Thursday, August 27, 2015

Koun Yamada on Joshu's Dog

Yamada Koun (山田 耕雲, 1907—1989): Mu!

The story is as you read it: Once a monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have buddha nature?” Joshu answered, “Mu!” The Chinese character means “nothing,” or “”nonbeing,” or “to have nothing.” Therefore, if we take this answer literally, it means, “No, a dog does not have buddha nature.”

But that is not right. Why not? Because Shakyamuni Buddha declared that all living beings have buddha nature. According to the sutras, when Shakyamuni Buddha attained his great enlightenment, he was astonished by the magnificence of the essential universe and, quite beside himself, exclaimed, “All living beings have buddha nature! But owing to their delusions, they cannot recognise this.”

The monk in the story could not believe these words. To him, buddha nature was the most venerable, most highly developed personality, and a buddha was one who had achieved this perfect personality. How then could a dog have buddha nature? How could a dog be as perfect as Buddha? He could not believe such a thing was possible, so he asked Joshu sincerely, “Does a dog have buddha nature? And Joshu answered, “No!”

Joshu, great as he was, Could not deny Shakyamuni’s affirmation. Therefore his answer does not mean that a dog lacks buddha nature. Then what does Mu mean?

This is the point of the koan. If you try to find any special meaning in Mu, you miss Joshu and you’ll never meet him. You’ll never be able to pass through the barrier of Mu. So what should be done? That is the question! Zen practitioners must try to find the answer by themselves and present it to the roshi. In almost all Japanese zendo, the explanation of Mu will stop at this point. However, I’ll tell you this: Mu has no meaning whatsoever. If you want to solve the problem of Mu, you must become one with it! You must forget yourself in working on it. Your consciousness must be completely absorbed in your practice of Mu.


The above extract is from the wonderful ‘The Book of Mu’ edited by James Ishmael Ford & Melissa Myozen Blacker, and is published by Wisdom Publications. Koun Yamada was a Japanese Zen master and former leader of the Sanbo Kyodan lineage of Zen Buddhism.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Upaya: Skilfull Means

Upaya, ‘skilful mean’s or ‘expedient means,’ is a fundamental aspect of the Buddhadharma (Buddhist teachings).  Whatever teachings exist, they are skilful means to use in our awakening to the Dharma (‘the-way-things-are’). In addition, whatever practices are used, they can be applied in a skilful way to inspire & support our awakening.

Sometimes, Buddhists can cling (upadana) to the Buddhadharma just as fundamentalists that are Christian, Muslim, atheist or whatever may also do with their deeply-cherished beliefs. Seeing Buddhist scripture in the same way as a fundamentalist Christian views the Bible is not the purpose of the Buddhadharma. In truth, it is a misuse of it, often leading to arrogance & intolerance. Buddha encourages us to let go rather than to cling; Buddhist teachings & practices can be used to awaken with, but to cling to them as being incontrovertible truths is to miss the point of their skilful use as promoted by Buddha.

This appropriate attitude to the teachings is related to Buddha’s teaching on views (ditthi). Any view can be classified as right-view (samma-ditthi – a view in line with basic Buddhist teachings) or wrong-view (miccha-ditthi – a view that contradicts the Buddhadharma). Buddha, however, advised against clinging to right-view. Not that he promoted a kind of libertinism – to possess wrong-view is way more damaging than to hold right-view, as our views will affect our thoughts, actions & deeds. Nonetheless, understanding life in tune with right-view is one thing; dogmatically-clinging to it as unquestionable doctrine is another. It’s worth recalling that Buddha taught us to question his teachings and accept only those that we could verify for ourselves, or at least complement what we have already understood. He describes the Buddhadharma as having the quality of ehipassika – ‘come-and-see’ or ‘look-for-yourself.’


