Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A No-Regrets New Year's Wish

"I have no regrets, and the world too has no regrets.” That’s what a Taiwanese lay Buddhist leader said to a friend from his hospital bed. Facing a serious illness, that was a statement of profound clarity coming from someone who understood being peaceful.

Because of our habit of always seeking more of what we tell ourselves we like and less of what we don’t, a habit imbedded in the second skandha, we are always wanting. This means we are never satisfied. We go through life always thinking things should be different––the weather, the waiter, the sales clerk; our kids, our spouses, our lives, our love, our health, our lifespan, everyone and everything. By this wrong view, we are endlessly bound in regret and wanting, endlessly forced into stress and anxiety, never confident and satisfied, never peaceful and happy.

Regret is, like its companions: thankfulness and gratitude, a dukkha-producing story that arises when we don’t get our way. As long as we are telling stories about how it ought to have been, then we aren’t present in this moment, unfolding with life, and our lives remain filled with regrets and what ifs.

Until we understand we are here because all of the conditions of the universe and all of our actions of the past have placed us here, we won’t be able to see the rightness and value and meaning of this moment and so we will create regrets that lock us into our delusions and keep us unhappy.

Recognizing interdependence and impermanence is entering the gate of emptiness. It is realizing the original nature of all things and being with their emptiness. Since all things, even us, are empty, there is nothing to regret and no one to not regret it!

Once we understand this, however slightly at the beginning, we will be able to live happy and peaceful lives; we will be able to march down the Path to peacefulness with stumbling. Once we realize there are no regrets, the struggle has stopped–– the seeking has ended. “Happy are those who possess nothing,” as the Dharmapada tells us.

While I certainly have concerns about my family and friends, students and fellow practitioners, over mankind, over the planet, in another sense, I have no regrets about my life nor about the universe. I wish this for you and for all sentient beings:

May your New Year be filled with No Regrets.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Short List of Buddhist Lists

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The Fundamentals of Buddhism in List Form

In an essentially pre-literate society such as the one in which the Buddha taught, lists were not only a skillful means and a pedagogical tool, they were also a very useful mnemonic device. For those with a penchant for lists, there are 208 in the Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, An Anthology of Suttas from the Anguttara Nikaya, (currently out-of-print, but a new edition is scheduled for release in mid-February, 2010). For those with a real penchant for lists, there is the unabridged version of the Anguttara Nikaya, the eleven volumes of numbered sutras, published by the Pali Text Society under the title The Book of Gradual Sayings, which contains 2344 sutras, each of which contains a list.

Lists are a good starting point for beginner-Buddhists, novices, the curious as well as experienced practitioners. Here are fifteen lists delineating the fundamentals of Buddhism.

The Three Jewels (The Triple Gem)

Buddhists take refuge in the three gems: In the Buddha as the symbol of the potential of the teachings, in the dharma as the actual teachings, and in the sangha, the community of monastics who teach, practice, preserve and protect the dharma. [See The Three Refuges] Taking the refuges is a formal commitment to follow the Buddhist path.

1. Taking refuge in the Buddha, we learn to transform anger into compassion;
2. Taking refuge in the Dharma, we learn to transform delusion into wisdom;
3. Taking refuge in the Sangha, we learn to transform desire into generosity.

The Three Poisons

Ignorance leads to wrong views, which, in turn, cause “The three poisons”, three powerful, negative mind-states, to arise.

1. Greed

2. Anger
3. Delusion (ignorance)

The Three Pillars

These are the three divisions of The Noble Eightfold Path which is the way we go from samsara to nirvana, from dukkha to the end of dukkha.

1. Wisdom (Right View, and Intention)
2. Morality (Right Speech, Action and Livelihood)
3. Meditation
 (Right Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration)

The Four Bodhisattva Vows

The Bodhisattva vows list the ideal, the intention and the commitment of a bodhisattva. Buddhists practicing in Mahayana institutions around the world recite these vows every day.

1. Beings are numberless, I vow to march with them.
2. Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to extinguish them. 

3. Dharma-gates are numberless, I vow to enter them.
4. Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to master it.

The Four Heavenly Abodes

The mind of the bodhisattva can be described in these four ways:

1. Lovingkindness

2. Compassion
3. Sympathetic joy
4. Equanimity

The Four Marks of Existence (The Four Dharma Seals)

All phenomena are marked by four characteristics. [In some traditions, only the first three of these are mentioned.]

1. Impermanence
2. Dukkha
3. Non-self or No-self
4. Tranquility

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths describe true nature of the conditioned world in which we live, and point the way to the unconditioned.

1. There is dukkha (suffering). Suffering is embedded in the Five Skandhas (below). It is to be understood.
2. Dukkha arises from our attachments. The process, Dependent Arising, is to be understood.
3. There is a way to end dukkha. Nirvana is the end of suffering. It is to be realized.
4. The way to end suffering has eight aspects (See The Noble Eightfold Path.) The path is to be cultivated.

The Four Right Efforts (Right Effort)

Right effort, the sixth aspect of The Noble Eightfold Path, propels us forward on the path all the way to our moment of transformation, which is the culmination of the path.

