Friday, July 11, 2008


Buddhism & the Negative Mind

My friend Bob has a blog about "The Cloud of Unknowing," and the way of ascertaining God by what that force is not, rather than what is. This has always appealed to the adult in, if disheartened I suppose the child in, me. This sums up the rightness that I have always sensed in admitting only that we cannot know God. It's this austerity of the via negativa, the negative way of the mystics, that I commented on recently. I discovered Bob's considerably understated blog by accident due to Bob's profile on the Web so low that an ant, let alone a circus flea, could leap over it. Still, I added it at right here in tribute to an utterly apophatic, kindred, spirit.

Chris & Bob have a Buddha magnet on their fridge. Probably from Santa Cruz. Not sure which one, but I may be able to identify it next visit. I've been soldiering on my own pilgrimage, with my own personal guru, thanks to my way of trekking, page by page in solitude. But, I can share my thoughts with you, albeit whirling ones given the subject that is no object, the emptiness that has no shape, the goal that vanishes as we reach the mirage.

Today, on the train, I met a stunning passage about myself, albeit a negative one. Not in the sense that the anonymous cleric who penned "Cloud" would have sought. This came after having had a strangely seductive if insubstantially figured reverie two nights ago after I learned about the "bardo of the dream" in Francesca Fremantle's learned if poetic, and of course perplexing commentary on the "Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo." This expounds, first by a lengthy exegesis on its central tenets and then a paraphrase, the directions popularly mistranslated as "The Tibetan Book of the Dead." Fremantle's "Luminous Emptiness" delves into this poetic, yet terse, set of instructions for the dead to be recited by the living, who therefore may assist the rescue of the departed soul from another bout of imprisonment in life. The aim is to extract the dying from their prison, and to encourage them as they learn to search for a way out and up, by the path to nirvana.

I suppose I have been setting myself up for dusky whispers by devis and pillow talks from bodhisattvas when I close this mysterious tome, after a few slow pages at a time the past few days, and rest my head to slumber. Uneasily, thanks to two cats who will not rest; they are angry we left them for ten days. I have not gotten a solid rest since I returned from up North. But, I picked up Fremantle from the library stack on my return, restless for more heft than in my free time perusal after a week wrestling to a close with "The Satanic Verses." (Review forthcoming.) As Layne observed, Rushdie's novel's probably one of the least read bestsellers.

Well, I met my match. It's a considerable challenge to learn first about the tenets of Tibetan Nyingma (old tradition) varieties of dharma filtered through a treatise to be read aloud to the dead or dying to alert them to the illusions hovering beyond the grave. I barely have a child's catechetical grasp on Buddhism 101. It's as if you tossed a casual inquirer about Catholicism a Jesuit's dissertation on Karl Rahner's hermenuetics, or greeted a newcomer to Judaism with a gilt volume of the Zohar. Or assigned-- as with my boys-- a secular student or non-Florentine at that these days the past seven centuries, Dante.

However, I consulted my well-worn shorter version of Fremantle's 1987 "Book of the Dead" co-written with Chögyam Trungpa. (I think he was the guru who notoriously enticed many mortal dakinis in Colorado-- see Rick Fields' lively "How the Swans Came to the Lake" narrative history of Buddhism in America.) I briefly compared Tibetan conceptions of liminal states with the Middle English literary ideas of purgatory years ago when working on my dissertation-- although it had but a sentence or two on Buddhism-- and dimly recall being moved by Sögyal Rinpoche's own elucidation on the ""Great Liberation text" around the time my mother died in '97. I feel that I can summon up a faded echo of the text and tenets enough to sustain me through Fremantle. After lots of effort, I'm a third of the way into this book.

With considerable clarity, and elegant compassion, she writes vividly and transparently about truths that, while they serve as paradoxes to Cartesian me, do cause me to rethink my assumptions of living in Madonna & Sting's material world. I keep recalling Dr. Johnson kicking a rock: "thus do I refute Berkeley." It's difficult for me to accept the impermanence of the boulders behind the wall of my study as I type this, however long they take to crumble. Yet, Fremantle reminds us along with George, the quiet Beatle, that all things must pass.

