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.
See also:

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Buddha Space & Grief

Grief comes to us all. Perhaps a family member, a partner, a child, a friend or a pet has left you in past few years. Perhaps more than one. This author has lived long enough to see a number of the above loved ones pass away, the most recent being my beloved grandmother. The sense of loss, once the numbness had dissipated somewhat, was heart-wrenching. A deeply-loved woman by all in her family, her departure, though not entirely unexpected, came earlier than any of us expected. This happened six months ago, and though the waves of grief are becoming less frequent & less strong, they still come, sweeping away thoughts & emotions in the wake, drowning them in an ocean of sadness. But, if we’re wise, we learn how to not drown in this ocean. That way we insult a loved-one’s memory rather than honour it.

Being awake to the current moment, to what we might call the 'buddha space' that underlies our every experience, can definitely help with the grieving process. Trying to overcome feelings of grief with doctrinal thoughts such as, “Well, she’ll get reborn again,” or, “She’s in heaven now,” or even, “As everything is not self, nobody died anyway” don’t really help. At best, they’re platitudes used to alleviate some of the sorrow, at worst they’re unfeeling dogmas used to bury uncomfortable feelings. Being attentive to our grief is a much more pragmatic approach, however, giving it the space in which to express itself. Everything in life, including grief, needs to live out its natural life-cycle; being ‘born,’ existing, and then dying away. Suppressing or denying negative emotions simply hides them in the unconscious, from where they can wreak untold damage later on.

Of course, if we are simply aware of grief, allowing it full expression, it’s possible that it may overwhelm us, and then it can harm us just as if it had been buried away in the unconscious, the main difference being that we will often be aware of why we feel so sad. However, we will still suffer, perhaps even enter a depression, hurting those around us and possibly harming relationships, both private & professional. Being awake to our buddha space can allow our grief to be fully expressed but not to the extent that we get lost in it. This is because being awake to this spacious buddha-nature both allows a powerful emotion like grief the opportunity to be fully lived and does so in the peaceful, calm & compassionate space of our innate “buddha-ness.” All this may sound fine, you might think, but something more practical or concrete is needed to back up such a claim. With this in mind, the reader is invited to try out the following meditation to see yourself.

This is a three part meditation to explore, understand & deal with negative feelings at least a little bit better. It’s probably best to do each part several times in turn before moving on to doing all three.
Part I: First, we need to establish the peaceful base (or, ‘buddha space’) which will be used as the stable foundation upon which any observations can be built. In a quiet environment, close your eyes and rest in the moment. Take notice of each sound as it arises; is it loud, soft, long, short, pleasant, unpleasant, etc. After a few minutes of this, turn your attention around to that which is hearing all these sounds. Please look with honesty at what you find based on current evidence, not on previous knowledge or assumption. Is it noisy or or quiet? Is it moving or still? Perhaps, like this author, you find a silence that hosts all the sounds you can hear. It is awareness itself, awake to every sound that is occurring, but is itself perfectly silent, wonderfully still. It is the ‘buddha space’ that is awakened to this present moment.

Part II: Next, we will use this buddha space to take note of thought rather than sound. So, as a preparation for observing thought, we need to repeat the first meditation and become aware of this spaciousness in which sounds are heard. Take a few moments to listen to sounds before turning attention around to the listener. Once you’re awake to this welcoming silence, you’re reading for Part II. Think of a place you know: Your home, workplace, the park or wherever. Visualize this location fully, but all the while be aware of the open awareness that is observing this memory. Be alive to the fact that this memory is occurring in a clear, welcoming knowing. The famous Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah called this “our real home.” Whatever place is imagined, it appears in this real home; the only home we really ever have. Now, do the same with a person. Visualise their face clearly, the sound of their voice, their personality and actions. Again, as you do so, be awake to the buddha space that plays host to these memories and thoughts. Try this meditation with people you like and with people you dislike. Whatever the emotional responses you have, can you see the non-judgemental spaciousness in which they arise? If you can, you’re ready for the next stage.