1. Abandon unwholesome mind-states, and
2. Refrain from allowing unwholesome mind-states to arise.
3. Develop wholesome mind-states, and
4. Maintain wholesome mind-states which have arisen.

The Five Hindrances

Hindrances are negative mind-states which block progress along the path.

1. Sensual desire
2. Ill-will

3. Sloth & torpor (laziness & lack of energy) 

4. Restlessness & worry
5. Doubt

The Five Precepts

These are the five fundamental, moral guidelines of our practice.

1. No killing

2. No stealing
3. No sexual misconduct

4. No lying
5. No intoxicants

The Five Skandhas (Aggregates)

This is how the self is formulated.

1. Form, which is shorthand for all sensory contact between eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind and their associated sense objects: forms, sounds, tangibles…thoughts.
2. Feeling, the pleasant, the unpleasant or the neither pleasant nor unpleasant sensations arising from contact between a sense organ and a sense objects.
3. Perception, is the labeling or naming that arises from a sense contact and its feeling. 

4.Volitonal formations, the stories we tell ourselves about the contact; these are our seeds; this is our karma.
5. Consciousness, which is the appropriation and identification with the sense contact: “I hear music,” “I smell the bread,” etc.

The Six Paramitas

The moment by moment perfection of the Paramitas is the bodhisattva path.

1. Generosity

, the principle of enlightened living
2. Morality

, leading a virtuous life
3. Patience

, the antidote for anger in its various forms, ranging from irritation to hatred
4. Diligent Effort, the attitude necessary for bodhisattva practice
5. Meditation, from which peace and clarity arise
6. Wisdom, the foundation of all our actions

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Fourth Noble Truth affirms the path to liberation.  Traditionally, it is divided into three categories.


1. Right view 

2. Right intention

3. Right speech
4. Right action 

5. Right livelihood 

6. Right effort 

7. Right mindfulness 

8. Right concentration

The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising

This 12-part delineation of the interconnectedness of all phenomena is the dharma. Because of its complexity and profundity, because it is difficult to understand and requires  a long and deep commitment to study and practice, I have put it last on the list.
In short,
When there is this, that comes to be;
With the arising of this, that arises.
When this is absent, that does not come to be;
With the cessation of this, that ceases.
--Majjhima Nikaya 79

Dependent Arising, which is generally taught in connection with the second noble truth, is the most profound teaching of Buddhism. Dependent Arising demonstrates that the source of all suffering is our misapprehension of the conditional nature of all beings and phenomenon. Dependent arising is the dharma, as the scriptures tell us.

Here is the sequence, put in simple terms: Because of our ignorance of the true nature of reality, we generate volitional formations (karma), which causes our consciousness to manifest as name & form.  Because of name and form, the six sense bases make contact with form (where the five skandhas are imbedded), which causes the I-like-I want-more-of, or, I-don’t-like-I-must-get-rid-of feeling to arise, which, in turn, leads to craving and to clinging, which results in becoming, leading to birth, then aging, and finally dying in an ignorant state. This cycle repeats itself, over and over again, moment after moment, life after life, event after event, phenomenon after phenomenon, planet after planet, universe after universe.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thus, we are not perplexed by life, we just do it

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 Thus I heard…”

Thus I heard, at one time the Buddha was at such and such a place with a gathering of this many monks.

“Thus” begins virtually all sutras. “Thus,” in fact, is the first of six conditions necessary for the making of a sutra. Without all six, you don’t have a sutra. With all six, you do.
On one level, these six conditions, sometimes called the six fulfillments, answer our most mundane questions about the provenance of the sutra: who said what, to whom, when, and where. On another, deeper level, the six fulfillments are in themselves a lesson in conditioned causality: “Because there is this, there is that.” This key teaching, as the scriptures remind us, is the dharma. We will approach dependent origination in future blogs; for now, let’s just look at each of the six conditions in the context of relieving dukkha in our everyday lives.

First, here is a list of the six fulfillments:
1. Thus –– The condition of authenticity and accuracy is met with the opening word “thus.”
2. I heard –– For there to be a sutra, someone must have heard and reported on what was heard.
3. At one time –– This asserts when the talk took place.
4. The Buddha –– There has to have been a speaker for this event to take place, usually the speaker is the Buddha.
5. At such and such a place –– There must be a place where the talk was given.
6. A gathering of this many monks –– An audience must have heard it.

Now let’s take a deeper look at the six.

Thus –– When “thus” is present, we know this dharma can be believed. If the dharma is not “thus” it cannot be believed.

Today: If we say that there can’t be a teaching unless it is accurate, authentic and builds faith, (which is the implicit and explicit understanding I find in this condition), then, am I not raising the larger questions: Is what I am doing today, now, in this very moment, truthful and authentic? Am I being present and mindful? Am I building a more peaceful and compassionate world, one based on a greater truth? Is my every action for the benefit of others. Or am I mired in my own afflictions, leading myself and the world down a false path?

We are, in every moment, faced with a choice: Are we, or are we not going to be Thus? The question is no longer which one I am going to choose, or which one I should choose. The question is, “Wouldn’t it be silly of me not to choose thusness?”

I have heard  Usually the “I” refers to Ananda, the Buddha’s trusted attendant and constant companion, who memorized and edited all the teachings.

