Every great story begins with a question you cannot yet answer, or better said know what the answer will be. Because the answer flows naturally with the story yet to be told. What is it that defines us except the way we live our story as we interact with others? Who are we really? If we are not ourselves, are we here? Secondly, is what we think of the meaning of illusion. We often hear in Buddhism that life is but an illusion. If we think in terms of what that means in the context of “what we think we know and take for granted”, that may not make much sense to us. Always to be underestimated from the outset, it has always been those who rise to the moment in service to something greater than themselves.
The Giant Leshan Buddha depicting Maitreya, was built at the convergence of two rivers south of Chengdu (the Min and Dadu River) to have the Buddha’s assistance in flooding that occurred every Spring.
Locally it is known as “the mountain is a Buddha, and the Buddha is a mountain” and is next to the Wuyou Buddhist Temple and Taoist Cave that illustrate the connection between the I Ching, Lao Tzu, and the Buddha. I have been here many times.
There were two primary paths through ancient China to Xian and the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, and beyond. First, the southern route through Chengdu and by extension the Giant Buddha, and second over the Silk Route taking a caravan across the Himalayas to Xian and points east. To Huashan Mountain, the Longman Grottoes, and Luoyang and the White Horse Buddhist Temple – by tradition, the first Buddhist temple in China, then south to Songshan Mountain and the Shaolin Temple. Eventually to Qingdao and Mount Laoshan, the place where the Complete Perfection School of Taoism developed and the most important mountain in China north of Qufu, Tai’an Mountain. I have been to all of these (to Mount Tai’an more than a dozen times over the years) all-encompassing over twenty years of traveling in China. All depicting a flow of energy as if a travelogue mirroring eternity. What had been called and known in many ancient cultures as the “Stretching of the Cord” ritual to align the sacred monuments to the stars with ourselves.
Bixia Temple at the top of Mount Tai, aka the shrine of the Blue Dawn.
All the above are not listed in ego but denoting a constant flow that is always prevalent and present. The pictures tell the story as much as the narrative I might add. I generally always travel alone. Sometimes one of my students from my teaching days would join me. Helpful because I cannot speak or read Chinese… what a pity. Always traveling with the caveat of catching up with where I left the last time. As if always on a pilgrimage, with no real destination only an outline of what remains unknown… that I am here to re-discover, acknowledge, and become.
The Immortal Dragon Lynx from the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu
Its why understanding the role of the sage and bodhisattvas is important that take us there. It was as if teaching in Qufu at Jining University and the Confucius School adjacent to the Confucius Temple and Kong Family Mansion (Confucius Mansion) was to “wake me up to my highest endeavor” once I knew I could return to USA. The greatest challenge is discipline and staying the course. Turning to the role of the sage and Bodhisattva… tells me I still have so much to learn and remember.
How can life be an illusion, if when I fall and hurt myself… my body and the hurt is not seen or felt as an illusion. Perhaps we have been looking at what is illusion in the wrong way? But then the question becomes, am I my body?” What is it that history teaches us and why is it so important?
The Upanishads are late Vedic Sanskrit texts of religious teaching and ideas still revered in Hinduism. They are the most recent part of the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, the Vedas, that deal with meditation, philosophy, and ontological knowledge; other parts of the Vedas deal with mantras, benedictions, rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices.
Among the most important literature in the history of Indian religions and culture, the Upanishads played an important role in the development of spiritual ideas in ancient India, marking a transition from Vedic ritualism to new ideas and institutions.
The book to the left “Breath of the Eternal, the Upanishads, The Wisdom of the Hindu Mystics” is the principal texts selected and translated from the original Sanskrit.
Upanishads means “sitting near devotedly”, which conjures images of the contemplating student listening with rapt attention to the teachings of a spiritual master.
These are widely considered to be philosophical and spiritual meditations of the highest order. Several years ago, when I lived in Boynton Beach, there was a Hindu Temple. I helped with their site plan for a new temple in the city when I was with the planning department. I was invited and attended several of their celebrations and learned a little about their religion. I was always extremely impressed.
Of all Vedic literature, the Upanishads alone are widely known, and their central ideas are at the spiritual core of Hinduism. The Upanishads describe the universe, and the human experience, as an interplay of Purusha (the eternal, unchanging principles, consciousness) and Prakrti (the temporary, changing material world, nature). The former manifests itself as Atman (soul, self), and the latter as Maya. The Upanishads refer to the knowledge of Atman as “true knowledge” (Vidya), and the knowledge of Maya as “not true knowledge” (Avidya, Nescience, lack of awareness, lack of true knowledge).
Hendrick Vroom explains, “the term Maya [in the Upanishads] has been translated as ‘illusion’, but then it does not concern normal illusion. Here ‘illusion’ does not mean that the world is not real and simply a figment of the human imagination. Maya means that the world is not as it seems; the world that one experiences is misleading as far as its true nature is concerned.” According to Wendy Doniger, “to say that the universe is an illusion (māyā) is not to say that it is unreal; it is to say, instead, that it is not what it seems to be, that it is something constantly being made. Māyā not only deceives people about the things they think they know; more basically, it limits their knowledge.” 
1)Paul Deussen, The Philosophy of the Upanishads, p. 161, at Google Books, pages 161, 240-254
2)Ben-Ami Scharfstein (1998), A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant, State University of New York Press, page 376
3)H.M. Vroom (1996), No Other Gods, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, page 57
4)Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (1986), Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities, University of Chicago Press, page 119
Why discuss this now in a discussion about Zen Buddhism? It is a matter of opening doors to seeing things in a different way. Things that are perceived as a “given” that fit into our understanding may not be well understood in the context of what we think we know but may not. A symmetry we find married to cause and effect. Mind altering consciousness looking to our becoming our true authentic selves depends on it… and seeing beyond illusion. Also, Buddhism moved from India to China and elsewhere thousands of years ago as illustrated with the Leshan Giant Buddha above. To understand its beginnings, it is important to go where its roots are. A study of both Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism helps to do that.
