On Unskillful Means: Cultivating Ignorance

The cause of all pain and suffering is ignorance.
Gautama Buddha

I have been thinking of this lately. About how many of us suffer but we do not know why we suffer, we are ignorant to the real causes and conditions of our suffering.  I have also been thinking of a different kind of ignorance.   It’s funny the things that bring other things more in focus. It was the simple reflection on the sound of the word itself. Mouthing out the word slow, by its syllables, I realized a simple thing, the word Ignore is at the heart of ignorance.

The word ignorance in English is passive, “a lack of knowledge, information or experience.” This kind of ignorance refers more to how we don’t realize our reality is not reality, or that there is no abiding self.  We are ignorant to the inherent emptiness of all things. This kind of ignorance can be as simple as never having heard of the Four Ennobling truths, or a guy name Siddhartha.   But the ignorance I have been thinking of the more active form which takes its energy from the verb; to ignore. This is different from the other ignorance since this ignorance is not passive. One who ignores is one who, “refuse to take notice of or acknowledge; to disregard intentionally.” This active ignorance is different from cultivating a not knowing mindset,  which can be a powerful practice of freeing ourselves of fixed ideas. It is a kind of active, ego preserving ignorance that I have been thinking about.  I was thinking of this because of something I read recently in a book titled, Awakening from the Daydream by David Nichtern, a book about the Buddhist Wheel of life.

In the Buddhist Wheel of life there are the six realms of existence at the hub of the wheel is ignorance; both passive and active.  The more active ignorance is the core aspect, the core mindset found in the Animal realm.  As Chogyam Trungpa’s writes, “The animal realm is associated wit stupidity: that is preferring to play deaf and dumb, preferring to follow the rules of available games rather than re-define them. ” Here we are “ignore” information that would require us to change. We do that alot.  Trungpa goes on to say, [we] completely ignore such possibilities. If somebody attacks you or challenges your clumsiness, your unskilled way of handling a situation, you find a way of justifying yourself, find rational to keep your self-respect. You are not concerned with being truthful as long as your deception can be maintained in front of others.

This is an active ignorance.  But this type of cultivation doesn’t just happen in the animal realm of being but, according to Nichtern,  is also found in the other realms, especially when looked at through the lens of our everyday experience. How does ignorance play out even when we find ourselves in what could be considered one of the god realms? Let’s look at it from an everyday mindset perspective.
For us Westerners, it could be said we live in both of the god realms, we are dancing between them from moment to moment, generation to generation. Most of the things we want we can go to the story a select from 12 different kinds and get immediate satisfaction. We live at a level of wealth and prosperity that most of the world can only dream of. We consider all of this not a gift but a “right”, I have earned this. Traditionally, those in the god realm find themselves there because of good karma and from a small perspective we could think that they have “earned” the right to be there. We do that.  Many Americans see our country, or “way of life” as proof of our social virtue, as if we are somehow special and “exceptional” and deserve our prosperity. And that is not just socially constructed but has seeped into religious thinking, think of the popularity of the “gospel of prosperity” taught in some churches. Far from the homeless, communalist, and agitator that was Jesus.

Being in a god realm frame of mind, we like it, we want to stay in it, we want to freely enjoy it, we don’t want to think of consequences, or it ending, of how it affects others, etc. As Nichtern writes,

“we have to cultivate a certain kind of ignorance, actively ignoring any aspect of our experience that is unsettling or disruptive in mood. “

This is very true when we are faced with our impact on the planet as westerners. It is also true that the cost has been more felt by the poorer nations where we get the raw materials from. Those is the god realm mindset, “cultivate ignorance” by denying global warming, by buying cheap products and ignore the fact that they are produced by child labor or that the children making our jeans work in dangerous and toxic environments. This is also true in the Jealous god realm mindset, where we want what the ‘gods of finance” have and we don’t care if we have to get rich on the backs of others so we can live the high life, live in the realm of the gods above us. We cultivate an ignorance of the other and the suffering, anything that can get in our way of achievement. Maybe the election of 2016 was symptom of living in the jealous god realm too long. Some forms of Ignorance are not passive but active. We want we have and don’t want to lose it. That being said, how are you in your own life cultivating ignorance?  I think in a real way, the reason we are trapped in the endless wandering of samsara is because we are continually cultivating the opposite of  awareness. Each time we turn aways from the teachings that sing to us everyday, when we refuse to see ourselves reflected in the faces of others, when we refuse to open up, or accept things as they are, when we feed every self-justification and machination to get or keep that insubstantial thing that is desperately hoped will give final satisfaction and security, we cultivate ignorance and perpetuate our suffering.

