Category Archives: Spiritual Heroes

David Burhans’ 12 Ways to Live a Rich Spiritual Life

By Scott T. Allison

If you ask anyone acquainted with the Rev. Dr. David Burhans, they’ll smile and tell you that he was among the most beloved individuals they’ve ever known. Generations of Richmond alumni would surely consider Burhans to be a cherished iconic figure, the spiritual face of the University of Richmond. Even the briefest encounter with Burhans left people feeling valued and loved, and certainly moved, at the deepest level of their being.

I knew David Burhans for almost 40 years as a friend, colleague, and one of his parishioners. Thousands of Richmond students, alumni, staff, and faculty were fashioned into better people because of David’s influence. I don’t claim to have been among David’s closest friends. What I do know is that he left an indelible impact on my life and on the lives of countless people who had the pleasure of knowing him.

What was the key to David Burhans’ enduring and positive impact on the world? From my experiences with him and from his own writings, here are 12 principles that he lived by and cultivated in all of us:

  1. Look at the world with a sense of wonder and awe. David enjoyed quoting American poet Mary Oliver’s belief that we are all born to “to look, to listen.” The famed Rabbi Abraham Heschel used the term radical amazement to describe the practice of remaining present and aware of the small miracles that abound in every moment. David reminded us that Heschel didn’t ask God for success, but only for wonder. “Looking back over more than seven decades,” wrote David, “mindfulness and wonder capture the essence of my spiritual and professional journey.” David’s ministry was “an exercise in looking, listening and instruction.”
  2. We are called to answer three important spiritual questions. In reflecting on his career, David wrote: “This personal journey began with a profound sense of awe and wonder prompting a fresh consideration of three great spiritual questions I had contemplated through college and graduate school. Who am I? Why am I here? What difference can I make?” For David, “it was about the human search for meaning and purpose.” He made these three questions the major focus for the University Chaplaincy, and he believed that “every well-educated person is expected to consider” the meat and marrow of these questions.
  3. We find a safe and welcoming place to discuss life’s meaning and purpose. David’s vision of the Chaplaincy was that it “would contribute to an atmosphere of openness and acceptance in the community and become a place at the heart of the campus which would encourage a free exchange of ideas, become a safe place to ask questions, and help initiate faith in ‘seekers’ of purpose and meaning.” David’s goal was to create a sacred space for people “to discuss personal issues, share grief experiences, celebrate joys and achievements, and a place to examine and strengthen one’s own faith perspective.” Thanks to David, and his successors including current Chaplain Craig Kocher, the Office of the Chaplaincy provides opportunities for members of the Richmond community to enhance their spiritual, emotional, and social well-being within a welcoming inter-religious context.
  4. A loving Higher Power guides us on the journey toward becoming our best selves. David believed that the God of our understanding was always a “Living God” of love, compassion, and healing. He wrote: “I felt strongly that I was on an educational pilgrimage with the students, on a professional journey of personal growth with faculty, staff and administrators, on a daily, demanding sojourn with University families like my own who welcomed support and encouragement.” David’s own personal spiritual journey involved “a public declaration of faith and trust in the Living God [and] ultimately a compelling desire to proclaim the Love of God. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”
  5. We engage in practices that improve our conscious contact with God. David often shared personal “experiences of what I can only describe as divine encounters or intimations of the Holy — moments of profound gratitude, insight, guidance, wonder upon wonder.” David often expressed his amazement “at the strength that we humans have to live with heartache, disappointment, and loss and the courage that people have to keep on in the face of difficult odds and pain and suffering.” For David, “there is life beyond the tragedies that we experience.” David’s spiritual practices were prayer, wonder, gratitude, loving kindness, an unshakeable faith and enduring optimism that no matter what adversity we face, all is well.
  6. We remember that gratitude, compassion, and humility are the greatest of all virtues. “A profound spiritual truth I strongly embraced,” wrote David, is that “Life is a gift: handle this journey with gratitude, with compassion, with humility.” David quoted the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues but the parent of all others.” Compassionate connection with fellow humans – “listening with awareness and creating a culture of caring” — give renewed hope and new meaning to our journey. For David, the gift of humility is critical. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr urged us to constantly examine our actions and never be too certain of our own virtue. David believed “it was important that the ministry have people who are not holier than thou types — just normal, regular people who love athletics, have hobbies and a real appreciation for the breadth of life and who are curious and always interested in learning new things.”
  7. We treat all people with congruence, empathy, and respect. A student of psychology, David admired the humanistic, positive psychological approach to understanding humanity. One of the founding humanists, Carl Rogers, embraced the idea that all human relationships are forged with congruence, empathy, and Rogers described congruence as being genuine and honest with others, reflecting a person’s sincerity, integrity, and authenticity. David believed that an individual’s life work should be “within a stone’s throw of his pronouncements and proclamations.” The second virtue, empathy, is the ability to feel what others feel. And respect refers to an unconditional positive regard for all other people. For David, “These qualities immediately identified spiritual leadership at its best,” and he developed these social skills better than any person I’ve ever known.
  8. Cultivating relationships with others is the key to a vibrant spiritual life. “All relationships are sacred,” David told me, more than once. David was skillful in the heartful art of human connection. What was his secret? He made developing and nurturing human relationships his top priority. As University Chaplain, he was gifted in ministering to “an intergenerational community of people (students, faculty, staff, administration) with diverse social, economic and religious or non-religious backgrounds and perspectives.” David sought to integrate the “body, mind and spirit so as to counter the fragmentation of knowledge, learning and human development.” His Chaplaincy accomplished this goal “by conjoining the love of God and the love of learning in the flesh, in the human flesh of persons—persons in the Chaplaincy, persons in the faculty and staff, and persons among the student body.”
  9. Keeping an open mind and an open heart will heal and unify us all. My own research on heroism has shown that our greatest heroes always direct their energies toward healing and unifying people. David Burhans “approached life, work and relationships in the academy with a more open mind and heart—not open without any fixed point, but open and receptive to new ideas and ways of engaging a diverse community of people.” He recognized that love, compassion, and embracing the multiplicity of humanity were essential qualities for the Chaplaincy.” David’s proudest moments resided in the Chaplaincy’s openness to interfaith dialogue and welcoming students of all demographies, including students of every faith commitment and sexual orientation. David wrote, “I was asked to be the Chaplain to all the students, faculty, and staff at the University of Richmond. Every one of these people is welcome at this University and in this Chaplaincy office, and I embrace them.” David made it a priority to “break down barriers that divide us, to broaden our world view, reaching beyond our own kind, our own country, our own religious creed.” As a Christian, David was open and humble in welcoming and acknowledging “that our brothers and sisters of other religious traditions surely have a word from God for us to hear.”
  10. The Higher Power of our understanding loves and affirms us at all times. David held the steadfast belief that “there has been and continues to be a presence of something far greater than I can comprehend which loves and affirms me.” He knew that this Living God was a central part of each person’s life, whether they knew it or not. When the Wilton Center was built, he arranged for “a signature piece of art to be placed on exhibit… symbolizing a person’s journey toward wholeness through education, personal faith, and service to others.” David’s father, Dr. Rollin S. Burhans, articulated the goal of the Jessie Ball duPont Chaplaincy and its objective of bringing “wholeness to fragmented, fragile lives by the integrating, life-changing power of Thy Love.”
  11. A sense of humor can enrich life and build bonds. David would often remark that “laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” As such, he brought humor and joy to the Chaplaincy at Richmond. He wrote, “I think humor is one of those key characteristics of a minister — that you not take yourself too seriously and be able to laugh at yourself and with others.” Research by psychologists Laura Kurtz and Sara Algoe confirms what David intuitively knew, namely, that humor brings people together and acts as a “social glue” that builds loving, trustful bonds.
  12. Wonder is in pursuit of us. This is one of David’s keenest insights: “I am bold to suggest that anyone who is attune to moral and spiritual values, who is seeing and listening and paying attention will likely understand that Wonder just might be another name for God.” For David, the allure of living a rich, spiritual life was not a one-sided affair: If human beings are seeking the transcendent, the transcendent is also seeking us. The “Ultimate Truth,” said David, is not just that we pursue Wonder but that “Wonder is in pursuit of us! This all-encompassing Spirit of awe and wonder, love and grace is loose upon the world, a force over which we humans have little if any control. We can, however, be used by it!”

