One authentic step

In the midst of pandemic, social injustice, looming war and apocalyptic climate change, how can we live an authentic and fulfilling life? Everything we put in our mouths, everything we buy, every action we take seems to involve such complex and contradictory ethical choices. How do we navigate all this complexity in a dark, doom-laden environment without feeling exhausted and overwhelmed? These are questions that I have asked myself so often in recent times and which continue to challenge me.

Here is a Buddhist tale that addresses the challenges we find ourselves struggling to navigate.

There was a great bushfire that roared through the forest destroying the homes of the birds and animals. As the fire approached, a little bird grabbed a gumnut and flew to the river, scooped up water in the gumnut, returned to the blaze and dropped the water onto the flames. Then the little bird took the gumnut back to the river and again scooped up water and dropped it onto the flames. Over and over the little bird diligently carried out this task.

On seeing the little bird return again and again to the flames, a wombat called out, “Hey! Little bird! Can’t you see that your gumnuts of water are never going to put out that fire! What the heck do you think you’re doing?!” To which the little bird simply replied, “I know the fire is too great, but I’m doing the best that I possibly can!” And continued on towards the river.

The wombat is asking what is the point of doing something when you know it will not succeed. The little bird knows that the fire cannot be put out by a gumnut of water, but that is not the point: the point is to strive to do the best you can in the face of all odds.

Now, you may be as puzzled as the wombat because this way of thinking is so counterintuitive in our Western way of always being goal-oriented. We’re always striving to get to a goal, striving to achieve. Think of all the time management and productivity apps that are designed to help you “reach your goal” (and believe me, being a perfectionist, type-A person, I’ve tried lots of them!). However, this Buddhist way of thinking is throwing out a different kind of challenge: what if reaching the goal is not as important as the pathway itself? What if your life satisfaction could be found in the simply undertaking the path without ever reaching a goal?

This is indeed quite a challenge! But the reward is actually the release from having to constantly achieve: when focussed on the path alone, there is a great space that opens for creativity and a feeling of joy that comes from being freed from the constraints of being driven by goals.

As a part of my Buddhist ritual every morning, before I start my day, I offer up these words, known as the Four Great Vows:

Suffering beings are numberless, I vow to help them all;
Delusions are endless, I vow to conquer them all;
Teachings are infinite, I vow to master them all;
The Way is unknowable, I vow to embody it.

As you can see immediately, these vows are impossible to fulfill! Nonetheless, as a Buddhist, I commit myself to practicing my utmost to carry out their intent. That is, in the face of the impossible, in which I must acknowledge that have already failed, so to speak, I set my intention to try with all my being to be mindful in all of my thoughts, my speech and my actions. And I do this, knowing that I am going to trip up and make mistakes and never fulfill these lofty aims. But the point is, knowing that failure does not prevent me from committing to try my utmost to honour these vows and strived to live a compassionate life.

So now I am trying to work more with a mindful awareness with all my actions and ethical choices as they appear before me, one moment at a time; being fully aware that, in the same way that I cannot fulfill the vows I made every day, nor can I solve social injustice, or prevent war or climate change. I do not view this as defeatist! Not at all. Knowing my limitations and imperfections and failures, I will work diligently to cultivate wise choices through thoughtfulness about the way my choices impact others and our world.

An authentic life is to be found in the striving: that is the Path. Full catastrophe living means to engage in whatever practices you are able to in order to fully acknowledge that you are doing your best to contribute to your own wellbeing and that of this precious world that we share. There is a deep satisfaction and sense of fulfillment in knowing that you have committed yourself to a course of action regardless of whether that action will ultimately achieve a specific goal. It is always only ever one step but the footprint is authentically your own.

The heart of the matter

Jonquils - Spring is here already!

Jonquils – Spring is here already!

