The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
March 2013 – Vol. 16 Issue 1
When I was seven and just starting to learn French, Aunt Elsa gave me a little phrase to memorize. I vividly recall the scene in grandmother's dining room with its monstrous carved walnut sideboards, its walls decorated with neatly framed prints of poets and musicians against a background of faded rose-red wallpaper. She handed me the phrase as though it were a beautiful doll done up in a fancy box with ribbons, and as she translated the words with painstaking care she made it clear that it was an object of value, to be treasured for the future. I received it as such, without understanding at all the depth of meaning implicit in the simple words: “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner.”
“To understand all is to forgive all.” It was many years later that I unwrapped my treasure and examined it more closely. In recognizing its worth then, at least to some degree, it helped me to get along with people in strange countries where I was destined to live. In China my friends were of many nationalities and backgrounds, and among the French, German, English, American, Russian and Chinese children who were my schoolmates, there was much that was alien and strange. But I found we could understand one another if we made the effort, for our differences were on the surface only. We naturally became intrigued by one another’s customs, curious about national and religious festivals, and while our childish explanations of those with which we were familiar must have left much to be desired, they served as natural bridges for understanding.
Later, when my schooling lay in England, I re-examined my aunt's gift and found then that it applied to more pro-found aspects of human nature. With our ripening minds we teenagers had a wide range of thought to peruse and would sometimes get a little heated in our debates. But the same axiom held good, and I became aware that minds vary in degree and capacity, that prejudices are often inherent in our social structures and only become individual at secondhand. There were youngsters whose parents were on the other side of the globe, in Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong and China, while others had homes within a stone's throw of the school. Our outlooks varied accordingly, and we all learned to allow for different viewpoints which gave us a basis for understanding.
Years later, traveling around the globe, I found the gift still more valid: that the great key in all human relationships is understanding. This does not necessarily mean acquiescence; far from it. We are all pilgrims on the road of eternity, growing and learning, susceptible of further development, hence imperfect. We are forced to recognize not only our own imperfections, about which we can do something, but also those of others, which we have to accept as their concern, not ours. It is not for us to censure others, for how often do we not see in them merely a reflection of our own faults? If we can imagine ourselves in the other fellow's shoes, we shall find that all differences can be bridged. In fact, we might properly extend the French proverb: To understand all is to "feel with" all, for how can any one of us presume to forgive or extend pardon, when all of us walk on the same road of experience? After all, our heritage is our common humanity, each unit of which has equal right to grow and develop his or her own potential. With this key in mind, we may hope someday to comprehend all with an inner sympathy that recognizes the essential oneness of purpose in the stars and the suns, and in every creature of earth. – Elsa-Brita Titchenell
Branch members also attended a Cultural Conversation, sponsored by the city of Bellevue on February 12th, that centered on death and grieving. People from many cultures and beliefs were moved by a Baha’i woman’s presentation dealing with her mother’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer and subsequent two-year journey toward death. Small group discussions allowed people to address themes that were most relevant to their own experiences, and to bring up issues they had been struggling with or had found comfort from. It was a very positive way to bring together and make connections among a wide variety of people, quite a few of whom were recent immigrants to this country.
Upcoming is a Dialogue Potluck gathering on Sunday, March 10 from 5:00 to 7:30 p.m., centering on Karen Armstrong’s book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Participants will share food, listen to a presentation, and then gather around tables with those of many traditions to discuss how we might promote a more compassionate community. Sponsored by Fostering Interfaith Relationships on the Eastside, it will be held at Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church, 308 4th Avenue S, Kirkland, WA. All are welcome!
There is a legend that once when Buddha was teaching he used no words but simply raised his hand which held some flowers. Nobody understood the gesture except old Kasyapa who smiled in recognition. The Buddha, on perceiving this, proclaimed: “I have the most precious spiritual treasure which I now hand over to you, venerable Kasyapa.” According to Ch’an tradition, this was a message of the spirit that could be transmitted only from mind to mind, or heart to heart, too deep and universal for intellectual analysis. Kasyapa became the Buddha’s successor, though he is only connected with the Ch’an or meditative school of Buddhism in Chinese books from the 11th century AD. This story may well be an invention to illustrate the prevailing conception of Ch’an (from the Sanskrit dhyana; “contemplation,” pronounced zen in Japanese) as the essence of Buddhism, the secret or inner current of teaching which could not be communicated in words but solely through silence and action.
The origin and development of Ch’an in India, before it reached China around 520 AD with Bodhidharma, the last of the 28 Indian Patriarchs and the 1st Chinese Patriarch, is thus shrouded in mystery. It emerged as a separate school only in its Chinese form. The most concise statement of its principles is found in lines ascribed to Bodhidharma:
A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence upon words and letters;
Direct pointing at the human soul [intuitive mind];
Seeing into one’s own nature and the attainment of buddhahood.
Over a century later the Fifth Patriarch handed on his office to Hui-neng (637-712) – a man of little learning but great character and intuition, who had served as a rice pounder in the monastery and had never been in the foreground. In the beginning he had to hide in the wilderness to escape the evil schemes of his opponents. It was not long, however, before he revealed his superior spiritual powers and as the Sixth Patriarch became the acknowledged leader of the principal or Southern school. By the 8th century, notably through his activities, Ch’an had become thoroughly Chinese. Its books were written in the colloquial tongue so that its conceptions and ideals reached out to every layer of the population.
It is true that Ch’an had to pass through periods of persecution, in part instigated by the conservative Confucian party, but it could never be completely suppressed. It did not decay or lose its spiritual momentum as did some other schools of Buddhism, but lived on and served as a powerful undercurrent of genuine inspiration. The reason may be sought not alone in the inherent vitality of its message and its very broad and practical scope, but also in its close resemblance to certain older currents of Chinese thought, such as Taoism. The practice of Ch’an meant its students had to learn that the whole exterior universe is but the garment or shadow of something invisible but far more potent than the phenomenal word – an insight that was not to be attained merely through academic study or formal training. It is by awakening the intuitive faculty – the “opening of the third eye” or “opening of the mind-flower” – that one becomes conscious of buddha-nature, the latent spiritual spark in every entity. This comes on the spur of the moment when the mind has been washed of all beclouding thoughts and attuned to the silent music that accompanies every manifestation of life. This clearly was in harmony with the conception of Lao-tzu: that knowledge of Tao (the Way) could be had only by relieving the mind of every kind of intellectual dross and opening it to the spiritual illumination of Universal Being. But Ch’an, as a form of Mahayana Buddhism stripped of most of the meta-physical elements, was a Chinese interpretation of the central pillar in the life and teaching of Buddha – the doctrine of enlightenment – and involving a moral discipline quite foreign to that of Taoism.
Ch’an students were no ascetics, they did not emaciate their bodies, but they became indifferent to much that might seem essential to the material life and comfort of ordinary people, and with their lack of intellectual refinement and disdain of learning they often appeared rough and reckless. Yet their love and comprehension of nature was intense because there they found reflections of that same buddha-nature that they discovered in themselves. Falling leaves and blooming flowers, stones and mountains, revealed to them “the holy law of Buddha,” giving wings to their imagination and a feeling of unity with all that lives. A single flower might reveal a whole forest, a grain of dust be as wonderful as a mountain. As the Fifth Patriarch said, “The deepest truth lies in the principle of identity.”