an infinite continuum.

While in some ways it could be less precise, I like it because it eliminates the illusion of concrete events of cause and effect, and reveals a continuous stream of them. We do use language like karmic seeds and karmic ripenings to differentiate between karma as cause, and karma as effect in specific cases, but it’s clear they’re both karma.
Uratriura also brought up a good point (one I might have wanted to elide) “Since karma seems to be resolved in the here and now and only specific sections taken to other lives the theory of having several souls forming a group of “learning” from each other (or resolving each others karma or being interwined in each others karma) seems to be obsolete. It simply seems to be a random gathering in random lives. But when and what is this rare case of meeting up again in other lives?”

So I mentioned that interpersonal karma essentially dies with the people, and meeting up again in other lives happens rarely. I misspoke in an attempt to simplify matters. Remember how at the end of my last post I stressed that everything that happens is karma? Same is true for meeting people. What I should have said is technically you probably have some karma with everyone you encounter, so much so that it becomes meaningless to fixate on. In Buddhist theory this is commonly expressed in the idea that every sentient being has been your mother at one point in time. While this might not be literally true, the idea is what matters.

Let’s take some simplified math with generalized numbers. Modern humanity has been around for 200,000, average lifespan for most of that time was about 35 years. So assuming you’ve been incarnating on Earth all that time (Buddhism says it could have been elsewhere), and that you’ve been human all that time (you could have been anything), and we’re not counting human species that came before us, just to make the math simple, you’ve had nearly 6,000 lives. So that’s 12,000 parents, assuming monogamy (which is just false historically) that’s 6,000 partners. Let’s assume, for not reason other than to make more numbers, that you had on average four kids per lifetime, that’s 24,000 children. So we’re up to 42,000 people who have been parents/lovers/children. We’re not even including siblings, extended family, or non-family relationships.

You can quickly see how many people you’re connected to. Add in two more siblings, and three close friends, and we’re up to 57,000 people. That’s just 200,000 years as humans, not including life on other planets, or dimensions, or whatever. So while I said it’s rare to meet someone from the past. I guess it’s more accurate to say it’s rare to meet someone from the past, and have it be relevant or important in any way.

So while you might meet someone again, and you might have karma to “work out” it’s not a significant thing…it’s probably the majority of your relationship. Also, it’s not about them. If you didn’t meet up with them ever again, you’d still eventually be able to work out that karma in other ways. Like people who hold great (possibly justified) anger at someone else. Sometimes they can confront the person and work it out, sometimes they can’t, but over time it’s dealt with. Meeting up and working through karma is convenient, not cosmically significant. Karma is also not a perfect one-for-one, which is why Western notions of it often fail. Imagine I have karma with someone whom I abused in a past life, my karma is around my hate/ignorance to that person, but realistically anyone I encounter who “triggers” that karma can let me work through it. It doesn’t have to be the original person, just someone who “reminds” me enough of them to bring out that same mental/emotional pattern.

Now I’m getting more speculative, because it’s talked about less in these terms. When it is important, it’s probably due to something really intense. Here is where I shit on soul mates. I’m sure we all know at least one elderly couple who still seem to be very much in love, and have been so for decades. When people say they’re meeting up with a love again, because they’re soul mates and love each other so intensely, it again ignores the 11,999 other lovers they had (assuming the historically false monogamy), unless they claim to be really monogamous, over 9000 times. So when I say intense, I mean something more than love. In fact I’d argue you’re more likely to be connected to someone through hate or fear in the case of being murdered. Traumatic deaths stick with you more reincarnating because they’re an intense emotion at the moment of death which is imprinted in the mind, and part of that imprint is the person. When you’re murdered that fear/anger is the last thought and it fills you completely. But if you love someone, while it can be intense it’s not this flooding/pulsing emotion after all those years, so it’s not as prominent if you die slowly and naturally.

I find in interesting that all the people who claim they’re meeting up with old lovers or people to learn from again because of “karma” are people from cultures/religious upbringings that don’t have karma. I never hear my Hindu or Buddhist friends (who were born/raised that way) talk about it like that in any way. Perhaps it goes back to my last post as well about the idea that it’s said we really don’t know what’s going on with karma, that only highly-realized beings can really have that insight, so there is an arrogance to assuming that something is A) Karmically/Cosmically important, and B) that you can tell, you’re just that advanced.

Theoretically there are also karmic vows which are imprinted in the mind. While strictly a Buddhist thing (Mahayana and Vajrayana) I don’t see why it has to be limited to them. Vows often include mentions of future lives, and if you take that seriously, it becomes part of your mind. So when you reincarnate it, or at least the seed, is there, and if someone else has similar, you can be connected. Maybe not some cosmic bungee cord drawing you together, but just practicality. You’re both born in a time and place that gives you access to what you need to fulfill you vow, maybe born in a major city with a Buddhist population. You both are drawn to Buddhism, eventually through trial and error find a temple/teacher that clicks, and meet. It’s not karma drawing you two together to complete the past, but who you are leads you to make similar life choices and that leads to you meeting up. It’s similar to having friends who you always run into in public, because you have the same taste in movies, music, and food. You’re not cosmically tied, it’s just you have similar ways of thinking and only so many options.

