Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Diamond & Heart Sutras

So I have been procrastinating on this post for a while. And here is why: This particular read has hit a place so deep within me I didn't even know that place existed. How do I talk about something like that? I honestly can't - I still don't know a way how, so I am simply going to share a bit of the background on what I read, my reactions to it (the ones I can put in words - barely) and let you read it and think for yourself on this one.

Book #3: The Diamond Sutra

The Diamond Sutra is a discourse given by the Buddha to one of his elder disciples, Subhuti. It was a writing that was found in 868 and means "Perfection of Wisdom." ( I am not sure what the title means but I wanted to offer some background, so there it is. The Sutra is relatively short (25 pages) and uses simple language (this is to encourage you to read it) and can be found at multiple places on the web. As a side note, you should never really have to buy books or pay to learn about the Buddha's discourses - that is not what they are meant for - and most monasteries and websites true to that do hand out free literature for you to study and read and merely ask for donations - from the goodness of your heart and nothing else. When I see Amazon charging a lot of money for these same books/discourses it kind of makes me sad because that's not what these writings are meant to encourage. Side note over.

I think it is a very small statement to say that the Diamond Sutra has changed me. It is brought life - mine and in general - and the happenings of the world into a new light, a new perspective for me. This seems like the sutra that can lead you wherever you want it to with your interpretation. However, I did some research and it seems that many monks have revered this sutra and hold it to be one of the most profound and important ones there are. And all of this research was conducted after I reached that conclusion myself. One of the things the Buddha would say to his disciples was that he was telling them of enlightenment and giving them the dharma as he knew it, but it was up to them to find the truth in what he said and to reach their own conclusions.

Last week I started a free online course on Buddhism given by Bikkhu Bodhi because I wanted a source to learn and take notes on the foundation of Buddhism as an "ism." One of the things that stuck was how I was told meditation is important, and dharma is important, but each are incomplete without the other - how can you have knowledge without practice, and how can you practice without knowledge? I thought it was odd because usually only one or the other is encouraged - but it did resonate well with me and the concept stuck. And then came along the Diamond Sutra, it was briefly mentioned in Book #2: The End of Your Life Book Club and so I sought it out from the myriad of Buddha dharma books on my shelf. As I read the sutra one morning, in one sitting, I let the words sink in and I saw just how true it is to have both knowledge and practice.

All this time whenever I have meditated I have followed a certain path, a certain technique, and it has seemed to work for me, but other than some peaceful moments, I'm not sure what I have been looking for or waiting for. But this sutra showed me just that. It showed me the point of meditation, it showed me what I want to look for, it "opened" my eyes and mind a bit. There are a few lines in the sutra that brought me to that point: "should thus develop a pure and clean mind which should not abide in form, sound, smell, taste, touch and dharma. They should develop a mind which does not abide in anything." That's the key of meditating - to develop a mind that is free, a mind that does not attach itself to anything. What confused me a little bit was the mention of keeping your mind clear of "dharma" - but I had been thinking that keeping that in your mind was the point all along. So I read on and I found some more lines that confused me further.

These lines went, "these particles of dust are not (real), (but) are (merely) called particles of dust. The Tathagata says the universe is not (real), but it is (merely) called the universe." It is a paradox really - there is no "is" but there also is no "is not" to put it in basic terms. To take it further out the lines refer to the universe - there is no universe, and there is no not universe - it simply is a term. Similarly, there is no suffering, and there is no not suffering - it is merely a term - and so simply, with such brilliance this thought brings you to the principle of Buddha dharms: to understand that the root of everything is suffering, to acknowledge suffering, and to walk the path to the cessation of suffering. Think about the fact there is no suffering or not suffering - this that these are just terms, and feel the pressure of suffering, the depth of suffering disappear for a moment. And in the next you forget about the is and is not and you are back to our reality. The answer: meditation.

But it really is not that easy. In order to walk the path of Enlightenment we must let go of our attachments. But here is the tricky part - in order to get to "truth" we must give up attachment to "non truth" as well. So we meditate and observe but let go - we sever our attachments and let go of the "non-truth" (ego). But then we find this "truth" and attach to it! That makes it the non-truth again and we find ourselves back where we began. What this sutra is essentially telling us is that we cannot attach to anything - not even the truth, not even dharma, because attachment in any form is still attachment and it will still lead to suffering. To really get to the truth we must perceive it through meditation, watch it, understand it, and then like all else during true meditation - let it go.

