Christopher Michael Luna

BUDDHISM

BUDDHISM

“The person who experiences suffering does not exist. To whom will that suffering belong? Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation put on this?”

—Śāntideva, “The Perfection of Meditative Absorption” in
Bodhicaryāvatāra, § 101-102.

“The person who experiences suffering does not exist. To whom will that suffering belong? Without exception, no sufferings belong to anyone. They must be warded off simply because they are suffering. Why is any limitation put on this?”

—Śāntideva, “The Perfection of Meditative Absorption” in Bodhicaryāvatāra, § 101-102.

In her 2003 convocation address to the students and faculty of Harvard Divinity School, Dr. Janet Gyatso framed her words around “the radical Buddhist injunction to take my stand in emptiness.” She went on to explain that for Buddhists, emptiness has always meant “not pure nothingness, but rather a self-conscious recognition of infinite changeability, of openness, and a place where the daunting feat of mustering confidence within what is provisional can be attempted.” The provocative insight of Buddhism is thus, in her words, that “a solid stance on a ground of flux is the best place from which to contemplate fundamental matters.” (Gyatso, “Where Do We Stand? The Convocation Address to Begin the 187th Year,” ¶ 2)

Stand firm on an ever-shifting ground. Devote oneself to the liberation of all beings. Awaken to the truth that existence is a delusion. Buddhism is many things, but it is animated at its heart by the deep understanding of the truth that the world lies beyond our attempts to capture it with concepts. As a result, the paradoxical and the impossible may be attained, because what is impossible is a feature of our imperfect understanding of the cosmos, not of the cosmos itself.

While it rarely comes through overtly, my Buddhist understanding of the cosmos is central to my commitment  to make the world a better place, informing my approach to leadership, teaching, and design.

COSMOLOGY

COSMOLOGY

A rare late Edo c. 1860 Japanese xylographic or woodblock map illustrating the Buddhist cosmographical conception of Mount Meru. Here the mountain rests on the cosmic ocean at the middle of the universe. Rising out of the Cosmic Sea, seven mountain ranges enclose the seven seas. At the summit is Sumeru, paradise, or Great Meru. The sun and moon orbit Meru. Buddhist text surrounds the map.

A late Edo c. 1860 Japanese xylographic or woodblock map illustrating the Buddhist cosmographical conception of Mount Meru. Mount Meru (Sanskrit: मेरु), also recognized as Sumeru, Sineru or Mahameru, is the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmography. Meru is considered to be the axis of the universe. Here the mountain rests on the cosmic ocean at the middle of the universe. Rising out of the Cosmic Sea, seven mountain ranges enclose the seven seas. At the summit is Sumeru, paradise, or Great Meru. The sun and moon orbit Meru. (Description from Geographicus.)

Convert Buddhists—especially white Buddhists in the West—have an unfortunate habit of overlooking or trivializing Buddhist cosmology. At its worst, this gives rise to a kind of orientalist racism that contrasts the “intellectual,” “philosophical,” meditation-centered emphasis of white Westerners with the “supernatural,” “religious,” devotional practices of Asians. Robert Wright’s recent best-seller Why Buddhism is True falls into this trap, describing Western Buddhism as having been “stripped of some supernatural elements, such as belief in reincarnation and various deities” (p. 2). When Wright argues that Buddhism is “true,” it is clear which kind of Buddhism he’s talking about.

The trouble with this approach is that the “philosophical” approaches to Buddhism cannot profitably be disentangled from its rich cosmology. To suggest that Asian Buddhists believe in the “supernatural” because their cosmology includes gods, ashura, hungry ghosts, and demons, and because it includes reincarnation, is to export a very specific Western philosophical debate about miracles and the division of the cosmos into matter and spirit into a context that took its own path to the question of the character of the cosmos. For Buddhists who find explanatory power in rebirth and non-human forms of sentience, there is nothing “supernatural” about it. One could go so far as to say that interpreting Buddhist cosmology according to the dualistic Western ideas of what is natural and what is miraculous is to misunderstand Buddhism before one has begun.

My own practice of Buddhism has been deeply informed by Buddhist cosmology, which consists of potent, fantastic descriptions of the quality and workings of the cosmos. There are truths about the nature of our reality that are captured more evocatively in cosmology than in “philosophy” or more straightforwardly didactic genres.