The “I” is also, as Master Hua explains, the “Hypothetical Self” of a Bodhisattva. The Hypothetical Self is the self which realizes that there is no self. The other three Selfs are (1) The Ordinary Self, which comes from attaching to the body, (2) the Divine Self, which comes from defining one’s self theistically, and (3) the True Self, the self of a Buddha.
Another model of the self, which is used throughout the Diamond Sutra, is discussed in the blog Who Am I Anyway

Hearing, listening, being present and being in the moment; sitting on the ground in front of the Buddha, mindfully listening, authentically hearing what is being said––without losing focus, and without fabricating stories about what is heard––that’s what is meant by this second condition.

Today: In order to memorize the sutra, Ananda had to be absolutely clear and present in every moment, and that’s is being suggested for us too. We must stabilize our minds so that we can listen to what the world is telling us and hear conditions as they arise, accurately and clearly. Hard as this is to do, to be utterly mindful is our practice. When someone is talking to us, if we allow our minds to weave stories about what they are saying instead of listening to them and hearing them accurately, it is impossible for our Buddhanature, for our compassionate self, to arise in response to what is being said. Then, instead of doing right from a pure heart, we do wrong from an afflicted mind-state.

At one time –– The third condition is simply saying: We must make time to practice. We must make time to meditate. We must make time for listening to dharma talks. We have to just do it, no excuses! After all, if we aren’t willing to make time for the dharma, what are we willing to make time for? TV, a football game, another hour surfing the web? More self-cherishing and self-indulgence? The truth is, if we make time for the dharma, we will find that there is enough time for everything else. On the other hand, if we use our time unwisely, there will never be enough time.

Today: No excuses! No wasted time contemplating to-do lists on the cushion. No expectations about how things ought to be, or about what I do or don’t want. Instead, right now, today, we are being called upon by the dharma to make time for the dharma. Making time for the dharma is the first step to becoming the dharma. This is what a bodhisattva does. What could be more important to us, to our families, to our communities, and to our planet?

The Buddha’s final words were an exhortation. “What are you waiting for?” he called to us as he lay upon his deathbed. “Do it now!”

The Buddha –– In order for a talk to take place, there must be a speaker. In this case, the speaker is the Buddha, which literally means that Siddhartha Gotama was there, talking. When a Buddha talks, we listen. We know that a Buddha speaks only when he or she believes that what is being said can be heard and understood, and will be of benefit.

In order to approach sutras in the most beneficial way, we need to understand the deeper meaning of the phrase “the Buddha.” If we take “the Buddha” to be simply a man, then, for us, the teaching will be mundane. But if take “the Buddha” as a metaphor for our own enlightened mind-state, a mind-state universal to us all, then “The Buddha” is the ultimate nature of reality/emptiness, shunyata. In that case, we are hearing the sutra from a place deep inside ourselves, from our own Buddhanature, not from just any person who happens to be a few steps further along the Path than we are.

Today: In a sense, the sutras are mirrors that reflect, not the ordinary face we see in ordinary mirrors, but the face of the Absolute in each of us. Since each mirroring sutra is different, to move most effectively along the Path, it’s important to have a teacher who can guide us toward the sutra or sutras most beneficial to us.

Look carefully into the mirror and learn to see the dharma from a deeper place inside you, not to flatter yourself, but so that you can move along our path with humility.

In such and such a place –– We now must establish a location for the talk. Location is more than longitude and latitude. The location itself is charged with meaning and can contribute to our understanding of the Dharma   Is the place an embodiment of the living dharma? Does the place reflect the values we hear in the teaching? Is dana as integral a part of the place as its bricks and mortar? (Can we ever truly hear the dharma if there are granite countertops and gold faucets in the bathrooms of the meditation hall?)

Today: We fulfill the condition of place in our daily practice. That place can be at home, where we practice alone, or it can be in a Temple, Monastery or Dharma Center where we practice together as a community and have the opportunity to hear the Dharma from our teachers. To obtain the best results from practice, we need both kinds of places. One result of practice is the certainty that our lives would be immeasurably impoverished if we had no teacher, no center, no practice. We have to make space in our homes for meditation and we must support our Teachers and Dharma centers, financially as well as with our continual physical presence and participation.

The final condition for a sutra to arise is Audience. In addition to telling us who heard the Dharma that day, which, as a literary device, indicates how important a sutra is, the nature of the audience gives us clues as to its skillful means, the attitude and assumptions behind the talk.

The Buddha used a variety of teaching strategies, called skillful means, to ensure that the Dharma was heard and understood. So we can expect a dharma talk addressed to a king to be quite different from one addressed to a thousand monks, or to a single passerby. For example, consider the audience for the Lotus Sutra: …a large group of monks, twelve thousand in all. Eighty thousand bodhisattva great ones were also there. There were gods, dragons, satyrs, centaurs, asuras, griffins, chimeras, and pythons, in addition to all the monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen. There were great wheel-turning kinds, minor wheel-turning kinds, golden wheel-turning kings, silver wheel-turning kinds, and other wheel-turning kings. There were kings and princes, ministers and people, men and women, and great elders, each surrounded by followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands. [Gene Reeves translation]

We can be sure that this extraordinary group has gathered to hear a message of extraordinary importance.

