This is pretty obvious, and perhaps a good reminder now and then.
Jesus wasn’t a Christian. Siddharta Gautama wasn’t Buddhist. And they likely would be very surprised – and perhaps dismayed – by a lot of what their followers have said and done, and what’s found in the traditions created by their followers. And I suspect the same would be the case for anyone whose followers started a tradition or religion.
Traditions and religions reflect how people interpret what someone said and how they lived their lives. They invevitably reflect the culture, wisdom, love, hangup, preferences, interests, and limitations of these people. And the main priority of any system – including spiritual traditions and religions – is to maintain itself. Anything else comes second.
Religions, and spiritual traditions in general, clearly have a value and a function. They serve social and psychological functions. They help regulate society, and they give individuals comfort and perhaps even valuable practices and pointers.
And yet, it’s good to be honest about what these traditions are.
They don’t reflect any final or absolute truth. Their main function is, inevitably, to maintain themselves. The individuals these traditions are based on may be suprised and dismayed by much in these traditions, including what we personally may be attached to.
They serve a social function, for better and worse – from stabilizing society to justifying and upholding injustice and questionable hierarchies.
They serve a function for individuals. From providing comfort and perhaps a sense of safety and feeling loved. To the other extreme of sometimes encouraging dogmatism, blame, guilt, shame, and forms of violence towards oneself and others.
And they provivide valuable practices and pointers for those who wish to go deeper, find transformation, and perhaps notice and live from what they more fundamentally are.
In one of the stories about the historical Buddha, a man comes to him overcome with grief over having a lost child. The Buddha said, “bring me a grain of rice from a house in the village where nobody has died”. The man couldn’t find such a house, and the realization that we are all in the same boat – we all experience losses and death – helped him. (This is all paraphrased from memory.)
This helps me too. Whenever I experience something I find difficult, it helps to remind myself that this is part of the human experience.
I am not alone in it. Innumerable people have experienced this and still do. Even if I don’t know of anyone, it’s a good bet that this has been an experience for a lot of people (or, at least, can be). We share it. We are together in it. They found their way through it, and so can I.
There is nothing wrong with me. There is nothing wrong with this experience. This too is part of the human experience. This too is what humans experience.
Of course, everything is also unique and fresh. And it may be that there is an emotional issue or trauma I can explore and find healing for in how I relate to it and perhaps for the issue itself. And yet, here it helps to emphasize the commonality and that there – inherently – is nothing wrong with us or anything we experience.
Any pointer is medicine for a specific condition, and this reminder – this is part of human experience – is medicine for feeling alone in what we are going through or that something is wrong. It helps us to see that I am not alone, and nothing is inherently wrong in this. It helps us align with that reality, and reality is healing.
Photo: Man in China Town, San Fransisco, a few years back
As Siddhartha Gautama sat under the tree, Mara – representing delusion and beliefs, appeared.
Mara sent his three daughters to seduce him, and Siddhartha was free from believing the thoughts that he needed love, approval and appreciation.
Mara sent his army to scare him, and Siddhartha was free from believing the thoughts of pain, death or a me who was born and could die. The arrows were revealed as something quite different.
Mara came and said Siddhartha wasn’t worthy of clarity, and Siddhartha was free from the belief that he wasn’t worthy.
This is how it is for each of us. Thoughts surface telling us we need love, approval and appreciation, that something terrible will happen, or that we are better or worse than others. If they are believed, we stay in confusion for a little longer, and that’s OK. If we have investigated those thoughts, they are revealed as innocent.
I just came across this wonderfully weird and off-beat Buddha by Takashi Murakami.
Buddhist students are advised to see any image of the Buddha as representing the perfect Buddha mind, no matter how weird the image itself is. And it is a great advice.
In fact, can I see the perfect Buddha in any of the forms arising to me? In any sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, thoughts… no matter what particular forms they take? Can I see that it is all awakeness itself?
The statue is great material in other ways too… What beliefs come up when I see it? Do I get offended? (No.) Am I afraid someone else may get offended. (Maybe.)
It is a reminder of how Buddhism can be poured into lots of different containers, depending on what culture it is in. (In this case contemporary Japan.) That was probably not the intention of the artist, but it can still be taken that way.
When void notices itself, there is nothing there. What “I” really am, the unmanifest within and as which the manifest happens, is really – literally – nothing. An awake nothing. A nothing also absent of an I with an Other, so when it notices itself also as the manifest, that too is revealed as already and always absent of an I with an Other.
When this happens, there can be a sense of disappointment.
Is this all there is to it? Is this what has been made into such a big thing in the different mystical traditions? Is this what all these practices are for? All the fancy titles and robes? All the rituals? All the convoluted and obscure terminology?
But of course, the void is not disappointed. What we really are – this awake nothing full of and manifesting as whatever is happening – is not disappointed. It allows disappointment, as it naturally and inevitably allows anything manifesting, because it is itself. Disappointment only happens within the manifest, and it – as anything else in the manifest – has infinite causes. Or in more typical terms, it is conditioned… by an infinity of things, including culture and personality.
When the void awakened to itself and expressed itself through Gautama Buddha, he initially didn’t want to teach according to the story. One explanation is that he thought it would be too difficult for people to grasp. But another one, equally likely, is that there was a disappointment there, maybe even an embarrassment.
