Saturday, December 20, 2008

Mahayanic Quagmire

Learning about Buddhism in Korea, the strongest influence on my discoveries has been the Mahayana tradition. The sutras are beautiful, elegant, and imperceptibly romantic. There is an abundance of Buddhas and Bodhisattva present to cover all grounds and heavenly directions.

First, to touch on just a few, there is Kwan Sae Eum Bosal (Kwan Yin in China, Avalokiteśvara in Sanskrit, represented in the flesh by Tibetans in the form of the Dalai Lama.) She/He is a perfect personification of compassion; an archetype I feel the Dalai Lama fulfills well.  If your intentions are pure, she/he will be there when you are in need.

Next, there is Amita Buddha. He made a vow a few millennium ago to strive to awaken to full enlightenment, but refrain from Nirvana until all other sentient beings are rescued from their suffering. If you chant his name with pure intention you, will be reborn in his Pure Land, an appealing place for cultivation. Some people, while in their deathbed, tie a string from their finger to a statue of Amita Buddha, so that when they die he can pull them into the Pure Land.

There is also the Medicine Buddha, who has settled his Buddha Land just across from Amita’s. Reciting his sutra earnestly and with absolute faith will cure you of any physical or mental ailments.

Then there my favorite, the green haired monk, JiJang Bosal. He didn’t create his own land anywhere, he probably noticed the Dharma Realm was running out of real estate as it was. He made a vow to go straight to Hell and establish a Zen center there to help rescue sentient beings in the lowest realms. An important difference between a Buddhist idea of Hell and a Biblical one is that in Buddhism there is no eternity. Whether you end up in the lowest states of Hell or the highest levels of Heaven, unless it is the absolute of Nirvana, eventually, you will come out of it.

I have a hunch that your state of mind at the time of death has a great deal to do with where, how,or what shape you end up in, but since first hand memory of the experience eludes me, I can’t be certain of any of the possibilities. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much you study Buddhism. The only way to progress is practice. Once again, practicing a Mahayana way is as beautiful as its Bodhisattva. It starts with a few reluctant, self-conscious bows when you are with some Korean friends at a temple, allowing etiquette to trump pride. Out of curiosity, you stay in the hall one time when you happen to be there in time for the evening ceremony. Entranced by the monk chanting mysterious sutras and the room full of lay-people, mostly woman, echoing his chants you return in the following weeks. As you get more comfortable, you begin mimicking their bows, the feeling of oneness encourages you to continue, even when your spine stiffens and your thighs start to burn. You’ve already purchased a yeom-ju (malla) as a souvenir at the temple gift shop. Eventually, someone teaches you a mantra or two and it becomes more than just a tool for counting your bows. A friend, who is also foreign, tells you about a well known American monk living in Korea who has translated some influential writing. One book leads to another and the whole dimension of Mahayana is opened to you. That’s how it more or less happened for me, anyway.

For a time, I was meditating, chanting, bowing, and attending Ye-bul at BongEunSa regularly. I was able to chant the Heart Sutra easily, about a third by heart, and with a strong effort of concentration, once followed the entire way through Cheon Su Gyung, The Thousand Hands Sutra. My mind felt clear, I had little trouble in my personal life, and I felt very happy. I picked up a really good commentary on the Heart Sutra and decided to follow it up by reading the Medicine Buddha Sutra. I had carried home a gorgeous, hand carved, bronze statue of the Medicine Buddha that I picked up in Nepal and felt it would be nice to put it to actual use. I didn’t get very far into the sutra before I started losing interest. With just a few pages to  go, I closed the book for good. It was a cute story but it just didn’t jive with me. It was too much like a fantasy and not the sound actuality that I appreciate so much about Buddhism.

I had already figured out that JiJang was a myth, but I guess it was actually reading the Medicine Buddha Sutra made me realize how contrived all these Buddhas and Bodhisattva are. Even Amita Buddha was seized from my illusions of reality and flung into the categories of myth. Having already been through this with Santa Claus, I didn’t take it too badly, but I had become rather attached to the idea and truly hoped that Amita had some historical validity. At least there was still Kwan Sae Eum.  As a personification of pure compassion, Kwan Sae Eum Bosal is something I can conceptualize. Compassion is a key element of Buddhist practice and living. By cultivating compassion within myself, through her image, as far as I’m concerned, that is not only practical, effective, and real, it is also absolutely beautiful. Is it through this means that all of them find their grains of reality? But no longer could I imagine her watching over me, like an Arch Angel of Pure Land, ready to pick me up if I fall.

The problem for me is how the sutras are presented; “Just speak my name and I will save you. Hear my name being spoken and you will be reborn in a higher realm. Chant my mantra and everything in your life will be perfect.” They were written well over a thousand years ago for farmers and peasants who possibly had little education or intellectual cultivation. I’m certain the effects it had on society were profound, compassionate, and helped guide people in right livelihood, and perhaps some to enlightenment. For me today, in this place, in this body, with this mind, at this time (all of which are subject to impermanence), it amounts to little more than Buddhism packaged in a plethora of pagan deities. Perhaps that’s how it had to manifest itself to last through the centuries, and if it still invokes people today then it still has a purpose. For me, the thunder rolled away and faded and the momentum of my practice came to an abrupt halt.

