‘Proper’ Buddhism?

    Categories: articles buddhism

    By Kaspa

    Over the last few weeks I have found myself looking deeply into the Buddhist teachings and trying to discover what ‘real’ or ‘true’ Buddhism is.

    Lots of teachers through the ages claim that what they are teaching is real Buddhism, or that what they are teaching is exactly the same as what the Buddha taught, and in some historical cases even presenting their own words as the Buddha’s words (like some the later Sutras, for example, which scholars suggest were composed many years after the Buddha’s death).

    One approach to discover what true Buddhism is might be to look at how it’s taught and practised around the world right now. But with so many different styles and traditions, and teachings that occasionally diverge on essential points, making something coherent from all of this is an impossible puzzle to solve.

    Another approach might be to carefully examine the pali cannon, the closest thing that we have to the Buddhas own words. On Twitter I follow a sanskrit scholar who sometimes does just that. Reading his articles two things stand out to me. Firstly, that academics and teachers often subtly shift the meaning of pali or sanskrit words for two reasons: 1) to suit their own biases and practise styles and 2) to make sense of something that was originally incoherent. That second reason for changing the meaning of words during translation points to the second overall thing that stands out for me: that sometimes it’s difficult to make a coherent philosophy from these oldest of Buddhist teachings. In one place they appear to say this, in another place they appear to say that.
    In the face of all of this the one thing that continues to make sense is my practice.

    Sitting chanting nembutsu or the Quanyin mantra the many words of teaching fall away. I find myself relating to something that feels loving and wise and occasionally offers guidance. What else could I ask for?

    Despite their occasional incoherence there is much wisdom in those old Buddhist teachings, so I’ll keep reading and studying them, and I’ll keep listening to contemporary teachers. And rather than trying to point myself in the direction of ‘proper’ Buddhism, the heart of my practice will be my continuing relationship to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

    Sending love


    Kaspa

    When the ground disappears

    Categories: articles
    A bell in the temple garden

    The face that looks back at me from the mirror this morning is not the same as the face that looked back yesterday, and is definitely more lined than the face that looked back at me from the mirror a year ago.

    If you hang around in Buddhist or Taoist circles long enough you will probably hear some talk of groundlessness. What does this mean? I think it’s an attempt to point out that everything is provisional. 

    The COVID -19 pandemic has offered lessons in groundlessness for me. From the closeness of death as friends of friends get seriously ill, to supporting friends on the front line, to noticing my own instability when I can no longer do the small things I used to rely on like having lunch at Be The Change in Worcester, or meeting friends in person.

    In this world there is no firm ground on which to stand.

    When we practice deeply with groundlessness we discover that as well as the impermanent, troubled nature of this world there is also a great unconditional love that we can rely on. This is the love of the Buddhas (and as Pure Land Buddhists, particularly of Amida Buddha).

    A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me how I was doing and I replied ‘untethered.’ I was reflecting on leaving the Amida Order and on how much of my life I had made sense of through that window, on how many of the choices I made were conditioned by my being a Buddhist priest in that organisation, and of how deeply I used that role to define myself.

    Through that time of being untethered I caught myself imagining various different futures and roles I might inhabit. Would it look like this? Or would it look like that? Part of this process was a genuine seeking of the right choice, but much of it was an impulse to become tethered again: to land in something more certain and stable. Human beings can manage some uncertainty but we all have a limit.

    When the trustees accepted the change of name of the temple I felt a distinct sense of relief. I was suddenly tethered again (more or less). ‘Here is a project I can get behind’ I thought, ‘and more than that, here is an organising principle: a way of thinking about myself that makes sense again.’

    When I first heard of groundlessness I thought that Buddhist practice would free me from needing worldly identities and ways of making sense of myself. Perhaps that it is true for cosmic Buddhas, but is not true for me yet. I need the lightness that practicing with groundlessness beings, and the solidity of worldly identities (even if they are inevitability temporary)

    I also thought that if dwelt in groundlessness I would be protected from the troubles of the world. Now I understand the deep wisdom of being connected to both.

