Do Buddhas Cry?

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Today’s post reflects themes that I explored in my first post on Elephant Journal— Was the Buddha a Social Activist?—almost two years ago.  A January pilgrimage to India in the Buddha’s footsteps reignited in me reflections on the role of the founder of  Buddhism in my Buddhist practice.

The Buddha says, Don’t Cry.

The Buddha’s response to his father’s death as portrayed in Thich Nhat Hanh’s biography of the Buddha, Old Path White Clouds, didn’t quite jive with my understanding of my Buddhist practice with regards to death:

The king smiled weakly, but his eyes radiated peace. He closed his eyes and passed from this life. Queen Gotmai and Yasodhara began to cry. The ministers sobbed in grief. The Buddha folded the king’s hands on his chest and then motioned for everyone to stop crying. He told them to follow their breathing… [At the funeral, the Buddha said] “A person who has attained the Way looks on birth, old age, sickness and death with equanimity.”

Becoming Suffering

This seems different from what my teachers teach.  Is it because my teachers focus on the Bodhisattva path instead of the Buddha path? Are they really so different? From What is Bearing Witness? by Bernie Glassman:

(Street Retreat)

It is the role of the Bodhisattva to bear witness. The Buddha can stay in the realm of not-knowing, the ream of blissful non-attachment. The Bodhisattva vows to save the world, and therefore to live in the world of attachment, for that is also the world of empathy, passion, and compassion.

Ultimately, she accepts all the difficult feelings and experiences that arise as part of everyday life, as nothing but ways of revelation, each pointing to the present moment as the moment of enlightenment.

We bear witness to the joy and suffering that we encounter. Rather than observing the situation, we become the situation. We became intimate with whatever it is – disease, war, poverty, death. When you bear witness you’re simply there, you don’t flee.

In my experience at Bearing Witness Retreats on the streets or at Auschwitz, tears fall.  However, the tears aren’t frantic tears that can’t accept what I’m seeing. They’re a gentle opening to fully embracing and experiencing the range of experience.

(Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat)

At a workshop at Rowe Camp, a participant once asked Bernie if he cries. “I don’t know if I would call it crying,” he said. “But sometimes tears fall.  Reading the news, learning about stories of great suffering. It tells me that I need to lean in closer and learn more.  It fuels me.”

Indian Vs. Chinese Meditation

Does Bernie’s perspective reflect the change  from the ideal of the Buddha to the ideal of the Boddhisattva and from Indian forms of meditation to Chinese ones? According to A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy Translated and Compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan:

In Indian meditation, the mind tries to avoid the external world, ignores outside influence, aims at intellectual understanding and seeks to unite with the Infinite.

From the ninth century to the eleventh [in China], novel and unconventional techniques were developed, and vigorously, if only occasionally applied: travel… the koan… shouting and beating. Even these are not madness or dramatics but an unorthodox way of shocking the pupil out of his outmoded mental habits and preconceived opinions so that his mind will be pure, clear, and thoroughly awakened…

This type of mental training is utterly Chinese.  Nothing like it can be found in the tradition of Indian meditation.

Bringing it Together

At the 2009 Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, that I helped host as a member of the Zen Peacemakers staff, participants debated whether social engagement is inherent to all forms of Buddhism or whether it is something that developed later on.

A plurality—about 65% of the presenters at the Symposium—were Zen leaders and only about 5% practiced in the Theravadin tradition, what is considered the closest style of practice to the classic teaching of the Buddha. Is this because the Symposium’s host, Bernie Glassman, comes from the Zen world and knows more Zen people or because the Theravadin tradition tends to emphasize a more renunciant approach to practice?

Reflecting on this topic, my Zen teacher, Roshi Eve Marko, warned me against oversimplifying the concepts of Buddha and Bodhisattva into dualistic opposites. When the Buddha spent many decades teaching and spreading his methods for reducing suffering, he was, after all, immersed in the world doing the work of the Bodhisattava.

What do you think? If you have a job and a family, do the renunciant threads of either Buddhism or Yoga interact with your lifestyle? Do the Dharmic concepts of equanimity and presence, as well as the practices of meditation and yoga inform your work in the world?

Am I oversimplifying the classical teaching?


Editor: Andrea B.

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Ari Setsudo Pliskin

Ari Setsudo Pliskin is Zen Yogi who works to actualize the interconnectedness of life online and on the streets. While once addicted to school, Ari has balanced his geekiness with spiritual practice and time spent on society’s margins. As a staff member of the Zen Peacemakers, Ari assisted Zen Master Bernie Glassman in his teaching around the world. Ari studies Zen at the Green River Zen Center in Greenfield, MA and is an Iyengar-style yoga teacher. Ari loves comic books as well. Ari currently serves as the Executive Director of the Stone Soup Café

Connect with Ari on Facebook or Twitter: @AriPliskin.

