Kuan-yin (Guanyin): The Transgender Bodhisattva

Guanshiyin, Kannon, Avalokiteśvara, Guan-yin
Kuan-yin at the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City

Kuan-yin is one of the most popular bodhisattvas in Mahāyāna. She is the bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion. Lately she has gained a following among North American Buddhists, particularly women.

While most everyone knows her by her female form worshipped in South and East Asia, she actually underwent a sex change in China that began in the late Tang (618-907 AD). Before that she was Avalokiteśvara, Lord Who Looks Down. Well, she’s still Avalokiteśvara, but a transgender version of him.

Avalokiteśvara is an old bodhisattva, long connected to the Pureland tradition. The Pureland (Sukhāvatī) is a field (buddhakṣetra) attained by Amitābha (Buddha of Infinite Light) upon complete enlightenment.  Avalokiteśvara is first mentioned in the Pureland Infinite Life Sutra (Sukhāvatīvyūha), which was most likely compiled by the 1st century AD in the Gandhara region of India. The sutra describes Sukhāvatī as a cosmic and jeweled land filled with rays of light and an infinite numbers of Buddhas.


Avalokiteśvara at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London UK (cc Don Macauley)

In the Pureland Meditation Sutra (Amitāyurdhyāna), Amitābha brings Avalokiteśvara into existence. The bodhisattva is gold and radiates light. He wears a turban with a crown of gems that has a Buddha sitting in it. His infinite compassion has the power to save anyone from calamity, and just hearing his name can produce Immeasurable happiness. Even more, if you meditate upon him, access to the Pureland, which removes all obstacles to complete enlightenment is assured.

We know both these Pureland sutras were translated into Chinese somewhere between 150 and 300 A.D. However, Avalokiteśvara worship likely came to China through the tantric Buddhism that wended its way through Central Asia (Tibet and Nepal). By the 5th century AD tantra has assumed new native forms in China. A connection between Avalokiteśvara and female divinity may be found in the tantric Devi, Tārā. Tārā is a complex figure who manifests in various ways, but at times she is depicted as Avalokiteśvara’s consort. According to Indian tantra, male divinity (Śiva) is the Godhead, while female divinity (Śakti) is the elemental cosmic power. Together they constitute the creative-destructive processes of the universe. Buddhist tantra performs a role reversal: the female deity is insight (prajñā) into ultimate truth attained through practice (sādhana).


Tārā at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York

What we do know for sure is that in 406 AD, the Indian monk Kumarajiva  translated the Mahāyāna Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka) into Chinese and rendered Avalokiteśvara as Guanshiyin (Observing the Cries of the World). The sutra’s 25th chapter is dedicated to Kuan-yin, and here, the bodhisattva manifests in both male and female form – whatever is needed to save beings in distress. Another famous Mahāyāna sutra, the Heart Sutra (Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya), written somewhere between the 4th and 7th century AD, and possibly in Chinese, is dedicated entirely to Kuan-yin. It describes the contents of her enlightenment gained through deep meditation.

By the late Tang (618-907 AD), Kuan-yin had begun to appear in female form in Chinese art. By the Ming (1368-1644), not only did she appear almost exclusively in female form, but she had also been established as the bodhisattva that attended especially to women’s suffering (and to seamen).  She is described in a famous Ming novel, Journey to the West.

A mind perfected in the four virtues, a golden body filled with wisdom, fringes of dangling pearls and jade, scented bracelets set with lustrous treasures, dark hair piled smoothly in a coiled-dragon bun, and elegant sashes lightly fluttering as phoenix quills.

Her green jade buttons, and white silk robe bathed in holy light. Her velvet skirt and golden cords wrapped by hallowed air. With brows of new moon shape and eyes like two bright stars, her jade-like face beams natural joy, and her ruddy lips seem a flash of red. Her immaculate vase overflows with nectar from year to year. Holding sprigs of weeping willow green from age to age.


Reed, B. (1992) The gender symbolism of kuan-yin bodhisattva. Buddhism, sexuality and gender. Jose Cabezon, ed. NY: SUNY.

Odile, D. (1989) Avalokiteśvara: from the North-West to the Western Caves. East and West, Vol. 39, No. 1/4 (December). Italy: Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO).  pp. 145-178.




Excerpts from Kobo daishi ikkan no sho (Kobo Daishi’s Book)

Kobo Daishi


Monju, the holy one, first opened this path; Kobo of Kongo then revived it. Without male and female, its pleasures are like an endless circle; men shout with pleasure when they attain entrance (Ikkyu, 1394-1481)


Kukai brought the esoteric tradition of Shingon (True Word) Buddhism to Japan after returning from an Imperial Mission to China in 806. In China, he studied for two years under the Chinese master Hui-ko (764-805), who transmitted its mysteries to Kukai orally. Once Kukai returned to Japan, he opened the famous temple complex Mt. Koya in Wakayama prefecture, and gained an immense following. He also opened a Shingon temple in the Inner Palace (the private living quarters of the Imperial family) in Kyoto under Emperor Nimmyo, just before his death in 835.

