Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Buddhist New Year's Resolution

Buddhas and sentient beings grow out of the One Mind and there are no differences between them. It is like space where there are no complexities, and is not subject to destruction. It is like the great sun which illumines the four worlds: when it rises, its light pervades all over the world, but space itself gains thereby no illumination. When the sun sets, darkness reigns everywhere, but space itself does not share this darkness. Light and darkness drive each other out and alternatively prevail, but space itself is vast emptiness and suffers no vicissitudes.
(Zen Master Huangbo Xiyun)

All the thoughts, feelings, and events of the past year are gone; now they are fleeting memories in the present moment. Reflecting on exactly where they arise, in the clear void of the Buddha Mind, they resemble sunlight disappearing into the darkness. Look into this Mind, and see its shining clarity at the heart of one’s being. Remaining as this spacious awareness, know the ephemeral nature of all things, including those memories; let them disappear into the void. Now, turn to face the New Year with this facelessness. What better resolution could there be than to rest in this knowing?

The e- book quoted in this article is available for free download at the following location: ‘Manual of Zen Buddhism’ by D.T. Suzuki

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Yoshiro Tamura on the Selfish View of the Self

Yoshiro Tamura (1921-1989): Don't be self-ish!

The selfish view of the self is a matter of seeing the self as fixed and unchanging, as a kind of absolute, and then seeing and judging other things on that basis. In other words, it is false subjectivity; it is deluded and clinging. In reality, nothing like an unchanging, fixed, absolute self exists. In other words, the self is a self-less self or a self-emptying self. A self that sees itself as impermanent sees things as they are. To know the true appearance of the self as a self-less self or a self-emptying self is to see things phenomenologically in accord with the way they are. It is, in brief, to be genuinely objective.

The selfish view of things involves seeing things as fixed and unchanging and then clinging to them. It is, in brief, a false objectivity. It is also deluded and involves clinging. In reality no unchanging fixed things exist. In other words, things are without independent reality; they are empty of independent reality. To know the true appearance of things as being without independent reality is to have a phenomenological mind, one free from clinging to objects, and conversely to be able to participate in the reality of objects from a phenomenological or non-selfish perspective. In this way, emptiness is not a matter of falling into nihilism but of enabling both objects and the self to exist and live as they should.

Yoshiro Tamura was a Japanese professor considered the leading authority on Tiantai, Tendai & the Lotus Sutra. The above quotation is taken from Tamura's excellent book ‘An Introduction to the Lotus Sutra,' published by Wisdom Publications: A very accessible work on the subject of the Lotus Sutra.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Ajahn Viradhammo on Buddhist Training

Ajan Viradhammo (1947-present): Good intentions

Two points that I find very helpful in training are: 1) to see cause and effect, and 2) intention. We can always reflect upon cause and effect, asking, for example, “What is the result of my practice? How long have I been practising and what’s the result? Am I more at ease with life than I was ten years ago? Or a year ago? Or am I more uptight?” If I’m more uptight, then I need to consider my practice! If I’m more at ease, then also I should consider my practice.

So we look at cause and effect, asking quite simply, “What is the result of my life, the way I live my life?” Not as a judgement, saying, “There I go, getting angry again.” That kind of attitude is not reflective.

Instead notice: The way I speak – what’s the result of that? The way I consume the objects of the sense world, whether it’s ideas in books or ham sandwiches: What is the result of that? What is the result of my sitting meditation?
What’s the effect on my mind and body, on the society around me? These are things we can contemplate. It’s simple, but very important – to see what works and what doesn’t work.

It’s because we don’t understand that we make mistakes, so the trick is to make as few mistakes as possible, and not to make the same mistakes again and again. Yet sometimes we have this blindness, and we don’t see why we have suffering in our lives. Ignorance blinds us. So then what can we do? Wherever there is suffering or confusion, we can begin to look at that pattern in our lives. If we look at this whole pattern, we can discover the causes of suffering, and begin to make intentions to not allow those causes to come up all the time.

Let’s say I’m a person who is always making wisecracks. I watch people cringe, I begin to notice that no one likes me, and end up hating myself. So I reflect: This kind of speech brings me remorse and regret. This kind of speech brings other people suffering. And then I see: Ah, that’s the result. So then what can I do?

