Cultivating virtue evokes, to me, images of planting seeds and nurturing. That eventually fruit, results, will be harvested. These plants, herbs, and fruits can be shared with all people. Not only will they fill our stomach they can heal and nourish our communities.
In my own case and in quite a few people I’ve meet there is a thirst for meaning and purpose. We often feel isolated while flooded by shallow interactions, information and distractions. In the effort to combat that we go seeking for community, holistic healing, yoga, meditation, etc. We embark on a spiritual journey in the hopes to find someone or something to remedy what feels like a giant black hole in our lives. We have an existential crises and no tools to deal with it. If we want to get our thoughts back together there is therapy. If we’d like to get our heart and spirit back together as well we can seek out teachers who embody a spiritual path and guide others.
To refrain from all evil,
To perform all good,
To purify one’s own mind-
This is the teaching of all Enlightened Ones.
This message can be found in most spiritual traditions. There is a saying that is is easy for a child to understand but difficult for 100 year old to do. It is a lifelong practice to be engaged in. For us to engage in it we have to see the value in improving our lives and that we don’t live an encapsulated existence. We affect and are affected constantly.
On a foundation of understanding that all things have a mutual interdependence we then can fathom the far reaching effects/results our own actions, speech and thoughts. If the internal world and external world are mutually affecting one another then we have the capability of directing this effect with our intentions.
What is it that our heart is oriented towards? What is the hearts wish and aspiration?
Within the streams of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism there is an idea of a ‘path’ or ‘way’ that an individual follows and treads along as they go through life. To enter the ‘Way’ we have to recognize, aspire to and turn towards an infinite and purified state of being.
In Buddhism this begins with ‘turning towards refuge’. When our heart recognizes the suffering state we are in, the endless up and down of life, we turn it towards the Three Jewels. The Buddha is a state of being fully liberated and perfect in both wisdom and compassion. The Dharma is the teachings and practice to this awakening. The Sangha is the community of people who have liberated themselves to some degree, guide and support us in practice or who we practice with on a regular basis.
The Three Jewels are then three requisites for transformation- a state of awakening, engaging in those methods, and relying on others who embody those methods. When our dedication and faith in them grows our lives are gradually reorganized, our priorities become more broad than day to day pleasures, our worldview is larger and we have a clear meaning in our life.
The Lotus Sutra states-
“If anyone, even while distracted,
With even a single flower,
Makes and offering to a painted image,
They will progressively see countless Buddhas.
If anyone, even while distracted,
Enters a stupa or mausoleum,
And even once exclaims, “Homage to the Buddha,”
They have fulfilled the Buddha way.”
This indicates that even the smallest acknowledgement or recognition of Enlightened state will eventually lead to attaining that state. If such a minute action such as appreciating representative image creates a seed for future Enlightenment; then it follows that concentrated understanding and deliberate efforts will manifest that state more quickly. Essentially we must be able to conceive, to some degree, of a state of infinite perfection. Without this we cannot take further steps.
When an activity is undertaken in relation to the Three Jewels, with a proper motivation, there is a positive manifestation of that action in the future. This is because the Three Jewels are understood to have an infinite relationship in their end result (how often do we act out of motivation for ‘all sentient beings’, throughout ‘all time’?) and because they are in relation to liberated states, free from cyclic existence. The state that our activity is dedicated to is one free of causes of suffering.
Below is a chart offering the synthesis of three major philosophical and religious influences on East Asian culture and Buddhism. I’ve included a secular interpretation as well that I use as a way of expressing these ideas in healthcare practice without placing them in a religious or spiritual framework.
|Element – Taoist||Application – Secular||Virtue – Confucian||Perfections – Buddhism||Abstinences-Buddhism|
|Earth||Nourishment||Trust||Generosity||Lying, thoughtless behavior|
|Metal||Values||Selflessness||Patience||Stealing, taking without consent|
|Water||Stillness||Intelligence||Medication,Wisdom||Intoxicants, deceptive mind|
Taoism leads practitioners to cultivate the 5 Elements and Three Flowers of essence, energy and spirit leading them to an ‘immortal’ or transcendental state that is beyond life and death. They aim to return to an ‘original state’ of being and to express this in their life.