If we take for example the teaching that suffering and delusion have the capacity to shape our reality we could go into a long diversion into Buddhist philosophy, talking about the nature of subjectivity and perception. By philosophizing and psychologizing the issue we create a kind of intellectual distance. The matter becomes clinical and cerebral in a way that makes a modern Westerner more comfortable.

But we could take a more direct route. We could, instead, say that when we are overcome by anger we are reborn in the world of the asura, reborn as a being of wrath, hose righteous anger at their exile from the world of the gods is as much a part of their body as is their heart.

Which route is more direct? Which route provokes our understanding in a way that prompts us to change? As a Buddhist, I don’t have to choose between these seemingly contradictory realities—the one, that anger changes my psychology, causing me to perceive the world differently, the other that anger causes the birth of a new kind of being. Instead I can hold both of these truths in tension with one another, allowing these truths to inform each other, leaving a sharper edge to the more comfortable psychologization of Buddhist thought. By holding these truths in tension with each other, I am reminded that ultimate truth lies beyond any of these systems of conceptualization, that it is a wordless and ever-changing encounter with a truth that I can never capture.

Convert Buddhists—especially white Buddhists in the West—have an unfortunate habit of overlooking or trivializing Buddhist cosmology. At its worst, this gives rise to a kind of orientalist racism that contrasts the “intellectual,” “philosophical,” meditation-centered emphasis of white Westerners with the “supernatural,” “religious,” devotional practices of Asians. Robert Wright’s recent best-seller Why Buddhism is True falls into this trap, describing Western Buddhism as having been “stripped of some supernatural elements, such as belief in reincarnation and various deities” (p. 2). When Wright argues that Buddhism is “true,” it is clear which kind of Buddhism he’s talking about.

A rare late Edo c. 1860 Japanese xylographic or woodblock map illustrating the Buddhist cosmographical conception of Mount Meru. Here the mountain rests on the cosmic ocean at the middle of the universe. Rising out of the Cosmic Sea, seven mountain ranges enclose the seven seas. At the summit is Sumeru, paradise, or Great Meru. The sun and moon orbit Meru. Buddhist text surrounds the map.

A late Edo c. 1860 Japanese xylographic or woodblock map illustrating the Buddhist cosmographical conception of Mount Meru. Mount Meru (Sanskrit: मेरु), also recognized as Sumeru, Sineru or Mahameru, is the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmography. Meru is considered to be the axis of the universe. Here the mountain rests on the cosmic ocean at the middle of the universe. Rising out of the Cosmic Sea, seven mountain ranges enclose the seven seas. At the summit is Sumeru, paradise, or Great Meru. The sun and moon orbit Meru. (Description from Geographicus.)

The trouble with this approach is that the “philosophical” approaches to Buddhism cannot profitably be disentangled from its rich cosmology. To suggest that Asian Buddhists believe in the “supernatural” because their cosmology includes gods, ashura, hungry ghosts, and demons, and because it includes reincarnation, is to export a very specific Western philosophical debate about miracles and the division of the cosmos into matter and spirit into a context that took its own path to the question of the character of the cosmos. For Buddhists who find explanatory power in rebirth and non-human forms of sentience, there is nothing “supernatural” about it. One could go so far as to say that interpreting Buddhist cosmology according to the dualistic Western ideas of what is natural and what is miraculous is to misunderstand Buddhism before one has begun.

My own practice of Buddhism has been deeply informed by Buddhist cosmology, which consists of potent, fantastic descriptions of the quality and workings of the cosmos. There are truths about the nature of our reality that are captured more evocatively in cosmology than in “philosophy” or more straightforwardly didactic genres.

If we take for example the teaching that suffering and delusion have the capacity to shape our reality we could go into a long diversion into Buddhist philosophy, talking about the nature of subjectivity and perception. By philosophizing and psychologizing the issue we create a kind of intellectual distance. The matter becomes clinical and cerebral in a way that makes a modern Westerner more comfortable.

But we could take a more direct route. We could, instead, say that when we are overcome by anger we are reborn in the world of the asura, reborn as a being of wrath, whose righteous anger at their exile from the world of the gods is as much a part of their body as is their heart.

Which route is more direct? Which route provokes our understanding in a way that prompts us to change? As a Buddhist, I don’t have to choose between these seemingly contradictory realities—the one, that anger changes my psychology, causing me to perceive the world differently, the other that anger causes the birth of a new kind of being. Instead I can hold both of these truths in tension with one another, allowing these truths to inform each other, leaving a sharper edge to the more comfortable psychologization of Buddhist thought. By holding these truths in tension with each other, I am reminded that ultimate truth lies beyond any of these systems of conceptualization, that it is a wordless and ever-changing encounter with a truth that I can never capture.

