The Tricycle Foundation is dedicated to making Buddhist teachings and practices broadly available. Tricycle soon became the leading independent journal of Buddhism in the West, where it continues to be the most inclusive and widely read vehicle for the dissemination of Buddhist views and values.
Once a monk asked Changsha, Zen Master Jingcen, ‘How do you turn mountains, rivers, and the great earth into the self?’
Changsha said, ‘How do you turn the self into mountains, rivers, and the great earth?’
—“Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors” by Dogen Zenji,
from Treasury of The True Dharma Eye,
ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi and Peter Levitt
Wilderness birthed the mind, whose deep roots and flowering branches evolved not in the cities of our invention but in nature’s challenging and instructive embrace. Maybe that’s why the Buddha liked to go back there to recalibrate. Maybe that’s why, when John the Baptist and Jesus wanted to be reborn, they stepped into a river outside of town. Maybe that’s why in India, for millennia, those who want to re-imagine their humanity have dropped part or all of their clothing and stepped into the jungle.
“To study the buddha way is to study the self,” goes the oft-repeated quote from Dogen Zenji, the medieval Buddhist philosopher who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan. “To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things.”
To be actualized by the myriad things one has to get out of the way, to let them be and learn from them. This is the Sabbath of awakening, where one stops creating and, in this rest, can begin to attune to the created. By releasing the weaving of our human selves, we can see how they are woven from the confluence of all things. As Dogen writes, “That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.”
Dogen, like most great Buddhist sages, lived on the edge of the wild, building monasteries on the edge of civilization where unadulterated nature could still be encountered. Traditionally, Buddhist monasteries dedicated to serious meditation practice are situated in or near the wilderness, modeling themselves after the Buddha, who spent most of his life living outside India’s growing urban world amid trees and animals. The Thai forest tradition, in which I was ordained as a monk, prized going on thudong, or wandering in the wilderness, and its great heroes attained spiritual awakening deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia, often with wild elephants and tigers and the teeming world of vegetation and insects as their only companions.
“Know that without mountain colors and valley sounds, [Shakyamuni Buddha’s] taking up the flower and [Huike’s] attaining the marrow would not have taken place,” wrote Dogen in the essay Valley Sounds, Mountain Colors, quoted above. “Because of the power of valley sounds and mountain colors, the Buddha with the great earth and sentient beings simultaneously attains the way, and countless buddhas become enlightened upon seeing the morning star.”
In this interpretation, Buddhists have a “selfish” reason for protecting the wilderness. Our humanity, and our awakening, may depend on it. To that end, monks and nuns in Thailand and other Buddhist countries have moved to preserve stretches of the wild within the confines of monastic properties.
Of course, the reasons to protect the wilderness are much deeper and broader than just as a place to meditate. We now know and have known for some time that trying to divorce ourselves from the cycles of nature and ignoring our responsibility can, at best, succeed only in the short term. It is now widely acknowledged in the scientific community that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event, one entirely triggered by human activity. It is clear that much of the biodiversity of the world is already gone due to the way we live, and that much more of it will go.
The Living Planet Index of the World Wildlife Fund reported at the end of 2018 that from 1970 to 2014, there was a 60 percent overall decline in the population of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Another recent report, published in the journal Biological Conservation, found that more than 40 percent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, risking what the report’s authors call a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.” In one 2017 report on the loss of biodiversity in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists abandoned all pretense of calm to warn of a “biological annihilation” that is a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilization.” Since that report, things have gotten worse, not better.
Fantasies about our salvation through technological tinkering and adaptation in a future where wildlife is decimated but human civilization can continue may be just that—fantasies. Or maybe not. Maybe a remnant of life as we now know it will make it through. If that does happen, however, it will be on a version of Earth that has been radically transformed amid a wilderness much reduced. As well as the existential concern we should feel about our collapsing ecosystems, as Buddhists it also seems foolish, even fatal to our aspirations, to overlook the possibility of the radical dependency of our spiritual health, and the spiritual health of our children, on a nature still wild and diverse.
Tradition does say that one can attain awakening anywhere, and I don’t doubt that. T’ao Ch’ien (373–427), the great Buddhist poet, wrote:
To build a house in the human world And not to hear the noise of horse and carriage: How can this be done? When the mind is detached, the place is quiet.
The wilderness is not just a space for practice, however. It’s a teacher. On one level this is because life in the wilderness demands, by its very nature, classical Buddhist virtues of the mind like mindfulness (sati), observant evaluation (sampajanna), and discernment (panna). Trails, landmarks, weather, animal tracks and behavior, subtle sounds—all need to be attended to survive. The sentience of animals provokes solidarity; their suffering provokes compassion. Nature, with its omnipresent change and death, also teaches the dharma, offering lessons on impermanence and uncontrollability. And beyond that, there may be deeper things that wilderness conveys, a transmission beyond words.
In the Zen tradition, Dogen exemplifies a particularly deep contemplation on the relationship between awakening and nature, as in the following waka (traditional Japanese poem) of his:
Mountain colors, valley echoes, Everything as it is- the voice and body of my beloved Shakyamuni.
