vanitas (with gumballs)

May 28, 2009 § 3 Comments

vanitas (with gumballs)

(click on image for a closer look)

This drawing is based on a vanitas theme, intended to emphasize the transience of life.  It is a somber message, so I chose a little frivolity, by adding the gumballs.  Each item was selected for its color and symbolic value.   My light pencil-work is also meant to be uplifting and ethereal.  A carefully staged photograph of mine was the starting point.  I followed the photo closely, but tried to move away from a strict photographic look.  The drawing is a reminder that life is fleeting, but that it should be enjoyed in detail, at every moment.

Aurelio Madrid

fundamental darkness

May 27, 2009 § 10 Comments

the three obstacles and four devils, with fundamental darkness

the three obstacles and four devils, with fundamental darkness

(click on diagram for a closer look)

Fundamental Darkness

 “…also, fundamental ignorance or primal ignorance. The most deeply rooted illusion inherent in life, said to give rise to all other illusions. Darkness in this sense means inability to see or recognize the truth, particularly, the true nature of one’s life.  The term fundamental darkness is contrasted with the fundamental nature of enlightenment, which is the Buddha nature inherent in life. According to the Shrimala Sutra, fundamental darkness is the most difficult illusion to surmount and can be eradicated only by the wisdom of the Buddha. T’ien-t’ai (538-597) interprets darkness as illusion that prevents one from realizing the truth of the Middle Way, and divides such illusion into forty-two types, the last of which is fundamental darkness. This illusion is only extirpated when one attains the stage of perfect enlightenment, the last of the fifty-two stages of bodhisattva practiceNichiren (1222-1282) interprets fundamental darkness as ignorance of the ultimate Law, or ignorance of the fact that one’s life is essentially a manifestation of that Law, which he identifies as Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. In The Treatment of Illness, Nichiren states: “The heart of the Lotus school is the doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life, which reveals that both good and evil are inherent even in those at the highest stage of perfect enlightenment.  The fundamental nature of enlightenment manifests itself as Brahma and Shakra, whereas the fundamental darkness manifests itself as the devil king of the sixth heaven“. Nichiren thus regards fundamental darkness as latent even in the enlightened life of the Buddha, and the devil king of the sixth heaven as a manifestation or personification of life’s fundamental darkness. The Record of the Orally Transmitted Teachings reads, ‘Belief is a sharp sword that cuts off fundamental darkness or ignorance.’” –The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism

What is Fundamental Darkness?  Fundamental Darkness is ignorance sometimes called primal ignorance & it is within us all.  It is a persistent & deceptive illusion.  It is at times hard to ignore & it is also difficult to indentify.  Nichiren Daishonin writes that: “Fundamental Darkness manifests itself as the Devil of the Sixth Heaven.”  The Devil of the Sixth Heaven is also related to the metaphor of The Three Obstacles & Four Devils.  Nichiren warns that when one is practicing the correct teaching of Buddhism, obstacles (& hindrances) will inevitably appear, to deter our path to enlightenment.  One of these devils, the Devil of the Sixth Heaven is said to be the most powerful.  He is the manifestation of Fundamental Darkness & he is the last devil defeated, he will fight to the bitter end to keep you from enlightenment.  It might be helpful to bear in mind that nowadays we do not see this as an actual demon or devil (with wings, horns & claws) but simply as a metaphor for a concept that is essentially the antithesis to our enlightenment.  Nichiren writes that since the devil (of the sixth…) is there (in your life working on deterring you on your path to enlightenment) the devil might be saying this to himself: “This is most vexing. If I allow this person to remain in my domain, he will not only free himself from the sufferings of birth and death, but [he will also] lead others to enlightenment as well…” 

 Fundamental Darkness is many things, including not recognizing our own Buddha nature & not recognizing the Buddha nature in others.  A key difference from a traditional/western notion of evil, is that we Buddhists acknowledge that fundamental darkness is latent in all of life (including our own), rather than occurring only in specific individuals/groups exclusively.  The theory is that we can use it as a motivation, a catalyst to improve, & as an impetus to strive for enlightenment.  “Earthly desires are enlightenment.” Once we can identify when, where & how fundamental darkness invades our daily lives (by chanting Nam-myho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon) then we can strive to pursue our own Buddha-nature with greater force & conviction, since we have taken the vow to improve by practicing Nichiren’s Buddhism.  As I’ve repeated, Fundamental Darkness lies (dormant or active) within ourselves, just as our own enlightenment does, this realization can help to better understand others, since they too are going through their own great struggles with the Devil of the Sixth Heaven.  Fundamental Darkness is the ignorance to the truth of one’s life, and ignorance to the Mystic Law, indeed ignorance (not to be mistaken for innocence) of the law of Nam-myho-renge-kyo.  The recognition that Fundamental Darkness is a fact of life might be a tool that helps us see our similarities, rather than our differences.  You fight Fundamental Darkness & so do I.  When we see that each person contains (more-or-less) the best & the worst of our own-selves (in a variety of degrees exaggerated, enhanced, suppressed, repressed, unseen, magnified &c.), then we can stop seeing others as “the other,” & simply more like ourselves.  Saying: “she is like me,” is more difficult than, “she is bad, or she is evil.”  “All men are created equal,” includes women, minorities, the oppressed, the poor, the voiceless, your enemy, & yourself.  This is the wisdom of y/our enlightenment.   

