Lotus Sutra 11: Nemesis
There is a treasure tower, a stupa, that appears floating in the sky every time the Lotus Sutra is being delivered. Michael met a mensch on the plane who said, “The tower is there because the fear of death hovers over us all the time.”
“I thought it was because life is a funeral.”
“Isn’t that a song by The Band?”
“No, that’s Life is a Carnival.”
5 kinds of fear
In the Buddhist scripture collection known as the Abhidharma, five great fears were listed. Since I first read this list, I’ve often reflected on how whatever fear I had coming up might fit into this ancient file system. The Abhidharma’s five great fears are:
1. Fear of death (fear of your own death, fear of someone else’s death, fear that the self that I am is impermanent and has an expiry date)
2. Fear of loss of livelihood
3. Fear of unusual states of consciousness. This fear is pronounced amongst meditators. Will I lose my mind? Will I go so far out there that I’ll never find my way back?
4. Fear of loss of reputation
5. Fear of speaking before public assembly
All fears feature the loss of something, every fear is a fear of change. Maybe that’s why life is a funeral, and also a carnival.
Chapter 12 of The Lotus Sutra begins with a stupa suspended in the sky. Does everyone know what a stupa is? It’s a funerary monument, a place someone could be buried in, often containing relics and precious objects. It’s like a large gravestone, usually placed on a sacred site. This stupa comes out of the ground, it’s not from outer space, it comes out of the ground of your own life, and inside is the body of the Buddha. It nourishes us as much as it watches over our life. To have faith in the stupa is to have faith in both life and death.
Jane Hirshfield proposes that the writer must enter into liminality–a threshold between individuality and community, a constant state of inbetweenness, and a space outside of conventional relationship to language and society. “For the writer to write at all, he or she must cultivate a heart that opens in tenderness to all things.”
Tenderness does not choose its own uses
It goes out to everything equally,
Circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron buckete,
A single nail, a single ruby –
All the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one
We don’t get to choose whether it’s ruby or nail, whether it’s kindness and grace and flow, or abuse and pain and awkwardness. What we can ordain into is that it’s one sound in the heart. It’s one threshold. It’s one moment. Where do we recover it? And how? Maybe we recover tenderness in presence of mind.
There is a stupa up in the sky, and then the Buddha tells a story. A long time ago there was a king. He did well as a leader, but there was something gnawing at him, he felt there was something missing. He was approached by a religious sage who said that if you follow me, I will teach you the great vehicle of the Lotus Sutra. The king agrees and studies with the sage for 1,000 years. Then the Buddha says that the king was none other than himself. And the sage? The sage was Devadatta. Now Devadatta was the Buddha’s nemesis. Your past nemesis is your present day teacher. Usually your nemesis, your enemy, is someone like yourself. Every enemy you’ve ever had is your teacher. And perhaps every teacher you’ve ever had is your enemy, because they’ve shown you something you didn’t want to see.
Why do we want a teacher? Perhaps because they inspire us, we want to hang out with them. When Leonard Cohen was asked why he spent so much time at Mount Baldy studying in the strict Zen traditiion, he replied that it was because he loved Sasaki Roshi. “He called me Cohen.” Leonard was given the job of cooking for the Roshi, but more than the practice he loved the man. The Roshi is over a hundred years old now and is very short and squat, and when he sits he looks like an immovable force of nature. No wonder he’s still around, he’s just not budging from that seat.
Every couple of years Leonard writes the Roshi a poem for his birthday.
I never really understood
what he said
but every now and then
I find myself
barking with the dog
or bending with the irises
or helping out
in other little ways
“The Buddha said to his monks: The king at that time was I myself, and this seer was the man who is now Devadatta. All because Devadatta was a good friend to me, I was able to become fully endowed with the 6 paramitas, pity, compassion, joy, and indifference, with the 32 features, the 80 characteristics, the purple-tinged golden colour, the 10 powers, the 4 kinds of fearlessness, the 4 methods of winning people, the 18 unshared properties, and the transcendental powers and the power of the way. The fact that I have attained impartial and correct enlightenment and can save living beings on a broad scale is all due to Devadatta who was a good friend.”