Fremantle argues, as did Sögyal earlier, that this text can better assist us while we live to learn about illusion and dangers that drag us back down into the material, gross, realm rather than free us from the cycle of existence trapped in bodies one incarnation after another. This Treehouse of Terror threatened medieval congregants, but while Christians taught its substance, Buddhists deny its solidity. It's not a chamber of horrors but a flimsy funhouse, its specters but cartoons beamed in from our samsaric frequencies. The book of instruction can be employed, despite its cryptic code, to teach us how to live. And, then how to recognize the escape route from another endless round of life when this time around we die.

After all, the text's meant more for us to figure out how to leap off of the whole samsaric merry-go-round of incarnations as humans, let alone hell, hungry ghosts, animals, jealous gods, or even exalted deities. How can we learn to see the illusion of a self separate from the transcendent indefinable emptiness of freedom? I'm not sure even Fremantle can articulate this yearning perfectly, but within her quest, the honesty of her commitment shines. It puts so many other purveyors of snake-oil and lurid tracts to shame. Yet, many will still scoff at this ancient scripture. For, who can verify what lies behind what even the Buddha declined to discuss, the Bard's bardo, the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller-- except King Hamlet's fictional ghost-- returned? (See final chapter of my dissertation for more on this suggestive episode!)

The "Great Liberation" exists as an unearthed text, a "terma" or hidden treasure from early Tibet, transmitted through incarnated lamas, first learned by Chögyam at the age of eight and then meditated upon by him in a bygone Tibet now unimaginably distant from where you and I read these typed letters, appears vastly far away from our world where the Dalai Lama makes the cover of "Time" and when the PRC promotes an exhibit for its schoolchildren purporting to document atrocities by lusty monks who once "enslaved" serfs and tortured proles. What can this attenuated lore, farther foreign from our wired culture than even Zohar or Rahner, do for us today?

What I'm discussing sounds perhaps as illogical as any eschatology promoted at Madonna's Kabbalah Center or a Jesuit's pulpit. Yet, having again confessed to my doctrinal unease, I admire the Hindu & Buddhist attempts to shake off "maya," the veil of illusion, and I suspect they, far more than any other people in any culture or faith, have advanced farthest into the true potential that awaits and beckons we fragile, fearful, and foolish humans. For myself, I pray that I overcome a fear of death that has been embedded in me, daily, all my life. So, perhaps this book can assist me in doing this necessary task towards my own shuffle from this mortal coil.

The living speak the "Great Liberation" aloud so than the dead can hear it. In the next life's bewildering labyrinths, only sight and sound will reach their senses. Yet, the departed are only undergoing the passage through the afterlife since they're still in danger of being pulled by karma back to the previous form, for they have not broken their fatal, mortal, reborn ties with their sense of self. The text guides the dying towards separation from the entities they see and hear which look tempting or frightening, but which are only projections of "samsara," the cycle of ignorance and ego, within which we suffer. These looming images, beautiful or terrible, inhabit an overwhelmingly vivid afterlife passage, but not a truly corporeal hell, heaven, or purgatory. Truth lies beyond the real, and this truism from Buddhism, Fremantle interprets for Westerners, remains no less true for its irrational, counter-intuitive teaching. That's where faith must rescue the wavering. And, I'm conditionally unsure that I possess such confidence in any teaching, sad to say. She'd tell me that conditioning, tied to karma, mires me in samsara without end.