Today: Everyday, in every moment, I ask this question: Am I being a good audience for the dharma? Am I making the time to hear my original nature through the chatter of my afflictions? Am I being a good audience for the Ultimate? And, of course, what can I do when I notice I’m not such a good audience?


Thus, we are not perplexed by life, we just do it. However, to be living thus, we have to clear away the fog of our afflictions. We have to strive to be authentic, both to ourselves and to the dharma. We have to go from the ordinary self to the tranquility of no-self. We have to learn to listen and to hear. We must continually be located at the place where the Dharma is spoken. We must become an audience for the Absolute. We need to find and support spiritual teachers who guide our practice. We must make a sacred space for the teachings in our homes, our lives and our hearts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Making Sense of Suffering

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Judeo-Christian theologians and philosophers, while admitting to the horror and uselessness of suffering, are struggling to make sense of it. Not so, I would suggest, in Buddhism.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the central question is whether suffering is a good thing or a bad thing. Not so, I would suggest, in Buddhism.

Seen through Judeo-Christian eyes, since suffering cannot be eliminated, and, in an attempt to make it bearable, suffering is portrayed as somehow beneficial.  Not so, I would suggest, in Buddhism.

From a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective, God created suffering to purify and/or punish us for our sins. Thus, suffering is part of the divine order. Not so, I would suggest, in Buddhism.

Many Judeo-Christian thinkers suggest that suffering is a necessary test of faith. The greater the suffering, the stronger the faith.  Not so, I would suggest, in Buddhism.

In Judeo-Christian terms, suffering is not inherently negative and serves a higher purpose. Not so, I would suggest in Buddhism.

Often in Judeo-Christian thought, those who see themselves as “saved” or “chosen,” see their suffering as somehow special, different from the suffering of others. Not so, I would suggest in Buddhism.

And finally, in the Judeo-Christian traditions, the answer to the question “Why me?” is that God acts in mysterious ways, ways we cannot know. Not so, I would suggest, in Buddhism.

In the Buddhist view, suffering is neither good nor bad.  It is neither to be borne nor to be endured for the sake of some higher good. It is not the creation of a God. It is not the source of salvation. In Buddhism, I would suggest, suffering is not inexplicable and it does not need to be justified. For Buddhists, faced with the challenges of suffering, there is no question “Why me?”

In Buddhism, suffering is the result of ignorance, errors in our way of perceiving our true nature and the nature of reality, errors which ripen into faulty actions (karma).  If, by dint of diligent, hard, spiritual work, we trade ignorance for wisdom, suffering ends. Therefore, to a Buddhist, the end of suffering is entirely in one’s own hands. We can increase it, decrease it, or eliminate it, depending on how we think and what we do. It really is that simple!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Practicing Without Tolerance

Tolerance and Intolerance, No Difference

For the religions of the West, tolerance is an important spiritual teaching.  Buddhism, on the other hand, does not consider tolerance to be an appropriate spiritual practice.

From a Buddhist perspective, tolerance reinforces an erroneous sense of self and other, hardens the ego and increases selfishness, and encourages passivity in the face of the human imperative, which, in the Buddhist view, is to awaken to truth by virtue of one’s own self-power.

The core of Buddhist practice is to cultivate positive mental states and renounce negative mental states for the simple reason that positive mental states manifest in positive actions, which increase happiness; while negative mental states manifest in negative actions, which decrease happiness. Since, in the Buddhist view, tolerance promotes unwholesome states of mind which bear fruit as unwholesome actions, for a Buddhist, tolerance is unsuitable as a spiritual practice. 

In fact, in the Buddhist view, tolerance promotes intolerance.

How can that be?

To find out, let’s take a look at two definitions of tolerance, one religious and one secular

The first, from the Catholic encyclopedia, defines tolerance as “Forbearance in the presence of an evil which one is unable or unwilling to prevent….Considered in the abstract, tolerance contains two ideas: the existence of an evil; and the magnanimous determination not to interfere with the evil, but to allow it to run its course.”

The second, from Webster’s dictionary defines tolerance as:
1. sympathy or capacity to endure pain or hardship
2. the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance

Here is how Buddhists take exception to these ideas.

1.     For a Buddhist, there is no external force, whether it is evil or good.  One of Buddhism’s central teachings is non-duality, sometimes expressed in the phrase “gift, giver, receiver, no difference.”

2.     In the Buddhist view, nothing is permanent, including no permanent forces, whether they are evil or good.

3.     Buddhists emphatically reject “blind faith” as wrong view and as being counterproductive the quest for liberation.

4.     Buddhism rejects attitudes which generate unwholesome mental states. When tolerance means  putting up with something in a rather grudging or resentful manner, a mental pattern of resentment is formed; or, when tolerance implies weakness, such as an inability to stand up for oneself, weakness becomes a habit. Buddhist practice renounces these and all negative  mental states as not conducive to increased well being.

