31 December 2010

Event: Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship

Our sangha is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. This is a space in which the overlap between Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism can be explored. Since many of our sangha members are UU members, and because we have long been meeting at a UU church, it seems right and appropriate that we should participate.

One such opportunity for participation is coming soon. Please read this message from Bob Ertman of the UUBF for more on this:

The UU Buddhist Fellowship will hold its fourth convocation April 8-10, 2011, at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, NY.

The Convocation theme will be "The Interdependent Web of Unitarian Universalism and Buddhism" and the teachers will be James Ford and David Rynick, Leaders of the Boundless Way Zen Community. They represent the first Zen community in North America to bring teachers of different Zen lineages together to create a distinctively Western and American vision of Zen. Boundless Way teachers have been influenced by their experiences as leaders and participants in Unitarian Universalism.

There will also be an Arts Practice Workshop on calligraphy with Mike Gold and a Prison Dharma Workshop with Rev. Patty Franz, Director of Prison Ministries, Church of the Larger Fellowship. And perhaps most valuable of all, opportunities to meet and talk to other UUs interested in Buddhism.

Take advantage of the early registration rate of $60, ending January 1. For the Convocation flyer & registration form, visit the UUBF home page (just Google uubf).

Bob Ertman, Editor, UU Sangha

May this Fellowship bring great benefit to all beings!

21 December 2010

Contemplation: The Body of Truth

After considering the guidelines for practice, take this as your object of contemplation:

Subhuti, what do you think? May the Tathagata [the Buddha] be perceived by the thirty-two marks [of a great man]?

Subhuti answered: Yes, certainly the Tathagata may be perceived thereby.

Then the Buddha answered, Subhuti, if the Tathagata may be perceived by such marks, any great imperial ruler is the same as the Tathagata.

Subhuti then said to the Buddha: World-Honored One, as I understand the meaning of the Buddha's words the Tathagata may not be perceived by the thirty-two marks.

Whereupon the World-Honored One uttered this verse:

Who sees me by form,
Who seeks me in sound,
Perverted are his footsteps upon the way;
For he cannot perceive the Tathagata.

Diamond Sutra, chap. 26

14 December 2010

Contemplation: To be Rid of Bewilderment

After considering the guidelines for practice, take this as your object of contemplation:

This great assembly should now rid itself of bewilderment.
Of those hearing this Dharma
There will be no one
Who will not become a Buddha.

(that means you)

From the Lotus Sutra, chapter 2, as recited at the Tendai Buddhist Institute

07 December 2010

Contemplation: Like Dust, Like a Visitor

After considering the guidelines for practice, take this as your object of contemplation:

the Thus-Come-One [the Buddha] told everyone in the assembly, 'All beings need to understand that whatever moves is like dust and, like a visitor, does not remain'.

Surangama Sutra, p. 45

29 November 2010

Contemplation: The Ornament of Virtue

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take this as your object of contemplation:

Dare anyone a limit place
On benefits that virtue brings,
Without which virtue clansmen find
No footing in the dispensation?
No Ganges, and no Yamuna,
No Sarabhu, Sarassati,
Or flowing Aciravati,
Or noble River of Mahi,
Is able to wash out the stain
In things that breathe here in the world;
For only virtue's water can
Wash out the stain in living things.
No breezes that come bringing rain,
No balm of yellow sandalwood,
No necklaces beside, or gems,
Or soft effulgence of moonbeams,
Can here avail to calm and soothe
Men's fevers in this world; whereas
This noble, this supremely cool,
Well-guarded virtue quells the flame.
Where is there to be found the scent
That can with virtue's scent compare,
And that is borne against the wind
As easily as with it? Where
Can such another stair be found
That climbs, as virtue does, to heaven?
Or yet another door that gives
Onto the City of Nibbana?
Shine as they may, there are no kings
Adorned with jewelry and pearls
That shine as does a main restrained
Adorned with virtue's ornament.
Virtue entirely does away
With dread of self-blame and the like;
Their virtue to the virtuous
Gives gladness always by its fame.
From this brief sketch it may be known
How virtue brings reward, and how
This root of all good qualities
Robs of its power every fault.

Path of Purification (Visuddhi-Magga) of Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, trans. Bikkhu Nanamoli p. 10.

23 November 2010

Contemplation: Follow the Mindful Path

Review the guidelines for practice, and then take this up as your object of contemplation:

Today's sun is passing, our life is getting older and today, what joyfulness remains, is like a fish living in a teaspoon of water. Now everyone endeavor diligently to rescue the burning intellect; be mindful that life is suffering, empty and transient. Don't be self-indulgent. Follow the mindful path.

"Kokon," as recited at the Tendai Buddhist Institute

16 November 2010

Contemplation: The Great Cloud (concluded)

Review the guidelines for practice and take this up as your object of contemplation:

The teaching of the Buddhas
Is always of one flavor
And fulfills the entire world.
Anyone who practices little by little
Obtains the fruit of the path.
O Kashyapa,
The Dharma which the Buddha teaches
Is just like the great cloud which enriches human flowers
With the rain of one flavor,
So that each attains its fruits.
O Kashyapa!
You should know that I reveal the Buddha-path
Using various explanations and illustrations
And that this is my skillful means.
All of the Buddhas are just like this.
I will now teach the highest truth for your sake:
There are no shravakas who attain Nirvana.
What you practice is the bodhisattva-path;
And if you practice step by step,
You will all become Buddhas.

excerpted from The Lotus Sutra, chapter 5, as recited at the Tendai Buddhist Institute.

09 November 2010

Contemplation: The Great Cloud, con't.

Review the guidelines for practice and take this up as your object of contemplation:

I always teach the Dharma and nothing else.
Going or coming, sitting or standing,
I never tire of satisfying the world,
Just like the rain which gives nourishment universally.
I tirelessly rain the rain of the Dharma
Equally on those who are noble or humble,
Superior or inferior, who keep or break the precepts,
Who have good or bad conduct, right or wrong views,
Sharp or dull faculties.
According to their power to understand,
All of the sentient beings who hear my teaching
Dwell in the various stages.
The Buddha's equal teaching
Is like the rain of one flavor.
The sentient beings accept it
According to their different capacities,
Just as the grasses and trees
Each differently absorb the rain.

from the Lotus Sutra, chapter six, as recited at the Tendai Buddhist Institute.

02 November 2010

Contemplation: The Great Cloud, con't.

Review the guidelines for practice, and take this selection from the Lotus Sutra as your object of contemplation:

The Buddha is exactly like this.
He appears in the world
As a great cloud
Which covers everything universally.
Once appearing in this world
He illuminates and explains
The essence of the teachings
For the sake of sentient beings.
The Great Seer, the Bhagavat, expounds this
To the assembly of all the devas and humans.
I am the Tathagatha, the Best of Humans.
I appear in the world to nourish sentient beings
Just as the great cloud
Moistens all the withered trees.
I cause everyone to be rid of suffering
And attain ease of heart,
Worldly happiness, and the joy of Nirvana.
This Dharma has a single flavor
Of emancipation and Nirvana.
I expound its meaning with the same subtle voice,
Always making the Mahayana the subject of my illustrations.
I see everywhere, and regard all as equal.
I have no feeling of like or dislike;
For me there is no this or that.
Nor do I have either love or hate.
I have no attachments and make no distinctions,
And always teach the Dharma equally to all;
And teach the same thing to one person
As I teach to everyone else.
I always teach the Dharma and nothing else.

from the Lotus Sutra, chapter five, as recited at the Tendai Buddhist Institute.

26 October 2010

Contemplation: The Great Cloud

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take up the following as your object of contemplation:

The King of the Dharma,
The destroyer of delusive existence,
Appears in the world
And keeping in mind the aspirations of sentient beings
Teaches the Dharma in various ways
According to the wishes of sentient beings.
The Tathagatha is greatly distinguished,
And his wisdom is profound.
He has been silent for a long time
And intentionally has not taught the essential in haste.
Those who are wise
Will be well convinced when they hear it;
Those who are not wise will have doubts
And remain perplexed for a long time.
That is why, O Kashyapa, the Tathagatha teaches
According to the capacities of sentient beings,
And enables them to attain the correct perspective
By using various illustrations.
O Kashyapa, you should know
That it is as if a great cloud
Arises in the world and covers everything.
This beneficent cloud contains moisture
And bright lightning flashes from it.
The sound of its thunder shakes the earth afar
And gladdens the people.It conceals the sun
And cools the earth.
The spreading cloud hangs so low,
As if it could be touched.
Everywhere, equal and immeasurable
The rain pours down and moistens the earth.
Grasses, herbs, large and small trees,
All kinds of crops, seedlings, sugar cane and grapes
Growing in the depths of the mountains,
In precipitous valleys,
All are watered, and completely nourished by the rain.
The dry earth is moistened everywhere
And the herbs and trees grow up thickly.
Out of this could the same rain
Waters these grasses, trees and shrubs
Each according to their capacities.
All the trees, small, medium, or large
Are able to grow in accordance with their capacities.
The luster and colors of the roots, stems,
Branches, leaves and flowers
Are all freshened by the same rain.
Each of these, although receiving the same moisture,
Reaches a greater or lesser size
In accordance with their different
Dispositions, characteristics and natures.
The Buddha is exactly like this.

