Odyssey 2008: Rest in Peace, Arthur C. Clarke

Al Billings from Arcanology posted this article (which in turn comes from Reuters) about the passing away of Arthur C. Clarke, the famous sci-fi writer.

A few years ago, I suddenly found myself getting into classic science fiction books I had never read before (Dune, Roger Zelazny, among others), and Arthur C. Clarke was another writer I enjoyed immensely. I read the book 2001 : A Space Odyssey a couple of years ago, and found it much better than the movie (since scenes could be described in words, not imagery). Clarke, unlike Herbert or Zelazny, liked to focus on so-called “hard science-fiction” where real science could backup the advanced technology used in his stories. This was apparent in another of his books, which I enjoyed, The Songs of Distant Earth. Although this book was not my favorite, I thought his view of the universe, and how we would colonize planets, one of the most compelling and realistic. That, and Clarke put in some not-so-subtle praises for Buddhist religion toward the end of the book as well.* 😉

In any case, Clarke was way ahead of his time, and his writings reflected a positive outlook for Mankind, not a dystopian one, and I’ve certainly enjoyed them. Rest in peace, Mr. Clarke!

* – Given that he lives in Sri Lanka, a Buddhist country, he probably has some interest in the religion as well.

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Festina lente, O discipulus Boddi!

My Latin to English translation: Hurry slowly, O disciple of the Buddha!

Recently, on a nice discussion in the Theravada section of the E-sangha Buddhist forum, someone had offered good advice to practicing Buddhism: relaxed urgency. This reminded me of the Latin phrase, “hurry slowly” or festina lente, hence the title.

I’ve struggled in the past between either giving up, or striving way too hard. Recently I had some very good advice from a monk on e-sangha by the name of Huifeng (different discussion than what was cited above), and his advice helped me to have a clearer picture of where I want to focus my Buddhist practice, and a good idea of how to understand it. So, I feel quite a bit better the last few days and know more about how I want to carry my Buddhist practice in the long-term. It’s not a question of which sect to follow (which was a big part of my understanding), but rather, what do I want to become through the Buddhist past.

So, with all this in mind, I am taking the advice about “relaxed urgency” to heart. That’s the right approach to Buddhism.

As for the Latin used above, the phrase “festina lente” is pretty famous and need not be explained further here. The word “discipulus” is likewise a real Latin word. However, trying to decide how to render “Buddha” into Latin was tricky. On the Latin Wikipedia page, it’s rendered straight from Sanskrit as “Buddha”, which would be 1st declension, fem. That makes sense, but I decided a different approach.

I know for a fact* that in the Greek kingdom of Bactria, the word Buddha was spoken as Boddo (ΒΟΔΔΟ), which based on my notes is a masculine, singular ending. Now, Latin borrows heavily from Greek, and always has, so rather than borrowing from Sanskrit (the Romans had no direct contact with India), I assumed the Latin word would be a transliteration from Greek, therefore, I transliterated Boddo to Boddus (2nd decl, masc.). From there, it is a simple matter of changing Boddus to the genitive case Boddi, or “of the Buddha”.

I spent a while last night reviewing Latin dictionaries at home, and determined that if Boddus was a reasonable choice for “Buddha”, then “Buddhist” would be Boddistus, and Buddhism would Boddismus in Latin. I am pretty certain that these endings are correct, but people with more experience are encouraged to confirm or correct this. I am still very much the amateur.

That is how I arrived at my translation. It’s not necessarily right, but it has a clear etymology. 😀

* – Based on Greek coins and artwork bearing the word.

Troubled sleep

The dead are too much with us.
–Roger Zelazny, Isle of the Dead

I went to bed early last night, but had a lot of troubled sleep and bad dreams: dreams about losing people I love, and then further dreams of despair and fear. Baby was kicking around in the bed again, so I woke up earlier than intended, and laid in bed brooding before I decided to get up at 3:51am.

It’s interesting that I should quote from Zelazny’s book Isle of the Dead. I pulled it out from the bookshelf last night, but I can’t recall why. It’s one of my favorite Zelazny books of all times, and deals a lot with regret, and coming to terms with one’s own mortality. The main character, Francis Sandow, has lived 1,100 years and is immensely wealthy in the far future, but the longer he lives, the more he comes to fear his own death, even with all of his money and power to protect him. The end of the book is really gripping as Sandow must confront people he thought dead, but were brought back to torment him (and be tormented themselves).

As I brooded, and later woke up, I thought about religion again, and stood before little Amida Buddha altar in our house, and recited the nembutsu for a while. It’s been weeks since I did this, but with all the thoughts above running through my mind, as well as thoughts on my life thus far and how little time is left, it seemed only the right thing to do.

Namuamidabu

P.S. Recently finished another Zelazny book: Dilvish the Damned. It was the first of two books, and read like a mix of D&D, Conan and good Zelazny action. A lighter read than Isle of the Dead, but quite fun.

Discerning the Right Dharma

In this day and age, when I read about various Buddhist sects and their teachings, and everyone’s spin on what the Buddha “meant”, it’s frustrating to find helpful information. Being in a state of doubt lately with regard to Buddhism, and my life as a Buddhist thus far, I’ve found information on the Internet rather frustrating. Talking to ministers at the temple too hasn’t helped at all.

