Saturday, June 16, 2012

Judeo-Christian Readings for Buddhists: Naaman and Elisha

English: Naaman in Jordan River (2King 5:14) Р...
English: Naaman in Jordan River (2King 5:14) Русский: Нееман окунается в реку Иордан (4Цар. 5:14) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Second Book of Kings, Chapter 5, Verses 1-14:
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.

 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said.  “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”

As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”

When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house.

Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. 

 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”  
So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. 
Three important themes that come up from time to time in the Bible (especially in the Gospels) are worthy of consideration by contemporary Buddhists, especially North American Buddhists.
The first is that Naaman went seeking help but he expected that help to come in a form that he was expecting or with which he felt more comfortable. Many people read Buddhist texts or visit Buddhist centers and wish to have it in a form that suits them. This often means rejecting anything that sounds supernatural, or which posits that we are all more than the collection of thoughts, feelings, and body parts with which we identify (preferring a reductionist scientism and a subtle form of nihilism).

These metaphysical preferences are at heart of the rise of secular Buddhism and the rejection of the teaching on rebirth, which may be retained in name but which is reduced to a kind of recycling of physical and mental elements. Emptiness can be translated as a principle of physics explaining that all things change and this in turn emphasizes that reality is based on a sea of infinite potential which collapses into a particular form based on choice and perception.

The second is more subtle, but it has to do with cleanliness or purity. It is closely connected with the first theme as it is also about expectations. Why should Naaman have to bath in such a puny and unclean river? And yet the Gospels say that we find God/the Kingdom of Heaven in the weeds, among the poor and outcast, buried in filth, and in the midst of corruption and failings. Buddhist sutras and their commentaries talk about a lotus blooming in the muddy water, about finding enlightenment in passions, and about realizing nirvana in samsara.

That said, how often do contemporary dharma talks or practices or their everyday application make use of such teachings about perspective? How often does dualistic thinking, judgmentalism, and the temptation to be Bodhier-than-thou, feed discrimination? How often do people think of buddha-nature or emptiness as a thing, and object, or a category that can be found by intellectual means or seen directly with the limited ego-mind? How many ignore the fact that true Mind illuminates all that we perceive (internally or externally) and that it is the foundation of all forms of awareness?

The third follows the second as the second followed the first. How often do followers of any sacred tradition or spiritual path want something worthy of them, a true challenge of their intellect, will, skill in observation and description, and the like? Something complex, full of of mysterious and profound allusions, something that only that the cleverest and most dedicated of seekers can ever hope to attain? Naaman couldn't accept just walking to the nearest river and bathing. It was too convenient, too simple.

How many students of the Buddha-dharma enjoy getting caught up in elaborate rituals and exercises, getting a sense of progress and accomplishment? There is nothing wrong, per se, with such elaboration, or even with using it as a skillful means to attract people to the Dharma. Even something as simple as seated meditation focusing on the breath, an energy center, or a koan is trumped up into an ego-trip of endurance and strange wisdom that only the strongest individual minds can master.

The recitation of the Buddha-name or the chanting of a mantra is, however, to simple. Even if such a thing is good for those with little concentration and for whom "just sitting" may be too difficult as a sole practice or for those who lack the necessary time or interest to participate in exotic esoteric rituals, it's just to convenient and doesn't "ask enough" to earn the rewards of discipline, concentration, and wisdom.

As Pure Land Master Chu-Hung, who was part of the tradition of combining Pure Land and Chan (i.e. Zen), wrote:
We must also recognize that this discipline, concentration, and wisdom are equivalent to the method of buddha-remembrance. How so?

Discipline means preventing wrong-doing. If you can whole-heartedly practice buddha-remembrance, evil will not dare to enter--this is discipline.

Concentration means eliminating the scattering [characteristic of ordinary mind]. If you whole-heartedly practice buddha-remembrance, mind does not have any other object--this is concentration.

Wisdom means clear perception. If you contemplate the sound of the buddha-name with each syllable distinct, and also contemplate that the one who is mindful and the one who is the object of this mindfulness are both unattainable--this is wisdom.
The quote comes from Pure Land, Pure Mind (J.C. Cleary, translator), page 33. While the emphasis here is on reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, the principle laid out above can similarly be used by other Buddhist traditions with an emphasis on a single name or mantra such as Nichiren Buddhism.

Elsewhere in the same book Chu-Hung elaborates on the aspects of concentration and wisdom, suggesting that recitation is a good point of focus both for those with legendary and abysmal powers of concentration. For those who have trouble focusing, continual recitation naturally leads to a more focused mind. For those who are too clever and always analyzing, continual recitation doesn't leave room for the discursive tangents of left-brain dominated consciousness. Thus it prepare the practitioner for or even lead her to samadhi.

Wisdom comes from asking, "Who is reciting the name of the Buddha?", leading to the insight of emptiness in which there is no distinction between the practitioner and Amitabha or between the Pure Land and the Pure Mind. In other words, such a seemingly simple practice can have very significant results.

In one passage (pp. 45-46 of the same book) he illustrates the connection to the third theme identified above:

After I left home, I went everywhere studying and paying visits [to teachers]. At the time Master Pien-jung's teaching center was flourishing so I went to the capital to call on him.

[When I met him,] I got down on my knees and asked him again and again [to instruct me]. He said to me, "You should hold to your fundamental obligations. Don't go hankering after fame and pursuing profit. don't go clinging to those you think will help you. Just be clear about cause and effect, and single-mindedly practice buddha-remembrance. I accepted his teaching and left.

My fellow travelers laughed at me, thinking, "Anyone could say these few sentences. You came from so far away, and this all Pien-jung told you! Where is the loftiness, the subtlety? Actually [this advice] is not worth half a cent!"

I said, "This shows precisely what's good about him. We were thirsting [for knowledge], looking up to him, expecting to revere him, and so we came here from afar. But he did not trick us with talk of the primal source and subtle wonders. Instead he just instructed us in the plainest, most sincere way with the close-at-hand, pure and genuine work that he himself has known. This is what's good about him."
Those who include the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in their spiritual practices or who are disciples of Jesus the Christ may recognize something in this account of well about your own Rabbi's methods.

So, how many contemporary Buddhists (as well as those of other religions) are modern day Naamans up until his anger and disillusionment? How many are Naamans who have washed themselves in the Jordan?


I am enjoying reading Pure Land, Pure Mind, although I paid a small sum to acquire it even though it says on the back cover it is never to be sold. I am half-way through the writings of Chu-Hung, which is mostly letters to specific people. They really resonate even today, with those who are worried about abstract metaphysical principles, their past immorality, their difficulties in complex practices, their busy lives, their bickering and arguing over scripture, their speculation over whether practice is necessary if everyone is a Buddha at heart, etc. His pithy, firm, and compassionate answers are a joy to read and may be good for spiritual directors of any sacred tradition.

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