—From Nature in Dogen’s Philosophy and Poetry, trans. by Miranda Shaw
What Dogen is saying is that nature is inseparable from the reality that awakens to itself in our practice, the reality of buddhanature (the inherent liberated nature of all sentient beings). As religion scholar Miranda Shaw wrote about Dogen’s poem in Nature in Dogen’s Philosophy and Poetry, “Dogen expresses his conviction that the forms of nature do not manifest buddhanature; they are buddhanature.” Our awakening is the very awakening of nature to itself. The unmediated experience of nature, where the “myriad things” come forth freely to reveal themselves as what you are, is enlightenment, as I understand Dogen to be saying in Genjokoan as well. The loosening of the iron grip of human egoic consciousness that occurs through the immersion in the “myriad things” of the natural world brings us back to the very roots of our own consciousness, to a clearing where we can find freedom.
Shaw writes, “Buddhanature is expressed as a concrete particular, ‘Sakyamuni’s voice and body,’ in keeping with Dogen’s predilection for concrete imagery. Since the essential feature of a Buddha is enlightenment, which is actualized at all times and places, ‘the universe is proclaiming the actual body of Buddha.’”
When looked at this way, all things are preaching the Buddha’s mind and so are speaking dharma. Nature, which Dogen calls “the broad, long tongue” of the Buddha, contains a vast intelligence. Perhaps in a sense the wilderness is a giant brain where each leaf, each bacteria, each whale, each sandstorm, are like the firing of neurons. If that’s true, then our human activities on this Earth are akin to the tragedy of early onset Alzheimer’s.
“From the point of view of nonhuman nature this is the disinformation age,” wrote the late conservationist Peter Warshall. Indeed, if the Earth is a giant brain, whole neural networks are currently flickering and passing away into night, leaving us with what will be, in many cases, an eternal forgetfulness.
The wilderness, then, is our companion on both the human and the Buddha way. This is hinted in the ancient image of the Buddha touching the Earth. The traditional meaning of that gesture is that the Earth goddess has been watching the Buddha cultivating virtues for eons of rebirths and verifies his right to claim awakening. We shouldn’t gloss over this story without reflecting on its implications. The first is that the Earth has been watching Gotama and verifies his good work. This reminded me of a saying by the Haida, an indigenous people from the Canadian province of British Columbia, when expressing why not to do something bad: “The Earth might see me.”
This story about the Buddha implies that the Earth is a living holder of deep, ancient wisdom. When the Buddha wants to prove that he’s really got it, he turns to the ultimate authority: Mother Earth, his mother and all of ours, who affirms his authenticity. This story symbolically affirms that the Earth is not a neutral realm for our exploitation, a rather inconvenient supermarket, or a largely irrelevant landscape painting outside of our car windows. The Earth is the parent, teacher, and conscience of the buddhas and in the end, it is in the mirror of nature that we see the truth about whether the Buddha is really awakened or not.
Like a good parent and teacher, the Earth both teaches and tests us. To destroy the riches of beauty, intelligence, and life within it is to enfeeble our parent—a parent whom we will never outgrow. The information we will lose with every ruined ecosystem is incalculable and makes the burning of the Library of Alexandria look as serious as someone misplacing their keys.
As Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche recently wrote in his book Sadness, Love, Openness, an honest confrontation with loss should bring both sadness and love. Or, as the Western mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn memorably put it, our own awakening will always happen amidst “the full catastrophe.” We must accept what we will lose in order to begin working to save what we can. Surely that means cupping the remaining wilderness in our hands. Like matsutake mushrooms, which thrive in unlikely places, connected by hidden threads and tolerant of human destruction, whatever wilderness we save will provide unpredictable but essential pockets of both life and wisdom to our children.
Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.
Indian Prime Minister Sees Political Gain in Buddhist Archeological Site
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been encouraging excavations of a recently discovered Buddhist site near his hometown in what some see as a political ploy to endear himself to Buddhist constituents, the Religion News Service (RNS) reports. In May 2018, archaeologists uncovered a stupa in Gujarat state’s Taranga mountains at a site that they believe dates back to the 1st century. Modi has since supported the effort to trace the spread of Buddhism back to the region, where he grew up. Over the last year, the Archeological Survey of India has found a Buddha head, 58 votive stupas, 65 rock shelters, an assembly hall, and 22 brick platforms at the site, according to RNS. Modi is the leader of the leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has been accused of stoking fears about the country’s Muslim population to win reelection in this year’s election, which takes place in phases between April 11 to May 23. The BJP’s platform includes a hardline immigration policy that would kick every undocumented immigrant out of the country unless they are Buddhist, Hindu, or Sikh.
In Gujarat, many members of Hinduism’s low-caste Dalit group continue to be discriminated against and have taken part in mass conversions to Ambedkarite Buddhism, founded by the Dalit lawyer and reformer Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who emphasized the Buddha’s denouncement of the caste system. In a close election, many see Modi’s actions as catering to this growing demographic.
Michigan Buddhist Center’s Shrine Burns Down
The Tsogyelgar Meditation Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is rebuilding after a fire destroyed their shrine building on April 15, Michigan Live reports. “Priceless relics from Tibet are gone forever,” the organization wrote on a Facebook fundraising page, which has already surpassed its goal of $20,000. The estimated cost to rebuild is $150,000, according to the page, but they needed to hit the smaller goal to start reconstruction effort.
Jailed Reuters Journalists Awarded Pulitzer
The two Reuters journalists currently serving prison sentences in Myanmar after reporting on the Rohingya crisis have won the Pulitzer Prize for their investigation, Al Jazeera reports. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo received the honor for their reporting on the murder of ten Rohingya men by Buddhist villagers and government soldiers in 2017. The reporters were arrested in December 2017 and later sentenced to seven years in prison under an arcane state-secrets law after reportedly being set up by police officers.
