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Category: Postcard from Raymond (Page 1 of 2)

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.

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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Postcard from Raymond: Pale Blue Dot

I love nothing more than having my assumptions demolished. I enjoy being put in my place. This is not some masochistic desire to be debased or humiliated. Rather, I find it liberating to see how small we really are in the cosmos, via images of space and all kinds of beginner-friendly astronomical analyses. It was the writer Carl Sagan who put it best on 13 October 1994. When giving a speech at Cornell University he mentioned the Pale Blue Dot photo, taken by the Voyager 1 space probe on 14 February 1990, 6 billion kilometres from Earth. Earth appears as a tiny, almost indiscernible speck on the image against the vastness of space. Sagan’s profound words are worth quoting in full:

“We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there—on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

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Postcard from Raymond: The Gaze of the Divine

“Look at me. Behold, encounter, and meet me.” Two of my favourite expressions of sacred art can be found in Cave 148 at the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhuang, along the Chinese route of the Silk Road, and the beloved icon of the Holy Trinity in the Orthodox Church. While all art forms of the holy presume some form of physical or emotional engagement with the devotee or viewer, these two specific artistic forms demand to meet your eyes, quite literally. For the eyes are windows to the soul (figuratively in the Buddhist mind), and what better to invite human wonder and devotion than for the divine itself to meet our eyes?

The Buddha in Cave 148 is of Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha of our world-system. He is in his state of Parinirvana, in a position of final repose as he leaves the world of existence and non-existence tracelessly. His head and body are massive, dwarfing the visitors that shuffle into the yawning, man-made cavern. Move slightly to the left or right of the Buddha’s head, and you will see something extraordinary – the Buddha gazing at you tranquilly, eyes shifting, silently attentive to your presence. It is an intentional illusion put in place by the long-gone sculptor – one that goes a step beyond the usual Dunhuang setup of having the Buddhas and bodhisattvas “meet” your gaze when you prostrate before them (there are several caves with statues that do this). That is, after all, the position you should approach the enlightened ones with.

There is no concept of Original Sin in the Orthodox Church – a concept that has plagued the Latin Church with guilt for more than a thousand years. The Trinitarian motif is also, I find, far more affirming than the Western Church. Three angels are seated at table, representing the Three Persons in One God. Yet there is an empty seat at the table, the one that is closest to the viewer. The viewer is invited to join the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost at the table, in full communion. Only then will the feast be complete.

Holy art that meets the viewer’s gaze with its own invokes the meeting between mortal creatures of decay and consecrated eyes. This art compels confession and conversion. It transforms lives and makes us aware of the greater forces behind them: presences beyond the stars and outside of the universe. Where their eyes wander, we scramble to go too.

Postcard from Raymond: The Old Gods

A scene from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

What is a god?

Human figures with the heads of animals are intentionally absurd images. They look frightening, ridiculous, inexplicably endearing. They arrest us, shake us out of our dull, seen-it-all before everyday complacency and force us to take a second look at them because they reveal themselves as intentionally strange beings. In ancient Egypt, people envisaged their divinities metaphorically, as beings representing worlds beyond the boundaries of human knowledge.

The god of the sun “is like” a falcon that soars across the sky, and a deity that is fertile and virile has the head of a cow or bull. The gods use a visual language to show us that their abilities go beyond the five senses and our normal perceptions, that they have powers that we see as part of the cosmos and the natural world.

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Postcard from Raymond: What is Dharma?

 

Dharma is the cosmic law of reality. It is simultaneously the Buddha’s teaching, meaning two very important things. First, it means that the Buddhist teachings and reality itself are one and the same; they correspond to each other. The Dharma is the fount of all things which lies beyond the universe and the wheel of becoming.

Secondly, since Dharma is beginningless and endless, the Buddha did not invent this teaching out of thin air. He discovered it as Siddhartha Gautama, and by attaining Buddhahood, Siddhartha became a perfect embodiment of the Dharma. Every Buddha represents the Dharma, and point to “the way things really are” in their own unique way. To gain insight is to know Dharma, and become one with it as a bodhisattva and then finally a Buddha. Namo Amitabha!

Postcard from Raymond: Cosmic Lotus

From bestyleshare.online

What will I see when I leave this world? Will my “sight” even be the kind of visual “seeing” that I’ve known all my life? What will I hear when I have no auditory organs?

What will I bring with me when I sigh farewell?

Nothing.

I will have nothing.

I can take zilch, nada with me to the grave, the crematorium, or the seas where I might be sprinkled like flakes dissolving into a great foam of abyssal waters.

I am nourishment-in-waiting for the creatures and bacteria that feed on expired engines of fluid and meat.

