Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Experiences with the Bhagavad Gita

When I was younger, for five consecutive summers, I watched the Mahabharata on screen. In the 80's (I think,) the notoriously long epic was turned into a series that aired weekly for years on Indian television. We had every episode made, from the beginning of the Mahabharata to the end, on multiple VHS tapes at our house. It would take me the entire summer to watch the series from beginning to end, with subtitles because at that time I did not yet know understand Hindi as fluently as I do now. 

As a child, I watched the spectacle with wonder. The images on screen were like a movie for me, pure entertainment. Little did I know that I was implicitly learning about my family's religion. My favorite part was the part when the the Pandavas emerged unscathed from the Wax Palace meant to tear them down. I would cheer in delight every time the Pandavas triumphed and grow upset whenever they were in peril. 

Every summer, however, there would always be one section of the show that bored me - the section that I now know corresponds to the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna, one of my favorite "characters," would lecture on and on to Arjuna, seemingly for hours, days maybe. When I grew older, I learned of the essential teachings of the Gita through other ways, mostly talking to my parents. Yet I still had not put two and two together. It was not until I reached college and read portions of the Gita that I recognized some lines as those in the scenes I found most boring from my summer "special" show. I enjoy taking classes on Hinduism, and religion in general, in college because I learn more about the textual side of the religion. Growing up in America, I was exposed primarily to merely the ritual and cultural aspects of Hinduism. I learn more and more about my religion each day. I especially like connecting real textual passages with concepts and ideas central to Hinduism that I already was aware of without any textual evidence. For example, in Tuesday's class I learned that the hours or days that Arjuna spent debating the battle with Krishna was in reality just time suspended. To the others on the battlefield, no time passed during Arjunas's moment of crisis. This summer, I want to rewatch the television version of the Bhagavad Gita now that I possess a better understanding of it through text. I have a feeling that this time I will be enthralled seeing the text we just read come alive on screen with characters from my childhood. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Various Thoughts on Meditation Reading

Something that struck me from this reading was the actual changes in the structure and style of the writing: the piece alternates between simple directions and more complicated thoughts on, for example, the nature of thoughts or the emptiness of the mind. I was also able to read the work relatively quickly because the language was simple, but after forcing myself to slow down I gained a lot more depth in understanding and even pondered some of the interesting questions posed by the work. My favorite question was, "Regarding the empty quality, does that mean being empty like nothingness or empty like space?" (28). The entire highlighted section surrounding that question, in my opinion, was beautifully written (translated?)

I think that a lot of the directions can be applied personally in my life, without engaging in full meditation. I consider myself more of an introvert than extrovert, so as a result I often will find myself deep in thought, furiously overthinking even the smallest of issues or thoughts. So the parts from the first section of the reading that told one to neither ignore nor address (not the exact words, but general idea) thoughts that arise in the mind could definitely help me out. The same idea even could apply to trying to keep focus while studying or reading. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this reading because I think it differed greatly from most of the texts we have looked at over the course of this semester, considering both traditions. Sometimes it can be easy to get bogged down or confused by the intricacies of each tradition's, and their branch-offs, philosophies, so this was a nice, relaxing, fun change.

Serenity and Simplicity-The Rhetoric of "Clarifying the Natural State"

When have we before been privileged to read such a simultaneously accessible and soothing text in this class? It was such a surprise and a delight to start reading and realize--hey, this book is written in a conversational and encouraging tone. I don't feel lost or confused. I actually feel hopeful! Hopeful about understanding the reading, but also a little hopeful about life.

This reading is constructed with the sort of list-like organization I have come to expect from Buddhist texts, but the lists are at the head of the sections, as organizational pieces, rather than interrupting the flow of the text. It reads very much like an instruction manual, or a self-help book. Follow this step, then that step. Take breaks. Really, it's advice for any kind of learning of a skill. And specific pointers! If you are drowsy, be cooler--if you are antsy, be warmed. I also enjoy that the reading seems to be as help to the lama, the teacher. It has sort of behind the scenes hints for how to help an initiate, cautions against teaching by telling, "pointing-out", series of steps to follow.

The text is both eminently practical and deeply thoughtful, two bedfellows that rarely meet, and a pleasure to read. Quite a difference from Tantra!

Counterintuitive? - Mind and Body

Before I get into some of my questions that are concerned with nondualism during meditation, here are some quotes from the reading that help contextualize what I’m discussing:

On the consciousness of the mind: “Likewise, is your mind an entity that can be identified as empty or as aware? Regarding the empty quality, does that mean being empty like nothingness or empty space? Is the lucidly aware quality radiant like .the light of the sun and moon, or the flame of a butter lamp? Examine what this lucidity is Investigate this until it is settled with complete and conclusive certainty. (28)

On the nature of the mind and stillness: “It is easy to resolve that (this conscious mind) does not consist of any shape, color, location, support or material substance. However, if you take it to be a definable entity that is aware and empty and you remain quietly in that state, you are still unresolved, since that is the meditative mood of stillness.” (28)