(from Chapter 5 of the Lotus Sutra as we recite it at the Tendai Buddhist Institute)

19 October 2010

Contemplation: Mind-Mirror

First review the guidelines for practice, and then take this up as your object of contemplation:

The mind mirror illumines all ingeniously.
Its penetrating, limitless rays reach everywhere in the universe.
Without exception everything is reflected in this mirror.
The whole universe is a gem of light beyond the terms of in and out.

Sho Do Ka, quoted in Buddhism and Zen by Nyogen Senzaki, p. 57.

12 October 2010

Contemplation: Right Action Will Lead You

Review the guidelines for practice and take this teaching as your object of contemplation:

If you wish to find the true way
Right action will lead you to it directly;
But if you do not strive for Buddhahood
You will grope in the dark and never find it.

from The Sutra of Hui-Neng

05 October 2010

Contemplation: Practice and Precepts

After reviewing the guidelines for practice, take up this teaching as your object of contemplation:

Thus for every thing that lives,
As far as are the limits of the sky,
May I provide their livelihood and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bonds of suffering.

Just as all the buddhas of the past
Embraced the awakened attitude of mind,
And in the precepts of the bodhisattvas
Step by step abode and trained,

Just so, and for the benefit of beings,
I will also have this attitude of mind,
And in those precepts, step by step,
I will abide and train myself.

Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva (Padmakara Translation), p. 52)

04 October 2010

Tendai Buddhism in North America: Bridging Past and Present

Please consider these words from Monshin Paul Naamon on upcoming events of great significance at the Tendai Buddhist Institute:

The 10:30 AM event at the Tendai Buddhist Institute is an observance of the consecration of our hondo, Jiunzan Tendai-ji (the main temple building, translated as Compassionate Mountain Cloud Tendai Temple) five years ago, as well as the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of Karuna Tendai Dharma Center, the official name of Tendai Buddhist Institute, the Tendai-shu New York Betsuin (the authorized New York Branch of Enryaku-ji Temple).

This ceremony will be performed by Kanda-sensei of Kanei-ji, the head temple in Tokyo, Japan.

At noon lunch will be provided for all. We will continue to celebrate in the afternoon starting at 1 PM with the formal Tokudo (ordination) of six Betsuin Soryo and Doshu, namely Seishin Fitterer, Ryushin Karapasas, Shoshin Jacon, Mushin Press, Shomon Trans and Koyo Spang.

All of these people have completed at least six years of formal training and have received Tokudo as Betsuin priests in the past.

A formal Tokudo requires a number of priests of a certain status to witness the Tokudo in order to be registered in Japan. Because we will have a number of highly ranked priests here for the other activities it is a good time for these six people to be recognized for their many contributions to the Dharma. The Precept Master for the Tokudo ceremony will again be Kanda-sensei.

In Boston, the events are a commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the ordination of William Sturgis Bigelow and Ernest Fenollosa, the founder and first curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, respectively. These two individuals are the first North Americans to receive Tendai Buddhist ordination. Both of these persons were remarkable people who had accomplished a great deal in addition to their ordinations. There will be a story on the Tendai International web page in the next week or so providing some insight to these colorful personalities.

The Boston event begins at 11:30 AM with a short lecture and shomyo (a type of chanting similar to Gregorian chant) presentation in the museum and then we will go outside for a Goma ritual conducted by a dignitary of Enryaku-ji temple, Mt. Hiei, Japan. The goma ceremony should be concluded by about 2:30 PM.

As I look at these proceedings, there are several thoughts that come to mind.

First, that this is a wonderful opportunity for the people that constitute the Tendai Buddhist Institute to join with our Japanese friends in dedication to the dharma.

But, this is not merely an opportunity for cross-cultural interaction. The monks coming from Japan are doing so at their own expense as a way of showing their ongoing support of the Dharma and our efforts outside of Japan. Most of them grew up in temple families. The Dharma and its manifestations are as much a part of their lives as breath itself.

For most of us living in the West, we adopted this tradition and there are aspects that seem very Asian and therefore strange or incongruous. Yet there is something that draws us to it. There is a veracity that is universal to the human condition. These events are wonderful occasions to integrate our body, speech, and mind in the pursuit of the Dharma and its practices. It is a time for joy and rededication. Enjoy yourself.

For those who might like to attend, here is the schedule and other logistical details:

October 23rd 2010, at the Betsuin (near Canaan, NY)
10:30 AM - 12:00 PM -- A ceremony celebrating the fifth anniversary of our hondo (main temple building) renovation and the 15th anniversary of the Tendai Buddhist Institute.

12:00 to 1:00 -- Lunch is provided between the two ceremonies.

1:00 - 2:30 PM -- A formal ordination of Soryo (priests).

October 24th 2010, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA)
11:30 AM - 2:30 PM -- This event centers on a Goma ceremony and commemorates the 125th anniversary of William Sturgis Bigelow and Ernesto Fenallosa's (the founder and first curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, respectively) ordination as Tendai priests in Japan.

For more information, contact info@tendai.org.

28 September 2010

Contemplation: "Evening Gatha"

Review the guidelines for practicing contemplation and consider the following:

Let me respectfully remind you:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost.
Each one of us should strive to awaken.
Take heed. Do not squander your life.

(from the Daily Service of the Tendai Buddhist Institute)

21 September 2010

Contemplation: Happy and Inspired

Review the instructions for practicing contemplation, still the mind, and consider the following:

When I practice the Arising Yoga of the Patron Buddha
I see my body, vivid like a rainbow yet void,
Of which no substance whatsoever can be found.
So I have freed myself from all desires.

All talk is like an echo in a deserted valley.
For it I have neither fancy nor aversion.
So have I exhausted all likes and dislikes.

The Illuminating-Void of Mind
Is like the radiance of the sun and moon,
Without limit or attribute.
Dissolved into it, my ego-clinging becomes nought.

The common human body, word, and mind
Are themselves the Body, Speech, and Wisdom of the Self-Buddha.
Being free from all that's vulgar,
I always feel great happiness and joy.

I am happy because my deeds are in accord with Dharma,
I am inspired because I follow
The right Dharma Path.

(from The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, Trans. by Garma C.C. Chang, p. 376-377).

16 September 2010

Blue Mountain Sage Sangha

My friend and colleague Doko O'Brien leads a Tendai sangha in Denver called the Blue Mountain Sage Sangha. He has recently launched a blog that will be of interest. Find it here.

14 September 2010

Contemplation: The fundamental, wondrous mind

Calm the mind, review the instructions for practicing contemplation, and consider this teaching of the Buddhas:

All in the Assembly became aware that their minds pervaded the ten directions and they could see everything throughout space in all ten directions as clearly as one might see an object such as a leaf in the palm of one's hand. They saw that all things in all worlds are the wondrous, fundamental, enlightened, luminous mind that understands, and that this mind, pure, all-pervading, and perfect, contains the entire universe. They looked back upon their own bodies born of their parents and saw them to be like minute particles of dust drifting about everywhere in the air, arising and perishing, or like solitary bubbles floating on vast, calm seas, appearing and then vanishing without a trace. They fully understood that the fundamental, wondrous mind is everlasting and does not perish.

Surangama Sutra (2009 Buddhist Translation Society edition), p. 135

May all beings enjoy the merit.

07 September 2010

Contemplation: Like the Man in the Dream

Review the guidelines for practicing contemplation and reflect on the following:

It is like the man in the dream
Who has nothing to grasp upon awakening.
Awareness is like space
Equal, changeless.
Enlightenment pervading the worlds of the ten directions
Is none other than the attainment of the Buddha-way.
All illusions cease at no-place
And in accomplishing the way there is nothing attained.
That's because the original nature is complete, perfect.
In it, bodhisattvas
Are able to produce bodhicitta.
All sentient beings of the degenerate age
Practicing this, will avoid erroneous views.

Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, p. 251, trans. A. Charles Muller.

06 September 2010

Programming Notice

I will be posting less frequently to this blog from here on out. This is because much of what needed to be said earlier this summer has been said, and there's a record of it; because more of my time is committed to preparing for regular sangha meetings now that we are meeting in person as a sangha once more; and because the academic year is underway again, meaning that I am once more teaching and writing and... surviving, even thriving sometimes.

The weekly contemplations will continue, as will other occasional announcements and whatever else seems useful to put up here.

30 August 2010

Contemplation: Seeing Reality Perfectly

Review the instructions for contemplation practice, and take this as your object of contemplation:

Here there is nothing to remove and nothing to add. See Reality perfectly and from seeing Reality, liberation occurs.

(Ratnagotravibhaga, quoted in The Buddha Within, S.K. Hookham, p. 38)

Yes, Your Posture Matters.