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have known and loved David Burhans will never forget his spark of life, his wisdom, his tender and generous loving spirit. David knew that despite our fragmented world, “we are creatures of relatedness who grow, mature and fulfill our own destinies through nurturing and challenging relationships.” He called his own journey “a journey of thanksgiving, compassion, laughter, and community.” That David took a warm, deep interest in each person he met is proof that Wonder is pursuing us, and that we are called to pass on this wonderous spirit to others. There’s no better way to honor David Burhans than to live our lives the way he lived his – with his boundless, effervescent joy, wonder, and love.


Brockwell, P. (2015). David Burhans’ exit interview. Retrieved from

Burhans, R. (1986). Prayer of dedication. Worship celebration and dedication of The Jessie Ball duPont Chair of the Chaplaincy, Cannon Memorial Chapel, University of Richmond, October 19th.

Burhans, D. (2016). The pursuit of wonder. In S. T. Allison, C. T. Kocher, & G. R. Goethals (Eds), Frontiers in spiritual leadership: Discovering the better angels of our nature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heschel, A. J. (1983). I asked for wonder: A spiritual anthology. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co.

Kurtz, L., & Algoe, S. (2015). Putting laughter in context. Personal Relationships, 22, 573-590.

Oliver, M. (2004). Mindful. Why I wake early. Boston: Beacon Press.


Keep Calm and Carry On: Heroism as Process

JourneytotheWestBy Dick Mercer

The Chinese Chan (Zen) master Yunmen (c.860–949) was asked,  “What are the teachings of a lifetime?”  He replied, “An appropriate statement.”

Close to the end of Wu Cheng-en’s famous Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West (Hsi-yu Chi) the Buddhist monk Tripitaka and his four animal disciples–Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy–a dragon, and White Horse–are drawing close to India after a long, arduous, and dangerous journey from China.  The reason for their quest is to receive Mahayana scriptures from the Buddha, Shakyamuni, and return to China with them.

Each animal member of this dharma posse has committed to the quest as a means of gaining freedom from punishment for the misuse of an extraordinary, superhuman power.  Tripitaka, on the other hand, is no more than an ordinary Buddhist monk who has been given a very big job to do.

Having come a very long way, the Tang monk and his disciples, who fed on the wind and slept by the waters, one day find themselves before a tall mountain, yet another formidable obstacle to overcome.  Buddha-PrajnaparamitaTripitaka says they must be cautious as there might be danger here; Monkey responds, “Master, you should relax and not worry.”

