“In the Lives of Men”
by Vivian Tsang
While the media, both online and traditional outlets, have been flooded with discussion on the recent U.S. presidential election, Master Tam has been relatively quiet on the matter. He is not known to be reticent on matters political, and he has in the past made known of his displeasure on the negative impact politicians have on people’s livelihood. I was quite surprised when my teacher gave me a talking-to about it a few days ago.
Before I delve into the matter, I want to bring up a conversation I had with a fellow practitioner. He was asking me how the English meditation class was going. I said it could be tough going because we sometimes lacked the words expressing the spirit of the practice suited for the Western audience. And he was rather adamant that English translations of the Buddhist canon were lacking to the detriment that the meditative guidance amounts to how to live one’s life.
I hummed and hawed but did not confront him on it. Deep down it was my opinion that the meditation was relevant to the English speaking students that kept them coming week in and week out.
So back to my teacher. That day my teacher waved at me, “Hey, have you read about someone making the predictions on the future of the U.S.? A guy named Cayce. He said that the 44th president would be a black man and he would be the last president.”
Donald Trump was just elected as the 45th president, contrary to the polls as reported by the mainstream media. The news had yet to settle. Much to the chagrin of my teacher, I had a kneejerk “there’s a conspiracy” expression on my face. But he didn’t mince words. He had something else he wanted to say.
“Do you know he made a prediction about something else? He said, the ‘cradle of Christianity’ coming from China would flourish in the lives of people!* Cradle! Get it?”
He continued, “He used the word Christianity, but the Christian faith has been in the East for centuries. It doesn’t make sense to say cradle and it doesn’t make sense to only have it flourish now.”
“I can only conclude that Cayce used the word Christianity to mean spirituality. Combining it with the meaning of cradle, what do you get? Tathagatagarbha! What kind of teaching can be applied to the people’s lives? I cannot think of anything but our teaching! Go look him up and read it. It is very well said.” Then he waved me off.
At the time of my writing of this article, the news on Trump naming his advisers and staff is just unfolding. What some deemed as crass campaign talk sends many reeling because many fear how they translate into real government policies. One major concern is on the divisiveness of the country in terms of class, wealth, gender and race, that by electing Trump, the gap between all of these lines can only become wider and wider.
If we delve into the words of Trump’s opponents, the disagreement tends to be a disagreement on words, that the things that he says is the opposite of equality, equity and inclusiveness. In the entire race, not only did he say little on the specifics, he was often caught by the fact checkers for being misleading or wrong. On the other hand, the democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton, articulated her plans for improving the livelihood of everyone, not just the disenfranchised. One thing he did emphasize again and again, though, was that Clinton, along with her contemporaries, did nothing throughout their time in the government.
This reminds me of something that we emphasize often in the English meditation class, that the Buddhist teaching is not merely a collection of words that sounds good to the ear. The teaching is an inseparable triad of teaching, path, and fruition. What I find most interesting is that after 49 years of spreading the gospel, Buddha said, “I haven’t said a word about the dharma.”
Without the action to back up the words, words are transient.
It is akin to if you have a million dollars in the back, if you don’t use it, the money has no function.
There is one expression I only learnt after meeting my husband: “Sticks and stones / Can break your bones / But words can’t hurt me.”
Words do hurt. What is heartbreaking is when words hurt in ways where the suffering becomes the main focus.
On the flip side, words can serve a purpose, otherwise, Buddha and all the teachers after him wouldn’t bother spending the time teaching. The point is that liberation, including being liberated from words and suffering, is possible. They have gone through the process, now they are passing it on to others.
The hard part is that people are many. Values and backgrounds are many. This means that interpretations are many as well. If the fruition (of the practice) is truly universal and accessible to all, how is this possible in spite of the different interpretations?
This comes back to the state of U.S. politics. The founding principle of U.S. is the equality of all people, and by extension democracy. In our modern world, no one would argue against equality and democracy. When are equality and democracy ever wrong?
Throughout the election, the G.O.P. was often accused of elitism. There is nothing wrong for being capable, or being articulate in one’s words. There is certainly nothing wrong for being compassionate and inclusive in one’s words. What is wrong is when one manipulates others for a strategic position in the name of equality or democracy. The action itself happens to be contradictory to the spirit of equality and democracy.
One can easily find examples in local politics or at the larger scale, the geopolitics in the world. It is clear that the spirit of equality and democracy is not wrong. It is how you choose to act “according to” the principle that can go either way.
