Archive for September, 2012

Nalanda University

Nalanda University

by Jeffrey Brooks

The monks attending Nalanda University were there for refuge.

They knew that only through their Buddhist training could they overcome sickness, old age and death. They could not escape them by hiding, by becoming powerful, by secret incantations or medicines, by prayer or philosophy or pleasure or by accustoming their body to grim austerities.

These monks had seen clearly that the only real refuge from human suffering comes from insight, in their own mind, into the way things exist.

The refuge they were seeking was not in the person of the Buddha. That person, that man, could not physically protect them from suffering and death. The Dharma, his words, written in books, could not act on their own to protect the monks. The Sangha, the community of monks who lived and studied and practiced together could not protect one another, ultimately, either.

But they knew that the insights that arose in the mind of the Buddha could protect them, completely, because these monks could study them and share them, because their minds and the Buddha’s mind existed in exactly the same way.

By studying the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, these monks would learn how to act and speak and think in a way that would create conditions in their lives that would enable them to pass through the gates of death and into a new life free from suffering forever.

And these monks knew the enlightened Sangha, the monks who had followed this way of life before and completed the path could guide this new generation by their example and their words to refuge; leading these monks to their own realization, and to the end of suffering.

These Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, were the only true refuge from sickness, old age and death.

That is why these monks came to Nalanda University.

They came to learn what the Buddha taught, and Nalanda University was set up so they could live out the teachings in the company of like-minded spiritual friends, every day of their lives, or for as long as they stayed.

In India at the time it was widely recognized that the Buddha taught something no one had ever taught before. This meant that, for the first time in history, a human being had a way to put an end to suffering completely.

The Buddha taught that everyone suffers. King or slave, merchant or warrior, priest or farmer, everyone suffers.

He taught that the suffering has a cause. It is not random and it is not uncaused.

He taught that there is an end to suffering. We do not have to simply tolerate it or scheme and struggle unthinkingly in a vain effort to get out of it.

He taught there is a path to the end of suffering. He described a way of conducting our lives which will lead, inevitably and in every case, to the cessation of suffering.

These monks heard about it. They saw the suffering of people all around them. They wanted to learn what to do about it.

By the fifth century, about a thousand years after the death of the Buddha, Nalanda University had become the major center of learning for the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.

The Buddha himself had taught at the place many times during his lifetime, when it was a mango grove, a seven mile walk from Rajagraha, the capital of Magadha where he lived. They say that five hundred merchants bought the grove and donated it to the Buddha and his followers.

Some of the Buddha’s most famous disciples, like Shariputra, studied there and departed the world from the place that would become Nalanda.

Over the centuries, as the advanced philosophical system of Mahayana was developing, the story goes, a group of 500 monks decided to create a center for study and practice at Nalanda. Their center rose and flourished and within a few hundred years, vanished.

King Ashok memorialized them in the second century, building a temple there, and supporting a community of monks. Nalanda began to grow again.

By the fifth century kings and emperors had supported the school continually for hundreds of years. The library contained tens of thousands of manuscripts – the entire Buddhist canon and commentaries, along with investigations into science and mathematics, medicine and geography, language and logic, astronomy and epistemology, the greatest collection of human wisdom ever written down – and soon there were more than 10,000 monks studying and living there, along with 2,000 teachers, from every country in the known world.

The foundations of eight huge monastery complexes and hundreds of monks’ cells are still visible there today. No more monks chanting though. No debates. No bells ringing in the Dharma Hall. Just the birds and crickets and the wind.

In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism the concern of practice extends beyond the cessation of one’s own suffering. The method goes beyond considering the condition of your own life, to concern with the lives of all beings. Your method of spiritual development is taking care of everyone, making everyone’s happiness your own personal responsibility.

This was as hard for those monks to do as it is for us.

But through training in kindness, in ethics, in deep mental clarity and insight, in a world that valued this training above everything else, they did it.

In the Mahayana tradition the training period may last for 20 or 30 years or more, and the intensity of practice pushes the intellect and the powers of reasoning, insight and observation, beyond normal limits. The monks at Nalanda were doing Olympic level competitive mind-training for a lifetime. They got good at it. They wrote down what they learned, and how they learned it.  Their research and practice deepened for 1,500 years. They have handed it down to us.

