Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Revisiting Buddha pointing finger at the Moon

Mythology has a way to spur human thought. It does not mean that we must believe in myths. Instead the fact that a mythology exists, heightens the curiosity and inquisitiveness to explore the meaning and purpose of the myth. For example, it is said in Hindu mythology that Maharishi Vyasa recited the epic Mahabharatha while Lord Ganesha listened, understood the full meaning, and transcribed exactly what was said, all at the same time. A humanly impossible task, it creates an "ideal" model for human learning. Perception, thinking and understanding naturally lead to greater knowledge which creates the path towards achieving a higher state of the conscious mind. In fact, these are the five principal aggregates to human consciousness, also known as the Skandhas in Sanskrit.

Perception is based upon how our five sensory systems, namely, vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch, can be combined together to give form to the object that we wish to perceive. It is a self-taught skill that must be practiced and experienced. We must focus our attention deeply towards what we wish to see, understand, experience and learn. Our focus must not be disrupted by momentary thoughts that are unrelated and are inconsequential to what we wish to learn. Like firecrackers exploding randomly, thoughts emerge from nowhere, and disappear quickly. It is an annoying feeling when we are unable to concentrate on any one topic or issue when our mind begins to wander, sparked by dozens of thoughts. We cannot focus on any one thought for any length of time. We feel frustrated by the distractions. We feel like closing our eyes and ears so no thought other than what we wish to focus on can persist in our mind.  We wish to experience a stream of thoughts and see the continuous, uninterrupted sequence of images in the mirror of our mind. How can one possibly achieve such a state of mind and yet carry on with the activities that we are normally engaged in.

I have been meaning to revise the blog posted in late August 2011, for some time. Needless to say, the lack of time combined with many distractions I have been experiencing has been major factors contributing to my inability in making any revisions. In any case, I have felt it is better now than later to start making changes. 

The picture below shows an early first century AD Tibetan painting of Buddha pointing to the Moon. It is possible that the image is part of the Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life). The Full Moon image shows what Buddha might have pointed to.

           Buddha pointing to the Full Moon               What one can see
Here is the image of the Moon in false color taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft from approximately 400,000 nautical miles. 
         False color image                      Closeup                             Face
I have had a few instances when people have asked me "How do you know this is what Buddha pointed to?" Obviously, no one will ever know the answer. But there is sufficient detail in the image to arrive at one's own conclusions. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand

On a recent visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand, my close friend took us to the Wat Prathat Doi Suthep Temple atop a mountain. Built during the late 14th century, the temple is a centerpiece for Buddhism in Chiang Mai. Inside the Pagoda, there are numerous Buddha statues and wall paintings depicting the life of Buddha. Here are some pictures from that visit.

Steps leading to the Pagoda
One of many sign posts on the way up

Buddha preaching to his disciples

Wall painting depicting the attack on Buddha's meditative state

A 2006 puppet show re-enacting Buddha's path to enlightenment

At around the same time as the discovery of the Buddha form on the Moon, I had been searching for other pictorial renditions of Gautama Buddha's encounter with Mara, the demon king who tried in vain to distract Buddha from his deep meditation as he sat under the Bodhi tree. I had found a set of 32 pictures posted on the Internet from a 2006 puppet show in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, reenacting Buddha's path to enlightenment. The remarkable enactment shows Gautama Buddha entering the forest, sitting down to meditate, is surrounded by Mara and his demonic companions, there is an ensuing barrage of attacks on Buddha's meditative mental state, and finally there is peace and tranquility from having overcome the attack. Viewers may see this here.

The reenactment captures the essence of what is seen on the Moon. With Mara's face masking that of the Buddha face, the gesture of Buddha pointing his finger at the Moon seems to confirm the origins of the Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life). Perhaps this is exactly what Gautama Buddha wanted all humans to see and for us to discover much more about the meaning and purpose of our life.

Mara and his demonic forces attacking Buddha.
Wall painting inside the Wat Prathat Doi Suthep Temple in
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Buddha's Birthday

I have searched many sources for Gautama Buddha's birth year. According to most historians and researchers of Buddhism, the dates range between 624 BC to 563 BC. Thailand uses Buddha's birth year as a reference for all official internal purposes including automobile registrations. May 5, 2012, the day celebrated as Vesak, marks the beginning of Year 2556. This would make Buddha's birth year 544 BC.

