What made you believe in Traditional Chinese Medicine?

I studied and practiced Daoism seriously for several years before I started studying Buddhism seriously. I did a one-year immersive (meaning I lived at a rural community with cultivators, teachers, and students, where we practiced and studied every day) training in classical Chinese medicine, Qigong and Taiji, Internal Alchemy, and Daoist meditation practices. Although I have since studied Indian yoga and Tibetan Buddhism as well, I have maintained my Daoist training and practices for over 15 years. While there are philosophical differences between these systems, personally I find no conflict between these systems: I think of them as symbolic frameworks for living well—each framework has internal consistency, and it’s best to not try to apply one framework to analyze another—but when contemplated deeply, and practiced in one’s own experience, they all provide fruitful insights.

I don’t think of it as something to “believe in” or not—I think of it as something to experience and discover. I found the concept of qi easy to grasp: the interconnected flow that interacts with and influences everything. A principle of Daoist medicine and Internal Alchemy is that the outer world and the inner world reflect one another, so we can learn about our inner world—our body, organs, mind, etc.—by studying the outer world. Specifically, the constant process of transformation, how the elements interact and influence one another, is part of the cosmos, the ecosystem, the community, and our own inner environment. While this is obviously complex to understand, the more one contemplates it, the better one is able to live in harmony with the world. Everything we eat—both foods and herbs—influence our organs according to predictable patterns. So I “believe” in it because it is observable, testable, predictable.

Chinese medicine is an officially recognized form of general care in many states, including California. While western science and medicine do not accept the psychosomatic relationships between organs and emotions, or the flow of qi through the meridians, Chinese medicine can respond by saying “those are metaphors that guide treatment.” Simply think of “qi” as circulation, and consider that healthy organs lead to wellbeing. Western doctors can accept that acupuncture, cupping, and moxibustion improve circulation and reduce pain—and maybe that’s enough for them. Western medicine does not understand nutrition as well as Chinese medicine does. And herbs can be very powerful for promoting wellness and prevention.

Gautama: Man vs. Cosmic Being

In studying Buddhism, I’m struck by the apparent friction between Siddhartha Gautama the man, and Shakyamuni Buddha who has conquered birth and death. Was Gautama a normal human who, through dedication and persistence, made the discovery of Enlightenment? Or was he a supernatural Being who incarnated in a human form merely for the purpose of teaching? The answer is, paradoxically, both.

There is the interesting incident of the fortune-teller, a Brahmin mystic consulted by the king—Gautama’s father—to predict the future of his unborn son. The Brahmin had insight into past lives and karma, and he was able to see that Gautama had amassed such vast amounts of merit—amazingly good karma created through altruistic deeds in his past life—that he would become a powerful and influential person who would have a huge impact on society: he would become either an emperor who would unite all people or a spiritual master who would influence the entire world. Gautama, because of his massive kindnesses in past lives, had no choice but to live a blessed life; his father wanted him to become a world-emperor, and we know that he tried to shelter Gautama from any harsh realities. That technique backfired, and when Gautama saw tragedy for the first time, he was so powerfully moved that he renounced pleasure and power to seek true freedom. So: Gautama was a “mere mortal” but was forced by his stockpile of merit to become something great.

At the moment of his Enlightenment, Gautama perceived all of his past lives. He told these stories to his followers, and they were recorded in a body of literature called the Jataka Tales—these tell of how Gautama’s previous lives amassed that amazing merit. For example, here is a brief summary of his last life before he was born as Gautama:

“In the story of the Hungry Tigress, a human, brahmin Bodhisattva stumbles across a starving tigress with her cubs while out meditating in nearby caves. Shocked and saddened upon seeing the dying creature; attempting to eat her own kin, the Bodhisattva deliberates how he can save this beautiful creature. He decides in a moment of passion and emptiness to hurl himself off the mountainside to where the tigress is so she can be saved by eating his body. His disciples become aware of this awe-inspiring act and are moved by the loving and kindness of this Bodhisattva.” (source)

This profound act of self-sacrifice, and the inspiration it caused in the Brahmin’s followers, was the final trigger for Gautama to be born with the merit to become either a world-emperor or a Buddha; only a Bodhisattva has the capacity for this level of compassion—so this brahmin was somehow a bodhisattva, but not a Buddhist per se. (You can read some more Jataka Tales here.)