There is no doubt that the influence of Fundamental Darkness is insidious & multifaceted.  We can all recognize it in our own lives, in our own hearts—we know what it is (usually without question). We know its circumstances.  We know its guises.  We know its deception.  We know its persistence well.  It’s so familiar, that it’s probably why we turned to the Nichiren’s practice for help.  Perhaps our lives had been overwhelmed by Fundamental Darkness.  We needed a way to confront, question & we needed a way to challenge this difficult “friend.”  There lies part of the secret to understanding how we overcome its devilish influence.  Chant with faith that we will have the wisdom to defeat our own demons, faith that we will have the wisdom to understand (& to know) our own Devil of the sixth heaven. Be reassured that you have the strength.  Have faith that the darkness that might pervade your life now can be illuminated, enlightened & confronted with practice & study.  On Fundamental Darkness President Ikeda writes:

 “…for all its negative & destructive influence [it is] at essence nothing but ignorance.  Therefore it can be vanquished by wisdom.  A person who brings forth this kind of wisdom is a Buddha.  The supreme wisdom for achieving this goal is found in the correct teaching of Buddhism, which is none other than the Lotus Sutra of Shakyamuni & the teaching of Nam-myho-renge-kyo of the Three Great Secret Laws expounded by Nichiren Daishonin.” Living Buddhism May/June 2009

 Aurelio Madrid

on coin-collecting

May 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

2005 Netherlands 10 Euro Beatrix ...just one of Tiffany's many fine coins

2005 Netherlands 10 Euro Beatrix ...just one of Tiffany's many fine coins

(This interview was e-mailed in March with Tiffany Follett.  I found her on flickr & was entranced by her coin collection.  I had to find-out more & here’s the result)

 Aurelio: …just looked at your coin collection on flickr again (out of 7 or 8 times & counting), before I writing back to you & noticed some more coins I hadn’t looked at before.  Wow, this collection must be something to see in person, but the flickr way is great too, and perhaps not as much work to sort through manually.

 Your collection is very impressive & also the archiving of the coins is not to be overlooked, as I said before, great work!  How did you get involved with numismatics?  Are there certain coins that started your fascination?–or was it something else that got you going?

 I am also trying to see a theme to your collection, geographical, historical, aesthetic &c., but I cannot detect one, other than that you seriously love coins.  Is there a theme?  What drives you to accumulate these treasures?  How do you buy them? eBay & other on-line auctions?  Have you heard of V-Coins? (…the other night I couldn’t pull myself away from looking at all the nice coins available from the different sellers)

 I had been scanning my little collection, rather than photographing them.  It seems the detail is softer when the coins are photographed.  Do you have a special set-up for the coins?  Or do you just point-n-shoot?

Tiffany: My involvement started when I was a kid.  My father loved coins and gave me my own penny folder for a collection.  He didn’t have any vast great collection, but he liked to collect unusual circulating change.  I have sort of gone in cycles of collecting for 15 years.  I’m only marginally active at this time only getting my yearly US coinage. I do not have any theme whatsoever.  I collect coins that I just basically like the design of mostly, but that’s not always the case.  I do have to say that my favorite area of collecting is commemoratives.

 I have many different sources for purchasing, eBay is one of them, but I am a member of the coinpeople forum and purchased vast amounts from its members, also certain websites such as chervonets.com.  I had not heard of  V-coins before, but as I said I am not in an extremely active cycle right now.

 Scanning is good, it’s hard to get the coloring right, such is the case with photographing as well.  I have yet to find the perfect setup to capture the coins perfectly, but it gives me something to strive for.  I never had a real setup per se, but I had a book and a gooseneck lamp with a compact fluorescent bulb I use as well as a macro lens.  I just recently purchased a light box but have yet to set it up and try it out.  That’s my next stage. 

