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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Losar in Dharamsala

Following is a post from my Facebook page that pretty much encapsulates what's going on here and why supporting Tibet matters.

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Tibetan new year is nigh and to be sure, as much as I want to say “Losar Tashi Delek” to my Tibetan friends both here and abroad, this wish is laden with the heaviness of 21 self-immolations and the PRC’s continued genocidal polices that are wiping out vestige after vestige of Tibetan culture and marginalizing Tibetans in their own country. The mood here in Dharamsala is not celebratory.

Of course, the PRC machine says His Holiness the Dalai Lama is encouraging these suicides (despite, quite to the contrary, both His Holiness and the exile government doing their best to discourage protesting like this). But it’s ever thus, and it’s only part of the madness that surrounds Tibet. The other part, perhaps the most damning, is the knuckling under to the Chinese government that world leaders so frequently do. Not to sound cynical, but as a friend of mine put it some years ago, “human rights” is at best a bargaining chip. I don’t think they’re even that.

But here’s the thing. Apartheid came to an end as a result of international involvement and support. I would submit that the changes in Burma/Myanmar have come about as a result of both internal protest and external involvement. There is no dearth of organizations for Tibet; however, it’s increasingly obvious more needs to be done and it needs to come from heads of state.

Every so often, I mention to friends and family that they could step up and support Tibet. I have a short list of organizations. Anytime. More often than not, though, I feel like the response is “well, that’s just John’s trip”. But this is why the madness continues. Tibet is someone else’s problem. Too bad, but there you have it. Bullshit.

Tibet now, like South Africa before, is everyone’s problem. Until we recognize that as long as one suffers, we all do, no matter how distant or how big the odds, we too suffer. We suffer through our indifference. We suffer through our ignorance. This is very much a human problem. Not an American, not a Chinese, proble; it’s the human condition and if it’s to be met, it will be through working to “dispel the miseries of the world”.

I want so very much to wish my Tibetan friends a happy new year, but I think this year “Losar Tashi Delek” is more a statement that something deep takes place in the hearts of all mankind, and this madness ends. For those of you who can please stand with the Tibetans. If you don’t feel informed enough to do so, get informed. Hell, email me. But really, give some thought over the next couple of days about what’s going on inside Tibet. Ask yourself if a people can be considered happy or better off while daily, people seek to escape and find refuge in life-threatening journeys across hostile terrain or seek to draw attention to their plight besetting themselves afire. You tell me, does that sound like the results of a “peaceful liberation”?

Context 4: it's about the vipassana?

After all is said and done, coming back to simplicity is often best. I had signed up for a vipassana (Pali)/vipashyana (Sanskrit, apologies for no diacritics) in early December and it proved to be the most arduous and rewarding retreat I think I've been on.

But it also put me back in touch with what I consider to be the touchstone of Buddhist practice, the felt sense of the impermanence of phenomenal existence, the illusory (and delusory) nature of the ego and/or the constructed personality, and lastly, back to a visceral discernment that this is only half the process that old Shakyamuni kicked off. This all needs to be counterbalanced by compassion.

The details are available here: Check out the schedule and you'll have a reasonable idea of what I mean by arduous. However, I can only hint at what I mean by rewarding.

One of my bigger issues with so-called Mahayana practices is that they tend to minimize our enworldment without having investigated thoroughly, penetratively. One hundred hours of doing so is a good start and while I've engaged in variations of this type of practice, it's never been within these sets of parameters. Eyes closed and prolonged sitting doesn't give you a lot of options from running away, and all you're really doing is bearing witness to the chatter in the head and the perpetual twitching of the body. You don't do anything. This is the basis for Chan/Zen, for Daoist sitting practice and many others.and it's stuff I've done and am familiar with, but never with such prolonged intensity. I highly recommend it.

The other huge benefit to thesis that it has brought me back to the Pali Nikayas and the Abhidamma that grew from these early writings. There is great beauty and simplicity and directness in these teachings, but/and you can see how the later developments had to evolve from them. Basically, I find that everything that comprises the Mahayana is seeded in the Pali canon. It's equally obvious that the practices that characterize Mahayana had to happen to concretize the emphasis on compassion and emptiness. Additionally, Nagarjuna developed the Middle Way based on what could be called a proto-madhyamaka found in the Nikayas, if not just the nascent northern sutras.

What does this have to do with me? Well, just about everything having to do with why I'm in India. I don't know that I've framed it explicitly to myself until relatively lately, but this pilgrimage was also about investigating as thoroughly as possible Buddhism's roots and that includes practice. This is also where I have to raise questions regarding S.N. Goenka's vipassana.

While I don't doubt that his teacher derived this from his teacher, I'm not convinced that Goenkaji is correct in asserting thee primacy of the "kalapa" as the ultimate particle. He averts that a kalapa is a subatomic particle comprised of eight components and that a kalapa is indivisible, cannot be broken down further. He complicates the issue by saying that going down to the kalapa level,one can eventually go beyond it and achieve liberation.

The issue that I have with this is that no school of Buddhism would recognize the indivisibility of any entity. The beauty of the doctrine of dependent origination is seeing for oneself the emptiness of inherent existence of impounded phenomena. There have been intimations in earlier strata of Buddhist scripture where ultimate particles have been posited, but my understanding is that even these are seen to be transitory.

The other issue is that while I believe Goenkaji's spot on in emphasizing watching our internal processes and developing equanimity by doing so, I'm not so sure he's wholly correct in his assessment of mantrayana and other practices that are meant to get the practitioner to realize the emptiness of phenomenal existence. He's correct in that these can often be reduced to crutches and obstacles, but they can also be valuable tools.
Lastly, I can't find any citation that says that this is exactly the practice Shakyamuni was doing when he achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. It might have been a component, but I'm not so sure it's the whole process. Actually, it may not matter in the long run. There have been some remarkable people who have benefitted from. Goenka's teachings and I find the to be sound enough that they're part of my daily practice now.

Dhamma Bodhi in Bodhgaya, is beautifully bucolic, by the way. My friend Sanjay's dad is a managing trustee and I don't think he quite got what I was saying about meditation, but it doesn't matter; it was worth watching his face light up when he found out I was taking the course.

I wish I had pictures, but on the last day, my camera's batteries were done and my iPad washout of juice. You can't use electronics for the entire course. Then, on the tenth day, you can. You resume talking and reacclimate to communication before heading back to the world.

This is the pagoda at Dhammabodhi from the website.
After leaving Bodhgaya, I headed to New Delhi for a day or two. I spent a couple of wonderful hours at the National Museum. I originally went to check out a manuscript from Dunhuang, but the department was closed. Instead, I wound up looking at some of the most amazing sculpture from the sub-continent. I'll post pics later, but I'm also doing some research for a doc that I'll post for download about the influence, sometimes mutual, of Hindu on Buddhist sculpture.