What follows is a little argument about a very big Buddhist idea — prajnaparamita — the perfection of wisdom.  It ends when both Tripitaka and Monkey fall silent.  Pigsy collapses in laughter.  Obviously Monkey doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but Tripitaka corrects Pigsy.  Monkey’s silence is the true interpretation of prajnaparamita.   In fact, one of his epithets is Aware of Vacuity — emptiness, a crucial part of the perfection of wisdom.

They move on.  After crossing a wide river in a boat with no bottom, a paradoxical experience to be sure, the pilgrims are changed.  Exhibiting a decorous self-control unusual for them, they meet the Buddha, Shakyamuni, and receive 35 major dharma works comprising over 5,000 scrolls.  They set out on the journey back to China but before long a wind scatters all the scrolls on the ground.  Opening one of them they discover “it was snowy white; there was not so much as half a letter on it.”  In fact, all the scrolls are blank!

The posse returns to the Buddha who explains the blank scrolls are indeed the true scriptures, just as good as those with words, but because people are foolish and ignorant “there is nothing for it but to give them copies with some writing on.”  The paradox of the truth of perfect wisdom is that it is wordless, but this is too hard for people who need language and must talk.

The implicit lesson is that it is more important to cultivate a negative capability — the patient, mindful toleration of uncertainty and paradox — and to carry on with equanimity than to hold on to the idea of scriptural truth that’s written down.  Relax and don’t worry, as Monkey says.  img_8470So, freshly taught, the pilgrims set out again for China with the newly inscribed scrolls.

Meanwhile Kuan-yin, reviewing a summary of the dharma posse’s quest, discovers the pilgrims must experience one more crisis, the 81st, before returning home.  They find themselves stopped on the bank of a wide river they crossed on the way out to India.  The great white turtle that ferried them across earlier offers to help them again, but when Tripitaka reveals he forgot to follow through on a promise he made to the turtle, they are all dumped in the water as the turtle submerges and swims away.

The pilgrims manage to save themselves and the scrolls.  Tripitaka admits his careless mistake.  He should have taken more care.  Though they still have the scrolls, this fresh calamity makes clear that constant effort is required.  There’s always something else.  A hero’s work is never done.

They move on and are welcomed by friendly people they had earlier delivered from the terrible domination of a river demon.  In gratitude for what the posse had accomplished for them, the people make statues of Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy.  When the four view the figures they react with an unusual and charming humanity.

    ‘Yours is very like,’ said Pigsy nudging Monkey.  ‘I think yours

    is a wonderful likeness too,’ said Sandy to Pigsy, ‘but Master’s

    really makes him out a little too handsome.’  ‘I think it’s very good,’

    said Tripitaka.

It quickly becomes clear the people of the village have other honors ready for the pilgrims.  That evening Tripitaka tells Monkey the villagers know they have mastered the secrets of the Way.  We better creep away quickly he says, because “an adept does not reveal himself; if he reveals himself he is not an adept.”  They all agree.  Monkey controls his temper, Pigsy is no longer a fool, Sandy attains perfect discretion, Horse is well able to see the point of a discussion.

They move on.  Returning to Chang-an, the imperial capital, they are received by the emperor himself.  Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy attend the court despite their outlandish appearance.  They behave.  Tripitaka is seated next to the emperor and the scrolls are presented.  That evening the pilgrims go the Tripitaka’s old temple for lodging.

    Inside the temple, Pigsy did not shout for more food or create

    any disturbance.  Monkey and Sandy behaved with perfect

    decorum.  For all three were now illumined, and it cost them

    no pains to stay quiet.  When night came they all went to sleep.

All the pilgrims behave themselves with perfect mindfulness and self-control, qualities only recently acquired.  The flaws that caused their original confinement and suffering have been reduced to nothing.  They retain their powers, but they are now under control.

When morning comes the emperor reads a statement of thanks to Tripitaka for accomplishing his task.  After settling on the disposition of the scrolls, Tripitaka is asked to do a reading from them on a platform in front of the pagoda that will house them.  Shakyamuni_under_Bodhi_treeThe members of the dharma posse are attending him when he starts his recitation, but just as he begins, they are all miraculously lifted into the air and transported back to the presence of the Buddha in India where each is rewarded with an appropriate title. Perhaps best of all the terrible little migraine cap used to control Monkey when he gave in to bad temper and anger is removed.  It is no longer necessary.

The novel ends with a grand sense of accomplishment.  The journey is done, the goal is realized, rewards are handed down, but the balance of power and behavior all the pilgrims now enjoy is the real reward and conclusion.  This is a state of mind free of the suffering caused by the contamination of anger, sensuality,  carelessness, upsetting emotional attachment, short-sightedness, and other untransformed human weaknesses.

Certainly their journey is finished, but the lesson implicit in the circular, wandering movement of the quest and the oddly conceived requirement of another calamity, the 81st, is one of non-attainment.

In this view enlightenment is a continual process of coming to terms with oneself, of overcoming flaws.  Monkey’s original vision of the hero as a winner-take-all kind of strong guy is replaced by the idea of constantly repairing the disorder of the mind.  This isn’t done by any final achievement, though he achieves it.  This is a paradoxical conclusion like the mutual silence that ends the discussion between Tripitaka and Monkey about prajnaparamita — the perfection of wisdom.

Perhaps the sense of closure the novel ends with is an illustration of just what the  Buddha,  Shakyamuni, means when he says the blank scrolls, the empty scrolls, are the true scriptures, but people are too foolish and ignorant to realize this and they need something to hold on to.

