Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Laying up treasure?

I sincerely apologize to those who have read the recent entries Inspirational Admonition and Form and formlessness and the practice, as this entry will overlap quite a bit with that material. However, it is also a more lucid and integrated entry with some additional explanation added in. It based on my response to a question someone asked on the Buddhism forum of a larger multi-topic message board...

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. " Mat 6:19-21

What does Jesus mean by treasure? I have my own opinion here, but I am hoping some others can offer their insight into what this treasure might be.

I am not sure if that was meant to be on this forum or not. I have no idea what the author of the passage intended. On the one hand, I could look at other passages and various theological premises to generate a reply based on what people claim Christianity teachers, but why bother? You can get that from dozens of Christian forums online.

I think that if this were simply an unattributed passage without the implied theological baggage, the last sentence is the most pressing. It suggests that our hearts follow what we value. So then the concern here is the heart. Of course, this refers to the metaphorical heart, to our capacity to care, as opposed to the old sac of intercalated discs and cusped valves pumping away in your chest. At the most superficial level, then, the passages states that if one values those things which are impermanent (I believe someone else used that word), then it will be disappointed since those things do not last. In Buddhism we talk about nonattachment, or not grasping after things. But that's a pretty superficial description of nonattachment as well. The thing people often fail to ask is--why do we grasp? Why do we try to cling to or grasp after a certain self-image? Or attention? Or popular material goods? And, does that mean we shouldn't have desires or goals? Very tricky business.

So, my opinion? Hmm, well desires are fine. I think when Buddhists translate that word they mean craving moreso than wanting. Goals are fine too. Passionately pursuing what you want is not a no-no. Which is why the idea of the Vulcan Buddhist (a term I picked up someplace but I can't recall where) is so harmful. I think many, especially American Buddhists, think this way, and therefore they try to emmulate that image. Stoicly sitting in a serene posture 24 hours a day unaffected by the world. That might be more aplty named Corpse Buddhism. Sitting can be a good practice, but its only a means to an end. The problem with grasping that stems from attachment is when we feel that we need something to "feel good", or to "be happy", to "be secure", or most accurately and more precisely, to "be complete". No one is happy all the time, no one is sad all the time. The sun doesn't always shine, the rain doesn't always fall. But often we think "If I could get XXX I would feel good, happy, secure, and complete." Yet it doesn't work that way. If we are really miserable, great sex, expensive toys, excessive flattery--they only give a short-lived pleasure but never lasting joy. So goals and desires and passions are OK so long as we don't expect them to give us lasting fulfillment. By seeing them that way we can enjoy them and treasure their memory without attachment since we made the most of them during our opportunity to experience them.

That begs the question, then--where *can* we invest our heart so that we don't get a poor return? I presume that the Christians will say "Christ" or "God", so that's fine for them. But again, you can get that answer on any of a number of Christian forums. In some shallow readings of Buddhism one might get the impression that through right speech, action, thought, etc. one can accrue merit and one day achieve liberation and see that as some kind of brownie point system, laying up karmic credit to make a big purchase later. As my tone suggests I find that to be incorrect. A somewhat lengthy explanation ensues.

In Buddhism in general there are certain key concepts, such as imperanence and interdepedence. Basically everything in the world of form (that which can be described, conventional existence, space-time, what have you) is interconnected and affects each other and also there are no "fixed" things, as everything is constantly shifting and changing (even the chair I am sitting on that appears solid is actually shifting at the atomic, subatomic, and sub-sub-atomic level). That means that reality is not a static thing but constantly unfolding. Then there is the world of formlessness. This is not really a separate world but rather a different perspective, referring to the undifferentiated totality of existence. Here is a quick thought experiment to give a hint about this. Think if there were only one thing. That's it. Now, what you really have is nothing. Because there is no differentiation, no discrimination, no point of reference. It doesn't even work to say "it exists in a void" because now you have two things, "it" and a "void", two points of reference. So really then at the absolute level everything and nothing are indistinct. That, in a nutshell, is formlessness. This next bit or two is just my own two cents, but it also helps expand on the preceeding text a little, and especially to bring it into terms less dependent on a traditional Buddhist lexicon. With form there is discrimination, distinction. On the one hand, the relationship between two or more points defines them. On other other hand, the two objects define that relationship. That to me is meaning, the mutual coexistence of objects and their relationships. The common use of the term really just applies to descriptions or models, to subjective appraisals, of actual meaning, which should not be confused with purpose, which implies intention. Now, if we shift from the separate elements to the undifferentiated whole, that is what we often refer to as transcendence. If we go from the undifferentiated whole to the separate elements, that is imminence.

Still bearing with me? OK, we might get somewhere soon. So, ah yes, OK, now this is again MY cummulative interpretation of many teachings, texts, and ponderances, so I think it is consistent with/accords to Buddhism but others might tell me I'm full of it. I see formlessness as constantly giving rise to form, which immediately dissolves back into formlessness. This cycle is eternal, or at the very least operates on a scale so vast it defies description. The point at which transcendence meets imminence is reality--the living moment, if you will. Hence impermanence, but also hence interdependence. Rather than a static beginning to Creation, it is perpetual and each location-moment in space-time is referenced (as opposed to the word determined) by all of the others. It's why we try to understand the world primarily in terms of causality. Each element or object is connected to this ever-unfolding moment and this connection can be described as awareness. This to some might imply a "mind", but it really just means that each thing is responsive to the greater causal network of interconnected of which it is a part. Sentient beings, such as humans, appreciate this awareness through consciousness. Getting back into more stereoptypical Buddhist-speak, then, we have access to our direct awareness of reality all the time, but it becomes cluttered and muddled by conditioned attitudes and perceptions, prejudices, and in some cases general laziness. It's the idea that we all have Buddha-nature, that we are all unrealized/nonactualized Buddhas, except for our clinging to delusions through greed, anger, and ignorance. It's the idea that enlightenment is a way of being and seeing, not a static state one tries to achieve. It's the idea that true mindfulness, or fully realizing Bodhi, means being truly and fully open to the unfolding possibilities before us.

So, then, back to the issue of where we can invest our heart so that we don't get a poor return. It is easy to simply say good deeds, but if we do those because we think we will achieve some status that will make us happy or complete later (like getting an extra crown or two or extra attention in Heaven) we still run into the problem of attachment and ultimately the resulting suffering. It is only when we can do such deeds unconditionally that we can give merit to others, or in Abrahamic terms blessings. How does this happen? When we see Buddha-nature, or in Abrahamic terms, Christ-nature* or the spirit of God*, within all beings and within ourselves, reflecting our common link through transcendence and imminence beyond a false static view of the world of form (which is where our heads and hearts often get stuck). Hence the irony that the only way to truly "lay up" such treasure is to give it away.

*there are those who will bristle at my usage of these terms; I am not implying these are necessarily the same thing or that this is the preferred Christian way to conceive of these terms; so bristle away


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I like this a lot - your conclusion echoes what many others have been saying recently in conversations across the Blangha.

    I also like the terms 'Vulcan Buddhism' and 'Corpse Buddhism' - they point to a very real phenomenon.

    Thanks for writing.

    (previous comment removed to correct spelling)


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