Now this is when it’s important to know the difference between remorse and guilt. Remorse is a healthy response to inappropriate action or speech or thought. It’s a healthy response, because it’s telling me, “This is painful.” But most of us probably turn that into guilt.
There is remorse, but also an inappropriate amount of self-flagellation. This is the unhealthy nature of guilt.

For me, it seems that guilt is a kind of cover-up of the pain. I numb the pain, covering it over with these thoughts of guilt: “Yes. You are rotten to the core, Viradhammo!” But this is self-view. What does it feel like when we just go to the pain? If I say something which is unkind to someone, and then see them get hurt, I think: “Oh, I did it again!” – and there’s the jab. There’s the pain. There’s the result of my action.

The above is extracted from the book ‘The Stillness of Being,’ freely downloadable from here. Ajahn Viradhammo has been a Buddhist monk since 1971, having studied with Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Sumedho. He is currently abbot of Tisarana Buddhist Monastery in Canada.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Takamaro Shigaraki on Namu Amida Butsu

Takamaro Shigaraki (信楽 峻麿, 1926 - 2014): Namu Amida Bu(tsu)!

When we earnestly call the Buddha’s Name with a fullness of heart while listening to the Dharma, our lives gradually become directed toward the Buddha. However, as our recitation of the nembutsu deepens, there is an eventual reversal in the direction of that nembutsu. When we say the nembutsu, we are directing ourselves toward the Buddha as we call out the Buddha’s Name and think on the Buddha. However, at the same time, we also awaken to a movement in the opposite direction. That is, we hear the voice of the Buddha that is directing itself to us, as it names itself and calls out to us. Here, a transcendent religious experience takes place, which we awaken to at the deepest level of our consciousness.


Normally, we are always trying to cram ourselves full of things. We are constantly filling ourselves with self-attachment and ego, and so we are unable to see or hear anything truly. However, when our selves gradually become emptied, then the eyes of our mind will open and we will finally be able to hear things for the first time. And we are able to hear other persons’ voices of distress and pain as well.

When we come to know keenly and fully that the current state of our existence is false, then we will become able to hear what we had not been able to hear up until now. We will be able to see what up until now we had not been able to see. Within this structure, finally, we become able to hear the voice of the Buddha within the nembutsu. This is how saying the nembutsu works in Shin Buddhism.

Notes: Nembutsu is the recitation of ‘Namu Amida Butsu (literally, ‘Hail to Amitabha Buddha’), the final syllable of Butsu often being dropped; Shin Buddhism is a branch of Pure Land Buddhism in which Amitabha is called upon for salvation; Takamaro Shigaraki was a Japanese Buddhist philosopher and Shin Buddhist priest and former president of Ryukoku University, Tokyo, Japan. The above quotation is taken from Shigaraki's wonderful book 'Heart of the Shin Buddhist Path,' published by Wisdom Publications. A very important work on the subject of Shin Buddhism.

For more on this subject, click here: Shin Buddhism

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #9

Dhammapada, Verses 19 & 20

Even though reciting sacred texts,
But not acting accordingly,
That heedless one is like a cowherd
Who only counts others’ cows –
He does not partake  of the blessings of a holy life.

Though little reciting sacred texts,
But putting the teaching into practice,
Forsaking greed, hatred, and delusion,
With true wisdom and emancipated mind,
Clinging to nothing of this or any other world,
One indeed partakes of the blessings of a holy life.

According to tradition, Buddha’s words were memorised by his cousin & attendant the Venerable Ananda, and then recited by Buddhists through the ages. Eventually, after several hundred years, these words were written down and became “sacred texts.” Historically, there have been many different collections of Buddhist teachings, each promoted by different branches of Buddhism. Today, there are three such collections used by Buddhists across the world – the Pali, Chinese & Tibetan. These collections, known in Sanskrit as the Tripitaka, are complemented by commentaries & other subsequent writings also considered sacred by those that use them. (Interestingly, at the time of Buddha, when the above verses were said to have been originally uttered, Buddhist texts didn’t yet exist. Was Buddha referring to contemporary non-Buddhist texts or predicting the formation of Buddhist sacred texts in the future?)