Ideally, one should practice meditation in all activities at all times. Even in sleep: Here, Donnie the Dharma cat demonstrates the traditional Lion Posture for meditation during rest:

He mostly gets it anyway: if your body is configured as a male this time around, you should lie down on your right side, with your torso slightly curved, right hand supporting the head and left arm resting gently on your left side. If you inhabit a female body, the principle remains the same but the directions are reversed from Donnie's demonstration above: lie on your left side instead. This is a traditional approach; try it and you may see the value in it over time. It may or may not help to snuggle with a stuffed animal as Donnie is doing.

The need to attend to your posture is more immediately obvious in seated, standing, and walking meditation for most of us. As you meditate, you become increasingly aware of your breathing. If your posture is poor, then your breath is stopped up or shortened and the circulation of blood and energy through the body is restricted. Worse, you put a strain on some of your joints and muscles, and that kind of fatigue gets tiresome fast. These outcomes are not conducive to helpful mental states. What you want is an upright posture that supports the breathing and the internal flow, and that more or less supports itself: not too loose, not too tight.

This is something that is impossible to teach yourself properly, even with a mirror. Find a friend to help you settle into a posture where your knees are lower than your hips (put something under your rump like a cushion to lift the hips up), your shoulders are directly over your hips, your navel is in line with your nose, and your chin is slightly pointed down. Lift your heart a bit. If you can, find that sweet spot where the bones are doing most of the structural work of holding you upright, so you can relax more of the muscles. Ah! It helps for some to visualize a thread from the heavens supporting your head like a puppet on a cable and lifting you up, so you can release any tension in your hips.

The same principles apply when standing or walking: upright but not rigid, relaxed but not lax. When you stand or walk, really stand and really walk: don't fidget and fuss with things, just get settled and be present. Also when it is time for rest: be like Donnie and put aside the day's mouse-chasings and really rest with all your energy. (Funny how that can be a lot more difficult than it should be, no?)

29 August 2010

Just Keep Going.

This is the message of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva: Just Keep Going, in all your travels, in all your transitions, in the wind and the rain.

You can do it.

25 August 2010

Ideas on How to Work With Sutras

Let's start at the beginning.

The Buddhist teachings are recorded in documents called sutras. Depending on the tradition and the school, you will find a variety of attitudes and approaches to the sutras: some devotional, some analytical, and in a small number of cases, downright dismissive. In Tendai, we have a longstanding history of careful study of the sutras and debate over their real meaning and purpose, especially the Lotus Sutra; one might say this is an analytical or hermeneutic approach, trying to get at the real intention of the Buddha.

There are also devotional practices centered around the sutras. These are meditations: you read the text mindfully and contemplate it (not the same as analyzing it); you recite the text with the understanding that you are proclaiming the Dharma to all beings, giving voice to the Buddha-nature that is closer to you than your breath right now; and respecting the physical copy of the text by keeping it clean, generally protecting it as you would protect your eyes, and taking up the practice of copying the text longhand.

If you are interested in using the sutras directly in your meditation in this way, you can start like this:

Begin by reading it, but not as you would read a novel or the sports page. First gather your attention and your intention to practice, just as you would begin a session of seated meditation. Attend to your posture: you should be seated upright, not slouching or lying down, with clean hands. Breathe carefully and read mindfully with an open heart. It doesn't matter if you believe it or not; don't worry about the meaning; read for the impact the text has on your emotions and your mental state. Continue for a period of time, just as you would for any other kind of meditation, and then stop, breathe for several moments, and dedicate the merits. Do this at a regular time until you finish the sutra. Of the three gates, this practice of mindful reading corresponds to your mind; the next two deal with your speech and body respectively.

Next, start over from the beginning but read the text out loud. Keep your posture and your attitude the same as before, when you were silently reading, but now recite the text as though you were trying to get the essential meaning through a bad telephone connection: not soft, not loud, but steady and clear and purposive. Use your natural voice; this is not a time to be dramatic or to perform, so instead just read from the heart. When you complete a section of the text, breathe silently and mindfully for a spell, and dedicate your merits. Keep going like this in regular sessions until you complete the text.

At this point you will need to prepare a space for yourself to copy the sutra by hand. You will need a clean and well-lighted table or desk. If possible, set up a table in your meditation space and only use it for this purpose of copying sutra. If that is not possible, simply clear away everything that is not necessary to the task of copying and wipe the table clean before each practice session. You may also wish to set aside a particular tablecloth or other covering for the table so that it feels to you like you have a particular place just for this practice. You will also need a quality pen to write with, one that feels good in your hand and writes well on the page. For paper, use a bound notebook that you only use for copying sutra. I like to use Moleskine notebooks for this purpose; some may prefer fancier or thicker paper depending on your aesthetic and your penmanship. The idea is to use a book that is pleasing to the eyes, durable, and feels appropriate to the job.

When you sit down to copy, again gather yourself into a state of mindful concentration, as you would for seated meditation. Arrange your sutra text, your pen, and your notebook in such a way that you can write comfortably in an upright and relaxed posture. And copy slowly, one word at a time. Slowly. Gently. Word by word. Write as clearly as you can, but do not try to write in a way that is unnatural to you; do it in your own "voice." This practice takes time. I copy only two pages per practice session. The goal is not to conquer the text, but to take it into your body, to make the sutra inhabit you physically. Again, when you finish a session, close the books and cap the pen, tidy the space, and finish with a few moments of silent meditation. Dedicate your merits and come back to it tomorrow.

Your voice is very personal. Your handwriting is also very personal. No one can copy your voice or your writing style exactly. These things are yours. By reciting and copying this text, you are resonating the sutra and your own personality, planting the seeds of the sutra deep in the storehouse of your mind. You may notice this when you practice seated meditation, when you are washing the dishes alone, when your roommate's cat startles you at midnight.

To get started, I recommend getting a feel for the practice by starting with a short sutra, specifically the Heart Sutra (full text here). If you would like to develop this practice further, you may wish to continue with medium-length sutras such as the Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of the Past Vows of Ksitigharbha Bodhisattva before attempting the challenge of copying the Lotus Sutra or the Sutra of Golden Light.

One last guideline on analytic sutra study (as distinct from sutra recitation and copying): strive for a balanced diet of study, practice, and mindful life in the world. A good ratio is one part Dharma study, two parts meditation practice. If you spend an hour in the library, spend two hours on your meditation cushion or practicing nembutsu or whatever your practice may be.

Now would be a good time to turn off the computer and get to work, friends.

Nembutsu: A Beneficial Practice Anyone Can Do

Let's say you've learned enough about Buddhism that you are now eager to begin practicing but you find yourself isolated and without a chance to learn how to practice. Many beginners are in this situation: where can I find someone who will teach me mikkyo near me, down in the West Texas town of El Paso, or in Klamath Falls, or in Harrisonburg?

What you need in this situation is a practice you can do now that will bring real benefit, one that will help you create the causes and conditions that will put you next to an authentic teacher of Dharma. Nembutsu is a practice like this: open to the public and very profound. Here is how to do it:

Nembutsu is the mindful repetition of the name of Amitabha Buddha. You will need to be mindful of three aspects in this practice: your body, your speech, and your mind.

With your body, move mindfully with the understanding that the Buddha Amitabha is present and that your surroundings are ultimately a pure land, that you inhabit a sacred place where realization comes easily and all beings are blessed. During formal practice periods, we do nembutsu while walking mindfully. It is quite alright to do nembutsu while washing dishes, cooking, cleaning, or carrying on your other ordinary tasks so long as you can maintain the pure view of your location as being in essence inseparable from Amitabha's pure land. Do not fidget or fuss with extraneous things. Turn off the television, the radio, the blackberry, the internet; cut away extraneous distractions and focus on the essential. Keep an upright posture and relax: not too loose, not too tight.

With your speech, gently repeat the name of Amitabha Buddha again and again like a flowing river. It need not be loud. If necessary, say the nembutsu with "the tongue of the mind," which is to say, in your imagination only. In Tendai, we recite it as Namu Amidabu, and this sounds like Nah Moo Ah Mee Dah Boo (you know the sound of "a" in "apple"? don't use that sound. Use the "ah" sound as in "open up and say 'ah'". If the pronunciation is difficult, send me an email and we can work on it.) It is possible to say this a million or two million times over and not exhaust the benefit of it. Just keep going.

With your mind, be very aware that Amidabha Buddha is near you. You can visualize Amitabha above your head as a standing Buddha emanating very bright clear light. Wherever this light touches and penetrates becomes purified of all negative past karma, and what is more, the seeds of bodhicitta are planted in the minds of all beings touched by it. As your practice strengthens, extend this Buddha-power to all corners of all worlds until Amitabha's pure light touches and blesses all without exception (your neighborhood, your town, your region, your nation, the continent where you live, the planet Earth, the cosmos) with no exceptions: the people who have helped you and the ones that have hurt you, the ones you like or don't like, all the beings from the cancer ward to the pigs in the slaughter to your daughter's classroom. All of them.