On the mind and nonarising: “You must experience the actual mode of this mind: a self knowing emptiness that from the very first cannot be pinpointed as arising, dwelling or ceasing.”  (37)

What is the nature of the mind -- is the mind separate from the body, or is it a body part? In the same way that our hands are? Thoughts and the mind are indivisible, perceptions and the mind are indivisible (as during meditation, “the mind has not turned into anything other than mind itself” 36 ish) but what about the mind and the body? Before Namgyal establishes the “identity of the mind,” he outlines instructions for meditation in terms of our bodily reality and function. He stresses the importance of posture and breathing, and doing these meditative practices to “capture the uncaught mind” (20). If in fact there is no division within a nondualist context, is it not counterintuitive that during meditation one distinguishes between bodily movements and movements of the mind? Or, working off this quote---“No matter what of thought occurs, its experience is, in itself, something unidentifiable - it is unobstructedly aware and yet not conceptualizing. As for perceptions, they are a mere impression of unobstructed presence, which is insubstantial and not a clinging to a solid reality. They are hard to describe as being such-and-such, and when you understand them to be this way you have reached personal experience.” (31) -- would Namgyal classify our bodies as perceptions? Also, it seems as if consciousness and the mind are used interchangeably, yet in what circumstance would their division aid in one’s training? If the mind and consciousness are not divisible, is it incorrect to describe the mind in terms of what is conscious and unconscious, ie, the conscious mind? Moreover, I am questioning the interesting relationship between the body and the mind during meditation and its practice in a nondual context.

Bliss in Kaula Ritual

I may be off a bit in my interpretation and may even be understanding this in the wrong context, but I was thoroughly intrigued by the idea of liberation through bliss in Kaula ritual while reading Sanderson’s “Meaning in Tantric Ritual”. Sanderson elaborates on page 87 of the text explaining the use of bliss in ritual and how the senses are nothing but the ‘instruments of the state of bondage’  and how the senses are divine avenues of the blissful. Interestingly he added how the egoless, unconstrained consciousness, that which is the ‘underlying identity of all awareness’ (87) can be achieved through a state of bliss. Bliss in a way is a tool to liberate consciousness into the realization of its all encompassing radiance and transparency. It’s really one thing to excite the senses with the underlying motivation of desire, but its another to think that possibly once can overexcite the senses to such a state where the objectivity alters and the bonds of desire are even almost free, connecting one to this sort of egoless consciousness. Sort of like running a marathon, the physical sense is so attuned and so overstimulated in a way, that once you get to mile 18 (or at least how I felt the first time I ran a marathon) that sense just disintegrates into this physically exhaustive state and instead of being submitted to this extreme pain I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of physical energy and became so attuned to my ‘inner self’ that I actually reversed lost time and accelerated faster than any point in the race. Or maybe with eating a really delicious piece of chocolate- boy I forget all world drama every. single. time. I may be off totally here with my example but I kind of understood this correlation with the bliss in ritual when Sanderson talked about bliss in Kaula ritual as a kind of uninhibited, unconstrained exercise in which one can reach liberation and position oneself in a nondualistic state. “The greater the intensity of this bliss the greater the self-realization in one who experiences it.” (88)

Some reflections on Buddhism

The reading, Clarifying the Natural State, really made me take a step back and think about what I've learned about Buddhism this semester. This kind of text, a very thorough explanation of Buddhist meditation practice, is kind of what I was expecting to learn about when I originally signed up for this class. I think that before taking this class, I had a very Westernized view of Buddhism, in which meditation seemed to me to be the most important aspect of the religion. Of course, this is not meant to downplay the presence of meditation in Buddhism, as meditation and the emphasis on mindfulness is certainly a huge part of the religion. However, I feel like this semester I've also learned so much about the philosophy and history of Buddhism, as well as the interplay between Buddhism and the various cultures it has come into contact with. So, when I read this text, I found it fascinating and calming, but I also found myself looking back on what I've learned so far and thinking about how much more there is still to learn as well. As an unrelated sidenote, I also think I'll be saving this text so I can read the rest of it on some later date, as it was a very relaxing (and potentially very helpful) read.

Right vs. Left

Growing up, I've noticed the stigma that people have about the left. My parents have always enforced the rule of giving and accepting things, eating, etc. with the right hand, and now, using my left hand for most things feels weird. I remember that when I asked my dad why our right hands are so important, years ago, he said it is because the left hand is dirty. That didn't really make sense to me, but I just went with it anyway. I had no idea that there were even people who were "pro-left." Yesterday, we talked about the difference between the right and the left in the context of Tantric ritual, like how for Hindus, the right symbolizes equality with Shiva, and the left symbolizes being the same as Shiva, and how with the right there is still a base impurity and the left embodies a liberated reality. For some reason, I fail to see how the right could be considered better than the left (or vice versa, for that matter) and how such a stigma could exist.

Sorry for such a short post. This was just something I had been thinking about since yesterday's lecture.