Dialing back the controversial discussion by a notch, in the introductory meditation class, we often ask the students to maintain a straight back. You can imagine how different people would have different takes on “straight.” If you maintain a military posture, in fact your back is not straight. We tend to provide additional instruction, that one maintains a straight posture so that you are at ease. But what is “at ease”? We can provide additional instructions ad infinitum.
And you can imagine why it took Buddha 49 years. Words provide a stepping stone. The person’s interpretation is yet another. Then through trial-and-error, it becomes clear that whether one’s interpretation is relevant or not. The continual engaging through words / instructions, interpretations, practice and adjusting (one’s interpretation) opens up the path to become liberated. It is at the very least, a liberation of words, or an attachment to words and concepts that seem to ring true at first.
But the individual is the starting point. Individual meaning you, me, everyone. You as an individual provides a point-of-view you have an immediate access to. It is like standing in front of a mirror, you have the first-hand view of the (unique) mirror image from where you stand. A million people stand in front of the mirror, each has access their own view, but all the unique images co-exist on the same one mirror, not one of the images can override the other images.
The revealing of the mirror images, and thus the mirror, is a naked reveal. No cosmetics. No dressing up with nice words. For good or for bad.
And equality can be understood from this perspective. This equality is pervasive and universal to all. When one can loosen the attachment that his/her own image as the only one, one also enters into the territory where the world is ripe with possibilities. After all, if there are perspectives outside of your own, so there must be opportunities beyond the problems or difficulties that one can see! Suffering is not a necessary condition.
And hence the term, Tathagatagarbha! In popular literature, it is coined as Buddha nature, but the word can also be translated as “cradle of Buddha.” The universe (for the lack of a better term) is so ripe with life force that allows the sheer variety of life and perspectives to arise. This life force is pristine and equal in the sense that it is accessible to all. It is equal to all because what arises is not merely good and not merely bad. (Recall: variety!) Through the variety is also how the life force continually manifests itself because through the difference there is also interactions/flow.
The election of Trump needs not be a negative.
Regardless of your view of the election or the election process or even the outcome of it, the process never deviates from the desire of improving one’s livelihood and improving the welfare of the country. There is also no doubt that a significant portion of the population has expressed a dissatisfaction of the establishment for neglecting them, especially those in the area where there used to be a vibrant auto industry, coal mining and manufacturing business.
This is not to say issues of race and gender etc. are not important. They still are. Regardless of your stand on them, a good bulk of the U.S. effort the past two or three decades is on foreign soil. While very much in the name of equality, freedom and democracy, the divide at home, whether it is wealth, or race, or gender, remains a divide. There is no sign of the gap closing, Democrat or Republican.
To cite a funny example from a friend. If your goal is to be an A student, once you have set your goal, you don’t spend time dwelling on the fact that you want to be an A student. You certainly don’t spend time telling people you want to be an A student.
You spend time studying!
Hilary Clinton, while articulate and certainly sounding correct, was most likely seen as the establishment who doesn’t make good on their words, in spite of the effort of the media fact checkers.
The voters and non-voters clearly opted for something/one else.
The Trump phenomenon can be seen as a reveal of mirror images that are always there. No covering up with nice words.
How things will unfold in the U.S. remains to be seen.
The cradle of Buddha is relevant right now.
If one gets any indication for the article, one begins with co-existence. Note that we are not asking you to give up yourself or your beliefs. We are also not asking you to agree. We are not even asking you to agree to disagree. If the “cradle” is truly all encompassing, then the co-existence is indeed possible. Often it is through the co-existence of contrasting matters that can give birth to something new, just like the coming together a father and a mother that gives birth a new baby. The new baby is neither the father nor the mother, but the baby possesses qualities of the father as well as the mother!
We call the technique equanimity. When practiced “rightly,” it truly functions as a bridge. To begin, the baby can rest and be at ease in the mother’s cradle.
We always have more to say, but the article is long enough. Until next time.
On behalf of my teacher and all the teachers before him, Godspeed!
* The prediction came from Edgar Cayce, a “medium” who was known in the early 20th century for making a series of predictions. The one on “cradle of Christianity” is quoted in full here:
“Yea, there in China one day will be the cradle of Christianity, as applied in the lives of men. It is far off, as man counts tune, but only a day in the heart of God. For tomorrow China will awake.”