But I am also made from the cooled gas and minerals of exploded stars. I am stardust from cosmic entities that suffuse the universe. Suffusing spacetime and consciousness itself is the invocation “Namo Amitabha Buddha,” which was revealed to mysterious visionaries in the Indic wilderness. We’ve received a personal invitation from a place beyond existence and nonexistence. We respond with our devotion and faith in “Namo Amitabha Buddha” and await our welcome.

I have no eyes in the earthly sense. But I can glimpse the celestial, inner flesh of a bud. I have no mortal sense of touch, but I can feel its softness. I have no more human ears, yet I can hear the most delightful music and gentle intonations. I take no breath, yet I gasp in joy.

Postcard from Raymond: How interconnected do you feel?

This image is a simulation of the “cosmic web,” a network of the scaffolding holding together the structure of the universe. This structure constitutes galaxies, dark matter, the gas that coalesces into stars, and “filaments”: regions of galaxy clusters woven together through what resembles slender, cobweb-like threads. This image from UC Riverside highlights how these filaments’ galactic properties formed the backbone of the cosmic web and the stars we see throughout our reality.

If we think about it, isn’t it extraordinary that, we human beings that are literal constituents of the universe—we are made from it—able to map it, to chart it, to study it to even the limited extent we have? At the same time we congratulate ourselves as the beings that the universe has chosen to help it understand itself, we should remain humble in the face of the unfathomable interconnectedness that we share with not just all beings but with all matter seen and unseen in the cosmos, reaching back into the untraceable deep past and onward into the infinite future.

It is true that the endless darkness can be frightening. But doesn’t this “web” almost remind one of a cosmic incarnation of Charlotte the spider, weaving a beautiful gossamer lace of stars while nurturing and advising the lonely pig Wilbur?

And we haven’t even gotten into the profundity of what lies beyond—the life after our life in this inconceivable organism of the universe… and the insight that was briefly unveiled by a sage on this little blue and green planet.

Postcard from Raymond: The Phoenix and the Lion

Medieval China. The Tang dynasty has been toppled and from the chaos rises an incredible woman with a monastic courtier helping to pull the strings. The brilliant, tenacious, and fearless Wu Zetian (624-705) was China’s first and only empress and her alliance with one of the most powerful monks of the day, Huayan preceptor Fazang (643-712), was a theocratic marriage unlike any other. Mindful of Confucian bias against her and in search of religious legitimation, she styled herself as a “chakravartin,” a Buddhist monarch, and Fazang helped sanction her sovereignty, promote her reputation as a bodhisattva, and undermine and suppress her enemies both in and beyond China.

Fazang personally taught to Wu Zetian a performative metaphor using a lion made of gold. The lion was the cosmos and its various parts the phenomena of reality. The gold represented emptiness. The lion clearly had a mane, teeth, claws and eyes, but the essential “what” of the lion, gold, was the same. Differences are all superficial in the integrated, interconnected universe of Buddhism.

This alliance ended unhappily when Fazang threw his lot in with his patron’s conspirators. In 705 he forced her to relinquish the Dragon Throne. For a while, this throne had been straddled by a true phoenix. On her deathbed, the former empress felt hurt and betrayed by Fazang, whom she had trusted for so long. Yet Fazang saw himself as saving Buddhism from being identified by the upcoming emperors as a rogue religion for a woman who would be seen by Confucians, however justly or unjustly, as an illegitimate usurper.

Their tragic story is a classic and emotional tale of Buddhism’s pressure under Confucianism, the “damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t” status of women, and how an ex-concubine and a monk tried to navigate the hypocrisies and fickleness of imperial power… even if it cost them each other.

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Postcard from Raymond: Tianzi’s Dream

Artwork by tree27, DeviantArt

“We saw the most extraordinary sight,” a disheveled Emperor Ming would exclaim to his courtiers at daybreak. A vision of a radiant, golden… man? A deity? Something like that. He had no idea what it could compare to. It certainly looked like a human, with some unusual features like curled tufts of hair in the shape of sea shells. And those eyes, those unearthly, almost ludicrously tranquil eyes that indicated a world beyond even the worlds of the spirits and ancestors! The Daoist priests couldn’t ascertain the origin of this golden man. But some astute advisors suggested that the being in his dream seemed to physically resemble men from the land of yogis and ascetics to the west. Murmurs began to circulate at court about some earthen-robed men who had followed the camels from Parthia and Kushan into Luoyang.

The son of heaven’s eyes brightened. “We dreamed this dream and saw this golden man after they arrived. It can’t be a coincidence. Where can We find these monks? Locate them at once. They will show Us their Way.”

It was then in the middle of the first century of the Common Era. The Way of the originally foreign faith, which had left faint and unfamiliar echoes even before the Han dynasty, would soon become the Way of the courtly Dharma in China – and rapidly spread from its imperial confines to the common subjects of Tianzi. It was the beginning of when China saw Buddhism, and Buddhism saw China. Their worlds would never be the same.

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