It was from Nalanda University that the traditions of Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti and Shantideva flowed. They were professors there. The logic tradition of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, the vast teachings of Asanga and Vasubandu and their successors brought Buddhism to the height of its development.

The conditions in ancient India were perfect for this.

Like the Himalayas, out of this place and time human capacity towered above anything that had been accomplished before or since.

After endless time, endless trial and effort, endless suffering people discovered where they could find true refuge, true human freedom. It was discovered by the Buddha and it was transmitted from master to student from generation to generation.

And like the Himalayas this uplift of human possibility was neither uniform nor permanent.

By the turn of the twelfth century, Buddhism was in decline in India. The tranquil atmosphere of ancient times was gone, and the concerns of people were changing.

Nalanda had received students from around the world, and Buddhist teachers had traveled from Nalanda to train monks at other Indian Buddhist Universities in Tibet, Kashmir, and Nepal, in China, and Korea, in Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, and Burma, in what are now Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, Greece, the eastern Mediterranean, and beyond.

The Muslim invasions of India had been going on for hundreds of years by the twelfth century. But now, as the contemporary Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, in his history called the Tabaqat-I-Nasiri, reported: “thousands of Nalanda monks were burned alive and thousands more were beheaded as the Turkish General Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism and plant Islam by the sword”… Minhaj-i-Siraj notes: The burning of the library continued for several months and “smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.”

While a monk from Tibet was visiting Nalanda about 20 years after this destruction he wrote that one day about 300 Turks descended upon Nalanda and killed everyone left there, except himself and the abbot, who hid in one of the two remaining buildings.

Buddhism teaches that everything that arises from causes will cease to exist as those causes withdraw.

The causes for the birth of the Buddha and the influence of his teaching in India shifted slowly at first and then rapidly. The Buddha’s teachings were gone from India after the 13th century.

The Nalanda teachings, believed by many to be the greatest philosophical and religious achievement of human beings, were most completely preserved in Tibet, where the culture supported deep Mahayana practice for another six centuries after the destruction in India.

Then, when another tyranny overran the Buddhist institutions there in the 20th century, killing the monks and burning the libraries, the Dharma, led by the Dalai Lama, went back across the Himalayas to its former home, in India.

From there, when its Tibetan vessel was smashed, its seeds were cast out upon the wind and flew everywhere around the world.

I wonder what those Nalanda monks thought when they faced the swords and clubs and flames of Khilji’s men?

One account says that General Khilji believed he was attacking a fort when he slaughtered the monks and burned the libraries at Nalanda. There are some who do not believe this, and think it was just a way of explaining the violence. But he may not have needed to explain the violence, thinking it was entirely wise and proper to uproot and destroy all of this, a good way to make a statement about the futility of resistance, and in any event restraint was not commonplace in an invasion.

It is possible that he was being completely candid.  Maybe Nalanda looked like a fort to him. It had high walls and huge, elaborate stone buildings. He may have thought there would be no other purpose for buildings like these other than fortification.

Buddhism teaches that to a great degree our habits of mind color the world we see around us. He may have seen Nalanda as a fort, without being able to see what its inhabitants saw. He was accustomed to attacking, accustomed to encountering enemies, so that is what he saw when he got to Nalanda.

He assumed these strangers valued what he valued. After all people build what they value.

Once it was Stonehenge and the pyramids, to orient people in time and space, and make order in a random universe.

Then, when raiders raided farms and farmers wanted to hang on to their stuff, castles and fortified cities with high walls became the biggest building projects. It was what people really cared about.

After a while, when things settled down, in Europe it was cathedrals that were the biggest building projects; that’s where power was centered and life was focused.

Then skyscrapers, announcing corporate power to the world.

Then shopping malls.

Now hospitals are the biggest and most expensive construction projects in most of our cities. We build them as a refuge from sickness, old age and death. But we know, as those Nalanda monks knew long ago, that there is no way we can find refuge in buildings.

I wonder what those monks did when they saw the massed and mounted army riding into the ancient stone courtyard of Nalanda.

