Category Archives: Buddhism
In every age since beginningless time, it is said, out of compassion for the world, Taaraa has appeared to help living beings attain Enlightenment. In our age, so the ancient stories say, The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, Regarder of the Cries of the world, looked down in compassion on the pain of humanity…. He also saw that however many beings he helped to escape from the fruitless round of mundane existence, the overall number grew no smaller – and for this he wept. The tears streamed down his face and formed a great pond. From the depths of its water sprang a blue lotus and on the lotus appeared the shimmering form of a beautiful sixteen year old woman. Her body was diaphanous and its translucent green seemed to hover between Reality and non-reality, quivering with an energy that could be seen, heard and felt. She was clad in the silks and jewels of a princess and her hands, expressing boundless giving and refuge, held deep blue lotuses. Born of Avalokitesvara’s tears of compassion, she was herself the quintessence of compassion. She who is bright, she of the beautiful eyes, Taaraa, joy of starlight, had once again appeared in this world.
–“The Origin of All Rites of Tārā, Mother of All the Tathāgatas”, translated by Martin Willson, in In Praise of Tara: Songs to the Saviouress, Wisdom Publications, pages 44-86 (1986);courtesy of Wikiquote
You man with a human body but a demon’s face,
Listen to me. Listen to the song of Milarepa!
Men say the human body is most precious, like a gem;
There is nothing that is precious about you.
You sinful man with a demon’s look,
Though you desire the pleasures of this life,
Because of your sins, you will never gain them.
But if you renounce desires within,
You will win the Great Accomplishment.
It is difficult to conquer oneself
While vanquishing the outer world;
Conquer now your own Self-mind.
To slay this deer will never please you,
But if you kill the Five Poisons within,
All your wishes will be fulfilled.
–Milarepa, “Song to the Hunter” as translated in The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: The Life-Story and Teaching of the Greatest Poet-Saint Ever to Appear in the History of Buddhism (1999) edited by Garma C. C. Chang; courtesy of Wikiquote
I am, of course, aware that Yoda is already dead, and has been for decades (to say nothing of being a fictional character). Bear with me on this…. Beginning in 2015, the long-dormant big-screen incarnation of the Star Wars franchise was revived. All the original cast returned, playing their iconic characters, and fresh new faces playing new characters were also present. It was the first time since Revenge of the Sith in 2005 that a big-screen Star Wars movie had been made at all, and the first time since Return of the Jedi in 1983–thirty-two years previously!–that the original cast was back in action. As of this writing (July 2019), two of the movies of the third and final trilogy–The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi–have been released, with the third, The Rise of Skywalker, slated for release in five months. Two standalone movies, Rogue One and Solo have also been released, and further movies with a new cast are projected; but the main attention has been focused on the three movies which conclude the Skywalker saga. Fan and critical reaction has been sharply divided on the two released so far, with seeming storms of controversy regarding The Last Jedi in particular.
I don’t really have anything to add to the discussion in terms of a conventional movie review or rating. It’s been forty-two years since the original Star Wars debuted, and I still don’t think The Empire Strikes Back has been topped. I certainly don’t have any interest in further stirring the pot of accusations and counter-accusations of sexism, racism, political correctness, and so on and so forth. More heat than light has been generated on this front, and I doubt there is much likelihood of dialogue in this area, anyway.
What I do want to look at is the metaphysics, or perhaps more precisely, the philosophical and spiritual themes that are present in The Last Jedi and which have been little remarked on in all the tempestuous arguments about other issues. I think The Last Jedi has definite flaws (some of which, in fairness, were inherited from the plot of its predecessor, and some of the stupid and cockamamie decisions J. J. Abrams made in writing the script for said predecessor), drags somewhat in the middle, and arguably loses focus a bit by expanding the already expanded cast even further. I definitely would not place it above The Empire Strikes Back. All that said, I would argue that Last Jedi is actually the second-best movie of the seven Skywalker-centric sequels and prequels to the original Star Wars, right after Empire (and allowing for the fact that Episode IX has not yet been released). This, I assert, is because of the themes I have already alluded to, and because The Last Jedi is the only movie in the entire Star Wars franchise to take those themes seriously since The Empire Strikes Back (Rogue One made a nod towards some of these themes, but not to the extent that Last Jedi does). Some of these films have been around quite awhile, and some not; but just to play fair, SPOILERS ABOUND for all the movies in the franchise from this point onward–tread with caution!
There were a couple of points I wanted to make in my previous post about my decades-long flirtation with Buddhism, but which I totally forgot. That’s just as well; it’s grist for a new post, and it will allow me to expand at greater length on what I was going to say there. In order to do that, I’ll need to do some groundwork and unpacking of just what I mean.
All major religions consist of numerous sects. Many faiths claim to be universal, the One True Faith, the only accurate portrait of reality, the great path meant for all mankind. Mankind, however, is a contentious thing, and one of the very most characteristic traits of human beings is their tendency to disagree. This is as much true in the realm of religion as in politics, culture, language, and any other areas of human life. As much as religions may preach a message of unity, in actuality they all manifest, to various degrees, disunity.
In the case of the more familiar religions, the divisions are well-known. Christianity, for example, consists of the Catholic Church, the various branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the various Protestant churches, as well as a few other smaller groups (those who are into mind-numbing detail as to the various divisions of Christianity may go here for quite a bit of religious inside baseball, if they so wish). Judaism is divided into Orthodox, Reform, and (in the US) Conservative branches, as well as some smaller groups (Reconstructionist, Karaite, and so on). Though Islam is less familiar in the West, the politics of the Middle East have given Westerners at least a passing awareness of the Sunni and Shi’ite sects of Islam.