I’ve been thinking about starting another blog specifically for exploring the Heart of Wisdom Sutra, the shortest of the hundreds (thousands?) of Buddhist sacred texts, that encapsulates the profoundest teachings of Buddhism. It has been the foundational text of all my spiritual learning and continues to provide me with deep insights every day. As many of you may know, the Heart Sutra is a focal point of my teaching as a Buddhist priest as well, and although I don’t refer to it specifically, it underlies everything I talk about here in this blog as well as everything that I have so far learned about the nature of reality and the meaning of Truth: the Heart Sutra is the gateway to enlightenment and paves my spiritual path to understanding ‘Being’. But I might have to wait until my final semester of study is complete before leaping into another new project! In the meanwhile, please enjoy this beautiful video with the chanting of the Heart Sutra…

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the meaning of the word “heart”. In Japanese, the name of the Heart Sutra is 般若心経 (Hannya Shingyo), and the third Japanese character 心 means ‘heart’. In English, we tend to distinguish between ‘heart’ and ‘mind’, whereby the heart is the location of emotions and feelings and, of course, a symbol of love; and the mind is the location of consciousness and thoughts and knowledge. But in Japanese, the word 心 means both heart and mind – there is no separation. This becomes quite a problem when translating into English because I must stop and ask, well which one is it – heart or mind? But lately I’ve started to question this apparent separation between heart and mind, feelings and thoughts, as realise that it’s not that clear cut after all.

The full name of the Heart Sutra is the Heart of the Practice of the Perfection of Wisdom; that is, heart as ‘essence’, as the intrinsic nature or deepest underlying quality of something. And this is what we mean when we say we are getting to “the heart of the matter”: getting down to the essential and profound aspect of something. It also means to realise in a clear thinking way some deep underlying truth about something. When we get to “the heart of the matter” we gain some insight into the “truth of the matter”. Beyond just knowledge, getting the heart of the matter brings forth an awareness of wisdom from the core of our being; it is through our hearts that we can gain wisdom, which we recognise with our minds as containing some deep truth. In that moment of insight – at the heart of the matter – we are using our minds to understand this; that is, there is no separation between heart and mind at that point.

Mushroom in my garden - that is its true colour!

Mushroom in my garden – that is its true colour!

And when we offer our “heartfelt” thanks, what do we mean? Something “heartfelt” means coming from the very core of our true being, it means something that is fundamentally authentic and true and pure: the wellspring of our being. So “heart” also equates with the essence of who we are – natural and unadorned and truthful. But when we offer our gratitude, in that “heartfelt” moment it is through our minds that recognise this gratitude and we think of words to express our thanks. Again, there is no clear separation between our heart and mind in that moment of offering heartfelt thanks.

So after thinking (with my mind) about the meaning of “heart” I realise that heart is the location of wisdom, of authentic being, of love, but that this realisation can only be made manifest through mind that enables us to experience and appreciate and share. We may say “heart” and “mind” but really they are just the two faces of our pure being. So, I just want to say…

I heart you!

Mirrors and Leaky Boats (Part 2)

“Does the end justify the means?” is a question that has challenged philosophers for centuries. In the case of the fake guru Kumare, does the fact that many of his followers experienced significant spiritual self-transformation justify his unethical behaviour in lying to them about who he was, by claiming to be a guru from India rather than a film-maker from New Jersey? In other words, he used an unethical method that achieved positive results for the duped participants, but does that make it right?

When discussing the methods of achieving awakening, Buddhism uses the analogy of the boat crossing the river. The boat is the method that helps you to cross over the river of delusion and life’s vicissitudes so that you can reach the other shore, which is wisdom. However, once you have reached this destination, you don’t need to continue on the path carrying the boat with you. This is a caution not to hold onto spiritual doctrines and ideas in the mistake that they in themselves are the Truth. Rather, spiritual methods are merely a tool for getting you across the river, that is, tools to help you deal with the obstacles that obstruct your journey towards self-transformation. However, you do need to have a good strong boat, made of sturdy materials and made by an experienced craftsman to weather the storms and currents of a swift and mighty river, with plenty of obstacles, rocks and dangerous animals that might hinder progress. This is such a good metaphor for the chaos of our journey through life!