The real issue, however,  is one of behavior, not words.  Left unstated at the end is that the end isn’t an end; the end is, indeed, a process of constantly maintaining mental focus and taming one’s monkey mind — making the appropriate response in the face of unending — often unexpected — change.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

This essay is Richard Mercer’s fifth analysis of heroism from the Buddhist perspective. His first essay focused on the Bodhisattva. Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.

Monkey Business: The Heroic Journey to the West of Hsuang-tsang

hsuan-tsangBy Dick Mercer

First published in 1582, The Journey to the West (Hsi-yu Chi) is one of the great classics of Chinese literature.  The fantastic tale takes as its core the real sixteen-year pilgrimage of the monk Hsuang-tsang (596-664) to India to collect and bring back to China Mahayana Buddhist commentaries and sutras.  Compiled and written most likely by Wu Ch’eng-en the 100 chapter novel comprises the adventures of the monk and his four animal disciples on their quest, a series of perilous adventures in which they overcome a variety of ogres, fiends, and monsters in dangerous and mysterious settings.

Throughout the story a question emerges–just who is the hero of this momentous journey, the monk Hsuan-tsang or his chief disciple Monkey? At the beginning of the novel Monkey is born from a stone egg; he bursts forth with great energy and is at once able to walk, run, leap about, and best of all enjoy life immensely.  Quickly he becomes the handsome monkey king of all the other monkeys in a wonderful cave behind a waterfall, but before long he becomes sorely troubled by the realization someday he will die.  He leaves his happy kingdom in search of immortality.  After traveling across the ocean he enters the school of the Taoist master Subodhi who gives him secret instruction and so Monkey gains huge powers.

With these powers come ambition and achievement and recklessness; he becomes a kind of Taoist Frankenstein.  Monkey ventures into the heavenly kingdom of the Jade Emperor where against all the rules he causes great disruption and even further adds to his potency, so much so that the heavenly ruler at the end of his rope can only call on the Buddha in India in hopes of controlling rebellious Monkey.  When they meet, Monkey explains himself to Shakyamuni the Buddha:

    Perfected in the many arts of ageless life,

    I learned to change in ways boundless and vast.

    Too narrow the space I found on that mortal earth;

    I set my mind to live in the Green Jade Sky.

    In Divine Mists Hall none should long reside,

    For king may follow king in the reign of man.

    If might is honor, let him yield to me.

    Only he is hero who dares to fight and win!

This is Monkey’s grand declaration–his mission statement. The Buddha is unable to persuade Monkey of the wisdom that is self-control so he proposes a bet–just the sort of thing that would appeal to Monkey.  If Monkey can jump out of the Buddha’s hand, he can become king of heaven, if not he must accept the consequences.  Monkey gleefully takes the bet.  In a justly famous comic episode he fails and the Buddha drops a mountain on him.  The powerful, immortal “hero” is helpless under a immense mound of earth and stone.

monkeykingThe story of Hsuan-tsang is very different.  An orphan found floating in a basket down a river, he is taken in and raised as a Monk at Hung-Fu Buddhist temple in the imperial capital Ch’ang-an.  As was the case with the Jade Emperor of heaven struggling with Monkey, the mortal Tang emperor is embroiled in troubles that literally take him to hell and back burdened with a heavy obligation to sponsor a grand religious ceremony.  He selects Hsuan-tsang to celebrate these rites.

In the meantime the Buddha, returned to his distant home in India, decides things have come to such a pass that it is time to intervene.  He dispatches the great Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin to China to select a pilgrim to travel to India for scriptures and then return to Ch’ang-an as a dharma messenger.  On her way to China she encounters three monsters with super-powers being punished for misdeeds; if they will agree to join the quest they can gain their freedom.  She makes the same bargain with Monkey under his mountain.

With dharma-quest set as the key to freedom for these incarcerated super-heroes, it remains for Kuan-Yin to select the essential human pilgrim to make the journey to the west.  Without much difficulty she discovers Huang-tsang who agrees to set out for India in search of Mahayana scriptures.  To mark the importance of the journey the Tang emperor gives the monk a new name–Tripitaka, the term used to designate the complete Buddhist cannon of monastic rules, sutras, and learned commentaries.

From the outset it is clear things will not be easy.  On the first day Tripitaka’s two human companions are eaten up by monsters.  Suddenly all alone, he is saved by an old hunter who guides him near to the border where they hear Monkey cry out, “the master has come.”  Tripitaka releases Monkey from beneath the mountain and the two of them cross the frontier to begin their adventures in search of wisdom and liberation through the dharma.

Almost immediately they are surrounded by six robbers identified as eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.  For Monkey who is used to fighting fearsome ogres and heavenly armies, these six (allegorical) banditti are not much of a challenge.  He finishes them off in the blink of an eye, but to his dismay Tripitaka admonishes him.  He should bring them to a magistrate, not kill them.  Monkey loses his temper and storms off, leaving Tripitaka on his own again; this conflict between the human pilgrim and his rash, powerful disciple is played out again and again to the end of the novel.

Kuan-Yin, disguised as an old man, appears to the Monk and gives him a coat and a cap for Monkey, the means to control him.  When Monkey cools off and comes back, Tripitaka convinces him to put them on.  Monkey and Tripitaka are together again, but with a difference.  Monkey’s new headgear can’t be removed and if he acts out, Tripitaka, using a little mantra, can cause the cap to shrink and Monkey to suffer a terrible headache.  Pain replaces confinement as the bitter fruit of rashness and anger.

