25 March 2006

Kukai in China

Kukai's journey to ChinaI've not been thinking much about the Dharma per se this week. Most of my reflection time has been spent mulling over Kukai's trip to China in 804-6. It's a fascinating episode in the life of one of my very favourite historical Buddhists - yes one of my Buddhist heros!

Kukai had dropped out of mainstream life to practice as a freelance ascetic, which made him an outlaw in late 8th century Japan. Some years earlier he had written and circulated a satirical attack on the official confucianist doctines of the Imperial state. Having repudiated by word and deed the Imperial orthodoxy, he was the antithesis of an establishment figure.

So how did he come to be included in the diplomatic mission to Tang China in 804? Maybe his relatives pulled some strings, but historians love to point out that his family and clan were Aristocracy in decline, and probably had little influence with the court. It may have been because he volunteered to go on a mission which most people in the right mind did anything they could to get out of. Trips to China involved taking completely unsuitable craft across over 1000km of open ocean, where more often than not they were sunk by storms. It wasn't certain death, but two of the four boats in the fleet were lost in the first week. Kukai had volunteered because he figured that someone in China would be able to explain the Mahāvairocana Sutra to him.

The fact is that we don't know how Kūkai got on the boat, nor the circumstances of his ordination as a bhikṣu. But we know that he caught the boat, survived the storm, and charmed the pants off the Chinese when he got there. Kūkai's boat was blown 1600km south of it's intended destination. The port authorities at the out of the way port refused them permission to land. They sailed north to the city of Fu-chou where their boat was impounded and the crew forced to live in a swamp for a few weeks. Until Kūkai wrote a letter to the authorities that so impressed them that I organised proper accommodation for the rest of the mission - including the official ambassador and his staff. Kūkai again prevailed upon the Chinese when he was at first not permitted to travel to Chang-an the capital. Finally, after a month of travelling overland, and the death of the Chinese Emperor just a few weeks after their arrival, Kūkai managed to get himself posted to Xi-ming temple.

Xi-ming was the greatest temple in China, and contained one of the great libraries in history. It housed for instance the texts brought back from India by Xuan-zang and other Chinese pilgrims. It was the nexus of Chinese efforts to translated Buddhist texts, and Buddhist culture into Chinese. At Xi-ming Kūkai learned Sanskrit, in the space of a few weeks, from an ex-pat Indian monk who had himself been trained at Nalanada. He also studied poetry and calligraphy, and is a celebrated exponent of both arts.

Chang-an at this time was the largest city in the world, with more than a million inhabitants. The regular, tree lined streets were wide, clean, ordered, and foreigners could be seen everywhere. The Silk Rd was still open and Chang-an formed one end of it. It was one of those times in Chinese history which was very open to outsiders and their cultures. These were prosperous times and Buddhist temples in particular prospered. The wealth of the dozens of temples has been described as "incalculable". Amongst the Buddhist temples were of course Taoist and Confucian temples, but also a couple of Nestorian Churches (which gave a Jesuits a fright centuries later!), Manichean and Zoroastrian temples, as well as, possibly a mosque or two.

Kūkai had grown up in rural Japan, and after only a couple of years in the very much smaller capital city Nara, had absconded back to the wilderness. Kūkai even described himself as a child of nature. So what would it have been like for him to arrive in uber-urban Chang-an? What would the impact of this most cosmopolitan of cities?

All we really know is that Kūkai made excellent use of his time in Chang-an. He arrived back in Japan two years later, eighteen years earlier than expected, with a boatload of new scriptures, images and artefacts, but also with a new language and script, and with a new form of Buddhism. It would take almost the rest of his life, three decades, to firmly establish Shingon. But while Shingon waxed and waned in terms of influence on Japanese society, the thing that really revolutionised it was the idea of writing in a syllabic script. Until then all writing was in Chinese characters and most in the Chinese language and only the male aristocracy were suffered to learn Chinese. It is ironic that the most valuable thing that Kūkai brought back from China had been a way for the Japanese to free themselves of the Chinese cultural hegemony!

18 March 2006

No More Heros?

In a comment on my article about ego Will of thinkbuddha.org opined that celebrity Buddhist, Tina Turner, had it right when she sang "we don't need another hero". I've been thinking about this.