“Equanimity” for Sale
Anyone can have Equanimity for $126 million—a yacht named Equanimity, that is. The boat with a Buddhist name has been making waves due to its role in the so-called 1MDB scandal, named after the state-run Malaysian investment firm that diverted billions in government funds to private accounts. Jho Low, a financier at the heart of the scandal who is currently on the lam, purchased Equanimity with stolen funds. The Malaysian government seized the ship last year and recently auctioned it off in an effort to reclaim some of the stolen funds, the Guardian reports.
In the “Advice from a Mindfulness Teacher” column from Spiral, the Rubin Museum’s annual magazine, readers submitted questions about applying mindfulness practices in their daily lives. Here, mindfulness instructor, social worker, and researcher Ayman Mukerji Househam shares her guide for mindfully dealing with an unruly preschooler.
My preschooler son is amazing until he decides to be defiant. He’ll put his foot down and simply refuse to listen to what we ask him to do. This happens at least a once a day. Recently at the playground we gave him a five-minute reminder that we would be leaving, and he seemed OK, but when the time came he threw an epic tantrum. Our morning routine is the worst of all. When we are finally out the door (after a LOT of coaxing!), he starts crying, stands still, and does anything he can to delay leaving. We have tried many things—bribing him, carrying him, trying to reason with him—but to no avail. Is there something wrong with my child? Please help!
Sounds like you have pulled out all the stops to deal with your son’s strong will. I understand that you may be feeling helpless, but you can take heart that your child’s behavior pattern is most likely a healthy developmental milestone. His motor skills are improving rapidly, enabling him to explore his surroundings independently. He is also developing a sense of self, trying to define who he is and what he can do. So you find him exerting himself, pushing and experimenting with boundaries, which stems from his evolutionary need to learn life skills and establish autonomy. But a lot of his inexperienced adventures might be dangerous—like playing with a kitchen knife—or simply unacceptable, such as a whim to decorate your family photo with ketchup. It isn’t surprising that his misadventures are therefore frequently met with the word no, leaving him confused and disappointed. Now you are the lucky one with the responsibility to encourage his independence while teaching him limits. Sounds like a tall order! Let me share a step-by-step guide on how to manage these situations.
Check Safety Use your keen parenting instincts to assess if your child is putting himself or others in danger during his explorations or tantrums. If he is having a meltdown in the middle of a bustling street, quickly remove him from danger. Try to stay calm while doing so. Remember, you are his role model, so choose your reactions wisely.
Check in with Yourself Once you ensure your child’s safety, it’s time to hit your own reset button. Take a full deep breath. Dissolve any anger or frustration. Tune in to your body and relax any tense muscles. Now let go of expectations, including that of your child’s compliance.
Use Empathy Now put yourself in your child’s shoes. What is he feeling? Why is he feeling that way? Bring yourself to his eye level. If he is sitting down, sit with him. Tell him what you think he is feeling and why. If your child likes touch, give him a hug or hold his hand. When he feels understood, he will be open to work with you in reaching a resolution. A child’s misbehavior is often a mode of communicating something deeper.
Identify and Address Triggers Think of the last five tantrums. Do you notice a pattern? Look beneath the surface as there could be a deeper cause, such as transitioning to a new school, moving, parental stress (yes, even when you think you are doing a great job hiding it), bullying at school, being tired and hungry, or developmental delays. If you think his increased frustrations are due to speech or motor delays, or they seem odd, then consult a clinical professional. Otherwise, address what you think might be the underlying cause. If the trigger is your own stress, use stress-relief strategies such as practicing mindfulness meditation daily. In fact, research shows improvements in a child’s behavior even when just one parent practices meditation.
Communicate Since tantrums are a child’s way of communicating stress, they are also a great opportunity to teach them effective communication. The first step is to recognize that he is not throwing a tantrum to punish you. Listen carefully to what he is saying or doing. Understand where he is coming from and say it. For example, if he does not want to leave the playground after you give him a five-minute reminder, say, “I understand that the playground is a fun place and you want to play a bit more, but it is getting late for dinner. How about we come back again tomorrow?” When he hears these words, he realizes you understand why he is upset and you are offering him a solution. By modeling such communication, you will create a future expert communicator.
Become Mindful Together You can prevent tantrums simply by giving your child the gift of your time. All you need is five minutes a day to play with him mindfully. Choose a time when you won’t be rushed, such as after school. Let him take the lead. Repeat what you see him doing and saying. Praise him for his actions during this mindful playtime. Enjoy becoming a child with him! This will boost his confidence and enrich the parent-child relationship.
Teach Correct Response Once you build a solid foundation of trust, your child will be more receptive to being disciplined. Discipline is not about punishing. It is a way to gently teach boundaries, so your child can navigate the world smoothly. When you give instructions, you set him up for success. If you want him to listen to your instructions, give precise, short, three-step instructions. Remember that a child’s attention span is short. He may not listen to you because he simply forgets long and vague instructions. When your child listens, praise him for it. Be specific as to why you are praising. You could even set up a reward system. If your child is being stubborn, offer him a couple of options so he feels that he is making the final decision, not you
In the end, see if you can become mindful and take the “power” out of the power struggle between you and your little explorer. Be patient with yourself and your child. Use this bump in the road as a learning experience for both of you.
This article is part of Trike Daily’s Sutta Study series, led by Insight meditation teacher Peter Doobinin. The suttas, found in the Pali Canon, comprise the discourses the historical Buddha gave during his 45 years of teaching. Rather than philosophical tracts, the suttas are a map for dharma practice. In this series, we’ll focus on the practical application of the teachings in our day-to-day lives.
