Thursday, October 28, 2010


Taking A Page from Jewish Journaling

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was a tzaddik, a Jewish saint, and thinker of profound importance to the beliefs and practices of his sect and faith. He was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the early nineteenth century mystical philosopher who founded the Hasidic tradition. A group of Nachman’s followers, known as the Guardians of Justice, developed a journaling practice to keep them solidly on their spiritual path. Each night, they would write the answers to six questions.

The first question was “Did you say the shema today?” The shema is the affirmation of the Jewish faith and the assertion that there is only one God. In Buddhism it would be like reciting the Three Pure Vows. The second question was “Did you study the Torah today? In Buddhism, this is equivalent to asking if you taken some time to consider the meaning of the Buddha’s words. The third question was “Did you practice tzedakah today?” Tsedakah is dana. The fourth question was “Did you dance today?” For the Hasidim, dancing and singing with one’s fellow practitioners was a celebration of the joy of spiritual practice. In Buddhism it is equivalent to practicing sympathetic joy. The fifth question: “Did you practice sichat chaverim today? That’s right speech. The final question was “Did you practice hitbodedut today?” Hitbodedut is time in solitude: meditation.

Reading about this reminded me emphatically of how all mystical traditions are fundamentally the same. What we commonly think are differences are the result of garb, emphasis and language, not content and realization.

For those who journal or who like to journal, consider establishing a journal that follows this Hasidic model. Each day, write answers to these six key questions. Tracking these will give you a good idea of how solidly you are walking your Path.

1.     Have I recited and practiced the Three Pure Vows today?
2.     Have I taken time to consider the implications of the words of the Buddha in my life today?
3.     Have I practiced dana today?
4.     Have I practiced sympathetic joy today?
5.     Have I practiced right speech today?
6.     Have I meditated today?
 (I have added a seventh question that I think strikes at the core Buddhist practice.)
7.     What have I done today to end my greed today?

Here’s a quick review of the five doctrinal practices in the questions:

The Pure Vows

These vows list the ideal, the intention and the commitment of a bodhisattva, a person following the path. Buddhists practicing in Mahayana institutions around the world recite these vows every day. They are the guiding principles of a practitioner’s life. These short vows tell us what we need to do in any situation–not to do harm and to be of benefit in the largest way. They are the criteria we look to when we need to make any decision–big or small.

I vow to do no harm.
I vow to do only good.
I vow to save all sentient beings.


What are we supposed to do to attain freedom from suffering, to reach the emptiness of emptiness, to walk stably on the middle path? Be generous says the Diamond Sutra. Generosity (dana) involves the gift, the giver and the receiver. Ideally, the giver should give simply because there is a need, with no expectation of personal gain, reward, or benefit; and the gift should be given without consideration of the receiver, with complete disregard for the recipient’s character or qualities. Finally, the gift can be material: it can be money or things, or it can be spiritual, meaning the gift of the dharma. Spiritual giving, giving the gift of the teachings, is considered the higher form of giving. Higher even, according to the Diamond Sutra, than giving one’s life for another. The final form of giving is the gift of no-fear, meaning what we say and do and think generates only peace of mind in others and the world.

Sympathetic Joy

Sympathetic joy is unconditional joy for the welfare of others. It is a pure feeling of happiness that arises in us as we see someone else who is happy, who is successful in moving forward with their lives and their chosen path. By rejoicing in others' progress, we are supporting them and at the same time establishing a wholesome mindstate in ourselves that is of benefit to us and to others as well. Sympathetic joy is a helper for us on our Path; from sympathetic joy arises contentment and wisdom.

Right Speech

Only speak when it will improve the silence

Here are the five elements of right speech:

1.     Only speak when conditions suggest you should speak
2.     Only speak when you have something to say that will be of benefit
3.     Always speak in ways that can be understood
4.     Only say it once
5.     Never go on the battlefield; being of benefit isn’t about winning

While wrong speech could be accurately and broadly described as anything we say that isn’t right speech, however there are four traditional elements to wrong speech we should be vigilant not to practice:

1.     Harsh, mean-spirited or angry words
2.     Falsehoods and slander
3.     Gossip and small talk,
4.     Belittling others to raise your own status


Pursuing what we define as desirable and avoiding what we define as undesirable leaves us in a perpetual state of needing more, forever unsatisfied and unhappy. With every attainment there arises a new affinity or new aversion–more we have to get or get rid of, more greed. Greed is fundamental to how our mind works; it is the model we use for evaluating ourselves and everything else. And it is very hard to see that it is a poison. Or to see that there is an alternative.