 Where are you from?  Tell me about your collection.

 Aurelio: …so your dad started you off with your 1st penny folder [these folders are used to organize & categorize coins, usually within a period of time &/or theme].  I wonder if you still have those pennies, or any part of your dad’s collection.  It sounds like you have been involved with numismatics for sometime & your theme for collecting coins is basically numismatics itself, you just love coins, you love collecting & that’s great.  I have not yet looked at your commemoratives yet.  I’ll have to do that soon.

 I think my 1st fascination with coins started when was a kid too.  It has become more pronounced now that the internet makes it so easy to buy them (sometimes).  My grand-parents had a small general store in Southern Colorado & I’d have to help count change, from time to time.  Grandma would have these little brown bags packed with change (along with a coffee can or two…don’t ask me why she kept change in paper bags) & I would sort it count it out & put the coins into their rollers.  Then we could go to the bank to make a deposit or whatever.  Once she pulled out a few bags that apparently had been in a storeroom for sometime & while sorting through it I found a couple of Indian head pennies, a buffalo nickel & a mercury dime.  I was so intrigued by these little finds.  I’d stare at them for hours, imagining the stories they could tell.  I wish I still had those coins, they probably wouldn’t be worth much, but their personal value would be huge.  Now that I think about it, the sense of intrigue has not diminished.  I still stare at coins a lot, whether they are mine, yours, or someone else’s.

Unlike you, I have not archived my whole collection & if I did it still wouldn’t match the size & depth of yours.  The bulk of it consists of circulating world coins, from all corners of the world, a lot of notgeld from Germany & Austria (some of these notes can be really fun to look at) & growing collection of European coins from the 16, 17 & 18th centuries.  I love handling these old coins.  I know this might be a no-no for the purist, but I can’t resist touching them & imagining the hands that have touched them.  I will sometimes carry the coin in my pocket for a day, just to get to “know” the coin better.  Of course it should go without saying that the nicer the coin, the less it’s been handled, therefore most of the good-looking coins haven’t been handled too much & probably have spent most of their “lives” in drawers, boxes, &c.  Do you handle your coins; touch them to feel the texture & that sort of thing?  Do you have any coins that you linger over?

Another of the aspect of the coins I love is that they are miniature artworks.  With the bas-relief format it is amazing how much can be depicted, kings, queens, presidents, animals, monuments, buildings, battles, births, &c., &c. 

I live in Denver what about you?  I have the Denver Mint here that I have not been to for a long time I need to go soon.   

 Tiffany: I do still have that penny folder.  A few years ago my mother took me to her safety deposit box and gave me my father’s collection.  That was actually what got me started collecting foreign coinage.  He had coins from all over the place and I was captivated by the designs.  This is why I like commemoratives so much because of the different designs.

 I don’t handle my coins extensively I generally only handle by edges only.  I too, though, like to imagine who’s hands the coins have passed through, especially ones that date back to the earlier centuries.

 Aurelio:  I’ve realized that it’ll be fun to list my top 11 picks from your collection & hyperlink ‘em too.  (If you have any thing to say about these feel free).

 1848 German States Rostock 1 Pfennig Obv

1706 German States Padderborn 6 Pfennig Obv

1749 German States Bremen 1 Groten Rev

1712 Sachsen Gotha Altenburg Heller Obv

1504 Hungary Sil Denars Rev

1892 Spain 50 Cents Obv

1555 Lithuania Obv

1623 Poland Quarter Thaler Obv

2005 Netherlands 10 Euro Beatrix Obv

1583 Poland 3 Groschen Obv NGC

1990J Germany 10 Marks Teutonic Order Proof Rev

 I wish we had time to touch on all your other passions, but if someone reading this wants to check-out your beautiful photos & tons other fine stuff, they can find you at: Tiffibunny’s photostream.  I guess your from the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area, I asked & it should’ve been clear once I took a tour through your other pics (yes, I was only looking at the coins, before).  Thank you for the help & we’ll talk again…

 Tiffany: You picked some of my favorites.  German States are probably my favorite, probably because I’m from a mostly German heritage.  And yes I am in St. Paul.  Sorry, I thought I mentioned that before….

thoughts on karma, cause & effect

May 1, 2009 § 7 Comments

mutual possesion of the ten worlds

mutual possesion of the ten worlds

the nine consciousnesses

the nine consciousnesses

(click on diagrams for a better view)

 Thoughts on Karma, Cause & Effect

Within Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism

 Although David Hume said that causation is the “cement of the universe,” I couldn’t use any of what he said on causality for this discussion (other than this little quote).  I also couldn’t talk about Aristotle’s views on causation, his four causes &c., although he did say that “all causes are beginnings…” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book V, Part 1). Both thinkers are not silent on the subject, & I am not suggesting that what they had to say on causality is valueless, but I did have to put them aside, since their brilliant theories (on causation) are ancillary to this month’s gosho: “Lessening One’s Karmic Retribution.” The Buddhist philosophers Daisaku Ikeda & Nichiren Daishonin are of complete relevance here & it is their thoughts I will focus on.