In the Gilana Sutta, the Buddha gives a concise teaching about the impermanent nature of human experience. As the sutta begins, a monk comes to the Buddha and tells him that another monk is gravely ill. The ailing monk, it seems, has been recently ordained and is “not well known.” The Buddha immediately goes to see the monk. (It’s worth noting the Buddha’s compassion and his willingness to spend time with a newcomer. The Buddha wasn’t a teacher who put himself on a pedestal or reserved his attention for a select few.)
At the start of his visit, the Buddha tells the monk that he hopes he’s feeling better. But the monk responds that, no, unfortunately he is not; to the contrary, his “extreme pains are increasing.” The Buddha then says, “I hope you have no anxiety, monk. I hope you have no remorse.” Here, the Buddha is referring to one of the tenets of his teaching: if we don’t develop virtue—if we don’t make an effort to refrain from harmful actions—then, when we’re dying, we’ll be plagued by feelings of anxiety, remorse, and fear.
However, the monk replies that he does have these feelings—and “not a small amount” of them. So the Buddha follows up, “I hope you can’t fault yourself with regard to your virtue.” Yes, the monk reports that he has, in fact, been able to develop virtue.
If that’s so, the Buddha asks, “What are you anxious about? What is your remorse?” The monk answers that the Buddha did not teach that virtue is the goal of the path, but rather that followers of the dharma should seek the “fading of passion”—to which the Buddha replies, “Good, good, monk.”
This exchange is especially poignant because it demonstrates the attitude that the dharma student seeks to develop. The Buddha’s path requires ardency and enthusiasm; it requires that we have a goal in mind and an abiding wish to reach it. The monk is emblematic of that enthusiasm, for, even in his gravely ill state, he is concerned only that he may not reach that goal.
So the Buddha provides a teaching to help lead the monk toward his goal, the “fading of passion.” In this context, “passion” refers to a quality of wanting or craving. This wanting is painful. It evolves, in the Buddha’s schema, into suffering, and it manifests when we’re in conflict with the way things are. The Buddha often describes how we want things to be different when we’re “joined with what is displeasing” and “separated from what is pleasing.”
The Buddha begins by asking the monk to consider the experiences of his six sense bases: the eye, ear, nose, mouth, body, and intellect. The experience of the senses comprises our conditioned experience as human beings. The Buddha asks the monk to reflect, in a step-by-step manner, on each of the sense bases. He begins with the eye. He asks: “Is the eye constant or inconstant?” (Inconstant is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation of the Pali word anicca, which is often translated as impermanent.) Human experience, the Buddha’s teachings suggest, is inconstant. It arises, changes, passes—always in an ongoing state of flux. Nothing lasts long. Nothing lasts, period.
The monk acknowledges the inconstant nature of the eye, and then the Buddha asks, “Is that which is inconstant easeful or stressful?” The monk realizes that inconstant experience is inherently stressful. It can’t be depended on, and if we do rely on the experience of the senses to be a certain way, then we’re bound to suffer. The lovely image of the sunset passes. The beautiful flowers rot and now smell terrible. The warm sensations in the body on a spring evening turn to an unpleasant chill when the sun goes down. Because sense experiences are inconstant, they are unreliable, unpredictable, and unsatisfactory; they can’t bring a lasting happiness.
Next, the Buddha asks: “Is it fitting to regard what is inconstant, stressful, subject to change as: ‘This is mine. This is my self. This is what I am?’” This question points us toward the realization that since sense experience is inconstant, it is “not-self” In other words, it is not ours; we don’t own it. The experiences of the senses—painful sensations in the body when we’re ill, emotions that arise throughout the day—come and go unbidden. They arise out of conditions. Each of the experiences of the eye, ear, nose, mouth, body, and intellect, is simply part of a play of phenomena, coming, changing, and going. In developing the insight into the fundamental Buddhist teaching of not-self [anatta], the Buddha said we should put aside the question of is there a self? Instead, we should ask the question posed here: Is there a self to be found in the experience of the eye, the ear, and so forth. In the sutta, the ill monk understands that each of the experiences of his senses is not-self, and likewise, so should we. None of it belongs to us. None of it is a fixed part of what we are.
The Buddha often gave the seminal teachings on inconstancy and not-self to people who were ill and/or dying. The teaching is especially powerful in these instances. When the body is afflicted we’re able to see with greater clarity into the truth of our human condition—that the body and mind are inconstant, stressful, and not-self. The evidence is right there. As dharma students, when confronted with illness, aging, and death, we can take the opportunity to look closely at this truth and to develop insight. But if we’re going to make this sort of exploration, we need to have a grounding in virtue and concentration.
As the Buddha explains, when we understand the inconstant, stressful, and not-self nature of the six sense bases, we become “disenchanted” with these components of body and mind. Disenchantment is the first expression of insight. As disenchantment develops, we put less emphasis on the various sense experiences—the sight of the first snowfall, the aching sensations in the body, the feelings of anxiety—and we begin to look for happiness elsewhere. We begin to look for a greater happiness that transcends birth and death—a true happiness. We might think the “fading of passion” will lead to a passive existence, a helpless abdication to the conditions of our life. But that’s a misconception. The fading of passion enables us to find a happiness that our wanting prevents us from knowing. In letting go of wanting conditioned things to be a certain way, the dharma student begins to look for an unconditioned happiness: the happiness of the heart.