5.     Buddhism avoids unwholesome actions by renouncing the states which give rise to them. Since tolerance relies upon mental states such as exclusivity, magnanimity, arrogance, conceit, and possessiveness, states which give rise to an array of unwholesome actions ranging from minor irritation to armed conflict, in the Buddhist view, tolerance is not a suitable practice. As the Mahanidana Sutta, DN 15, explains in the dark chain of causation: when there is possessiveness, there is the arising of stinginess, and in dependence on stinginess there is the arising of defensiveness, and in dependence on defensiveness various unwholesome things originate, such as conflicts, quarrels, disputes, insults and accusations, the taking up of arms, and all kinds of wrong speech, such as slander, lies and divisive speech.

6.     Tolerance, requires non-agreement.  Since non-agreement, in the Buddhist view, as we have just seen in the sutra, leads to conflict, non-agreement is not a suitable Buddhist practice.

As a Protestant Minister said to me when I asked about him about tolerance: “Both tolerance and intolerance are the same Cross upon which those who are different get crucified.” Indeed.

Then, what do Buddhists teach in situations where other faiths promote tolerance?

Buddhism has two unique teachings to offer:

1.     The practice of reflective acceptance
2.     The practice of reconciliation and non-differentiation

Let’s very briefly look at each:

Reflective Acceptance  means looking deeply, seeing clearly, and accepting circumstances as they are: Impermanent and fleeting. When we see clearly and accept reality, we can respond appropriately. As we learn in the Canki Sutra (MN 95), reflective acceptance is one of the critical conditions needed for us to arrive at the capital “T” Truth of Buddhism.

Reconciliation and Non-differentiation –– Reconciliation means learning to be peaceful with whatever conditions are in front of us. In our practice, whether on the cushion or off, we have countless opportunities for reconciliation, countless moments in which we may gratefully embrace the world of differences we live in. And the most effective way to embrace differences is with a practice of non-differentiation, the practice which dissolves differences: my ideas, their ideas, no difference.

Closing Thought

Recently, I saw this bumper sticker: Truth, not Tolerance. Would you be willing to put it on your car?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


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It’s All About Intention

Enlightenment is not reserved for nuns and monks sitting alone caves in the Himalayas or practicing in isolated kutis in the tropical, evergreen forests of Thailand.  On the contrary, enlightenment, the end of suffering, is available to us all. It is possible to live a life without stress, without dukkha, in every moment of every day, right where we live now. It’s the same for a Buddha as it is for Layman Pang and for any of us. It is this universality that makes Buddhism a spiritual system, and not just a transformative or behavioral psychology.

But, what exactly do we have to do to free ourselves from dukkha, from suffering?

To end our struggle, to terminate our lease in samsara, we must reset our intention. We must go from selfish to selfless, from impure to pure.  Purity means our intention must be unmitigatingly for the welfare of all beings. This is the wisdom that arises from our practice. This is how we end our struggle.

Where intention is fixed, attention is focused. If our intention is fixed on the Bodhisattva ideal, bodhicitta, and we are committed to living a life for the benefit of others, our attention will necessarily be selfless and focused in the present moment. The meaning of this is simple but the ramifications are profound. When we are without fear or perturbability, we are able to see conditions clearly.  When we can see conditions clearly, we can respond appropriately, which means, we are of benefit.

That is the meaning of abiding in conditions. Chapter one of the Diamond Sutra, which describes the daily activities of the Buddha, is a lesson in just this “abiding in conditions”. For a Buddha, the rhythm of being present in each moment is as natural as breathing:

One day before noon, the Bhagavan [the Buddha] put on his sanghati robe and picked up his bowl and entered the Sravasti to seek offerings. After begging for food, moving from house to house in the prescribed manner, and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washing his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.

As we see in this passage, it is our wise intention and consequent attention to our everyday activities that makes us bodhisattvas.

On another level––

What we don’t need to do is suggested by Master Yin Shun in this passage:

Ever since the propagation of materialism—where human existence is seen as a phenomenon of material composition and decomposition that ends with death—and theories of evolution by natural selection and survival of the fittest—most often represented today by Darwin, the human mind has undergone a dangerous degeneration. On the one hand, since death brings an end to everything, humans don’t have to be responsible for their behavior during their lifetime.  On the other hand, they must constantly fight and compete with other people in order to survive.  Such materialistic and competitive thinking has brought humanity to the brink of calamity.

The intentions which arise from materialism and social Darwinism are the antithesis of our practice. Such destructive thinking must not become the source of our intentions or the fuel for our actions.

What we do need to do is suggested by Master Yin Shun in the next paragraph of this excerpt:

There are two aspects to address in order to rectify [our] perverted thinking: First, [we must realize that] life is not just a physical existence; it does not end at death.  We must be responsible for our actions in life.  Second, the purpose of life is not to constantly fight and compete with each other.  Instead, we should develop an attitude of mutual respect, care and co-operation.  The alleviation of human suffering lies in our willingness to assume responsibility [for the well-being of all beings] and to make peace with each other.

How we approach this challenge, whether in our everyday moment-by-moment activities, as described in the story of Layman Pang and in the Diamond Sutra, or in the broader perspective described in the passages from Master Yin Shun, depends on our karma, on who we are right now in this moment.