Confucian thought focuses on self-cultivation through social and individual means. That humans are teachable and can pursue perfection through mutual concern and efforts. It could be seen as a ‘secular’ form of spirituality and has at times been used within East Asian cultures as a complementary ethical teaching in addition to religion.
Buddhism leads cultivators through developing the Six Perfections, infinite states of virtue done for the benefit of all beings. Also developed are various enumerations of ‘Sila’ or ethical conduct that subdues harmful ways of living. When combined with wisdom practices the heart is purified as the practitioner take steps to realizing the true nature of reality and ultimately achieve Buddhahood.
How can I use this information?
Personally I really enjoy these sorts of organized presentations on virtue and self-cultivation. I realize each of them speaks to only some people, so I’ve shown four of many more possibilities. My point in this is not to convince anyone that a particular one is the ‘right’ way. Rather, I aim to just give information on ideas that have influenced various cultures and brought people great freedom in the past.
I’d like to increase these kinds of conversation so that people think about, reflect on, explore and digest ideas to construct a “worldview” within the framework of Life and Death- two ultimate events for every being to undergo. I believe there is only spiritual development when there is questioning. If we constantly investigate the nature of our lives both personally and in relation to others we will come to deeper understanding of our existence. When we find a path that suits our disposition then we should, without hesitation, exert ourselves in it. We contain the potential for perfect wisdom and clarity, we have the capacity to know the infinite.
Furthemore I want to encourage a culture of ‘virtue cultivation’ and really interested in dialogue with others around the topic. To quiet our hearts and listen deeply. What does it aspire to? The heart is representative of our desires and unification, not only emotionally but also spiritually. Is there a state, an ideal, a quality, an expression that we long for? To become? No matter how far from it we are we should make even small steps and efforts to move towards it and express it in our daily lives. Whether that is the Tao, Enlightenment, Christ-Heart, Krishna-Consciousness, etc. Whether it is personified or abstract, if we keep it in our deepest thoughts constantly we can shine it into the world.
This image is called the ‘Americosmos’ by Darin Drda. Below is his own explanation of the image and here is there link to his blog and the full article it appeared with. I’ve always understood Samsara and the Wheel of Life to be a structure of sorts rather than some cosmic law thrust upon us unwillingly by unknowable powers. Sometimes people interpret samsara (and even karma) to be some law that is governed by a higher intelligence.
Rather it is a situation we create and uncreate ourselves and we can find the process reflected in from the micro to the macro. Darin’s American-political version of it is an interesting take and I think hits on that co-dependent creation implied in the older versions. I wonder what new visions of the ‘Wheel of Life’ (and the rest of the Buddhist visual world of deities, mandalas and symbols) will come out of American Buddhist culture as American Buddhist artists take on translating the images into the culture and time. We’ve seen many texts translated (and often multiple times with different emphasis that can change meaning…) and I enjoy seeing the visual dharma methods being done as well.
“A Key to the Matrix
What follows is a description of my mandala, again from the inside out. At the hub of the wheel appear a dollar bill, a tank, and a television, representing the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion (these exist institutionally as materialism, militarism, and the media). Just outside the central circle is the ring of financial karma, in which people slowly climb the ladder to prosperity, only to slide back down into a hole of debt.
The main part of the mandala depicts the Six Realms of Socioeconomic Existence. At the top is theImperial Realm, in which ultra-wealthy beings live in mansions, ride in limousines, and suffer from arrogance, isolation, and the occasional bad hair day. Below and to the left of this realm is that of the Imperial Wannabes, who abide in sprawling suburban homes, drive expensive cars, and suffer from envy and existential angst. To the right of this realm is the Public Domain, populated by working class humans who live in modest homes, apartments, and trailers, and drive used cars. They speak highly of freedom while being severely constrained by desire, fixation, and fear. Many of them suffer from high blood pressure, low self-esteem, and bad credit. Lower on the ladder lies theAnimal Turf, wherein many creatures are subject to displacement, confinement, and cruelty on the part of humans. Some of them are kept as pets and often treated much better than beings in the adjacent Homeless Dimension. This realm is populated by nearly invisible “hungry ghosts” who wander endlessly in search of food and shelter. The lowest of all realms is the Hellish ‘Hood, the residents of which suffer from intense anger and psychological illness. Beings in this realm possess very little freedom, whether held captive in prisons, mental institutions, or army barracks.
