12 July 2010


I would like to sketch out what I mean when I say Buddhism, and what the practice of Buddhism as we understand it here entails. A useful way to do this is to consider a traditional summary, which can be rendered like this:

Refrain from evil. Only do good. Purify the mind. This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.

...or like this:

Avoid what is not helpful. Cultivate what is helpful. Purify the mind [so you can tell the difference]. This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.

In both of these, you can see the interaction of two functions: skillful action in the world (do this and not that with your body, speech, and mind), and wisdom (which makes the former possible). The practice of purifying the mind is an integral part of the path insofar as it makes purposive action in real time possible.

Many questions follow from this.

How to purify the mind? There are many, many methods for this. One of the most popular is seated meditation. We do this at the Washington Tendai Sangha. It is a good method for many people. It is not the only method, and it is only a method, not the entire path itself. There are other methods available in Tendai: recitation of sutras, chanting, esoteric practice (mikkyo or Vajrayana), body practice, devotional practice...

Take a step back though. What is this about doing something, about having a purpose? Tendai is a Mahayana school. We are not doing this for our health, our wealth, or anything personal. This is not about self-realization or self-aggrandizement (or worse, self-realization as self-aggrandizement). This is not a career. We are doing this out of service to the totality of other beings who are struggling, suffering, or screwing it up in any given situation, particularly the situation you find yourself in. This is the point of practice: to be useful for the sake of being useful, not to earn bodhisattva brownie points or however else one may imagine it. I think Taigen Leighton once remarked (loosely paraphrasing here) that the real bodhisattva is the neighbor who silently lets you borrow his lawnmower. That comment hits the mark in my opinion.

Returning to the main theme, this relationship between skillful means (upaya) on the one side and transcendent or discerning wisdom on the other side (prajna) constitutes the core of Tendai methodology. This is how we work: we cultivate wisdom through methodical practice so we can spontaneously bring light to whatever situation we face. And since any situation we face is itself an opportunity to cultivate wisdom, a virtuous cycle begins: the left hand and the right hand strengthen and correct each other when they cooperate.

The core teaching of the Tendai school comes from a teaching called The Lotus Sutra. If someone spent his or her lifetime understanding the relationship between skillful means and the transcendent wisdom of the Buddhas in the Lotus Sutra, and put that into direct practice all the time, that person's efforts would surely not be wasted.

Let us do the right thing and avoid the selfish thing.

Let us work in a disciplined and methodical way, and not become blinded by our own capacity for deluding ourselves.

Let us bring the light of all the Buddhas to all the dark corners.

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