Disenchantment leads to dispassion, when passion has faded completely. When we have no more interest in wanting the experiences of body and mind to accord with our desires, we are released from the suffering that comes from that craving—and we are free.
As the Buddha engaged the monk in this inquiry, the sutta tells us, “there arose for the monk the dustless, stainless Dhamma [dharma] eye.…” The arising of the dharma eye marks the attainment of “stream entry,” the first stage of awakening. When the dharma eye is established, we see clearly into the inconstant or impermanent nature of experience. We know, fully, that, “Whatever is subject to origination is all subject to cessation.” We see everything through this lens.
As dharma students, our task is to develop this way of seeing, this dharma eye. Although we may not become stream-enterers, we can learn to perceive our experience of body and mind in this way. We can learn to ask the questions. We can look, see, and understand. As we practice this way of seeing, we come to know the “fading of passion.” We come to know a greater happiness, the happiness that lays beyond impermanent things.
Artist Sanitas Pradittasnee has visitors looking at one of Bangkok’s most sacred spaces in a new light.
Pradittasnee has become known in recent years for her wide-scale installations that incorporate the natural world into the frenzy of urban life. Her latest work, “Across the Universe and Beyond,” brings her vision to Bangkok’s legendary Wat Arun temple, which dates back to the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 1650s.
The artist has wrapped Wat Arun in walls made of transparent red acrylic, so visitors can see the colors projected onto the landmark and watch them shift along with the sun’s movement through the sky. She says she hopes to offer temple-goers a moment of tranquility and a chance to reflect on the impermanence of the universe.
“Across the Universe and Beyond” was unveiled earlier this year as part of the premiere of the Bangkok Art Biennale, which invited 75 artists—including international stars like Marina Abramovic and Huang Yong Ping—to create works that would be displayed at holy sites throughout the city.
Tricycle spoke with Pradittasnee about the installation, how she drew on the history of Wat Arun, and how the concept of impermanence influenced the project.
What would you like visitors to take away from your installation? The installation is meant to create a space that allows visitors to slow down and spend more time with themselves so they can observe the changes that are happening. It is made of transparent red acrylic, so the light that comes through in the morning is different from what it looks like in the afternoon, and you get to see the color move with the changing of the sky.
I am also inviting people to compare what’s happening to the light of the outer world with what’s happening in their inner world. That is represented in the fact that the exhibition is not only for the people who are standing inside the inner room. There is also the outer area, where people can walk around, and they can both look inside and at the reflections of the temple grounds around them. In this way, visitors are encouraged to look at both worlds.
Tell us about the inspiration behind “Across the Universe and Beyond.”What message is this installation trying to convey? I always start the process of planning an installation by researching the site to understand both its history and potential. I learned from my research that Wat Arun—which is also known as the Temple of Dawn—was planned according to the Tribhumi [three worlds] cosmology, a Buddhist creation myth written by the 14th-century King Lithai of the Sukhothai kingdom (1238–1583 CE). According to Tribhumi, the center of the universe is Mount Sumeru, which is represented by the main pagoda.
One of the Buddhist chants in the Tribhumi is the Lokavidu, which celebrates the enlightenment of the Buddha and translates to “knower of the cosmos.” Lokavidu refers to the Buddha’s enlightenment about the khandha-loka, or “the world of aggregates.” The Buddha’s teachings shift our focus to the inner world, or the self, instead of the outer world, and point out that both realms experience endless births and deaths.
Buddhist thinking and principles have always been very applicable and central to my work—like what the teachings say about impermanence and the connection between humans and nature. This exhibition is about the changes all around us. I’m comparing the changes in surrounding nature with the changes in the human body. How are we different from the khao mo [garden]? Ultimately, we come from nonliving matter and return to nonliving matter.
What is the significance of the khao mo? A khao mo is striking because it is a replica mountain; an imitation of nature created in the living environment of humans. I have been interested in khao mo since 2013, when I did my previous installation “Khao Mo 2013, Mythical Escapism,” a modern take on khao mo that is constructed out of mirrored boxes that reflect the environment where they are placed.
The first khao mo was built in Thailand in the Ayutthaya period (1351–1767 CE). The khao mo at Wat Arun was originally built in the reign of King Rama II (1767–1824) at the Grand Palace and was relocated to the front of the temple to its north following the command of King Rama III (1788–1851).
In the cosmology that Thai Buddhist temple gardens represent, the khao mo is considered part of the Himmapan forest, which is where all living creatures repeat their cycle of birth and death. When looked at within the temple’s layout as a whole, the garden demonstrates a strong sense of order. This way of thinking about design is different from Japanese Buddhist gardens, for instance, where the beauty is in the lush landscape.
This installation is part of Bangkok’s first-ever Biennale. It’s been striking to see the images of various installations around many of the city’s ancient sites. What is it is like being part of this event? How do you think all of the exhibitions go together? It has been an honor to be part of this event and to be able to put a contemporary art installation in this historic site. Working at the site is very challenging in terms of planning, but it also brings many new types of visitors to the temple, especially younger visitors, which is great to see.
I think there are strong stories connected to each of the historic sites (Wat Arun, Wat Pho, and Wat Prayoon) that are part of the Biennale, and each of the installations were responses to the specific sites. It is a interesting way for the viewer to interpret the work with the existing context.
The Bangkok Art Biennale ended in February 2019, but “Across the Universe and Beyond” remains up at Wat Arun and will be on display at least through this fall.