In 921, the Emperor conferred the title Kobo Daishi (Great Teacher Transmitting the Dharma) on him in recognition of his great contributions to Japanese culture and the immense spiritual influence he held over the Japanese. Kukai is the stuff of legend and today ranks among one of the great divine beings (kami sama) who protect Japan.

Kobo Daishi’s Book, written in 1598, claims to reveal Shingon’s secret teachings regarding the love of boys. Part one describes hand positions, or mudras, used by young acolytes to communicate their feelings to priests. Part two advises priests how to evaluate an acolyte’s emotions, and part three describes methods of anal sex.

Part One

1) If an acolyte clenches his fingers, from the index finger to the little finger, it means “You are the only one I love.”

2) If an acolyte clenches both hands completely except for one thumb, it means “I acknowledge your love and will make myself yours to do with as you please.”

3) If an acolyte touches the index and middle finger to his thumb, it means he wants to see you.

4) If an acolyte flips the tassle of his fan, it is an invitation to visit.

5) If an acolyte forms the a circle with the index finger and thumb on both hands, it means “Tonight.” If he uses the middle finger, it means “Tomorrow night.” And if he uses the ring finger, it means “Some other time.”

Mt Koya

Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture

Part Two 

1. After an acolyte has spoken, observe him carefully. The acolyte who speaks quietly is sensitive to love. To such a boy, show your sincerity by being somewhat shy. Make your interest in him clear by leaning against his lap. When you remove his robes, calm him by explaining exactly what you will be doing.

White snow on a mountain peak turns to pure water on the rocks and finally flows down.

As the poem illustrates, snow on even the highest mountain peak is destined to melt and flow downward. Likewise, no matter how lacking in sensitivity to the mysteries of love an acolyte may be, he can be made yours if you approach him right.

Part Three

1) There is a method called skylark rising. The ass is raised in the air like a skylark rising in the sky. Insertion is painless.

2) Always keep ‘cut plums’ on hand in case you want to attempt insertion without saliva.

(This information was taken from Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, ed. Jose Ignacio Cabezon)

The Difference between Buddhism and Christianity I: The Ground of Existence

Image At its heart Buddhism is multiplicity.

The ceaseless categorizations of Theravada, the interpenetration of phenomena in Mahayana, and the myriad manifestations of life in Tantra all point to its fundamental view that there is no prime mover behind anything in the universe. However, trying to pin down Buddhism as a coherent set of ideas that go beyond this distinction is a challenge. It shares more with other world religions than it keeps apart.

Nonetheless, this striking attitude toward the ground of the universe – that there is none – that the universe, and by extension human life, cannot be reduced to any inherent cause – is so different from Western notions of a prime mover at work that it has drawn many Westerners into its fold.

While Buddhism may have been imported into the West by generations of immigrants who brought their cultural practices with them, it has also become a growing source of spiritual inspiration for over a million North Americans, most of whom are highly educated, white and secular, seeking a new age spirituality to replace Christianity.

In the West, Buddhist thought is rarely interpreted on its own grounds. Rather Christian thought or new age syncretism provides the platform from which it is evaluated. More recently, it has attracted attention from psychology and speculative neuroscience, as well as from post-modern thinkers seeking to undermine the fundamental assumptions in positivistic science. As a result, Buddhism has earned a popular appeal as a philosophy or ‘way of life’ rather than as a religion – religion, here, signifying systems of hoary practice and superstition.

This prejudice aside, the two disciplines merge on many fronts, with the distinction between the two resting on issues of materiality. Philosophy concerns itself with the physical and metaphysical, whereas religion concerns itself with the spiritual. While both are subjective, philosophy examines knowledge and being, and religion ponders the problem of evil. For religion, human existence is a predicament; there’s something wrong with life the way it is. Each religion offers a description of the predicament and how best to resolve it, so that life can be the way it was “meant to be” or, at least, better than what it is.

Christianity describes the human predicament as alienation from God, our creator. We live a life of sin caused by the Fall. Jesus Christ resolved this problem by revealing, in his person and work, that there are ways to live with integrity in the midst of sin. The experience of God is, of course, the source to the ending of life’s problems. Salvation restores our divine relationship, and leads to integrity of personhood. This divine relationship extends beyond death to eternity, as we are taken up into the body of Christ, and by extension, God.

Buddhism on the other hand focuses on our own feeling of dissatisfaction with mundane existence, rather than on our state of being in relation to an “other.” It considers how our state of mind can make things better or worse for us, depending on how we approach this problem. According to the Buddha, we experience day-to-day suffering because we expect to get and hold onto things, including psychological and emotional states, such as pleasure. However, the world is characterized by change, and as a result we live in a state of frustration and discontentment. This state can be perpetuated over multiple lifetimes, because our mind holds onto the situations at hand, and our psychological, or cosmic, energy is not contained purely within our body. It affects things.