The next question they brought up is about karma’s “storage.” As mentioned there is no universal track-record of karma, but wouldn’t there still need to be a place where karma is stored or recorded? After all if it’s action and reaction, you can’t react to something in a future life without an action. Is this higher self? If the universe doesn’t care, what brings it up again. If insignificant karma more or less dies with the body, who decides it’s insignificant?

A great and complicated question. I believe it is in Theravada Buddhism but I know during some of my initial training around anapana and vipassana the body itself was called the Storehouse of Karma. Our karma is recorded in our very being. Here is where it gets abstract. Our bodies “remember” everything that isn’t resolved, or that is significant. When you meditate, as in anapana or vipassana styles, you will eventually get distracted by physical sensations. In fact what you don’t realize is that right now, everywhere, your entire body is filled with sensations, but you ignore it, you block it out, and your attention isn’t clear enough to notice it. Your body feels the slightly draft of air that subtle shifts a hair on your arm. Every square centimeter of your body has dozens of sensations happening right now, it’s aware of heat and cold, even if you think about it, and can’t perceive it, there are probably itches and stabbing and shifting feelings everywhere. It might sound hard to believe, I didn’t initially until I did a retreat. After two days of nothing but meditating on the breath, you can see sensations everywhere. You could focus on any part of your body, and feel what is happening, temperature, pressure, pulses, itches. We have to ignore all this or we’d be overwhelmed.

Theoretically these unnoticed and random feelings are the karma playing out in our body, or representations of it, and when we ignore it (all the time) nothing happens, if we give in (get angry at that itch and scratch it) we reinforce it, and if we observe it but don’t react the karma is weakened, and eventually goes away. Less abstract think about a fight you had with your mother, think about it, hard. Now, do you feel that somewhere in your body? Maybe a pressure in your head, racing pulse, a sinking stomach. That’s your body record of the karma involved in the fight.

Now, you’re more than just your body. This is also stored in the mind. Like every time the topic of that fight comes up, you might feel guilty for what you said, or angry because it’s unresolved, or proud because you stood up to your mother, whatever. That’s a mental imprint of the karma.

So who decides if karma is insignificant? Believe it or not, you do. The person that holds onto karma, and makes you accountable to it in future lives? It’s you. Those imprints are in your body, and if they’re strong and unresolved they’re imprints in the mind which carries over into the next life. If you’re still attached to something, the universe doesn’t take that attachment and then drop it into your new baby mind, you carry it with you. If you still have karma around anger, it’s not the universe trying to balance cause and effect which gives you anger issues in the next life, it’s you, it’s been in your mind they entire time. No one can forgive you, and no one can make you guilty, it’s all about you.

Now, since for the sake of simplicity I misspoke previously. I’d like to say I’m not discounting, discrediting, or denying the more woogity side of karma, the magickal energetic side of it, but that the vast vast majority of karma is better explained as a mental imprint, a conditioning of mind/soul. I think the fixation on the woogity side of karma is problematic, and impractical. It’s like people who cry ghost or bad energy for everything that happens, without looking and mundane practical causes and ways of dealing with things. Not every random bad mood is someone beaming hate into your soul (cause you’re so special you’re worth that), sometimes it just happens, in fact I’d say almost all the time that’s what is happening. Karma is the same. Sure something might be happening due to some woogity out there karma influence, but chances are, butt number of 99.99% of the time, at least, it’s interpersonal/mental karma.


Buddhism 101: Karma

2016/01/29

One thing I wanted to talk about when I started this series was karma. I can think of no word that isn’t offensive that makes me cringe so much whenever I hear it or read it. It is a word so misused and abused that I try never to discuss it directly with non-Buddhists and part of me wants to only ever use the Tibetan word in general, except then I’d have to explain the word each time, and the person would go “Oh you mean karma?” and I’d be back at square one.

Previously I shared a ten (!) year old essay of mine on karma as it is presented textually in Hinduism, which I’d recommend reading too

As I mentioned in that post karma comes from Hinduism, but it’s somewhat different in Buddhism, and in that post and this one I’m not going to talk about karma as some absolute inviolate rule of reality, or that the texts are 100% right. I’m not looking to argue what karma “really is” but just explain how it’s understood in the tradition.

I’ll give you a hint, anytime you see karma in an internet meme, it’s using it wrong, I can almost guarantee it.

Except for this case.

Except for this case.