I'm listening, and I acknowledge my negativity that conspires against my nature's better angels. It's hard to convince a professionally inquiring, never satisfied intellectual of the ultimate verities. That's an occupational hazard. I cannot find all the answers in Fremantle. She strives mightily to explain an immensely disorienting cosmos to those of us from alien(ated) mindsets. So far, at least, she appears to gloss over how we got saddled with ego and samsara. It's a bad dream that we're stuck in (95). Maybe it's inexplicable, no less than why 2+2=4. It just is, as we signify it. She tells me that ultimately all this liberation which the buddhas concern themselves with somehow's already been accomplished by a karmic cause & effect reversal in the realm of enlightenment (133). This boggles me.

Perhaps I'm taking to heart the four noble truths of the Buddha: suffering exists, it has a beginning, and an end, and we can free ourselves from it. In other words, any belief system by its own definition derives from an inexplicable plot complication. Fremantle adds that we conceive of our lives as narratives to keep our selves in line, on track, even as our essence changes moment by moment. Similarly, the atomic structures and quantum energies within the most solid of Dr. Johnson's pebbles disprove their apparent durability. If all's buffetted by change, then the "skandhas" or patterns of dharma as form, feeling, perception, conditioning, and consciousness never stay the same for long. We're twisted by our narrowed understanding of life's purpose within an incomprehensible universe. The imperative for Buddhists: jump off of this tricycle, this train, this commute. Our fate, meanwhile, for countless spins of the karmic wheel, as our fearful, coddled selves ensnare us in ego's boasts and samsara's mist does appear a cruel trick played upon us by a greater force, but perhaps it's less dehumanizing than Edenic original sin, blaming it all on a trickster monkey or coyote, or the perfidy of nosy Pandora. I guess we mortals have to explain our limits somehow, and logic escapes even Gautama.

At least a purer Buddhist teaching does not seek to condemn others, to subjugate beings or beasts we deem lower than us, or ideally yearns to amass comfort at the expense of others. For this, its ethics, however faulty in reality, deserve attention. It does not damn infidels or burn heretics or castigate deviants or claim jihad. I accept as in Catholicism that its edifices and its monasteries and its feudalism all both enhance and weaken its impact as a cultural mover. Buddhism as an entity rather than a way of meditation and ethics has been criticized for its departure from messier political and social needs. Is this better or worse than Christian, Jewish, or Muslim alliances with the powers of Caesar, Zion, and Baghdad? The Dalai Lama's debate with Tibetan activists represents this tension well. No path's perfect when it's pitched at and by imperfect humans, but there's a moral tolerance and an ecumenical acceptance that I find more appealing within a humble, humanist Buddhism such as Fremantle promotes. I still want to ask the Dalai Lama how non-Buddhists are meant to find their own five-colored rainbow thread to get them out of the labyrinthine bardos they'll presumably encounter in our own versions of purgatory, hell, or heaven, if this recovered treatise from his homeland is true.

Yet, as my wife confirms in her own blog my own wanderings within and my birth-mother frets about my lapse from Catholicism, I struggle to keep an open mind to the spirit and its workings. No, I cannot explain original sin or virgin births either, if you want to stick to reason rather than dogma. Congenitally, stubbornly, I seek wisdom wherever it waits.

Fremantle carefully sets out the complex foundations for understanding the cosmology of the often compressed, enigmatic (to me) and suggestive rather than explanatory text proper. Then, last night, I woke at 4:45 from having had a depressing nightmare that appeared to drag me through what I found out today, about the realms of hell and hungry ghosts. Perhaps I will make my way through all six bardos from the Land of Nod in less than a week at this rate!

Here's the passage that struck me, unfortunately, but better late than never on the road to enlightenment. Fremantle's discussing how peaceful and wrathful deities emanate as characteristics of the buddha's enlightened state in the bardo (this is never easy to summarize, and Fremantle labors heroically). We find Akshobhya, the Unshakable power of earth, diamond-sharp, and embodiment of mirror-knowledge, which is the contemplation of its own mind that recognizes emptiness and appearance mingled as when we gaze at a reflection, that is there and is not, that depends on a form, which is not any form of its own. This is how the whole text sounds, but after dozens of pages and serious concentration, the patterns of the mandala begin to coalesce understandably. Like listening to Shakespeare performed or Phillip Glass repeated, the meaning grows. This buddha features mental penetration, intellectual confidence, and confident certainty. Yet, every buddha embodies too the dangers of its misused abilities, as a warning to those who try to emulate as "poisons" the wrong amounts of the buddha's qualities, too little or too much, which can thwart the inherent promise within the ingredients of its enlightened potential. Even higher gods and goddesses are imprisoned by samsara; only the buddhas and devis free themselves totally from the cycles, as beacons to warn and urge living beings onward.