Part III: Finally, having made sure you’ve gone through parts I & II first and are established in your ‘true home,’ think of an event that causes you some discomfort: a time when you were done wrong or embarrassed. Be open to the uncomfortable memories and associated feelings. Stay awake to what they exist in: buddha space. Give them room to be, observe them from this spaciousness, recognising what happened and the feelings that arise in you as a result. Don’t judge any of this, but simply give it room to breath; it will dissipate on its own when the time is ripe. Now, think of a loved one that has passed away, allowing all the good memories (and bad) to arise in this buddha space. The pain is still painful, perhaps even more so if this is the first time that you’ve faced it, but, if you stay aware of the peacefulness in which the pain exists, it won’t be able to ‘catch’ you and overwhelm you. In other words, if you identify with that which is aware of negative emotions, including grief, they are able to express themselves fully without causing you unbearable suffering. Often, such feelings remain buried in the subconscious where they may wreak all kinds of chaos, much of which you may not even realise is related to your suppressed grief. Grief, after all, is a natural reaction to the death of somebody that we love, but it needn’t cause damage. Not if we stay aware of the buddha space that is always here, always calm, always open.

Such an awareness has certainly helped this author to deal with feelings of grief regarding my lovely grandmother’s death. Rather than trying to think of other things, escape into a movie, or rationalize away negative feelings, being this spaciousness for grief to arise, exist & cease has made the grieving process a tolerable, even insight-laden experience. Not that grief is over and done with any quicker this way than if experienced from the viewpoint of a suffering personality, but the suppression, depression, and intense sadness often associated is less likely to occur. Grief is cushioned by awareness of buddha space, recognised and allowed to be, but not indulged in or lost in. Moreover, through being this buddha space, insight into this existence can develop, such as the impermanent nature of both physical & psychological processes.


Of course, being buddha space isn’t only useful when we’re grieving or experiencing other intensely negative emotions, but the fact that it can help with such strong emotions reveals its power. Being spacious awareness can improve the quality of every moment in our lives, from the mundane to the profound. Indeed, part of living from this buddha space is the revelation that what we take to be mundane is in fact profound. Every moment is profoundly important when experienced from the viewpoint of buddha space; the trick is to keep looking back and recognising this spaciousness at our centre. As to grief, if given the space it needs to go its natural course, it will not only be less devastating, but – along with those that we miss - will also be our teacher. Thank you, Nan.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Ajahn Anan on Getting to Know the Mind

Ajahn Anan (1954-present): A mindful smile

When we first come to meditate, we will notice quite quickly that even sitting for a minute seems almost impossible. All we get is restlessness and agitation. With practice though, we will soon be able to sit for longer periods. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes—eventually we will be able to sit for half an hour with ease. Sometimes the meditation is peaceful, other times not, but in the beginning stages the key element is patience.

It’s important to see that the five hindrances to peace in the mind—sensual desire, ill will, dullness, restlessness, doubt—are not created by meditation. It’s just what is there already. In daily life we are used to thinking a lot, and often not in a very skillful or controlled way. This type of thinking tends to agitate the mind and create different types of mental stress. So when we sit down to concentrate on the breath or another meditation object, what we notice first is what is already there. Suddenly we see, “Hmm, there’s a lot of thinking going on.” So to begin with, just accept that it’s normal for the untrained mind to be like that. And the way to deal with it skillfully is to develop this quality of mindfulness.

We meditate to get to know our mind. But that doesn’t mean we think, “I’ve got to be peaceful!” If we think and attach in this way then we’ll tend to get irritated with ourself when we’re not peaceful. Our aim is just to know the mind. And when we’re working on developing constant awareness, this will include times when we are not very peaceful, when there are thoughts and distractions coming up. So we just know, “Oh, now the mind is distracted.” There will also be times when our mindfulness and concentration are strong and the hindrances disappear. At those times we are aware that, “Now the mind is peaceful. Now the mind is calm and concentrated.” Whatever the experience, we know it for what it is. That’s our aim.