In order to escape this predicament, one must realize the true nature of the universe and free oneself from the desire to gain fulfillment through ever changing things. This breakthrough “letting go” is nirvana – the cessation of craving. More positively, it can be described as the direct recognition of what one is: the pure and responsive “pre-reflective” experience. Once it is attained, final enlightenment leads to the cessation of karma, and the end of the cycle of rebirth (samsara). In other words, one simply ceases to be. In Buddhism, there is no God to join in unity.

Buddhism and Euthenasia

But each time he is devoured, so each time he is reborn more sensitive than before.

(Saddharma-smrtyupasthana Sutra, cf. Siksa-Samuccaya. Santideva, fl. 8th century)

Recently I let loose a thoroughly cynical comment on facebook about how I could never be any type of guide or counsellor because I would somehow inadvertently or indirectly encourage people to kill themselves.

Guanshiyin, Kannon, Avalokiteśvara

A beautiful image of Guan Yin from the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City

When I was a  child, my friends used to call me Mother Nature, because I was gentle with all of life and would defend even the nastiest insect. So, those who know me laughed, but for others, my comments touched a nerve. And I was told, in no uncertain terms, that euthenasia is illegal in Canada.

Something I well know.

My sister is a doctor in Nova Scotia. Through her, I heard about Nancy Morrison, a physician charged with 1st degree murder for injecting a dying cancer patient with nitroglycerine and potassium chloride to stop his heart.  The patient’s family had removed him from life support, but his dying was horrible and slow and painful. And the painkillers she’d administered, already at a lethal dose, weren’t working.

See the Canadian Bio-Ethics Companion or the Government of Canada for good information on the subject.

The courts acquitted Dr. Morrison on the grounds that any number of conditions at the time could have caused her patient’s death. She was also supported by many colleagues who respected her as physician and educator, and didn’t question that she acted with the highest and clearest sense of duty toward her patient.

However, she was suspended from the ICU at Victoria Hospital in Halifax for three months, and later reprimanded by the Nova Scotia College of Physicians and Surgeons.  Also, Nova Scotia’s Tibetan Buddhist community came out against her, which surprises me, because the Dalai Lama has said that in exceptional circumstances euthenasia may be possible.

The ethics around euthenasia are obviously a universal concern. Any broad-based argument for it leads to horror and chaos. But according to an Alberta study, many people think that the dying should be allowed to consider assisted suicide – a form of euthenasia. As the author of the study says, the concern demands more than ” just some abstract answer that this isn’t right.”

So why would the Tibetan buddhist community in  Nova Scotia take issue with a respected doctor who specializes in end-of-life care, and who made a compassionate decision to hasten a man’s departure rather than make him suffer tortured death throes?

All religions have their load-bearing articles of faith, without which they cannot stand. Buddhism, looser than many religions, more syncretic and adaptive, is still no exception. We cannot underestimate the importance of karma and samsara (cycle of rebirth) in the buddhist faith.  Belief in karma and samsara undergirds the tradition, as does a belief in the wisdom of Buddha and his Four Noble Truths.

Teachings on Right View, one of the most important elements of the 8-Fold Path, assert, among other things, that “There is this world, there is a world beyond: this world is not unreal, and one goes on to another world after death.” (Harvey, 2000)

Together, karma and samsara make up the cosmic carrot in front of the donkey – they constrain to make buddhism moral – and belief in them makes buddhists sit up and wonder “Does it really matter what I do?”

Buddhism sets itself apart from other religions, first and foremost, through its chain of causation – a complex notion, more fully developed as dependent co-origination – and in its doctrines of  impermanence and no-self. Also, enlightenment is possible for all sentient beings (that means bugs and animals), even if human existence is the best possible state to be in to reach nirvana.

Notably, buddhism focuses on the quality of mind and intentions behind human action and expression, rather than on the actions themselves.

Buddhist doctrine is also not divine revelation from one, or any, god. The Buddha is not a prophet and his words are not prophecy. Rather, he discovered his wisdom over the course of his life(s) through meditative experience. As a result, buddhism does not place the same expectations upon everyone.  Buddhists tend to work out their own salvation, for themselves, through meditation, reflection upon scripture, life experience and participation in a religious community, be it monastic or lay.  And the tradition offers many ways to achieve enlightenment.

Ethics, though, deal with our treatment of each other –  and the quality of such things as cooperation, dependency, power, trust and conflict.  Christians have long criticized buddhists for taking no interest in the lot of others, but of course, this is not true. Buddhists tune in to worldly concerns.

However, buddhism takes a ‘middle way‘ when dealing with the stuff of life. Hence the Dalai Lama’s comments in regards to euthenasia  … ” the Buddhist way is to judge the right and wrong, or the pros and cons.”