So what is karma? Well the word is generally translated as action, but reaction would be a more appropriate word. It’s about cause and effect, in fact you could argue karma is both the cause and the effect, but we focus on it being the effect.

Karma…is complicated, but basically it’s the reaction for what you do. As you move through the world you react to the world, it reacts to you, and karma forms. Everything is karma, no good or bad karma, all karma is unwanted in the long quest for enlightenment. Karma is internal psychological patterns, karma is external life patterns, karma is what pulls you into a vagina/womb eventually causing rebirth. It’s not just the bad stuff that happens and you blame karma, karma is the effect that follows cause, external, internal, magickal, energetic, or personal psychological patterns.

I repeat no good or bad karma. Now more recently the language has shifted, so you’ll find wise teachers who know what they’re talking about saying “good karma” but what they’re really discussing is another concept called merit, which we’ll leave aside to avoid complications. All karma is unwanted, it is what keeps you incarnating and keeps you discontent, even the “good” karma. The fact we’re making distinctions between “good” and “bad” karma shows we’re still trapped in karma and can’t escape this divisive dualistic sense of reality we have. Enlightenment is when you’re free of generating karma.

There are a lot of ways you can divide karma, into what caused it, into what influenced it, into what it influences, and more. I’m not going to focus on that. It’s academically interesting, and if you’re studying to be a monk, it’s good to know, otherwise it’s pretty impractical for most people.

I will talk a bit about a few general divisions of karma though to explain what it is. As I said karma is everything, it’s internal psychological patterns, it’s external life patterns, it’s physical, it’s interpersonal, and it’s abstract magickal woogity…and it can be all of these at once.

Say I’m in a discussion with someone, and they say something that pisses me off, that’s my psychological karma. I have some mental construct that reacts to what they are saying. They piss me off so much I punch them. Now I’ve generated at least three kinds of karma. First off whatever mental psychological pattern I had inside of me that let me get so angry, I just fed it, I validated it, so it grows stronger, I reinforced that karma. Any physical injury I did to myself is karma, it is literally the reaction of my fist hitting their face. I might feel guilty for hitting them later, another psychological element of karma. Chances are now they’re even more mad at me, I’ve ruined a relationship, and might be under threat, that is their reaction to me, that’s the interpersonal karma I generated in this interaction. None of this is a judgment on whether I was right or wrong to hit them, this is just simply cause and effect. (Also notice, all of these karmas, and I don’t have to discuss some abstract woogity)

No good, no bad, no right, no wrong, no Cosmic Judge, just cause and effect. Karma.

It’s not always so extreme though. Karma is the situations we are in, and our reactions to them. Are you in a long term relationship? Karma brought you together. I don’t mean there was some cosmic reason that you two had to meet out of the billions of people on this planet, out of billions of planets in our galaxy, out of billions of galaxies, out of billions of alternate realities and realms. I just mean cause and effect. You decided to be nice to someone at work one day, which led to a friendship, and three years later they introduced you two, cause and effect. But if you decided not to be nice, or you broke off the friendship early and you didn’t meet your lover, that’s also karma.

The problem with karma is the anthropomorphizing of it, and the whitewashing judgemental side of it. This becomes really problematic for a lot of reasons. I know people who purposefully do what they consider “good deeds” when trying to get something good to happen because “karma.” If you’re doing good to get good, you’re acting from the wrong place. Also when you get judgmental with it, it’s easy to use “karma” to make you feel better. So-and-so is an asshole, but don’t worry, karma will get them. Rather than you addressing your own issues, or confronting theirs. It’s also abused in this regard to blame people from crap in their life because obviously, karma, they did something to deserve it. It’s also used as a selfish excuse not to help people “Well, it’s their karma to be poor/sick/whatever, if I help them they won’t learn.” All of that is bullshit, and frankly your misusing a word to satisfy your own selfish inactions and misguided ways. The world reacts, we react, we’re all reacting to each other. It’s not judgment that a pen knocked off a table falls to the ground, it’s just how things work on Earth here and now.

But I hear you saying “If there isn’t a judgment behind karma, why are there rules to follow to avoid it?” Because, generally speaking, these rules are good advice. I’m talking about the five precepts of Buddhism, mentioned here. (TLDR: Don’t kill, don’t steal, avoid sexual misconduct (whatever that is), don’t lie, don’t use intoxicants) Now if I steal, I can create karma. I can feel guilty, or afraid of getting caught, that’s karma, or I think I’m better than the people I’m stealing from and that’s misguided, karma. Maybe someone knows I did it, and wants revenge that’s karma. But a great way to avoid that? Not stealing. Not because there is something cosmically wrong with stealing and if I take your wallet I’ve thrown the universe out of balance, but that it is interpersonally wrong in most cases.

