BUDDHISM A TO Z

I would like to share with you a new web site begun by the Buddhist monk Shravasti Dhammika.  He calls it “Guide to Buddhism A to Z.”  I have always enjoyed his sensible approach to things on his regular “blog” site, Dhamma Musings, and in this new one he provides a similarly sensible approach to Buddhism and how it applies to life.

In addition to large amounts of information about Buddhism and Buddhist teachings, the new site also deals with modern social issues — so it is inclusive and very helpful for people who want to know the traditional Buddhist attitude to things as represented in the Tipitaka — the teachings of the Buddha as preserved in the Theravada tradition.  Of course one should always use one’s head no matter what one is reading.

Here, for example, is the entry on charging for Buddhist teachings, which of course includes charging for teaching meditation, an entry with which I agree wholeheartedly.

CHARGING FOR DHAMMA

The Buddha gave the Dhamma freely to all. He often underwent difficulties and inconveniences and on occasions even risked his life, in order to teach the Dhamma to others (Ud.78). The monk Puṇṇa was prepared to teach the Dhamma in a district where the people were known for their violence and where he had a good chance of being manhandled or even worse (M.III,269). Today, some Westerners go to traditional Buddhist countries to learn Dhamma or meditation, return to their homelands and then charge for teaching what they were taught for free. Likewise, some Asian monks put a price on the Dhamma, certain Tibetan teachers being the worst offenders. In doing so such people turn the precious Dhamma into a commodity although the Buddha clearly said: ‘One should not go about making a business out of the Dhamma.’ (Ud.66). When the Buddha said: ‘The gift of Dhamma excels all other gifts’ (Dhp.354), he clearly meant that the Dhamma should be a gift, not something to be sold.

During the Buddha’s time people knew that teachers of other religions charged a fee (ācariyadhana) but that those teaching Dhamma expected nothing more from their students than respect and attentiveness (A.V,347). There is nothing wrong with charging for the food, accommodation etc. used during a meditation course. Nor is it improper for a teacher to accept donations. But to charge a fee, even if it is called ‘sponsorship’ or to announce that a ‘donation’ of a certain amount is expected, contradicts the most basic ethics and ideals of Buddhism. Those who teach the Dhamma should see what they do as a rare and wonderful privilege and an act of kindness, not a means of livelihood.

And here is the entry on the teacher-student relationship:

TEACHERS AND DISCIPLES

A teacher (ācariya or garu, Sanskrit guru) is a person who imparts skills or knowledge, and a disciple (sāvaka) is one who learns from a teacher. In some religions, and even within the Vajrayāna branch of Buddhism, the disciple is expected to dedicate himself or herself totally to the teacher and obey him unquestioningly. This is very much at odds with what the Buddha both taught to and required from his disciples. He advised that before learning under a teacher, and even while receiving instruction, the disciple should maintain a respectful but questioning and discriminating attitude. First, the disciple should investigate (vīmaṃseyya) the teacher by watching and listening to see if his or her behaviour is consistent with what is being taught. Continuing to investigate over a period of time, the disciple should try to see if the good qualities the teacher appears to have are internalized or only the result of making an effort or trying to impress. Other things that might indicate a teacher’s true worth are seeing if they act differently in public than in private and whether they are affected by fame and success (M.I,318-20).

The Buddha approved of respect and reverence by a disciple towards a teacher. He said: ‘A teacher should look upon his student as a son. A student should look upon his teacher as a father. United by this mutual reverence and deference and living in communion with each other, both will achieve increase, growth and progress in this Dhamma and discipline.’ (Vin.IV,45). However, the truly sincere teacher wants the disciple to attain the same level of virtue and knowledge as himself or herself or even to surpass it, and this can only be done in an environment where questioning and free expression are encouraged.

The new site does not hesitate in criticism where criticism is due.  For example, the entry on human rights, after discussing how they are supported in Buddhist teaching, ends with this declaration:

Despite this, Buddhist civilisations never developed the concept of human rights, probably because from an early period they adopted Hindu political theory in which the king was considered divine. Today, most traditional Buddhist countries have had an uneven or poor human rights record.

