A Jewel in Indra’s Net

Imagine a net that stretches into infinity. On each of its nodes is studded a brilliant jewel. Every jewel reflects all the other jewels on the net, and is in turn reflected in them, thereby creating a phenomenon of a deep and irrevocable interconnectedness. This Vedic metaphor of ‘Indra’s net’ was used in Samkhya Darshan and later in Buddhist philosophy to demonstrate the nature of reality. Which in Samkhya is nonduality, and so the net though made up of a million and more jewels, is essentially an integrated field of consciousness. Phenomena arise in it, but they are not disparate events. Rather, they form nodes in the same flow, the one continuum. In this oneness, creation unfolds.

According to the Buddhist perspective, Indra’s net expresses dependent origination – pratitya samutpada in Sanskrit. Briefly, one set of causes and conditions gives rise to another, and nothing exists without everything else that caused it to arise. One jewel reflects all the others, and its own existence in turn is revealed in them. One cause leads to another and so on, thereby forming a reality where everything is conjoined and is ultimately dependent on everything else.

These profound ideas have been around for a while now, but the radically connective new technology of the last couple of decades has evolved new meanings for them. What could be a better illustration of Indra’s net of interconnectedness than the worldwide web? Its tentacles reach out to cover almost the entire globe. Millions of nodes are logged into it, sending data back and forth along its pathways, creating a virtual prototype of the kind of interconnections that Indra’s net exemplifies.

Technology has increased the experience of connectedness in our daily lives. Yet, with vast amounts of connective information literally a touch away, there is a constant splintering of attention. Conceptually, the worldwide web might be a good example of an integrated field. But our actual experience of it is anything but unitive. Constant connectivity fractures our consciousness again and again, so we exist in many alternative mental realities at the same time. Any actual enrichment of the mind and heart is debatable.

What can we do to deal with this? One simple yet profound shift is to know that we use technology, and not the other way round. Human beings are not vehicles for technology to showcase its capabilities. To use it mindfully, simply become aware. Switch off and prioritize the act of joyfully connecting with what can be seen, felt, heard, touched and smelled. To revitalize the links of interconnectedness, we must begin from where we are. The ground beneath our feet, the water in our taps, the park in front of our homes, the rainwater that could be harvested, the garbage that could be ecologically disposed. Where we are is our world in this moment. We could consciously choose to engage with it mindfully. And savour being a jewel studded in the net of Indra.

Women’s Songs of Enlightenment

The earliest women ordained into the Buddha’s sangha some 2,500 years ago, experienced profound transformations that they rendered into poetry. Their poems came to be compiled as the Therigatha, literally ‘stories of women elders’. The 73 poems of the Therigatha delineate as if an inner courtyard, where the women shrug off the veils of personality and ego-self, bare their innermost experiences, and swap stories about their struggles and insights. This personal, feminine space frees their voices to speak of what is important to them, in an idiom they are comfortable with. One can almost picture a huddle of women with shaved heads, some young some old, sitting companionably during a vessa (monsoon) retreat, talking their hearts, revealing their selves.

They lament the darkness that hung heavy upon them, woven of loss and sorrow, dissatisfaction and frustration, until the light of dharma set them free. The famous parable of the mustard seed, where a mother learns to accept the truth of death, is one such. The mother, Kisa Gotami, begs the Buddha for a miracle that would revive her dead son. The Buddha says he will, provided she brings him a mustard seed from a home never visited by death. Kisa Gotami hunts for such a home to no avail, and by the time she returns, has understood the play of change and impermanence woven into the nature of life. She says:

It’s not just a truth for one village or town,

Nor is it a truth for a single family.

But for every world settled by gods (and men)

This indeed is what is true – impermanence.