What is meant by this statement: we don't need another hero? Perhaps we could start by asking what is a hero? A hero, according to the OED is someone admired for their great deeds and noble qualities. Is Tina Turner saying that we no longer need to have people who we admire for their great deeds or noble qualities? Or is she saying that even if people do great deeds or have noble qualities, that we should not admire them?

And what, from a Buddhist point of view, are great deeds, and what are noble qualities? The basic noble qualities are generosity, love and wisdom. Any deed which is a manifestation of these qualities if termed skilful. We could say that any deed which exemplifies these qualities to a high degree is greatly skilful, and might therefore be considered a great deed, especially if it inspired others to emulation. What would it mean to not admire a skilful deed, either great or small; or to not admire the person who possessed these qualities? To not admire what is plainly admirable would be something of a paradox wouldn't it? Why would we not admire great acts of kindness for instance?

The OED adds that hero-worship is an excessive devotion to an admired person. This gives us a clue as to what might be Ms Turner might actually be saying. The key phrase is excessive devotion. If we admire someone for their skilful qualities, then what might constitute excessive devotion to them? Well, a hero might have faults as well as virtues. If we only see virtues, and don't see faults then we might become excessively devoted to our hero. Sometimes we can become so carried away by meeting someone who is apparently incredibly virtuous that we don't even look for their faults.

The opposite of this is to only see someone's faults, and is perhaps even a worse state of affairs. To begin to manifest virtues we need to develop an appreciation, almost an aesthetic appreciation for virtue - we need to see the beauty of virtue. If we are not attuned to virtue, to the positive qualities in ourselves and others, then we must surely fail to develop virtue ourselves.

To come at the statement from another angle, it's clear that people who are virtuous, who act from generosity, love and wisdom, who embody those basic virtues, are admirable: but do we need them? I've said that we need to acknowledge virtue when we see it, but do we need heroes? What about admiring the virtues of ordinary people? Why would we need someone who exemplifies a virtue when we can look around our circle of friends and see their ordinary virtue? It's not an either or proposition. We do need to acknowledge virtue whenever we see it - rejoicing in the merits of other is described by Shantideva as a "blameless source of pleasure, not prohibited by the virtuous, attractive to others in the highest degree" [Crosby and Skilton. The Bodhicaryavatara. p.57]. But we also need to see that the possibilities for developing virtue are endless, that we can go on cultivating generosity, love and wisdom infinitely. To get an idea of that potential we need an exemplar. We need someone who embodies virtue to a very high degree. A hero in other words.

In the modern west we have tended to be over-awed by spiritual teachers. It points to the state of arrested development I mentioned in my essay on ego. Many of us long for someone to come along and make everything better, to tell us what we should be doing, and to take responsibility for us. In other words we are like children who miss our parents. So we've tended not to look at the whole person, not even to look for weaknesses, and to be shocked and disappointed when they make an appearance. If you want to know the depths of this phenomena amongst Westerners then I'd recommend a book called Karma Cola, but Gita Mehta. At times funny, at others appalling, it recounts stories of Westerners travelling to India in search of wisdom but offering themselves up to the first man wearing a turban and a smile, and doing whatever he says, usually with disastrous results. The cola part of the title hints that at this time the Indians themselves, according to the author, were more interested Elvis and that famous cola flavoured fizzy drink.

The ancient Greeks had a pretty good handle on this. They admired virtue, but always gave their gods and heroes an 'Achilles' heel'. Nemesis was always waiting in the wings. The mythology of Buddhism can obscure the weaknesses of our gods and heroes. It's all too easy to get caught up in the ideal of perfection, and to expect that from our human heroes. Or we might become puffed up with self-preoccupied pride because our teacher is a Bodhisattva, as though that somehow says something about us; and then we are plunged into despair when they turn out to less than perfectly virtuous. Or we cynically refuse to acknowledge the virtue of someone who really is a Bodhisattva and thereby cut ourselves off from any benefit there may be from such an association.

So it seems to me that in contradistinction to 'Queen of Rock', that actually we do need another hero. We always will need another hero. But if we continue to act like children in respect of admirable people, then we'll most likely keep falling at clay feet. So if I was to write a song it might go: "we all just need to grow up".