"When intellect is misused or allowed to run wild, it becomes destructive, and the cutting quality of the mind is transformed into a hostile weapon. We even have the saying, "You're so sharp, you'll cut yourself." This negative mind tends to notice every mistake and every fault. It develops an overcritical approach and easily gets irritated by anything it cannot control or understand. When its high ideals are not realized, it grows disappointed and hostile toward others or toward itself. Too much self-criticism, instead of helping one to improve, can quickly turn into self-hatred. Eventually, people who rely overmuch on their critical faculties may become completely intolerant and unable to see any good points in anything; they perceive those who are less intellectual as weak, muddled, and emotional, and they end up wanting to isolate themselves completely from the unreliable messiness of ordinary life." (120)


This telling excerpt could have been my Chinese fortune cookie, my recent birthday's horoscope. It's a sample too of how Fremantle takes what could be risibly arcane or academically trivial, airily nonchalant or dutifully mundane in the hands of a lesser translator. She combines Tibetan practice with Sanskrit scholarship to balance her own evident practice of the dharma with a detached analysis that makes sense (relatively speaking in this topic so far removed from my train ride yet, as with wisdom, accessible to me that moment as I watched the ghetto pass and my fellow riders jostle me as Friday's dawn rose) to a curious yet confused Western reader. For, not many of us, myself foremost, would have picked up a volume expounding the display of the awakened state detailing the Vajra family of thunderbolt buddhas. I admit I was impressed with her balance of study with conviction, philosophy with ethics, and everyday examples with rarified investigation.

Finally, I figured out via Fremantle's allusions that Buddhism's gallery of deities are only on display as symbols of enlightened states of awareness, of awakened buddha-hood, if buddhas and devis, or, as mere gods and goddesses, still immersed within stratified realms tied to samsara same as we are. It's the non-theistic path that before always confused me as being full of statues and paintings of beings that, I reckon now, are not worshipped so much as venerated like Catholic saints. Many confuse an icon with the object of devotion, naturally. Yet, correctly, we no more should worship a photo of our sweetheart than a baseball card or the image of Green Tara in this blog entry. They're reminders of our devotion, not meant as the recipients of our abasement.

I know, as a scholar of medieval and Irish culture, how this gets muddled-- often delightfully-- in popular "material" Christianity, and I don't think the knobby-kneed supplicant kissing an ossuary's aware of the Jesuit's hagiographical casuistry! Still, for this discussion, keep in mind that the plethora of pictured holy figures serve as reminders of our need for spiritual advancement. Granted, on the quotidian level, such fine distinctions get muddled and we wind up praying to St Jude here as I suppose as adepts do in Tibet or adoptees in Tiburón to Our Lady of the Element (or Realm) of Space Akashadhatvishvari, to name one at random below Samaya-Tara (see endnote).

On pg. 50, Dr. Fremantle makes a startling claim. That's the quote where I recognized, speaking of mirrors, my own self looking back egotistically at me.