Whether the term “sacred texts” used in verses 19 & 20 of the Dhammapada originally meant religious texts existing at the time of Buddha or not, modern Buddhists can interpret these words as referring to Buddhist sacred texts. Reciting such texts has a long history in Buddhism, sometimes as an act of merit-making, sometimes with the intent of remembering & reflecting upon them. It’s interesting, therefore, that Buddha states that merely reciting these texts doesn’t bring much benefit. Instead, he teaches that it’s in putting these teachings into practice that someone may “partake of the blessings of a holy life.” (“Holy life” here indicates living a Buddhist life based on the threefold training briefly described below. ‘Holiness’ in this sense means practicing the Buddhist path, not being a kind of Ghandi or Mother Teresa figure.)

In verse 20, Buddha describes several ways that a wise person benefits from Buddhist practice – even if Buddhist texts are little recited. Firstly, he talks of “putting the teaching into practice.” This teaching includes the threefold training of wisdom, morality & concentration (or, meditation). All major schools of Buddhism include these three types of training, although the details & methods of training may differ from school to school.

Secondly, Buddha promotes “forsaking greed, hatred and delusion.” These are called the three unwholesome roots or three poisons, and are considered the cause of suffering. To forsake them is to remove the causes of suffering and therein achieve awakening (or enlightenment). This awakening is the meaning of the phrase “true wisdom and emancipated mind” in the verse. To achieve this emancipation is the result of living the Buddhist life to its fruition, but even if we don’t reach full awakening, we may still witness the reduction of the poisons in our lives to good effect.

The benefits of living the Buddha’s teachings to their conclusion is summed up in the words “clinging to nothing of this or any other world, one indeed partakes of the blessings of a holy life.” This is true freedom without clinging, clinging being an integral part of the arising of suffering. Such absence of clinging must also include not clinging to the Buddhist teachings themselves. For, if clung to, the idea of awakening will prevent the realization of its reality. This fact reveals an important reason why the recitation & remembrance Buddhist texts won’t lead to awakening: awakening is beyond words, even those of Buddha!

This isn’t to say that Buddha’s teachings should be shunned. They still supply us with the blueprints that most of us need to enable us to awaken. Verses 19 & 20 are telling us that if we know, understand & apply the basic teachings of Buddha to our lives consistently, we will awaken. Cramming our minds full of texts but not putting them into practice is useless if our intent is to become awakened. Ultimately, awakening lies beyond the reaches of the intellect; it can be a useful tool, but it does not liberate us.

All of this doesn’t mean that Buddhist texts shouldn’t be studied or recited, of course. It simply means that these activities are no substitute for actually walking the Buddhist path. We can study the teachings – and we need to so to gain a sound idea of what Buddhism is all about – but it’s in their application to our lives that they will truly benefit us. The wisdom contained in Buddhist sacred texts like the Dhammapada is to be valued, but only as far as it inspires in us a realisation of the “blessings of a holy life.”

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.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Ajahn Jayasaro on Two Kinds of Desire

Ajahn Jayasaro (1958-present): Know your desires.

Buddhism distinguishes two kinds of desire: the first (tanha) to be abandoned and the second (chanda) to be cultivated.

Tanha is the desire that arises from a basic misunderstanding of the way things are: perceiving permanence, happiness and selfhood where they do not exist. Desire for the pleasures to be had through getting, getting rid of and becoming is tanha. Tanha leads to personal suffering and is the basis of almost all social ills.

Chanda is the desire that arises from a correct understanding of the way things are. At its heart lies the aspiration for truth and goodness. Desire to do well, desire to act well, desire to act kindly, desire to act wisely all desires based on an aspiration for the true and good lead to personal fulfillment and healthy communities.

The distinction between chanda and tanha is not philosophical but psychological. By looking closely at the raw experience of life the distinction between desires that lead to genuine happiness and those that do not becomes increasingly clear.

