blog #1 – Reading for January 20, 2012

The subjects of impermanence, samsara, actions, and following a teacher or a spiritual friend are discussed and outlined within the reading titled Words of My Perfect Teacher. Although each of these topics are discussed in separate chapters, I feel as though each of these go hand in hand. I want to put my main focus on the second chapter of the reading highlighting impermanence. This has always been a factor of Buddhism that has caught my interest. The idea of impermanence is very important in Buddhism, and although meditation (which interrelates with all of the chapters within this reading) is performed by the living, I wish to use the reading and interpret it through connecting each chapter together and exploring the ways in which meditation not only leads to the acceptance of death and the path to enlightenment, but how it can connect the living and the dead, and importantly, teachers to the dead as well as highlighting the importance of teaching about death.

The second chapter of Words of My Perfect Teacher outlines the seven meditations, highlighting the factor of impermanence. The seven meditations are the impermanence of the outer universe in which beings live, the impermanence of the beings living in it, the impermanence of holy beings, the impermanence of those in positions of power, other examples of impermanence, the uncertainty of the circumstances of death, and intense awareness of impermanence. As the title of the chapter (“the impermanence of life”) implies, the theme of death is very important in Buddhism. The impermanence of beings living in the universe as explained in the second meditation stands out to me. I have studied the Bardo Thodol in previous courses. The Bardo Thodol or commonly known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is an ancient funerary text that is used to guide the consciousness after death between the physical death anrebirth. The bardo is the interval between death and rebirth, containing many bardo states the spirit must pass through. The text describes the intermission between death and rebirth, and explains the funerary rituals performed by the friends and family of the deceased. It also explains the physical signs of death and the rituals that take place when death has occurred. Although the Bardo Thodol contains text that pertains to the deceased, the doctrine also plays an important role in the guidance of the living as well as through the funerary process, but also through the grander scheme of accepting and learning about death and liberation. It guides both the living and the dead along the path to liberation and enlightenment. The different stages explained within the Bardo Thodol seem to have a similar foundation found in the texts outlining the structure of Mahāyāna meditation. The different sections of the Bardo Thodol embody many of the same themes or goals found in the structure of meditation. Within texts and doctrines of Mahāyāna meditation, sections such as “Compassion,” “The Thought of Enlightenment,” “The Return to the World,” and “The Stages on the Path” are outlined.

The act of meditation can again be linked to the idea of suffering seen on page 86 of the reading, where the idea of fearing the loss of a loved one is discussed. We suffer when we think of losing a loved one. Caring for a loved one and almost pampering them leads to the question of it being a set up for samsara. Either way, the connection between loved ones can help, in my opinion. The meditation of the living plays a great part in their role of assistance. The living physically meditate in order to help the spirit of the deceased stuck in bardo, as this specific time within the Bardo Thodol readings (which are meant to be read by a monk directly to the body for forty-nine days) is the strongest for the aiding by the living. The living not only assist the deceased through meditation, but also aid in overcoming their own grieving stages by doing so.

Starting on page 33 of the reading, the benefits of liberation and enlightenment are outlined. Meditation is the act performed in order to help follow the path to enlightenment, which in turn can be liberation. Through reviewing the text of the Bardo Thodol, one can see the meditative instruction and function of the Bardo Thodol act as a guide to the living just as it is a guide to the dead while in bardo. Each instruction that is to be read from the text as well as each bardo description can be related to the being of a living meditator, or even that of a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is “a being who seeks enlightenment.” The bodhisattva is a being with the intent of achieving full Buddhahood for the welfare of all beings through attaining enlightenment.  The path of a bodhisattva bares resemblance to the living (in most cases the monk) that are reciting and using the Bardo Thodol to guide the deceased. The living that are reciting the text to the body are focusing on helping another spirit reach its enlightenment or the best path to rebirth. The role of a bodhisattva can be compared to the living assisting the deceased, but can also be compared to the spirit of the deceased in bardo. As outlined in Words of My Perfect Teacher starting on page 137 in the sixth chapter, following a spiritual friend and the role of a teacher is very important. Within the reading it highlights that once one finds a true spiritual friend, one must not be afraid to follow them. In the case of impermanence within the reading, the important role of a spiritual teacher or leader can be interrelated.

Within each chapter of the reading the idea of impermanence is visible. Whether the chapters are separated from each other or not, impermanence and meditation interrelate with each topic of the separate chapters (samsara, action, liberation, and following a spiritual leader).

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3 Responses to blog #1 – Reading for January 20, 2012

  1. Reply To: Erica Blog #1

    The doctrine of Impermanence recognizes everything is in a constant state of flux. In your blog you make an important point on how the living physically meditate in order to help the spirit of the deceased which is stuck in Bardo. This serves to reinforce the notion that Buddhist doctrine adapts to different situations. The examples of impermanence used in ‘Words Of My Perfect Teacher’ indicate constantly changing states – such as “friendship and enmity, fortune and sorrow, good and evil, all the thoughts that run through your mind – everything is always changing”(p.47). Your blog reinforces how individuals deal with the constant state of flux and how the role of the living and the bodhisattva are vital in providing spiritual guidance to people in both life and in death. Since death can happen at any time and no one is exempt it is important to follow a spiritual friend and or teacher to learn how to deal with the impermanence. Your blog describes the notion of Impermanence very well and helps the reader to understand how individuals deal with ever changing states within Buddhism.

    Michael M. Paterson

  2. rlg372austin says:

    Your inquiry into the effects of death on the living is one also shared amongst other scholars. Hank Glassman’s article on Chinese Buddhist death rites effectively argues the role of Buddhist death and funerary rites and how that shaped the family rather than the reverse. This says a lot about the dialectical relationship between the ritual and practitioners involved. Within whatever framework the ritual is being carried out, the potency of the text has as much efficacy as the meditative actions.

  3. ibrahim372 says:

    Erica,

    Excellent outline of our readings highlighting many of the most important concepts. I liked how you brought the Tibetan Book of The Dead into the discussion connecting it to the larger theme of impermanence that was in our reading. It was interesting for me to read about the transition that one takes upon death and the guidance that can be taken at the time of death through the Tibetan Book of The Dead; also, it was surprising to read that one can be guided through that text not only when living but when in the stages of dying and even after one dies.

    Best,
    Ibrahim

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