However, that’s not the whole picture. We learn with the introduction of the Mahayana in the Lotus Sutra, that Shakyamuni Buddha has *always* been enlightened, and in fact there are countless Buddhas that exist beyond space and time, which are only mental constructs. From this perspective, Gautama is simply modeling the path that we all must follow to realize Enlightenment ourselves.

With the former explanation, Gautama simply had the right ingredients to create the recipe for awakening, amassed from many lifetimes of accumulating merit. From the latter explanation, that entire process is a play put on to inspire unenlightened beings to pursue Enlightenment. I think we can hold both explanations simultaneously!

But that doesn’t satisfactorily explain for me whether Gautama was born self-aware, able to speak and walk, and self-proclaim himself as a future Buddha as a newborn. I feel that was an embellishment introduced in the Buddhacarita by Asvagosa. So our speculation is left open-ended.

Reflections on Guanyin

The core of the buddhist disciplines is putting it into practice. There are many approaches to buddhist philosophy and science: the eightfold path, the seven-step method for developing radical compassion, the six perfectionizers, the five yogic stages, the four noble truths, the three principal paths, the two collections, and developing single-pointed concentration, to name but a few. As many as there are approaches to practice, there are presented even more ways of discussing them: teaching, admonishing, and encouraging alike.

I’ve spent weeks parsing through the Platform Sutra, a text which cannot be apprehended with the intellect alone. Master Huineng has an unconventional approach of inventing creative new definitions for established buddhist terminology, and providing wildly heterodox explanations for his unique interpretations of classical buddhist teachings. He leaves his students in a state of shock and instability. Dumbfounded, the disciples are susceptible to the “direct teaching”: a method which overwhelms the intellect altogether and puts one in a state of nonconceptual awareness, thus experiencing a nondual state of consciousness.

Buddhist practices, whether they be gradual or direct (or neither), are intended to trigger this awestruck state of nondual, nonconceptual awareness. Major realizations however are not caused, rather they are cessations; not an acquisition of something, but a stopping of mistaken perspectives. With the Guanyin session, we’ve started to sample this process, and get a taste for subsuming the intellect in practice to realize a deeper fundamental state of mind.

One purpose of ritual is to overwhelm the senses and wear down the conceptual mind’s need to grasp and order the outside world. In the Buddha Hall, we are overwhelmed with bright lights and thousands of golden Buddha images. In the ceremony, repeated twice each day, we rhythmically chant fantastical stories of the enlightened beings’ capacity to save suffering creatures from torment. We beg them to rescue us, and chant their powerful names until we lose track of ordinary time and space.

Of course, the Buddhas cannot really save us; they can only teach us how to save ourselves. Thus we practice the techniques taught to us: keeping a commitment to morality, a willingness to help others, an urgency to drop confusion and affliction, the desire for higher knowledge and wisdom, and–crucially–to trigger nonconceptual, nondual awareness. This final step is the main event, for which all the other practices and teachings can merely provide support. The ceremonies and meditations only function when the heart is consumed with love and compassion for others, and the mind is open to extraordinary possibilities for consciousness.

This is why we enter the Buddha Hall each day and chant the sadhanas and mantras. We deepen our resolve, demonstrate our commitment (primarily to our own selves), strengthen our capacity for altruism, and release our attachment to our personal comfort and self-importance. It is only under these conditions, in this crucible, that we can be open to powerful states of personal growth and transformation along the path of the Bodhisattva Buddhas’ ideal.

Affliction is Awakening – Reflections on the Platform Sutra

The Direct Teaching described by Master Huìnéng (638–713 c.e.), the founder of Zen, is at once immediate and elusive. In his teachings, compiled in the Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra (citations below refer to page numbers in this text), he describes his realization of the Original Mind in ways that are simple and profound: he begins his teaching by telling his students to simply attend to the purity of their own nature (7). Yet this recognition of the fundamental purity of mind cannot be attained, achieved, or worked towards. There is no direct nor gradual teaching (47), and relying on will or intellect is a mistake (25). These apparent paradoxes are pointing at a greater, all-encompassing truth, and this approach to awakening is perhaps no better articulated than in his statement “ordinary people are themselves Buddha, and affliction is itself Bodhi”. What a conundrum! Certainly ordinary people don’t experience themselves as Buddha, nor do they experience tumultuous emotions as the awakened mind (bodhi बोधि).  This warrants further investigation.

