Published in July-September 2013 issue of “Dharma World” magazine, published in Japan
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Where can we find the Awakened One and the relief of suffering in our own world and in our own lives? With the Buddha somehow still alive and underground bodhisattvas at work right now, we must take responsibility and join the buddha-work and the flowering of Dharma encouraged by the Dharma Flowering Sutra.
How may we find the Buddha today in our modern world? In the spirit of chapter 15 of the Lotus Sutra, at times when our troubled world is in need of support and succor, bodhisattvas spring forth from out of the space under the earth, from the openness in the ground of our being, emerging to help suffering beings right in the middle of the most difficult situations of distress. In the spirit of chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha, our great historical founder in India, when he passed away into nirvana in the fifth century BCE, in some important sense did not leave this world, for his lifespan actually reached back into the vast depths of the past and will last much longer into the future.
When we settle into the practice of awakening, we begin to trust and gain confidence in these visions of the workings of awakening and awakening beings and this potential all around us. But then we would do well to ask where we can discern these underground bodhisattvas arising in our world today. How is the Buddha alive today? Where can we find the Awakened One and the relief of suffering in our own world and in our own lives? With the Buddha somehow still alive and underground bodhisattvas at work right now, we must take responsibility and join the buddha-work and the flowering of Dharma encouraged by the Dharma Flowering Sutra.
We should not assume that these underground bodhisattvas reside merely in formal Buddhist institutions. We must look beyond the formalities of “Boo-dism,” as even the most noble of human institutions tend to become stiff and self-serving of institutional needs and forget their original inspirations. The true vitality of awakening and healing awareness, the true spirit and purpose of the buddha-work, may express itself in many unexpected places.
We may see bodhisattvas supporting innovative spiritual movements in formal Buddhism as it adapts to and transforms in the modern world in the West and in Asia but clearly also in some other religious traditions. However, we should not ignore the potential of the old Buddhist institutions to convey something important from the traditional teachings and the rich tapestry of practice forms and artistic expressions of Buddhist images and imagination. My own decades of committed Buddhist practice were significantly stimulated when I was twenty and witnessed Japanese Buddhist statues, temple architecture, and Zen rock gardens. Thanks to this experience of Japanese Buddhist images, when I met a worthy Japanese Soto Zen priest in New York City several years later, I was prepared to dive into practice.
Dharma teachings of the nature of self and nonself, of emptiness and impermanence, of the deep interconnectedness of all beings, of mutual causality, of the ground of buddha-nature, and of the depths of complexity of consciousness and of reality remain beneficial as inspiring offerings in the modern world. The Lotus Sutra, and also a great many other Buddhist sutras, commentaries, and talks and stories from millennia of Buddhist adepts are all part of the skillful means of Buddhist liberation and healing. They provide a profound legacy whose meanings should be made available and retranslated for beings in fresh contexts and new cultures.
The Buddha and underground bodhisattvas are present and supportive in the world today in company with all sorts of contemplatives, with meditators working on developing inner awareness in various modes. Awareness itself is transformative. We do not always see how growth, development, or relief of suffering may emerge. And yet with awareness the possibilities for wholesome transformation are fostered, and one thing we all know is that change is always happening. This change can be a good thing as well as sometimes a source of loss and sadness.
Those who nurture awareness engage in the work of poets and philosophers, inspiring creative thought in others. We see awareness in prisoners, and with those who witness and attend to the suffering of prisoners and the injustice in our society, in which many are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses or because of social systems where opportunities for wholesome livelihoods are infrequent. Others attend to the dying or to those in poverty, the hungry, or the homeless. Many American Buddhists are now involved in programs for ministering to prisoners or to the dying in hospices. The Buddha and underground bodhisattvas appear in the world today in a multitude of sites and situations, wherever people attend to those who are suffering or oppressed, facing material hardship or emotional pain.
We also find buddhas and bodhisattvas exactly among those who are searching for awakening and awakening lifestyles. Just by asking the question, wondering where to find healing and insight, awakening response from the underground bodhisattvas or from our abiding Buddha becomes available, and somehow responses emerge. This seeking, known traditionally as bodhicitta, or the mind of the way, is itself a valuable and mysterious gift. From whence such caring arises is as mysterious as the underground bodhisattvas and must be nourished when we recognize it in ourselves and in others around us.