In all fairness, the Seon (Korean Zen) books that I’ve read have little, if no mention at all of mythical Buddhas and Bodhisattva and are quite focused on mind and perception, clearing the dust from the mirror. The Heart Sutra, an exception to the typical Mahayana festival of Buddhas and Bodhisattva format, the truth it transmits is profound. For over a thousand year history in Korea, Mahayana Seon monks have taught by example and with great writings to continue  guiding and inspiring us today. They are even more numerous and inspiring to me than the mythical beings they may have taken refuge in.

Most of the mythical Buddhas actually pertain to very little of what I’ve come into contact with, other than shrines in the temples. The little I did find was enough to cause doubt, though. The faith I have in Buddhism is a trust that Siddhattha Gotama knew what he was talking about. Recently, I have been discovering Theravada text and find them nothing less than grounded and perfectly reasoned. As dry as they come across compared to Mahayana sutras, the sobriety and directness of them resonate well within me.

I've been told that in the Pali Cannon, there are references to Bodhisattva, and even discussions between Buddha and Brahma and that it can only be speculated how much of the Pali Cannon came directly from the Buddha. I would like to find out more about these, though, and see how they compare to the Mahayana Sutras.


  1. Yeah, Mahayana Sutras are difficult. I've been studying them actively (read: weekly if not daily) for 3 years, and I find only now do I start to get the "big picture". Stick with it, keep studying various sutras. In time you start to see an over-arching picture, and that's really helpful.

    I recommend reading the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra, and the Larger Sutra and Amitabha Sutra at least 2-3 times each in your lifetime if you can. The first time is to get the flow, the second time you learn a lot more, and the third time you really appreciate the subtlties. ;)

    Just a suggestion of course, but it's worked for me so far.

    Love the "real estate" comment by the way. :)

  2. Thank you for the recommended Sutras~ I've noticed them linked on your blog before, I will definitely read them. It's good to know which are the better Sutras to read, thank you again.
    In Korea, an English translation of the 1000 Hands Sutra has just been published, I'd like to read that one too, I've only heard it chanted in Chinese in Korean temples.

  3. THank you , Joseph, I will pass this on to a friend that will be particularly interested... Have a happy Christmas !!

  4. Thanks Cathy,
    Share it with anyone you like! the more people read, the more worthwhile it is!

    Merry Christmas to you too!!

  5. I think that you have found the key to enlightenment my brother....what rings true with you!! I have gone through the same feelings with Christianity.I grew up loving the stories of the bible,and became dissillusioned as a young adult as I realised that most of them were myth or exaggerations.However,with a lot of age,hopefully a little more wisdom,and studies of other prophets,I have come to understand that it is not necessary that a particular person or story is real,it is the message that the story brings to us.It is up to us,to use our free will,to listen to the story,to study and meditate upon the message,and find the truth of it in our own soul.
    Whether Amita "really" existed is of no consequence,the story,myth or legend is only there to show us one aspect of God....complete compassion for us,Her children.Since "our reality" is an illusion,and these illusions separate us from Him,the"realisation" that Amita is God,and that It is watching over us,and there to help us if we but ask,makes the legend of Amita true....
    Truth is Love,Love is God,may God set you Free.....

  6. "The Heart Sutra, though presented in a typical Mahayana format, a festival of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, the truth it transmits is profound."

    Hi Joseph,

    Great post mate. Just one comment....

    It is a Bodhisattva that realises that truth in the Heart Sutra. Have you realised it? Have I? Has anyone you know? Do you think you can get to that truth? In this lifetime? Ever? Can you do it alone? Without outside help? Without relying on those who have gone before us and seen the truth and who then turn back to give us a hand?

    That is what a Bodhisattva does. And how does the Boddhisattva help us at the end of the Heart Sutra? By giving us a mantra. Something to cling to. A rope, a lifeline, with which to pull us up to that which we can not attain by ourselves.

    Perhaps you are right, perhaps it's just for "farmers and peasants who possibly had little education or intellectual cultivation", but I'm not so sure that I'm any more advanced than they were, and I'm not so sure that losing faith in the Buddhas is any kind of advance at all.

    But, even for those with education and sophistication, the teachings themselves are a lifeline. Imagine if there had been no Buddha. How would you have reached Enlightenment (another myth? something real?) then? We all need outside help, all the time.

    Wishing you happiness,


  7. PS....great photo btw! It looks like Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara getting away from Korean snow and arriving in Thailand for a winter break!

  8. Thank you Marcus,
    I could almost say that this post was a cry for help to you, I was hoping you'd respond!
    I admire your faith to the point of near envy.
    I shouldn't have been so vague and general when I made the comment about farmers and peasants, I was refering to something that Chong Go Sunim had said to me once, but it was for only a few of the sutras, like the Medicine Buddha one. Thank you for calling me on that one.