We commonly use the word enlightenment in describing a personal feeling of success, or some form of revelation that brings joy and happiness. This could be success in achieving some desired or unexpected result in engineering, science or in mathematics. But is this truly enlightenment? I suppose not. So what is enlightenment? 

The path towards seeking peace of mind, a state of mind called Nirvana, takes on many forms. One needs to encounter events that cause enlightenment. What it is, is unknown and cannot be described. But what it is, must be experienced and understood. The meaning and purpose of each event in our daily lives must be felt, experienced and understood. 

My meeting with Nun Bach at the Truc Lam Zen Buddhist monastery in Da Lat was enlightening. I can say this only to share my feeling of reaching a state of mind -- a state for thoughtful expression and creative thinking. Her thoughts were expressed beautifully. She made me think deeper than I had before. 

The discovery of the Buddha form on the Moon has given me the inspiration to dig deeper into the life of Buddha. I have thought incessantly for the meaning and purpose of the existence for such an image on the Moon. This is a challenge I have taken on by my own accord. 

Here are some pictures from the Truc Lam Zen Buddhist monastery taken on Saturday, May 5, 2012.

Main entrance

Dress code
Chanting in Main Hall

Monks leaving the Main Hall after ceremonies

Friday, May 4, 2012

In Da Lat by chance

I am in Da Lat by chance. We arrived here on Sunday April 29th, 2012 around 7 pm. Monday, April 30th, 2012 was Vietnam's reunification day, and Tuesday May 1, 2012 was Labor Day, both national holidays in Vietnam. With the weekend approaching, I suggested to my wife that we take a trip to Madagui and Da Lat. I could tell that she was excited. 

My wife's sister got into the loop and soon had a van and other travel arrangements ready. I have to admit that my sister-in-law is just amazing. She can get things done, no matter what, where, when, and how complex the task might be. We left Saigon on Saturday, April 28th for Madagui. After a short overnight stay in Madagui, we headed North towards Da Lat. The feelings of anticipation and anxiety were flowing through my body. The visit to Da Lat triggered my thoughts from an earlier visit in August 1998, in ways I could never have imagined. The original plan was to stay for 2 nights in Da Lat and return to Saigon on Tuesday, so I could go back to my work on Wednesday, May 3rd, 2012. But this plan was destined to change. 

My wife had hinted earlier about staying longer in Da Lat. But my mind was not focused on what to anticipate. For me, it felt as though I needed a break from my work, and to just getaway for a couple of days. At a spur of the moment, I just felt I wanted to stay longer, maybe till the end of the week -- maybe until Saturday, May 5th, 2012. My thoughts were jumping from one to another. Much like a flickering flame, my thoughts jumped from the enrichment of work that I am engaged in, to the spiritual wisdom from enlightenment. 

As a Fulbrighter in Vietnam, I have engaged myself deeply in various aspects of the Vietnamese culture and education. My work, therefore, is my driving force for exploring visions of Vietnam that I have never had a chance in the past to think about. All my previous visits to Vietnam were very short with no time to relax and engage in everything. 

Our anticipated departure from Da Lat on Saturday, May 5th, 2012, was also bound to change because I found out that May 5th, 2012 is Buddha's Birthday, Vesak. This made me even more excited. I had to stay back to witness and be part of the celebrations.

Banners are all over town. Floats bearing a statue of Siddhartha pointing the index finger of the right hand to the sky, and the index finger of the left hand to Earth are being prepared for the celebrations. Da Lat is buzzing with activity.

Here are some pictures of what is going on in Da Lat.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Zen moments in Da Lat, Vietnam

My family and a close friend of my sister-in-law visited the Truc Lam Zen Buddhist monastery in Da Lat today. It was the first time I had been in such a place. Everything I saw appeared to be perfect. Every Monk or Nun that passed by smiled and nodded. It was a remarkable environment where one could let their mind lose and feel free of any inhibitions or addictions. The place looked like no other place I have ever seen before. Thoughts of extraordinary nature appeared instantly. I felt surrounded by the beauty in Nature. Located on the shores of Da Lat Lake it has a serene environment which allows anyone to focus on anything and think deeply.
Truc Lam Zen Buddhist monastery in Da Lat
I felt dazzled by the sight of Banzai plants all around. I kept thinking how anyone could describe the beauty of the scenes to another. The meaning of "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder" had sunk in to my mind. I knew I could not possibly describe my feelings of the surrounding beauty. What is beautiful to one may appear just ordinary for another. So, there is nothing unique about such places other than they are the ONLY places where there is absolute freedom of thought. The fact is, time is irrelevant in path to enlightenment. Enlightenment can occur any moment for anyone if there is deep thought. We all practice this in our everyday lives as engineers, scientists and mathematicians. But our thoughts are frequently interrupted by unwanted or undesirable thoughts, commonly referred to as "noise".

