Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Buddha on Fame & Fortune

"A fatal thing, monks, are gains, favors and fame, a bitter, harsh impediment to the attainment of the unsurpassed freedom from bondage. It is just like a beetle, feeding on dung, full of dung, gorged with dung, standing before a great dung-hill, who might despise other beetles, saying: 'I am a dung-eater, full of dung, gorged with dung, and before me is this great dung-hill!'

 "In the same way, monks, if some monk is overwhelmed with gains, favors and fame so that his head is turned, so, having risen early and taken his robe and bowl and gone for alms to the village or market town, he eats his fill, gets invited again for next day, and has a full bowl. Then he goes to the monks' park, and boasts in the midst of the assembled monks: 'I have had a good meal, and I am invited again for tomorrow. My bowl is full. I have got a robe, alms, lodgings and medical requisites. But these other monks have little merit and little influence; they do not get such requisites.' Thus this monk, who is so overwhelmed with gains, favors and fame that his head is turned, despises other well-behaved monks. But this will bring harm and sorrow to that wretched man for many a long day. That shows you, monks, how disastrous gains, favors and fame are, what a bitter, harsh impediment to the attainment of the unsurpassed freedom from bondage. Therefore monks, you should train yourselves thus: 'Whatever gains, favors and fame may come our way we will reject, lest it turn our heads.' So, monks, you should train yourselves."

 (Pilhika Sutta, ‘Dung-Beetle Discourse’. Note: Although Buddha is addressing monks in this discourse, this teaching equally applies to anyone else seeking nirvana, or release from suffering.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Does a Dog Have Buddha-Nature?

“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
“No.”

 Being a dog lover and having had three dogs over the years, one of which still lives, the above dialogue involving Zen master Zhaozhou* seems really important. Interacting with dogs, looking into their eyes, doesn’t it seem obvious that Zhouzhou’s answer must be wrong? After all, it’s a basic tenet of Buddhism that all sentient beings have the capacity to realize nirvana. In other words, they all possess buddha-nature. And then there’s that look in my dog’s eyes; a look of indicating a certain level of insight, an ability to understand what passes between us. It is a mutual, inherent knowingness.

 Of course, Zhaozhou’s ‘No’ is a kind of Zen riddle used to bypass logical thought processes and achieve satori, or awakening to buddha-nature. If we take him literally, not only does this ‘No’ deny a basic Buddhist teaching, but it also contradicts our own intuition when encountering other sentient creatures such as dogs. It could be, “Does a chimpanzee have buddha-nature?” or “Does a frog have buddha-nature?” Whatever the sentient being involved, however, surely the correct response should be a resounding, “Yes.”

 “Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
“Yes.”

 A less well-known dialogue involving Zhaozhou revolved around the same question, but on this occasion the master responded positively. Now, this answer fits with both Buddhist teachings and that direct intuition referred to above. However, as a koan it probably wouldn’t work as well as there is nothing to get stuck into and work with. When Zhaozhou answers, “Yes,” the intellect isn’t challenged and neither is intuition. Everything’s as it should be and therefore the status quo is not overturned, making the likelihood of an experience of satori less possible.

 The ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ taken together paint a fuller picture for us to peruse. Logically-speaking, dogs with all other sentient beings possess buddha-nature, so the ‘Yes’ covers this. The ‘No’ serves the purpose of going beyond mere intellectual understanding of doctrines however and calls us to experience buddha-nature for ourselves. ‘Yes-No’ acknowledges both that my dog has the potential for satori, whilst leading me to experience it for myself. I can rest in awakening knowing that my dog is already saved from suffering as he has buddha-nature too. Maybe he sees it, maybe not, but it lies at the core of who he is forever.

“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?”
“Yes-No.”

 *Note: Zhaozhou Congshen (778–897) is one of China’s most famous and revered Zen masters. The dog koan, also known as the Mu koan, Mu being the Japanese version of ‘No’ in this context, is the most famous of all koans, often given to Zen students to inspire their initial awakening into the truth of Buddhism.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Buddha on Assuming a Self

"To what extent, Ananda, does one assume when assuming a self? Assuming feeling to be the self, one assumes that 'Feeling is my self' or 'Feeling is not my self: My self is oblivious to feeling' or 'Neither is feeling my self, nor is my self oblivious to feeling, but rather my self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling.'

"Now, one who says, 'Feeling is my self,' should be addressed as follows: 'There are these three feelings, my friend — feelings of pleasure, feelings of pain, and feelings of neither pleasure nor pain. Which of these three feelings do you assume to be the self?' At a moment when a feeling of pleasure is sensed, no feeling of pain or of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed. Only a feeling of pleasure is sensed at that moment. At a moment when a feeling of pain is sensed, no feeling of pleasure or of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed. Only a feeling of pain is sensed at that moment. At a moment when a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed, no feeling of pleasure or of pain is sensed. Only a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is sensed at that moment.