So it is letting go of all attachments that leads us to the Buddha - to Enlightenment. But what about non-Buddha, what about non-Enlightenment? The path takes us further than simply letting go of attachments. The path is to perceive and not attach. The path is to meditate and observe the fleeting thoughts - to perceive the truth and non-truths alike. Enlightenment is just a word too, it is not the path. It is a path of perceiving and letting go. But it is the perception that is critical - we must meditate to get to the perception, and maintain it to let go of what we see, of what we wish to attach to next.

The Diamond Sutra has a "follow up" sutra - the Heart Sutra. This sums up the Diamond Sutra and allows the way to the cessation of suffering. This is what happened to a Bodhisattva: "he investigated and perceived that the five aggregates (skandhas) were non-existent thus securing his deliverance from all distress and sufferings." If everything is non-existent, and the names are just given by us as names and nothing more, then when you let go of attachment to these things that exist only in names, there leaves no such thing as "suffering" because there is no suffering and no not suffering - these are just left as words that are illusions.

From what I reflected reading this sutras, I formed a path - a way to possibly practice these sutras. It is to meditate - to sit and reflect. Detach. If a wandering thought comes - let it - observe it but then (and this is crucial) let is pass! Don't hold on to it, don't engage it, don't do anything - just let it pass.
1) Acknowledge
2) Observe/Perceive
3) Let it go
Because eventually the wandering thoughts will stop. Eventually there will be no fleeting moments, eventually that moment of knowing there is no is and no not is will come and stay. And once that nothingness is there, that will be the end of suffering. A quote from the Heart Sutra sums it up perfectly:

"Because of gainlessness, Bodhisattvas who rely on Prajna-paramita (the sutras), have no hindrance in their hearts, and since they have no hindrance, they have no fear, are free from contrary and delusive ideas and attain the Final Nirvana."

And finally, a mantra to take with you, something to remember the Diamond sutra, the Heart sutra, to repeat and understand, to always remember what was said and observed in these sutras: The Prajna-paramita mantra: "Gate (pronounced "gathay"), gate, paragate, parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha"
(Translated by the Dalai Lama as "go, go, go beyond, go thoroughly beyond, and establish yourself in enlightenment"

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The End of Your Life Book Club

Book #2 for my 2013 Book Project is "The End of Your Life Book Club" by Will Schwalbe

What makes a book "good"? This is a very personal and subjective question. The story that doesn't leave you when you close your book at the end of the night. The characters you can almost hear in your mind. The emotions the author manipulates you into feeling. The book that is always on your mind and you can't wait to get back to. The one that asks tough questions and makes you ponder over your own life and choices. The one that changes your life just a bit.

"The End of Your Life Book Club" is definitely a good book. It did for me all the things I mentioned and a little more. The story itself was touching - a son writing about the years in his life where his mom was diagnosed with cancer and then slowly passed away. The story is of a man who loved and admired this woman whom he had a hard time picturing not being in his life. And it made me think of life without my parents and I cringed as many times as the thought crossed me. No matter what age we are our parents have a special place in us. They gave us our life and taught us the first few things in life - they are our guardians, friends, and loves forever. But what happens when we start getting to that age when we have kids and grandkids? Does it mean they mean less to us? Does it mean just because we are all older it doesn't matter whether they are not around? None of the above. I think we progressively get closer to our parents with age and time. Because we slowly start to arrive in the places they have already been - we go through experiences they have already had. We understand them, gain a bit of their wisdom, and mainly learn to appreciate them.

Schwalbe did just that - he appreciated his mom - through the book he wrote, through the books they discussed, through the illness she developed and had to fight hard against. Their relationship in her last years was based on the books they read together. The books are all mentioned in this book and sort of guide them through the tough times. Books are such an important part of our life. They come at these moments when we need them the most - some to cheer us up, some to give inspiration, and some to humble us. Books give us direction, give us hope, guide us and slowly shape us. The books we read and the way we think of the stories contained within these books - fiction or nonfiction - in a way define who we really are. Can we experience the emotions, can we understand the human behavior expressed, can we sympathize? These are the questions certain books ask us - and by reading and feeling a certain way, we learn something about ourselves.