Studying images of Amitabha can help you get started and get inspired. If you put yourself into this practice one hundred percent, it begins to take on a life of its own and becomes more real than a heartbreak or a toothache. Too see this, however, you must try and not hold back.

The great Ch'an master Hsuan Hua made some profound comments on recitation practice. I'll repeat them here for your consideration:

Your goal is to dispense with all extraneous thoughts and to consolidate your thoughts into one mindful thought of the Buddha. If you don't have extraneous thoughts, you won't have any evil thoughts, and when nothing evil is arising in your mind, you're on the road to goodness.

(Surangama Sutra commentary, p. 231)

Finally, I would like to dispel a concern many beginners express when introduced to nembutsu practice: how do I know Amitabha Buddha is real and not just another bit of make-believe? My answer: Earnestly put it into practice and see which is more real, the body of Amitabha or your own aging body; your everyday distracted mind or Amitabha's enlightened mind; your everyday contradictory and not-always-perfectly-honest speech or the pure teaching of Amitabha Buddha.

In reality, your nature is no different from Amitabha's, and with practice, all the enlightened characteristics we associate with Amitabha arise in you. This is a method for accomplishing it, and it is free for you to try. I encourage you to do just that, to realize the nature of mind and be of real and lasting help to all who suffer.

Sutra of Golden Light

On our altar is an image of Saraswati (Benzaiten in Japanese). She figures prominently in an important teaching of the Buddha called The Sutra of Golden Light. This sutra has a long and interesting history in the Tendai school. It was recited on Mt. Hiei with some frequency as a means to bring stability and peace to the nation and its people, in an immediate sense as well as a durable spiritual sense.

I would like to encourage you to read the Sutra of Golden Light, recite it, and if you like copy it out by hand. If you approach this practice with an attitude of bodhicitta, the yearning to be of ultimate benefit to all beings who suffer, then great benefit cannot be avoided.

Thanks to the diligent efforts and generosity of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, you can download the Sutra of Golden Light for free at this link.

May the merits ease the sorrows of this troubled world.


If you are interested, you can find other reading recommendations here.

24 August 2010

Contemplation: A Beam of Light

After putting the instructions on how to practice contemplation into practice, take this as your object of contemplation:

Originally, right where you stand, there's this beam of light; it's just that your use of it is dark.

(from Yuan Wu's commentaries in The Blue Cliff Record, page 475).

May all beings benefit!

23 August 2010

Fundamental Guidance on Practice: Taking the Goal as the Path

This is from the 2009 Buddhist Text Society translation of the Surangama Sutra. Shakyamuni Buddha is speaking to Ananda, who has asked for advice on how to transform everyday experience into the stuff of enlightenment:

you must pull out the root of death and rebirth and rely on that pure and perfect nature that neither comes into being nor ceases to be. Use the purity of your true nature to make disappear the distinction between your original state of enlightenment and the illusory state of what comes into being and ceases to be. The original enlightened understanding, which neither comes into being nor ceases to be, must be the basis of your practice. Then you will attain the awakening that will be the result of your practice.

When you hear me use the phrase "taking the goal as the path," this is what I am referring to: this practice of recognizing and trusting the enlightened potential within ourselves as a path. The goal of enlightenment and the practice of enlightenment are of the same nature, and according to this understanding, identical in function. The Buddha continues his explanation with an analogy:

The process may be compared to the settling of turbid water. If you keep it undisturbed in a container so that it is completely still and quiet, the sand and silt in it will settle naturally, and the water will become clear. This may be compared to the initial stage of subduing the afflictions that arise from transitory perceptions of objects. When the sand and silt have been removed so that only clear water remains, then fundamental ignorance has been eliminated forever. When the water is quite pure and clear, nothing that may happen will be a cause of affliction. All will be in accord with the pure and wondrous attributes of nirvana.
(pages 174-175)

Our meditation routine here at Great River Ekayana Sangha mirrors this two part process: we begin with Shamatha, which calms and settles the mind into clarity, and then proceed with Vipashyana or the discernment of the real, intended to clear away the nonsense.

With effort in practice, confidence builds; with confidence in our practice, our practice gains in power. This is a path of trust in that we must learn to trust the only thing about ourselves that is absolutely trustworthy, and then trust it absolutely. Let us direct our efforts accordingly.

17 August 2010

Contemplation: Firm Resolve

After reviewing the method we use for practicing contemplation in our sangha, take this as your object of contemplation:

To satisfy the needs of beings
Dwelling in the ten directions, to the margins of the sky,
May I reflect in every deed
The perfect exploits of Manjushri.

And now as long as space endures,
As long as there are beings to be found,
May I continue likewise to remain
To drive away the sorrows of the world.

(Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, Padmakara Translation, p. 169)

May all beings enjoy the merits of this practice.

16 August 2010

Just to be clear about this...

My comments here on this blog are intended to be useful and helpful for people interested in putting Tendai Buddhism into practice in an everyday way outside of Japan.

Any and all mistakes you might find are my own responsibility, and do not reflect on my teachers or the teachings. I appreciate it when they are brought to my attention so I can set them right.

Thank you for reading and joining in. Now, back to our regularly scheduled bodhi...

Buddhism with no Buddha?

Some students express an unease with the concept of Buddhahood, and wonder if Buddhism would still work without it. My comments here are intended to ease that anxiety: specifically, to encourage people to quit worrying and love the Buddha, specifically the Buddha-potential within you.

Consider an analogy.

I have some friends whom I trust and respect. These friends have never lied to me but their ways sometimes confuse me. For instance, they insist they are from a place called Denmark. I have never been to Denmark and I have no physical evidence that Denmark exists. All I have to rely on is the testimony of my friends, some recordings of the very vowelly Danish language, some butter and furniture and shoes that may have been designed by people from Denmark, some comments from Hamlet on the subject of rot: nothing hard and fast.

However, I have also come to understand that there is a way for me to see Denmark first hand. I will need to apply myself diligently to the task of swimming, sailing, or flying (three vehicles...); I may have to accept some formal practices that seem a bit bureaucratic; I may have to accept a temporary layover in an implausible bardo state such as Iceland or, worse, Heathrow; and I have to accept that my friends know the way. In short, I need to trust people who have more first-hand knowledge than I have, and I need to trust the guidebooks they suggest to me. Since I have an open invitation to visit Denmark and see for myself, what do I have to lose if I try?

Buddhahood is like Denmark in this analogy. (Danish readers: Find a different analogy.) It is not something you can get a handle on in ordinary terms. You need to experience it first hand, and in order to experience it, you need to put some trust in your guide and your friends. You have to take a chance on it. This means you must admit that you don't have all the answers before you start to learn. Beginner's mind! And as it happens, you will find as you proceed that you had the potential in you all along to visit this Denmark place, that Denmark is fundamentally the same place you have always been all along.

At first, putting your faith in the teachings of the Buddha means simply trusting that the Buddha is not lying to you, is not trying to pull a prank on you, is not trying to dupe you out of your money or embarrass you or anything else except to bring you over to his field of experience.

12 August 2010

Why so many strange and exotic things to do?

Our school of Buddhism is characterized by a diversity of practices. In this sense, Tendai Buddhism is distinct from some of the newer schools of East Asian Buddhism, such as Nichiren-shu, Soto Zen, or the Pure Land schools, which primarily emphasize one practice as appropriate to this time and place. Tendai is in practical terms fundamentally eclectic, although this eclecticism is supported and held together doctrinally. One might even say that the Tendai doctrine of Ekayana as presented in the Lotus Sutra demands this kind of eclecticism: making a spectrum of practices available to students as suitable to the time, place, and person.

Tendai Buddhism traces its history to the Tian Tai school of China. Tian Tai doctrine, as presented in the teachings of the great master Chih-i, was the first properly Chinese intervention into the Buddhist tradition. This was a matter of necessity. Before and while the Buddhist cultural matrix collapsed in India, Buddhist texts and teachers streamed into China and the Himalaya. There was a kind of chaos: an intense diversity of positions, papers, preachings, practices abounded, and it was not easy for the Chinese to make sense of it all in the absence of a longstanding indigenous Buddhist tradition such as the one that had prevailed in India.

Chih-i offered a systematic explanation for all the Buddhist texts he knew of. Specifically, he organized the Buddhist teachings he knew of in China according to an imputed pedagogy on the part of Shakyamuni: first teaching the Avatamsaka Sutra, but finding it too profound for the capacity of the students around him at the time; then advancing a series of provisional teachings intended to develop those students into fighting shape and prepare them to understand the full and authoritative teachings; finally, presenting the Lotus Sutra, which in Chih-i's mind offered the complete and absolute teaching of the Buddha. (This is a very simplified summary.)

From there, Chih-i explicated the Lotus Sutra in particular ways. I will come back to this matter in the future; for now, what is important to understand is Chih-i's insistence on an all-encompassing, encyclopedic understanding of the Buddhist cultural life, taking it all in and honoring it as appropriate to particular situations. This reflects the Lotus Sutra method of upaya, or skillful means.