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anonymous Aug 27, 2014 1:23am

The boddhisatva in western view is often attached to a way of being, to help awaken the sleeping, to change the perfectly imperfect. I must study more but for the moment they seemed attached to a way of being which does not appreciate the essence of all that is. As buddha the universe is perfect and already whole in all of it's variations, for consciousness can not be all if it is not absolutely all in the worst and most positive dimensions. To be attached to a way of being is to deny an aspect of self. As the eternal witness one must appreciate all that is in all of it's infinite glory. There is no attachment to a way of being. So does buddha cry. Yes and no. Buddha in human form as part of the illusion in human form is still part of human form and here to witness all aspects of being and may cry even if they crying does not cause the same distress as it would cause someone who does not see clearly. And as budhha crys buddhas does not cry as I am aware that I am endless, infinite and every last thing that surrounds me. In the dimension of the eternal witness the heart that we perceive as human expands to fill with infinite compassion and love for self and humbleness to also realize all the aspects of self and the space before awareness. Perhaps this article should not be as concerned with does buddha cry, but how does the buddha in human form in this realm of existence interpret the mind. For even the name buddha and the path to buddha is part of all that is not the truth body.

anonymous May 27, 2012 6:29pm

[…] […]

anonymous Apr 13, 2012 10:27pm

Wing-Tsit Chan didn't do enough meditation. If he was alive today, he would be the type of guy that throws up after his forth shot of Jameson on St. Patrick's day 🙂

anonymous Apr 13, 2012 6:01pm

In my humble opinion, the role of the bodhisattva has much revisionist history in its current discussion. As Judeo/Christian, "age of enlightenment" westerners, we hunt hard for models from the past that will support our views. Buddha, persay is not remotely connected to bodhisattva-hood, it's not connected to anything, it's not even in the realm of connection.

For a very long time in the East the dharma was in monastaries and rarely in the lay world. When the dharma came West it embarked on a great journey of applying this wisdom to all manner of human endeavours. It's all wonderful, but I'd hardly call it Buddhism, or enlightened action or whatever. Practice reveals the absolute and relative, and the wonderful skill in Buddhism is that they it enables us to identify and experience them as separate animals. What other "religion" does that, they tend to smoosh them all together. We can't ever describe Buddha or the absolute or talk about it, that's all in the realm of this and that and up and down and infinite ways of acting and talking

My great wish for the Dharma in the West is that we don't lose that "ground of being" by mistaking it for a flurry of good works. The more popular practice becomes the more clothing we give it. The more things we need to attract and retain those for whom "just -this" is not enough. We can't avoid sullying the waters, but terms like "socially engaged Buddhism" is a tortology. We can confuse "Buddha" with "Dharma" and "Sangha", sure they are also a single experience, but without that depth of experience as Buddha, you end up thinking it's all one thing. I personally an deeply involved in social and environmental action and a Buddhist teacher, but for the life of me I can't see the connection.

    anonymous Apr 14, 2012 8:00am

    Well said Shinko…and there is a judeo-christian messianic veil being applied to Buddhism in the west.

anonymous Apr 13, 2012 11:30am

Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

Valerie Carruthers
Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

anonymous Apr 13, 2012 10:50am

The above three entries were taken from a transcript of a teaching by Rinpoche regarding Terma or treasure teachings while he was giving the Dudjom Wangs at Kungri in the Spiti Valley, Northern India. This kind of information is very important especially in how he says it.

anonymous Apr 13, 2012 10:43am

So This is why our friend on our left the Venerable Aggacitta will confirm this: most of the Shravakayana countries like Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand they will say “Mahayana is never taught by the Buddha. Mahayana is never…of course Vajrayana is definitely not taught by the Buddha look at this Vajrayana all these
wrathful deities, skull head , naked Buddha, with a consort, naked. All this is Hindu this is not even Buddhism” This is what they will say. That’s fine. I’m not trying to argue. This, as I have given you the example, Sometimes Buddha taught to exclusive audience. And what he taught you will not find a witness from outside. Only among themself. Now, if you go to Korea, I think Korea and most of the China and quite a lot also in Japan, even though Japan has the Vajrayana, then, if a
Vajrayana person talks about these tantric teachings, they will even though they are Mahayana, they will say “no no no these are not taught by the Buddha.” So can you see the, what do you call it, complexity with in the Buddha..Buddhist, sort of, diasporia.