[Thig A X.1, translation Andrew Olendzki]

The soul-songs of the Therigatha provide an intimate view of the concerns and issues particular to women on the path in a non-preachy, non-judgmental way. These have little by way of pulpy, lethargic sentimentality, nor are they dry and clinical. One could describe them best as examples of ‘telling it like it is’, with a clarity of mind and memory that might be expected of an arahat (realised being, which most of the theris were). Perhaps this is why the concerns mentioned therein feel immediate and true even across the chasm of centuries.

Whether it is Patacara mourning the loss of her family, or Gutta who pines for a child born of her womb, or Vimala the courtesan who exults in her beauty, or Anopama the heiress who is restless with her materialistic lifestyle, the theris articulate a uniquely feminine perspective on life, and life on the spiritual path. Their contexts might be dated, but when they speak of the imbalance of uncontrolled emotionality, the debilitation of obsessive attachment, the rigours of relationships, bondage to the body and its appearance, women of any era cannot but find their own challenges reflected in the theris’.

The sound of one hand clapping

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

In Zen Buddhism, such seemingly nonsensical questions are known as koans, and are given to students to focus on. The intent is to bypass the everyday, rational mind, and access that state of mind that is directly aligned with reality – that which is.

According to Zen, there is nothing to teach, nowhere to go, nothing to do when one has perceived reality, a realisation referred to as satori. We do most things in a shallow state of mind, jumping from one thought to another like a monkey leaps from one branch to another. ‘Monkey mind’ is an apt metaphor to qualify it, and has been used often in spiritual literature. As long as the mind is jumpy, it will be unable to settle down and reach the depth it needs to find in order to experience the ‘isness’ or ‘suchness’ of the true nature of reality.

This monkey mind is handed a koan to puzzle about and tease at, which it does almost like a dog with a bone. It chews on the koan, never quite unlocking its hidden marrow. This exercise of grappling with something so completely illogical that it defies any answer that can be arrived at by conventional logic wears down the everyday mind. The kind of thinking it normally employs and takes for granted no longer works. Gradually and with sustained contemplation on the koan, the mind begins to ripen for a sudden realisation of reality – satori.

The koan unravels more than it reveals. In most spiritual traditions, a question is a tool of knowing, which the student employs to clarify doubts and figure out the path and practice that lies ahead. When a question is asked of a master, it is with the anticipation of an appropriate answer that will help the student’s inner growth.

The koan reverses and upends this traditional model of the student-teacher dialogue. It is the master who presents the student with the challenge of the koan, with the expectation that it be contemplated with complete focus and awareness, and which will in time lead to a radical break from the everyday quality of mind for the student. So, through unravelling the mind’s unthinking dependence on conventional and conformist modes of thinking, a direct apperception of reality is made possible.  

Koans are questions without any right or wrong answers. The Zen master gauges the student’s progress, or the lack of it, from the way the same koan is answered each time it is asked. The correct answer, if you can call it that, is the one that emerges from a direct experience of the nature of reality. And since reality is ever-changing, the answer can also vary from one time to another, provided it remains attuned to the reality of that moment.

Dynamic Dakinis

As we celebrate the festival of nine nights of the goddess, Navaratra, let us consider a lesser known feminine divinity – the Dakini. She is a minor figure in Indian traditions and iconography, but assumes great significance in Tibetan Buddhism as the essence of feminine wisdom. That she is feminine points towards the Tantric influence on Tibet’s Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana owes some of its distinct character to Tantra, where the Divine Feminine had an exalted presence. For instance, a sloka from the Prajnaparamita Sutra says, ‘Do not question woman. Adore her everywhere. In her real nature, she is Bhagavati (Perfection of Wisdom); and in this empirical world Bhagavati has assumed the form of woman.’

The Dakini principle, called ‘khandro’ in Tibetan (literally ‘sky dancer’), represents a dynamic flow of energy with which the yogic practitioner must work in order to become realised. The dakini might appear as a person in order to impart crucial teachings, benevolent or wrathful, according to the situation. The practitioner must invoke different aspects of the Dakini principle in order to fully understand the play of energy in the phenomenal world.

