Sunday, July 24, 2011

Do Bodhisattvas Go To Heaven?

Twenty-Five Bodhisattvas Descending from Heaven  -  Japanese painting c. 1300
In the legal business we say there are two times you should never speculate: when you need to, and when you don't need to. I'm pretty sure some of this post falls into the second category. 

Once again I feel liberated by my profound ignorance about the subject matter.

I can hear the Christian and Buddhist scholars getting up to leave, so I'll skip right to the last page.  My answer to the question, meant in the nicest possible way, is "At the moment, I don't see why I should care." Not just about the fate of bodhisattvas, but about the whole question of what will happen to me after death.

In my limited understanding, a bodhisattva is a being who has chosen to become awakened just to relieve the suffering of all other beings, forgoing buddhahood, whatever that may mean, until everyone else gets there first. Sounds very heroic and celestial, but I would focus on the words "has chosen" and "relieve the suffering," so that the term can include the likes of you and me. With no authority whatsoever, I would say that a frilly cloud to stand on and almost-perfect enlightenment are not prerequisites - just an intention to put others first.

Then what? For me, I tend to favour a ‘need to know’ approach. Although I’m very curious about a lot of things, at the moment, Buddhist and Christian cosmologies aren’t high on my list. Being part scientist, I’m reluctant to take anyone’s word for things like reincarnation and heaven, hell, purgatory and the recently abolished limbo. When I know that I need to know, then I’ll try to find someone who’s been there and lived to tell the tale.

In any discussion about these concepts, my only question is, “What would I do differently at this moment if there really is reincarnation and/or heaven and hell?” I’m hard pressed to think of anything. This may have something to do with choosing the bodhisattva path.

Assuming that going to heaven is desirable and going to hell is not, and assuming that being reincarnated as a lower life form or as a more miserable person is to be avoided, and assuming further that virtuous or selfless actions will land you in heaven rather than hell, or cause you to be reborn as a more evolved being, or even not be reborn at all, then knowing all this, would we not choose to act compassionately, for the benefit of all beings?

Wait a minute – this sounds like the qualities of a bodhisattva.

So the upshot seems to be, once we put our feet on the bodhisattva path, the afterlife becomes less relevant.  Who knows – perhaps going to heaven may not be desirable, as there is probably a lot more suffering in hell.

If I may make an exhortation:  May we just practice hard, whatever our practice is, take aim at the next thing that needs our kind attention, and let our arrows fly!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Some More Poems

No matter how large I built the deck, I knew this would happen......

Brief lives in bright sun
Each containing all


Sitting in darkness
A flash of lightning
Your face


Staggering along
I wonder why
The ox is so heavy


Eyes unseeing
Skin like wax
Outside, the wind


Ignoring the full moon
I search for a pool
To gaze at its reflection


From a thousand pools
The moon


After the rain
A walk on wet pavement
Helping stranded worms


Right hand struggles
Left hand without thought
Jumps to assist


Forgetting to remember
I while away the hours
Inspecting shadows


Going away
To be here
Somewhere else


Comical walking
Soaring majestic


Lazy water
And my old habits
Take the easy way


A doorway
To everywhere


Dog breath
In my face
It must be morning

You can find other poems at Some Poems and Another Batch of Poems.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Cautious Homage to Words

"A woman without her man is nothing."

Demeaning ... but wait ........ the punctuation is missing.

"A woman: without her, man is nothing."

Words have great power to uplift or to crush.

I love what you do!
I hate what you do!

Small change, big difference.

Used by some, words can be instruments of healing, teaching and nurture; wielded by others, they can be weapons of war and instruments of destruction.

Realist landscape paintings use many brushstrokes to convey a detailed scene.

Sumi-e paintings use only a few strokes to capture their object.

In the same way, a verbal description can be highly detailed, or, like haiku, stark but capturing the essence of a moment.

Although enormously powerful, words have enormous limitations. In the same way that a flat picture can only suggest a three dimensional scene, words can only suggest the objects they describe.

To make me imagine a full moon, you only have to say, "full moon" ... unless I have never seen one.  Then you will have to use more words to describe it, and even then, the image created in my imagination may be very different from the one you are trying to convey.

But the crux is that words are not the object.  They are only a finger pointing at the moon.  I tend to think that the closer you get to 'the moon', the more you run into contradictions and paradox because, in the end, words fail.

This is the dangerous realm of koans and word games. I could say that the finger is not the moon, and you could say that the finger and the moon are one. I could say we are both correct, and you could say that neither of us is correct. We are at the place were every opposite is true ... and false.

Does this mean we can't use words to describe what is beyond description, to convey what is outside words and scriptures? In the Heart Sutra, we recite, "Form is none other than emptiness. Emptiness is none other than form." So, yes, we can. But I would add, with extreme caution. To pursue this subject any further is way above my pay grade.

Because words are both powerful and severely limited, they are dangerous. In the hands of a Zen master with the wisdom to see the state of a student's realization, a few skilful words spoken at the right moment may help the student's awakening to unfold. In unskilful hands, the same words could lead the student far astray.

Which is to say, we who are not Zen masters ought to steer well away from this danger zone - especially if we are seen as any kind of font of wisdom. In our eagerness to be compassionate (how wonderful!) may we remember to treat words with respect and use them wisely.

After all, actions speak louder than words.
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