There is a lot to be said about motivation in karma. Arguably the most powerful form of karma is the mental karma, because that’s what sticks with you. Physical karma dies with the body, as it’s the karma of the body. Interpersonal karma dies with the person (generally, meeting up again in other lives happens, but very rarely, so it usually doesn’t matter). But your mind continues, even if you don’t remember anything, it’s the same consciousness, and your karma is still there. How many of us have gone to bed in a good or bad mood, and woken up in the same mood even though we’ve forgotten the cause? It’s similar between lives. If you live an angry life, die angry, chances are you’ll be reborn and deep inside your mind somewhere are all those angry habits you haven’t dealt with yet, that’s a mental karma. The understanding and motivation of why you do something are often more important than the action in the long wrong.

thisiskarmaKarma and morality aren’t clear cut though. In the stories of the Buddha’s previous lives there is a time he murdered a pirate, to save the pirate from his own karma, and he didn’t get karma for it, or a time when he committed suicide, to feed a hungry tigress, and didn’t get karma for it. Buddhist hagiographies are filled with things that at the surface might seem morally wrong, but aren’t karmically wrong because of their purpose and understanding, so you get the occasional murder for a good cause, or poisoning a kingdom for the highest good.

Now before you get it into your head to try some of this, when these people did these things, they were supposedly very enlightened people, psychic and wise beyond our wildest dreams. When the Buddha killed the pirate, he did so because as soon as he saw the pirate the Buddha saw in detail what a horrible life that man was going to have in his next incarnation, so he killed him out of compassion to prevent him from the actions that would lead him to that life. Not to save the lives of the people he would kill, but to save the pirate from his own horrible karma. So unless you’re claiming that level of enlightenment, don’t try this at home.

All of this is without a woogity side of karma. Now here is the kicker…not all forms of Buddhism nor all Buddhists believe in a woogity karma. It’s all mental, physical, and social cause and effect. There isn’t some cosmic scorecard checking off mistakes and successes and failures, it’s all recorded and stored in you. When something happens because of karma, it’s through you, your choices and your actions, not because the universe willed it to balance things out. I’m not saying there is or isn’t a woogity side of karma, if there is, it’s not what karma generally refers to, and not what you think it is.

So the next time something bad happens to you, and you think “that’s karma” you’re right, but remember it’s not that you did “bad” that bad happens, nor because you do “good” that good happens. Every thing that happens, good, bad, neutral and boring, are karma. Cause and effect, without cosmic judgment.


Buddhism 101: Response to Added Value

2016/01/12

Last time I talked about dukkha, often (mis?)translated as suffering in Buddhism. Harry picked up that thread and elaborated more on it, including the causes of dukkha, and some of the different types. I really suggest if you want clarification on the concept in Buddhism you pop over and read that post.

It looks like Harry and I are going to continue our conversation on Buddhism, due to the length of my response to him I’ve decided for now to split up the next few posts between discussion with Harry, and then my own topics I wanted to cover.

I mentioned that Vajrayana is built upon Theravada Buddhism, we hold the same texts important, the same practices, and have built upon them, expanded, and added more. So anything Theravadan exists in Vajrayana, though it might have a shift in importance or emphasis. Harry asks what is the value of this expansion, beyond the access to really cool magick?

That’s a great point that can be easy to miss. If the Buddha originally taught something resembling Theravada Buddhism, and it was good enough for the Buddha, why did these other forms appear? I would break these reasons down to speed, relevance, and scope.

I’ll freely admit though I got trapped by Buddhism, I originally got involved for the cool magick, I thought I could sneak in, get what I needed, and escape…and now I’m a monk…and a good person… I miss being a heartless asshole…

The first reason is effectiveness. (Note: At this point I’m talking theory, not claiming this as a truth, but as how the tradition frames it because I’m not at a point where I can make such declarations.) The Buddha was able to become enlightened because he had worked for many lifetimes to eliminate his karma and set the stage so to speak. So from that point it only took a few years of work to become enlightened, after many lifetimes of getting prepared. There is a state in Buddhism called Stream Entry, which simply put is when you’ve reached a point where you have at most seven incarnations left, but it’s still a lot of work. It might not take all seven, but from how I usually see it explained it seems like they assume you’ll still be in the game for several more lives.

Now in Vajrayana it’s believed you can become enlightened in this life, as long as you’re born in the human realm (which really just means an intelligent being) and have access to tantra, you can become enlightened here and now. One of the best examples of this is Milarepa, probably my third favourite Buddhist Saint. He wasn’t anyone special, he wasn’t an incarnation of a Buddha, or a previous saint, he didn’t have any glorious past lives, he was a regular Joe. He was also a sorcerer and was raised in a troubling family. Eventually he used magick and killed dozens of people at a wedding, including many family members. Even if you don’t understand karma, I’m sure you understand that murdering a bunch of people, especially family, because you’re angry and jealous is not a good step toward enlightenment. Milarepa realized what he did was wrong, and eventually found a lama, who put him to work, and trained him, and because he diligently practiced and purified himself, he became enlightened.