This is how Chih-i is reported to have taught just this point:

Someone asked: "In [applying] the true discernment of the Middle Way, through the very act of unifying one's mind, [both] the practice and its function are complete. What need is there to make so many [distinctions] such as the four kinds of samadhi, the application of [discernment] to good and evil [circumstances], or [meditating] amidst the twelve [different forms of] activity? When the water is muddy, the pearl is concealed. When the wind blows heavily, waves beat on the surface. What use could [such concerns] have for realizing lucidity and calm?" Chih-i replied: "[Your attitude] is analogous to a poor person who, upon obtaining a little advantage, considers it sufficient and doesn't care to do even better. If you use only one form of mental discernment, what happens when you are confronted with all sorts of [different] mental states? In such a case you will be at a loss in your own practice. If you [consider] trying to use [this one method] to train others, the spiritual endowments of others are all different from one another. One person's afflictions are in themselves infinite, how much more so [the afflictions of] many people! [Let us say] there is a master of medicines who gathers all varieties of medicines to remove all the different types of illness. Then a person [comes along] who suffers from one particular illness and needs one particular medicine to cure that illness and things it strange that the doctor should carry so many other [useless] medicines [apart from the particular one he requires]. Your question is like this."

(quoted in Daniel B Stevenson, "Samadhi in Early T'ian-T'ai Buddhism," Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, pages 85-86.)

In short, one of the reasons Tendai today looks the way it does has to do with an accumulation of means to help people with different needs, like a hospital with a cardiac wing, a renal ward, a trauma unit, and a cafeteria to heal the hungry. We spend significant time working on method and doctrine and debate in order to prepare ourselves for intelligent practice.

One may object that just sitting and not thinking is a legitimate Buddhist meditational practice. Point taken. Sitting there like an idiot is one respectable practice, one of many, but one need not be an idiot about it, nor assume that just sitting is the right medicine for everyone you meet or even for yourself at all times.

One may object that certain Buddhist practices more closely resemble cultural hanging-on from Tibet or Japan or Korea rather than authentic Buddhist teachings, where "authentic Buddhist" means "directly from the mouth of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni." This is a form of back-to-the-text, back-to-the-source Protestantism. I was not present when Shakyamuni taught the Lotus Sutra, or any of the other teachings; historians debate the provenance of this or that document. The broader question has to do with how a particular practice is integrated with a Buddhist view, how it works vis a vis Buddhist view, and how it can help bring some relief to a troubled situation. Even if you do not see how a practice such as nembutsu can be useful to you in your situation, you have no way of knowing if it will be helpful to you or not. Your teacher may have some insight into this, so you might as well ask for guidance from a doctor with some experience healing sick individuals such as yourself.

11 August 2010

Free online course in Tendai Buddhism

This is a useful opportunity for anyone interested in deepening their roots into the soil of Buddha Dharma, including beginners to practice or to Tendai generally. The course is taught by a priest in Denmark who speaks and writes English beautifully, and is someone I respect very much as a teacher and as a practitioner.

Online course in Tendai Buddhism, free of charge and available to all.

10 August 2010

Contemplation: Cutting Through Appearances

Settle the mind. Review the method for practicing contemplation with care, and with the intention to practice for the benefit of all beings without exception, take the following as your object of contemplation:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Endeavor to carry this contemplation through your everyday life, in all that you see or hear or touch.

(from the Diamond Sutra, chap. 32, trans. A.F. Price and Wong Mou-Lan)

09 August 2010

A Bit More on Samadhi

I once participated in a guided meditation led by a contemporary Buddhist teacher I know and respect very much. I'll summarize it and let you work it out as a thought experiment:

First, visualize yourself on the surface of a choppy sea, with no land in sight and no rescue coming by air by boat. You are bombarded by flotsam and debris from a shipwreck, and pollution and garbage from ordinary people like yourself; you have reason to believe there are hungry sharks nuzzling your Nikes. You are in deep trouble.

And that was it. This picture of samadhi was presented as a kind of celebration of solitary repose, as an escape from the prison planet of distress and the hell of other people. I experienced it instead as a terror scenario: trapped in a bubble of my own making on the bottom of the ocean, by myself, far from any opportunity to fulfill my vows as a Buddhist, soon to run out of air in the company of silent octopi.

Our form of Buddhism demands that you learn how to work with the flotsam, the garbage and pollution, the stormy world of surfaces in a wise and compassionate way. It is not about making for oneself a cocoon of safety and then hiding in it 20,000 leagues below. Remember, form is emptiness and emptiness is form; form is also form, and emptiness, emptiness. Your nature is the same as that of the sea, storm, and sunlight (emptiness), but your function differs from those things if you are committed to the Mahayana project.

In that spirit, I would like to invite you to consider how the meditation I described above should conclude. Once you have made your bubble and attained a measure of control and stability of mind, how do you break out of that bubble? Your nature is no different from that of the sea, the storm, the tide, the trash; how do you dissolve those "mind forg'd manacles" and move on to avoid becoming trash, to avoid losing your function? Is there another approach to take? What is your function?

A related point: let us not bind ourselves with our samadhi, with our views, with anything at all (including "nothing").

06 August 2010

Six Paramitas: Prajna or Wisdom (7 of 7)

The perfection of wisdom or prajna paramita is traditionally summed up as follows in The Heart Sutra (this is the version we use in our sangha):

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita, clearly saw emptiness of all five conditions, thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.

O Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form; form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form. Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness are likewise like this.

O Shariputra, all dharmas are forms of emptiness: not born, not destroyed, not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain. So in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena; no realm of sight, no realm of consciousness, no ignorance and no end of ignorance, no old age and death, no end to old age and death, no suffering, no cause of suffering, no extinguishing, no path, no wisdom and no gain.

No gain and thus the bodhisattva lives prajna paramita with no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance therefore no fear. Far beyond deluded thoughts, this is nirvana. All past, present, and future Buddhas live prajna paramita and therefore attain anuttara samyak sambodhi.

Therefore know: prajna paramita is the great mantra, the vivid mantra, the best mantra, the unsurpassed mantra. It completely clears all pain. This is the truth, not a lie. So, set forth the prajna paramita mantra. Set forth this mantra and say:


You can put this into practice by reciting it in a steady and purposeful rhythm, by committing it to memory, by studying commentaries and other teachings on it, by repeating the mantra aloud or with "the tongue of the mind," by copying the sutra carefully and mindfully into a notebook, by taking it as an object of contemplation, and by returning to it again and again.

You will likely notice that this sutra is written in a very compressed and paradoxical style. If form is emptiness and emptiness is form, what might these terms mean? If this is indeed "the truth," then what kind of truth is this?

This mode of expression reflects the difficulty of the subject matter. In Mayahana Buddhism, we understand truth in two ways (the doctrine of the "two truths"). The first kind of truth is called provisional or contingent truth. It includes statements that apply to our world of unenlightened beings: when you stub your toe you feel pain, and that pain is real to you, as is the toe, your person, and the table you beat it against. But this kind of truth is never taken for granted here. If you really drill down into the toe, for instance, you see it is not at all a simple and unchanging or eternal item: it is a composite of other things, reducible to elements and space and energy, and changing all the time. The pain, too, comes and goes in waves: is the pain you feel at first the same as the pain you feel twenty seconds later? Is it the same information passing through the nervous system? Not really.

Your toe is a form, a "dharma," a thing. That is one kind of truth: you see it right there in front of you, and when you smack it into a table, the pain is very convincing. But your toe is also emptiness: it is not what it seems to be. Absolute truth sees provisional truth for what it is, provisional.

Any discussion of absolute truth can become very complicated very quickly. As the diffuse language of the Heart Sutra suggests, absolute truth is very resistant to conceptualization. You just can't describe it adequately in words, but you can gesture to it and you can set up different kinds of tricks (upaya, skillful means) to help people experience it. For now I want to suggest that prajna paramita or perfection of wisdom means coming to terms with the provisional, penetrating into it or cutting through it, in order to gain some insight into the absolute. From this, one's training in the other paramitas is radically transformed, recontextualized.

05 August 2010

Six Paramitas: Dhyana or Concentration (6 of 7)

For present purposes, it makes sense to distinguish actions that are mechanical from those that are conscious.

The term mechanical actions are the patterns of behavior that you or I can do without devoting any attention to it. With enough repetition, nearly any complex task can become automatic to someone. An example might be learning how to drive a car: at first it feels like you are doing eight or ten different things all at once and you feel very very alert ("beginner's mind" in a new context!); as time passes, you may find yourself driving from Idaho to Iowa in a state of deep sleep. (Do not do that.)

We have other patterns of behavior that are just as automatic, however. It is easy to find these patterns in other people, especially people you know well: you can predict when your dad is going to exaggerate about his success as a fisherman, or you notice that your mother is forcing herself to laugh very loudly after everything she says when she gets nervous, or the way your father-in-law eats his dinner with his mouth open and face smacking around with each bite may drive you to the bottle. In each example, human behavior is totally out of control and the people involved are totally unaware of it.