11 March 2006

The Problem of Self-preoccupation

Sculpture 'Wing'Last week I wrote that self-preoccupation was something that keeps us from happiness. I'd like to go into this a bit more this week. I translated sakkaaya-ditthi as self-preoccupation. The literal translation is personality-views, or as one translator puts it, self-identify views . These are views like "I exist, I do not exist, I will exist in the future, I will not exist in the future, etc". The common feature of all of these are that they are pre-occupied with self. I've already spelled out one route away from self-preoccupation in my essay on the six-perfections. But why is self-preoccupation is problematic?

I live with six other Buddhist men in a large house in Cambridge, UK. One evening a few weeks ago we had our usual meal together, and then moved onto our weekly Wednesday business meeting. After one fairly straight-forward item we found ourselves navigating a bit of a minefield as three issues in a row were brought up which people felt uneasy or upset about. I find this stuff really difficult. I find conflict distressing, and the meeting was very uncomfortable for me. In reflecting on the best part of an hour of difficult communications, in what is typically a very harmonious household, one thing became clear: that personal preferences were at the heart of our difficulties. We all, me included, were holding out for what we wanted, for what made us feel comfortable. Often this is not a problem but on this night what we wanted did not coincide, what we wanted was in conflict with what the others wanted.

There is a powerful story of harmony in the Pali Canon called the Culagosinga Sutta. In this story three Buddhists live a very simple life together in a wood. They own very little, but what they do have is shared between them. They live "in concord, with mutual appreciation, without disputing, blending like milk and water, viewing each other with kindly eyes". [Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation] Each man makes sure that his friends' needs are met before he sees to himself. They practice acts of loving kindness with body, speech and mind, both in public and in private. And how is this concord achieved? Each one puts aside his own wishes and does what they the others wish to do. This is not too difficult for these men however because they share a spiritual vision and that guides all of their actions in anycase.

The strongest experience of harmony in my life so far was on my ordination retreat - four months in the mountains in Spain. A very regimented life. I struggled with it to be honest, but the level of harmony amongst us was remarkable because we were all giving up our preferences. It was a period of letting go of the familiar, and learning to live with what was: no running hot water for instance, or snakes slithering through the undergrowth, or blazing hot sun, or the absence of our favourite breakfast cereal. It was different for each of us, but grittily real. We also seemed very aware of the needs and wants of others. I recall feeling incredibly grateful to my friend Shantaka who regularly placed a cup of (decaf) coffee in front of me at breakfast, without my having to ask. To be seen and responded to in this kind of way is really delightful. I often felt a sense of chagrin at my own selfishness during the four months, and I came away with a resolution to be more helpful to others.

It's interesting to sit and hold these two experiences: one of discord, and the other of harmony, and reflecting on them in the light of the ideal portrayed in the Culagosinga Sutta. On the one hand I was largely self-preoccupied and that led to a painful situation. On the other I was willing to give up my self-preoccupation for the greater good and found that liberating. I once asked one of my mentors about the problem that we all face of the gap between our aspirations and how we actually behave. He told me that the way to bring them closer is through reflection. Well, I'm still reflecting, but I do find myself letting go of some of the small things and being happier as a result.

04 March 2006

Ego in the Spiritual Life

* note that I've used some diacritics in this essay and to see them properly you need to use a Unicode font.

Jayarava self-portait of an ego-maniac
self portrait
I'm a bit of a heretic when it comes to ego. A lot of Buddhists will tell you that ego is the root of all evil. This is simplistic, and, in the modern west, dangerously so. I like to oppose that idea by saying: "ego is absolutely essential in the spiritual life!"

Ego as a term came into being when Freud was translated into English in 1923. Freud himself used the German 'ich' which would normally be translated simply as 'I'. The use of Latin words to translate Freud made it seem that ego had the same sort of status as say metatarsus. Ego, however, is just an idea, a way of talking about a function of the psyche rather than any kind of actually existing entity.