In addition to witnessing and addressing suffering and the sadness of the world, buddhas and bodhisattvas celebrate joy and inspiration. The Buddha abides and the bodhisattvas emerge in all creative activities that promote liveliness and vitality and that benefit all beings with the gift of encouraging creative play. Buddha-work is the most meaningful and dignified of all activities, but it is too important to make somber. It is simply the most beautiful, satisfying mode of being and comes most fully alive in its playfulness. This is the spirit of creativity, necessary to sustaining such awakening for novel contexts, in new cultures, and in times with innovative technologies and fresh dangers. The Zen tradition cherishes old sayings that celebrate the arising and revitalizing of life and energy. For example, we can hear the value of renewal when “the plum blossoms on the same withered branch as last year” or when “a dragon howls in a withered tree” or “when the wooden man starts to sing, the stone woman gets up dancing.” Such creative emergence and ongoing liveliness is an occasion for playfulness, for dancing, for festivities. Even silent, still, upright meditation can be performed with such a pleasing spirit.
Bodhisattvas serious about addressing the causes of suffering in the world today and the possibilities for liberation and healing attend to the personal and psychological aspects of individuals. Turning within to look at our personal self-clinging is certainly a central facet of liberative work. One of the places that the Buddha’s Way is adapting to the modern world is through Western insights into psychology, which are integrating with traditional Buddhist study of consciousness. Buddhist practices of mindful awareness have been employed to help the process of seeing through habitual obsessive attachments and to develop a more flexible adaptive posture in relationships and work contexts.
We may look for awakening activity where creative inspiration appears in our modern culture and its varied art forms, music, and literature. Through such fresh forms, awareness flowers and finds new expression. The Buddha and bodhisattvas especially appear in whatever inspires and encourages young people to creative performance. As new media appear with technological innovations, opportunities for renewed expressions of awakening may manifest. The Buddha and the underground bodhisattvas emerging presently are always concerned with awakening beings of the future. Thus they are concerned with young people, their well-being, and their interests. I appreciate the Japanese priest who has recently adapted his liturgy to a hip-hop presentation. Young people are interested in making their marks, of finding their places in the unfolding of human history and creation. This is also the heart of awakening and the reason the Buddha needs an enduring lifespan. True awakening is ongoing, and even Shakyamuni must ongoingly awaken to the new possibilities of insight and compassion in each new situation and age.
Buddhas attentive to the future are concerned about conserving beneficial spiritual teachings and practices as well as preserving enlivening traditional cultural artifacts for the nourishment of new generations. Our world would be diminished if we lost the beauty of Bach, Homer, Shakespeare, or Rembrandt. Bodhisattvas are also concerned about protecting and safeguarding a healthy natural environment and conserving the beauty of mountains and woodlands for the nurture of living beings. Along with such conservative activities, the abiding Buddha and the underground bodhisattvas in the world today support progressive movements that work for the progress of the health and safety of all beings. The ancient Metta Sutta proclaims, “May all beings be happy.” The Buddha can be found in the world today wherever this concern is expressed and supported. The earth bodhisattvas thus help progressive social activists who care about the well-being and benefit of all beings and encourage these people toward calm, sustainable activity that helps assist the beleaguered.
For bodhisattvas truly bringing awareness to the suffering of the world, attention must be given to the systemic sources of societal distress in our world. Perhaps this has been going on for centuries, but in recent decades, and increasingly in the past decade, we can see hurtful class warfare being waged against the majority of people, including the former so-called middle class. Most of the large banks, major weapons manufacturing corporations, and large energy corporations (initially American but now multinational) have been making enormous profits while entrenching their control of global wealth and domination over societal organizations. The result has been the destruction of Western and global economies, with massive inequities in resource distribution, leading to increased social injustice and oppression. We now face instability and unsustainability among many public institutions.
In this situation creative bodhisattva activity has arisen, as if from the earth itself, in various forms, including the nonviolent Occupy movement in the United States and elsewhere in 2011. With public communal gatherings attempting to claim a space of commons, people spoke out for a more just societal arrangement. While not yet realizing the change it called for, this movement focused awareness on the damaged well-being of people and the contrary heightened corporate powers that control the organs of government and mass media. It remains to be seen how the awareness of this imbalance and the accelerating hardships of the 99 percent will help transform the possibilities for social change. But awareness has at least been catalyzed.