It was just too simple, too obvious, what was already and always there, and really nothing at all (he may have thought). How can I talk about what is inherently absent of anything, yet allows it all? Yet at the same time, this void does not so easily notice itself, or at least realize that it notices itself, which makes it worth the effort. May as well teach as anything else.
I wrote another post on this a while ago, but wanted to revisit it (as with some many topics here) to see what comes up now.
The three centers – heart, belly and head – each filter Spirit, Existence, life in different ways…
The head center is the seeing of all as Spirit. When the view is split, it reflects and creates a dualistic experience centered around a sense of I and other. When the view is of all as Spirit, it reflects a more nondual realization.
The heart center is the loving of all as Spirit. When the heart is split, it too reflects and creates a dualistic experience of I and Other, us and them, the situations and beings our heart opens to and those it closes to. When the heart recognizes all as Spirit, the circle of care, compassion and concern effortlessly leaves nothing and no-one outside.
The belly center is the felt-sense of all as Spirit. When the felt-sense is split, there is a sense of comfort and relaxation in some situations, and discomfort and (emotional) reactivity in other situations. In general, there is a lack of basic trust in existence and life, a lack of feeling deeply nourished and held by life. When there is a felt-sense of all as Spirit, of all as God’s will and God itself, then there is that deep feeling of being held and nourished by life, independent of circumstances.
An awakening (even an early one) of the head center reorganizes the view, from rigid and dualistic to more receptive, inclusive and reflecting a more nondual realization. An awakening of the heart center reorganizes the heart from being often closed to being more receptive and open in any situation. And an awakening of the belly center reorganizes the emotions from reactivity and unease to being deeply nurturing and a deeply felt sense of trust in life, independent of how it shows up.
There is also a mutuality among the centers. The movement of one in the direction of a deepening split, or of reflecting all as Spirit, tends to be reflected in a similar shift in the others. For instance, when there is reactivity in the belly center, the view tends to become more rigid and deepen the sense of I and Other, and the heart closes down. When there is a deeply felt sense of nurturing in the belly center, the view tends to be more receptive and inclusive, and the heart more open.
In terms of practices for each center, inquiry works well for the head center, revealing what is already more true for us. Heart center practices include gratitude practices, rejoicing in others fortune, well-wishing, tong-len, heart centered prayers, and so on. And the belly center practices include any body-inclusive practices, and maybe especially Breema which seems to very clearly open for a deeply nurturing felt-sense of trust in life, and all as Spirit.
And each of these centers also have Buddhas associated with them, as an image reflecting their qualities when all is seen/felt/loved as Spirit.
(For some reason, the belly Buddha is often left out in Buddhist teachings, as the belly center is often – although certainly not always – left out in spiritual teachings in general.)
Hotei is a particularly good image for the belly center.
He has a big belly, drawing attention to that center, and also reflecting the sense of rich, full, nurturing abundance experienced in the belly center when it is more open, when there is a felt-sense of deep trust in life. (He sometimes has a big sack that never empties, reflecting the same sense of abundance.)
And he laughs… when there is a deep felt-sense trust in life, independent of how it shows up, and there is a deep sense of a nurturing fullness and richness coming from the reorganized emotional level and the belly center, it is naturally expressed in an heart-felt laughter.
Hotei is often seen as a more folksy and naive representation of Buddha and is left out of the more formal teachings in the different Buddhist traditions. But, at least in the context of the three centers, the image of Hotei is as profound and significant as those of Manjushri and Avalokitesvara.
The conception of the awakened Buddha is maybe a glimpse of our Buddha nature, or an intuition of it, or even just an interest in it. Through the gestation period, there may be more and more glimpses of it, or explorations of it through headless experiments, the Big Mind process, meditation and other practices. And the birth of the Buddha is Buddha Mind awakening to itself, as a field of awake emptiness and form, absent of any separate self anywhere.
(It is usually not as clean cut as this, but it may be a useful generalization.)
The Buddha growing up
The Buddha is born, and may realize its own nature clearly, but it still needs to grow up and mature in its expression in the world. Its vehicle in the world – this human self – has to reorganize and relearn how to function in the world and live its life within this new context of realized selflessness.
The first thing that happens is that it realizes that it has awakened to itself, yet also not. In the world and the lives of individuals, there are many examples of Buddha Mind not having awakened to itself, and of Buddha Mind experiencing confusion and suffering. So compassion arises naturally, and a desire to help – both with alleviating the suffering itself and in removing the causes of the suffering (if, when and to the extent they seek and want the help.)
Refining its instrument in the world
To do this, the vehicle for Buddha Mind in the world – this human individual – needs to be refined. It needs to continue to heal, mature, develop, and learn skillful means.
Deepening into the fullness of this human self
The more this human individual matures and deepens into the evolving fullness of what it is, the more it can connect with others where they are. It recognizes in itself what it meets in others. It becomes more deeply and thoroughly human, without having to defend or attach to any particular identities. It can allow the evolving wholeness of itself, with all the weaknesses and imperfections that goes along with being human.
Playing the game
Maybe most of all, Buddha Mind awakened to itself has to play the game. It has to take the experiences of Buddha Mind, when it is confused and suffers and takes itself to be just a small part of its own form, seriously. It has to play along, meeting people where they are, even when it is clear that it is all just the dance of the awake emptiness. When awakened to itself, this dance is free enough to play along in whatever ways arise.