Ajahn Anan is abbot of Wat Marp Jan forest monastery in Thailand. He studied with the internationally-renowned teacher Ajahn Chah and has been a monk since 1975. The above quotation is from the book 'Simple Teachings on Higher Truths' which can be downloaded for free from here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Shodo Harada on the Eye of Emptiness

Shodo Harada (原田 正道, c. 1940): Buddha eyes

Twice the terrorists have attacked London, and even now the horror of those attacks has not allowed life to return to normal. The fear continues. Those who were killed were written about in the paper, while those who survived are filled with the possibility of their own deaths.  It is said that humans can become buddhas, but they can also become devils. Those possibilities seem apparent when something like this happens.

When people, through no fault of their own, are killed by those who are so dissatisfied and discontent, the entire world becomes a battlefield. When people are under severe pressure, their dissatisfaction can explode. Then hate gives birth to hate, anger gives birth to anger. There is no solution to this. When someone wants to kill people in great numbers, there’s no way to prevent it or to prepare for it.

People all over the world become more insecure and full of fear. Buddhism says that human beings have five types of eyes: physical eyes, heavenly eyes, eternal eyes, Dharma eyes, and Buddha eyes.

If we look at human eyes, there is no question that we are animals. The heavenly eyes see things that are far away; they have no perception of a physical body. Eternal eyes see humans as they really are, in true emptiness; these are the eyes of wisdom. Dharma eyes are those that see the emptiness and see this world and humans as beautiful; these are the eyes of the artist. The Buddha eyes see all beings as our own children, to be loved from pure compassion. To see everything as empty and every person as our own child is to love everything dearly. To open the eye of compassion is enlightenment or satori.

Shodo Harada is a Zen priest and abbot of Sogen-ji Zen temple in Okayama, Japan. 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.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #6

Verses 13 & 14

Just as rain breaks through
An ill-thatched house,
So passion penetrates
An undeveloped mind.

Just as rain does not break through
A well-thatched house,
So passion never penetrates
A well-developed mind.

Raga is a key concept in Buddha’s teaching. It can be translated s ‘passion,’ ‘desire’ or ‘attachment.’ It denotes passion for things that lead to stress or suffering (dukkha). As such, it is one of the three poisons or three unwholesome roots, a basic teaching of Buddhism. The other two poisons are aversion (dosa) & ignorance (moha). A synonym found in Buddhist texts for raga is lobha, which means ‘greed.’

Recognising passion is or greed within ourselves is the crucial first step towards understanding it. When understood, passion can then be let go of. This relinquishing of passion is part of the awakening process, and when combined with the letting go of aversion & ignorance it results in the ending of suffering. This state is known as nirvana, the ‘snuffing-out’ of the three poisons, and it is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.

An important note here is not to confuse the term ‘passion’ when used as a translation for raga with some of the ways the English word is used in everyday life. Passion can denote enthusiasm for something such as a good cause. When warning us of passion (raga), Buddha is referring specifically to attachment to people & things that lead to suffering (dukkha). This isn’t saying that we shouldn’t have passion for helping those in need or practising Buddhism (for example); it means recognising that passionate attachment that leads to suffering and then abandoning it.

All this may seem fine in theory, but how are we to achieve letting go of passion and the other two poisons? This is where mindfulness & meditation come in. An “undeveloped is  mind” as mentioned in verse 13 above, is one that is unmindful of its workings, whereas a “developed mind” as mentioned in verse 14 is one in which mindfulness & meditation have been cultivated. It is a mind aware of passion, understanding its causes and letting go of them. The initial step in this process is to use meditation to calm the mind to the extent that its workings may be observed with a quiet dispassion. If this stable base isn’t established, it is highly unlikely that the mind will be able to observe itself without getting caught up with, and identifying with, the very passion that it is attempting to observe & understand. With such a well-trained mind, passion can then be explored & let go of using insight techniques.