The Dakini is thus a deity, visualised and invoked, as well as a ‘spiritual midwife’ who acts as catalyst and helps in the birthing of true wisdom in the seeker. She is said to appear at crucial moments in a practitioner’s sadhana, when a shift must be made for further growth, and mostly this is a shift from a purely intellectual pursuit to an experiential way of understanding. 

She is the practitioner’s connection with practical, intuitive wisdom, and quickly takes him or her to the heart of the practice by demonstrating how to decisively cut through delusions and attachments. This is illustrated in the story of Abhayakaragupta, a monk and a scholar, who was offered a piece of meat by a young woman. Taken aback, he shoved it away. The young woman was a dakini who had come to teach him the crucial lesson of breaking out of habits, even if they were the ‘golden rules’ set by the Buddha. Where there is negativity, the Tantric practitioner must work with it and transform it, rather than take recourse in cultural, or spiritual, conditioning, as Abhayakaragupta did.

The Dakini principle is dynamic and direct, and brings about true realisation unfettered by punditry when she assumes the form of a teacher. It is said to be possible to recognise a dakini only through intuitive understanding, for she does not reveal herself. The Dakini is believed to have been embodied and expressed in real women throughout the history of Buddhism in Tibet, such as Yeshe Tsogyel, consort of Guru Padmasambhava, among others.

Go beyond, Go further beyond

Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā – the Heart Sutra, which the Dalai Lama
translated as ‘Go, go, go beyond, go further beyond, establish Buddhahood’, could be seen
as a core message that emerged from his teachings in Delhi recently. The implication is
to practise, constantly and diligently, ways of transforming oneself until Buddhahood is
achieved. It is an enlightenment that is not just for oneself, though, and is accompanied by
vow to work for all sentient beings.

Organised by the Foundation for Universal Responsibility of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,
the teachings were centred on the ‘Four Noble Truths’. Given the Dalai Lama’s facility
and skill as a teacher, they went far beyond, and knitted complex concepts of Buddhist
philosophy about the nature of reality with latest research in quantum physics, and
detailed explanations of mind and emotions in Buddhism’s ‘science of mind’ with everyday
experiences.

The Four Noble Truths have usually been translated as: the truth of suffering, its cause in
grasping and desire, the possibility and the path to its eradication. ‘All phenomena are born
from causes and conditions and these have been taught and also their cessation by the
Buddha,’ explained the Dalai Lama. He went on to connect the changeability of phenomena
with impermanence and interconnectedness – everything changes and is impermanent, and every result is conditioned by its causes, making for an interconnected reality.

Speaking to an audience of 300, the Dalai Lama often employed his legendary wit to liven
his discourse and the ensuing conversations. His jokes were at times about others – the
solemnity of the Queen of England and a head priest of a Korean tradition, for instance –
but he laughed the hardest while poking fun at himself. His own example cropped up time
and again, like how he was made aware of his own attachment to his tradition when a
scientist remarked that he was practising detachment from his tradition, science.

While talking about the importance of rational thought in spiritual practice, the Dalai Lama
recounted how he had given up the scriptural notion that Mount Meru held up the centre
of the universe because his aeroplane journeys had shown him otherwise. Yet, he says his
scientific temperament was doubted by a friend who said it could not co-exist with his belief in the state oracle. The Dalai Lama countered it with an explanation of different levels of reality, many of which cannot be explained or measured in scientific terms. These instances revealed his openness to interrogating tradition, while not losing sight of the wisdom that is transmitted through it, which in the case of Tibetan Buddhism includes insights into the nature of mind and reality that are now being validated and valued by modern science.

His humour transformed many a moment. With a twinkle in his eye, he recounted how he
followed the Christian tradition and kissed his friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s ring, and
how the latter would praise him and add in jest, ‘He is a wonderful man, but what a pity he
is not Christian!’