"Now, a feeling of pleasure is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. A feeling of pain is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. A feeling of neither pleasure nor pain is inconstant, fabricated, dependent on conditions, subject to passing away, dissolution, fading, and cessation. Having sensed a feeling of pleasure as 'my self,' then with the cessation of one's very own feeling of pleasure, 'my self' has perished. Having sensed a feeling of pain as 'my self,' then with the cessation of one's very own feeling of pain, 'my self' has perished. Having sensed a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain as 'my self,' then with the cessation of one's very own feeling of neither pleasure nor pain, 'my self' has perished.

"Thus he assumes, assuming in the immediate present a self inconstant, entangled in pleasure and pain, subject to arising and passing away, he who says, 'Feeling is my self.' Thus in this manner, Ananda, one does not see fit to assume feeling to be the self.

"As for the person who says, 'Feeling is not the self: My self is oblivious to feeling,' he should be addressed as follows: 'My friend, where nothing whatsoever is sensed (experienced) at all, would there be the thought, "I am"?'"

 "No, Blessed One."

 "Thus in this manner, Ananda, one does not see fit to assume that 'Feeling is not my self: My self is oblivious to feeling.'

"As for the person who says, 'Neither is feeling my self, nor is my self oblivious to feeling, but rather my self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling,' he should be addressed as follows: 'My friend, should feelings altogether and every way stop without remainder, then with feeling completely not existing, owing to the cessation of feeling, would there be the thought, "I am"?'"

 "No, Blessed One."

 "Thus in this manner, Ananda, one does not see fit to assume that 'Neither is feeling my self, nor is my self oblivious to feeling, but rather my self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling.'

"Now, Ananda, in as far as a monk does not assume feeling to be the self, nor the self as oblivious to feeling, nor that 'My self feels, in that my self is subject to feeling,' then, not assuming in this way, he is not sustained by anything (does not cling to anything) in the world. Unsustained, he is not agitated. Unagitated, he is totally unbound right within. He discerns that 'Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.'”

(Excerpted from the Maha-nidana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 15, Tipitaka. Note: Ananda was Buddha’s cousin, personal attendant & a monk who realized nirvana himself after Buddha passed away; Buddha often referred to monks in his discourses as it was monks that he was addressing, but the above teaching applies to nuns & laity also.)


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Buddha on Enlightenment & Emptiness

“Subhuti, this is how those who have entered well into the way of the bodhisattva must think to themselves as they feel the wish to achieve enlightenment:

 I will bring to nirvana the total amount of living beings, every single one numbered among the ranks of living kind: those who were born from eggs, those who were born from a womb, those who were born through warmth and moisture, those who were born miraculously, those who have a physical form, those with none, those with conceptions, those with none, and those with neither conceptions nor no conceptions. However many living beings there are, in whatever realms there may be, anyone at all labelled with the name of ‘living being,’ all these will I bring to total nirvana, to the sphere beyond all grief, where none of the parts of the suffering person are left at all. Yet even if I do manage to bring this limitless number of living beings to total nirvana, there will be no living being at all who was brought to their total nirvana.

 Why is this so? Because, Subhuti, if a bodhisattva were to slip into conceiving of someone as a living being, then we could never call them a bodhisattva."

 Notes: The above is Chapter Six of the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, or ‘Diamond Cutter Perfection of Wisdom Discourse’). Subhuti was a senior monastic disciple of Buddha; a bodhisattva (‘being-of-enlightenment’) vows to lead all sentient beings to enlightenment, and is the highest mode of existence for a Buddhist.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Being Buddhist, Being Kind

“Whatever kinds of worldly merit there are, all are not worth one sixteenth part of the heart-deliverance of loving-kindness; in shining and beaming and radiance the heart-deliverance of loving-kindness far excels them.”
(Buddha, Itivuttaka, Sutta 27, Tipitaka)

What is it to be Buddhist? To meditate? To chant? To read Buddhist books? To be generous? To be compassionate? To be kind? To be wise? No doubt a case can be made for all of these and more to be part of what makes a Buddhist. But, when we look at our behaviour as Buddhists, do we actually fit the bill? A Buddhist (by definition) is someone who tries to put Buddha’s teachings into practice in their lives. Simply paying lip service to Buddha & his teachings but without living them isn’t really being Buddhist, is it? It’s acting, playing out a role, a character in a movie called ‘Life.’ Thing is, if this is the limit of our being Buddhist, isn’t it just another form of identification, an aspect of the ego? He’s Muslim, she’s atheist, and I’m Buddhist; it’s what makes me special. Really?