[This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.]
Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.
Mindfulness in the Military
Mindfulness as a tool for training soldiers is gaining traction in the United States military, according to a report this week in the New York Times. “A small but growing group of military officials” see mindfulness as a way to stay calm and focused in high-pressure situations or to help relieve post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in veterans, the Times reports. (The paper notes one instance at an Army base in Hawaii in which mindfulness was being used to improve shooting skills to “avoid unnecessary civilian harm.”) The military began looking at the effects of mindfulness in 2015, and the results of that study, which were released in December 2018, have been promising. The article does not discuss the Buddhist roots of the practice or the apparent conflict with teachings on nonviolence, but it does quote a British mindfulness proponent, Commander Tim Boughton, as saying that he hopes to bring more compassion to the battlefield. “The purists would say that mindfulness was never developed for war purpose,” he told the Times. “I’m saying, understand how compassion and empathy can be used for real advantages.”
Meditating Congressman Hopes to Sit in the White House
The latest contender to join the Democratic primary is an outspoken mindfulness proponent. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan announced on Thursday, April 4 that he was running for president. The congressman wrote the 2012 book A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, which claims to show “how the benefits of mindfulness apply to the current challenges that affect each of us in our own lives and in our communities, and thus have implications for our society as a whole.”
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was discharged from a hospital in New Delhi on Friday, April 12 after he was treated for a chest infection earlier in the week. In a video (below) taken as he was leaving the hospital, the Dalai Lama explains that he had contracted “a kind of flu” in Bodhgaya, and after being admitted to the hospital, medical tests revealed that he had developed a chest infection. Once doctors began treating the infection, his health quickly improved. “I have recovered very well,” he says in the video. “So, everyone, please feel at ease.” He also said that the prayers from people around the world helped him get better. “While I was feeling unwell and got hospitalized, hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people . . . prayed for my recovery. I wish to thank you all,” he said. The 83-year-old spiritual leader’s health has been closely watched in recent years due to fears that the Chinese government will try to identify his reincarnation. The Dalai Lama has even said that he may choose not to reincarnate in order to discredit any Chinese attempts to select his successor.
Farewell to Emma
Emma Varvaloucas is moving on after more than eight years of dedicated service at Tricycle. She began as in intern in 2011 while finishing her studies at New York University and rose quickly through the ranks, from Editorial Assistant in 2012 to Executive Editor by 2017.
Emma’s superb work at Tricycle endeared her to writers and staff alike. While many of her accomplishments as an editor took place behind the scenes, the articles that do bear her name are consistently incisive. Here are a few of our favorites:
On March 15, as reports came in about the massacre of Muslims while they prayed in Christchurch, New Zealand, I was moved to visit our local mosque in Nashua, New Hampshire and pay respects with my Muslim neighbors at Jumu’ah, or Friday Prayer. I also wanted to show my support and share my grief with my friend Mustak, a member of the congregation and a local community of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
I asked Mustak how he felt going to his mosque following the news of the mass shooting.
“It was just another day,” he said, aware that Islamophobia and hate-fueled violence are a daily occurrence around the world. “New Zealand wasn’t different.” I was not expecting that response.
Besides, he explained, “We are focused on prayer in the mosque, not on things on the outside.”
Arriving early at the mosque, I removed my shoes, covered my head with a scarf, and took a seat alone in the empty women’s side. On a large video screen, I could see the spot on the men’s side where the imam would offer the Khutbah, or sermon—and where men were greeting each other with warm hugs.
I closed my eyes and found myself spontaneously practicing tonglen, the sending and taking meditation of Tibetan Buddhism. In tonglen practice, with each inhale, you take in the suffering of others (or your own), and with each exhale you send out spacious wishes for healing and well-being. I focused on the victims and survivors of the massacre, breathing in the horror, the pain, the fear, and breathing out love with each exhale. Then I included Muslims worldwide, imagining their response to this latest attack on their beliefs. How do you emerge from something this horrific and step out into the world as a member of a targeted faith? I sensed the space around me filling up with female worshippers, and I included everyone at the mosque in my practice. No one would be left out in this expansion-of-the-heart meditation.
When I opened my eyes, the room was filled with women, mostly kneeling on the floor, facing the screen, while several children played joyfully behind us.
The imam began his teaching for the day, mostly in English, with a reference to the killings and the power of speech. He said that we are given the gift of speech from God, and we are to use it wisely. I interpreted it as a reference to the killer’s “manifesto” or the rise of hate speech and considered how it resonated with Buddhist teachings that right speech is part of the eightfold path to enlightenment.
The imam then steered the worshippers to a ethics of kindness before devoting the rest of his teaching to the importance of education—both studying the Quran and learning about the secular world. He particularly emphasized that everyone should ensure that their children, too, received a good education.
There have been three generations of Rohingya not allowed by the Burmese government to go to school, Mustak told me. But he is sure the new generation in America will be different. “Education is a gift,” he said. “Someone can give you money and you can spend it all and have nothing. But once you get an education, it’s yours forever.”
Listening to the imam, especially when he began some solo chanting, evoked in me a feeling of deep connection with all those present and with people around the world sharing a felt grief on this day of horror. His chanting also had a melancholy resonance with my experience hearing cantors singing prayers to God in synagogues—the same minor-key tones sung from the same sacred space in the heart.
It was a moment of deep recognition of our common bond as humans, congregations, and sanghas struggling both to make sense of our world and to live in peace on a planet that often seems to be under siege.
