Each day we are all confronted by choices about which we must make decisions. The choices may be about practical matters, or they may be ethical, moral, even existential. We like to think that the decisions we make are rational. More often than not our decisions are made from convenience, habit, and emotion. The author Robert Heinlein wrote in his compelling science fiction adventure, Assignment in Eternity, that, “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.” Gender reference aside that pretty much sums it up.
Over the last 26 years I have presented over 1,300 discussions on Wednesday evenings. Add to this the same number of Dharma talks. This presents a challenge to developing the discussions and Dharma talks. How do I meet the interests and capacity of the participants from week to week? How do I present some of the same material in different, and hopefully, more interesting ways?
There are some people participating who are novices. A given gathering may be their very first Buddhist gathering and talk they’ve ever attended. There are others that have been practicing Buddhism for 25 years or more. Some people are interested in the basics of Buddhism, never wanting to go beyond the effortless. Other people yearn for a more nuanced and in-depth view, they want to have a broadened understanding. There is a web and flow to the people who attend. There is always movement in and out of the sangha. There is also the situation that has developed in the last two years with people who are joining us through the alchemy of teleconferencing from afar as well as in person. Many of these people come from varied Buddhist perspectives.
It is important to note that whether a person is new to the sangha or has been around for 25 years they are equally sangha members.
A side note – Since we have expanded our Wednesday evening gatherings to the internet, I have called this extended sangha, meta-sangha. I may have to rethink this because Facebook, a company which is unethical and immoral in its conduct, has named its overarching organization Meta. How unfortunate Mark Zuckerberg never asked my permission to use the word meta.
A sangha is a group, or congregation, of people who follow the Buddha Path. The earliest term for the Buddhist Path is śāsana. This translates as the Way (Buddhist teachings is implied). In Japanese the term Butsudō is literally the ’Way of Buddhist teachings’. It is not coincidental that ‘dō’ is the same kanji (Chinese and Japanese character) as Tao (what we call in English Taoism), translated from Chinese as ‘the essential principle underlying existence; ultimate reality’.
Back to the topic of discussions – I am not complaining about preparing and providing the discussions. The discussions provide me with a way to enrich my understanding of Butsudō. “According to this system scriptural study constitutes the foundation of Buddha’s teaching, without which there can be no successful practice of the path (Skt. Mārga) and hence no realization of Buddhist truths or of enlightenment.”[i]
I always try to vary the topics, so that one week I may give what I call Back to Basics. A talk on some aspect of foundational Buddhist teachings. Hopefully this is informative for the beginners and a review for those who have been practicing for a while.
Another week may be a sutra or section of a sutra. Another week an adjunct to the teaching such as poetry, iconography or sculpture. Because there is a 2.500-year span of history and a wide geography, usually this addresses a specific period of time in a specific place.
There are cultural contexts, such as women in Buddhism, seasonality; an example, the first week this month I will be addressing Wabi-Sabi and Buddhism. It is useful to look at other cultures, especially Asian, to better understand that many of our beliefs about religion and reality have been conditioned by worldviews that are very different from a Buddhist understanding. Shaking up our thinking about what we think we know provides us with a different, in some cases more refined, understanding of the world around us.
There are specific observances that need to be addressed, Shakyamuni Buddha’s awakening, or the anniversary of Saicho’s death. Then there are instructions in practices and information on how to get the most out of these practices, such as meditation, Shodō (Calligraphy), chanting, etc. One of the things that sets Tendai apart from other schools are the number of practices. There are discussions about the history and practices other schools of Buddhism.
Finally, there are topics that are related to the contemporary world that have been addressed by Buddhist teachings, if not directly, by inference, such as racism and the environment. Many of our problems today were not addressed separately because the understanding of a person in relation to society or the world around them was very different from our own. Race as we know it today in North America and Europe is an 18th – 19th century social construction. However, the caste system was systemic, and it was addressed by Nikaya Buddhism, in both positive and negative ways. The environment was not addressed in the ways we do today because people in Asia were not separate from the environment, The notion of an I, an autonomous self, was absent. A person was part of the larger social milieu. People viewed themselves as integral to the natural world. In order to maintain a functioning society one embraced ‘nature’ as an entity that is sentient and part of the living fabric of the universe. An insult to one sentient being is an insult to all sentient beings.
I am always searching for issues that might be of interest to sangha. It might be something I talked about ten years ago and need to revisit, or something totally novel. If there is a topic or subject you would like addressed, let me know.
A Final Thought – Thanksgiving in Canada and the U.S. started as a time to give thanks to God for a successful harvest. It became an official holiday in the U.S. during the American Civil War as a means to unify a splintered nation. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it official by proclamation in 1942 as a way to boost the economy during war time. It has evolved into a more inclusive period of gratitude, a truly secular holiday with spiritual roots.
Thanksgiving – Gratitude – is a feature of most traditional religions and true gratitude is in short supply these days. Take time this November to embody a spirit of gratitude in our speech and actions. Allow this gratitude to spread like ripples across a still pond to enrich all people, animals, plants, streams, mountains, valleys and clouds. Find a place for blessings to the north, east, south and west. Open your Kokoro (mind/heart/spirit) and let the light from within shine in all directions on all manner of sentient beings. Sharing with others, of our time, materials, spirit, loving kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy without expectation of recompense is the greatest Gatha you can perform.
Love and Gassho . . . Monshin
[i] Buswell, Jr., E. and Lopez, Jr., D. (2014) The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton University Press. p. 782.