This constitutes a serious problem if you intend to make a break with all that old karmic conditioning and start again on more responsible grounds. (It is hard to take responsibility for your actions when you don't even know what you're doing or why.) If you are a liar, but you don't want to be a liar anymore; if you can't stop yourself from kicking the cat when you get angry about a football game, even when you know it's wrong; if you want to stop being so damned selfish and start being useful to others, you need to do something that is not at all automatic in order to break in. I'll call this conscious action: intentionally doing things in a way that is not automatic but is instead mindful, aware, conscious.

Dhyana or concentration is the sixth paramita. When you develop dhyana you develop samadhi, which is to say you develop the stability of mind needed to Say No: to notice in yourself, objectively, those tendencies that make you behave like a crazy person, without being tricked into identifying with those tendencies.

Concentration is one-pointedness of mind. To cultivate it, you focus the mind on one object. It may be the sensation of your breathing coming in and out through the nose, or your belly moving in and out with the rhythm of your breath. That is very effective, but arbitrary. Also effective and arbitrary: counting your breaths, gazing at a lit candle or a flower, gazing deeply into a source of physical pain (if you are already in pain that is). One-pointedness of mind is usually quite pleasurable, and most pleasurable experiences usually involve one-pointedness of mind. Most Buddhist practices, even the ones that seem most divorced from formal seated meditation, involve or rather require cultivating this kind of concentration, especially devotional practices such as nembutsu.

Dhyana also involves relaxation. The mind broadens and tension falls away. This can work in two directions: If you want to relax, cultivate concentration. If you find yourself struggling to concentrate, relax the body a bit.

Finally, it should be said that deepening one's samadhi makes a person more free. You are less constricted by your constipated beliefs about who you think you are or ought to be, just less hung up and more self-trusting in a positive sense, less closed-minded. So that when your teacher suggests to you that you might benefit from, say, reciting a section of a sutra or practicing nembutsu in addition to seated meditation, you are much more inclined to give it an honest and joyful effort--and to get good results from it.

So much of Dharma is just being game. Just being willing to try, to have a gentle sense of humor about it, to throw yourself into it. Practice with dhyana can help you find the courage to be simple and easy in this way, to be game.

03 August 2010

Great River Ekayana Sangha

Our community of Tendai Buddhists and friends of the path here in the Washington, DC and Northern Virginia metro area has decided to call itself the Great River Ekayana Sangha. We used to be called Washington Tendai Sangha, but resolved on changing the name to avoid confusion with the other "Washington _____ Sanghas" in the neighborhood.

Just think of all streams returning to the source as one: that's our mission and our identity from here forward. That is who we are, Great River Ekayana Sangha.

Contemplation: Ignorance and Wisdom

Settle the mind, review the method for practicing contemplation in our sangha, and take this teaching of Chih-i as your object of contemplation:

When ignorance is transformed, it will become wisdom, like ice thawing and turning into water. It is not something coming from another place. Both [ignorance and wisdom] are embraced in the mind in a single moment.

[quoted in Ng Yu-Kwan, TianTai Buddhism and Early Madhyamika, p. 175]

29 July 2010

Six Paramitas: Virya or Perseverance (5 of 7)

Virya implies a kind of energetic perseverance, actively going the distance without succumbing to distraction or dismay. You have an aim and you hit your intended target, not some other thing. Think of the little engine that could, and did.

In virya there is a very strong sense urgency, like the undistracted mood of a grandmother pulling a child out of highway traffic (no compromises, you just get the kid out of there). Virya feels and sounds like this:

Get up and do it. Now do it. Up and doing it.
Just keep going. Just keep going. Just keep going.
Fall down, get up, keep going. Fall down, get up, keep going.
Just keep going. Just keep going. Keep going now.
Keep going.
Keep going.
Keep going.
Keep going.
Keep going.
Keep going.
Keep going.
Keep going.
Keep going.
"Only go straight."

Virya finishes twelve-year isolation retreats. Virya completes the thousand-day kaihogyo. Virya raises the kids and heals the sick. This is virya expressed in action.

But virya can also be expressed in non-action, in the refusal to give in to a bad habit or to any kind of excess. Just keep going without a cigarette break. Just keep going without being drawn into a temper tantrum. Just keep going in your great work without sleeping in or daydreaming about whatever. In this sense, virya implies strength of character and commitment as it does vigorous or energetic activity. Both are expressions of the same category of wisdom, the perfection of virya or perseverance.

28 July 2010

Six Paramitas: Ksanti, or Patience (4 of 7)

The great Tibetan master Gampopa, in The Jewel Ornament of Liberation (trans. H.V. Guenther), presents the perfection of patience or ksanti paramita in a striking way:

The essence of patience is to be prepared for any event (p. 174).

Now, this begs the question: what does it mean to be prepared, and what is meant by any event in this context?

Being prepared means having cultivated a mind broad, deep, and stable enough to accept the situation at hand as workable: not to get swept up in it as an object, like a wad of trash in a tornado, but instead as a subject aware of his or her responsibilities and capable of carrying on with them regardless of the tempting lures of desire and fear or other volatile emotions. In short, to develop patience (and here I am leaning on Gampopa again), one must deepen and broaden one's compassion to include all conceivable situations (thus, being prepared for any event): even if chased by a horde razorback hogs and a regiment of enraged rhinoceroses at full gallop over a cliff into a burnin' lake of fire, remember the precepts, remember mindfulness, remember the sufferings of others.

Here, compassion is understood as actively identifying with the sufferings of others.

Approached differently, to be patient means to meet people and all other living creatures where they are, not letting one's hangups get in the way of your great work. It is a quiet practice, not a performance at all. Pet peeves can be a particular test of patience in this context. You can't afford to ignore someone's dying words simply because she has the worst halitosis you've encountered, or because her socks don't match, or because she likes the wrong kind of music. More to the point, suffering beings are often unpleasant to be around for more than one reason, and can really push your buttons. You are responsible for your response in such a situation; it is up to you to make something out of it. Patience is a condition of possibility for skillful action.

In this way, you let the light of Dharma that is within you shine int all corners and all the hearts you meet, leaving sparks behind that may well grow in time. Most days, you need not say a word. Each instance of impatience gives you an opportunity to catch yourself, redouble your commitment, and try again again again ("again" is patience too, but it also anticipates the next paramita, that of persistent and vigorous energy).

27 July 2010

Contemplation: Not holding back

After reviewing the instructions on how to practice contemplation, take up this excerpt from Kihwa's commentary on the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (page 75):

Although the moon does not withhold any of its luminosity, only still water can reflect it, and although the Buddha's voice is perfectly impartial, it cannot enter a scattered mind.

May all beings enjoy the merit of our practice.

26 July 2010

Six Paramitas: Sila or Ethics (3 of 7)

Sila (ethics) has to do with action: doing the right thing at the right time in the right way. Specifically, it refers both to action directed toward a goal, and toward ethical living in a day-to-day, moment-to-moment sense. Both simultaneously. The idea is to orient every thought, word, and deed toward your Mahayana intentions, and to subsume all activities in the contemplative project.

Some ways of doing things are naturally helpful; some are not. That is, some kinds of actions lead to helpful states of mind and produce wholesome results, while others produce the opposite, and some are mixed. It follows that one should cultivate the helpful and cut away the harmful.

To make a start with sila, you should first make a vow to accord your actions according to your Mahayana commitments, which is to say, to live an ethical life in order to accomplish the great work. (It helps to take precepts, and not only as a gesture of commitment.) Then, you have to go about doing it.

It is very demanding training.

First, the negative task: not doing harmful and useless things, simply abstaining from being an idiot. The rotten consequences of harmful actions are avoided simply by not having cultivated them to start with. Further, a clear and uncomplicated mind arises, without regrets or resentments; meditation develops readily. If you want to improve your meditation, start by paying careful attention to what you say, do, and apply your mind in everyday situations.

Second, the positive task: actively doing helpful, useful, beneficial things as they are appropriate to the situation at hand. Here, one builds momentum (I'm using "momentum" as a cipher for the generic Buddhist term of "making merit"), one builds confidence and trust in oneself, and in the process cultivates positive mental states. Auspicious consequences of helpful actions inevitably arise, which also support practice.

Third, the broader context: It is impossible to engage fully in the path without engaging in sila paramita in a rigorous way. Ethical life is a precondition for realization; living ethically makes realization possible. Practice starts on your feet, not on your cushion. (As an aside, one should note that distinguishing the rotten from the real in this context demands a kind of wisdom: sila paramita presupposes prajna paramita [wisdom].)

I would like to recall to memory the five precepts, which are very useful for this kind of training. These are "blameless," which means that no reasonable person could possibly find fault with you for taking any one of these up. So you have nothing real to lose. Further, following the five precepts can go a long way toward purifying the mind and the karmic stream of anyone who gives it a legitimate shot. So, beginners and seasoned hands together, let us all remember these precepts and cooperate harmoniously on the path:

1. Avoid taking life.
2. Avoid taking anything not freely given to you.
3. Avoid sexual misconduct.
4. Avoid speech that is false, harmless, or pointless.
5. Avoid clouding the mind with intoxicants.