The site is also helpful in providing a sensible perspective on issues such as homosexuality.  The entry for this says in part:

Homosexuality is the tendency to be sexually attracted to persons of the same rather than the opposite gender. In the Buddhist scriptures homosexual males are called asittapaṇḍaka and females are called women of uncertain femininity (sambhinna) or masculine women (vepurisikā, Vin.II,271). Today the first are called gays and the second lesbians. Today male homosexuals are called gays while females are referred to as lesbians. According to the ancient Indian understanding, homosexuals were thought of simply as being ‘the third nature’ (tṛtīya prakṛti), rather than as perverted, deviant or sick. With its emphasis on psychology and cause and effect, Buddhism judges acts, including sexual acts, by the intention behind them and the effect they have. A sexual act motivated by love, mutuality and the desire to give and share would be judged positive no matter what the gender of the two persons involved. Therefore, homosexuality as such is not considered immoral in Buddhism or against the third Precept. If a homosexual avoids the sensuality and license of the so-called ‘gay scene’ and enters into a loving relationship with another person, there is no reason why he or she cannot be a sincere practising Buddhist and enjoy all the blessings of the Buddhist life.

While not all entries seem quite adequate as they now stand (and of course more entries are to be added), it will be interesting to see how the site develops.  But just from its criticism of those who charge for Buddhist teaching, the site looks to be a healthy dose of medicine.

Here is the link:

http://www.buddhisma2z.com/

David

ZEN AND HOKKU

Hokku is often described as “Zen” verse.  Actually it is the most “Zen” of all verse forms, but what does that mean?

“Zen” has several meanings.  Originally it was just the Japanese pronunciation of a word borrowed from China — and ultimately from India.  That word is jhāna, meaning “meditative absorption” in the Pali language of the Buddhist scriptures.

In Japan, Zen Buddhism was (and is, to some extent), a very austere form of Buddhism with meditation as its central practice.  But like many things in Japan today, it is not what it once was, so we need to go to an earlier period to find what it means in hokku.

When Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) came to Japan from China and Korea centuries ago, its austerity gradually so permeated Japanese culture that its arts and crafts often exhibited the distinct aesthetic of Zen, particularly the tea ceremony, flower arranging, ink painting, and gardening.

In his interesting book Zen and American Transcendentalism, Shōei Andō follows perceptive scholars before him in asserting, “…it is almost impossible to disregard the influence of Zen, when we consider any aspect of Japanese culture after the Kamakura Period [c. 1185-1333]. In fact, Zen may be said to lie at the inmost heart of Japanese culture” [my emphasis].

It is precisely for this reason that even Japanese writers of hokku who were not formally Zen Buddhists themselves nonetheless still generally demonstrated the influence of Zen in their hokku.  It was unavoidable in a culture so tinged with the Zen aesthetic.  We find that influence even in some of the revisionist verses of Shiki, who created haiku near the end of the 19th century and set it off on its erratic course — a man for whom there were “no gods, no buddhas.”

Hokku has its roots firmly and deeply in this Zen aesthetic, and that is why hokku is considered “Zen” poetry.  It cannot be disassociated from its Zen roots, because it is precisely this influence that made it what it is.

One must be careful, however, not to misunderstand what that means.  It does mean that hokku follow the Zen aesthetic, an aesthetic shared in common with the other contemplative arts, but it certainly does not mean that those who write hokku must be adherents of the Zen sect as a religious organization.  So we must distinguish “Zen” as a meditative aesthetic from organizational Zen.

What that means is that the writer of hokku follows the meditative aesthetic of poverty, simplicity, selflessness, and transience in writing, and of course one can approach that from many different ways, including the transcendentalism of Thoreau, the simplicity and non-dogmatism of modern liberal Quakerism, and so on.  The important thing is that writers of hokku recognize that they are simply parts of a wider unity in which there is no separation between humans and Nature — that ultimately all is One.

I consider a life of non-dogmatic spirituality inseparable from hokku.  And modern writers of hokku will maintain its all-important spiritual roots, even though they may not use the term “Zen” at all.

“Selflessness” is a very important element in hokku.  It means the absence of the “little self,” the ego of the writer.  Hokku is a very spiritual form of verse in which the distinction between subject (the writer) and object (what is written about) disappears.  It is this that gives hokku its immediacy, with no “poet” standing between the reader and the experience.

Spiritual teachers liken the universe to gold, which can be made into many kinds of objects of many different shapes, but nonetheless never loses its essential nature.  In the same way, the universe manifests all kinds of objects as the “ten thousand things” — all the different things we see and experience — but essentially they are just the One manifested as the illusory many.