I asked Mustak if he was optimistic or pessimistic about Islam in America. He thought before answering, “Both.” Any pessimism he feels is because Islam in the US is not united—there are many different Muslim cultures and no singular leader. His optimism comes from the teachings of Mohammed, who said that humans have the capacity to make decisions. So, he said, we need to make good ones.
My friendship with Mustak would be rare in his home country, where the majority Buddhist army, under government leadership, has systematically tried to destroy the ethnic Rohingya population. Yet here, he and I can each see something in the other that has consciously moved us from being acquaintances to friends—the same connection that brought me to his mosque that sad day. The forms of our spiritual paths differ, but we can still practice them under the same roof in a gesture of friendship and respect.
Although we may not be able to flush out hate in our world, we can control how we respond to it and how we reach out to others in times of crisis. My intentional tonglen practice helped remind me that nothing in my heart and mind could break the connection between those suffering worldwide and my sincere wish for their well-being. Our collective sense of devotion, even if differently imagined, supports our striving for life, liberty, and happiness that all sentient beings share.
Of the millions of viewers expected to watch Game of Thrones when it returns for its final season on April 14, few, if any, will be tuning in because they think it is a particularly Buddhist show. Yet a new tour at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City makes the case that the fantasy series and Buddhism have more in common than we might think.
Take, for example, this line spoken by the dragon-riding queen Daenerys Targaryen about the noble families: “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell. They’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top—and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground . . . I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”
At a preview of the tour, our guide and the Rubin’s manager of docent and access programs, Laura Sloan, read this quote in front of a Tibetan painting of the wheel of life, depicting the cycle of birth and death. “What are some examples of rebirth in Game of Thrones?” Sloan asked. Multiple examples sprang to mind: the zombie hordes of the White Walkers, the reanimated knight known as The Mountain, the resurrected protagonist John Snow. As we continued, it quickly became clear that the similarities ran deeper than coincidental imagery, and more common themes begin to emerge: power, magic, religion in politics, desires—the list goes on.
“Wheel of Life” at the Rubin Museum | Photo by Matthew Abrahams
For some, the violent and sexual imagery in the HBO series might appear to be fundamentally at odds with the peaceful and chaste depictions of the Buddha, but, as with any other belief system, Buddhists have not always lived up to their own ideals.
To demonstrate this, the tour stopped in front of an 18th-century painting depicting the fifth patriarch of the Sakya lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, Chogyal Pagpa (1235–1280), sitting beside the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan (1215–1295). Sloan held up a picture of Cersei Lannister and read a quote from the diabolical queen: “The Faith and the Crown are the two pillars that hold up this world. One collapses, so does the other.”
Thrones fans will know that this line marks the beginning of a union between Cersei and the seemingly benign High Sparrow, a man-of-the-people religious figure who preaches poverty but seeks out power. However, their alliance ends (spoiler alert) after the High Sparrow imprisons, tortures, and then publicly shames Cersei, who retaliates by blowing up his church with everyone inside.
This over-the-top piece of fiction highlights a harsh reality—that the historical relationships between Buddhist and political leaders have been far from pristine. Like the High Sparrow’s devout enforcers, the Faith Militant, some Tibetan Buddhist monasteries had “defense” forces, despite their espoused non-violent views. And while spiritual leaders like Chogyal Pagpa and his predecessor and uncle Sakya Pandita (1182–1251) were said to be instructing the ruling class in Buddhist teachings in order to ennoble them, they benefited from the protection of armies and wealth of conquerors. In fact, the Chogyal Pagpa-Kublai Khan painting is part of an exhibition called Faith and Empire: Art and Politics in Tibetan Buddhism, which demonstrates that these unscrupulous pacts have existed throughout time. (Moral ambiguity, of course, is not limited to Tibetan Buddhism.) In some cases, Buddhist leaders were even called upon to wage magical warfare upon political enemies (think Stannis Baratheon and the Red Witch). Having religious figures cast spells and secure the aid of protector deities became a common practice in Tibet and China.
Laura Sloan introduces “Kingdom of Shambhala and the Final Battle,” a 19th century painting from Mongolia. | Photo by Matthew Abrahams
For the Thrones fans who are more interested in battles than political intrigue, Himalayan Buddhist art has much to offer as well. Large scale paintings depict holy wars, where Buddhist warriors can be seen wielding vajras, mace-like weapons that represent an unstoppable force and are sometimes depicted as thunderbolts. The works offer a mythologized version of what were historical clashes between Buddhist kingdoms and their enemies. These revisionist histories cover up the nuance of these struggles, painting the victors as divine heroes, much like how the propagandist plays in Game of Thrones sing the praises of whoever happens to be king.
Demons, fierce warriors, zombies—once the comparisons start, the temptation to point out connections between Buddhism and Game of Thrones becomes hard to resist. But Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin has never spoken about Buddhist influences in his work and has instead pointed to European history as his inspiration, so any apparent overlap is likely unintentional. The common themes may be due to a shared interest in human struggles—or perhaps our minds are just good at finding patterns wherever we search for them.
Regardless of the reason, the numerous links between these two seemingly unrelated worlds speaks to a shared need for myth and meaning across eras, continents, and cultures. And at the very least, they can serve as an endless source of amusement and fascination.
Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week.