As I look at my life, I realize how much I have cultivated ignorance. I have ignored things that looked me straight in face, and were so close I could feel their breath on my skin…a failing marriage, smoking, a drinking problem, childhood wounding, the fact that what I was doing was re-wounding myself and others. This was true when I spent days or years in the mindset of the Animal realm, I chose not to see but to seek after the distraction of sex or alcohol. Sometimes I think my television watching and Facebook scrolling is how I still cultivate ignorance. Doing so has only given me a first class ticket to spend sometime in the arid environs of the Hungry Ghost realm, or subway ticket to the cold and hot Hell realms of the world’s injustice perpetrated against me. Even with all the Buddhas that were always there waiting for me,  I chose darkness over light, I cultivated ignorance, gloried in it.  But the compassionate light of the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas found me. It was the clanking of the six ringed staff (representing the six realms) of Jizo that finally woke me up. …. and still, at times I find myself cultivating ignorance. I don’t want to do this anymore.  As Dogen taught, I am going to seek to know myself to forget myself to be awakened by a myriad of things.

Now my aspiration, my vow is to be like Haya Akegarasu, to dispel ignorance by heeding what he wrote in Shout of Buddha,

“Don’t pass by things you don’t understand as though you didn’t see them at all…. want to see everything.. want to see through the bottom of things,…want to touch everything, to taste everything, to transcend, to enlighten, to embrace everything.”

Yes! I want to embrace everything. Let us free ourselves of ignorance by opening our eyes, our minds and our hearts to everything, having the courage to look into the heart of life, to look into the darkness, to look into the light and not turn away from any of it, to no longer cultivate ignorance and by not doing so wake up.

Out of Work Bodhisattvas

Lately I have been thinking of all the out of work Bodhisattvas wandering around smiling with signs saying, “ Will Gladly Share Merit” as people shuffle by with their heads down, some saying, “No thanks, I don’t need any.”  Others just pointing at the goody two shoes, laughing at them, “them bleeding heart liberals” they say, “You gotta earn your own merit boy”, while they walk around dissatisfied, and hollow, singing,  “ I built this! I built this!” scratching their heads because they still feel so unsatisfied.

I think I have always been attracted to the idea of a Bodhisattva. I appreciate the traditional concept of the vow taking and the rebirth back to everyday life, the suprahuman powers to take on a myriad of forms to guide us, help us, teach us and sometimes even pull us begrudgingly toward awakening and always willing to  share with us the merit of their compassion. I also appreciate the more expansive everyday conception of the Bodhisattva as expressed by Taitesu Unno when he writes that the Bodhisattva can be, “anyone who meets the challenge and provides care for the needy…whether that person knows anything about Buddhism or not.”

In the more traditional Mahayana Buddhist view point there is the idea that our positive deeds, acts or thoughts generate a sort of spiritual energy or power that can be accumulated.  This concept is fundamental to the idea of Karma and Buddhist ethics. This view extends to the idea that the merit that is generated by our skillful actions can be shared with other beings. In the early Theravada, it was with  deceased relatives. In the Mahayana that was expanded to all beings.  The Bodhisattva “shares” his merit with all sentient beings to help them toward enlightenment. Taking to its logical conclusion  we see the life and career of Dharmakara Bodhisattva who becomes Amida Buddha.  In the more expansive and less religious definitions, also seen in the writings of Gyomay Kubose and Thich Nhat Hahn, the more mundane merit generated by these Bodhisattvas can come in very concrete and everyday ways.  Something simple as a hand up, a listen and a place to be safe.  Both kinds of Bodhisattvas can be recognized by their practice of  Ksanti, their practice of patience, patience with us and our struggle to receive their help. Patient and out of work until we accept their gifts.  The awakened Bodhisattva knows as Sunada Takagi  has written that life is, “as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving”. 