TEACHERS

TEACHERS

My practice and study of Buddhism has been influenced by a number of teachers living and dead, some people I’ve met and worked with extensively, and other people who I know largely through the material relics of writing and art that they have put out into the world.

Charles HalliseyChief among these is Charlie Hallisey, a highly respected scholar of Buddhism, who served as my Masters thesis advisor at Harvard. More than anyone else, Charlie taught me how to look beyond my preconceived notions of what Buddhism is. When I encountered Charlie, I rather naïvely associated religion with “being nice,” and Buddhism in particular with the cultivation of happiness and harmony.

While I’ve always been good at being nice and keeping the peace, my instincts had long told me that niceties can act as a mask for deep forms of violence and exclusion of others—and that peace, when set as an absolute priority, can prioritize the status quo over justice, being used to gloss over uncomfortable truths. I was also not particularly driven by pursuit of happiness. Challenging experiences in my life had taught me that happiness was not a permanent state of being, but something that comes and goes, and that grief, remorse, anger, and sorrow all have their place in a genuine encounter with life.

Charlie taught me that these instincts and insights were part and parcel of what Buddhism has always taught, and in so doing he made a space for me to approach and understand Buddhist thinkers as speaking to me. But beyond the content of what he taught me, Charlie was a great Buddhist teacher in the sense that phrase is usually meant. He embodied the approach to Buddhism that he taught. He was provocative and deeply challenging to his students, disrupting our worldview not only in what he taught but how he taught, moved, spoke, and listened. Even when we were on the receiving end of his brutal wit, incisively critical eye, or long-suffering patience, Charlie somehow managed to show us that we were loved.

“If you regard [hopelessness] as the path in the sense that you feel you are going to get something out of this, that won’t work. There’s no way out. … It’s the truth of hopelessness rather than the doctrine of hopelessness.”

—Chögyam Trungpa, Crazy Wisdom, p. 88.

“If you regard [hopelessness] as the path in the sense that you feel you are going to get something out of this, that won’t work. There’s no way out. … It’s the truth of hopelessness rather than the doctrine of hopelessness.”

—Chögyam Trungpa, Crazy Wisdom, p. 88.

Studying with Charlie prepared me for a deep encounter with the writings of Chögyam Trungpa, a complicated and controversial figure in the Tibetan diaspora. The crucial teaching I have taken from Trungpa is laid out in his lectures published under the title Crazy Wisdom. Considered a culminating teaching designed for religious seekers in the United States specifically, Trungpa described the teaching as “hopelessness.”

Against the notion that hopelessness is a kind of despair, Trungpa described instead a radical abandonment of hope. Hope, for Trungpa, was properly understood as desire for something, mixed with the expectation that it would occur. He noticed that people in the United States in particular were drunk on hope, and indeed a kind of hope is foundational to the Puritan, utopian impulses at the foundation of our country. Trungpa knew that this posture towards life was deeply ingrained in us. If people in the United States were to encounter reality as it truly is, he taught that we would have to abandon our expectation for the fulfillment of our desires, and see what kind of life could be made in the wreckage of hope. In spite of how it sounds to most people in the United States, this teaching opens a space of radical possibility that I have found essential as I pursue my desire to help others in a time of ecological catastrophe, political crisis, and a deeply uncertain future.

RESOURCES

RESOURCES

Buddhists are quick to remind us that the Dharma does not belong to Buddhism, or, as Charlie Hallisey put it, “you can find this stuff in the phone book if you look hard enough.” That being said, those interested in understanding Buddhism more deeply may find something of value in the following resources, all of which have deepened my understand and practice.

Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson

Oxherding Tale

One of the great works of American Buddhist fiction, Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson is a humorous tale that roots the Buddhist quest for liberation in the black American experience of enslavement.

Selections of Miyazawa Kenji

Miyazawa Kenji

This collection from one of the great modern Buddhist poets allows you to experience the dizzying breadth of Kenji's engagement with human interdependence with the natural world, as well as his investigations about the nature of the self.

Therigatha

Therigatha

One of the earliest collections of women's literature, these poems are a celebration of Buddhist attainments and a rumination on nature of suffering in lay life.