The above is extracted from the book ‘Without and Within’ which is freely downloadable here. Ajahn Jayasaro was ordained as a Buddhist monk in 1980 and studied with the famous Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah. He was abbot of Wat Pa Nanachat in Northeast Thailand for several years and now lives in a hermitage near the Khao Yai mountains.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Keiji Nishitani on Our Dharma-Nature

Keiji Nishitani (西谷 啓治, 1900 – 1990)

Since Buddhism opens up an altogether revolutionary view of the essential nature of man, it is not surprising that it should offer a more fundamental and permanent principle of social transformation than could ever be offered by a mere ideology. From its very beginning, Buddhism was a religion that showed a way to transcend the “world.” According to Buddhism, all that is needed is to become emancipated from the innumerable attachments that arise spontaneously from within ourselves and tie us to things of this world. Hence it speaks of nirvana as the extinguishing of the fire. The Buddhist way of transcending the “world” as well as the “self-in-the-world,” is not a mere “otherworldliness,” but an awakening in which we become aware of our original and authentic nature (our Dharma-nature) and may thus live in accord with it. The possibility of attaining this enlightenment depends upon ourselves alone. That is to say, the ability to attain it lies deeply hidden in the Dharma-nature of each one of us. All that is required from us is that we cut the threads of attachment and so become “homeless” in the world. It was for this reason that the community of Buddhists, the Sangha, was from the beginning based on an absolute negation of all “worldly” differentiations, social as well as psychological, of the differentiation between the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlearned, and so forth, and in particular of distinction between castes…

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘The Buddha Eye’ edited by Frederick Franck, published by World Wisdom. Keiji Nishitani was an author & professor of philosophy, having studied with both Kitaro Nishida and Martin Heidegger.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lucky Buddha?

Budai: Feeling lucky, punk?

Many Buddhists like to do stuff for luck. They wear amulets, consult oracles, or ask monks for lottery numbers. Some have statues like the one above and rub his big belly to bring good fortune. All this may be comforting or fun, but is it Buddhism? In other words, is it part of Buddhist practice as extolled by Buddha in the various texts attributed to him? Or, is it something added to these teachings, something that even contradicts or conflicts with Buddha’s instructions on how to live a Buddhist life? This author feels the latter is nearer the truth, and that believing in luck & seeking to be lucky is a distraction from real Buddhist practice.

The photo above is that of Budai, a popular Chinese character originating in Zen Buddhism, a common sight across the Far East, and now the West. He’s also been dubbed ‘the Laughing Buddha’ for his jovial countenance, and is called Hotei in japan. He is a kind of St. Francis of Assisi figure in that he was a poor monk associated with the welfare of children. He is said to have wandered around ancient China giving gifts to children and dispensing Zen wisdom, mainly through the example of his behaviour. More popularly, though, he is considered a source of luck, in that if you rub his large stomach it will bring you fortune, especially in the form of money.

Are you ready for the belly?

Budai can be appreciated for other qualities than bringing luck, however. He also symbolizes the pithy wisdom of Zen, and personifies a life of simplicity and compassion. Having an image of him can be used to remind us of these qualities in our lives, so that each of us becomes something of a laughing buddha ourselves. Such symbols, whether it’s Budai, Buddha, Guan Yin, et cetera, can assist & inspire our practice of the Buddhadharma. However, if we attach supernatural characteristics to these images that require us to treat them more than inanimate symbols, we risk replacing Buddhist practice with superstition.

This tendency to treat objects as having miraculous abilities isn’t limited to statues & paintings. As mentioned above, amulets are also widely believed to bring fortunes to those that wear them. In Thailand, where this author resides, superstitious beliefs regarding amulets is commonplace, and the trading of such items can be a lucrative business. Every so often, certain amulets will become the focus of a nationwide craze, people believing that these objects can bring wealth, virility, fertility, success, and even protect the wearer from injury or death. There news accounts to counter this latter belief where wearers of prized amulets have died in accidents in the belief that this couldn’t happen! This doesn’t deter people from putting their faith into protective amulets, however. It seems that people will believe anything given the right conditions for such irrational beliefs to arise.

Laughing with mindfulness.