These are a rather free rendering of the five traditional precepts. Each one could be the topic of a long discussion; the question of what counts as sexual misconduct and what does not, for instance, is one that can be debated at length. Instead of just giving you the answers as I understand them, I will instead ask you to reflect on each one of these in particular contexts: is this action helpful or harmful to myself and to others, those present and those not present?

Carry on!

24 July 2010

FreeSangha: An Appreciation

Washington Tendai Sangha would like to express deep gratitude to the good people at the FreeSangha Buddhist Discussion board. Members and administrators at FreeSangha have contributed materially to the success of our sangha, and for this, we express our thanks.

FreeSangha, may the merit be yours. Thank you for your help.

22 July 2010

Six Paramitas: Dana or Generosity (2 of 7)

Dana or generosity of spirit is listed first among the six paramitas for a practical reason: it should be practiced first. Authentic practice starts with it.

The intentional act of generosity, of renouncing something you think and feel is your own and of yourself for the good of something you value more than your own personal thing, is fundamental to beginning and maintaining any kind of Buddhist practice. Once again: the moment of generosity is the moment of renouncing samsaric habits of clinging and identification, and instead taking up the conscious practice of care. This spirit of generosity, leading from the heart outward, is a basis for a full spectrum of Mahayana practices.

Those are big claims. Let me unpack them.

It is easy to think through the consequences of generosity in everyday life. One gives of oneself for the good of others; simple enough. But in doing so, one discovers an insight into personal selflessness because it is impossible to insist on the same boring 'personal narrative' or mirage of the self as it is expressed through brand preferences or force of habit or family conditioning while at the same time valuing someone else's needs more.

That bit about value and valuation is very significant because one can also describe the devotional practices so characteristic of Mahayana as a form of generosity of spirit. You value the free availability of the teachings and opportunities to practice more than you value anything else, so you offer your time and energy and material wealth to the sangha and your teacher. This is a reordering of priorities: remember that selfish people insist on getting the right brand of cigarettes above all else, on being served first. I value the teachings more than I value brand X booze. I want to ensure that others have a chance to benefit from hearing these teachings.

Material offerings are expressions of gratitude; gratitude and devotion are healthy, expansive, nonviolent states of mind, much more useful than their opposites of disengagement and selfishness or self-satisfaction. Consequently it is said that the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and teachers of Dharma in our world function as a field of offerings. Part of their job is to help students cultivate these useful mind states and karmic relationships based on good intentions by accepting their offerings, material and otherwise. (This is why any discussion of the paramitas in general and dana in particular must begin with a discussion of karma as it relates to the practice of Dharma.) The point: through dana, one builds a durable connection to the teachings and the sangha, and one actively breaks down the selfish habits that Dharma practice is supposed to undermine. And while you are at it, you are helping to make sure the Dharma can carry on in a sustainable way.

Mahayana practice is characterized by devotional practices: offerings of prostrations, lights, incense, recitations beginning with the word "homage!", building stupas and statues and then circumambulating them, copying texts by hand. To ordinary reasoning this seems ridiculous: do the Buddhas really need or want your puny stick of incense or your yak-butter candle, if the Buddhas really are complete in themselves and without desires? No, the Buddhas do not need or want whatever offerings you make or visualize. They extend the invitation for you to make those offerings, however, in order that you will actually do it and in the process drop the useless habits that dominate your body, speech, and mind and instead take up a more fruitful way, to help you build karmic momentum and create opportunities for the future through dependent origination. Notice that there are offerings of body (prostrations, stupa veneration, sutra copying), speech (recitations), and mind (visualizations, contemplations); this is hardly an accident.

Dana is a context in which devotional practice stops seeming so exotic and impenetrable, and starts having real meaning and practical application for convert Buddhists. It does not exhaust the full spectrum of devotional practice, of course, but it is an excellent way in.

Please make a vow to practice dana in concrete ways every day, and hold yourself accountable for your successes and failures at it. If you mess up, redouble your vow and your efforts and carry on. Remember, this is also a mindfulness practice, arguably a complete path in itself.

Six Paramitas: Intention, Commitments, and Karma (1 of 7)

This is the first in a series of seven posts explaining some aspects of the Six Paramitas, which are a set of characteristics to be cultivated in Buddhist practice. The Sanskrit word "paramita" is usually translated as "perfection," but it also carries the connotation of completion or fulfillment.

Before treating each of these six, however, it is necessary to establish some context: specifically, to review some aspects of the basic Buddhist teaching of karma. To fulfill or complete something means to do something; to practice a paramita means to be active about it, to act on it. Karma means action. Things in the world arise due to causes and conditions; they persist due to causes and conditions, and change over time; they fade away, decay, over time due to causes and conditions. And these causes interact with each other in particular ways (this is called "dependent origination," of which more later).

Generally in human life, actions follow intentions. If my intentions are out of control, my actions are too. If I wish to make some changes in the pattern of my activities, then I need to work with my intentions, and in particular I need to firm up that intention to make a change in order first to break the old pattern and establish a new way to work in its place. Buddhists make vows to accomplish this. The "Verse of the Kesa" is one example: a contemplation intended to deepen one's commitment to practice.

Similarly, vows also serve to bring people together around their good intentions, to make a community of good intentions (which is to say, to build a durable sangha). By the logic of dependent origination, making vows together makes a kind of continuity on positive terms that will bear particular fruits in future activity, like tying many life-rafts together in a seastorm for security in numbers. This is another reason why it helps to practice with others who are seeking to fulfill or complete in themselves the same aspirations you seek to perfect.

Consider, for instance, an item from the morning service we use at the Tendai Buddhist Institute. This is called "Shichi Butsu Tsukaige," and it is beautiful:

Wishing together with all sentient beings:
Do not commit evil,
Do everything that is good,
Purify the mind.
This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.
I bow to the sacred clouds.

At the very beginning is a vow made here, a together-vow if you will (and this part of the service is recited by everyone present, with conviction). Also conspicuous is the offering at the end, which speaks directly to the first paramita, which is dana or generosity.

To make this a bit more concrete, it helps to think of the example of learning a new skill or breaking an old habit (both amount to the same thing on principle). You see the harmful consequences of keeping this habit, and you see why it would be better for everyone if you just cut it out and used your time and energy in another way, but the force of that habit keeps you in the same cycle again and again. This is an object lesson in karma for you. How do you break into that? You have to start with the intention to quit smoking cigarettes or to cut back eating so much sugar or whatever it is. You need to identify the causes and conditions that keep you doing this, and work with those (and this may mean seeking out specific resources to help, or removing yourself from situations that will guarantee the failure of your intention). As you can imagine, the logic of karma involves a logic of connection and interconnection; a simple vow sweeps up into itself a very involved web of consequences. You make a vow to stop smoking. You work at it, you try, and you fail. You renew your vow. You try again with more energy and adjusted tactics. You fail. You learn from that and, again, renew your vow, give it everything you have, last a bit longer and build more confidence before failing a gain. And then you do it again, and again, and again until you finally get it right or you die trying (or, more likely, die not trying very hard).

Buddhist practice amounts to learning how to stop doing the stupid and start doing the useful, just like quitting smoking or learning how to ride a motorcycle or make a decent batch of chilaquiles. The principle is the same but the methodology is much, much more comprehensive. The paramitas are a way to keep that methodology clear in one's mind.

As a practical matter, I find it helpful to reflect on intentions in the morning, in particular to review the kinds of commitments (samaya) I have made in the past, with an eye toward keeping to those with energy and spirit. And in the evening, a frank and honest assessment of the day's events and my own actions of body, speech, and mind offers a fine window into the condition of my own condition as it were. This is how learning can happen in an everyday way.

Remember that meaningful commitments are difficult to keep. Help is available; no one's case is hopeless or lost. There are Buddhist methods to help people deal with their own shortcomings and to strengthen their sense of purpose. Notice how even repentance verses the intention of getting the bodhisattva's work done (this is the General Repentence Verse, also from the Tendai morning service):

For the sake of all the sentient beings in the Dharma realm, let me cut off my three attachments and repent my transgressions by invoking the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and by praying for all sentient beings.

Counterproductive action can be counteracted by the right kind of productive action, properly applied. That is the logic behind this methodology.

21 July 2010

Meditation is Not an Anaesthetic

Returning again to the theme of so-called Western Buddhism:

One provocative criticism made of it (most famously by Slavoj Zizek) holds that Western Buddhism is not a systematic practice designed to bring about meaningful change in people or in cultures (Aloha Amigo!), but is instead a gimmick for reducing stress so that suffering individuals can accomodate themselves better to untenable situations at home, at work, and in society at large.