That means when we look at a stone, we are the universe looking at itself.  And if we write about the stone just as it is, without adding our opinions, without decorating or ornamenting it with unnecessary words, we are allowing the stone to speak through us.

The universe as “stone” speaks through the universe as “writer.”  That is why in hokku we always say that we must get the self out of the way so that Nature may speak.  If we just use Nature as our tool, writing about it to express all the egocentric chatter that is in our heads, then Nature cannot speak.

Thus in many hokku no writer is visible.  There is only an experience, a “thing-event.”  That is the selflessness of hokku.

In much of Western poetry, writers talk a lot about themselves — how they feel, what they think, what they want or like, what they don’t want or dislike, what they did not do and what they should have done or might do, and so on and on and on.  In hokku there is none of this because of its principle of selflessness.

The mind of the writer of hokku thus becomes like a bright, clear mirror in which Nature and the changing seasons are reflected.  With the dust of ego wiped from it, the mirror is free to reflect without obstruction.  That is the mirror mind of the hokku writer.  A mirror does not comment on what it reflects, nor does it add.  And when one looks at the image, the mirror itself is not seen — only what is reflected in it.

Similarly and ideally, the mind of the writer of hokku should be calm and still, like the surface of a windless pond in which the bright stars can clearly be seen.  There is no separation — the stars are in the pond and the pond is in the stars.

This mirror mind takes us back to where we began.   That is why I recommend to all who want to write hokku that they take up the practice of meditation.  Ultimately it is not hokku that is important, but rather the state of mind.

David

PREPARING TO LEARN HOKKU

Only a single day remains before August ends and September begins.  The Summer months — June, July and August — give way to the Autumn months — September, October and November.

Through hokku we are taken away from the excessive obsession with the self and with the thinking mind that characterizes modern society, and returned to our rightful place within Nature, as a part of it, and to the primal experience of the senses rather than our secondary “thinking,” the intellection that we avoid in hokku.

Hokku is thus a way of both recognizing our vital connection to Nature, and of taking us out of busy intellection and into tranquil perception.

There are many old “natural” names for September, names that express what is happening in Nature.  For example, among the Ojibwe people, September is:

Waatebagaa-giizis — the Month of Leaves Changing Color;

Maandamini-giizis — the Month of Corn;

Moozo-giizis — Moose Month.

The word “giizis,” found in each of these, means “moon,” just as in English our “month” is derived from an old word for moon.

Seen in the perspective of yin and yang, the passive and active elements, September is growing yin — an aging and quietening of the vital forces after the maturity of late summer, their gradual decline into the extreme yin of winter.  In the day it corresponds to late afternoon and evening; in human life it corresponds to the time beginning in late middle age and before the elderly years — the time of greying hair, weakening body, and lessening energy.

I mention these things not for any exotic reason, but because an important part of hokku is their layers of associations, the things they evoke in us.  Keeping this in mind helps us to know what is in harmony with the season, something which eventually becomes second nature as one absorbs the aesthetic principles underlying hokku.

Do not think that his connection of the Fall with time of day and stage of human life is anything “Eastern.”  Carl Jung, who was Swiss, wrote that this is not simply sentimental jargon, but rather that through it we “give expression to psychological truths, and even more to physiological facts”:

“Our life is like the course of the sun.  In the morning it gains continually in strength until it reaches the zenith-heat of high noon.  Then comes the enantiodromia: the steady forward movement no longer denotes an increase but a decrease, in strength.  Thus our task in handling a young person is different from the task of handling an older person.” (From The Stages of Life, 1930)

And in the same way, our task in writing Autumn hokku is far different from that of writing Spring hokku.

Now that we are entering Autumn, I want to take a few moments to talk about this site.  It is not like any other.  To the best of my knowledge, it is still the only Internet site actively teaching hokku, a continuation of the old verse form practiced from the 17th century to its unfortunate decline near the beginning of the 20th century.  However hokku as taught here is adapted to the English language, while still retaining the important essentials of the old hokku.

That means this is a teaching and learning site, and though sometimes I may seem to talk about things a long way removed from hokku, nonetheless there is some relationship.  I do this because hokku is not just a little verse in three short lines that anyone can write with no preparation.

