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]