New York Times Writes Late Obituary for S. N. Goenka
The influential Buddhist teacher Satya Narayan “S. N.” Goenka has received some long overdue recognition in the Overlooked series from the New York Times, which creates belated obituaries for people whom the paper originally omitted. The Burma-born Vipassana teacher helped train a generation of Buddhist practitioners who later played a large role in spreading the Theravada tradition in America. His list of students included Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Ram Dass, and Daniel Goleman. “His legacy is enormous,” Salzberg told the Times. “If you have any interest in mindfulness today, it’s thanks in part to Goenka.” He died in 2013.
Texas Responds to Buddhist Discrimination Order by Banning All Spiritual Advisers from Execution Chambers
In response to a Supreme Court decision to stay the execution of an inmate because his Buddhist spiritual adviser was not allowed to sit with him in the room even though Christian and Muslim advisers are allowed, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has decided to ban all spiritual advisers from execution chambers, the website ThinkProgress reports. The court had ruled the policy unconstitutional because it gave preferential treatment to one religion over another. So instead of approving the request by Buddhist inmate Patrick Henry Murphy, on April 3 the state announced that it would end the practice altogether. The issue will likely return to the Supreme Court, which will determine if this meets the requirements of their order. The order called for a stay of Murphy’s execution until his spiritual adviser was permitted in the chamber.
Hong Kong Billionaire Opens $380M Buddhist Art Museum
The richest man in Hong Kong has opened a Buddhist art museum, which cost $380 million to create. The museum at the Tsz Shan Monastery is easy to spot—just look for the 249-foot-tall statue of Guanyin (Sanskrit, Avalokitesvara), the bodhisattva of compassion. The man behind the project is Li Ka-shing, 90, a businessman whose estimated net worth is $33.4 billion. The collection is dedicated entirely to Buddhist art and includes 100 statues and dozens of manuscripts, according to a press release.
Sri Lanka Arrests Novelist over Story about Gay Buddhists
A novelist in Sri Lanka was arrested for writing a short story that referred to homosexuality among Buddhist clergy. Shakthika Sathkumara, 33, was taken into custody on April 1 after members of the influential monastic community complained that the piece “insulted Buddhism.” He was charged with “religious hatred” under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty that is meant to protect civil rights, including freedom of speech and religion.
Morgan Leyenberger had been meditating for a decade and leading a nonprofit organization, Compassion Works for All, that brings meditation and other resources to prison inmates in Arkansas. But it wasn’t until she was watching the execution of a man with whom she had spent the past two days that she truly understood the “karmic impact” of mass incarceration.
In the summer of 2017, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson had scheduled eight executions over eleven days (four were ultimately carried out). This controversial decision was made in order to use up the state’s supply of Midazolam—a sedative and one of three drugs used for a lethal cocktail—before it expired. (Many drug manufacturers will not sell their products to states for executions.) In the days leading up to the execution, Leyenberger was asked to serve as spiritual advisor to one of the men, Jack Jones. Jones, 52, was sentenced to death in 1996 for raping and murdering a woman named Mary Phillips at the accounting office where she worked, and for the attempted murder of her 11-year-old daughter, Lacey. In prison he studied Buddhism and physics, according to his handwritten last words, and made “every effort” to leave prison a better person.
During the two days he spent with Leyenberger, Jones passed the time by carefully pasting into a scrapbook photographs of his adult daughter, who had been placed for adoption and with whom he had reconnected in recent years through letters. He shared coffee, snacks, and conversation with his cellblock neighbor, Marcel Williams, who would be executed just hours after Jones, and listened to a taped message from his dharma teacher, who was unable to meet Jones in person before the planned execution.
“I felt the way we were intertwined,” Leyenberger said of her experience of watching Jones speak his last words and be put to death. “Going down to where the executions happened and seeing the people who were watching in the room, the families that had been impacted, the person who had committed these harms, the executioner, the correction officers. . . . This was a state decision. Everyone in Arkansas had some sort of stake in that.”
Morgan Leyenberger leads a meditation session inside a prison.
Leyenberger says her experience with Jones changed the way she views advocacy work and bolstered her belief that we all “hold some element of responsibility” in our government’s policies. She’s currently working on a campaign called End Solitary that has the long-term goal of ending solitary confinement in Arkansas. DecARcerate, the grassroots coalition supporting the project, is also urging the state not to follow through on a plan to build 400 new isolation cells in response to a spike in violence and unrest that followed the 2017 executions.
“People are usually held in isolation for anywhere from 30 days to decades. We know that this is not good for human brains and human development, yet this is the best way we’ve come up with to deal with people if they do something that we don’t like while they’re in prison,” Leyenberger said.
In the early 1990s, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama called upon 50 of his Western students to turn their attention toward prison reform. One of them was Lama Anna Cox, who in 1993 founded Compassion Works for All in response. Today, prisoners in all 50 states and a number of other countries receive the organization’s newsletter, Dharma Friends. With just two full-time staffers (including Leyenberger) and a committed group of volunteers, the organization teaches meditation in prisons throughout the state and answers 200 letters a month—often serving as “human Googles” for inmates who don’t have Internet access.
Many prisons in Arkansas are situated far from urban areas, and committing to a 90-minute meditation session actually requires about five hours of time, including transit and security procedures. Leyenberger is passionate about bringing as many volunteers into correctional facilities as she can—even if it’s a one-time commitment—to “be exposed to this other world.”
“Prison issues are becoming more popular. They’re kind of sexy right now,” Leyenberger said. “But if you can volunteer for five hours, that gives you an incredible opportunity to look into this very different world, and if that starts your own dharma practice, or gets you to the state capitol or a march, that’s really great.”