The outer wheel depicts the Twelve Steps of Codependent Consumerism. The sequence begins and ends with shopping, an activity which leads directly to the accumulation of material objects. Possessing lots of stuff leads to the need for a “stuff storage facility,” commonly called a house and usually located outside of town. This necessitates having a motorized vehicle with which to transport one’s person, groceries, and additional stuff. Driving a car necessitates buying gas, which contributes to debt and the need to maintain employment. Working generates stress, which leads to an urgent desire for relaxation. This often involves consuming alcohol and/or watching television. Depressants, TV and advertising all contribute to a sense of lack or emptiness, symbolized here by a black hole. This feeling of worthlessness leads to an impulse to shop, which begins the cycle anew.
The Wheel of Suffering is held in the clutches of the aforementioned Uncle Samsara, the Lord of Illusion. This fearsome figure presides over a vast empire of desire, despair, death and taxes. Outside of this wheel lies liberty in the form of planetary consciousness, lunar consciousness, and compassion (symbolized by a green Tara). Ultimate freedom is found in the form of cosmic consciousness, wisdom and peace (symbolized by a meditating Buddha).
May all Americans, and all beings everywhere, be happy and truly free.”
Here is a Tibetan version of the wheel, using a mix of culturally relevant and traditional symbols:
They call it the ‘overview effect’.
One of them thinks this is a ‘new worldview’ for humanity.
I’d say it is essentially the realization of interdependent-arising SEEN and not just known. Folks have been realizing-knowing what astronauts are now seeing since long ago.
I often equate ‘spiritual’ simply with ‘world-view’ and not as something that exists beyond the human experience or that is somehow distinct and separate from our daily life. Rather the vision and framing of the experiences we have between birth and death within a boundless context. Sometimes that vision is accurate and clear. Other times we are near sighted, far sighted and maybe have glaucoma on top of it. Either way, for me, spiritual practice is the clarification of world view and acting through that clarity.
Sekizan Zenin is the temple in Japan that the California Tendai Buddhist Monastery has a connection with. This is where the teacher and founder of the monastery trained primarily. Sekizan Zenin is a unique temple in Japan because it is ‘Four Traditions in One’- Buddhism, Shinto, Daoism and Confucianism. Although it is a Tendai Buddhist temple primarily, one of the images enshrined is of Taizanfukun. In Taoism Taizanfukun is the ‘God of the Eastern Mountain‘ and is related to Taoist practices on Mt.Tai, China. There are also shrines to Shinto ‘kami’ and the abbot there, Gozen-Sama, practiced forms of Taoist astrology in addition to being a one of the ‘Dai Ajaris’ of Tendai sect- a person who has complete the 1000 Day walking marathon practice called ‘sennichi kaihogyo’. The historical importance of this temple partly is as a place for all four belief systems to exist in harmony- how much of each is maintained to this day I do not know…but it is interesting nonetheless that they were not considered contradictory and that the ideas of each were able to support one another.
Other major deities there are:
Jizo Bosatsu/Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva – The bodhisattva representing Perseverance and Effort in the most extreme situations. One of his major vows was to work in the realms and places that were heaviest with suffering until every single being attains enlightenment. Ksitigarbha then becomes symbolic of persevering against the seemingly impossible as well as having infinite patience and equanimity for difficulty. The name translates as ‘Earth Store’ or ‘Earth Womb’. The meaning of Earth in this case is being able to support all situations and all beings equally- whether negative or positive – and bring about good results from the interaction. An image for this is idea is that whatever the earth receives can be turned into plants, fruits and gems.
Saraswati/Benzaiten - How the Indian Goddess of music, culture, arts and speech has appeared in Japan. She is represented by flowing water such as creeks, streams, brooks and waterfalls and is of great importance to artists, performers and entertainers.