Milarepa didn’t spend hundreds of lives to get everything set up to become enlightened. He wasn’t a Bodhisattva in human form. He hadn’t been a saint. He was a normal man (as much as a talented sorcerer is normal…well…they are in my life) who committed some horrible acts, but through Vajrayana he dealt with his karma and his impurities and became enlightened in one life. This is the promise of Vajrayana compared to some other forms of Buddhism, you can become a Buddha here and now if you commit to the path.

Now to balance this though Vajrayana is not easy, nor is it really safe, remember the vaapad analogy. It’s the Buddhism where you could potentially screw up your karma the most and make things worse, but it’s supposedly the Buddhism that allows you to become enlightened here and now, no matter what, because of these additional magickal tantric techniques. I’d say going from reincarnating somewhere between seven and nearly infinite times down to 1 is a good additional value, but that’s not the only reason.

The second is relevance. Traditionally Buddhism wasn’t exactly conducive to society. To varying extents owning property and possessions was frowned on. Some went so far as to say that enlightenment was impossible with these things, that really you had to give up everything and give your time to meditation alone to become enlightened. Some people have a drive that supports this, not everyone does.

There is a myth (there are a several, details change, story is the same) that a great king invited the Buddha to come teach him, because he had a spiritual calling. The Buddha came and taught the king the path to enlightenment was renunciation, give it all up and meditate. The king pointed out that he was a good king, protecting his people and guiding them, and if he gave up his crown who knew what would happen to his people? But if he remained king he could rule as a Buddhist and guide his people to the Dharma, so he asked is there a way to remain “in the world” and practice Buddhism? At that moment the Buddha transformed into a tantric deity in union (for those unfamiliar, that means he was two gods having sex), something so shocking all the monks fainted (convenient they were unconscious for this so it couldn’t get recorded…), and he taught the king about tantric Buddhism.

Tantric Buddhism is more inclusive of a day-to-day life as we’d picture it. You can own property, be married with kids, you can even drink, eat meat, and have sex, but it’s all done in a way that is mindful and aware. It makes it “easier” because you can keep your life externally much the same, but it’s so much harder because every moment becomes a dance between insight and distraction. You’re challenged to try to keep your awareness at all times. As someone who has done silent temple retreats I can tell you, it is a lot easier to keep focused on emptiness and suffering when all you do is sit and meditate, than it is to remember that your burger is empty as you chat with a friend over dinner.

This is part of the danger of Vajrayana, it’s so easy to think you’re practicing because you do certain rituals and say mantras, but it’s not about what you do when you’re at your shrine, it’s about striving to keep a constant understanding. That’s a large point for another time.

Lastly is scope. Vajrayana holds the Bodhisattva ideal, that your journey to enlightenment is so you can help all beings reach that state. This is where the magick comes into play. It’s not about you. Sure, you can use the magick to help yourself, and that’s not necessarily considered bad or wrong, but it’s really about helping everyone (which includes you) get to a place where they can practice dharma and become enlightened.

Some of my training in Vajrayana is around exorcisms, how does this help others to enlightenment? Well first off, if you’re constantly being disturbed or frightened or made sick by ghosts/demons it’s hard to practice, you might not have the inspiration or comfort. So by ridding you of those disruptions I give you more space to encounter and practice the dharma. Secondly those ghosts/demons have to become enlightened too, and part of the exorcism is connecting them to the dharma so that in their next life they can learn it.

I also have training in tantric wealth magick, how does that help, isn’t greed bad? Yes. But again if you’re too tired from working multiple jobs to pay the rent, or mentally and physically unwell because you’re always worried about where the next meal will come from, then it’s really hard to be inspired to practice. If you’re financially stable, even if you’re not well off, then it’s a lot easier to practice. Then if you can maintain your compassion with wealth, you can use it to support your local temple, or help people.

As my Rinpoche has said “If you want to be a wandering monk, with just a blanket and a bowl, walking the world to meditate and pray, then owning nothing is a great blessing. But if you aren’t that monk, and you’re living in this modern world, then being poor is more of an obstacle than a blessing.”

Our magick helps peoples, not because we believe we can save them, but because it enables them to be in a place that allows them to find a release from their suffering.

Okay, that was about 1500 words on “Why Vajrayana?” and only one of Harry’s questions/points. So I guess I’ll cut this entry off here for now.


Buddhism 101: Responses and Suffering

2015/12/15

As I move into the next part of my Buddhism 101 I first want to share a great post from my friend Harry over at The Unlikely Mage, then address why I’m talking about Buddhism here, and lastly suffering.

He goes into more detail about Theravada Buddhism, as well as Early Buddhism, both the concept and practice.

I’d like to his points/questions, because if you’re unfamiliar with the academic side of Buddhism, it’s essentially 25 centuries of debate and peer review. So reading his post will make the next section more coherent, or skip until this is no longer in italics if reading a post there to read a post here becomes tldr to you.