There were a lot of moments in this book where I paused to think about a particular comment Will or his mom made about a book - where I looked up the book they were talking about and added it to Amazon wish list - where I just had to underline the passage because I didn't want to forget it. One such passage towards the end had a profound effect on me. It mentioned something about all of us being in "it" together. That you never knew what would be the last book you read, the last conversation you had. This made me think of the cliche "Live life like every moment is your last" but it also made me think beyond. As a bibliophile especially it made me stop dead in my tracks to realize that every book I read could be my last. I love my husband, parents, other family and friends - but they know that and I try to mention it to the ones closest to me as often as possible. So that doesn't worry me too much. But what about the books? All of these books I have yet to read. What if the one I read next is my last? Or the one after, or after that? Not only did Schwalbe's book give me suggestions for some great books to read, it made me realize that each book I choose means potentially giving up all the others I could choose. Mind boggling, isn't it? How do you make decisions on what to read after realizing that? Very carefully, indeed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Breakfast with Buddha

Book #1 for my 2013 Book Project is "Breakfast with Buddha" by Roland Merullo

It's interesting how books come into our lives. I think we think that we choose what to read, but in reality it is the book that finds its way to us at a particular time in our life. Something like that happened when I "chose" my first book this year. While I wasn't a big fan of the writing itself and the book tended to drag slightly, I did enjoy the various thoughts followed in the book. Let me explain a bit further.

The main character has lost his parents and has to go down to their farm with his sister in the Dakotas and wrap things up. His sister sends a "rinpoche" (spiritual leader) with him instead. The entire book is about this road trip and the food stops they make (the main character is a food book editor) and the "philosophy" they discuss. I use the term "philosophy" very loosely here because their discussions are mainly buddhist principles and that is a way of life more than a philosophy. I didn't enjoy the story line much and found myself annoyed at the main character's personality, but there was an idea that was brought up in the book that stuck with me and is perhaps the reason this book came to me.

This idea is about our future being up to us. There is a question posed about good and evil and how people become one or the other or if they are destined to be. The answer is something about controlling our own destinies by the choices we make. Everyone at all times has to make conscious decisions. This or that, A or B, 1 or 2 - and it is these choices that lead us to good or bad. It is how much we can control our urges towards bad and make the good decision that leads us further into our path and guides our destiny.

I'm at a crossroads right now too. I'm in a new city, a new marriage, and a new life, and in between all of that is a job search I have been carrying out for a few weeks. I had fallen of my path however, and this book brought me a way to clearly see what I wanted. There is another idea from the book that stuck with me. There is a particular scene where the Rinpoche is explaining to Otto (the main character) how to see clearly. He takes a glass of water and adds a lot of dirt to it. He then proceeds to mix the water vigorously so the dirt clouds the glass. He asks Otto if he can see through it and obviously he cannot. After some time of leaving the glass, the dirt settles and now you can see clearly through the glass. He compares this to our mind. If we shake things up and have scattered thoughts it is very unlikely that we can see a situation clearly. But if you calm yourself and let the dust/dirt settle, there is more clarity in your life. I kept letting my mind be full of this dirt floating around - I kept questioning and doubting my choices in career and wanting to change things. And after a lot of frustration and unhappiness, I read this idea in this book and I decided to give it a whir. I worked on some meditation to calm my mind and I took a few days to let the dirt settle and gave a peek inside my mind. And it was clear as day. I knew the path I had chosen was for a reason, and when I clearly remembered my reasons I realized I was on the correct path and just needed to get back on it with a positive attitude and a desire to do my best. I saw clearly my past when I had been really good at everything I had done. I thought back to days where I excelled because I worked hard. I wondered for a brief moment what had happened to that person I used to be and realized what a crappy statement that is! I am still me - so what if years have gone by and situations have changed? Yes I am sure I have changed too, but that doesn't mean that the excelling hard-working part of me doesn't exist, its there, for sure its there - its simply dormant inside of me!

And so I decided to get back on my path - wake my dormant motivated self and made a conscious decision. And everything started falling back together after that. Moods improved, attitude improved, my confidence returned, and I knew I couldn't have done it without this advice on clarity from the Rinpoche in Merullo's story. Like I mentioned I am now at a crossroads. I have come to a point in my career path where because of my confidence I now have options for the first time. Several job offers - many positives and several negatives to each. A lot of nervousness on my part to make the right decision. A lot of nervousness on my part to find the right fit. And like that first idea that stuck - whichever I choose will determine my destiny. I have the power to take my life in whatever direction I want, and I have the options to pick between that can take my life in many different directions. I would have never thought of these decisions like this before - I would have just picked whatever offered more or seemed nicer - but now its about the future. It's about the choice that will lead me correctly.

It amazes me how books find us in the most opportune time!