In Mahayana Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra lists the 6 Perfections as (original terms in Sanskrit):
1. Dana paramita: generosity, giving of oneself
2. Sila paramita: Virtue, morality, discipline, proper conduct
3. Ksanti (kshanti) paramita: Patience, tolerance.
4. Virya Paramita: energy, diligence, vigour, effort.
5. Dhyana paramita: one-pointed concentration
6. Prajna paramita: wisdom, insight
4 brahamaviharas (immeasurables)
1. Loving-kindness (Pali: metta, Sanskrit: maitri) towards all: the hope that a person will be well. “The wish that all sentient beings, without any except, be happy.”
2. Compassion (Pali and Sanskrit: karuna) the hope that a person’s sufferings will diminish. “The wish for all sentient beings to be free from suffering.
3. Empathetic Joy (Pali and Sanskrit: mudita): joy in the accomplishments of a person – oneself or another; sympathetic joy. “The wholesome attitude of rejoicing in the happiness and virtues of all sentient beings.”
4. Equanimity (Pali: upeddha, Sanskrit: upeksa): learning to accept loss and gain, praise and blame, and success and failure, all with detachment, equally, for oneself and for others. Equanimity is “not to distinguish between friend, enemy or stranger, but regard every sentient being as equal. It is a clear-minded tranquil state of mind – not being overpowered by delusions, mental dullness or agitation.
Call Me by My True Names by Thich Nhat Hanh
From: Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
In Plum Village, where I live in France, we receive many letters from the refugee camps in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, hundreds each week. It is very painful to read them, but we have to do it, we have to be in contact. We try our best to help, but the suffering is enormous, and sometimes we are discouraged. It is said that half the boat people die in the ocean. Only half arrive at the shores in Southeast Asia, and even then they may not be safe.
There are many young girls, boat people, who are raped by sea pirates. Even though the United Nations and many countries try to help the government of Thailand prevent that kind of piracy, sea pirates continue to inflict much suffering on the refugees. One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself.
When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.
After a long meditation, I wrote this poem. In it, there are three people: the twelve-year-old girl, the pirate, and me. Can we look at each other and recognize ourselves in each other? The tide of the poem is “Please Call Me by My True Names,” because I have so many names. When I hear one of the of these names, I have to say, “Yes.”
Call Me by My True Names
Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.
Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.
I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.
I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.
I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.
I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.
I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.
My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.
When the sea pirate raped the young girl, it happened in front of her family. She jumped out of the boat and died. Imagine if it was your 12 year old daughter. How to meditate on this terrible situation without wanting to get a gun and shoot the pirate? Instead, Thich sent his monks into Thailand and Vietnam to set up education programs to teach these young kids who might grow up to become pirates. Imagine if we could turn our prisons into monasteries?
We all have a nemesis we want to look away from. The Buddha is saying: I could never really deeply find in myself the quality of generosity until I learned from Devadatta. Devadatta was the Buddha’s cousin, Ananda’s brother, and an excellent monk. Highly skilled, an excellent meditator. But as the years went by he became greedy for power and conspired against the Buddha. Three times he tried to kill the Buddha. Once he tried to roll a rock down and kill him, but he missed, a fragment of the rock struck the Buddha’s foot but he wasn’t seriously injured. Then an elaborate murder plot was hatched, whereby one man would murder the Buddha, then two men would murder this man, then four men would murder these two men, and eight men would kill these four. But each in turn was converted by the Buddha. The first killer saw the Buddha and was so struck by his presence that he became a monk, and so each became a disciple of the Buddha. The third attempt was made using a drunk elephant, but again, the Buddha calmed the elephant, who shrank away from his angry task.
The Devadatta stories were written 700 years after the mara (devil) stories, so some people feel that they were fabulated to give the Buddha a nemesis. Mara: the closer the Buddha gets to freedom, the more he feel mara.
Question: how do you help your nemesis when the aggression is coming towards you? When Thich meditates all he can think of is getting a gun. But he doesn’t stay there. The image moves. Most of us would get the gun, and cling to our anger. To be angry means shutting something down. Maybe that’s why Buddhists so famously have compassion for their enemies. When you open up to the parts of yourself that you compartmentalize, then you open up to everything in your life. The path is the bumpy road, the difficult journey. And every time we see a treasure – your career, family, money, achievements – it is only another phantom toll booth along the road. Where is the road heading? It is like a mobius strip, bending back on itself.
Dogen: When an ordinary person realizes it, she is a sage.
When a sage realizes it, she is an ordinary person.