Thursday, October 25, 2007

Back to Buddhism

Let’s get back to Buddhism for a while. I really don’t think it’s necessary to categorize something as Buddhism or not-Buddhism; after all, there is really not much difference between the two. When I write about racism, I am writing about right mind. When I write about teaching, I am writing about right action. I don’t come right out and say it, but the truth is, I’m always writing about the dharma. The benefit, the practice, the use and abuse of the dharma. I have to write about it, not because of my vows, but because of something which has been cultivated in me over thousands of lifetimes.

There is a base set of principles which serve as the basis for Buddhist study. Actually, there are two sets, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. The two are intertwined. And, for whatever reason, I think I will address them completely out of order – which may end up require a lot of back tracking or fore tracking as the case may be.

Right View also referred to as Pure Vision, is the first of the Noble Eightfold Path. It is easy to misunderstand what Right View means. Often, I have seen people latch on to Buddhist philosophy and interpret Right View as ‘this [buddhism stuff] is the only correct perspective’. Dismiss that attitude right away. That kind of thinking will only slow you down; audacity is a heavy burden to bear.

Instead, think of Right View as a litmus test of your openness to perceive and the growth that provides. Is what your are seeing the true essence, or has something else provided barrier to a lucid experience?

Let’s bring this to a more tangible example and then I will sum up with some other important stuff about Right View.

I have been living in Vientiane, Laos for some time now. I have many friends who have lived their entire life here. As the capital city of Laos, it is indeed a metropolis complete with municipal buildings, shopping and business districts, street lights (optionally obeyed), and so forth. In comparison with other cities in other countries, it is undeveloped, small and offers very little – or so many visitors may think.

I have met many tourists to Laos whose first stop is Vientiane. They get off the bus, look around, check their guidebooks and within a day or two, rush off to the north, disappointed with the limited attractions in the city. I even had one friend tell me ‘get out of there, that city is sh*t!’. What is happening is not that Vientiane is sh*t, it is simply our view is not clear.

It is unrealistic to step foot in Vientiane and expect it to be anything like Bangkok or Rome or New York City or Montreal or Buenos Aires or any other place on the map. It is it’s own city with it’s own identity. The same way a traveler to Vancouver would be very disappointed that it is nothing like Miami, a traveler to Vientiane will never be satisfied if they seek any city other than Vientiane. That’s the first part of Right View – don’t expect Paris, France when you get off the buss in Paris, Texas.

The second part of the example is not one of negation, it is a matter of positively finding what is right in front of you.

Last weekend, I took a little day trip in Vientiane. I needed to consult with a monk on personal matter and was brought to a northern outskirt of the city, about 10km from the city center. After speaking with the monk, my companion asked me if I would like to see the poorest section of Vientiane. I was hesitant and said I would not like it much if a tourist came to look at me and my family and my house and neighborhood simply because I was rich or poor or something in between. However, I agreed to go look with the understanding that I am interested in learning more about the city and Laos culture and lifestyles.

We headed down an undeveloped road, breathing dust and getting sprayed with pebbles with each truck roaring past us in the other direction. As we drove, I could see the opulence level dropping steadily as there were fewer automobiles parked in front of houses, smaller markets with less selection and fewer and fewer brick or concrete homes. About 10km down the road, we noticed a well cared for sign, written in gold Laos letters, which was translated for me as “Wat in a Cave”.

We turned off the main road and followed a passable but degraded road a short distance to one of the most beautiful wats (temples) I have ever seen. Perched on top of a hill, on a sprawling campus of flat rock, the wat had an essence which I find dismally absent in most inner city wats in Vientiane. It was peaceful and quiet and contemplative. Around the campus were natural holes in the rock slab which collected rainwater and served the monks as washing wells or simple meditation ponds. From some spots, there was an obstructed view of the Mekong River through the trees. Dotting the campus where secluded little buildings, presumably housing for the monks. The entire time, we were followed by a very friendly set of monkeys who had no issues with taking the tamarind pods left as offerings in front of a buddha image.

After walking around the campus, we left and headed further down the main road for another 3km only to find an equally impressive wat with a giant buddha image on top of a hill overlooking the entire Vientiane area. At this wat, there were many unique buddha images, nagas, and various other icons nestled amongst rocks and ponds. Truly a wonderful place for a monk to delve deeply into their studies.

Neither of these two locations are in a guide book. My companion, a lifelong resident of Vientiane, had never heard of these two places. We found these locations by simply hopping on the motorbike and going out into the world. We both agreed that it felt like we were somewhere other than Vientiane, perhaps an island in the Gulf of Siam. Overall, even with the dusty, unkempt road leading to them, the experience was enlightening.

That is the second part of Right View. What I thought I knew about Vientiane two weeks ago is different than what I think today. That difference, that growth in my awareness, came from my (our) ability to suspend what I normally would do in Vientiane so that I might see a different dimension of what I know. It is not that these dimensions did not exist before I saw them – both wats have probably been around for at least 300 years, possibly three times that amount. Yet it took me being able to cast aside what I thought I knew about a place in order to see it and understand it just a little bit better.

Right view is a matter of removing our predefined concepts of existence so that we can further expand our capacity and the depth of our own understanding. Right View is also a matter of sustaining that awareness. It is one thing to stop, temporarily, our judgment & our prejudices. It is another thing to dismiss them permanently. Right View empowers us with the ability to live in each moment without expectation. It allows us to see the world unfolding in it’s beauty and ugliness all around us and be content. It enables us to understand better the inalienable bond we have with the world which is us.