Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Matter and Conciousness, Part 1

I have some thoughts coming together around Buddhist relics, shamanism, the movie "What the #$*! Do We Know?", and the notion of self. I could just spew them out, but then this would be just another self-involved web journal entry with a whole bunch of questions and little forethought. So look forward to a series on this topic, which I've realized roughly revolves around matter, thought, and the spiritual realm.

On Friday evening, I went to see Buddhist relics. Actually, it's a roadshow to raise money for a Buddhist endeavor called the Maitreya Project. OK, I must admit that observation alone makes my skepticism hackles rise. I could get sidetracked onto the sometimes weird vibe around the Buddhist tradition of begging for money. This roadshow came with a huge panel describing the Maitreya Project, larger than my living room wall. Posters, brochures and glossy souvenir booklets describing the Project and the Heart Shrine Relic Tour could be had, suggested donations listed on hand-lettered cards. Before I entered the hall, a sangha friend warned me "it's not the way we do things." (Zen is black, white and wood grain, Tibetan is red, gold and brightly colored.) I appreciated the icicle light strands replacing the traditional Tibetan butter lamps. Handy, so American, and moving the tradition into the modern era.

The relics were inside display cases, resting in their little golden urns, alongside close-up photos of the relics. These aren't merely bone bits and ashes, as you would think relics might be, but they say that spiritual masters leave these bits behind as gifts. They have a life, a presence, explained Pema Chidrin, who is travelling with the relics. She said that if treated with respect, relics will often grow, new pieces will become manifest or visible. Likewise if they are treated disrespectfully, they will shrink in size. The collection included relics from Shakyamuni Buddha, some of his disciples, as well as Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian ancestors. H.H. the Dalai Lama donated some hairs and other special items inside a little pouch. Even though he is still alive, they say since he expresses bodhicitta every hair on his head is a relic. Pema Chidrin explained that this tour has been blessed, that two of their relics had increased: Ananda, one of Shakyamuni's disciples, and Kashapya, the Buddha preceding Shakyamuni. (Even the Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition had a question about this. The answer was basically that space-time works in mysterious ways.) Kashapya's had "grown" a big pearl-like piece (looked like a tapioca pearl) and Ananda's had more little opalescent bits. We could see that the photos did not show these bits, and there they were, in the little urns. Lama Zopa, the man behind the Maitreya Project, verified their authenticity. Cynically, I can't help but put two and two together.

I came here thinking I don't know the truth about the Buddhist relics, but that it doesn't really matter whether they came from these past spiritual masters. It matters that people treat them with respect and imbue them with something as ritual objects. That gives them sacred value. Now I am being told that if I am disrespectful the objects will shrink and I'm wondering if my skeptical thoughts are disrespectful. Does anyone voice these thoughts aloud? (whoops, I’m doing it now, will they shrink because of me?) Maybe I don't know everything there is to know, maybe enlightened beings do manipulate matter through space and time. I shrugged inwardly and reminded myself to 'act like the Buddha to be a buddha'.

Skepticism aside, I delighted in the pageantry. A replica of the giant Maitreya statue to be built in India sat on top of an altar as large as a bed. All around the nearly human-sized statue the relics were displayed, along with the requisite candles and bowls of saffron water of Pema Chidrin's tradition, as well as the icicle lights lining the edge. For the opening ceremony we sang "Litany of the Great Compassionate One" and "Adoration of the Buddha's Relics" as passed down by Roshi Jiyu Kennett. Together in ceremony for the first time in many years, members of the Portland Buddhist Priory and Dharma Rain Zen Center led the singing. (This was a very charged moment.) We sang on key as I had never heard before. At least a dozen women and men ordained in Buddhism, representing nearly that many sects, lined up to circumambulate around the relics. The rest of us lay folks followed.

Apparently the abbot of the host temple gets to do the honors, so my priest and teacher Kyogen Carlson gave us a blessing with the relics. We lined up again, bowing and bending forward while he rested the urn on our head and he chanted three times, "Namu Shakyamuni Buddha". Me too. I felt incredibly taken care of, and met my teacher's eyes as I bowed after. (Kyogen also received a blessing, from his wife and co-abbott, Gyokuko Carlson.) This is the same chant we recited during a ceremony the week I became a Buddhist. Was I receiving a blessing from the relics, or from the attention of my priest? Stepping aside for the next person, I knew I had already received this blessing, received it that moment, and continue to receive it, whether the relics had some life of their own or not. The true remnants of the Buddha and these other spiritual masters come to me through these three gems, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

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