Hokku is a whole way of looking at the world and at one’s place as a part of it, and a way of living.  It is not, like other kinds of brief verse, subject to radical change at the whims of those writing it.  It has very specific principles and standards, and learning those takes time.  That is why the aesthetics of hokku are so important, and must be understood before one can make any genuine progress.

Hokku as I teach it is a contemplative, spiritual form of verse.  It is also a very selfless form  that helps to take the focus off the ego.  And learning it requires both patience and humility.

Many people who read my site are involved in other forms of brief verse, and they come here to get ideas to apply to their own verse forms.  There is nothing wrong with that, if it helps to make their verses closer to Nature and more hokku-like.  But it is important NOT to confuse hokku with any other kind of brief verse, which is why I use its distinctive and historically-correct name, and no other.

It is also vitally important to know that to obtain the full virtues of hokku, and not just some watered-down or distorted simulacrum, the only way is both to correctly learn hokku and to practice it over a long period of time.  Otherwise one knows really nothing about it.  It must be understood to be practiced correctly, and it must be practiced correctly to be understood.  I offer the instruction here — completely without charge — enabling one to do both. So though many who practice other forms of verse come here to read and borrow and to adapt ideas that I present on this site to those other verse forms, those who sincerely want to correctly  learn hokku from me should be very careful not to mix what they learn here with ideas or practices from any other kind of brief verse.  Otherwise the result will not be hokku.

One can see from all this that hokku is the most challenging of all brief verse forms, demanding more of the writer and of the reader.  Yet that does not mean there is anything complicated about it.  Hokku is very simple and straightforward.  It just means that it is often very difficult for people — particularly in our hectic and materialistic times — to learn to be simple.

All that is needed to learn hokku is a sincere effort to absorb its techniques, principles, and aesthetics, as well as patience and the willingness to put it into practice.  That makes it as easy and gradual as getting from one place to another by putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly.

All of this is just a preface to what we shall be doing here from the first days of of September onward.  We shall be learning hokku from the very beginning, and in a very traditional way.

Though hokku originated in Japan centuries ago, to learn hokku you need know nothing at all about Japanese history or culture or language.  Hokku is not some kind of cultural outpost of Japan, planting its flags in the various countries of the world.  Instead hokku — if it is to be at all valid — must reflect the language and the place where it is written. Thus hokku written in English is no longer a Japanese or “Asian” form of verse.  It becomes instead thoroughly American hokku, British hokku, Irish hokku, New Zealand hokku, Australian hokku, Liberian hokku,  and so on.

I live in the Northwestern United States.  But what I teach can easily be applied to any part of the English-speaking world, or indeed to any part of the world and any language, with but slight modification.  Hokku should not be an imported hothouse plant, carefully kept alive in an alien environment.  Instead it should be a native plant, growing out of native soil.  So those who want to write hokku in Spanish, or Portuguese, or French or German or Welsh or Russian or any other language will find all that they need on this site, requiring only insignificant modifications to fit the differences of language.

In teaching hokku, I use the best examples from old, pre-20th century hokku, but translated into modern English-language hokku form.  Sometimes I will modify these examples to fit a different cultural environment, but I will tell you when that happens.  Sometimes I will use verses of my own, but predominantly what I teach is derived from old hokku.

I teach using old examples in order to maintain a continuity with the old hokku tradition and to transmit high standards.  Though what we write in English is not precisely the old hokku in language and syntax and writing system, it preserves the important essentials of the old hokku — all that is necessary to make it hokku and not modern haiku or any other kind of brief verse form.  Obviously, that does not mean hokku as we practice it in English is identical to old Japanese hokku.  The cultural baggage is eliminated, but the essence — that which gives it the hokku spirit — is kept as essential.

Again, to the best of my knowledge, I am the only person teaching this way — working direct from the best examples of the old hokku tradition used as models.  It thus gives students a unique opportunity to continue a tradition whose aesthetic roots go back for many centuries — a tradition that was nearly obliterated and forgotten through misunderstandings that became common in the West in the mid-20th century.

So inevitably, there are certain practices in the old hokku tradition that I do not continue.  I do not, for example, encourage the heavy use of literary allusion.  Nor do I encourage students to write entirely from the imagination.  Though both of these things existed in the old hokku, they are practices that take us farther from direct experience of Nature, and what we want in hokku as I teach it is to be as close to Nature as possible.