Tripitaka and Monkey now go on to form the complete dharma posse. This entails encountering the two dragons and the great pig who, like Monkey, have agreed with Shakyamuni_Buddha_Mantra1Kuan-Yin to join the pilgrimage in exchange for freedom from bondage.  It soon is obvious to the new members, however, that Monkey is by far the most powerful member of the group.  In fact, Pigsy asks Monkey why doesn’t he simply carry them all to India in an instant and so avoid all the hard work and dangers that surely lie in front of them.

Monkey says:

    It is required of Master to go through all these strange territories

    before he finds deliverance from the sea of sorrows. . . . 

    We cannot exempt him from these woes nor can we obtain the scriptures by ourselves.

The human component of the quest is just as important, if not more so, than the great powers of the four super-heroes who not only overcome great barriers and dangers, but who must help Tripitaka surmount his very real human weaknesses.

Shortly after Monkey emerges from under the mountain the two suffer a setback and Tripitaka for the first time–but not the last time–becomes confused and despondent.  Monkey reacts with characteristic energy:

    When (he) saw him crying, he was infuriated and began to shout: 

    Master, stop behaving like a namby-pamby! .  .  . 

    Bellowing like thunder he said,  “You’re a weakling!  Truly a weakling!”

Tripitaka may have the main goal of the quest in view, but it is Monkey, with regular, timely help from Kuan-Yin, who keeps the dharma posse on the road day to day, even in the face of petty and comical but potentially serious conflicts between the super-hero pilgrims themselves.

After many trials and close to their goal the pilgrims arrive on the bank of yet another river, this one over 20 leagues wide.  Soon they are met by a man rowing a boat, but Tripitaka has very serious misgivings; the boat has no bottom.  Seeing Tripitaka hesitate Monkey takes him by the scruff of neck and pushes him on board.  The others join him on the gunwales, and they set off.

Suddenly they saw a body in the water, drifting rapidly downstream.  Tripitaka stared at it in consternation.  Monkey laughed.

    ‘Don’t be frightened Master,’ he said. 

    ‘That’s you.’  And Pigsy said, ‘It’s you, it’s you.’ 

    Sandy clapped his hands.  ‘It’s you, it’s you,’ he cried. 

    The ferryman too joined in the chorus. 

    ‘There you go!’ he cried.  ‘My best congratulations.’

When they reach the other side, Tripitaka steps ashore with a strange feeling of lightness and exhilaration.  Freed from the domination of the six senses–mortal flesh and bone–a fundamental spirit of mutual caring emerges. At this time he begins thanking each one of the dharma posse for helping him to reach his goal, but Monkey interrupts:

    ‘Every one of us,‘ said Monkey, ‘is equally indebted to the other.

    ‘If the Master had not received our vows and accepted us as his

    disciples we should not have had the chance to do good works

    and win salvation.  If we had not protected the Master and mounted  

    guard over him, he would never have got rid of his mortal body.

Through a beautiful landscape they all set out for their meeting with the Buddha. After collecting the scriptures they have come for, they begin the return journey to China.  Along the way, however, they experience several further crises that indicate theirs is an unending quest.  The process is as important as the achievement, but there is a difference now.  Monkey controls his temper, Pigsy is no longer a fool, Sandy attains perfect discretion, Horse is well able to see the point of a discussion; Tripitaka becomes the Buddha of Great Merit.

To be a hero patient cooperation and watchful self-control are essential.  The Dhammapada, a very old collection of Buddhist proverbs, puts it this way:

    Just as the farmer irrigates a field,

    An arrowsmith fashions an arrow,

    And a carpenter shapes a piece of wood,

    So the sage tames himself.

At the very end of the novel when Monkey is named Buddha Victorious in Strife he asks Tripitaka why he must still wear the terrible little headache cap that he can’t take off.  Tripitaka explains it was put on Monkey’s head when he was impossible to control, but now that he has become a buddha it is no longer needed.  Monkey raises his hand to touch his head and indeed the migraine cap has vanished!

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

This essay is Richard Mercer’s fourth analysis of heroism from the Buddhist perspective. His first essay focused on the Bodhisattva. Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.

No-Mind: A Zen Buddhist Pathway to Heroism

William_James_b1842cBy Richard Mercer

Let’s begin with a lecture given by William James toward the end of December, 1907, in New York City.  Printed later under the title The Energies of Men, James identifies a serious, wide-spread malaise:

Most of us feel as if we lived habitually with a cloud weighing on us, below our highest notch of clearness in discernment, sureness in reasoning, or firmness in deciding.  Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half-awake.  Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked.  We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources. 

Our natural vitality is constricted, something is missing.  Many realize how much freer their lives might be, but find they are bound in, confined by only partially understood inhibitions, routines, and habits.  Where are the keys that unlock and release our stifled energies?

James first mentions crises.  Consider this description of Lieutenant Henry Ropes of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteers at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 written by Captain H. L. Abbott:

(His) conduct in this action . . . was perfectly brave, but not with the bravery of excitement that nerves common men.  He was absolutely cool and collected;  . . . (his normal) slight impetuosity and excitability . . . sobered down into the utmost self-possession, giving him an eye that noticed every circumstance . . . ; a judgement that suggested in every case the proper measures, and a decision that made the application instantaneous.  It is impossible for me to conceive of a man more perfectly master of himself, more completely noting and remembering every circumstance when the ordinary man sees nothing but a tumult and remembers nothing but a whirl.

canvasLieutenant Ropes’ actions embody conduct out of the ordinary; a new way replaces the old way of doing things with a decisiveness appropriate to the moment.  His bravery is intriguing and inspiring.