Mental affliction (kleśa, क्लेश in the Sanskrit language) is described as anything that disturbs a person’s perfect peace of mind: not a perfect unmoving stillness, but rather the ability for the mind to be “everywhere engaged but nowhere attached” (32). Being free of kleśa does not necessarily preclude the existence of thoughts and feelings. Instead, one’s personal sense of peace is undisturbed by whatever passes through the contents of consciousness. Indeed, Master Huìnéng describes quite pointedly that the blissful realm of the Buddhas is no further away than our own immediate experience: “A person’s own physical body is the city of the Pure Land,” he tells us, “the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and tactile sense are its gates.” In addition he describes the “inner gate, the gate of consciousness.” (41) So indeed the experience of awakening to Buddhahood is imminent, to be found in one’s own sensuous and intellectual experiences.

The mind is interpreting the senses, compiling and labeling the incoming raw data to create the narrative of experience. This process takes a split second, so the mind—one’s own self-consciousness—is continually a moment behind actual reality. In that moment the present becomes the past. The mind is continually trying to keep up with the present moment as sense data becomes memory, and thus the story of one’s life unfolds.

In the buddhist understanding of perception, this process is occurring mostly in the eighteen dhātu (धातु): the sense organs (eyes, ears, olfactory nerves in the sinus cavities, tongue, and peripheral nervous system), the sense objects (light and color, vibrations through a fluid, vapors or particulate chemicals, chemicals in solids or liquids, and physical vibrations on or near the body), and the sense consciousnesses that mediate between the two. Buddhist physiology includes an additional sixth sense: consciousness or the mental sense, which perceives mental objects, such as thoughts and feelings, distinct from the other five senses. The mind (itself an elusive concept) then collects all this sense data from the sense consciousnesses, classifies it as pleasant or unpleasant, and applies labels and names to create a narrative for the ego to ride along. The sense data is essentially neutral; it’s the interpretation that creates thoughts and feelings which are upsetting, whether pleasantly or unpleasantly so. Perturbing experiences are actually purely mental.

According to evolutionary biology, emotions developed over time as mammal nervous systems became more sophisticated, communities began to form, and interactions with the environment became more complex. When creatures from the sea made their way onto land their range of vision increased by virtue of the fact that light can travel much further through air than through water. For the first time creatures could see predators and other dangers long before they encountered them, and this created an opportunity to evaluate options and consider how to react.

Disgust and fear were the first emotions to develop. Disgust is a primitive emotion to help an organism avoid substances which would be toxic if consumed. Fear is clearly a reaction to potentially dangerous situations which triggers enhanced senses and faster reflexes, but today is activated by perceived threats such as information coming from the news media. Pride, in which puffing up the chest increases lung capacity and makes one look larger to a potential opponent, has evolved to relate to conveying social status and is generally considered to be a positive emotion, while contempt is a later evolutionary development specifically for primate alphas conveying social status to boisterous and competitive youngsters. The point here is that emotions are physiological reactions to stimulus which have changed in function as animals have formed complex social structures. Disgust is rarely biologically required to prevent one from drinking contaminated water or eating putrified food but is still useful for conveying to another person when they exhibit behavior which is socially unacceptable. Indeed, perhaps many emotions could be interpreted very differently today than when they were strictly necessary for survival. (See Paul Ekman’s research on emotion for more information on this topic.)

Relating the above to Master Huìnéng’s assertion, it seems plausible that the reaction to stimulus could be altered, or the imposed narrative dropped altogether. Master Huìnéng alludes to this process of reinterpreting the afflicted mental states into the pure mind of a Buddha when he describes a method of practice: “transform the three poisons [greed, hatred, and delusion] into morality, contemplative calm, and insight” (27). He states that a person could live a life of happiness, and that bliss is imminently accessible: “Ordinary deluded people do not realize that the Pure Land is within themselves” (39).

The Pure Land he is referencing is the abode of a specific perfected being, a Buddha named Amitabha. This enlightened being is part of a matrix of Buddhas of transformation, collectively known as the Buddha Families. They’re called families because they include the collection of beings who share a particular mental affliction in common (though of course all unenlightened beings experience all the afflicted states at some time or another).