The Dalai Lama’s ability to exude a lightness of being at a time when he has spent most of
his life in exile from his homeland, where the situation continues to be tense, is a testimony
to the equanimity that is a result of intense spiritual practice. The poignancy was not lost
on the audience, and one of the questions asked was, ‘How can we share your pain?’ The
Dalai Lama’s response was that he needed to deal with his pain through his own effort. This
was in keeping with what he had asked us to do – because suffering arises from ignorance of reality, it is possible to eradicate it through knowledge and practice.

The Dalai Lama ended by reminding the largely Indian audience that India, who he refers to as the guru of Tibet, having taught it the dharma, should now not forget its chela.

*

This article was published in The Speaking Tree paper on April 1st, 2012.

Why Meditate?

Swati Chopra interviews Upul Gamage at Nilambe

UPUL NISHANTHA GAMAGE is the resident meditation teacher at a tranquil spiritual retreat – the Nilambe Buddhist Meditation Centre near Kandy in Sri Lanka. His deep understanding of the practice of meditation as well as the travails of modern life make him a wise and compassionate kalyanamitra (dharma friend) to many around the globe. In this, he carries forward the legacy of the Centre’s founder, Godwin Samararathne, a lay teacher who was widely respected for his wisdom and skill in guiding people on the path.

I spoke with Upul at Nilambe on a quiet morning, after a centring meditation session.

 How can one balance one’s spiritual quest with living in the world?

 We must understand that we have a responsibility towards ourselves, just as we have towards family, partner, parents, children, and society. If we know this, we will find the time for spiritual practice.

It is easy to confuse responsibility towards oneself with earning and consuming more.

 I can give you an example. Most hotels have gyms now where you can go and exercise to reduce cholesterol, blood sugar, and so on. Next to the gym is a restaurant. Half the time, people are either in the restaurant or the gym, and the other half they have to earn to pay for the restaurant and the gym! So, there is no time for the mind.

Do you think de-stressing is a good enough motivation to meditate?

 More than half the meditators start because of personal problems. You can see meditation as a medicine. Doctors send patients to meditate to overcome physical sicknesses, psychosomatic diseases. Some come because of psychological, emotional or relationship problems. Some want to know about themselves. Some want to achieve psychic powers. Some want to meditate because their religion recommends it. Any reason is fine.

You can use meditation as medicine, therapy, psychological exercise to increase memory and brain activity. You can use it as a microscope or a telescope, to see your life clearly, or to understand the world. The important thing is the practice. If you know how to practise, you can use it as and when you need it. If you don’t have problems, you can still meditate to develop spiritual qualities like joy, peacefulness, loving-kindness, compassion.

While meditating, we might achieve peace and equanimity. Do these automatically translate into our daily living, or must we cultivate them?

 It does affect daily life up to a point. If we sit in the morning, we can go to work with a fresh mind. That peacefulness and freshness remain for some hours, but gradually decrease. Sitting meditation is important, but it is not good enough. We have to learn how to apply meditation in daily life. This is why in the Centre’s daily schedule we have ‘working meditation’ – how to work mindfully, and remain in the present instead of thinking of the past or future. Both these thoughts lead to stress. If we can focus on our current work, we will be relaxed.

Also, we want to choose what we like to do, and reject what we do not. This is not always possible. If we do not know how to do work that we do not like, then we struggle. There are complications and resistance. The body suffers as a result. We have to learn how to let go of our likes and dislikes, and to see the importance of the work.

The other important thing is selfless action. We like to work for ourselves and our loved ones. We have to learn to work for others. Sometimes, we might not know who they might be. It does not matter. We can still do something. We can sweep the path even if we do not know who will walk on it.