James also mentions ideas — “ideas set free beliefs, and the beliefs set free our wills.”  This young soldier’s experience can be seen as illustrating a state of being summed up in the Chinese neo-Daoist concept no-mind (wuxin).  The person who experiences this is not mindless, but rather loses awkward self-consciousness and acts with appropriate and apparently effortless decisiveness.  When such an idea, like any energy releasing abstract idea, is at work in an individual’s life, its effect is often very great.  It acts as a kind of exhortation, something to inquire after, something to learn about.  It is edifying.

In the context of Buddhist thought, connected to no-mind is another animating idea–the majestic concept of Enlightenment (anuttarasamyaksambodhi).  Enlightenment in the Mahayana Buddhist view can be gradual or sudden.  It can be the result of a lifetime of good behavior marked by restraint, study, and meditation or it can be instantaneous.

Sudden enlightenment is at the heart of the Lankavatara Sutra, compiled in Sanskrit in India somewhere between 300 and 450 CE.  Brimming with invigorating ideas, it presents a remarkably modern looking psychological system suggesting enlightenment to be a healthy, human mind freed from countless abstractions and cumbersome habits.

Early in the sutra the Buddha warns Mahmati about the dangerous and delusive power of habitual reactions which are the source of greed, anger, and suffering.

So long as people do not understand the true nature of the
objective world . . . .  they imagine the multiplicity of external
objects to be real and become attached to them . . . .

CQMNbo2WEAAmHhMAnd a little later:

False imagination teaches that such things as light and dark,
long and short, black and white are different and are to be
discriminated; but they are not independent of each other;
they are only different aspects of the same thing, they are terms
of relation not of reality . . . .  Mahamati, you and all Bodhisattvas
should discipline yourselves in the realization and patient
acceptance of the truths of emptiness . . . .

Freeing oneself from stale habits of thinking and the illusions of language games, a sudden and intuitive turning about takes place in the deepest seat of consciousness.  At this moment, born from a state of mental concentration, one’s old, mortal mind is given up.

When the intellectual-mind reaches its limit . . . its processes of thought . . . must be transcended by an appeal to some higher faculty of cognition . . . .  There is such a faculty in the intuitive mind, which is the link between the intellectual mind and Universal mind.

With egotism greatly diminished and gradually disappearing, the Bodhisattva becomes master of himself and of a life of spontaneous and radiant effortlessness.

The Diamond Sutra, compiled in India in Sanskrit perhaps around 300 CE, provides a dramatic illustration of a sudden enlightenment experience.  In it the Buddha teaches Subhuti, a well-known disciple and Arhat, lessons in the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita) and emptiness (sunyata).  Throughout the short sutra a wide variety of important, traditional elements in early Buddhist and Mahayana thought are subjected to a pattern of deconstruction.  They are declared to be empty–not eternal verities, but relative.

Take for example the Jataka tales which were extremely popular and influential.  These are tales of the Buddha’s many, many previous lives before he became the Buddha Shakyamuni.  In a number of these he is in the form of an animal that sacrifices itself to provide food for someone who is starving.  In others he is in human form performing prodigious acts of sacrifice that include giving away possessioprajna6 ns and even family members.  Suicide to save others figures in a number of the stories.  These tales provided an hyperbolic ideal of selfless behavior for early Buddhists and Shakyamuni undoes them along with other Buddhist mainstays.

The Buddha said:  If some woman or man were to sacrifice
as many of their own bodies as there are grains of sand in
Ganges River, Subhuti, and if someone were to learn just
four lines from this sutra and teach it to others the merit of
teacher would exceed that of the others by an immeasurable amount.

At this moment, in a flash, Subhuti comprehends the new ideal.

Venerable Subhuti, listening to this was shocked into a deep
understanding of the meaning of this teaching; bursting into tears
and wiping them away as he continued to weep, he said how
well the Buddha has taught these lessons.  A new level of
cognition has been produced in me.

It is not unusual for sutras to conclude with a general enlightenment experience accompanied by universal rejoicing, but this is different–it is one disciple moved to tears.  And we’re not finished.  The explosive power of prajnaparamita’s doctrine of emptiness is frightening.  BOOM!  Everything crumbles into the rubble of paradox and relativity.

The Buddha said to Subhuti:  .  .  .  If there is a person who,
listening to this sutra, is not frightened, alarmed, or disturbed,
you should know him as a wonderful person.  Why?  Because
what the Buddha has taught as parjnaparamita, the highest
perfection, is not the highest perfection and therefore it is called
the highest perfection.

Immediately out of the ruins, however, arise two virtues that have escaped the general collapse, patience and charity.  True to form Shakyamuni says the perfection of patience is really no perfection and that’s why it’s called the perfection of patience.  The same holds for charity.  This realized, the result is wonderful.

The Buddha said to Subhuti:  When a bodhisattva practices
(patience and) generosity without depending on form, he is like
someone with good eyesight walking in the bright sunshine
–he can see all shapes and colors.

The experience is expansive.  The whole world opens up becoming fresh and new.
The idea that sparks conversion in the Lanka and the Diamond Sutra is emptiness (sunyata)–a radical relativity.  There is no Truth and that’s the Truth.  This is the perfection of wisdom (prajnaparamita).  Both sutras declare that awareness of MB-20111206-DSC_0111-530x800relativity is liberating and energizing, but at the same time a power drawing people together.  We simply see the world as it really is.  William James echoes this:

Truth happens to an idea.  It becomes true, is made by events.
Its verity is in fact an event, a process.  We say our ideas “agree”
with reality when they lead us through acts and ideas . . . to other
parts of experience . . . .  The connexions and transitions come to us from point to point as being progressive, harmonious, satisfactory.