There are many correspondences to each of the Buddha families such as, in Amitabha’s case, an affinity for the Western direction, the sense of taste, the color red (representing passion and bliss), and so on. Each describes a mentally afflicted state as well as an associated quality of the enlightened mind: these Buddhas are telling us that once the deluded narrative is dropped, the energy of the afflicted state is a quality of the enlightened mind.

Amitabha is specifically oriented with ignorant desire, also called lust or greed; the deep-seated sense that we can somehow resolve suffering by acquiring enough stuff or just the right thing, that the source of one’s happiness is an intrinsic component of the object of desire. If the story is dropped, the resulting awareness is discrimination: the capacity to assess and evaluate this or that, to recognize clearly the qualities of different objects, not as objects with intrinsically desirable qualities but for what they truly are: the subject-object-perceptual relationship of the eighteen dhātu.

Amitabha has four other colleagues: Akshobya, Ratnakara, Amoghasiddhi, and Vairochana. Each is connected with an afflicted, ignorant emotional state: respectively anger, pride, jealousy, and delusion itself. Each is the epitome of the alternative enlightened state of mind: clear reflective wisdom, equanimity, accomplishment, and understanding of metaphysical reality itself. The promise of each of these Buddhas is that the very thing we call the mental affliction can be ridden, surfed like a wave, into its resultant enlightened state of mind.

Let’s look briefly at the other four Buddha Families.

Anger, which was evolutionarily developed to give an animal the power and focus to overcome an obstacle, has at its root the awesome power of clarity. This clarity in the enlightened state is a deep understanding of interdependence. No singular phenomena exists without all of the causes and conditions of the entire universe. Ignorance is thinking “I’m right and you’re an idiot,” while the Buddha Akshobya guides people to recognize how all phenomena are connected.

Pride is the afflicted state of thinking one is special, that one’s unique gifts make one superior to others. The awakened quality of the Buddha Ratnakara is equanimity. All beings are fundamentally equal: all share in the riches of the Buddha Nature, and have the same capacity to be awake in this very moment.

Jealousy or envy is the sister affliction of pride, when one has ill will towards others, wishing their personality, possessions, or relationships to be one’s own.  One actually has to see the positive qualities in another person to be jealous of them, but with a little humility one can instead have admiration and respect. An interesting characteristic of envy is that this could allow someone to see the previously envied one as a teacher, which in the appropriate context could lead to a relationship with them as a Spiritual Advisor. Buddha Amoghasiddhi embodies the enlightened quality of accomplishment: seeing that the work is already done, that Buddhahood is imminent and ever-present, that the good qualities we see in others are in fact good qualities we all share together.

In a way, the final mental affliction of ignorance itself encompasses the other four. Delusion, after all, is the basis for all other mental afflictions. As Master Huìnéng points out, “In one past moment of confused thought you are just an ordinary person. If the very next thought is awakened, you are a Buddha.” (27) Vairochana’s name translates into English as “appearances,” and indeed reality contains the phenomena-show of all appearances and experiences. However, ignorance leads beings to perceive the apparent world as full of dangers and delights, overlooking the fundamental equanimity of all beings, the infallibility of interdependence. Ignorance is, quite simply, misperceiving how the world is working, and the enlightened quality is clarity into how things really are. So we have another dhātu, a different way that the eighteen dhātu of sense perceptions can function: dharmadhātu, the enlightened quality of Buddha Vairochana, the realm of reality, the sphere of Truth, the infinite play of interdependence, perception of the container of the universe and everything within it.

Thus, mental afflictions do not need to be eradicated, as they are a part of Buddhahood. The energy of mental afflictions is the same energy of Awakening, simply with a change of perspective and perception. Buddha Nature is already present, it is just obscured by misunderstanding. There is no real difference between an ignorant person and an awakened person; an awakened person is simply aware of what’s actually happening, instead of being caught up in her narrative and story around it. We would already be awake; it is merely because of the mental afflictions that we are asleep.

When Master Huìnéng gives the apparently paradoxical instruction that “ordinary people are themselves Buddha, and affliction is itself Bodhi,”  he is speaking to a simple truth: if we drop the story we tell ourselves about our thoughts and feelings, we can ride those very same energies to Awakening. There is no difference between ignorance and awakening; just pay attention to what is.