Resetting Our Intentions

While there is no easy fix for our misguided minds, there is a simple chant that can, in my experience, be of considerable benefit in moving us toward bodhicitta. Recited every morning and evening, this metta [lovingkindness] chant goes a long way toward undermining one’s current afflicted intentions and resetting the mind to bodhicitta:

Metta Chant for Intention Setting

May I be free from anger and hatred.
May I be free from greed and selfishness.
May I be free from fears and anxiety.
May I be free from all pain and suffering.
May I be free from ignorance and delusion.
May I be free from all negative states of mind.
May I be happy and peaceful.
May I be liberated from bondages.
May I experience peace and tranquility within.

May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from anger and hatred.
May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from greed and selfishness.
May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from fears and anxiety.
May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from all pain and suffering.
May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from ignorance and delusion.
May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be free from all negative states of mind.
May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be happy and peaceful.
May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me be liberated from bondages.
May those whom I love, those whom I like, those who have angered or done harm to me experience peace and tranquility within.

May all beings be free from anger and hatred.
May all beings be free from greed and selfishness.
May all beings be free from fears and anxiety.
May all beings be free from all pain and suffering.
May all beings be free from ignorance and delusion.
May all beings be free from all negative states of mind.
May all beings be happy and peaceful.
May all beings be liberated from bondages.
May all beings experience peace and tranquility within.


Another way of establishing and maintaining right intention is the practice of Tonglen, which is a Tibetan meditation in which you visualize the suffering of another person, then breathe that suffering into yourself, transform it into radiant light, and finally send it back out again.

Tonglen trains the mind to be in a steady state of bodhicitta. I was introduced to tonglen by James Hicklin, who is serving a life-without-parole sentence at a maximum-security prison in Missouri. James has written several articles for Rightview Quarterly (Shame and Unhitching the Cart ).  His use of tonglen inspired me to start my own practice.  If it worked in the face of the bitterness, anguish and anger of a maximum-security prison, I thought, it should certainly work for me. My own tonglen practice, though still young, has been of enormous benefit and I wholeheartedly suggest tonglen to you.  Find a qualified Lama to teach it to you and, for the sake of all beings, maintain tonglen as a daily practice.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Rafts and Raft-Making

The Raft

Founding your religion on a doctrine that you say should be abandoned was revolutionary 2500 years ago. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what the Buddha did in the simile of the raft.

Students of Buddhism frequently joke about the raft.  While a light-hearted approach can be of value in seeing its larger meaning and its place in our lives, the raft has a serious role to play in our practice.  But just what is this raft?  How should we use it? How is it constructed? How many do we need? And from where, in the experience of the practice, does the raft come from?

When we first encounter the raft, in the Pali Canon, MN 22 and SN 35, for instance, as well as in the Diamond Sutra, Chapter 6, it is a metaphor for our progression from samsara to nirvana. We know immediately, from its position in the sutras, and later, from our direct experience of its efficacy, that the raft is extremely beneficial to the practice.  Having carried us on the essential first leg of our journey, when we go from contemplative examination to a full acceptance of the teaching, the raft becomes for us an engine for our enthusiasm, the crucible of our love for the practice.

Each of us will need many rafts, specific to our karma, to cross from this to the other shore. Even if, as we are told, we are “already enlightened,” “already Buddhas,” and even if we have had a glimpse, or a so-called “enlightenment experience,” we are not enlightened beings. To become that, we will need to become dedicated and diligent raft makers.

How do we construct a raft? The sutras tell us to gather grass, twigs, branches, and leaves, and to bind them together to make a raft. Then, we are told, we must use the raft, along with the power of our own hands and feet, to carry us safely to the other shore.  The grass, twigs, branches and leaves stand for the teachings. Our paddling hands and feet represent diligent energy and exertion.

Early in my practice, in Raft-Making 101 when I made my first raft, it had four sides, corresponding to the four noble truths. Back then I saw the raft as imploding when I stepped out of it onto the other shore. Later, I construed the eight aspects of the noble path as structural elements of a more complicated raft. This raft, I imagined, I would send back toward samsara when I stepped out of it.

After that, I developed a sort of raft-making-methodology as I continued to study and practice.  Sometimes I used the same raft over and over again as I worked through bad habits. Sometimes I made new rafts.  Some, my “antidote rafts,” were fashioned in response to my defilements. I stayed on the antidote raft until it was replaced by another raft, the “equanimity raft.” Eventually, the equanimity raft would be replaced by an enlightened mind-state. This transformative teaching, going from defilement to antidote to equanimity to tranquility, along with the steady presence of another raft, a "right effort" raft, has been prominent in my spiritual growth. 

Now, I have several other key rafts in my boat house, including the faith raft, the dana raft, the dukkha raft, and the right speech raft, each of which is described in previous blog.

By the time I reached Raft-Making 201, I had created lots of rafts.  After I made them, I noticed, the rafts were always there, available to me whenever I needed them. It was as if I had a ninth consciousness, a “boathouse consciousness,” which gave me the ability to paddle myself to increasing purity in body, speech and mind. I realized then that the rafts were my tools for self-purification.

I see now that I have developed a raft making habit.  I build new rafts all the time to move me through the agitated waters of my defilements. These days, when irritation, for example, arises, I can jump onto the dana raft or the patience raft (the first and third paramitas) and float, if not all the way to the other shore, at least to a place of less dukkha, a purer place. I think of these rafts as practice vehicles which can weaken or lessen and eventually eliminate my dukkha.