The function Freud was referring to is rather complex. But simplistically it refers to our sense of selfhood. This sense of selfhood forms the basis for how we interact with the world. All human beings pass through a series of reasonably well defined developmental stages. Freud is often, perhaps unfairly, associated with a particular phase of development which he identified - the anal phase. We may disagree over the specifics of the stages, and there have been many models, but it is quite apparent that human beings develop over time, and that infants develop into mature individuals. These developments affect every aspect of the individual, although some may be perceived as being primary mental, and some primarily physical.

Our sense of selfhood appears quite early - around two years old. We become self-aware to some degree long before our bodies are fully developed. A little bit later, around age 3 or 4, comes our sense of other people as separate individuals. This is normal human development. If we fail to develop a sense of selfhood, then none of the rest of our development can proceed. Similarly if we do not develop a sense of people as separate individuals, then we cannot relate to them as people - they are either treated as extensions of our self, or not as people at all. Again all subsequent development is impeded by this lack. Without an ego, without the self-awareness function of the psyche we do not develop into fully functioning human beings.

It's common to hear someone who is bragging, or insistent on getting their own way, described as having a "big ego". However when I started thinking about this I realised that it’s not a matter of having too much ego. The reason people act to reinforce their sense of self is because they are insecure, they doubt their own existence as a self. What they need is not less ego, but more! R.D. Laing is rather out of fashion these days as the trends of treating emotional and behavioural oddities have moved towards chemical approaches. However he coined a very useful phrase: ontological security. By which he means a well defined sense of oursleves as concretely existing. In his book, The Divided Self, he argues that schizophrenia can be seen, in part at least, as an adaptive response from someone who lacks a sufficiently strong sense of ontological security. I find much to recommend this view.

But Buddhism says that the idea of self is false, and that self is at the root of craving and therefore the whole problem of evil in the world. Well sort of. The arguments over what Buddhist texts say about 'self', or indeed what the word itself means, fill many books. Scholars have come to a range of conclusions over what various schools of Buddhism have said about the existence of a self. The Pali texts, from my reading, seem to focus more on the preoccupations of selfhood (sakkāya-ditthi), rather than selfhood per se. And this makes sense to me, because if the absence of ego is a debilitating developmental problem, and the goal of Buddhism is the absence of ego, then Buddhism is creating a lot of vegetables! It is true that the Buddha said that phenomena lack an unchanging essence, but this statement is attacking the Upanishadic idea of a soul (ātta) which exists independently of mind and body, and is permanent and unchanging. I don't think that this is the same thing as a sense of selfhood in the sense that I am talking about it.

The approach of some Buddhists to feelings of insecurity regards selfhood, is to attack the ego with even more vigour. After all this is what the masters in the old stories do. But I think we are different in crucial ways from many of the great spiritual heros of the past. I think many of us have been held in arrested states of development. Our societies tend to encourage infantile behaviour, reward it even. Most of us have some way to go before our ego’s are strong enough to withstand the rigours of all-out spiritual practice. Paradoxically we must have a strong sense of self in order to contemplate a world in which we are not the most important being. If you tell someone with poor self-esteem that they have to kill off their ego, then you are asking for trouble.

I said earlier that our sense of other people as people is dependent on our sense of selfhood. That the early Buddhists knew this is shown by a verse in the Pāli Canon which suggests that by reflecting that all beings regard their sense of self just as preciously as we regard our own, we can develop the empathy which stops us harming them. [Samyutta Nikāya 3,8 (8) ] It is a rare passage to be sure, but it neither denies selfhood, nor demonises it.

There is no doubt that if we are self-preoccupied then it will be hard to be really happy. Getting caught up in the preoccupations of self does tend to be painful. However it doesn't seem practical to me to treat self-preoccupation by trying to annihilate any sense of self. It's interesting that in English we have the adjective selfless, which doesn’t mean 'lacking a self', but 'concerned for the welfare of others', or 'not being self-preoccupied'. Selflessness then need not say anything about whether or not we have a self, or an ego, but it does point to an attitude which seeks the benefit of others. Self-preoccupation, as I argued in my essays on the six perfections, is best tackled by becoming aware of other people as people. And for that we need to have a sense of selfhood.

So: ego is absolutely essential in the spiritual life!

See also these other Raves on the subject of Ego.
Related Posts with Thumbnails