Friday, September 21, 2012

Trouble Brewing

The library called yesterday and told me that my copy of Hiroyuki Itsuki's Tariki: Embracing Despair, Discovering Peace had arrived. This morning i poured a fresh cup of coffee and settled into the living room chair to finally get started. I've been looking forward to this for three weeks now.

And, i was still in the Forward, still not out of the roman numeral pages when Itsuki reaches out of the pages and smacks me across the cheek with this:

"Tariki stands in contrast to "Self-Power," or jiriki. Since its beginnings in India, Buddhism has taught a long and arduous path of practice to reach enlightenment. This personal effort made to achieve enlightenment is a manifestation of Self-Power. Tariki, on the other hand, is the recognition of the great, all-encompassing power of the Other—in this case, the Buddha and his ability to enlighten us—and the simultaneous recognition of the individual's utter powerlessness in the face of the realities of the human condition. It is, in my opinion, a more realistic, more mature, and more quintessentially modern philosophy than Self-Power, and it is a philosophy that can be a great source of strength to live in our world today."

Oh boy, here we go. More realistic? More mature? Modern? ?Really?

Back in the "old days," we were taught that there was nothing we could do but go to church, give our donations, and don't question the priest. God had our backs. All we had to do was what we were taught. I.E., other-power from the Christian pews. I certainly wouldn't call going back to that "modern," whether going back to "that" means going back to accepting the all-encompassing power and saving grace of God or the Buddha, or any other deity your culture has taught you is the "one."

Realistic? Maybe i'm the abnormality here, but any system of thought that suggests that we are not the main drivers of our lives is nonsense, IMO. In any and all areas of our lives, if we relegate all authority to some unseen, unknown "other" power, because the priestly class has promised that he/she/it will provide, we are setting ourselves up for major catastrophe. Unless you are part of that priestly class, in which case life will be sweet and materialistically rewarding. No, the person in charge of your life, your happiness, your success, your enlightenment, your growth, etc., is you.

More mature? Does that mean that i'm immature? Is that what he's saying?

OK. OK. Calm down. Lao is out in the kitchen quietly intoning "Patience grasshopper. Patience. You haven't even gotten to the pages with Arabic numerals yet. Just move on and see what else he has to say."

[three deep breaths] OK. Moving on.....

Friday, September 14, 2012

Henro Trail

Have been playing around with a new app on my iPad and came up with this 12 slide presentation called "Henro Trail."

Lost In The Field

Large red wings outstretched
Barely skimming the park's grass
Dancing lawnmowers

Spent a few hours in the afternoon at the park eating lunch, thinking, and reading some of a new translation of the Bhagavad Gita i stumbled on at the book store recently. Here's a sample from that amazing chapter 13, The Field And Its Knower:

And now, Krishna, I wish to learn about Prakriti and Brahman, the Field and the Knower of the Field. What is knowledge? What is it that has to be known?

[With questions like that, this guy is ready. Given a chance to ask questions, how many of us would come up with these? What is knowledge? What is it that has to be known?]

Sri Krishna
This body is called the Field, because a man sows seeds of action in it, and reaps their fruits. Wise men say that the Knower of the Field is he who watches what takes place within this body.


Now listen, and i will tell you briefly what the Field is; its nature, modifications and origin. I will tell you also who the Knower is, and what are his powers.

Which is the cosmos
In cause unseen
And visible feature;
Intellect, ego;
Earth, water, and ether,
Air and fire;
Man's ten organs
Of knowing and doing,
Man's mind also;
The five sense-objects—
Sound in its essence,
Essence of aspect,
Essence of odour,
Of touch and of tasting;
Hate and desire,
And pain and pleasure;
Consciousness, lastly,
And resolution; These, with their sum
Which is blent in the body;
These make The Field
With its limits and changes.

Therefore I tell you;
Be humble, be harmless
Have no pretension,
Be upright, forbearing,
Serve your teacher
In true obedience,
Keeping the mind
And the body in cleanness,
Tranquil, steadfast,
Mast of ego,
Standing apart
From the things of the senses,
Free from self;
Aware of the weakness
In mortal nature,
Its bondage to birth,
Age, suffering, dying;
To nothing be slave...