It seems the question at hand is the standards by which buddhists evaluate the rights and wrongs, pros and cons of euthenasia.


According the the Four Noble truths, we are trapped in the human condition (dukkha – suffering) through our ignorance over its true cause.

That cause is usually translated as craving, or desire, but I will call it ‘clinging to that which is not real,’  because craving is a loaded term. I wish to escape the heavy handed morality that comes, especially in Theravada and Tibetan buddhism, as a result of too much focus on the ‘three poisons’ of craving: delusion, greed and hatred (not to mention the insane over-complexity that comes with their scholastic bent for categorization).

Tibetan buddhists (and other Mahayana buddhists) often refer to the Kalama Sutra, with its teaching on rebirth in a lower order as the karmic consequences of  ‘unwholesome’ mental states: delusion, greed and hatred.  It’s a simple interpretation of the Four Noble Truths, since, according to the chain of causation, consciousness itself arises from craving and craving from consciousness.

There is no linear relationship from delusion, greed or hatred to craving to rebirth. Rather, because everything depends upon everything else, to cut it all, one must cut at the root – ignorance about the true nature of things. How that’s best done, of course, varies between all the powerful schools of buddhism. Nevertheless, insight into the reality of things and a state of non-attachment approximates nirvana across all of buddhism.

Yes, we all know that nirvana is the buddhist end game – extinguishment of karma, freedom from suffering and the cycle of rebirth. Whether it takes on cosmic properties or not, is also subject to different ideas among the schools. I don’t find nirvana particularly exciting if it doesn’t take on cosmic properties. On the other hand, the situation gets insensible when it does.  Hocus pocus. Something else buddhism is famous for.


Though the wise should hope, “By this virtue or this performance of duty, or this penance, or this righteousness will I make the karma that is not yet mature, mature.

Though the fool should hope, by the same means, to gradually get rid of karma that has matured. Neither of them can do it. 

(Digha Nikaya II, 54)

According to the Fourth Noble Truth, perfecting the 8-fold path will eventually lead to nirvana and the end of suffering; you will stop producing karma, find wisdom, and become ‘one’ with the truth. While right view is seen as the keystone to an arising in toto of the 8-fold path, morality – Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood – usually comes as a first step. Buddhism is moral: good behaviour helps support good habits of mind.

The five precepts, taken by lay and monastic buddhists alike, describe, to a certain extent, the ‘right’ moral behaviour of the 8-fold path. The first precept is to abstain from ‘onslaught’ of a sentient being; in other words, do no harm. It is just one of those things that automatically produces karma. Blatantly, this means to abstain from killing.

As I mentioned earlier, buddhism stresses that intentions more powerfully generate karma than actions themselves. Buddhism’s main criteria in thinking about the wholesomeness of actions are:

  1. the motivation of the action – state of mind – with greed, hatred and delusion (lying in all forms) being unwholesome motivation, and the opposites non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion being wholesome motivation.
  2. the intention of the action – its intended direct effects – implies reflection upon the consequences of actions in self and others, and abstaining if the actions can be seen to cause harm, either spiritual or material.
  3. the action’s contribution to spiritual development – its consequences – did they aid enlightenment and its attributes or  did they lead to further torment.

Buddhists worry about state of mind at time of death, because they believe it helps determine the rebirth to follow. So a main objective in buddhist end-of-life care (see research on buddhist hospice movement) is to help a person have a ‘good’ death: one which is calm and free from all attachments.  But, as Buddha pointed out, “we are all on fire.”  Many people are far removed from mediation and a buddhist insight into our true nature, so really, outside of the faith, is dying like the Buddha the only possible ‘good’ death available to us?

I think so.

As with everything, buddhism takes the middle way. Theravada accepts that society changes, and sees the precepts as principles that help people work out codes to meet their circumstances, rather than as iron-clad social laws.

More so than Theravada, Mahayana applies the precepts with an eye to the circumstances at the time: under certain conditions they may be broken, if doing so is an unavoidable part of acting to help someone when motivated by compassion.

     The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns what ideas are fit for attention, and what ideas are unfit for attention. This being so, he does not attend to ideas unfit for attention, and attends to ideas fit for attention.

He attends appropriately,  This is suffering…  This is the origin of suffering…  This is cessation of suffering…   This is path leading to the end of suffering.   As he attends appropriately in this way, three fetters are abandoned in him: identity-view, doubt, and grasping at precepts & practices.


Assisted Suicide

It is not by caring for one’s own body or killing one’s own body that one acquires karmic fruitfulness or commits a misdeed. That is why it is said in the Vinaya that suicide is not a fault of onslaught on a living being, but it is sullied by delusion, by attachment, and by hate.


While suicide is not a breach the 1st precept, buddhists assert that no one in a state of equanimity would kill themselves; the state of mind that leads to suicide must be aversion to an unpleasant situation, or craving for some goal.  And since craving and aversion lead to suffering and rebirth, the state of mind that leads to suicide is not the state of mind in which spiritual development can be achieved. So, suicide, including martyrdom, is strongly discouraged.