James expresses an idea Mahamati and Subhuti might well understand but never put the way he puts it.

True ideas lead to consistency, stability, and flowing human
intercourse.  They lead us away from eccentricity and isolation,
from forced and barren thinking.

Our energies are unbound.   We arrive at the paradoxical condition of no-mind (wuxin) in which our thinking is free from attachment working smoothly at liberty to come and go en rapport with every circumstance and to render help to every person in the most appropriate way.

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This essay is Richard Mercer’s third analysis of heroism from the Buddhist perspective. His first essay focused on the Bodhisattva. Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.

The Effortless Benevolence of Heroic Figures in Buddhist Traditions

90510941_oBy Richard Mercer

History, tradition, and legend have it Siddhartha Gautama, Shakyamuni, the Buddha, achieved enlightenment at about the age of 35 during the course of one night after renouncing the life of severe and life threatening austerity which he had followed for six years.  This grand moment of cognition happened somewhere around 450  BCE in what is now northern India and was accompanied by feelings of happiness, confidence, concentration, and equanimity.  From it has grown the immense belief system called Buddhism.

At that time the Buddha said he recollected his manifold past lives–one birth, two births, three births, and so on up a hundred thousand births; there he was so named . . . such was his experience of pleasure and pain, such was his lifespan; and passing away from there he was reborn elsewhere; and there too he was so named . . . .   The orthodox and the faithful believe this literally; a modernist might interpret this in  psychological terms as being able to go back in memory to all the events of one’s infancy, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and so on–to all our own developmental lifespans, and view it as an exploration of the unconscious and the forgotten leading to a life marked by an understanding of causes rather than one driven by unconscious, semi-conscious, and mysterious forces.

Next he understood how beings fare according to their actions stretching back into the timeless past.  This amounted to a verification of the principle of karma and led to the complex concept of causality known as dependent origination. We are rewarded and suffer by the results of our actions, not how they stack up against commandments.  The orthodox and the faithful think here of monkauspicious or painful rebirth; a modernist would take a shorter view and think once more of gaining a large understanding of causality and contextuality in one’s personal life–that is understanding and accepting how one got to where one is by one’s actions–for better or worse–at this very moment.

Finally, the Buddha achieved knowledge of the destruction of defilements–a new, original discovery that emerged from the familiar and traditional doctrines of rebirth and karma.  His recollection of earlier lives destroyed the past as a source of identity and replaced it with the happy experience of release from all that.  In the eternal present he saw that human identity is an illusion–the cause of suffering and the key to its remission.  In the chain of dependent origination there is no person, no agent, no self.  He reworked the human condition dramatized by the memory of past lives into the core of early Buddhist dharma–the four noble truths.  Siddharta awakened.

He then asked himself if he should undertake the wearying and troublesome task of teaching what he had just learned to others who might not understand or should he remain alone enjoying this new state of mind–concentrated, bright, malleable, steady, pure.  In the early Buddhist tradition it is here the Brahma Sahampati appears to him and says,

            Arise, victorious hero, caravan leader,
            Debtless one, and wander the world.
            Let the Blessed One teach the Dhamma,
            There will be those who will understand.

When Sahampati realizes the Buddha has consented to his request to instruct others, he departs; the experience of enlightenment has been completed by the promise of practice and activity for others.

Throughout the long course of Buddhist thought and practice after this, two role models  dominated the landscape—the Arhat and the Bodhisattva.  For the early Buddhists, the consummation of a human lifetime derived from a withdrawn, often monastic, existence marked by poverty, chastity, and obedience.   The successful monk or nun who realized nirvana became an Arhat.  For the later Mahayana Buddhists the ideal life evolved into one marked by heroic involvement in the world, an engaged life infused with wisdom and compassion—the latter often spoken of as highly skillful teaching of the Mahayana way. The man or woman achieving this enlightenment became a Bodhisattva and potentially a veritable Buddha.

But what is Enlightenment?  What is this idea that causes many to look longingly in the direction of Buddhism?

9781590306338In the Mahayana tradition, one answer to the question is sunyata (emptiness), open space in a paragraph implying an answer that cannot be put into words, an answer which clears the ground and prepares the way for a second answer.

It is Bodhicitta (awakened mind), the crucial, momentary experience of which awakens one to the possibility of becoming an enlightened being and motivates one to undertake the  arduous journey to that end.  Shantideva, the great 8th century Indian monk, poet, and scholar likens the experience to seeing a flash of lightning that rends the night, and in its glare shows all that the dark clouds hid; like lightning, he says, good and virtuous thoughts are brief and transient, but bodhicitta, like a hero, protects them.  It is a state of mind, an invaluable attitude, a jewel of the understanding that inspires a promise, a vow to advance step by step to help others.  This is the original vow.

William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, describes a similar state of mind and experience which causes “a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior, and unhappy” to experience a turning around or tipping over of these negative qualities.  There is great happiness, a sense of wellness and health.  Mysteries are cleared up, replaced by a sense of truth beyond words.  The world is fresh and new.  Equanimity replaces anxieties and there is an opening up of new reaches of fortitude and patience.  Motives to antipathy are reduced; there is a shifting of emotional center, an increase of tenderness and charity for fellow creatures.  This alteration of attitude carries charity with it, resulting in a feeling of jubilation, an expansive condition engendering self-forgetful and kindly sentiments.