Does being Buddhist make us special when compared to others? Well, surely no more or less special than anyone else! You see, merely being Buddhist through birth or allegiance doesn’t make us special among humans because we’re essentially the same; we are born, we live and we die; and in our lives we all experience suffering (dukkha). Can we say Buddhist suffering is more special than other kinds of suffering? Of course not! Can we say that identifying with being Buddhist as opposed to Christian or Jewish is a special kind of identification? How can it be? Suffering is suffering, whether it be a Buddhist’s or a Hindu’s, and identification is identification, whether it be Buddhist or Sikh.

So, what are the Buddha’s teachings that we should put into practice so that we might be truly Buddhist? Well, this isn’t as easy a question to answer as at first it might seem. For, what version of those teachings are we to follow? Zen, Theravada, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Nichiren, Shingon, Tendai, Huayan, Madhyamaka, Yogacara, or Navayana? And these are just some of the main ones! Moreover, even within these various traditions and philosophies there are different teachings and practices which are not followed by all. Going back to the list mentioned at the top of this article, can we say that someone fails to be Buddhist if they don’t meditate or read Buddhist books, for example? Surely not; there’s something more basic to being Buddhist than such specifics isn’t there?

Looking at Buddhists and humanity at large can help us to see what’s needed by recognizing what’s missing. Returning to that universal truth of dukkha (stress or suffering), we can certainly see what people that are in pain need more of: kindness. Buddha promoted a quality of mind called metta, often translated as loving-kindness, although goodwill is a decent enough English equivalent too. Yes, meditation and chanting have their place, as do the other practices already mentioned, but not all of us can sit watching the mind or recite ancient formulas. But what we can do is be kind. We can be kind to our partners, our families, our neighbours, our work colleagues, strangers and acquaintances alike.

You may argue that though being kind is all very laudable, it doesn’t sound particularly Buddhist. And I’d agree with this, because to be truly Buddhist is to be truly human. It isn’t a label or affiliation that makes us Buddhist, but being true to our human condition, and recognizing the same in others, changing our behaviour towards them so that they suffer just a little bit less. A kind word, a smile, a reassuring gesture; all such deeds are forms of metta in action, and make us more like Buddha, whether we identify with him and his teachings or not. Moreover, what’s the point in claiming to be Buddhist, spouting Buddhist philosophy if our actions lack the most basic level of goodwill? In reality, we are putting Buddhism in a bad light, waffling about all kinds of wise ideas and theories but falling short of these lofty notions in the way we conduct ourselves.

So, in answer to the query that opened this article, what it is to be Buddhist, the most basic answer is simply to be kind. Be kind to others and be kind to ourselves. Be kind to humans and animals, for we all have the capacity to suffer, but also the ability to alleviate some of that suffering. Be patient, and don’t listen to gossip nor spread it; forgive as much as you can and don’t wish others harm; see that all wish for happiness and safety – just as you do. If we can do this, then we can claim to be Buddhist, not only in our convictions but also in our actions, which is surely where the essence of being Buddhist is found. And, in doing this, we move closer to all beings, human or otherwise, Buddhist or otherwise. Being Buddhist means being kind.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Karaniya Metta Sutta

This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove,
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be,
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short, or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to be born,
May all beings be at ease.
Let none deceive another
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.

Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
ShouldThis is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove,
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be,
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short, or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to be born,
May all beings be at ease.
Let none deceive another
Or despise any being in any state.

Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
one cherish all living beings,
Radiating kindness over the entire world:
Spreading upwards to the skies
And downwards to the depths,
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed vews,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense-desires,
Is not born again into this world.


The Karaniya Metta Sutta - 'The Loving-Kindness To Be Cultivated Sermon' - is one of the most beloved of Buddhist sutras. It is presented here for our contemplation, for in its short but succinct form, we have a priceless guide to becoming better beings. In the upcoming months, a series of reflections on the sutra will appear on this blog. The translation presented here is from the Western Forest Sangha Chanting Book, which can be downloaded from the following address: Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery

Friday, June 27, 2014

Buddha on Self & Not-Self

Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: "Now then, Venerable Gotama, is there a self?" When this was said, the Blessed One was silent. "Then is there no self?" A second time, the Blessed One was silent. Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.

Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One, "Why, Blessed One, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?"

"Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"

"No, Blessed One."

"And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: 'Does the self I used to have now not exist?'"

(Ananda Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 44:10, Tipitaka. Notes: ‘Blessed One’ & 'Venerable Gotama' refer to the Buddha; eternalism is the view that there is an eternal, unchanging self; annihilationism is the view that death is the annihilation of self. Buddha’s teaching of anatta (not-self) states that there is no self in the first place to cease existing. This is not to be understood as a doctrine or philosophy, but to be experienced by the meditative mind.)