Conversely, according to the buddhist monastic code (Theravada), the Vinaya (III.82, and Buddhaghosa’s Commentary A.467), we have no moral obligation to 1) preserve life at all costs or 2) to eke out a life in which no more spiritual development can attain.

The code legitimates two instances of suicide when death is imminent. In both cases, death does not impede spiritual development. And, it is the unintended side-effect of compassionate acts. Neither case is an example of assisted suicide.

  1.  But of whom there is a great illness, long-lasting, (and) the attending monks are wearied, are disgusted, and worry ‘what now if we were to set (him) free from sickness?’: if he, (thinking): ‘this body being nursed does not endure, and the monks are wearied’, stops eating, does not take medicine, it is acceptable.
  2. Who (thinking) ‘this illness is intense, the life-activities do not persist, and this special (meditative) attainment of mine is seen as if I can put my hand on it’ stops (eating): it is acceptable, surely.

Euthenasia or Mercy Killing

What happens, though, when similar actions are carried out by another: a doctor kills someone in intense pain whose death is at hand, or kills someone unable to agree or disagree to it – for example via a decision taken in consultation with relatives, or via permission of the courts, to remove someone from life support?

While one would think that buddhist emphasis on compassion, and its acceptance that death is the natural course of a life would permit euthenasia,  the Vinaya rejects the idea that life could ever be sacrificed in the name of another value, such as friendship or compassion. The code is unequivocal: the intent of euthenasia is to deliberately kill a person, to cause a person to be killed or to approve of the killing. It condemns all such acts as a breach of the 1st precept.

The Vinaya elaborates upon its condemnation of euthenasia via the following points:

  • Killing someone to end their suffering may not have its intended consequences, the suffering may continue, and in worse form than before.
  • No act of euthenasia could be carried out without aversion to the patient’s pain and suffering. The pain disturbs the caregiver, so to advocate death on the grounds of compassion is rooted in delusion and the compassion involved is unwise.
  • A person can use the process of dying as an opportunity for gaining insight into reality.  An enforced death could cut short an opportunity, which, given the buddhist principle of no-self, could arise at any time, since a person is changeable moment by moment. In all cases a person who kills someone must bear responsibility for the action, even if that person has asked to be killed.

The first argument above is clearly informed by specific religious concerns; the notion of reincarnation is a matter of faith, it does not hold universally and can be dismissed. The consequences that follow from euthenasia in this life need to be considered, and the effects of the act on all concerned, rather than speculating about what may take place in the next.

The second argument, I think holds universally. All of life is suffering, it’s inescapable. However, for buddhists, suffering has no inherent value. Unlike christianity, buddhism rules out suffering for the sake of penance, or because it has been ordained by God. As humans, we are free to take action and change our circumstances, rather than to simply bear them. Moreover, specific types of suffering are not necessarily the result of one’s karma.

According to buddhism, life’s causes are so complex they can only be seen by the “pure mind of a Buddha.” At some point, people are limited by space and time and the circumstances they are in.  Since most of us do not partake of the ‘mind of the Buddha,’ we have to make human decisions and errors, and accept responsibility for them.

I agree with some of the implications in third argument: it’s a sound metaphysical principle that our true nature consists of no-self, subject to conditioned arising.  Its natural extension, picked up in Mahayana, is that enlightenment is possible for anyone at any time, given the right conditions. However, unless a person can accept suffering in a way that allows spiritual progress, it has no good, or practical use.

At what point a doctor would be assisting to hasten the death of someone who is dying in much pain, or obstructing the full extent of a meaningful life is a fine distinction, certainly.  However, Buddha’s wisdom tells us that we suffer until we let go of all attachments – including any to karma or to suffering. So, the distinction is not one to made, at the point it must be, by theologians worrying about little more than the effects in the afterlife. It is a distinction to be made by a physician – someone who has vowed to preserve life and do no harm – experienced in managing end-of-life care, who has the quality of person and ethical foundations that enable her to best serve the needs of the person dying – with compassion above self-interest.

Mahayana Compassion

When Santideva, author of the Way of the Bodhisattva,  argued that trying to cultivate indifference to the suffering of others was as absurd as trying to cultivate indifference to one’s own suffering, buddhism shifted from a focus on personal spiritual development to a focus on the development of compassion and working toward the welfare of all sentient beings.

An 8th century Madhyamika, Santideva demonstrated that ‘self ’ and ‘other’ are empty terms: they can only be understood relative to each other.  Neither ‘the self’ nor ‘the other’ can be shown, in any way, to intrinsically be ‘the self’ or ‘the other.’  So, there is no self, there is no other, and there is no distinction between the two. There is, also, no point in attaching to these concepts.