anonymous Apr 13, 2012 10:43am

Now specific teachings, exclusive teachings, that is taught in Jya gö püng pö ri (bya rGo pung po ri) for instance: Vultures Peak that is, Mahayana sutra teachings. You know Prajnaparamita sutra. When there he taught to Mahayana audience. So these teachings, the Mahayana teachings, in the Mahayana teachings. In Mahayana teachings things like …very you know like things like Dorje Chopa: Vajra Sutra where Buddha said “ I have never taught” you know, he asked Rab
bjyor, Rab byor( is Subuti. He said “Subuti, did Buddha teach ever??, Then Subuti said “no Buddha never taught” then Buddha said “Yes. That is correct answer“ Such kind of Mahayana teachings are exclusive taught to Mahayana audience. So now Mahayana people when they go to the general audience and tell them well “that’s what Buddha said,” most of the general audience are not going to believe this.

anonymous Apr 13, 2012 10:42am

Ari…here is an interesting teaching from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche regarding this notion of "the Buddha's classic teachings" being Theravada and so on:
"In India, first of all it’s like this: see if I’m telling you something now, so this, (this is a very good example,) if I’m telling something exclusive to you as an audience. The rest of the people have not heard what I’m saying… The rest of the people are not hearing what I’m saying. So if I say you something quiet unique, then later when you tell the rest of the people, they will say “No. Rinpoche never said this.“ This has happened a lot in the Buddhadharma, a lot. When Buddha taught, when Buddha taught in Varanasi first time it was to the general audience, well mainly to the five monks and but the teaching was supposedly targeted to the general audience. So he taught denpa zhi (bDen pa bZhi: four noble truths. So anywhere you go, anywhere you go, If you ask “did Buddha taught 4 noble truth?,” Everybody will say yes yes. In Japan they will say yes, in Sri Lanka they will say yes, in Tibet they will say yes. No problem.

anonymous Apr 12, 2012 6:43pm

What my teachers teach (in the Tibetan tradition) is that you really only renounce sufferring, or rather ignorance. If you try to shut out or shut off anything, thats a form of aversion, not renunciation. It perpetuates ignorance, because you don't really know that which you shut out. Desire and aversion (duality) are the problem, the cause of sufferring. Its very much the Vajrayana style to take it all in, take it all as part of the path, as fuel for awakening.

anonymous Apr 12, 2012 3:02pm

Roshi Eve gave exactly the right counsel! The thing about developing equanimity is it does not erase your empathy and compassion; it fortifies it and lends a greater capacity for action without emotional exhaustion and mental proliferation. So, one can be fully engaged in the world — both its sorrows AND its joys, touching it all deeply, yet, not be overwhelmed by it. I did not see any difference, then, between the Buddha's instruction and Bernie-la's explanation." Ultimately, she accepts….experiences….as nothing but revelation(s) pointing to enlightenment" How beautiful. In the end, the Buddha's skillful interjection moved them, mentally, from their point of pain to a place of power within to be present with what was present.

anonymous Apr 12, 2012 12:25pm

Very nice. Bearing Witness and the bodhisattva path are clearer.

anonymous Apr 12, 2012 10:47am

thanks for sharing your reflections so openly and eloquently Ari. I think that for pedagogical purposes perhaps Bernie has to emphasize differences between the Buddha path/Bodhisattva path that don't really ultimately exist–thus I agree with Eve to not fall into hardened dualism when contemplating them. In my experience, equanimity and presence are not entirely different, nor are non-attachment and presence. In my view, only in and through non-attachment can I be fully present to what is; only while maintaining equanimity can I bear witness to what is. But this doesn't mean no tears, no pain–that is also part of what is. If I allow myself to be swept up by these feelings, or even by a certain kind of passion of "engaged" buddhism, then I no longer feel present, and I cannot truly bear witness and be of service. But this is just my opinion, man.

anonymous Apr 12, 2012 10:25am

“From the ninth century to the eleventh [in China], novel and unconventional techniques were developed, and vigorously…travel… the koan… shouting and beating…an unorthodox way of shocking the pupil out of his outmoded mental habits and preconceived opinions so that his mind will be pure, clear, and thoroughly awakened…

This type of mental training is utterly Chinese. Nothing like it can be found in the tradition of Indian meditation.”

Reflecting on the biographies of Tilopa, Naropa and many other Indian (Tantric) mahasiddhas, shows that “unorthodox” techniques are not unique to China at all.