Now, as for Vikram Gandhi’s experiment in proving that you don’t need a  “real” spiritual teacher to achieve self-transformation, my feeling is that he started to cross the river with a very leaky boat! He was responsible for a group of people who thought that he was an experienced sailor in a well-crafted vessel that they could trust. But his boat was merely a movie prop made of flimsy materials disguising the leaky raft! Luckily for him, as he continued on his journey he was able to keep putting patches on the leaks and in the end no one drowned… Or so his documentary made out. Whilst a number of the participants forgave Gandhi’s deceit because they had in fact benefited from the exercise, on the other hand, I think there may have been considerable harm done to the participants who chose not to tell their story in the end and abruptly left when he revealed who he really was. We don’t get to hear about their experience.

My conclusion is that this was a very dangerous and irresponsible experiment that may have had profoundly injurious consequences for the vulnerable people who followed him. Each individual is a precious spiritual being and making an experiment like this is not skilful in its actions, words or thoughts; it is not relating to other beings in a compassionate and wise and respectful manner.

One positive outcome is to raise awareness that we need to take a responsible approach in seeking a spiritual teacher: make sure that you look very carefully at the credentials of your teacher in an open and honest way. If the teacher is genuine, they will welcome your questions. And if you have any intuitive feelings that perhaps something is not quite right, then you must trust this deeper wisdom that is speaking to you. If it doesn’t feel right but you  can’t quite put your finger on what is wrong, talk to your teacher about your doubts – a skilful teacher will be able to help you distinguish between doubt that arises as a natural consequence of stretching your practice and doubt that arises in response to a deeper wisdom that something is not right and needs to be changed. Spiritual practice is about learning to open your eyes, so look with gentle compassion and wisdom at your teacher as well – a genuine teacher will welcome your scrutiny.

Mirrors and Leaky Boats (Part 1)

Lecture by Vikram Gandhi on his documentary “Kumare”

I watched a very provocative documentary last night on ABC2 called “Kumare”, which I highly recommend that you see (you can view it online on ABC’s iView). It is a film by Indian-American Vikram Gandhi, who posed as a guru in order to prove his hypothesis that you don’t need a spiritual teacher for self-realisation, and that people are too easily duped by gurus. He calls himself Kumare and gathers a small group of disciples in Phoenix, Arizona, teaching them made-up mantras, scriptures and yoga, whilst all the time telling them that he is an illusion and they can find their own guru within, before finally “coming out” and declaring his ruse at the end of the film, to very mixed reactions from his hitherto followers.

At first I thought it was going to be a kind of candid-camera expose on the gullibility of folk, and perhaps this was Gandhi’s original intention, but the film unfolds in a quite unexpected way that raises many questions not only about the ethics of duping vulnerable people in this way, but also of the fundamental question of what a spiritual teacher actually is and what are the responsibilities of that teacher. Even though Gandhi starts out cynically, he himself becomes transformed by his own social experiment. I came away from the film with many vexing and unanswerable questions that linked into what I discussed on my “What is a Buddhist priest?” blog entry.

Gandhi, teaching as Kumare, insists that he is just a “mirror” in which the students can see their true selves. He even holds up a mirror so that his followers can practice seeing themselves, as one of his bogus spiritual practices. This really struck me because one of the principle images in Wabi’an is Mirror of Wisdom Kannon – the Bodhisattva who holds a mirror in her hand as a symbol that spiritual teachings are merely a method for all beings to see their own reflected wisdom. Although it seems to be something obvious, I also believe that all the great truths are in fact staring us right in the face but somehow we all need help to open our eyes so that we can see this wisdom for ourselves.

This is one reason why I have continued to trust my own teacher because I have always felt that when he looks at me, he sees something deep inside me that I cannot yet see but is just waiting for me to open my eyes. In fact, this is one expression often used in reference to the enlightened Buddha – the One Who is Awake. It seems so simple to say, “We only have to open our eyes”, yet it is so difficult to do! This is why a compassionate spiritual teacher is necessary because they can help us to open our eyes and see the world with new vision. In that new world nothing has changed, but we experience it in a totally different way that gives us joy and fulfilment even in the midst of everyday chaos and pain.

So whilst Vikram Gandhi was merely offering the ancient wisdom of the “mirror of wisdom”, which is an inspiring teaching, does that justify his lying to a group of vulnerable spiritual seekers? This leads me to the “leaky boat” which I’ll tackle tomorrow…