Now, if a situation is uncomfortable and stressful, that may be a sign that it is in need of bodhisattva activity: perhaps it is unkind, unjust, or unwise. It may also be that one is the author of one's own stress, or that one's hangups or habits are in fact introducing problems into an otherwise a-okay situation. This, also, is a call for rigorous practice. This is why some take it be a problem: a practice intended to tackle in a systematic way the complex of one's problems from the root of their causes through their expression in the world of sentient beings becomes instead a kind of avoidance strategy, a squirt of subjective novocaine to get you through your shitty office job or your husband's hurtful incompetence or whatever is troubling you that you cannot bear to deal with.

So, if I understand Zizek's argument properly, it may be at least more honest and productive to fully face the discomfort of an uncomfortable situation than to imagine it to be the manifestation of evolving Spirit or the endless march of Providence, especially if this moment of exposure motivates one to authentic transformational practice.

I would like to make a related point: meditation makes a direct perception of any situation possible, which is a precondition for wise activity. A sad situation is sad; in an unfair situation, one sees directly the injustice and its consequences for all involved. You see it for what it is, like it or not. And you feel it diamond hard; this is anything but an avoidance strategy or a peaceful at-one-ness with the sufferings of others. To borrow one of Trungpa Rinpoche's words, it is indeed very "tender."

But through this tenderness, the unacceptable thing becomes workable. Because it also makes the mind broader, clearer, and less disruptive, proper meditation prepares one to work with the situation perceived from a position of wisdom and compassion rather than habit, emotional reaction, prejudice, or personal gain (will-to-power). Through active meditation, one becomes increasingly capable of independent and creative action (independent of habitual training and emotional baggage). In this sense, authentic Buddhist meditation should be understood as an engaged Buddhist practice (a situational engagement) in teh sense Ken Jones describes in his book The Social Face of Buddhism.

A question for the gallery: If your practice is motivated by a desire to reduce stress, is this a desire to make your own situation less uncomfortable (avoidance) or as a means to be more useful to the world at large, or at least to introduce less of your own stress into the world?

20 July 2010

Diamond Path Podcasts by Tamarack Garlow

My Dharma brother Sansho Tamarack Garlow recorded some podcasts some time ago for the purpose of introducing basic Buddhist teachings to the street and the countryside. Many people have found them useful. They are available for free here: Diamond Path Podcasts.

19 July 2010

Aloha Amigo! or, hypertrophical eclecticism

Earlier this summer I was making the drive from Moscow, Idaho (my adopted hometown) across the Palouse and the Plateau to Portland, Oregon (my hometown hometown). I stopped for coffee in a well-dressed town called Hood River. And I found this item, laminated, and pinned to a cork board in the stylish and well-appointed cafe:

I do not know Adi, and had not heard of him or her before encountering this notice; I don't even know Adi's gender, so I'm being careful with the pronouns. This is a link to Adi's blog, for those who might be interested. I am sure Adi's intentions are pure and I make no claims about his or her teaching practice. The coffee in Hood River was fantastic and the service, superlative--let the record show it.

On with it. Adi's program presents a really interesting paradox. On one side, you have a singular, unique intersection of diverse and divergent spiritual practices: Zen, the "Fourth Way" of G.I. Gurdjieff, yoga, and the ancient Chinese oracle of the I Ching. Any one of these disciplines could take a life well spent in committed practice to master; Adi suggests him or herself capable of all of them. (Teaching Zen in individual and group settings alone is very demanding work...). So one side of the paradox is uniqueness, singularity, and to be direct about it a very bold claim to advanced spiritual accomplishment and attainment.

On the other side is the perfect banality of the item. Everyone on the "Eastern Spirituality" guru book tour circuit, from Esalen to Kripalu, is doing it or has done it. This kind of gesture is so ordinary that we have had a term for it in Buddhist circles since the mid-1970s: Aloha, Amigo! The earliest written reference I could find to Aloha Amigo was published in 1974 in Loka, a kind of yearbook for the Naropa Institute's summer events of that year. In it, a Hindu monk and anthropologist named Agehananda Bharati offered an essay called "The Future (if any) of Tantrism." The sum (page 129):

I can say there is one cultural disease in this country [the United States], and that is what I call hypertrophical eclecticism. To give you an example, in a record store the other day, I saw an LP named "Aloha Amigo." This is all wrong. Deep down, many of you think it is nice. But it isn't. It's either "aloha" or "amigo." Now, just because something is different from Mommy and Daddy, and different from Richard Nixon and Billy Graham, that alone doesn't make it good. Just because it has an Indian accent doesn't make it good. There have to be other criteria. The trouble here is that anything that's different from home is put together and looks like something real. Unfortunately, in a very refined and sophisticated manner, this tendency is even represented in what I saw in your program print-out here. Weaving and karate and T'ai Ch'i don't have to appear together just because they are Asian. There is a tradition, there is a rule, there is a lineage that you must be able to trace. But sitar and tabla and saxophone and escargo and tatami--that's just Aloha-Amigo. I don't think it leads anywhere.

You don't hear Oprah asking questions about lineage. And you don't hear many monks referencing old Arthur Lyman records. "Bim Bam Boom!" More directly to the matter: recall this thing on Western Buddhism where I observe in some of the sanghas a tendency to dismiss methodological or doctrinal aspects of Buddhist practice, which makes a gap that is immediately filled in with other stuff (C. Jung, C. Castaneda, or whatever else is on the tube)? Well, here it is in Adi's flier: no belief system is needed, but the whole thing is predicated on things you have to believe in, a "self," a "Source," and the credibility of the person who is making all these claims. Aloha Amigo! is about filling in that gap. A remedy would be to attend responsibly to methodological questions in Buddhist practice: not too loose, not too tight, but enough to keep the moving parts clean.

My point is that Adi's advertisement at the cafe, surely earnest and posted in good faith, is one of many many many artifacts of a broader cultural phenomenon that has a name: Aloha Amigo. My purpose in bringing it up is to encourage those of us who engage in Buddhist practice or identify as Buddhists to think critically about such claims as these, and to ask the very important question about lineage, about any particular teacher's relationship to his or her teachers and temples, and so on. I ask you not to be hostile or aggressive, but to be curious and to ask probing questions. Remember, a good student has "an active edge."

And yes, I'm willing to stand fire with whatever questions you may have of me, with the understanding I may ask you a few in exchange. Fair is fair, yes?

I will be returning to this theme because it is the cause of much needless confusion about what Buddhism is and does.

Contemplation: Verse of the Kesa

We recite the "Verse of the Kesa" with some frequency at the Betsuin. It is simple, direct, and far-reaching in its scope.

After reviewing yesterday's teaching on how to practice contemplation, contemplate the "Verse of the Kesa."

Vast is the robe of liberation
A formless field of benefaction
I wear the Tathagatha's teachings
Saving all sentient beings

May all beings benefit!

How we practice contemplation

It has come to my attention that some readers of this blog live nowhere near Washington, DC and may have very little experience with Tendai Buddhism, but still might like to try the contemplations I post here for the local sangha. I say: Yes, please join in, you're welcome here, I'm delighted and humbled to have you, there's coffee in the kitchen and a seat with your name on it in the main room.

Now what?

Please allow me to explain how we do contemplation practice in our school, so you can get some use out of these things. These are instructions that are tailored for individual practice but the principles are the same for group practice too.

First, you cultivate an attitude appropriate to practice: reviewing the bodhisattva vows is one useful approach. The idea is to do this with purpose and conviction, so put your work face on and get ready mentally. Be seated in meditative posture: not too loose, not too tight, find the sweet spot where your hips support your shoulders and your heart is lifted up a bit in a gesture of generosity. You'll be here for a while, so be steady.

At the start you are given a prompt. This may be just a few spoken words, or an image, or a slightly longer text in written form. There it is. What to do with it?

Drink it in like mountain spring water. Dissolve yourself into it. Let it shine through you like sunlight through a canopy of treetops, like sunlight through a clear windowpane, like a lightning flash through the blur of a rainstorm. That is all: do not accept or reject, do not make something out of it, do not make nothing out of it, just return to the words at regular intervals and let them wash over you. Refrain from believing or disbelieving in the object of contemplation. Does a tuning fork evaluate its own pitch when it is struck, or does it do the smart thing and just resonate? Does a thunderhead stop to check or critique or deconstruct or recontextualize or emote over worst of all make personal the gush of lightning that illuminates it and burns it up from the inside out? Just let 'er rip!

Contemplation may provoke emotional or mental or even physical responses. Faith, gratitude, confusion, boredom, aversion, arousal: it all comes up. You may laugh or weep or sleep. These come and go.

A practical point if you are contemplating on your own: budget at least thirty minutes of active practice time. Be sure to read the text out loud in a clear voice and at a slow, gentle pace. You might imagine you are reading to a sleepy child or trying to get through to someone on a bad telephone connection. Do it in your natural everyday voice, though. Don't be dramatic about it, don't try to sound profound or meaningful or important, just get the message through as you are (because you are profound and meaningful enough just as you are, as you were born). Keep going, come back to it when you lose the thread.

When you finish, dedicate your merit to the great work of enlightenment on behalf of all sentient beings without exception. Endeavor to carry this contemplation-mind throughout your daily activities and into your dreams too.