Fukujuroku - a god of longevity, wealth and happiness. He is thought to be able to prolong life and have powers of an Taoist ‘immortal’.
The idea of ‘spiritual confidence’ is summed up in the Three Vajra Convictions of the Kadampas. These three convictions are thought to be necessary to purely practice the dharma path. ‘Pure’ in the sense that the inner goals are not mixed up with chasing temporary external situations and that a clear vision of what one is doing with one’s life is maintained. We can easily be moved by the transient circumstances of life and thrown off balance as well as be caught up in the sense. Realizations and wisdom need to be preserved and supported.
The circumstances that can negatively influence our dharma practice- diminishing it, ending it, making it unsteady, conflicted or even make it become a materialistic path – are sometimes categorized as the ‘Eight Winds’. These are success and failure, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. They are ‘winds’ in that we do not know when they will arise or what direction they will blow from. Erratic, unpredictable, strong, subtle and pervasive. Our spiritual life can be likened to an exposed candle flame outside. We need to protect and strengthen it against the disturbance of wind or else it will weaken and blow out.
There are various supports to help us- from communities, teachers, friends, sutras, commentaries, mantra, devotional practices, self-reflection, ethics, purification practices and so forth. They support the practice of renunciation of the Eight Winds and the fearless commitment to dharma practice. By taking inventory of those influences we deepen the quality of and become vajra-like in our practice. The vajra is a thunderbolt, a diamond, adamantine, indestructible, able to cut everything but itself unable to be cut, is impervious to the most powerful forms of negativity. It represents a legendary state of being that transcends material situations and can cut through the deepest ignorance and suffering.
Sometimes these Three Vajras are referred to as the three ‘abandonments’. Three ways to abandon worldly activities and concepts of success. I think this word appears to mean that we stop engaging with the world or worldly situations. This is not the cause at all. Rather it means abandoning the influence of world on our inner life. To be able to maintain a strong inner life while living in the world we must become vajra like and be confident in our path.
The First Vajra: Unconcerned with what others think or say- Impervious to worldly opinions
This is the conviction and confidence that what we are doing is meaningful. It means not to change our motivation to practice because we may lose face in the eyes of others or will receive their negative opinions. Not having shame, fear or concern about what others may think when we choose spiritual practice over other activities, go on retreats or identify as a spiritual practitioner. (or Buddhist, Christian, Daoist, etc.). Anyone can use this advice in their spiritual pursuit though- if we have confidence in our path we are then unmoved by the opinions of wordly people. Often the majority opinion is that spiritual and inner practice is not interesting or sensational enough. This kind of confidence does not mean pridefulness or being stubborn. Just not having our commitment to realization thrown off from because of social pressure. This vajra deal with the speech and ideas of society, not being lead by or trying to fall into status quo opinions.
The Second Vajra: Maintaing the activities of dharma - Immovable by situations
Despite what rewards or suffering we encounter because of our practice we remain unmoved in following our commitments through. In particular the commitment to give up worldly pursuit for the pursuit of dharma realizations and transformation. If we receive a lot of praise, wealth, reputation or slander, poverty and disrepute we maintain our ethics and practice. Not being swayed by the positive or negative material results or social benefit of doing otherwise. For example if we work at a job where superiors hunt we wouldn’t go hunting to simply fall in favor with them so we could get a raise. Promises, gifts, guile, pandering or manipulation of others (whether malicious or well intentioned) that would move us away from our commitments, vows, ethics or practice. This is being immovable within society. This vajra is concerned more with our actions or the perceived benefits we would receive from according with the ways of worldly people and habits.
The Third Vajra: Keeping transcendental wisdom with us always – Indestructible in conviction.
To be indestructible in our conviction means to maintain awareness of the ups and downs of our own mind. Whether we face extreme depression, joy, loneliness or company we remain conscious of the root reasons we practice. Remaining aware of the the causes of suffering and the causes of joy. Recollecting the dharma we are able to apply teachings and practices suitable the emotional and mental states that arise rather being overwhelmed by them and abandoning our practice. Our effort and intentions are clear and apply our wisdom or seek out support when when afflictive emotions are strong. This is the vajra relating to the heart-mind and internal experience.