The monks might have been complacent when they saw their killers approach. No one had really ever attacked them before. They may have had the presumption of innocents, thinking, naively, that since they are nice and well-intentioned that the world will like them and be nice to them.

They might have been terrified and tried to hide.

They might have questioned their refuge vows and wondered what ancient, hidden karma could ripen as this horror.

They might have been immensely courageous, inflamed with outrage, in defiance lifted their bare hands to drag their murderers from their horses to the ground and rip the swords from their hands, and figuring what to do next.

They might have been unafraid of death; recognizing that their greatest challenge and the most important moment of their lives was unfolding just then, and with complete equanimity maybe they could see the truth that their life had arisen based on conditions and it would inevitably end when those conditions were withdrawn, and that more important than life itself was having compassion for their murderers who, they could see, were motivated by an inner blaze of hate and desire, and who would inevitably reap the karma in the fires of hell for their cruelty.

Maybe those well-trained monks left the world thinking that their murderers were lost, soon to suffer immensely and endlessly, for no purpose, while they, the monks, were triumphant, victors in a degree of self mastery that would take them through death to a rebirth of unimaginable peace and joy.

Who knows what they thought. And who knows the minds of those Turks? Maybe they were cruel and stupid. Maybe some were nice. Maybe they did what they had to do. Maybe they delighted in murder and forced submission. Maybe they believed that they were extinguishing ignorance and establishing the truth in the only proper way. We can’t know what they thought.

But we can say what the monks studied is something we would like to study. And we can say that the behavior of the murderers is something we would like to avoid. No problem.

And we can wonder what we would have done if we had been in Nalanda that day.

Would we have run off to hide, until things settled down?

Would we have protected the monks with our utmost skill and our last breath and drop of blood?

Would we have joined the attackers, wanting to be on the winning team?

Would we have become one of the monks taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha jewels, sure in our knowledge that that is the only place that we can find real refuge?

We do not have to speculate on this question. This is not a thought experiment.

We will have to make the choice, if not right now then very soon.


I Decide to Be Grateful

I Decide To Be Grateful

by Susan Downing

One thing we mothers do is carry our children within our body, as part of us, for nine months before we go through the process of passing those sons or daughters out into the world.  Although from this point on our children are no longer part of our physical body, they never cease to be part of us, not for a moment.

It’s not surprising, then, that since my son Mike deployed to Afghanistan this past week, I’ve come face to face with a host of disturbing emotions. Worry, fear, sadness – they all come up, and they’re all connected to a circumstance I’ve never experienced before. Sure I’ve worried about Mike in the past, but never as intensely as now.  So, when I felt the first wave of disturbance roll in last weekend, after his group had headed out, it was a big, strong wave.  But it didn’t take long for me to realize: yes, this is a new situation for me, and these particular negative emotions are more intense than I’ve felt before, but they are negative emotions, and I have a method for dealing with those.  It’s a decision making process.

When I feel a knot forming in my stomach or my breathing quickens or sadness begins to seep in, I have a choice to make.  I could allow myself to be taken over by them and become so distracted that all I feel is the disturbance, so paralyzed that I can’t think of or concentrate on anything else.  I could spend my days imagining all sorts of awful scenarios and whipping myself up into an emotional frenzy.  Or I can be grateful.

This is what I choose to do: I redirect my mind from fear or worry or sadness to gratitude.  Naturally, this is easier to do at some moments than at others. Sometimes I feel a shift in my mental state immediately. Sometimes after a few minutes.  Sometimes after a few hours. But it always shifts.  And each shift feels like a little victory over the disturbance in my mind that is trying to hold my mind captive. But I don’t have time to be distracted.  Nor do I want to be.  I have responsibilities toward others and I’m dedicated to carrying them out.  My practice helps me do that.

I’ll tell you some of the thoughts I use to redirect my mind, because although you may or may not have a son or brother or husband or other family member who is currently deployed, I know that you do have times when disturbing emotions threaten to take over your mind.  You can train your mind to focus on gratitude, too.

When worries crowd into my brain, I shift the focus of my thoughts: I think about how much I admire Mike for his courage and dedication. I focus on how proud I am that he chose to put himself at risk to help make it possible for others to live happier, more peaceful lives. I feel grateful that Mike, his fellow Marines, and others who serve in the military are serving for the sake of us at home as well as the people in the towns around them there.  I am grateful for my practice that helps sustain me and for Mike’s practice that helps sustain him.  I am grateful for the Buddha for reaching enlightenment and for giving the rest of us a path we can follow, too.  I am grateful to all who have preserved and taught and translated the dharma so that my fellow practitioners and I could have access to these life-saving teachings.  Finally, I am grateful for the circumstances in my life right now that challenge me to practice in spite of the challenges, and for the practice that enables me to make good use of those challenges to strengthen both my resolve and, in turn, my practice.

This is my practice, every day, sometimes every hour, as often as necessary: I decide to be grateful.  And I am.


Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher

Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher

by Jeffrey Brooks

At a public talk a Chinese woman asked the Dalai Lama about a matter that was very troubling to her.

She told him about some men traveling in China, dressed in the saffron and maroon robes of Tibetan Buddhist monks. These men called themselves “Dharma Rajas” or “Kings of Buddhist Teachings” and attracted many followers in China.

But, this woman said, these men were only interested in getting money from their followers and having sex with the female disciples.

The Dalai Lama had been speaking to his Chinese audience about practicing Buddhism today. He said that today people give great care to their bodies – meaning they seek comforts and pleasures and are very interested in clothing and appearance – but they treat the Buddha’s teaching as “something lower than the bones left over from their meals that they would feed to a dog.”

He does not speak this way to western audiences. But to Asian Buddhists, who have longer experience with Buddhism, he is frank.

The Chinese woman asked the Dalai Lama, “What can we do about corrupt phonies like this, who go around disgracing the Buddha’s teaching, and abusing the sincere people who come to them for help and understanding?”

The Dalai Lama was very direct in his response. He told her these followers have no one to blame but themselves. According to Buddhist teachings, he explained, it is essential for each of us who seek out a teacher to examine the teacher’s character and ability scrupulously for as long at it takes to determine, confidently, for ourselves, that this teacher is capable and good.

This is a very different response than she was expecting. She seemed to expect the Dalai Lama to swoop down on the phonies with his dharma squad, discredit them and announce forcefully that people should not study with them or follow them.

Instead he said it is up to each of us. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and our training.

This kind of careful evaluation of a prospective teacher is the opposite of what too often happens when people seek out training in martial arts and in Buddhism. It is normal for people find their way to a dojo or a dharma center hopefully but casually, by accident or by advertising, and, taking for granted that it’s all about the same, get seduced by a sales pitch.  Then, after putting a little time and money into the relationship, declare their teacher the greatest teacher and their style the greatest style and thus validate their path and privilege their judgment over all others.

This is commonplace, it is naive and it is corrupt.

It is common to all religions. It causes unhappiness, limits people’s intelligence, reduces their freedom, and it often leads to friction and even violence on the way to decline.

In the “Mitra Varga” or “Verses about Friends” it says

People degenerate by relying on those inferior to themselves

By relying on equals, they stay the same

By relying on those superior, they attain excellence

Thus rely on those who are superior to yourself.

If you rely on whoever is superior – thoroughly

And endowed with ethical wisdom

And exceeding wisdom

You will become superior even to those who are superior.

In the “Sutra Lamkara” it says

Rely on a teacher of Buddhism who is disciplined, serene, thoroughly pacified;

Has good qualities surpassing those of the students;

Is energetic;

Has a wealth of scriptural knowledge;

Possessing loving concern;

Has thorough knowledge of reality and skill in instructing disciples,

And has abandoned dispiritedness

We can understand through Buddhism that if we are deceived by a teacher it is a result of our own karma. That does not absolve the corrupt and abusive teachers or political leaders or radicals from the evil they do. But it does tell us that the responsibility is ours to choose well and to deal with the consequences if we don’t.

According to Buddhist teaching we now live in the age of decline. We live in the time when, 2,500 years after the historical Buddha came into the world, people no longer are able follow the Buddha’s teachings. Even though the teachings themselves are present in books and are as valid as they ever were, the cultural conditions have declined to the point where, according to sutra, political leaders no longer support morality, people are primarily concerned with sex and money, minds are disturbed and bodies are sick.

During this age of decline, according to sutra, there are countless Bodhisattvas, great spiritual practitioners, at large in the universe, who keep the teachings alive by manifesting the teachings, by living out the profound wisdom and kindness in them, who maintain a karmic connection with the Buddhas past and future, and work tirelessly to return to the world and by sharing the dharma, save beings from suffering.

In an age when it is not unusual to encounter people who believe that most of the world is your enemy, that happiness will come from sex and money, that whoever dies with the most stuff wins, that we should kill people to express our grievances, that lying is to be expected, that we should brutalize and enslave people who criticize us, that we should hide when frightened and placate our oppressors, it is difficult to practice well.

But despite all the imperfections of our age and the limits of our own lives, we do have some freedom even now. A few blessings, a clear mind, a healthy body, friends around us. A few moments of peace in the morning and evening for practice. The energy to do some good for someone every day.

One of these blessings is that we get to hear this: the Great Bodhisattvas are everywhere. Around us and within us. They will appear to us to guide us immediately, in infinite ways, as soon as we want them.

And that we can join with them right now.


Model Home, Model Citizens

Model Home, Model Citizens

by Susan Downing

Lately I’ve been watching a recent Russian mini-series, a 22-part saga of the lives of several families living a fancy apartment building, beginning in Soviet times in 1924, and running up into the post-Soviet period.  I’d translate its literal title “The Building with the Exemplary Content” as “Model Home, Model Citizens.” This title doesn’t refer to an empty apartment potential residents can view.  Rather, it suggests that this building and those who inhabit it are exemplary role models of architecture and citizenry.  A variety of families moves in and out of these apartments, but the main family we follow is the Mirskys.  It is Dmitry – husband and father and celebrated architect – who designed this apartment building, this “model home.”

When Mirsky brings his soon-to-be wife Rosa to his apartment for the first time, in 1924, she is in awe of her much older husband’s art collection, which includes a Picasso given to him by the artist himself, as well as a Chagall and many other paintings by prominent Russian masters. These paintings play a prominent role not only in the later part of the series, when a cunning mafia band manages to steal them, but earlier, too.

Dmitry’s talents bring him to the attention of Stalin’s inner circle, and he is offered the opportunity to head up the work on Moscow’s most central architectural projects during the 1930s.  Although these projects run counter to his own creative vision, he tells Rosa that to refuse would jeopardize his future as an architect.  And so, Mirsky compromises his principles and accepts the position.  Nonetheless, he continues to be plagued by reservations, by doubts, by dissatisfaction, and by the fear that despite this compromise, everything will come crashing down around him.

He has good reason to be afraid.  We are now in the time of Stalin’s purges.  The Mirksys, along with their friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbors, are living under the very real threat that they’ll be targeted by government officials advancing their own political agendas or denounced by fellow model citizens looking to safeguard their own positions, arrested, and put in prison for a decade or two, their families left with little or no information about them.

The model home’s residents are all afraid, so afraid that, essentially, they can’t think straight.  So, they employ a variety of methods to try to both keep both fear and danger at bay. Some drink. Some inform on others.  Some steal.  Some compromise in other ways, both professionally and personally.  Others, like Dmitry, take refuge in a series of lovers.  Only Rosa (who, by the way, is just as afraid as everyone else) concentrates her energy on preserving her family, keeping her young son Borya close, and doing what she can to help others.

Manipulating others’ fear in order to advance his own career is a specialty of model home resident Gleb Ivanovich Chapaikin, who moves steadily upward in the government internal security structures, i.e., the KGB.  In the course of the series, he is directly or indirectly responsible for the arrests or deaths of more than 10 of the building’s residents and their relatives or colleagues.  And he’s friends with the Mirskys, particularly with the Mirskys’ live-in housekeeper Zina, who, in a fit of pique (over Dmitry’s rejection of her and his unborn child she’s carrying) pens a denunciation of Dmitry.