So I was happy to read a sutta from the Pali Canon again, called the Gotami Sutta (AN 8.53). In this sutta, the Buddha’s step-mother, Mahapajapati Gotami, asks the Buddha to teach her the Dharma so that she is confident enough to go and practice on her own. The Buddha replies:

“As for the qualities of which you may know, ‘These qualities lead to dispassion, not to passion; to being unfettered, not to being fettered; to shedding, not to accumulating; to modesty, not to self-aggrandizement; to contentment, not to discontent; to seclusion, not to entanglement; to aroused persistence, not to laziness; to being unburdensome, not to being burdensome’: You may definitely hold, ‘This is the Dhamma, this is the Vinaya, this is the Teacher’s instruction.'”

So, when trying to understand what the Buddha meant, he taught a path, that if followed correctly, led to:

  • Dispassion
  • Unfettered
  • Shedding
  • Modesty
  • Contentment
  • Seclusion
  • Persistence
  • Not burdening others

Interestingly, much of this is also taught in the Tao Te Ching as well:

Evince the plainness of undyed silk,
embrace the simplicity of the unhewn log;
Lessen selfishness, diminish desires;
Abolish learning* and you will be without worries.
–Chapter 19

and:

The pursuit of learning* leads to daily increase,
hearing the Way leads to daily decrease.
Decrease and again decrease, until you reach non-action.
Through nonaction, no action is left undone.
–Chapter 48

Such simple words by both the Buddha and Lao-Zi, but it’s funny how much we complicate them. Why do we do that?

In the end, I am reminded of the quote (thank you Dougsamu) that comes from a Chinese Zen (Ch’an) monk Po-Chang who told his disciple, Huang Po:

“When hungry, eat, when tired, sleep.”

Speaking of which, I am going to bed.

P.S. Another great poem on the subject is the poem “Unbeaten by Rain“. 😀

* – Learning here is meant in the sense of philosophical, moral studies, not practical subjects. The point is to not get your head full of rules, morals and obligations.

The Law, not the Teacher

Chapter 10 of the Lotus Sutra is a short chapter, and easy to overlook, but there is a deep and subtle message there worth exploring. In Chapter 10, the Buddha talks about how anyone who reveres, read and teaches the Lotus Sutra is as worthy of praise as a Buddha himself. Or rather, in his own words:

The Buddha said to Medicine King: In addition, if after the Thus Come One has passed into extinction there should be someone who listens to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law, even one verse or one phrase, and for a moment thinks of it with joy, I will likewise bestow on him a prophesy that he will attain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi. [Full Buddha-hood]

At first glance this looks like just a promotion of the sutra itself. There are other sutras, such as the Golden Light Sutra or Diamond Sutra that similarly state that reverence of itself, the sutra, is important. However, in the case of the Golden Light Sutra, reverence of the sutra (by the king) will bring peace to the nation, and reverence of the Diamond Sutra will bring about great merit.

The Lotus Sutra, however, assures the readers that those who revere it are guaranteed of full Buddha-hood sometime far in the future. This is wonderful in one sense, but also reminds one of the enormity of the task as well.

While reading the commentaries of this Sutra, by Thich Nhat Hanh, he made an interesting observation: chapter 10 is telling listeners to revere the teaching, not the teacher.

This is actually a pretty profound, and something oft forgotten for us Buddhists. Buddhism often veers into a cult of the Buddha when we’re not paying attention. I’m not talking about Asian Buddhists who make offerings and show gratitude; that’s perfectly normal Buddhism, and reverence is a very wholesome practice. Instead, I am talking about people who obsess over what the Buddha said, or who he really was, and so on. There are movements in Buddhism to emulate the Buddha as much as possible, and I think this is good up to a point, but there is also a point when one should look beyond the Buddha to his teachings instead.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The teachings he left behind were far more important. Consider the words of the Buddha in the last sutta of the Pali Canon, the Parinibbana Sutta (DN 16), emphasis added:

[2:33]. “Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

So, the Lotus Sutra, which is supposed to be the ultimate and most comprehensive of all sutras and teachings of the Buddha (in the Mahayana tradition at least) is thus a refuge in its own right. 🙂

Namumyohorengekyo

Confucius Says…

Confucius from a 1687 Catholic guide (in latin)

In addition to reading the Tao Te Ching, I have been enjoying other Classics of Chinese culture. In particularly I have been enjoying the Analects by Confucius. Confucius, or Kǒng Fūzǐ (孔夫子), and the literature surrounding him are considerably less popular among Western readers than the Tao, because Confucius hardly ever spoke on spiritual or mystic issues, while the Tao is short, but full of mystery and spirituality. However, Confucius’s contribution to Asian culture should not be understated. He taught a no-nonsense, straightforward approach to life through sincere study, ethics and the life of a gentleman. It’s this ideal that has inspired millions of people over many generations.