Note… Chapter four discussing loving-kindness is getting too long. I had to split in two. Chapter 4A includes numbers 1 through 12 and 4B contains 13 to 30. Currently, there are thirteen chapters in total planned for this discussion. That may change. The narrative in each chapter is divided into numbers to aide as discussion points and referencing.
In the footsteps of Bodhisattvas – Buddhist Teachings on the essence of Meditation
4A Loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
Key thought: My friends the dragons tell me that I must come to know and practice these four attributes to truly become a sage. Universal love must become the source of our joy as the compilation of who we have always been and will be again.
- Coming to terms… First understanding the meaning of what defines our own authenticity by becoming equal-minded through meditation. It is by practicing loving kindness we begin our own daily activities and practice.
In Taoist history, the tales of Taoist sages counted their age in terms of epochs, not years, and would add a counting stick to a pile to mark each epoch of man. Heaven representing a Taoist paradise, while cranes represent longevity.
(Crane depicted on left is from the Confucius Temple in Qufu. I taught at school adjacent to the Confucius Temple a few years ago. Picture of crane on right is from the Qingyang Taoist Temple in Chengdu).
- Remain within pure compassion, and forever equal-minded toward enjoyments and the whole of existence. By cultivating samadhi through meditation and mindfulness, we will attain awakening. (from Chapter 9 of The King of Meditation Sutra).
- We begin by planting the seed of loving kindness and compassion in our hearts. We then begin to develop the four immeasurables of loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. As we cultivate these, we begin to see where there is more work to be done.
- It is when we take on these qualities as we embrace emptiness, we enter the Great Vehicle of that characterized by aspirational bodhicitta (the aspiring to compassion, or the wishing for compassionate activity), as relayed earlier, that returns us to our original virtue. With this we can begin to cultivate and emulate loving-kindness and become spiritual guides for all beings. In some schools of Buddhism there are two levels of bodhicitta: aspirational and engaged. In aspirational bodhicitta, the individual desires to overcome spiritual and emotional afflictions to realize the truest Self and help others do the same.
- It is when we expand our presence as loving-kindness into the experiences of those around us our compassion grows. We feel the joys and suffering of others and we are moved to help them. As our compassion grows, our equanimity becomes rooted in pure intention. As a result, what was considered as either distant or close no longer become relative.
- With this we can transform hate into blossoms of Spring, move beyond human frailties, reside in loving-kindness, and release all anger. Our universal love for what surrounds us grows exponentially as we expand into the lives of those around us.
- Because our nature is endowed with love, we do not need to be afraid that we lack the capacity to feel love, thereby reducing selfish behavior and motivation. Any sense of reward for the love we cultivate must be abandoned. Love for the sake of love must be our joy.
- A sense of impermanence with no agenda or reward should be present. Even in our meditation practice, we proceed without ego, self or reward. Moving to selflessness and emptiness is key to our awakening and bliss moving all to reducing suffering.
- The Buddha’s teachings convey that we are not to get lost in or attached to what can be called illusory projections. How suffering occurs when our thoughts and expectations are nothing but illusions. Every person falls into their own projections, and because of this all people suffer.
- By acknowledging the delusions of the mind’s projections, our having compassion due to differences with others becomes tied to judgment. Thereby making projecting not a reliable basis for developing a caring attitude.
What I especially liked in studying the Upanishads described above, is that it brings out the essence of the Hindu philosophy in the sense that it states that the core of our own self is neither the body nor the mind, but the “Atman” or the “Self.” To many the Atman refers to the pervading principle, the organism in which other elements are united and the ultimate sentient principle. It further points out that the core of all creatures is the Atman itself, and it can be experienced through meditation. When we experience the Atman, we come to the deepest level of our existence. There are many similarities between Mahayana Buddhism and the Upanishads of the Hindu. With Hindu, the “Brahman” is the underlying substance of the Universe. It is the unchanging “Absolute Being.” It is the intangible essence of the whole existence that creates and sustains everything. The Brahman is beyond all description and intellectual understanding. When a person attains moksha or liberation, the Atman returns to Brahman, like a drop of water returns to the ocean… and the ultimate Tao.
What this means to me is understanding the convergence of philosophy and religion. To appreciate one, you must appreciate how over time the flow of divine energy manifests in many directions. Like spokes in a wheel, I sensed this most directly in my visit to Lhasa, Tibet. To understand Zen, for myself, means gaining an appreciation for its beginnings and what becomes of us. To what lies beyond the sage and Bodhisattva. It seems my visit to Lhasa is having a long-term impact on both my thinking and understanding how pieces are to fit together.
Picture from the Drepung Monastery in Lhasa
- When we watch the patterns of our own ego, it becomes easier to understand how the critical thoughts of others cause them to suffer. Ultimately, compassion for others must be without self-interest.
- We practice and generate compassion for others because it is the right thing to do. We cultivate this through our actions with kindness and do this in what is called compassion with agenda as we make note of our own behavior.
For many over the centuries, the ultimate Zen has been to abide in the bliss of knowing yourself. In contemplating the meaning of “compassion with agenda” this is where I begin. In Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, when discussing the Lankavatara Sutra favored by Bodhidharma, who was considered as the legendary founder of Zen in China, he conveys the tradition of the Short Path favored by Tibetan Buddhists considered as the short ascent to nirvana. Ideals of immediacy and naturalness of the sage and spontaneity come to mind as found with wu wei, Taoism, and Lao Tzu. (page 79)
Numbers 13 to 30 will follow in the next entry as 4B in Loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity.