Tea House

Daily Perspectives and Stories on Buddhist Trends

Category: Raymond’s Caravan (Page 1 of 5)

Postcard from Raymond: We Never Truly Die

One of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s most eloquent and moving teachings is a summation of Buddhist doctrine about life after death: we do not leave this world until full, total enlightenment. We are integrally part of it and even when our personal time expires on this beautiful but hurting planet, we don’t disappear. Our constituents remain in this cosmos, and the loved ones and friends we leave behind can see us all around them if they just pay attention. This is the message of the Vietnamese teacher when he recounts losing his mother in one of his most personal books:

I opened the door and went outside. The entire hillside was bathed in moonlight. It was a hill covered with tea plants, and my hut was set behind the temple halfway up. Walking slowly in the moonlight through the rows of tea plants, I noticed my mother was still with me. She was the moonlight caressing me as she had done so often, very tender, very sweet… wonderful! Each time my feet touched the earth I knew my mother was there with me. I knew this body was not mine but a living continuation of my mother and my father and my grandparents and great-grandparents. Of all my ancestors. Those feet that I saw as “my” feet were actually “our” feet. Together my mother and I were leaving footprints in the damp soil.

From that moment on, the idea that I had lost my mother no longer existed. All I had to do was look at the palm of my hand, feel the breeze on my face or the earth under my feet to remember that my mother is always with me, available at any time.  — No Death, No Fear (2002)

I would like to leave you with this final, beautiful reflection from the same book. When we feel at such peace with our universe, and when we even have the Dharma’s promise of transcending it, and returning to it over and over again as bodhisattvas—What can we ever be afraid of? What can we ever hate?

I hope you enjoy these messages from Thay as much as I have loved to come back to them over the years.

This body is not me; I am not caught in this body, I am life without boundaries, I have never been born and I have never died. Over there, the wide ocean and the sky with many galaxies. All manifests from the basis of consciousness. Since beginningless time I have always been free. Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out. Birth and death are only a game of hide-and-seek. So smile to me and take my hand and wave good-bye. Tomorrow we shall meet again or even before. We shall always be meeting again at the true source, always meeting again on the myriad paths of life.

What Happens to Our Karma If We Fall Into a Black Hole?

Crossing the event horizon of a black hole (astrophysical bodies born from the inward collapse of a massive star) means no coming back, because a black hole is not just an invisible object, but the collection of happenings that we, who are outside of the black hole, say don’t happen at all. This extraordinary and literal hole in the fabric of spacetime deletes entire occurrences within itself from every external observer’s self-consistent history of the universe. Whoever and whatever crosses a black hole’s event horizon simply stops at the edge to an outside observer is forever stuck there to our eyes, even as that thing or person does cross the event horizon and moves inevitably towards the singularity of infinite gravitational density. It can never be a part of the spatial or temporal region that is our known universe, ever again.

What about that thing’s karma? Karma, as it is classically understood, can only be totally expunged through total liberation from samsara (the attainment of Buddhahood) or intervention through a celestial Buddha. The violent death of Maudgalyayana, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples, is commonly used as an example of the inevitability of karma. This was because he committed matricide and patricide in a previous distant life, and even with the Maudgalyayana’s attainment of arahatship, there was no escaping the severe karma for two of Buddhism’s Five Grave Offences. Like causality itself, karma is like an arrow that chases the sentient being through infinite past lives and infinite future lives, ripening with a ruthless yet not immediately discernable inevitability.

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Meaning-crafting: An Emerging Discourse of Contemporary Buddhist Art

Pond 2007 © Andrea Traber

There is a fascinating group of people shaping contemporary artistic culture in the Buddhist world. Some of them are regular contributors to this website, including Sarah Beasley, Tilly Campbell-Allen, or Tiffani Gyatso, whilst others have been interviewed about their craft (sometimes by our aforementioned artist writers). These individuals include contemporary creators like painter Andrea Traber, calligrapher Alok Hsu Kwang-Han, and sculptor Sukhi Barber, as well as artists who more overtly blend traditional items like thangkas or brocades and other tactile crafts for contemporary needs, like Leslie Rinchen-Wongmo (who specializes in Tibetan applique) and Helene Rein (similarly, a stitcher of Tibetan textiles).

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Buddhist Studies: A Vital Academic Tradition

Bezeklik. From buddhiststudies.berkeley.edu

Is Buddhist Studies elitist? Short answer: ideally, although it depends on how one defines the word. Like every humanities subject, Buddhist Studies can feel like an insular field if it’s not careful. Much of my work as a journalist who loves Buddhist Studies, a subject of which I was a devoted but hardly competent student, has been to ask, in effect, the sharp and groundbreaking scholars I encounter: “What’s at stake here?” in their thesis or research.

It’s a blunt question (I don’t actually phrase it so directly). Yet it’s a crucial one, I believe, that helps PhD students, professors, and other academic professionals articulate their objectives and hopes for what to achieve, be it for their own circle of researchers or when they share their voices with us on Buddhistdoor Global.

But as any Buddhist Studies academic who knows me personally, I’m keen on defending the Buddhist Studies discipline because, when done right, it nudges our understanding of Buddhism toward the right direction (over many years, admittedly, as per the pace of academia): to a more open-ended, curious, and non-dogmatic conception of this great religious organism.

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Postcard from Raymond: The Unseen is the Real

There is a mysterious, imperceptible force from beyond the observable universe yanking our galaxy in a certain and irresistible direction. We can’t stop it.

The cosmic phenomenon known as “dark flow” is controversial, but it describes a flow or peculiar velocity of galaxies towards the Centaurus and Hydra Constellations. The gravitational anomaly called the “Great Attractor” is responsible for this debated flow, and is a concentration of mass tens of thousands of times more gargantuan than our Milky Way galaxy. Yet even the Laniakea Supercluster, which is in that region of the cosmos, does not have enough mass to be able to cause the dark flow.

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Shaolin (2011): A Guilty Pleasure

I have mixed feelings about films that have an overtly religious element, especially when the religion plays a central role in a movie focused on bone-crunching action, head-crushing martial arts, and temple explosions. I class Shaolin, which is an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the martial art masters in Republican-era China, as one such guilty indulgence. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the film. The action and martial arts film lover in me was very happy with it, and I like how the Shaolin monks are depicted faithfully as defenders of the dispossessed and redeemers of superstar Andy Lau’s character, a warlord-turned-monk who forgives the lieutenant that betrayed him (played by Nicholas Tse).

At the heart of the film is not just the redemption of Andy Lau’s character, but the insight that violence and cruelty are cyclical: it takes a big, brave man to break the cycle of revenge by choosing forgiveness, letting go of hate, and transforming enemies in the process. Wu Jing, who is currently China’s most sought-after male star thanks to his role in the wildly popular Wolf Warriors 2, also makes a welcome appearance as one of the more experienced monks. His character dies defending the temple, along Yu Xing’s character (Yu Xing himself is a 32nd generation Shaolin monk).

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Identity in “In the Mood for Love” and “2046”

Chow Mo-wan in “In the Mood for Love”

When work on the film 2046 began before 2004, Hong Kong film star Tony Leung lobbied hard for director Wong Kar-wai to let him grow a mustache. This was because his character, Chow Mo-wan, was totally different to how he was in 2046‘s prequel In the Mood for Love: whereas Chow in Mood was a gentlemanly journalist, 2046‘s Chow was an emotionally hollow hack writing erotic tales and obsessed with the room number “2046,” which serves as the recurring motif of memories concerning his neighbor’s wife, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Leung simply could not recognize the identity of 2046‘s Chow as the same Chow of Mood. Leung needed some visual distinction that would help him concentrate on acting a character he had played to near-perfection before, but whose script he couldn’t meaningfully read as belonging to the same man.

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What was Possible, and What is no Longer: A Buddhist Dimension in La Dolce Vita

A poster of the final scene in La Dolce Vita in Brussels. From Buddhistdoor Global

It’s a classic moment in film, one of quite a few from Federico Fellini’s black and white cinematic masterpiece. The charismatic but emotionally lost gossip columnist Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is at the beach, holding his hands up in bemused resignation as he struggles and fails to discern the shouts of a young girl in the distance. Eventually, he can’t make out her words and leaves. The girl’s name, played by Valeria Ciangottini (she was personally chosen by the director) is Paola and Marcello (Rubini) has seen the character before in a restaurant – a sweet angel from a lost world of innocent affection, when love just meant love and nothing else. What might have happened had he been able to respond to her waving and shouting? The implication is that it would have been an encounter far removed from and superior to his Roman world of fallen aristocrats, broken celebrities, and suicidal intellectuals.

But the causes and conditions just weren’t there. He certainly behaves that way. He doesn’t rush to her. He seems hardly desperate to escape the emptiness of his life and reach for that remote if possible alternative future. His languid posture as he kneels on the sand, his reluctance and even laziness to move at all, speaks of a spiritual lethargy and “giving up” that has crippled him permanently as far as Fellini is concerned. This is no Hollywood where the protagonist cornily realizes the error of his ways and makes amends.

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Exploration and Freedom: Womanhood, Relationships, and Love

Making women’s issues more visible is not just about putting more females in positions of religious authority, like fully ordained bhikkhunis. It is about discussing and acting out ways of relating and loving that women feel liberated by and unleash everyone’s potential to provide fulfillment, satisfaction, and even enlightenment for others. When it comes to the thorny subject of love, I want to look at relationships beyond the simple dichotomy of non-attachment or pure passion and possession. Life is not so simple and I firmly believe that Buddhism understands this.

I was struck and inspired by a post from fellow blogger Lyudmila Klasanova, which was about the “Dharmodaya”: a sacred tetrahedron that symbolizes the female reproductive organ and the source of wisdom and birth.

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Is Pure Land Buddhism a “Mystic” Tradition?

The Cathedral of Ávila. From Buddhistdoor Global

A groundbreaking conference between Teresian sisters and priests and Buddhist scholars and monastics has just concluded at the University of Mysticism in Avila, Spain. During our time here among new friends and Carmelite masters, I had the chance to visit many churches in the Old City (the UNESCO-listed complex behind the grand walled fortifications) and those beyond the walls, each of which hold a piece of the life of Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, or some other Christian figure associated with the Discalced Carmelite Order. Within each sublime structure we were reminded of the simultaneous grandeur and humility of the contemplative life, which demands a retreat from the lies and futility of the world and an inner turning that results in the elevation of the human being and a union with God.

So, we turn inwards single-mindedly. What of the single-minded determination to become a Buddha, which is the ultimate goal in Mahayana Buddhism? What of the path to achieving Buddhahood, the quickest and most effective of which is total reliance on Amitabha Buddha’s 18th Vow and one-minded invocation of his Name? Isn’t this Buddhist anthropology also one of the highest elevation, of an evolution through bodhi to Buddhahood that parallels the metamorfosis of the Carmelite mystic into something God-like, a true human of light and love unified with all of God?

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