That is why I often liken the writer to a mirror reflecting Nature.  The thinking and busyness and focus on the self of modern life is like dust.  When that dust is wiped away, the mirror can reflect Nature just as a pond reflects the full moon.

I would remind readers that they are free to ask hokku-related questions — questions about the techniques and the principles and aesthetics of hokku — and I am always willing to help with problems that arise in writing.

David

A QUICK LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF HOKKU

Hokku is an art of spiritual poverty, of simplicity, and of transience.  Because its one and only subject is Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature, it keeps as close to Nature as possible.

Hokku is one of the contemplative arts — arts that take us away from the madness and materialism of modern society into a state of peace and tranquility.  That is why hokku omits such topics as war, romance, sex, violence, plagues and catastrophes — and of course politics — all things that disturb or obsess the mind.  And though it may be at times earthy, it avoids crudity for its own sake, as well as vulgarity.

Hokku are very simple.  They are very brief, they avoid complicated words, and they do not rhyme, except occasionally by accident.

In general, a hokku is simply a sensory experience — something seen, touched, tasted, heard, or smelled — placed within the context of a season.    There is no added commentary or ornament.

Further, hokku are selfless, to the greatest extent practically possible.  They generally avoid the words “I,” “me,” and “my,” unless it is confusing, awkward or impractical to do so.  And when a writer does mention himself (or herself), he does it in the same way he would speak of a passing fox or a smooth stone in a riverbed — objectively.

By writing in this manner, we re-unite humans and Nature and restore humans to their proper place — not as the lords of Nature, but only as a small part of it — the same thing we see in old Chinese landscape painting, in which humans are only a small and almost insignificant part of the whole, yet not separate from it.

The hokku, as a verse set in a seasonal context, existed as early as the 15th century — both as a part of the linked verse known as renga and as separate verse.  But it was not until the latter half of the 17th century that it began to mingle the “high” and conventionally elegant subjects of the overtly poetic waka with the “low” common expressions and topics formerly not considered poetic.  It was this mingling of high and low that gave birth to the kind of hokku we practice today.  The linked verse with which it was then associated was called haikai renga — “playful” linked verse.

Looking back, there were two writers we may consider the originators of  the kind of  hokku practiced from the 17th to the early 20th centuries.  The first was Onitsura (1660-1738).  He wrote verses that, while not having the overt poetic elegance of waka, nonetheless had their own elegance of simplicity.  Unfortunately he had no students who carried on his school, so the better known of the two writers today is the second — Matsuo Bashō, whose students continued to make his name known long after his death.  We can say, therefore,  that though our seasonal hokku dates from the 15th century, its atmosphere of mixing the high and the low, the elegant and the ordinary, dates to Onitsura and Bashō in the 17th century.  Onitsura (c. 1661-1738) began writing this kind of verse near the the same time that Bashō wrote the famous “Old Pond” hokku that is considered the foundation of his school in 1686.  Even though Bashō (1644-1694) was born earlier, their writing of hokku in the style we favor began at almost the same time.

The kind of hokku I teach today is not that of just one early writer, but rather a mixture of the best of all of them, from Onitsura through Bashō and onward into the late 19th century, when hokku reached its lowest point because Japanese writers no longer lived lives favorable to hokku nor kept it fresh and new, but instead allowed it to become repetitive and stagnant.  It could have easily been revived if the writers themselves had been willing to live lives more in keeping with hokku aesthetics, but instead Japan became overwhelmed by a flood of Western influence; and as people became ever more materialistic and technologically-oriented, new kinds of verse replaced the old hokku as the favored practice of the public.

I began teaching hokku on the Internet about 1996, after seeing how what replaced hokku — the modern “haiku” — had often radically changed its aesthetics and standards.  I realized that something genuinely valuable had been lost with the decline of the old hokku.

And so that is why I teach it today, a little green haven of peace and tranquility in the midst of our modern hurried mechanized, stressed, violent, self-centered, superficial and materialistic world.

The hokku I teach is specifically oriented toward a non-dogmatic, meditative spiritual lifestyle, in keeping with hokku as one of the contemplative arts.  Hokku has its roots in the spirituality of Daoism and Buddhism, and that gave it the clean, spare, and ascetic flavor.

 

David