Vajrayana does have the four stages of awakening. The thing is in Vajrayana (and I believe by extension Mahayana, but I’m not sure) they become “optional.” So if you reach stream-entry, which is still a thing, it’s not necessarily that you cease incarnation within the seven lives, but that you have the option to, or it is sometimes explained that it’s seven lives until Bodhisattva-hood. Also, as Vajrayana became heavily monastic, it codified everything, so there is actually a break down of what “level” of Bodhisattva-hood you’ve attained. It’s useless in a practical sense, and strikes me as every anime power ever. You have Bodhisattvas, but then you have slightly more powerful ones…and then more powerful.

In general regarding the idea of “Does Vajrayana have…” Mahayana and Vajrayana build on Theravada. So even though the focus might shift, it arguably contains everything that came before. A proper monastic education in Vajrayana includes several years training just in Theravada practice and theory before moving on.

As for Compassion v Insight (Death Match of the Kalpa!) my take on the shift is that they are essentially one and the same. Perhaps it’s because I’m steeped in Vajrayana, but it’s hard for me to develop Insight without developing Compassion, because they’re the same underlying property in reality. As you gain wisdom into the nature of emptiness (addressed in a later post I’m sure) you naturally develop compassion because emptiness is compassion in many ways. I find with the three vehicles though each one focuses on one of the aspects, but they’re all really the same thing, it’s just which side of the (three-sided) coin you resonate with.

I wanted to counter the idea of worshiping Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but it becomes a mess of where is the line between reverence, engaging, and worship, not to mention the line between what is “traditional” (textual) and what people do. I’d say with the exception of Pure Land Buddhism (maybe another post) you’re not to worship Buddhas/Bodhisattvas, but see them as potentials and exemplars to attain to. Also they are you and you are them, so the engagement is less about an external entity (which isn’t to deny an external existence) but more about that aspect within you. They can be petitions, and prayed to, and for all intents and purposes worshipped like a god, but the attitude is usually supposed to be more about reverence and thanks, than worship. (But of course, some folks, especially laity do worship them, and again, you give a clear line about what is and isn’t worship, and we’ll have a point to work with, but it’s not something easily defined)

The second (quick) point I wanted to address before moving on, is why am I talking about Buddhism when I deal with magick? Well, even if you’re just looking at the meditation practice and skills developed in Theravadan traditions, the ability to focus the mind and understand it is crucial for good magick, and whatever you or your teacher has said, I’d (perhaps arrogantly) say that no tradition has as good of a handle on meditation and the mind as Buddhism does. It’s spent 2,500 years refining and practicing techniques, they might know what they’re doing. Beyond that though magick is a big part of Vajrayana, even if most practitioners might not use that word. Recently when I was skyping into a brothel to help diagnosis and handle a haunting situation (okay, even I found that a weird experience heh) I was asked my credentials by one of the women, and when I said I was an ordained Buddhist she was confused. Again, this is that lack of knowledge about the different forms of Buddhism. Vajrayana is all about the spirits. There is a saying that if you could see all the spirits in the world around you, you’d be driven mad by it…they’re a big part of our system. But Vajrayana involves dealing with demons, with manipulating your energy to do great things, calling on “gods” to heal, hurt, or help, projecting your mind to other realms, divination…everything you can think of in any magickal system, it’s in Vajrayana. It’s the sorcerer’s Buddhism in many ways. So while I have an intense sitting vipassana meditation practice, I also have nightly feasts I offer to demons and ghosts, I deal with god-like beings to help myself, others, and the world, and work on refining my energy body into more intense states. That’s why I’m talking about Buddhism on a magick blog, because magick exists in Buddhism, though not everyone realizes it, and I think some of the Buddhist tech is amazing. (And not just in Vajrayana, as Harry pointed out it appears in Theravadan cultures, pretty much from the beginning with wearing sutras as protective charms)

Onto the real post proper, but don’t worry, it wasn’t meant to be a long post, so the introductory discussion help flesh this out.

One of the biggest misconceptions of Buddhism I have to suffer through is…suffering. There are Four Noble Truths, they’re basically the foundational principles of Buddhism, and the first one is “All existence is suffering.”

Doesn’t that sound like a fun basis for a religion? Everything is suffering. Except it isn’t. There are layers of issues here, but the primary one is that suffering is a horrible translation. The word used in Pali is Dukkha, and while suffering /could/ be a translation, it’s a pretty extreme one. A better translation would be discontentment or unsatisfactory, or more colloquially just-not-right. The Buddha didn’t mean (nor do Buddhists believe) that all existence is suffering, that every moment is some form of agony, but that reality is not, and cannot be completely satisfactory.