 The practice of receiving, let alone even asking for help is challenging for many of us. The first time  I really, open heartedly  asked and accepted help wasn’t until I was in my late 40’!  All those Bodhisattvas in my life offering their merit and their compassion and me walking past them, sometimes with my head down, other times mocking them.  In my delusional thinking I believed that to need help was to be weak and to be weak was to be unlovable.

I think at this point it is important to realize that receiving is different than taking. We take food, love, money all the time.  The difference between the two is that when we take, our small-Self is saying, “ I earned this!”  When we get love from our wife or our children, when we get kudos at work, when we eat a lovely meal, we aren’t receiving the love, acknowledgement or food; we see ourselves as earning it. We take it because it is ours.   A similar strain of this construct is when we see ourselves as unworthy to receive anything. This can manifest as self-doubt and shame. In both strains we are stuck in seeing giving and receiving as economic exchanges but how could it be any other way?  I was never taught how to receive. How about you?  Most of us have been taught that it is better to give than to receive but how can that be since to give you need to have someone to receive? Proportionally it doesn’t add up.

Truly receiving is something different from taking. There is an inherent humility. There is an openness of heart, an acknowledgement of our interdependence and an awareness of our dependence on a myriad of things. Receiving is a place of openness and courage in that it implies a vulnerability; we may ask for something in that open space and not get it.   Yet in realizing our lack of control, our inability to fix love, joy and peace in place by somehow earning them, those very things arise naturally. Everything I receive is a gift, a gift to me and a gift to the give. An ever expanding circle of giving, where in the end there is no giver, no receiver and no gift.  A gift is not something earned and the “merit” offered by all the Bodhisattvas is a gift of love of boundless compassion as they watch on in our attempt to control the world. When we insist on ‘earning our keep” and we do not receive the gift , we miss out on the  boundlessness of grace that is offered us by everything and by all of our patient Bodhisattvas waiting for us.  I try to remember that even in the Dharma, what we receive from the teachings is so much greater, exponentially greater, than anything we put into the teachings.

In a previous paper I wrote about the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of gratitude. Before the path can open up there is the receiving; receiving the teachings and the compassion of the Buddhas and for us Pure Land leaning practitioners, receiving and entrusting in the compassion offered by Amida Buddha manifest in the formless form of his Pure Land.  For me the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of receiving the grace of Amida and all the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, of setting aside calculations, schemes and dualistic and conceptual thinking, of sitting and chanting in an awareness of the abundance of the Buddhas and the Dharma and the Sangha.  I challenge myself and you to make room in ourselves to receive, to receive the abundance the Buddhas have to offer us.

When we turn toward our Bodhisattva ready to receive, she turns around her sign and on the other side our no longer out of work Bodhisattva has written this line,

“The buddhas say come, come, and dance.”*

And we dance.

Ku Yo – Offerings to all the Buddhas

“ Ku Yo, making an offering is a very important virtue in the Buddha’s Way…Ku Yo is done in relation to someone who is more worthy than oneself…to do Ku Yo is one way of expressing profound gratitude and nourishment for the very source of our gratitude…it is an honor to do Ku Yo.” – Gyomay Kubose

 

The concept of Ku Yo resonates with me. To make offerings to all the Buddhas is something that brought me back to Buddhism, after being away for a while. I have no idea of why this is what brought me back. If I look at my history, one would think that this is what would drive me away instead of drawing me nearer. Recently I was re-reading the Shorter Pure Land Sutra about how one of the practices in the Pure Land being was to make offerings to countless Buddhas of other Buddha lands. In Sukhavati, it rains Mandarava blossoms all the time, and those flowers are gathered up and then offered to numerous Buddhas across the universe. Along with other meditative or Bodhisattva practices, there is also the practice of Ku Yo. I love that fact that the offering to the Buddhas is not something that is rare but something that is continuously unfolding. I like to think of the flowers as a representation of the compassion and practice of those living in the Pure Land; the flowers raining from the sky represent the fruit of practice and awakening. As Mark Healsmith has written, “The flower is a wonderful exemplar of the uniqueness yet interconnectedness of all life “ and makes the offering of them an expression of the interconnectedness of all life and “profound gratitude, for the very source of our gratitude.”