In Confucius’s words, the ideal man was the gentleman, or to quote from the Analects:

Master Tseng [Confucius] said, “The man whom one could with equal confidence entrust an orphan not yet fully grown or the sovereignty of a whole state, whom the advent of no emergency however great could upset – would such a one be a gentleman? He I think would be a true gentleman indeed.” (8:6)

Confucius, like the early Taoists, lamented the decline of politics in his time. Both Lao Zi and Confucius lived during the famous Spring and Autumn Period, when the Zhou (pronouced “Joe”) Dynasty was falling apart, and local Dukes and Kings were grabbing more power. At this time, few rulers were loyal to the Zhou Dynasty anymore, and it was “every man for himself”. The history of the Spring and Autumn is fraught with civil wars, assassinations, and general abuse of power, which broke down even worse into the all-out Warring State period.

So, like Lao Zi, Confucius sought a way to resolve the breakdown of society by returning to the “good old days”. The interpretation of what the good ol’ days is differs somewhat between Confucius and the Tao Te Ching. Both revere ancient mythical Emperors such as Yao, Shun and , but in the Tao Te Ching, the ancient days were seen as an example of Minarchism, or minimal government. Confucius on the other hand, focused on the ancient religious rites the kings were supposed to observe, as well as the histories, songs and literature of those days. Confucius thought that if society would restore the rites, study the ancient histories and songs, this would inspire people to a better mind-set, rather than selfish one.

This sounds silly to the modern Western reader at first glance, but even in American politics, you see the same sentiments. People remember the “good ol’ days” before the Internet or modern Materialistic life, and feel that if we could go back to a simpler time, life would be better. In effect, this was what Confucius advocated in his culture and time.

But a gentleman, in Confucius’s mind, isn’t just some ultra-conservative. On the contrary, a gentleman was someone who:

  • Very humble in lifestyle (7:15)
  • Emulates the good habits of people around him (7:27)
  • Well-educated, loves study (6:25)
  • Submits to ritual (6:25)
  • Honest (6:17)
  • Proficient in the arts (7:6)

…and so on. Here, it’s interesting to note that Confucius stressed the importance of ritual time and again. This seems at first glance superstitious, but after careful thought, I think I understand his train of thought. In Confucius’s mind, the adherence to ritual was a way of humbling the self, and turning your mind toward the good of the state (or society’s general welfare). In other words, Confucius advocated the welfare of society over the welfare of one’s self. This is pretty sensible given that all the great people in history were known for being selfless, rather than self-centered (the infamous, by contrast, are usually self-centered to an extreme).

So anyways, that’s Confucius in a nut-shell! 🙂

More words from Confucius:

P.S. The picture above is from a 1687 work, in Latin, about Confucius and his life. Confucius in Latin, how cool is that? 😀 Two Chinese characters above his head read Gynasium Imperio or “National Studies” by the way. The actual meaning of the characters (read from right to left) is of course, the same.

Thinking about Buddhism anew

The youth peered up at him owlishly, said: You see Stil? Tradition isn’t the absolute guide you thought it was. –Children of Dune

Earlier tonight, I was pondering my recent rant against the Western Zen Buddhist movement toward reductionism. It occurred to me that although I criticize those who don’t believe in rebirth, or in study of the sutras, the truth is I really have no right to say anything in its defense. The truth is, I am just being arrogant.

Do I really know for sure whether rebirth happens as Buddhist tradition holds? Do I really know which sutras are genuine words of the Buddha and which one are apocryphal? Really, I don’t really know anything for sure. Studying and memorizing Buddhist doctrine as a means of being Buddhist is strangely counter-intuitive. I have no empirical experience to back any of this up. I don’t know what will happen when I die, nor do I know what the Buddha looked like, or what he really said.

What I do know is that Buddhist texts and traditions are an important guide, but that is all they are. The quote above comes from the third Dune book. The young Leto II is challenging the Stilgar’s belief in the Fremen tradition. Arrakis is changing and younger generations no longer observe water discipline, and yet, Leto reminds him how beautiful the young women look. This reminds Stilgar that there is more to life than dry tradition, and raw survival in the desert. His traditions fall apart around him, but he begins to see a much deeper truth.

The Theravada monk, Ajahn Sumedho, said it best when he said: “We don’t use the Pali Canon as a basis for orthodoxy, we use the Pali Canon to investigate our experience.”

So, like Stilgar, as I challenge everything I’ve learned in the last few years, I realize that I really don’t know any of this stuff for sure. Instead of memorizing doctrine and theory, I should respectfully set it aside and just observe reality, and observe myself. In the Tao Te Ching, I remember a great quote in chapter 54:

Observe other persons through your own person;
Observe other families through your own family;
Observe other villages through your own village;
Observe other states through your own state;
Observe all under heaven through all under heaven.

How do I know the nature of all under heaven?
Through this.

The last two lines are by far the most important. How can I truly understand life, reality, myself? Observe!

Or to quote again from Children of Dune:

He [the Preacher] repeated it in a rolling stentorian shout: “Abandon certainty! That’s life’s deepest command. That’s what life is all about…”

Or in the words of the Diamond Sutra:

“All composed things are like a dream,
a phantom, a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.
That is how to meditate on them,
that is how to observe them.”

Namo Kanzeon Bosatsu