"Liberation through Hearing says of itself: 'To meet with this is great good fortune. It is hard to meet, except for those who have purified the obscuring veils and developed goodness.' This means that not just anyone can come across it. To hear it or to read it at all implies that either in this life or in past lives we have made some connection with it. Even if we just happen to pick it up in a bookshop, this is not entirely by chance. The connections we have made during the whole measureless course of our existence are extremely significant. That is why Trungpa Rinpoche said that any form of contact with this teaching will confer a sudden glimpse of enlightenment; we need not believe in it, but something will definitely have entered our minds as a result. It does not mean that we will become fully enlightened at that moment. Our confusion will probably prevent us from recognizing that sudden glimpse, but it will be reawakened at some time in the future. There is no doubt, as the tantras say." (50-51)


Some sales pitch! Part of me recalls the Lubavitcher Rebbe's dollar bills dispensing a token of one's encounter with an emissary assumed a messianic messenger, part of me Chaucer's conniving Pardoner, but part of me, less prone to Elmer Gantrian taunts of that negative mind, wonders if such dharma, beyond the infrastructures of church and synagogue, mosque and temple, represents our best last chance for what Layne asked me on the long drive down I-5 from our own sylvan retreat under the redwoods. That is, can we heal the earth and prevent our own destruction along with that of our nest? Is there a force that will intercede to protect us from our own folly? Or, is salvation in our grasp alone, our karmic responsibility to Gaia left to us to figure out? May organized religion, that old bugaboo, bow down to a simpler, more harmonious, less grasping way of peace and compassion? A long shot, but with Fremantle's array of buddhas and devis, there's a perhaps a few deities manifesting our own inner nature, the essence that permeates all without being contained in it. These emanations can be found if we look inside ourselves. We have the power, according to her interpretation of "Great Liberation," to free ourselves for good.

Perhaps my own inchaote longings emerge in my encounter with this gnomic missive from a medieval kingdom the other side of the world from those monks and nuns and laity whose scraps of purgatorial visions and verses I examined fifteen years ago? Can one path I took now lead to the other, scholarship intersecting with spirituality, to enhance my own mind and heart's growth? Does this blog note my frail soul's shaky totterings towards maturity? Maybe our own intervention and salvation come from our own awareness that we live de la Vega's "la vida es un sueno." Salman Rushdie wrote powerfully of how the new Prophet's demands included killing animals slowly, so their life's blood drained gradually, forcing the dumb creatures to realize how their existence had been not a dream after all, but real. This sentence haunted me from a week ago. Now, reflected in Fremantle and my musings, it amplifies the Buddha's shout to snap me out of my daydreams of material girls, accumulating CDs, and never saying no to my own bibliographical wants. Goya's "el sueno del razón produce monstruos" also comes to mind, the flibbertigibbets and demons fleeing our psyche as we totter, stupified.

Glancing at the earlier Fremantle translation, I note I noted the date of purchase. I bought it in November 1988; I used to write when I bought a book inside the cover. This happily brings me to another reverie, of meeting not only Bob but one of his best friends, Layne, for then we'd all have known each other less than six weeks or so. She's been, as Steely Dan sang once to us separately before collectively, the dakini who "takes me by the hand." That tune must represent the first transmission of a Buddhist teaching to me, circa 1973! I think that Walter Becker lives on the Big Island near the monastery we passed, beribboned in the forests above the southern stretches of Hawai'i. In Claremont, in grad school, I lived in the garret of a farmhouse about to be condemned for an industrial park; the place still had a faded sign outside of its former use. Was it a failed Buddhist collegiate commune? A hippý's own dream made real but for a short duration? I only understood the painted word much later: Samsara. True to its name, I had to part from my beloved partial-hometown and when I returned once, the site had vanished under a corporate glass and concrete monstrosity. So the lesson reified itself. But the dharma stubbornly in such outposts near the Pacific spreads to the West, as predicted when Tibet and China fell to empires and the old ways crumbled.

Bob told me that up in Contra Costa County thousands gather at Tibetan festivals and, while many daughters of Dharamsala are married to American men-- as with his friends in question-- at least a few continue in their exurban diaspora the language and culture. It'll be nerveracking to see if Tibet can survive in exile, or whether like Miami's Cubans the fervor will fade with time. Rodger Kamenentz in "The Jew in the Lotus" found the impetus for the JuBu meeting he narrated in the Dharmasala community's wish to find out how the Jews kept Zion alive for two millennia apart from a Temple as irretrievable today as a Potala free from McDonald's, Holiday Inn, a theme park surrounding it, and hundreds of brothels. You do wonder, looking at the next year in Jerusalem now, if there can be any peaceful return to one's holy land.