The other reason why Ku Yo resonates with me is it is something that I have been contemplating. I have been thinking about Ku Yo in the frame of the “Way of Gratitude” and some of the barriers that impede our cultivation of it. I have been thinking about the role of humility and gratitude and how humility is one of its prerequisites. I think, at times, we struggle with gratitude because we struggle with humility. As I have been thinking about this and asking others, I found that for many of us we struggle with humility because we have not experienced it, only its unhealthy sibling; Shame. In humility we are open, we are ready to learn, we show both sides of the leaf. With shame, we close our self off from the outside world and bury our leaf in the darkest hole. In this state of mind when we see someone with boundless compassion or great practice we do not see it as something we can learn from, but they become a source of further comparison and a deepening shame of our failures. That which could give us hope and insight into our Buddha Nature only becomes a testament to our failures. Gratitude gets choked off in the darkness. Humility, on the other hand, opens us up to awe and the acceptance of our limitation, it frees us to “keep going” without the burden of judgment and shame.

As Gyomay writes, Ku Yo practice is being done in relation to someone or something that is more worthy than oneself. More worthy than me? A part of us does not like such a statement. Here is where many of us live in a paradox. In our shame we feel unworthy and yet we bristle at the idea of someone being more worthy than us? Why is this concept so challenging for some of us? Maybe it is because we have inherited the karma of “rugged individualism” and a misplaced meaning of “equality”? In opening services at our Sangha, we recite lines from the opening they use at Plum Village Sangha in France. One of the lines says, “may we be free from the “equality complex””, to remind ourselves that there are things greater than ourselves, like the three refuges for example; the Dharma, The Sangha and the Buddha. I am grateful that there are things in this world greater than me! I feel a sympathetic joy and gratitude to those I make offerings to. I think that Ku Yo is the fruit of “sincerely seeking the true life” (46) There is no Ku Yo without “true life” and no true life without “Ku Yo”, they “co-arise”. Offerings to the Buddha inspire us to become Buddhas, they come from the heart, there is no ego in it.” (46) all the time realizing that what bows and is bowed to are the same.

I have great appreciation for the more psychological and secular forms of Buddhism and they have been companions with me on my journey. At the same time I appreciate the idea of something greater than my small ego-self, a point of reference that elicits awe, a devotional expression within samsaric dualism, that works dynamically through poetry, metaphor and experience to dissolve all dualisms into the great ocean of compassion.

Boundless: The SLBF Newsletter

Read our latest newsletter by clicking on the Buddha.

Featuring:  An essay by Jennifer Munson on finding her way to the Salt Lake Buddhist Fellowship. Elesha Morris gives us a guided meditation for grounding and gratitude, Myoshin looks at writing haiku as Buddhist practice, plus Buddhist spoken word, and teachings from  Koyo Kubose.

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On Orlando

There was a beautiful discussion on our Facebook feed with great tenderness and concern. It is an example of spiritual friendships and on how to deal with what happened in Orlando and I wanted to reiterate what was shared and make a formal statement on behalf of our community as our hearts go out to all those affected by this tragedy. The Buddha taught that the world is suffering, and wherever their is greed, delusion and hatred there will be suffering. Our practice is not separate from samsara but in the midst of it. I love this story of Kwan Yin, seeing and hearing the endless suffering in the world, “she became so disheartened that…Her body shattered in great agitation and despair. Despite this, She did not just give up — Her consciousness called to the Buddhas for help. Of the Buddhas who came to aid her, one was Amitabha Buddha, who became her teacher and Buddha. With the Buddha’s Great compassion, she attained a new form — one with a thousand helping hands of Compassion coupled with the eyes of Wisdom in each palm. With this, she renewed her vow to saving not just limited sentient beings, but all sentient beings.” It doesn’t matter if this is a myth or not what matters is it tells us to seek support from spiritual friends, and from the Great Compassion, that is available and never stop our practice. While we can deplore the actions and the behavior, it is important to remember and sit with the suffering of all involved including the person who committed the atrocity. This in no way excuses the behavior and isn’t meant to minimize the suffering of the people who lost their lives and the impact to those that loved them. Rather it can bring you to a place of healing and compassion. This is really hard to swallow at first and we can only do it when we’re ready.. Never give up, keep going.