Calmly encounter
The painful, the pleasant;
Adore me only
With heart undistracted;
Turn all your thought
Toward solitude, spurning
The noise of the crowd,
Its fruitless commotion;
Strive without ceasing
To know the Atman,
Seek this knowledge
And comprehend clearly
Why you should seek it;
Such, it is said,
Are the roots of true wisdom;
Ignorance, merely,
Is all that denies them.

[Let me repeat that last part again, i love it so much....
"Seek this knowledge
And comprehend clearly
Why you should seek it;
Such, it is said,
Are the roots of true wisdom;
Ignorance, merely,
Is all that denies them."

I think i mentioned this a while ago, it's much better to spend your time making sure you understand the questions than it is to argue about the answers. Wisdom lies in comprehending clearly why you should seek. So, where was i....]

Everywhere are His hands, eyes, feet; His heads and His faces;
This whole world is His ear; He exists, encompassing all things;
Doing the tasks of each sense, yet Himself devoid of the senses;
Standing apart, He sustains; He is free from the gunas but feels them.
He is within and without; He lives in the live and the lifeless;
Subtle beyond mind's grasp; so near us, so utterly distant;
Undivided, He seems to divide into objects and creatures;
Sending creation forth from Himself, He upholds and withdraws it;
Light of all lights, He abides beyond our ignorant darkness;
Knowledge, the one thing real we may study or know; the heart's dweller.

By the single sun
This whole world is illumined;
By its one Knower
The Field is illumined.

Who this perceives
With the eye of wisdom
In what manner the Field
Is distinct from its Knower,
How men are made free
From the toils of Prakriti;
His aim is accomplished,
He enters the Highest.

Translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Just Sayin'

Perceiving just that
No more no less no just that
Alive is just that

Autumn comes this way
All yield to its changing ways
Gorgeous red maples

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Solving Life's Equations

School recently started again and that means i get to go back to one of the things in my life that gives me great pleasure — volunteer tutoring. I tutor math to kids from elementary school through high school and the teacher in me never, ever tires of watching them "get" a topic that was previously thought impossible. :-)

One of the kids i work with this semester is in Algebra 2, and, not unexpectedly, she popped the question on our first meeting: "What good is all this stuff? Is there any use for it outside of the classroom?" I can't blame her really, it was our first meeting and i had her working through some word problems, which she told me were impossible and that she hated them. At the end of the hour she was all smiles and was saying: "That's it? That's all there is to solving these?" I wanted to hug her, but figured that wasn't a great way to keep my job.

But, i digress. In answer to her original questions, i thought i gave her a reasonable answer. Yes, there are uses for Algebra outside the classroom, although most people don't use it. I even gave her a few examples. She didn't laugh or argue, so i think she accepted my point. But, i upped the ante and pointed out that research has shown that students who do well in high school Algebra do better in all subjects when they move on to a university.

What i wanted to tell her, though, was that one of the greatest benefits of Algebra is that it teaches you to think abstractly and this improves the way you live your life. You may not like Algebra, you may not do all that well, but you learn to think outside the box, as they say, you learn to look at problems more abstractly and less linearly, and this directly affects the way you approach problems in all areas of your life.

I'll introduce these kinds of lessons little by little as we work through the semester, but one of my favorite lessons will come when we get to a procedure called "Completing The Square," a method for solving quadratic equations.

In case you don't know what that is, i won't try and explain it mathematically but it goes something like this:

  • Start with an equation you want to solve.
  • Find the piece that makes it difficult to solve.
  • Get rid of that piece. Move it out of the way. You can't really get rid of it so just set it to the side and leave it alone for now.
  • In its place add something that would make what's left over easy to solve.
  • Solve that (now) easy part.
  • Apply the fix to that piece you set aside earlier. It will also modify that.
  • Put the two pieces back together, and voila, you have a solution to your problem.

So what, she will say, does that have to do with life? Well, i'll say, that is life in a nutshell. You will have problems throughout your life and some of those will seem absolutely impossible to solve at first glance. You may see no way out from under it, but that doesn't mean there isn't a way.