Moreover, with tricky Madhyamaka –  all processes of conditioned arising (the phenomenal world as a whole – everything we know), are empty of inherent, substantial existence – even karmic fruitfulness is empty – so, there is no real fault in any action done out of craving as long as it is allied with compassion ( i.e., its motive is to help people find enlightenment).  Since suffering is nothing special to anyone, and since it’s unnecessary and it hurts, (or worse can do spiritual harm), we should work to get rid of it where ever we find it.

Santideva was a fan of the bodhisattva: great, enlightened figures with one foot in nirvana, the other in samsara: perfectly wise, compassionate and equanimous, utterly selfless, willing to take on karmic results on behalf of others in order to help with their salvation. A bodhisattva is prepared to go to hell, rather than allow another to be reborn there.

Skillful Means (Upaya kaushalya)

At the time for giving one can overlook the practice of morality and so forth. But for all that he must not be lax. 

( Aksayamati Sutra cf. Santideva)

The bodhisattva’s use of skillful means is central to Mahayana doctrine. It is the bodhisattva’s capacity, in a state of perfected wisdom and compassion, to fit teachings or ethics to the audience and situation at hand. The bodhisattvas’ compassion undercuts any sense of self-other, while their wisdom ensures appropriate, effective action. So, according to their enlightened point of view, bodhisattvas can act with plenty of leeway, even to the point of ‘skilfully’ breaking the precepts.

Some Mahayana texts (e.g. Upaya kaushalya Sutra) justify a bodhisattva’s killing a human on the grounds of compassion in dire circumstances. For example, killing a person would have to be the the least evil of several evils and  done out of a compassion developed by virtue of the 8-fold path (i.e., is perfected). The act of killing would be accompanied by horror. The bodhisattva would have to acknowledges that the killing is evil, not in anyway justified or meritorious, and that it can lead to many rebirths in hell. The bodhisattva would have to be willing to suffer accordingly.

Obviously, the ends justify the means approach in skillful means leaves the doctrine open to abuses on the basis of expedience. Buddhists understood this – it is an exclusive province of the capable, and fraught with very imminent peril  (Tsongkha-pa) – which is why its teaching was reserved for practitioners with a level of spiritual maturity advanced enough for them to act appropriately.

The doctrine of skillful means suggests that it is selfish to put one’s own salvation ahead of another’s simply to observe a set of principles suited for conditions that do not persist in the immediate situation.  Rather, first we have to see things for what they really are, as they are, in their full entirety, and only then make painfully careful decisions and take full responsibility for their consequences.


If we return to my original enquiry …

 the question at hand is the standards by which buddhists evaluate the pros and cons of euthenasia ..

I think I’ve been able to provide an answer.

Clearly, rather than any normative, external law, such as ‘thou shalt not kill,’ the standard of concern for buddhists is the state of mind in both the subject of euthenasia and the person(s) who commit the act. On both sides of the equation euthenasia cannot be an expedient, it must be a pure manifestation, as it were, of right view.

I think the fundamental question buddhism asks that I have not answered is not whether we can, but “Should we?”

Therevada constrains us to say, “No, we should not,” because the situations that persist in life will always be conditioned – there is an arising between people that will never be clean of the potential, if not the reality, for false perception.

Theravada, of course, does allow for unlimited expression of a fully aware mind. As is typical, though, with Theravada, everything important is a lonely business. So, an individual, spiritually advanced and gifted with insight, can make for him/herself a clean death. It will take lifetimes in the making, but gentle self-mortification – suicide – while not preferred, can be an expression of enlightenment.

I have to rely upon a Soto Zen expression of skillful means “body and mind dropping off, dropping off body and mind,” to demonstrate my point here. And that is, that skillful means exists in both traditions, and it imparts some moral flexibility to the buddhist opinion on terminating a life before it’s due.

I will end here, where I think both Theravada and Mahayana merge – with the capacity for enlightenment given the worst conditions in this world.

Fugen (Samantabhadra) is a key figure in the Lotus Sutra and Flower Garland Sutra of Hua-yen.  In Japan, he is associated with Tendai and protects followers of the Lotus Sutra (Hokekyo).

Fugen (Samantabhadra) is a key figure in the Lotus Sutra and Flower Garland Sutra of Hua-yen. In Japan, he is associated with Tendai and protects followers of the Lotus Sutra (Hokekyo).

Mahayana is not so pessimistic as Theravada about people.  At its core, through Hua-yen, it recognizes that we get our fingers in each other’s clay. All of life is interpenetration. This insight, in its full flower, breeds boundless, wise compassion. Pain and love – all the beauty and all the ugliness – everything – even enlightenment – is in the mud we’re made of.  For Mahayana, enlightenment can arise out of that mud under any conditions, plain and simple.

It doesn’t require 8000 lives and dedicated study in a temple to find a clear mind. Moment by moment, bit by bit, part by part, that’s the mud we’re made of.  So, as we play the potter to see what shapes we can make of each other, if a lotus is in the making and wends it way up from the murky bottom of a pond to blossom on the clear waters at top, rare though it may be, it be a lotus.