Buddhism is a bit of a paradox in this respect. Though sources vary, Buddhists probably represent no more than one percent of the population of the United States. Despite this, it has become highly visible in the U.S. since the 80’s. This is partly because of increased recognition of the plight of Tibet along with the concurrent popularity of the present Dalai Lama. Moreover, many high-profile celebrities, not least of them Richard Gere, have embraced and promoted Buddhism. Also, secularized forms of Buddhist meditation, such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (among others), have come to be widely practiced even by people who do not consider themselves Buddhist at all. Despite all this, the denominations and divisions of Buddhism are not very well-known in this country. That, then, is where I’ll start.
A few years ago I was shopping in the local grocery store. As I was walking down the aisle, I passed another guy, whom I noticed was looking at me. He called me by name, and I recognized him–he’d been my best friend’s roommate in college some thirty years before. It turned out that we both lived in the same small town now. We talked for awhile, catching up. At one point, I mentioned in passing that I was a member of the local Catholic parish. He looked at me somewhat askance, and then said, “I always thought you were Buddhist!” I don’t remember how I responded to that at the time. Thinking about it later, though, I decided, upon looking back, that I probably did come off as a Buddhist in those halcyon days of yore. Since then, I sometimes describe myself at that point as a “quasi-Buddhist” or a “functional Buddhist”. Maybe “Buddhist fellow-traveler” would be better. Best of all, perhaps, as with the title of this post, “pseudo-Buddhist”.
I’ve discussed here how reading the Dhammapada caused me to become interested in Buddhism. I read voraciously about Buddhism in the sources available to me at that time–principally books on Zen, though there were some others, as well. In particular, I read and re-read D. T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, a book I need to write about in detail in the future. In conversations I’d often quote the Buddha or refer to Buddhist concepts. I can easily see why my friend thought I was, indeed, Buddhist. On the other hand, there was no real depth to it. Except for brief attempts on maybe one or two occasions, I never really tried meditation (much later, after I became Catholic, I’ve done Buddhist and other forms of meditation relatively extensively). I certainly never took refuge, the official way of converting to Buddhism. I was vaguely aware of a Buddhist study group in the city were I was living at that time; but for reasons of which I’m unsure even now, I never made contact (I did do mediation at their meditation center many years later, once more, after I came into the Church). You might say that such Buddhism as I exhibited was all saffron and no substance.
I have written previously of the profound influence the Dhammapada had on me when I read it at about the age of eighteen. That resulted for me being for a considerable time what I’ve described elsewhere as a “pseudo-Buddhist“. During that period, I read pretty much anything about Buddhism I could get my hands on. This was actually much less than you might think. Because of immigration from China and Japan, there had been Buddhists in the United States as far back as the mid-19th Century. Pioneers such as Nyogen Senzaki had even begun to teach Buddhist practices, particularly meditation, to non-Asians by the turn of the 20th Century. Still, it wasn’t until the post-World War II era that relatively large numbers of Americans began to study Buddhism in earnest.
As these early adopters of Buddhism gradually completed their studies, becoming ordained in some cases, and setting up schools of their own, a trickle of books started to become available in the 60’s and 70’s. It wasn’t really until the late 80’s and early 90’s, though, with the increased visibility of and interest in Buddhism, partly because of awareness of the plight of Tibet and high profile advocacy by celebrities such as Richard Gere, that the trickle of books became a flood. One can find Buddhist books and magazines even in bookstores in relatively small towns these days. Back in the 80’s, even though I lived in a fairly large urban area, the pickings were much slimmer.
My initial interest, for reasons I’ve explained before, was in Theravada, the tradition of Buddhism of Sri Lanka and Thailand. As noted, though, the pickings were slim, and most of what was available at that time dealt with Zen. Philip Kapleau’s classic The Three Pillars of Zen was all over the place. I tried to read it more than once, but I never could get very far in it. It struck me as boring and irrelevant, and didn’t answer specific questions I had. I actually bought a used copy of it a couple of years ago and tried to read it again. Thirty years later, I still found it pretty much as unreadable as I had as a twenty-something, and I passed the book along. In any case, at some point in the mid-80’s–probably around ’84, though I’m not sure–I came across An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by the famed Japanese scholar of Buddhism D. T. Suzuki. That book clicked with me immediately, and I reread it time and again.
With the possible exception of Bodhidharma himself, the greatest of all Zen masters is usually considered to have been 趙州從諗, or, as it is pronounced in Modern Mandarin, Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn. In Japan, he is known as Jōshū Jūshin. Most commonly, he is known merely as Zhaozhou or Joshu (henceforth I drop the diacritics). The tendency in writing about the Chinese Zen masters these days is to use the original Chinese forms of their names. Since Zen came to the English-speaking world mostly via Japan, older books typically use the Japanese forms of the name. Thus, for example the noted Zen scholar and popularizer D. T. Suzuki, in his seminal works on Zen, always refers to the worthy we are considering here as “Joshu”. For the rest of this post, I’ll follow his lead. Yes, it’s less accurate; but then again, the Chinese of the Tang dynasty, during which Joshu lived, was pronounced significantly differently from modern Mandarin; and Joshu probably didn’t pronounce his own name as “Zhaozhou”. Certainly, with Western religious figures, it doesn’t bother us that we don’t use the original forms of names–that we call the carpenter of Nazareth “Jesus” instead of Yēšūă‘ and his disciple “Peter” instead of Kêphā. I certainly first encountered and developed an admiration for Joshu under his Japanese name; so Joshu it will be for the rest of this post.