My sister-in-law had briefly mentioned about the monastery before leaving for Da Lat. She had also mentioned that she knew a nun who could speak English fluently. My anxiety grew as we traveled by road and I honestly could not wait to discuss with her about some Zen stories and koans which I had read earlier.

I felt privileged to meet Nun Bach who is practicing Zen at the monastery.  The meeting was arranged by my sister-in-law who is a frequent visitor to this monastery. I asked Nun Bach how long she had been practicing. She replied: "I am practicing it now!!", with a sense of elation and excitement. I thought for a moment and felt that my question was too naive. It is true that persistence and practice have no end. It does not matter when one started practicing, but it does matter how rigorous the practice is towards enlightenment.

In the short period we met, I asked Nun Bach if I could discuss the koan "No Water, No Moon".  Giggling at times, she immediately burst in to a big smile. I could guess at that moment that Nun Bach had closely studied Nun Chiyono's history and her path to enlightenment. After a few passing comments, we had to end our meeting. It was time for chanting in the prayer hall. A banner announcing Buddha's birthday,Vesak, on May 5th, 2012, was posted as we walked past the main prayer hall. The front door was barely open just to allow a quick view of the Buddha statue. We left the monastery grounds after the prayers, but the thoughts of the visit are still fresh and it is my hope to be there again for Buddha's birthday celebrations.

Banner announcing Buddha's Birthday
I recall a recent news article from the Vatican stating that a Roman Catholic Cardinal praised Buddhism for instilling the values of wisdom and compassion in young people across the World. The cardinal stated this aspect of Buddhist education is a precious gift to society. As we returned home from the visit to Truc Lam monastery, this thought kept ringing in my mind and how wonderful it will be for all younger generations to visit such places frequently, however briefly it might be, and experience an environment that naturally stimulates deep thinking.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Full Moon on May 5, 2012

For many Buddhists in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and in the Southeast Asian countries of Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Indonesia, May 5, 2012 marks the celebration of the life of Gautama Buddha, beginning from his birth to his passing away. It is celebrated as Buddha's birthday, Buddha Jayanthi, in India. It is also celebrated to represent Buddha's enlightenment on a Full Moon night, two thousand five hundred and fifty five years ago. Called Vesak or Wesak in many parts of Southeast Asia, it is called Vaishakha in India. Here is a link to find out when the Full Moon occurs for the rest of 2012 and 2013.

"No Water, No Moon", a well known koan, describes nun Chiyono's experienced enlightenment on a Full Moon night. For years, she had been studying to practice Zen under Bukko of Engaku, and yet had not felt the sense of enlightenment. Then, on one Full Moon night as she was carrying home a pail of water she saw the reflection of the brilliant Moon in the water. She could not look up in the night sky to stare at the Moon, for fear of dropping the pail and losing the water. She was happy enough to gaze at the Moon's reflection, see many distortions of the Moon caused by the undulating water, and enjoy the beauty of the Full Moon through its reflection. Suddenly, the old pail made of bamboo fell apart. Water gushed out and the reflection of the Moon instantly disappeared. Nun Chiyono became enlightened.

Enlightenment happens suddenly. There is no step-by-step approach towards feeling enlightened. For Nun Chiyono, perhaps it is a vision that came true through perceiving all the images she could see on the Moon. Her gaze focused on the Moon's reflection. All she saw was a continuous image of the reflected Moon while she walked along a path illuminated by the bright shining Moon. No one will ever know what exactly Nun Chiyono saw and experienced, and that which brought her enlightenment. Enlightenment is an experienced understanding of the truth. No one can share this experience, as no words can carry the inner feelings. Words are merely a way to express a thought. The manner in which the thought occurred can not be expressed. 

In this context, the discovery of the holographic quality images of the Buddha form on the Moon, and the image of Jesus Christ on the Moon are significant to understanding the Zen state of mind. The approximate size of each image is seen in the picture below.

From a scholarly view-point it will be useful for historians and philosophers to articulate greater meaning of the phrase "Pointing finger at the Moon".