No matter that she regrets what she’s done as soon as she’s done it. She can’t undo it.  It’s 1941, and her denunciation leads to Dmitry’s arrest. When Rosa visits the prison to try to get news of him, she learns that he’s been sentenced to 10 years in prison without the right to correspondence. She returns home to her son Borya in the model apartment building (the housekeeper has fled to her home village) and begins to find a way to live, a way to sustain her family without her husband.

It’s now more important than ever for Rosa to avoid compromising herself, because with Dmitry in prison, it’s up to her to find a job and keep the family afloat. But that’s not all.  It’s wartime, and everyone in the building is affected: she and Borya have to evacuate to Tashkent; two young men in their building die fighting the Germans, one of them leaving behind a wife and baby; Chapaikin moves up the career ladder and feels pressure to enhance his status as his young family grows; the building superintendent uses a forged docuemtn to take over Rosa’s apartment and pays off some workmen with one of Mirksy’s paintings. So when Rosa and Borya return, the first thing they notice when they manage to get their apartment back is the blank spot on the wall. The painting is restored to them, but not without additional threats and heartaches and not before Dmitry’s brother is nearly sent away after making a false confession that he had stolen the painting.

In other words, Rosa, like everyone else, has been facing a long series of unthinkable challenges, and yet her devotion to her imprisoned husband and her son enables her (and thus, Borya, too) to stay afloat while those around them spin out of control in an ongoing cycle of betrayal and unhappiness.

It is now 1950. We see Rosa standing in her apartment, holding an official envelope.  She opens and finds an official letter notifying her that Dmitry’s sentence has been extended for 10 year.  Borya walks into the room.  When he sees his mother starting to cry, and asks what’s happened, she says to him,”Borya, our Papa is alive.”

We viewers realize that for 9 years, from the time Rosa and Borya found out Dmitry had been sentenced to his initial 10 years, they have had no news of or from him at all, until right now.  But for Rosa at this moment, there is no sadness.  No focus on the fact that her beloved husband’s sentence has been extended. He is simply alive, and right now, she can feel nothing but gratitude.

But that’s not all.   In the last episode, after Rosa’s own son, grandson and great-grandson all willingly sacrifice others’ welfare for their own personal or professional gain; after her great-grandson Mitya steals the prized Picasso and Chagall to pay off a debt to his fellow gangsters and is himself then killed by them to secure his silence, leaving his pregnant wife; after Chapaikin in a fit of conscience during a giant family dinner where all the remaining live relatives are in attendance, confides to Rosa that his own ambition led to Zina’s denunciation and Dmitry’s arrest and spills the beans about how Dmitry was the father of Zina’s daughter, whose own daughter and grandchildren Rosa has just taken in… After learning all of this, Rosa  simply says, happily, “I always said that I wanted a big family, and now I have one.”

Maybe it seems unbelievable or unrealistic that Rosa was able to muster the strength to cultivate and nourish and maintain her habit of gratitude and decency in the face of the distraction of terror or the lure of personal gain.  But she was able to, and she did it by developing a practice of sorts for herself: she learned how to consistently redirect her mind from focusing on fear to focusing on love and gratitude.  And she used this technique to move through all the horrible events of her life with her compassion and principles and relationships intact.  Rosa, it turns out, is the most model of model citizens, and the other characters in the series recognize and admire that in her.  And the youngest generation strives to emulate her.

As we all can.


Before Eating

Before Eating

by Jeffrey Brooks

When we sit down to eat

It is good to pause and give a moment to the people who planted the seeds the food grew from or which fed the creatures who feed us

Some people paid attention to what they were doing, making sure they did it well, so the food would grow

They took care of the fields and the plants

And picked them at the right time

Then some people brought it to our area, from nearby or from far away

And some people put it out on a shelf for us to buy

And some one prepared it and set it out for us

And we can recognize our connection with them

And honor them

We can repay their efforts

By thinking of how much work goes in to providing us with something to eat

And how much benefit we receive by having this food

We honor them by using the nourishment and energy we get from our food

To take care of the beings who depend on us

The ones we know well

The ones we know a little bit

And the ones we never see

And will never meet or even hear about

But whose lives we touch in many ways, continually

By the quality of everything we do