There are moments of great joy, but moments of sadness and horror too. Sometimes people (unfamiliar with what the word means) make comments like “I’d rather live in world where I can suffer if it means I get joy, rather than cease being.” That misses the point. The idea is that it isn’t, and won’t be perfect, and in fact the idea that you need the highs to experience the lows is in many ways how to understand the discontentment. It doesn’t mean big horrible discontentment, I hate my job, my girlfriend left me, my dog ran away with the mailman, my leg was removed by rabid alpacas, but a chronic underlying discontentment. I’m not completely comfy in this chair, my drink has gotten warm as I’ve been typing, the whirring of my laptop is annoying if I pay attention. This sounds like petty stuff, and it is, but it’s what we live in.

People take it as a negative. “If you think everything is discontentment/suffering, then you’re never going to enjoy anything.” Yet look at Buddhists, perhaps for the most popular look at the Dalai Lama, does he seem like an unhappy man? The man practically radiates joy. If you understand that reality isn’t and won’t be perfect, that it can’t and won’t live up to your expectations, and it will be unsatisfactory, then you can actually begin to live in it, and even enjoy it. We’re the cause of the experience of this chronic discontentment. (Is it really so bad that my drink is warm? No, but I had a cold drink, and I prefer that, but now that cold is gone) The basis to dealing with it is understanding that.

What people need to understand is Buddhism isn’t about suffering, and even discontentment isn’t a horrible pronouncement, just a realistic one.

So if your concern or issue with Buddhism has been the emphasis on suffering, realize that’s a horrible translation/understanding of it, and question if every second of your life is pure joy? If not, then the nature of reality as we experience it is unsatisfactory.

Now to contrast this, in tantric Buddhism you come to understand that the ground of reality is actually bliss, but that’s another post for another time.

(And as before, if you have any questions about this post or Buddhism in general, fire away here or wherever, and I’ll see what I can answer.)


Buddhism: Vehicles 101

2015/12/11

This is not the post I wanted, but it seems to be the post I need to write. Basically I want to set out some of the background and context for talking about Buddhism, because a lot of people actually don’t know that much about it, or what they do know is limited to one specific form of Buddhism. That latter point is probably the number one source of issues I have discussing Buddhism, people don’t realize that Buddhism comes in many forms, and will try to correct me because they learned (a little) about another form. (Also, this may be overly simplified or generalizing at points, but remember this is just for a 101 blog post, there are great massive texts that explain this in more detail, I’m doing it in 1600 words)

So to start off I’ll present the historical story of Buddhism, and discuss the three main forms of Buddhism briefly (they are known as vehicles). This will be more about the history of the Buddhisms, and less about what makes them distinct from each other

Around 2,500 years ago in a Hindu kingdom that is now most likely Nepal a prince was born. He was Siddartha Gautama of the Shakya clan. After living a life of luxury until he was 29, he became disillusioned with the world and ran away to become a monk, hoping to understand the nature of things. He tried for years, and eventually found the way, he sat down and meditated for 49 days straight and became Enlightened, he became the Buddha. Buddha just means Enlightened One, or Awakened One.

Buddha taught you could become Enlightened by following the 8 fold path. Skipping details, but basically living a certain life without killing, stealing, lying, etc, and renouncing the world. This was the original form of Buddhism, it’s become Theravada Buddhism (The Way of the Elders) or Hinayana Buddhism (The Lesser Vehicle) now a days with a few changes, but admittedly it’s the closest of the Buddhisms to what the Buddha taught. It’s also in some ways the strictest, you couldn’t become enlightened if you owned property, or worked, or lived in the world, you had to remove yourself from it, meditate, and work on it and you’d realize there is no real you, and all things as transient and impermanent. It was non-monastic too, you ran off into the wild to do it, lived on the fringes of cities. It was a tradition based on awareness, insight, and wisdom. Eventually it shifted to a more monastic style, where you had proper monks and monasteries and you could practice in relative comfort. The forest monk path is still done though, but is the minority.

do not wantThe idea of compassion that people associate with Buddhism didn’t really take a strong hold until about four or five hundred years later and you have another form of Buddhism developing, what’s now called Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle. While Theravada focused on renunciation, meditation, and insight, Mahayana was a more “worldly” Buddhism. It didn’t require the renunciation of everything, but stressed a need to be unattached, that clinging to something, to anything, is what creates the continual discontentment with reality. There were still renunciants, but it was no longer a requirement. Now though the focus shifted to universal compassion. Wisdom and insight were still important, but compassion for all beings took centre stage. Rather than working toward enlightenment directly, you seek to become a Bodhisattva, which is someone who is almost a Buddha, but not quite, basically you have one foot in enlightenment, but you’ve promised not to cease incarnating until all beings everywhere are enlightened.
Because there was now this Bodhisattva ideal, the door was opened for there to be other figures in Buddhism.