Understanding skilful means this way, we can open up to Buddhists with different views & practices to our own. They may use various forms of the Buddhadharma skilfully (or not), but recognising all forms of Buddhism as potential expressions of the same spirit of expediency towards awakening at least leaves us open-minded towards them. A Theravada Buddhist can use the teachings & conventions of their tradition skilfully whilst recognising that a Zen Buddhist may do the same with theirs. Ditto, Tibetan & Pure Land, or Nichiren & secular Buddhism. Moreover, it can be seen that non-Buddhists may be awakening to our true nature via their traditions also. This doesn’t mean clinging to the view that ‘all roads lead to Rome’ and that no differences should be highlighted, however. It simply means using one’s own path skilfully whilst being open to the possibility that the same may be so for others walking very different paths. It’s up to each of us to use what we have skilfully. As Buddha says: Walk on!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Ajahn Munindo on Judgement-Free Awareness

Ajahn Munindo (1951-present): Mr. Freedom

There is a church in the middle of Newcastle that has painted on the front doors, ‘Hate all Evil. Love all Good.’ If you were brought up with that sort of conditioning, as many of us were, you will inevitably have been led to this inwardly divided state. According to this teaching – which I am sure is entirely contrary to the Way of Jesus – God loves good and hates evil. The good ones he embraces and takes up to heaven where they have a good time forever, and the bad ones he chucks into hell where they have a bad time forever. With this kind of conditioning, when, in the face of recognising our faults we want to be virtuous, we start playing God; we set up this almighty tyrant in our minds that’s sitting in judgment all the time. We end up eternally taking sides for and against ourselves – and it is terrible, it tears us apart.

The good news is that taking sides is not an obligation – we don’t have to do it. We don’t have to follow these compulsions. With simple, careful, kind, patient attention we can recognise them as a tendency of mind. They are not the mind itself! They are not who and what we are. And having seen them, little by little, we are less caught up in them. As long as we don’t start playing their game by judging the judging mind, saying, ‘I shouldn’t be judging,’ we take away the counter-force which gives these tendencies their vitality.

We come to know the judging mind as it is. The judging mind is just so. There is nothing inherently wrong with the judging mind. Its ability to evaluate and discriminate is an important part of the intelligence that we as human beings use for our safety and survival. The problem is that its influence has become disproportionately large in our day-today living, and it never wants to be quiet! Through careful feeling-investigation we can come to see this hyperactivity for what it is and allow the discriminative function to resume its proper place. We experience whatever is happening with our full attention but with calmness and some degree of equanimity. In each moment that we see the judging mind objectively – just as it is – we purify the underlying view that we have of life.

In the deeper dimensions of our being there’s this kind of work to do. I would suggest that if we have the agility to move in and out of these various dimensions we will become adept at addressing very complex issues. In our daily life we can usefully set time aside, perhaps thirty minutes each day, to sit in formal meditation, and this agility will grow. Even ten minutes of well-spent sitting, being still and going back to the basic feeling of a total non-judgemental relationship with life, to perfect receptivity to the moment, can be of great benefit. Call it meditation, call it contemplation, call it whatever you like! It is a way of putting some time aside to value this part of life, to keep this faculty alive. And I trust that, as we emerge into the more mundane workaday activity of our lives, in which we engage with people in situations and make decisions and so forth, we will find that we have a firmer foundation. The decisions we make will be informed by an underlying clear view.


The above is taken from the excellent book ‘Unexpected Freedom’ which is freely downloadable hereAjahn Munindo has been a Buddhist monk since 1975 and studied with the forest monks Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho. He is the abbot of Aruna Ratanagiri Buddhist Monastery in northern England.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Red Pine on the Three levels of Wisdom

Red Pine (1943-present): Mr. Prajna

Buddhists distinguish three levels of prajna, or wisdom. The first level is mundane wisdom, which views what is impermanent as permanent, what is impure as pure, and what has no self as having a self. This form of wisdom is common to the beings of every world, and despite its erroneous nature, it is by this means that most beings live out their lives.

The second level of prajna is metaphysical wisdom, which views what appears to be permanent as impermanent, what appears to be pure as impure, and what appears to have a self as having no self. This is the higher wisdom of those who cultivate meditation and philosophy and is characteristic of such early Buddhist sects as the Sarvastivadins. Despite providing its possessors with insight into a higher reality, such wisdom remains rooted in dialectics and does not result in enlightenment. At best it leads to an end of passion and no further rebirth.

The third level of prajna is transcendent wisdom, which views all things, whether mundane or metaphysical, as neither permanent nor impermanent, as neither pure nor impure, as neither having a self nor not having a self, as inconceivable and inexpressible.

While mundane wisdom and metaphysical wisdom result in attachment to views, and thus knowledge, transcendent wisdom remains free of views because it is based on the insight that all things, both objects and dharmas, are empty of anything self-existent.