Spring Essence by Hô Xuân Huong

Spring Essence

In many ways a very different engagement with Buddhist women's literature, these poems by Hô Xuân Huong embrace the contradictory quality of a sensual existence, in which pleasure and desire, pain and sorrow, live side by side.

Radical Dharma by Jasmine Syedullah, Lama Rod Owens, and angel Kyodo Williams

Radical Dharma

A powerful, accessible resource for Buddhists in the United States to understand the confluence of Buddhist thought and practice with the unique historical and material conditions of injustice in our country.

Apparitions of the Self

A fascinating study of autobiography in medieval Tibetan literature in particular and in the Buddhist world more broadly, including translations of key examples.

Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra

Gene Reeves' accessible and engaging translation of the classic Mahāyāna sutras was key to my understanding that Buddhism is for all beings, and essential to my understanding of "skillful means."

Bodhicaryāvatāra

Bodhicaryāvatāra

Śāntideva's classic introduction to the path of the bodhisattva, the one who devotes themselves to the liberation of all beings. It's gorgeous. For example, "Trees do not bear grudges nor is any effort required to please them."

Vimalakirti Sutra

Vimalakirti Sutra

As the religious landscape of the world shifts to adapt to modernity, lay practice is more and more the center of religious life. This sutra explores the Buddhist concept of non-dualism as taught by the layman Vimalakirti.

Tatami Galaxy

A short animated series about trying to escape the inevitability of who we are and the rapaciousness of the self-centered ego.

Spring Summer Fall Winter ... and Spring

Spring Summer Fall Winter ... and Spring

Gorgeous and surreal, this film explores the transformation of suffering into attainment and the cyclical nature of the world of samsara.

Ghost Dog

Ghost Dog

Directed by Jim Jarmusch with music by the RZA, this is a film about interdependence and what is communicated beyond language, taking up resonances between Japanese culture and the urban United States.

Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson

Oxherding Tale

One of the great works of American Buddhist fiction, Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson is a humorous tale that roots the Buddhist quest for liberation in the black American experience of enslavement.

Selections of Miyazawa Kenji

Miyazawa Kenji

This collection from one of the great modern Buddhist poets allows you to experience the dizzying breadth of Kenji's engagement with human interdependence with the natural world, as well as his investigations about the nature of the self.

Therigatha

Therigatha

One of the earliest collections of women's literature, these poems are a celebration of Buddhist attainments and a rumination on nature of suffering in lay life.

Spring Essence by Hô Xuân Huong

Spring Essence

In many ways a very different engagement with Buddhist women's literature, these poems by Hô Xuân Huong embrace the contradictory quality of a sensual existence, in which pleasure and desire, pain and sorrow, live side by side.

Radical Dharma by Jasmine Syedullah, Lama Rod Owens, and angel Kyodo Williams

Radical Dharma

A powerful, accessible resource for Buddhists in the United States to understand the confluence of Buddhist thought and practice with the unique historical and material conditions of injustice in our country.

Apparitions of the Self

A fascinating study of autobiography in medieval Tibetan literature in particular and in the Buddhist world more broadly, including translations of key examples.

Lotus Sutra

The Lotus Sutra

Gene Reeves' accessible and engaging translation of the classic Mahāyāna sutras was key to my understanding that Buddhism is for all beings, and essential to my understanding of "skillful means."

Bodhicaryāvatāra

Bodhicaryāvatāra

Śāntideva's classic introduction to the path of the bodhisattva, the one who devotes themselves to the liberation of all beings. It's gorgeous. For example, "Trees do not bear grudges nor is any effort required to please them."

Vimalakirti Sutra

Vimalakirti Sutra

As the religious landscape of the world shifts to adapt to modernity, lay practice is more and more the center of religious life. This sutra explores the Buddhist concept of non-dualism as taught by the layman Vimalakirti.

Tatami Galaxy

A short animated series about trying to escape the inevitability of who we are and the rapaciousness of the self-centered ego.

Spring Summer Fall Winter ... and Spring

Spring Summer Fall Winter ... and Spring

Gorgeous and surreal, this film explores the transformation of suffering into attainment and the cyclical nature of the world of samsara.

Ghost Dog

Ghost Dog

Directed by Jim Jarmusch with music by the RZA, this is a film about interdependence and what is communicated beyond language, taking up resonances between Japanese culture and the urban United States.