    By our nature as embodied beings living in this world we are rooted in provisionality, in change and in grief. By our nature as spiritual beings we are held in great love.  When we deeply know our connection to both, compassion springs forth.

    Blessings in Disguise.

    Categories: articles

    By Dayamay

    Just when you thought that you’d found your place in the world and you feel that you’re in the best place possible, some cataclysmic force comes along and turns it all upside down! This is the nature of Samsara and Impermanence and it is a fundamental characteristic of the spiritual path.

    I suppose if we could predict where we’ll be in 5 years time with any accuracy, there wouldn’t be as much meaning in the lessons that we learn. 

    This current lesson seems to be about expectations. I’m searching for consistency and dependability as well as security and some kind of certainty. All of the things which we are encouraged to approach with caution as we navigate this ever changing and unstable material world. But, despite my ongoing (consistent!!)experience of this inherent unreliability, my mind still grasps.  For example, I frequently place other humans on pedestals, whether they know it and like it or not and then fall to pieces and direct the blame squarely at them when they fall off. This is not to say that the blame is always completely unjustified, but there does seem to be a pathological pattern to my inability to identify this tendency with enough conviction to prevent it from happening again.

    I feel blessed today that I can accept this broken aspect of me and recognise some of its positive consequences, which are helping me to keep moving in a good direction, whilst acknowledging my mistakes and allowing others to be human as well, albeit, with some, from a safe distance.

    Namo Amitabha.

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    Moving Through the Dark

    Categories: articles

    by Kaspa

    This morning I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland. He writes about walking through Epping Forest and talking to Merlin Sheldrake about fungi. Sheldrake describes how whole networks of fungi live in symbiosis with the trees: transmitting information and nutrients from one tree to the next, even across different species of trees. He calls it the ‘wood wide web.’

    Macfarlane describes a visit to Boulby Mine, speaking about testing out the rock-face, sending probes forwards, falling back, ‘questing in the dark’. Sheldrake responds:

    ‘It’s so similar to the way fungi work,’ [he] says, ‘always prospecting for the most resource-rich or beneficial region, pushing on where they sense benefit. The fan out and if they find a decent seam in one place they die back from the poor areas and concentrate their efforts elsewhere.’ He takes my notebook and pen and draws a diagram of the classic hyphal structure: a branching fan in which it is hard to speak of a main or originary stem, only of shots and offshoots.

    Robert Macfarlane, Underland (Hamish Hamilton, 2019), 160

    I couldn’t help thinking of my own journeying forward; reflecting on the time since leaving the Amida Order when I have tried on, in my mind, this future or that future, or this identity or that identity. When I have probed into the dark corners of my imagination and asked is this the right seam to be mining? Is this where the most nutrients are?

    Looking back we might trace a single route through the web of choices, and we might make sense of the journey based on where we end up, yet the experience of journeying is more complex and more hidden in the dark.

    Some of my probings and testings and imaginings happened consciously in the waking hours. Some of them happened away from my awareness making themselves known through dreams, or the edges of feelings or ideas.

    If I am one miner, there is whole community of miners around me testing out other rock-faces. If I am the growing tip of a thin strand of fungi there is a whole community of fungi around me probing for nutrients.

    Some of the miners talk to each other and build maps of the mine in their minds. Some only know their own routes in and out, to the face they are working on. It’s hard to see the whole thing.

    Histories are like this. Both our own personal histories where we only manage to catch sight of some of the choices we make, and the histories of our communities where it is just as difficult to see the whole.

    You might use this argument for undermining personal accounts of the truth. You might use it to justify fake-news. The Buddha said that every idea can be misused. If you want to use snake venom for medicine make sure you hold the right end of the snake or you may get bitten.

    You might take this as an invitation to forgo investigating the darkness. If it is all so complex, and so many of the choices we make happen out of sight, what is the value of looking?

    The dark tunnels of the mine are where the gold is. The dark rich soil is where the fungi find essential nutrients to feed the forest.

    There are important truths in the dark. There is value in tracing and appreciating the webs of connection and of the choices we find ourselves making.

    This is an invitation to honour complexity.