Classically Buddhism was non-theistic, not atheistic, as several early schools still recognized the existence of gods, but had no place for them, and never recognized a supreme creator god. Mahayana began to recognize other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by the bucket loads. Still no supreme creator, but you got Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who largely became interchangeable with, and to an extent served the same purpose as gods and major spirits in other religions. Dzambala rules wealth, Kurkulla rules love, Bhaishagye Guru heals you, etc etc. And gods were recognized, but it was understood that gods are mortal and can and will die eventually, and that gods aren’t enlightened, so you can’t trust on them to really help you.

So now you have a semi-theistic religion that focused on wisdom and compassion, and the idea of helping all other sentient beings.

Not long after this, about a century or two after Mahayana’s appearance, came the next vehicle, the Vajrayana. Vajra is a complex Sanskrit word, it means, diamond, indestructible, lightning bolt and a few other things. So Vajrayana is often called the Diamond Vehicle. It is a lot more similar to Mahayana than Mahayana is to Theravada. The inclusion and emphasis on other figures became more prominent, even more Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were pulled out of the woodworks into the faith. Another thing that made Vajrayana distinct was its inclusion of tantric practices. Now trying to explain tantra would be another post altogether, and it might end up as one… First off tantra isn’t about sex, it /can/ include sex, but there is a lot more to it than sex.

Tantra is a more active way of engaging the system, and it is about using rather than avoiding. A common analogy in Vajrayana is when a Theravadan encounters a poisoned plant, representing attachment and ignorance, they avoid it altogether. When a Mahayanist encounters the plant they strive to pull it out by the roots. When a Vajrayanist encounters the plant they take the poison from it and make medicine from it. So while other forms of Buddhism may avoid sex, alcohol, dead bodies, and a variety of other things, in Vajrayana they are embraced consciously as ways of obtaining enlightenment. So while sex can be a distraction, it can also be a tool for awakening, if used properly. Alcohol can be a distraction, but again if it’s used carefully and properly it can be a tool for awakening. It’s like the Dark Side in Star Wars, you progress quicker, but it’s more dangerous…and you can shoot lightning from your hands, totally true about tantric Buddhism. (Actually it’s closer to Vaapad in Star Wars, but that’s a far geekier reference lost on most people)

12360003_810099039102518_4586438907398427400_n[1]Eventually this form of Buddhism moved into the Himalayan regions. It was largely wiped out in India during the 8-9th century in the Islamic conquest, but it thrived untouched in areas like Tibet. So what is thought of as Tibetan Buddhism actually is just Buddhism from Northern India.

Now there are other forms of Buddhism beyond this three major forms, or vehicles, Zen being the most prominent of them. Without trying to minimize the role of forms like Zen though, I believe you can understand all these other forms of Buddhism as branches off of these three major vehicles.

This evolution of Buddhism, and understanding of the different types of Buddhism is important to keep in mind, because to a lot of people Buddhism is a singular system, but it is not. In fact I would argue that the differences between Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism are more like the difference between Judaism and Islam, than the difference between Catholics and Protestants. When Europeans first encountered Vajrayana they called it “Lamaism” because they couldn’t tell it was Buddhism, or rather believed those silly Tibetans didn’t know what they were talking about.

If you ever took a world religions class in high school, or maybe even university, or you watched a documentary on Buddhism, chances are it discussed Theravada Buddhism, even if it didn’t explain that’s what it was focusing on. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s like learning about modern Christianity by reading the letters of the Church fathers from 1600 years ago.

Mahayana Buddhism, which is the more worldly form dealing with compassion as a focus, is the most common form of Buddhism. (It’s the type primarily practiced in China) Estimates range from about 50-70% of all Buddhists are Mahayana Buddhists. So what most people know about Buddhism, through Theravada, while much of it still applies to Mahayana is technically about an earlier form of Buddhism. For comparison estimates range from about 10-35% of all Buddhists are Theravadan. (Also, yes, these estimates are over wide ranges, but the distinction between Buddhisms isn’t always clear cut and I’m using several sources to cover my bases.)

Now Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism, the form I practice is the smallest of the major vehicles, with 2-6% of all Buddhists practicing it. What is funny in an odd way, is visually when most people think of Buddhism they think of Vajrayana. They might not think of our weird gods and arcane ritual tools, but the monks, and temples, and statues they think of are from Vajrayana. This is in large part because the Dalai Lama is such a public figure. Two quick facts about the Dalai Lama: First he is not the Buddhist pope, because he’s only a religious figure in the smallest of the major vehicles; second he’s not the Vajrayana Buddhist pope (or whatever) because he’s only the head of a specific sect within Vajrayana. His role and importance in Buddhism is vastly inflated in the Western understanding.

This is will probably be the first of several posts on Buddhism, so if there is anything you want to ask, something you want clarified, or whatever, comment below and ask, and I’ll see if I can work it into other posts.


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