There is one raft in my boathouse consciousness that I use more and more often. This is a high horsepower raft, my capital “D” Dharma raft, which can stop dukkha dead in its tracks and carry  me straight to my own true, enlightened nature. I call this my wholesome mind-states raft. To make it, I used Asanga’s eleven beneficial mind-states: trust, diligence, humility, generosity, patience, wisdom, tranquility, attentiveness, equanimity, not harming and regret, plus a handful of twigs and leaves I gathered myself: compassion, dependability, honesty, lovingkindness and sympathetic joy, amongst others.

We can use our rafts to set us free from craving and clinging, to separate us from beginningless suffering, to carry us across the sea of our afflictions. But, and here is the revolutionary teaching, once we arrive on the other shore we must step out of the raft and released it. We must let the Dharma itself go. Until we do that, we are not truly there, on the other shore. There is another way of interpreting the raft simile, from the standpoint of the Diamond Sutra rather than the Pali canon. In the Diamond Sutra, we use the raft to get to the water’s edge, and then we abandon it to cross over.

As always in the practice, we need to be alert to the increasing treachery of the ego, whose desperate disguises multiply as we progress and are increasingly subtle and hard to detect. If the raft is used incorrectly, the raft itself, which was contrived to bring us to the other shore, will instead, tether us to this.

We need to be careful not to parade around samsara holding a raft aloft, perching it on our heads for all to see. This boastful display, this wrong view of the teaching, is the conceit, the sense of superiority, the arrogance that entrenches us on this shore. And we must be careful not to use the raft to spin speculative views that then need to be protected and defended, leading to a whole host of new defilements, like self-righteousness and aggression, which more deeply mire us in wrong view.

If the raft has become so precious to––after all that time and energy we spent building it––that we drag it onto the shore with us, to keep it “just in case,” we will find that the raft hasn’t taken us anywhere and that we even more deeply sunk in the coastal mud of samsara than before.

Some people mistake the raft for liberation.  Having no interest in traversing the water, they like to carry the raft along this shore.  Instead of being purified by the eight aspects of the path, for example, they recite them with pride and conceit. They don’t know that the raft, the teachings. are not the goal of the practice but the practice itself.

Some people think that if they simply learn the teaching they will become enlightened. If that were the case, I would quickly ask someone to throw me their “pre-owned” raft and be done with it!  But, needless to say, knowing and reciting the eightfold path does not mean one has “realized” the path.

Some people use rafts contentiously, as a way for the mind to avoid devoting itself to the actual practice of the dharma. After all, it’s easier to talk about it than do it. Under the guise of advocating for the dharma, they are inadvertently attaching more firmly to their sense of Self, to the I-Me-My-Mine discussed in the previous blog.

The sole purpose of the raft is to break our bonds of attachment. If we use our rafts for any other purpose, if we praise ourselves for building them, if we treasure them, if we cling to them, or, if we prefer talking about them to using them, our longed for vehicles for liberation will instead tether us to this, the suffering shore.

Exercise: In your practice now, this month, this week, this day, this moment, which raft(s) are you using. Are you holding yourself in a state of awareness so thatyou can see which raft(s) is needed to purify afflictions of body, speech and mind when they arise? Are you a relentless paddler and raft-maker?

Do you need to know more about rafts and raft-making to steady and hasten you along the Path?

Please feel free to post your thoughts about rafts and raft-making by clicking comment below, or email if you have a question.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Riding the Raft of Optimism to Peace

Discovering Optimism in My Buddhist Practice

Vow of Humankind

Calm and composed
Let us awaken to our True Self
Become fully compassionate humans
Make full use of our abilities
According to our respective vocations
Discern suffering
Both individual and social
And its sources
Recognize the right direction
In which history should proceed
Joining hands as kin
Beyond the differences of
Race, nation or class
Let us, with compassion
Vow to bring to realization
Our deep desire
For emancipation
And construct a world in which
All can live truly and fully.

Hosekei Shinichi Hisamatsu, Zen scholar and missionary

A casual look at the first noble truth–that life is suffering–rather than a real understanding of it, can make Buddhism seem pessimistic. In fact, the opposite is true. The teachings of the Buddha are unmitigatingly optimistic. Buddhist teachings view life as a moment-by-moment opportunity to become more and more peaceful and happy until all our suffering is gone. And the teachings view all sentient beings as being on the spiritual path to more peaceful and happy lives. What could be more optimistic?

To understand what makes this view so optimistic we need to understand what the Buddha meant when he described life as suffering. Then we need to understand the meaning of “the Buddha” and of “faith,” and the implications of “emptiness.” Hopefully we will grow to understand these intuitively rather than discursively, since all discursive understanding is speculative, and, while perhaps useful in our early practice, all speculative views are “wrong view.”*

For a discussion of what is meant by the First Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of Suffering, which says that life is suffering, please read the link to the previous blog entry, Parsing This Is Suffering.

Now let’s look at the meaning of the words “the Buddha.” To do that, let’s first consider where our current idea of “the Buddha,” as purely a man, came from.