Thus, nothing can be characterized as permanent, pure, or having a self. And yet, neither can anything be characterized as impertnanent, impure, or lacking a self. This is because there is nothing to which we might point and say, "This is permanent or impermanent, this is pure or impure, this has a self or does not have a self." Such ineffable wisdom was not unknown among early Buddhists, but, if the written record is any indication, it did not attract much attention until such scriptures as the Heart Sutra began to appear four or five hundred years after the Buddha's Nirvana.

To distinguish this third level of prajna from mundane and metaphysical wisdom, it was called prajna-paramita. According to early commentators, there were two possible derivations, and thus meanings, for paramita. InPrajnaparamita scriptures like the Diamond Sutra, it is evident from usage elsewhere in the same text that the author derived paramita from parama, meaning "highest point," and that paramita means "perfection." Thus, prajna-paramita means "perfection of wisdom.'' But we can also deduce from the use of para in the mantra at the end of the Heart Sutra that the author of this text interpreted the word paramita as a combination of para, meaning "beyond," and ita, meaning "gone," and read the m after para as an accusative case ending.

Thus, according to this interpretation, paramita means "what has gone beyond" or "what is transcendent" or, according to Chinese translators and commentators, "what leads us to the other shore." Also, because ita here is feminine, paramita means "she who has gone beyond" or "she who leads us to the other shore," the "she" in this case referring to Prajnaparamita, the personified Goddess of Wisdom.

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘The Heart Sutra: Translation and Commentary’ by Red Pine, published by Wisdom Publications. Red Pine (pen-name of Bill Porter) is a translator and interpreter of Chinese texts, primarily Taoist and Buddhist, including poetry and sutras.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #7

Dhammapada, Verses 15 & 16:

The evil-doer grieves here and hereafter;
He grieves in both worlds.
He laments and is afflicted,
Recollecting his own impure deeds.

The doer of good rejoices here and hereafter;
He rejoices in both worlds.
He rejoices and exults,
Recollecting his own pure deeds.

Can a wrong-doer ever be completely happy? Some would argue that if he or she gets away with their wrong actions, a person will indeed be content. However, this presumes that happiness follows evil actions solely dependent upon not being punished or found out. But what of one’s own mind, one’s sense of right & wrong? In verses 15 & 16 it is not the outer effects of one’s action (karma) that is being referred to, but the inner effects.

In verse 15, Buddha suggests that the evil-doer grieves both now and in the future due to their own recollections of their wrong deeds. But, in Buddhist understanding, what exactly is an ‘evil-doer?’ Buddhist ethics are centred upon the five precepts which are: to avoid killing sentient beings, to avoid stealing, to avoid sexual misconduct, to avoid lying, and to avoid taking intoxicants. These precepts are based on the Buddhist principles of wisdom & compassion. Buddha suggests that if we live wisely & compassionately, we will avoid the above actions. Living thus is to live in balance with the interconnectedness of our lives together; we all wish to live, keep our possessions, have faithful sexual partners, know truth & to not be mistreated by drunkards. It works both ways, of course – if we all keep these precepts, we’re all happy and avoid some major suffering… and grief.

From the Buddhist perspective, if we are awakened to our true nature, we naturally avoid the evil actions described above. Being awakened, we are at one with all beings & life itself; there is no harm left in us. However, if we’re not awakened – and I guess you’re not, dear, reader, if you feel the need to read this meagre article – then precepts can help us to live in a better relationship with those around us. And, if we don’t do keep them, then at least at some level of consciousness, perhaps the subconscious if not the conscious, regret & grief will be follow. Who amongst us, if we’re truly honest about it, has never regretted our words & actions, even our thoughts?

To do good releases the mind from dwelling on evil, selfish actions. Instead, the person who’s actions are pure is free from the regrets that otherwise haunt the mind. To know that one has not killed another sentient being, stolen another’s belongings, had inappropriate or abusive sex, told lies or lost one’s mindfulness through intoxication results in a happier, more contented mind. A person having done such good can rejoice in their actions (karma), knowing that they are sowing the seeds of future well-being for both themselves and those that they interact with, especially those close to them. It’s time to take pleasure in our good, positive actions: there’s no other time to do so but now. Let’s be good & glad, not bad & sad!