Perfected enlightenment is implicit in that moment, but is only fully realized after a long period of cultivation leading to a state where one’s actions enact an understanding of dana (generosity), sila (morality), ksanti (patience), virya (effort), samadhi (meditative calm and insight), and prajna (wisdom).  The point where knowledge and behavior are integrated is the consummation, the point where doing the right thing becomes effortless and rewarding.  This condition is the perfection of the original vow.

Shantideva once more:

For all those ailing in the world
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

Raining down a flood of food and drink
May I become a treasure ever plentiful,
And in the ages marked by scarcity and want,
May I myself appear as drink and sustenance.
For sentient beings, poor and destitute,
May I become a treasure ever plentiful,
And lie before them closely in their reach,
A varied source of all that they might need.

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This essay is Richard Mercer’s second analysis of heroism from the Buddhist perspective. His first essay focused on the Bodhisattva. Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.

The Bodhisattva: Buddhism’s Hero of Wisdom and Compassion

9781590306338By Richard Mercer

Throughout the long course of Buddhist thought and practice, two role models have dominated the landscape—the Arhat and the Bodhisattva.  For the early Buddhists, the consummation of a human lifetime derived from a withdrawn, often monastic, existence marked by poverty, chastity, and obedience.   The successful monk or nun who realized nirvana became an Arhat.  For the later Mahayana Buddhists the ideal life changed into one marked by involvement in the world, an engaged life infused with wisdom and compassion—the latter often spoken of as highly skillful teaching of the Mahayana way.  The man or woman achieving this enlightenment became a Bodhisattva and potentially a veritable Buddha.

The popular and famous Vimalakirti Sutra, written in India around 100 CE in Sanskrit and translated into Tibetan in the 8th century and into Chinese seven times between the 2nd  and 7th  centuries, tells of a miraculous episode in the life of a legendary Bodhisattva living in the city of Vaishali.

Vimalakirti is a rich man, not a monk,  He has a home, a wife, children, relatives, and servants.  He dresses fashionably, eats and drinks like others.  He visits gambling parlors, listens to discussions about other religions, knows secular literature, conducts all kinds of business transactions and reaps profits.  He visits government offices and courts of law. He enters brothels and wine shops.  He is familiar with every level of citizen.  In all of this his motive is to use skillful techniques and expedient means best suited to the people he meets to bring them the relief that is the goal of the Mahayana Buddhist way.

To accomplish this on what quickly becomes a grand—even cosmic—scale Vimalakirti makes it appear that he has fallen seriously ill.  This gambit is very apt because the fact of illness, and the goal of health, is central to the Buddhist view of the human condition.  The first noble truth articulated by Shakyamuni Buddha on the night of his enlightenment is that human life is marked by suffering, perhaps better thich-nhat-hanh-quote-a-bodhisattva-is-someone-who-has-compassion-withput as disease or dis–ease.  The remaining three Noble Truths spell out for early Buddhists the way to cure this dis—ease.

For Mahayanists the cure is not the monastic way of the early Buddhists.  Vimalakirti counsels Subhuti, a famous early disciple of  Shakyamuni Buddha, on what constitutes real merit far beyond begging for one’s meals.

“Subhuti, if you cannot cut yourself off from lewdness, anger, and stupidity and yet not  be a part of these . . . ;  if without wiping out stupidity and attachment you can find your way to understanding and freedom from attachment; if you can seem to be a perpetrator of the five cardinal sins and yet gain emancipation . . . ; if in this manner you can master all phenomenal things and yet remove yourself from the ways that mark them, then you will be worthy to receive food.”

The Bodhisattva way is to be in the world but not of it, to know this, and to work toward understanding the implications of this truth.

Later Vimalakirti instructs Manjushri, a cosmic Bodhisattva representative of perfect wisdom, that illness springs from deluded thoughts, the upside-down thinking and desires of  one’s human past, remembered and forgotten,

“Manjusri the ailing Bodhisattva should go about regulating and controlling his mind.   By doing so he cuts off the suffering of old age, sickness, and death. . . .  A person who has overcome a sworn enemy deserves to be called a hero in the same way one who has overcome old age, sickness, and death may be called a bodhisattva.”

The Bodhisattva is an enlightened hero whose essence is skillful teaching by word and example that leads people to emancipation from the ever accumulating anxieties, errors, and stress of the human condition.

As a final note, however, it’s important to say that the Vimalakirti Sutra adds spectacle, humor, and drama to edifying doctrine.  The primary climax of the work is a stunning pause known as the thunderous silence of Vimalakirti, his non-response to a flood of abstruse observations by 31 members of the vast multitude of beings, cosmic and human, housed miraculously in his little room.  It is a powerful reminder that the most profound truths are beyond words.  Silence here is eloquent.

But wait there’s more.  Immediately following this Shakespearian moment, Sariputra, a very well-know early disciple of the Shakyamuni Buddha, provides wonderful comic relief when he thinks to himself, “it’s almost noon, what are all these Bodhisattvas going to eat?”   His mind is on lunch.  This is not the first time he fails to grasp the profundity of what is happening around him with great comic results.  There are other wonderful moments like this throughout the work that explain the great popularity that accompanies the fame of the Vimalakirti Sutra’s edifying lessons.

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Richard Mercer has been a Visiting Instructor of English and Core (especially Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Beckett) at the University of Richmond. He has studied Buddhism since the early 1990s. Only recently has he realized that the Bodhisattva ideal is a wonderful and practicable model to follow.