At work, we can see our clients as meditation teachers. Because of them, we can develop metta (friendliness), tolerance, compassion, and equanimity, especially if they are demanding and unappreciative. There are many opportunities in daily life to practise meditation. Actually, if you live in a forest, you can cultivate only one side of spirituality. The other is immature. I tell people, ‘Do you want to be spiritually paralysed, where only one side is working?’ Good sitters are not necessarily good meditators. When they go back to their normal lives, they might not know what to do, how to face their emotions. It is good to have a retreat, but then we must go back and test ourselves.

How can we bring mindfulness to our relationships?

 We have pre-conceived images of ourselves and others, and we expect them to behave accordingly. We react to our image of the other, without understanding. We think, ‘This person is like this.’ This is especially true of spouses. I tell them, ‘You married an image, not the person.’ Let go of your images, models, frames. Be open to the other person and understand him or her.

Also, if you expect something from the other, say it. Communication is important. Meditation can help us have a friendly dialogue instead of arguments, listen to others, observe and understand them.

Mindfulness and metta help increase your inner capacity, so you have enough space for different opinions and ideas. A spacious mind does not react. It can accept and absorb. To have a wider and deeper mind is important. Otherwise, you always expect the other person to live within your frame.

The meditation techniques you teach are based on the Buddha’s teachings?

 Yes, like awareness of breath, contemplating the body, meditating on physical sensations, watching thoughts and emotions, cultivating positive qualities like kindness, compassion, metta, living in the present moment. Also, investigating what is happening now and why it is happening.

Website: www.nilambe.net

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This interview was published in The Speaking Tree, January 15, 2012.

Remembering Sanghamitra

Sri Mahabodhi at Anuradhapura

Every December, on the day of the full moon, an Indian ancestress is celebrated inSri Lanka. She is Sanghamitra, daughter of Emperor Ashoka, who along with her brother, Mahendra, helped establish the Buddha dharma here in the third century BC. She is also revered as the one who brought a branch of the original Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, and which continues to be a powerful sacred presence in ordinary people’s lives even today.

On Sanghamitra Poya (‘poya’ is a full moon day), on 10 December this year, there is a festive atmosphere inAnuradhapura. Multitudes dressed predominantly in white arrive from far and near. They camp in the lawns of the ancient city, circumambulate its magnificent stupas, and bathe in its manmade tanks. The high-point of the day is a visit to the Bodhi tree, reverentially called ‘Sri Mahabodhi’, as if it were a deity in its own right.

That feeling grows as one steps onto the path that leads up to the tree. People carry flowers, coconuts, incense, and lengths of cloth to offer to Sri Mahabodhi. The crowd intensifies as one enters the compound that houses the tree, and one spots people sitting on the ground, in groups or alone, reciting mantras or simply praying.

The tree itself is cordoned off from the ‘general public’, and officiating monks scurry up and down the steps leading to it with devotees’ offerings. The larger tree in the enclosure is an offshoot of Sanghamitra’s tree, which one can still spot behind, distinguished by its lighter bark, as if whitened by age. In popular culture, Sanghamitra is always shown holding the sacred branch and it is in this context she is referred to on this day dedicated to her, as the loudspeakers come on and eminent monks take to the microphone.

Another branch that Sanghamitra brought with her was that of the nuns’ sangha, and along with it the opportunity for women to step outside patriarchal roles designated for them and into the spiritual freedom of the renunciate’s life. This branch withered away, unlike the Bodhi tree, and disappeared for a thousand years until its revival in recent times. At the Sri Mahabodhi, this renaissance is evident in the presence of several women in robes. Though not full-fledged nuns, they have taken for themselves the option of an alternative to worldly life, one that can be as liberating as it can be difficult to pursue.

In their courage in choosing this solitary path, not supported in the same way as monks’ organisations in this predominantly Buddhist country, these women keep alive Sanghamitra’s pioneering spirit. In their attempt to forge their own spiritual destinies, they appear to be true inheritors of Sanghamitra’s legacy.

Sanghamitta handing the Bodhi sapling to King Devanampiyatissa