Buddhism … enlightenment and death are tied so closely together. Certainly, enlightenment is what’s at stake for the Tibetan buddhist community in the Nancy Morrison case, and not some worry over a rabid angel of death running around tidily and clinically killing weak old people under the cover of darkness.

Was struggling in the last moments of a guy’s life, whose chest was caved in and whose throat was out of his mouth, to ease burning agony some pure act of enlightenment?

Probably not.

But if it were my dad, enlightenment would be the very last thing on my mind.  And there would be no cause to put him through that, just so that I could sit back and observe that I am upset by his suffering and save myself from heading down the roads of hell with him.


In Response to John Horgan’s ‘Why I don’t dig Buddhism’

Maybe there’s a better way to start a conversation than to open with controversy, but since Buddhism draws its vitality from being a counter-culture movement, I’ll pick up on John Horgan’s brooding over the topic in Scientific American  (Why John Horgan doesn’t dig Buddhism) and take it apart a bit.

Don’t forget to read the background article that started Horgan’s trouble. He offers juicy points and sounds genuinely frustrated with a spirituality that he tried to embrace (4 years of meditation before giving up ain’t nothing).

I confess Horgan pushed a button by arguing that Buddhism’s worldview cannot easily be reconciled with modern humanistic values. Wow! Modern humanist values, themselves, are under attack for being unfriendly to humans, so what exactly is Horgan talking about here?

But let’s not trifle … moving on ..

Eastern MonachismBuddhism and Catholicism

There’s plenty of irony to be found in Horgan’s equation of Buddhism with Catholicism – plenty.  While Hogan may find little difference, the christian missionaries who shaped the West’s first impressions of it certainly did.

An unfriendly dialogue has been going on between the two since the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci encountered Chinese Buddhism in the early 1500s. Ricci thought Buddhism was a religion of  idolatry and superstition. He preferred Confucian scholars for their cultured minds, secular philosophical systems, and advanced ideas on good government. Reverend Robert Spence Hardy, a Methodist missionary in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) agreed. Both ridiculed Buddhism as an inferior parody of Christianity. For Ricci, the parody was demonic. For Hardy, it was merely uninspired.

Only in Japan did Buddhism meet with admiration – from another Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier (arrived 1549). When he challenged the Zen monks on doctrine, they laughed at him, saying Zen had no doctrine and no truths to transmit. At that point he figured the Jesuits were going to need God’s help to convert the Japanese. He wrote to the order asking for the most educated and capable missionaries that the Jesuits could provide.

Hardy’s two books, Eastern Monachism (1850) and the Manual of Buddhism (1853),  elevated him as the central authority on Therevada Buddhism in Britain for over 30 years. While Zen eventually caught on in the West in the 1950s and 60s,  until that point Buddhism was mainly understood through Hardy’s interpretation of Sri Lankan Therevada.

MysticismZen mysticism

We have to skip ahead to the early 1900s, through all sorts of interesting conversations, both in the East and West, about Buddhism to take up Hogen’s frustrations with Mind in just one guy: D.T. Suzuki.

Suzuki was a Rinzai Zen monk who studied under Shaku Soen, Japan’s delegate to the first World Parliament of  Religions (part of the 1893 Chicago World Fair). Soen was the first Japanese to address the West on Japanese Buddhism. However, unlike Soen, Suzuki was fluent in English, and so he ended up as the main apologist for Zen in the West, right up until the 1960s. His influence extends into the Beat movement, transcendentalism, 1960’s counter-culture (drugs and spirituality, Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary) plus environmental and social movements, such as deep ecology and steady state economics.

Suzuki comes from a branch of Zen (Rinzai) that emphasizes the use of the koan (paradoxical statement) as a means of getting past all of our prior assumptions. Rinzai, and Suzuki, are critical of the other main branch of Zen – Soto – and its emphasis on ‘merely sitting’ (zazen meditation). In Soto, enlightenment is ‘body and mind dropping off, dropping off body and mind’ (Dogen). As a result, Soto can appear inactive and non-experiential – not to mention bizarre, negative and frightening.

On the other hand, Rinzai is sexy. According to Suzuki, enlightenment comes in a flash – it emerges in a  ‘peak experience’. Suzuki latched onto similarities between the ‘sudden illumination’ of Rinzai Zen and the mystical experiences known to Western romanticism and transcendentalism. And everyone from Heidegger to Jack Kerouac latched onto his presentation of Zen, spawning an entire cultural framework to counter that of rationalism, functionalism and materialism.

Horgan states that psychological explanations of ‘no self’ do not respond to philosophical explanations of emergent phenomenon.  I agree. Buddhist truth is not psychological, it is religious. In all cases the ‘deep mystical state’ that Buddhist meditators achieve is insight into what is understood to be a universal truth – that all sensory and spiritual experiences pass, and, therefore, by their very nature, are illusory.