    As far as fully understanding the Hear Sutra, I can not claim to have experiential knowledge, only conceptualised thoughts about the unthinkable.
    Sometimes I almost feel like I've grasped something, then the next time I open my mouth, I realize that I've advanced very little. But that realization helps, like one small stone in the building of Rome. If I've met anyone who understands the Heart Sutra, they were wise enough to keep their mouth shut about it, and not add more confusion. The great virtue of Zen is that it can't be explained, only experienced, but you know that much! The basic part "Form here is only emptiness, emptiness only form," is easy enough to apply when faced with Dukka, remind yourself that this is emptiness, how many of us still do the same when doing something enjoyable.

    Besides from an emotional perspective of the Heart Sutra, it's also very interesting that 2500 years after the historical Buddha, science has shown that even the tiniest particles of form are actually pulsing waves of energy, and indeed, as the Heart Sutra suggests, form is only empty, literally. I've only experienced this from the pages of a book, it amazes me that Sidhatta was able to actually feel it first hand. I think what he said was that we entirely appear and disappear thousands of times a second. Tools that mesure the flashing of sub-atomic particles counted it at 10 to the power of 22.

    I do really miss the times we went to BongEunSa together, even if they were few. Those couple months were the only time I had others that I practised with. Maybe it's the lack of that now that has curbed my enthusiasm, but I know the most important thing I can do is focus on what rings true with me and leave the rest, as the teachings suggest.

    Do you think that is Kwan Sae Eum on the white elephant? It looks like it could be her. I took that at a temple not too far from me. The same temple has a beautiful wood carving of the Nirvana Buddha and a casting of Sidhartta fasting. The head monk is really friendly too~

  9. That's really good insight Joshua, thank you.
    I guess it's the contradiction in Buddhist devotion that gets me. The historical Buddha was very clear about the fact that he was just as human as the rest of us. Unfortunately, there are as many legends surrounding the Buddha as there are with Jesus that give him a God-like appearance. It's difficult too, because the Pali Cannon is supposed to be the teachings of the historical Buddha, but they were passed on as an oral tradition for 500 years before they were recorded. Nobody can really say what part or if any of it is authentic, and there are some strange things in it. But, one important teaching within, that we both seem to agree on, is that you can take or leave any of it. Most of his teachings were spontaneous, meant for that moment or person. The more universal ones have emerged of course, and maybe the more wacky ones, if they are authentic, had some context that we are not aware of, or maybe sometimes he really was just a bit out there~

  10. Hi Joseph,

    Yes, you are right and I am wrong, it's not Kwan Seum Bosal - she's not wearing an Amida image in her crown.

    So perhaps this is the Bodhisattva who often stands on the other side in the triad, the one representing Wisdom. I think his name is Manjushri or Moonsoo Bosal.

    Now, I'm not suggesting that he, or any other Bodhisattva, is actually up there, flying around on dragons and elephants ready to sprinkle us with nectar.

    But if the very nature of emptiness - the stuff beyond form - is compassionate awareness (and I have faith that it is), then as part of my practice I can see compassionate awareness personified into figures with which I can identify and can call upon.

    And which I then experience as real. I don't actually see Kwan Seum Bosal, but I feel the embrace. I don't actually touch her robes, but they fuel my own heart of compassion and awaken me to it.

    But this is just one of many many paths, paths that are not (and I'm going to sound like Daehaeng Kun Sunim here) that are not fixed paths.

    You already have the answer: "I know the most important thing I can do is focus on what rings true with me and leave the rest, as the teachings suggest. "

    If it rings true with the deepest, most fundamental part of you, how can you go wrong?

    All the best mate - and Happy Christmas!


  11. Actually, I was agreeing with you that I thought it was her. She's wearing the same sort of crown.
    It could be a little Amita sitting in the lotus.

    Merry Christmas Marcus!

  12. I am still working on my faith journey myself. Could one message of the whole "God-man" thing of Jesus, or the Buddha, be- "we hold God too high, and humans too low"? I think especially now days, there is a tendency to dismiss human beings as mere animals. Is this any more enlightened, really?

    It's true I think the Mahayana Sutras are mostly "myths", but then, so is the book of Revelation in the New Testament. It's all allegorical, over-the-top comic book stuff. The superheroes and supervillains, they are all real though. If that outer world is all emptiness, then the inner world of the dreams and aspirations of humanity, that is the real world.

  13. The biggest difference between Jesus and Buddha is that Buddha denied the existence of God and taught to look within, not to an outer source. The word "buddha" itself really only means "awake" so, there wasn't really "a" Buddha, but anyone who awakens fully to the truth is "Buddha." What happened in Mahayana is that, despite the Buddha's teachings, people need a "God" figure, so the created Bodhisattva, sort of like saints/angles, so they had a figure to pray to.

    I've never read the bible so I can't really say much about it. ^^
    "Emptiness" in Buddhism is really hard to understand though, it's kind of the best word that the original meaning could be translated to in English, but doesn't quite cut it. The best way to explain it is that nothing exists on it's own, without cause and effect, and everything that arises, comes into exists, must also decay and disappear. I can't look at my body and say it's not "real" but I just look at my body with non-attachment because of the fact that it will stop working, fall apart and decay. Everything in the world is arising and decaying with every moment. Anything you associate with it is from your mind. Mountains are mountains because we call them mountains.