In seventeenth century Europe, for Westerners, only four religions were identified in the world: Christianity, Judaism, Mohammedism, and Paganism. The history of religion is, in a sense, as Donald Lopez explains in The Story of Buddhism, a Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings, a process of replacing Paganism with a larger list of isms: Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, and, of course, Buddhism.

To do this, to create an ism such as Buddhism, scholars have to establish such obligatory constituents as a founder, sacred scriptures, and fixed doctrines. So Siddhartha Gotama became the Buddha. This personification, however, distorts the real meaning of the term, at least as I see it from my practice now.

What I see from my cushion is that “the Buddha” isn’t a man or a woman*, isn’t “a Self, an ego entity, a living being,” in Diamond Sutra terms. “The Buddha” is a mind-state, a mind-state universal to all sentient beings. “All sentient beings” is everything that is and isn’t, and is neither and is both. “The Buddha”, therefore, is the ultimate nature of reality–emptiness, shunyata.

If it were any other way, then the Buddha would be just another dukkha-ed being, another one of us in samsara. But that is not the case. Were that to be the case, there could be no Buddhanature, no enlightenment, and the ending of our dukkha would not be possible. There would, in fact, be no “Buddhism.”

As I understand it, The Buddha is our default setting, our original nature, which, unfortunately, is hidden in the fog of samsara by my current choice to live in dukkhaland. This simple understanding–that it is a choice–made me see what I need to do to clear away the fog so I could live in peace instead: I simply need to make the choices that move me in the direction of the Buddha.

Once I understood this, I saw the raft** that have been readied for me by the Four Noble Truths, the eightfold path, etc., and I realized I could use my hands and feet to paddle to the other shore, leaving all my defilements behind me.

So Buddhism isn’t about suffering; it is about me as an enlightened being, about what I can do everyday to be happier. All of the teachings are aimed at helping me to remove the hindrances and obstacles, the taints and fetters, the attachments that obscure my true nature. 2500 years of teachings, all aimed at helping me find my enlightened nature. That’s optimism.

Now let’s take a moment and look a little more deeply at “the Buddha” as emptiness, shunyata.

We have to be careful when we talk about emptiness not to objectify it. Not to inadvertently make emptiness into a thing with a self, or even a doctrine, for that matter. We must be careful not to confuse emptiness with fullness or unity, which are misunderstandings of the term. It is definitely not that everything is one, it is definitely not about merging with some ultimate or divine.

Emptiness isn’t simply a philosophical insight into the nature of reality. Emptiness is a spiritual practice. In other words, the realization of emptiness is the way we liberate ourselves from delusions; it is the way we liberate ourselves from the defilements that attach us to samsara and bind us to our self-made suffering. Attachment to the mind-state of emptiness is not possible.

My sense of optimism comes from precisely this point. The more deeply I understand and realize emptiness, the less there is to attach to, the less self there is, so to speak, and the more optimistic I feel about the human condition. When I realize that suffering is empty, then I realize how peaceful this very moment is, how bright my future is.

It is, for me, the understanding that everything is empty that is the springboard to my optimism. If everything is empty, then I can change anything in my life. I can, on the most important and fundamental level, change the conditions that bind me to samsara. One moment at a time, one decision at a time, I can move myself away from a lifetime of anxiety, delusion and depression, away from a lifetime of anger and ill-will, towards a life which is ever increasingly peaceful, compassionate, and content.

So, it is shunyata, emptiness, that leads me to see Buddhism as profoundly optimistic, and it is shunyata, emptiness, that gives me faith.

As I say that, of course, I recognize my greediness, my wanting to be optimistic, my liking optimism better than my old pessimism. On a deeper level, I confess, I understand that Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, it is utterly realistic. And the transition from seeing things as pessimistic to seeing them as optimistic, to finally seeing them as they really are, by being realistic, is about moving from dukkha to peacefulness, about letting go of the greed. Faith, of course, is what holds me steady in this movement. This movement being from defilement to antidote to equanimity to shunyata. But let’s go back to faith.

“Faith” in Buddhism has a different meaning than it has in Abrahamic religions. Faith in Buddhism is the confidence that arises from knowing that dukkha is end-able. Faith is knowing with absolute certainty from within that, with diligence and consistency, I will become free.

As I became more aware of the Buddha within me, as I practiced more faithfully from a position of emptiness, my awareness of the suffering of other sentient beings, of all other sentient beings and of their need to be saved, of their “deep desire for emancipation,” arose powerfully with me. It led me to understand how in each moment I make a choice, and that that choice is a socially engaged choice.

By following the path and by abandoning the unwholesome and developing the wholesome (right effort in action), I see that in each moment my practice is one of being of benefit to all beings. And that too makes me optimistic, about my future about the future of all sentient beings, and about the future of the environment.

Far from becoming distant and detached, the bodhisattva is right there, out front, engaged in the world, working for the benefit of all sentient beings.

May we all have the “blazing energy" of Vimalakirti as we paddle with joyful and optimistic hearts to the other shore.

*The gender ambiguity of many Buddha statues is a symbolic way of expressing shunyata, emptiness; not, as is often explained, an attempt at gender non-differentiation.

**A blog on rafts and raft-making will be the next posting.

Please feel free to post your thoughts about this blog by clicking below on “comments.”