What to do? Rarely is the entire problem the real problem. So, find that piece that is messing everything up and set it aside. Ignore it. Don't worry about it for awhile. In the meantime, look at what's left of the "problem" and figure out what you could do, what you could say, what you could add that would make it easy to deal with, easy to solve. Then do that, say that, add that. And stand in amazement when that piece of the problem disappears.

Now take that fix and apply it to the piece that you set aside. Since it was isolated from everything else that was going on it should be an easy fix. Once that is done, stand back and look at the whole "problem" as it originally hit you. You'll be amazed that it wasn't as unsolvable as it had first seemed.

Yes, math can be used in real life, i will point out.

And that's another of my pleasures when i tutor. Watching them roll their eyes when i give them yet another "life" lesson but seeing that they got it. They may not admit it, but we both know it's in their heart as they walk out the door.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Faith In Practice

I used this picture as the Picture of The Month on the henro web site this month and am sure the few words i wrote don't do it justice so a few follow-up words may be in order. (Be sure to click on the picture to enlarge it before continuing so you know what it is.)

The concept of pilgrimage fascinates me and there are three ideas included in my concept that define what it is for me: faith, practice, and liminality. On one hand, faith and practice define the two extremes of a continuum in different approaches to doing a pilgrimage. On the other hand, faith, liminality, and practice form one interlocking system that i see as a good way to approach the trail.

Looking at the continuum, on one end is faith — faith in Kōbō Daishi (aka, Kūkai, the Daishi), faith in his promise and his ability to assist all who call on him. In a sense this is very much like faith in Avalokitesvara's (Kannon, Kanjisai) similar promise, or Amida's vow to bring all who call out to him in sincere faith with Namu Amida Butsu.

At this end of the continuum, it doesn't matter what type of life you have lived, what kind of person you have been; if you request help with a sincere heart and a sincere belief, then help will be given. This was the Daishi's promise as he settled into eternal meditation on Mt. Kōya back in 835.

And this is the faith that a great many, probably the vast majority, of Japanese henro bring to the henro trail. It doesn't matter if you walk the trail, travel by bicycle, motorcycle, car, or bus, if your request to the Daishi at each of the temples you visit is sincere, then the Daishi will offer his help. For these henro, the only places of importance on the henro trail are the temples themselves.

On the other end of that continuum is the belief that a personal practice is more important than faith; that shūgyō is the all important ingredient for any successful supplication. On this end of the continuum faith in the Daishi is required, but before any intercession takes place you have to prove you worthiness by undergoing the appropriate amounts of shūgyō, you have to show your deservingness with the appropriate forms of spiritual discipline and asceticism. You do this by walking the henro trail and for these henro the trail is vastly more important than the temples. The trail is everything.

Another way to look at this is a practice that swallows this entire continuum. To begin with, faith is still needed, but not a faith in the Daishi alone. Instead, a faith that the shūgyō itself will lead you to the answers and solutions you seek. These may come from the Daishi, they may come from somewhere else, but it is the practice of shūgyō that leads you to them in all cases.

But, besides shūgyō, one additional ingredient is required — liminality. Victor Turner popularized this concept in his writing on pilgrimage and it points to the idea that as you set out on the path, the trail, you set aside your normal, worldly identity and take up the identity of a henro, a pilgrim.

After passing through this gate, you become, for all intents and purposes, a new person, a henro. Your sole purpose during this time is to fulfill the role of a henro. Everything you say, think, and do is done to bring you closer to the goal of your pilgrimage.

And once your pilgrimage is over, you pass back through that gate, back into your old world, but if you were successful the person that returns to that world is not the same person who left some months previously.

In this case, yes, faith is still required; also an unquestioning faith. But, this faith is a faith that your practice, your willingness to endure, to persevere, will be rewarded. And this is what i see in all those statues on the picture above. Statues of the Daishi himself walking the henro trail. Statues of Shūgyō Daishi.

The people who placed them there may not have had the ability, time, money, whatever, to undertake the required shūgyō, but that's OK because the Daishi has already done so on their behalf. The Daishi long ago accepted that challenge, passed through the gate of liminality, and found the answers. He had long ago become Kōbō Daishi and promised that his life would be dedicated to helping all sincere seekers.

The Daishi had long ago made it clear that if you can't undertake the henro yourself, then if you are willing to contribute the faith, he would contribute the practice and as a team solutions to your problems could be found.