What Horgan glosses over is  that the point of Buddhism is not so much that a reductionist analysis is unable to land on anything fixed and permanently real, as it is that phenomena arise co-dependently – in conjunction with any number of contributing factors – and especially in conjunction with the working of our minds.  That is to say, many assumptions have to be in place in order for us to acknowledge even something as simple as the existence of Horgan’s Stevens Institute. So many in fact that we forget ever having put them in place.

So the question is …. how do we know something exists?

Horgen mistakenly equates Tibetan Buddhism with Zen.  Now, on the question of how we know something exists, both have very different points of view. That whole conversation will have to wait for another day.

For right now, the only distinction that I am going to draw between Horgan’s experience with Tibetan Buddhism versus the one he may have had with Zen is that Tibetan Buddhism is tantra – esoteric buddhism – not mysticism.

There is no doubt that esoteric buddhism, in all its forms, shares much in common with Zen, but Zen truth, while ineffable, can be grasped by anyone.  Tibetan buddhist truth is for the initiate only.  And Zen has no mind, while Tibetan buddhism has many levels of mind.

Moreover, Japanese Zen finds its roots in Chinese Chan. It inherited the secular or ‘pragmatic’ cast of mind common to Chinese thought. So it is practical in nature. Tibetan buddhism, on the other hand, has roots closer to the original Indian buddhism and so inherited a ‘metaphysical’ cast of mind. Top that off with a heavy admixture of ideas imported from Hinduism and you get a mystery religion and not mysticism.

Anagarika DharmapalaRationalism

All Buddhist apologists in the West have found themselves up against the modern point of view.  And with Horgan brooding away there in Scientific American, obviously they still do.

Angarika Dharmapala, Ceylon’s (Sri Lanka) representative at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, tried to appeal to Western thinking in a different way than Soen and Suzuki. He attacked Social Darwinism: specifically the view that Buddhism represented an early stage in the historical progression of spirituality from East to West. According to Social Darwinism, the evolution of religion was supposed to result in a type of universal rational Christianity.

Like Suzuki, Dharmapala was fluent in English and able to show that Buddhism was compatible with ‘modern’ ideas. He demonstrated that Buddhism was a logical system of thought, with its own theory of evolution that developed roughly 2500 years before Darwin. In this way – though it took much doing – he, and his Therevada successors, were able to bring Buddhism to the fore as the humanist tradition best able to respond to modern scientific and spiritual needs.

This is the guy who emptied Buddhism of its supernatural, one could say mystical, elements and made it rational. He emphasized it as a individualist way of life, good for the mind, good for society and thoroughly compatible with a modern, Western point of view. You can trace Dharmapala’s ideas in a few of the mainstream North American ‘schools’ of Buddhism that Hogen complains about.

Definitely these schools are not religion, in any conventional sense, but they’re not science either. They’re something in between that opposes both. Clearly counter-cultural. And, frankly, I don’t know why Horgan wouldn’t dig that. But then, you know, I’m not a scientist.

1) Tibetan Buddhism – Francisco J. Varela and the Mind and Life Institute

2) Therevada of South East Asia and Sri Lanka – Jack Kornfield  and the connection between meditation and psychology

3)  Zen –  Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society.

Karma Keep calm

I don’t believe in reincarnation, and I don’t think one must in order to “be a Buddhist.”  Karma, on the other hand, is an inescapable plank that Buddha used to explain his insights.

First of all, karma is not reincarnation. Properly, the round of rebirth is samsara. Karma, as well all know, means action or deed, and the consequences of that action. At some distant point in the history of India, long before the Buddha arrived, the idea of samsara was merged with karma.

Without getting into complex ideas about how karma doesn’t really exist, because enlightenment is the cessation of karma, let me just say this: karma is just a natural law of cause and effect that can be used to our advantage and not something we are trapped by. Moreover, the morality of an act is found in the intentions behind it. So really, if Horgan doesn’t feel himself to be suffering, no good Buddhist would want him to.

On the other hand, we all know that if you punch someone in the face you’re probably going to pay for it. Buddhism makes that ‘you probably’ into an iron clad ‘you will’ — but in the next breath, don’t worry Horgan, bad gurus living out mystic nihilism too ‘will’ pay for it, regardless of their false piety and institutional authority.

An explantion is in order …


Happy you could make it to epistemic instruments.  This blog is dedicated to my interest in Buddhism.

As you’ll discover, I’m fascinated with the transmission of Buddhism across geographies and cultures. Especially the journey from Japan to North America.

Buddhism has become a global movement, so there’s much to know. I’m going to need a lot of help to think seriously about this radical import from the East.

In its finer moments, Buddhism emanates a warm humanism that does bring us ‘down’ to connect with our surroundings in a way that we lost with the passing of childhood.

Do you remember those pokey days, when time was not what it was and you could feel the colour of daylight?