On a less dramatic note, there's even a hybrid Tibetan restaurant on Venice Blvd on the Westside now. Our family ate at the Lhasa Moon near the Marina district in S.F. a few years ago; certainly we felt far removed from any red-booth Grant St dim sum joint. And, when the Dalai Lama visited Seattle, the 100,000 Buddhists he preached to in a stadium were likely not mostly Asian. Niall saw at New Leaf in Felton the magazine "Tricycle" prominently displayed near the checkstand, and wondered what kind of demographic'd buy it. Even I knew the Buddhism-for-Americans spiel, but I'm sure older browsers than my son have been as confused by this somewhat clever, somewhat misleading title. Buddha'd like it. Better blurted than Tathagataghabra or Dharmadhata, I guess, for we grasping, impish, toy-obsessed Caucasian "big-noses."

It'll be intriguing, having commented on Robert Ferrigno's futurist thrillers about an Islamic Republic battling a Bible Belt one here, if a twist might occur. Kim Stanley Robinson a decade ago conjured up "The Years of Rice & Salt" imagining another alternative, when the Black Plague wiped out nearly all Europeans and the Muslims took over industrializing and expanding Eurasian civilization; the Buddhists, on the other side, migrated to colonize America and with a Native population brought Chinese dominance to Gold Mountain. With the Chinese determined, in our material world, to suppress Buddhism, I wonder if the West will now embrace it. Bob tells me that the Dalai Lama cautions people not raised in the dharma to seek wisdom in their own traditional practices and beliefs. Can agnostics be Buddhists? How do others learn from the lessons meant for anyone living or dying which Fremantle, the latest in a thousand years of adepts, seeks to transmit to humans? For disbelieving or skeptical Westerners, does a dharma that emphasizes the impermanence of all we hold as truth not verify their own innate suspicion, their own secular refusal to pinpoint a being to praise or blame? I wonder how this merging of contemporary detachment with our own age's longing for answers squares with our impelling need to reach nirvana, the "passing beyond suffering" that the Buddha insists traps us all in bardos and illusions?

Here's my favorite devi, female essence of air, breath of life, speeding to become the Savior of all across the ocean of samsara, only if because of Samaya Tara's half-Irish name! "Tara is being called the mother of all Buddhas. With eyes full of warmth and compassion she looks after all sentient beings like a mother after her only child. Her green colour, which represents the wind element and thereby movement, symbolises her ability to act quickly and to help all beings without a delay." "Swift Tara" defintion. Image: c/o "Ecumenical Buddhist Society of Little Rock." Green Tara

2 comments:

harry said...

The magnet (an interesting object for iconography as it is) is Manjuri. Manjusri is the bodhisattva associated with wisdom, and awareness cutting through misunderstandings. In a way, very Jesuit eh? In one sense it's a good deity for me as one of the dilettanti... other magnets on frig are Mao, Sleepytime Tea Bear, cheezy Corita Kent painting, Kiss in full makeup and Democratic Socialists of America. Maybe the generational consumerist shopping cart on the path to (in the neighborhood of )enlightenment is also detritus confirming what is not God, what is God. Same, same.

Thanks for the thoughtful, even mindful meditation here Dr. Murphy. As that disciple of Trumpa, Allen Ginsberg, use to pray for his friends, "I salute you as a becoming Buddha..."

Fionnchú said...

Don't forget the banana slug -- which is thankfully only a magnet. I've been fiddling with this piece for what must have been five hours, even after you posted, although I'm only now on pg. 160 out of 400! I have tried for mindfulness. This curiously overwhelming book has grabbed me, and thanks for your comment and support. I was hoping you'd read this entry and post back!