The word Renge in Nam Myoho Renge Kyo means lotus flower (in Sanskrit), it also signifies the concept of the simultaneity of cause & effect.  Simultaneity here suggests that by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo one can (with faith) access/cause one’s Buddha nature to be effected immediately.  We believe that we all contain (and can access) our own individual Buddha nature (enlightenment) & that by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo we will manifest it in our lives immediately.  The lotus seeds & blooms simultaneously, which is why it’s used as a metaphor for this concept.  The form of causality that is simultaneous is as I just described & it is also related to the concept of the 10 worlds, since (the theory is that) we inhabit all the 10 worlds at once (& we have mutual possession of the ten worlds) & are able to use the nine worlds to propel us to the tenth world of Buddhahood &/or enlightenment (by chanting Nam Myho Renge Kyo).  Non-simultaneous causality is also important here, because all the past actions we’ve taken (in life), (good or bad), are also inevitably contained & manifested in our present lives (karma) & on into our future lives.  The nine consciousnesses concept describes the Alaya (8th) consciousness as the karmic store-house: where all our past actions, thoughts, words (&c.) are stored as latent potential.  Karma might also be seen as an intermediary between cause & effect (in non-simultaneous cause & effect). Karma is where all our latent causes are waiting to be “effected” by some external stimuli in one’s life.  When we look into (note that it is said that karma is unconscious, but let’s say that we can look into) this store-house & rummage through our past causes, we are able to understand our present lives better, we are on the road to enlightenment, & we are enlightening our own lives, by doing so. 

Nichiren Daishonin quotes from The Contemplation on the Mind-Ground Sutra,” that states:

If you want to understand the causes that existed in the past, look at the results as they are manifested in the present.  And if you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present” (WND-1, 279).  

So, what does it mean to “lessen one’s karmic retribution?” Daisaku Ikeda writes:

Present effects are due to karmic causes from the past. However, future effects arise from the causes we make in the present. It is always the present that counts. It is what we do in the present moment that decides our future; our past causes do not govern our future as well. Nichiren Buddhism emphasizes that no matter what kind of karmic causes we have made in the past,[it is] through the causes we make in the present we can achieve a brilliant future.”

To face the problems of life with courage & faith is the goal of Buddhist practice, along with doing (& helping) others to do the same (in their lives).  We must see that as Nichiren says: “difficulties will arise, & these are to be looked at as ‘peaceful’ practices” (Nichiren Daishonin, The Record of Orally Transmitted Teachings p. 115).  When one decides to practice Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, one essentially commits to transforming one’s life, instead of accepting our “destiny,” then we can transform our karma with the Buddhahood that resides within us all.  Ikeda goes on to point out that this act of lessening one’s karmic retribution is at the heart of our practice. 

I also found this interesting distinction on cause & effect (in Living Buddhism March-April, 09, page 77):

“Nichiren refers to two kinds of Buddhist teachings, those that view things from the standpoint of ‘cause to effect’ & those that approach things from ‘effect to cause’” 

This idea/teaching suggests that instead of approaching the practice from a cause to effect position, as Shakyamuni taught to cause the effect of Buddhism; one should effect a cause of Buddhism (as encouraged by Nichiren).  This idea might be related to the (complicated) concept of True Cause & True Effect (two of the Three Mystic Principles, the third is True land):

“In one sense, how we approach life and our Buddhist practice depends on whether we have a perspective of ‘true effect’ or ‘true cause.’ A perspective of ‘true effect,’ only sees enlightenment, or happiness, a result of past causes. From the perspective of ‘true cause,’ enlightenment, or happiness, is an ever-present potential; the cause for bringing it forth can only be made right now, in the present moment. The moment we make the ‘true cause,’ enlightenment reveals itself.” (Jeff Kriger, SGI-USA Study Department vice Leader)

Let us effect the cause of Buddhism in our daily lives as imperfect as we are, as we suffer through our hardships, as we rise to challenge our past mistakes, as we join together to celebrate our victories & as we chant Nam Myho Renge Kyo.

 Aurelio Madrid

April 2009

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