Among the most serious effects of the situation of unrestricted corporate power is the threat to the planetary environment that supports human life. A global climate emergency has been produced from addiction to fossil fuels in technologically advanced societies. We are all involved to varied extents in such addiction, but the situation has been willfully imposed by the fossil fuel corporations. Over decades these corporations have used their vast resources to misinform the public, at least in the United States, and to obstruct serious efforts to divert resources to alternative and sustainable energy sources. The science is very clear about the effects of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and the impact of climate damage on the ocean, on drought, on damage to agriculture and drinking water, on glacier and polar melting, and on the extinction of many species, as well as a host of other dangers. And the worst predictions of scientists continue to be proved too moderate in the face of current physical developments. At this point, the extended business plan of the fossil fuel industry will mandate a future that produces a biosphere uninhabitable to human beings.
The earth bodhisattvas emerging now must certainly attend to and respond to this crisis. And bodhisattvas are indeed emerging from the earth to respond. One example is the work of scholar and activist Bill McKibben and his many colleagues around the world (see 350.org) who support sustainable alternative energy and the end as soon as manageable of fossil fuel as the main source for human energy needs. I was inspired to witness and join fifty thousand people gathered in Washington, D.C., this February to oppose a dangerous new dirty tar sands oil pipeline, the Keystone XL from Canada, and urge the development of alternative energy. Certainly there are sustainable energy technologies available, such as wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and others in development. What is required is an appropriate investment in research to develop them and find ways of transporting the energy produced.
One technology that is certainly not a solution to the problems of climate damage is nuclear power. The meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011 not only have been a disaster for Japan but are an ongoing global catastrophe whose full scope may remain unclear for decades. In the wake of this calamity, all too predictable, and the intractable and inconceivably long-term poisons from nuclear waste, the underground earth bodhisattvas can surely be found working on efforts to stop nuclear energy use in Japan, in America, and throughout the world. The Fukushima reactor that melted down was built by General Electric, and many nearly identical GE Mark I reactors continue operating in the United States despite fundamental design flaws. Like the fossil fuel industry, the nuclear industry remains entrenched, both in the United States and in Japan, through moneys given to control governments, media, and regulators, while resisting even modest safety regulations. Despite the will of the Japanese people to close down all Japanese nuclear power plants permanently, strong United States government pressure has caused their reopening because of the U.S. nuclear industry’s reliance on the Japanese fast-breeder Monju reactor, a naming that desecrates the bodhisattva of wisdom.
Many earth bodhisattvas have emerged to oppose this danger not only to human survival but to the survival of many other sentient beings and biosystems. They are evident in the Japanese movement against nuclear power and for sustainable energy. For example, Japanese Buddhist artist Mayumi Oda is evoking Japanese spiritual, pilgrimage, and agricultural traditions to promote solar energy. California author Cecile Pineda has provided a highly illuminating and transformative account of the psychic and global dimensions of the Fukushima disaster in her book Devil’s Tango: How I Learned the Fukushima Step by Step.
The abiding Buddha and earth bodhisattvas surely must witness and respond to the gravest needs of our own version of the “evil age” predicted in the Lotus Sutra. But the modes of response may be as many as the different beings called to awakening faith and practice. There is no one right response. All the varied responses may contribute to the change that will make a positive difference. Such response may range from creative expressions to awaken people to the realities we face, to strong but peaceful pressure on institutions now acting ignorantly and destructively based on quarterly profit margins, to somehow activating the potentialities for personal awakening and conversion of the corporate CEOs who might be able to effect change.
Bodhisattvas perform such active responses in the spirit of flexibility, creativity, and playful celebration thanks to the long view informed by the inconceivable timespan indicated in chapter 16 of the Lotus Sutra. While not diminishing the severe perils of climate damage and nuclear power, the earth bodhisattvas are endowed with their own sustainable energy systems that may guide fruitful responses.
Taigen Dan Leighton is a priest and Dharma heir in the Soto Zen lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and the San Francisco Zen Center. Leighton teaches at the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate temple in Chicago. He is the author of several books including Zen Questions: Zazen, Dogen, and the Spirit of Creative Inquiry; Faces of Compassion: Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression; and Visions of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and The Lotus Sutra, and is editor and co-translator of a number of books including Dogen’s Extensive Record and Cultivating the Empty Field. Leighton teaches online at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, where he received a PhD, and he has practiced intensively in Japan as well as in America.