The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Ajahn Sucitto on Karma

Ajahn Sucitto (1949-present): Mr. Karma
What is ‘kamma,’ and what does it have to do with Awakening? Well, as a word, ‘kamma’ is the Pali language version of the Sanskrit term ‘karma,’ which has slipped into colloquial English as meaning something like a person’s fate or destiny. Taken in this way, the notion can support a passive acceptance of circumstances: if something goes wrong, one can say ‘it was my karma,’ meaning that it had to happen. Where the idea really goes astray is when it is used to condone actions, as in ‘it’s my karma to be a thief.’ If karma meant this, it would rob us of responsibility for our lives. Furthermore, there would be no way in which we could guide ourselves out of our circumstances or past history: which is what Awakening is about. However, ‘kamma’ in the way the Buddha taught it means skilful or unskilful action – something that we do now. It’s the active aspect of a cause and effect process known as kamma-vipaka, in which vipaka or ‘old kamma’ means the effect, the result of previous actions. And, for the most part, we get bound up with the results of our actions.
However, as ‘action,’ kamma supports choice. We can choose what actions we undertake. Cause and effect governs the activities of volcanoes, plants and planetary systems, but kamma relates specifically to beings who can exercise choice over what they cause – which means you and me. Also, not everything that we experience is because of past kamma (other than that of being born). So if you’re sick or caught up in an earthquake, it’s not necessarily because of you did bad things in a previous life. Instead, kamma centres on your current intention or ‘volition’ (cetana). The teachings on kamma therefore encourage a sense of responsibility for action; the responsibility to give attention to the many conscious and half-conscious choices we make in terms of what we do. What this means is that in this present moment we do have a choice as to how the future pans out: whether we will feel joyful and at ease with ourselves, or anxious and depressed depends on our actions now. And similarly, through our actions now, we can be liberated from the past, present and future. That’s what Awakening to kamma brings about.


The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘Kamma and the End of Kamma’ by Ajahn Sucitto, which can be downloaded for free from here. Ajahn Sucitto was abbot of Cittaviveka Buddhist Monastery in England between 1992 and 2014 and has been a Buddhist monk since 1976, having studied with Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Sumedho.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Soyen Shaku on Non-Ego

Soyen Shaku ( 宗演, 1860 – 1919) 

A favorite parable used by Buddhists to illustrate the unreality of soul or self (I take these two meaning the same thing), is that of the house. The house is composed of the roof, walls, posts, floor, windows, and so forth. Now, take each one of these apart, and we have no such thing as a house, which appeared to have a permanent actuality a while ago. The house did not have any independent existence outside the material whose combination only in a certain form makes it possible. From the beginning there was no house-soul or house-ego, which willed according to its own will to manifest itself in such and such way by combining the roofs, walls, et cetera. The house came into existence only after all these component parts were brought together. If the house-soul insisted that "I am a thing by itself, distinct from any of you, members of my being, and therefore I shall abide here forever even when you, component parts, are disorganized. I will go up to heaven and enjoy my reward there, for I have sheltered so many worthy people under my roof,” this soul would be the most appropriate object of laughter and derision. But are we not standing in a similar situation when we speak of our eternal self dwelling within us and departing after death in its heavenward course?
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According to Buddhism, the question why we must not discriminate between friends and foes is answered by the doctrine of non-ego, as above explained at some length. Therefore, the Buddhists declare: Regulate your thoughts and deeds according to the feeling of oneness, and you will find a most wondrous spiritual truth driven home to your hearts. You are not necessarily thinking of the welfare and interest of others, much less of your own; but, singularly enough, what you aspire and practise is naturally conducive to the promotion of the general happiness, of others as well as of yourselves. In such an enlightened mind as has realized this most homely and yet most ennobling truth, there is no distinction to be made between friend and enemy, lover and hater. He is filled with loving-kindness and brotherly-heartedness. And such a one is called by Buddhists a Bodhisattva, which translated means "intelligence-being," or "one who has realized wisdom."

Soyen Shaku was a Zen master well known for his efforts in bringing Zen to the West, and was abbot of both Kenchō-ji and Engaku-ji temples in KamakuraJapan. He taught both Nyogen Senzaki and D.T. Suzuki, also famous for promoting Zen abroad. The above is an extract from ‘Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot’ translated into English by D.T. Suzuki, which can be freely downloaded from here.
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