The Grace of Oneness

“ This realization of oneness. It involves the highest type of communication and respect.  IF your life is realized in the this sense…you would see that the whole world supports you.  You exist because others; everything supports your life.  This totality, this oneness evokes a gratitude and a great joy beyond explanation.” Gyomay Kubose

 

We live a life immersed in grace;  the grace of being supported by all things at all times. We are supported by the solar system, by the sun that continually lights our world and drives the processes that help the earth to give us air to breath, water to drink and food to eat, that helps us to see, We are supported by the smallest things, to the largest. We are supported by microbes and bees that help create the food we eat, and by all the trees that help us breathe.   The bees give us grace every day, the trees give us grace, and there is also the grace given by our ancestors down through long passages of time; so much grace given that is still within in us now.  We are all interdependent and existent in this very moment.  In the midst of our diversity and interdependence we can come to direct realization of Oneness and by doing so we can communicate our respect and gratitude for them, for all of life, for all the gifts which in oneness we have received  and which are unmerited.

 

For me, namu amida butsu is an expression of this oneness and grace, an expression of Buddha-nature.  The Oneness that Gyomay Sensei is writing about in the above quote, is for me personified as Amida Buddha.  Because of Oneness I exist and therefore I exist because of namu amida butsu. This is how I understand the idea among some teachers, that  the nembutsu is simply an expression of gratitude for all that Amida Buddha has done for us. My practice of chanting the nembutsu is a form of the highest form of  communication and respect. Through this practice I cultivate a recognition / realization of Oneness, and all that Oneness does for me every day, and this brings forth the fruit and joy of gratitude.

 

This has tied into something that I have been thinking about  and that is gratitude, gratitude as a form of awakening.  A few years ago I had an experience in the midst of great suffering, where something shifted and I was overwhelmed with an intense gratitude for everything I had experienced and everyone I have ever known, even for just a moment.  I spent hours going through my email list sending out heart felt thank yous to everyone on. I think even companies whose email list I was part of even got a thank you and I am sure a few who received the emails, shook their heads. I called friends, I reached out to as many as I could to share my gratitude for their very existence.   In this space of gratitude, I wept and I laughed.  It was confusing at first because of the amount of tears that fell.  I remember thinking why am crying so hard?  I am  not sad so why am I crying? I realized that for me this is how deep and profound gratitude expresses itself.  Later on, this experience also helped to me realize that for many years I had seen “love” as the highest emotion, the goal of religious practice.  I have had experiences of profound love for all things,  where I loved even the street sign that I was standing under, and yet that night I experienced something even more expansive and sublime than “love”;  I experienced an unbounded gratitude. Writing this now and remembering what it was like, the lines from last week’s report are even more profound  “ We should always be ready to die, able to say, “thank you for everything”.  In some ways, that is what I experienced that night, the “thank you for everything” and remembering it helps me to understand what Gyomay Sensei was teaching.

 

I like what Jeff Wilson,  a Jodo Shin minister has written,  “in Shin Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude. We practice simply to give thanks for what we have received. It’s a small shift in one’s perspective, but when pursued, it can be transformative.”  This came home to me the other night when I was holding my little boy in my arms, he was cuddled against my chest and I was just feeling him breathe and thinking how much I loved him and I just repeated thank you, thank you, thank you and the love I was feeling already, expanded exponentially and was enfolded into an ever expanding gratitude.  I think the cultivation of  gratitude is an important practice because it acts as a catalyst that can expand positive states of consciousness. Cultivating gratitude, by recognizing  and by expressing it, manifests more gratitude and deepens our awareness of Oneness.

 

Namu amida butsu

Namu amida butsu

Namu amida butsu

 

May it be so.