Recognising & releasing passionate attachment after it has already arisen is an important development in one’s meditation practice. Such skill can be taken further, however, for when well-developed, the mind can recognise the potential causes of future passion before they cause it, avoiding its arising in the first place. Such a mind is then free of the entanglements that tie it to suffering, and can focus on deepening its insight to the point of awakening (bodhi). In this way, “passion never penetrates a well-developed mind.”


The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of the 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.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ajahn Amaro on "Who" & "What"

Ajahn Amaro (1956-present): "Who" or 'What" are you?

In order to discover the place of non-abiding, we have to find a way of letting go of the conditioned, the world of becoming. We need to recognize the strong identification we have with our bodies and personalities, with all of our credentials, and with how we take it all as inarguable truth: I am Joe Schmoe; I was born in this place; this is my age; this is what I do for a living; this is who I am.

It seems so reasonable to think like this, and on one level, it makes total sense. But when we identify with those concepts, there is no freedom. There’s no space for awareness. But then, when we recognize how seriously and absolutely we take this identity, we open ourselves to the possibility of freedom. We taste the sense of self and feel how gritty that is and how real it seems to be. In recognizing the feeling of it, we are able to know, “This is just a feeling.” The feelings of I-ness and my-ness (ahamkara and mamamkara in Pali) are as transparent as any other feelings.

When the mind is calm and steady, I like to ask myself, “Who is watching?” or “Who is aware?” or “Who is knowing this?”  I also like asking, “What is knowing?” “What is aware?” “What is practicing non-meditation?” The whole point of posing questions like these is not to find answers. In fact, if you get a verbal answer, it is the wrong one. The point of asking “who” or “what” questions is to puncture our standard presumptions. In the spaciousness of the mind, the words “who” and “what” start sounding ridiculous. There is no real “who” or “what.” There is only the quality of knowing. And, as we work with this in a more and more refined way, we see that feeling of personhood become more and more transparent; its solidity falls away, and the heart is able to open and settle back further and further.

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘Small Boat, Great Mountain’ by Ajahn Amaro, which can be downloaded for free from here. Ajahn Amaro is abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England and has been a Buddhist monk since 1979, having studied with Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Sumedho.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Robert Aitken on Enlightenment & Love

Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2010)

Everything falls under the law of change,
like a dream, a phantom, a bubble, a shadow,
like dew or a flash of lightning;
you should contemplate like this.

This poem comes at the end of the Diamond Sutra, and refers not only to the brevity of life, but to its very texture at any moment. It is not substantial; in fact, as the Heart Sutra says, it is empty.

Because the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness cannot be understood intellectually, it is widely misunderstood. Some Buddhist scholars are reduced to explaining it simply as the ultimate of impermanence: "When you say 'now' it is already gone." But this is not the ultimate fact.

Emptiness is simply a term we use to express that which has no quality and no age. It is completely void and at the same time altogether potent. You may call it Buddha nature, self-nature, true nature, but such words are only tags or pointers.

Form is emptiness and as the Heart Sutra also says, emptiness is form. The infinite emptiness of the universe is the essential nature of our everyday life of operating a store, taking care of the children, paying our bills, and other ordinary activities.

In realizing all this, we understand how we are just bundles of sense perceptions, with the substance of a dream or a bubble on the surface of the sea. The vanity of the usual kind of self-preoccupation becomes clear, and we are freed from selfish concerns in our enjoyment of the universe as it is, and of our own previously unsuspected depths.

The mind is completely at rest. Nothing carries over conceptually or emotionally. In this place of rest, we are not caught up in the kaleidoscope of thoughts, colors, and forms as they appear, so we do not react out of a self-centered position.

We are free to apply our humanity appropriately in the context of the moment according to the needs of people, animals, plants, and things about us. We stand on our own two feet and decide, "I will do this; I will not do that." This sense of proportion is called "compassion," a word that originally meant "suffer with others." "I am what is around me," as Wallace Stevens said in an early poem. Thus you may see that enlightenment and love are not two things.


(The above is excerpted from the excellent book ‘Taking the Path of Zen’ by Robert Aitken.)