Often, it appears that belief in luck replaces application of Buddha’s teachings in people’s lives. Linked to superstition and an overblown emphasis on merit-making, seeking luck concerns more people than studying Buddha’s teachings, behaving ethically, or meditating. Is it that rubbing Laughing Buddha’s paunch is easier than studying the Buddhadharma, that making merit is more convenient than keeping precepts, and that wearing an amulet is much less demanding than sustaining mindfulness? Surely, the answer is Yes. Walking Buddha’s path takes much effort & focus, whereas images, amulets and merit-making take up less of our time & effort. But which is of more benefit to ourselves and others? Which will help us to awaken to reality and alleviate suffering if not eradicate it altogether? Buddhists need to be clear what Buddha’s teachings are, and which he promoted – seeking luck or seeking awakening? When we find out the answer to this question, we will be ripe to practice Buddhism as Buddha intended, with or without a rub of Budai’s corpulent tummy.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ajahn Nyandhammo on Faith & Ajahn Chah

Ajahn Nyanadhammo (1955-present): A kick reminder

When the Buddha described faith he talked about faith in four aspects; faith in the Buddha, the person who has become fully enlightened in this world and teaches the path out of dukkha, and in the Dhamma, those teachings of the Buddha; and in the Sangha, those monks, nuns and lay-people who have realized that truth in their own lives; and in the training. This last one means having faith that this practice we’re doing will yield results. Faith in the training also intrinsically implies faith in our own abilities to realize truth: faith that we can do it.

The lack of conviction in our own ability to do the practice is a common obstacle, so one of the responsibilities of a teacher is to encourage and uplift people. This was one of the things that Ajahn Chah often did. I remember one time having a few difficulties and  going to him. He was chatting, and he turned to me and said, “Tan Nyanadhammo, you’ve got very few defilements.” That was at a time when it seemed like my mind was full of defilements! But just those few words gave encouragement.

There was another occasion when I was newly ordained. The food in Ajahn Chah’s monastery was extremely basic: sticky rice, leaves, curries – which were all put in one pot together – and a few bananas, and that was it. As there was very little, some of the monks would get up to serve out the food. You sat with your bowl in front of you and they put the food in your bowl: you didn’t have a choice, you could only say what you didn’t want. One of the Western monks was asked to get up and hand out the food, but he refused, because if he got up then he couldn’t watch his bowl and thereby prevent the Thai monks from putting things in it that would upset his stomach. And because of that they asked me to get up in his place.

A couple days later we went on the same alms round together into the village, and, as we were coming back to the dining-hall, this monk started complaining about the monks who hand out the food. Self-righteous anger came up in me, and I said to him, “Instead of complaining about the other monks, why dont you get up and help us?” And then I stormed off in a huff.

As I was walking, I heard Ajahn Chah’s voice saying Good morning in English. (The only words he knew in English were “Good morning” and “Cup of tea.”) I turned to see him standing only three feet away with a big radiant smile on his face. And I said, “Oh, good morning, Luang Por.” And he radiated loving kindness to me, and the aversion completely disappeared and I was really happy.

That evening I decided, “As Ajahn Chah was very friendly to me, I’ll go over and offer him a foot massage”; that was a way to do some service for him, and often he would teach Dhamma at that time. So he was sitting on a cane seat with me sitting on the floor and massaging his foot when the bell rang for evening chanting. He told the other monks to go to the chanting and I was left together with Ajahn Chah. It was a beautiful cool evening, with the moon coming out full, and the sound of some seventy monks chanting – it was just wonderful. Ajahn Chah sat in meditation as I was massaging his foot – and my mind was on cloud nine, uplifted with joy.

At that point Ajahn Chah kicked me in the chest and knocked me flat on my back! I looked up in shock, and Ajahn Chah pointed at me saying, “See? In the morning someone says something you don’t like and you’re upset. Then someone else just says “Good morning” and you’re uplifted all day. Don’t get caught up in moods and emotions of like and dislike at what other people say.”

Then he gave me a Dhamma talk, and I raised my hands in añjali, and listened to this Dhamma. I remember it to this day, and it always brings a sense of how much compassion he had: he saw a person was walking past with his head steaming; he said “Good morning”, and then he waited until the opportunity arose. Out of the seventy monks in the monastery, and all the nuns, he thought, “Today I’ll teach this person. This one’s really stubborn, I’m going to have to give him a kick! He won’t remember if I dont do it tough.” What has stayed with me is a sense of faith that the teacher is concerned, is motivated by compassion, and motivated to release you from suffering.

The above is extracted from the book ‘The Spiritual Faculties’ which is freely downloadable here. Ajahn Nyanadhammo has been a Buddhist monk since 1979. He was a student of Ajahn Chah, a famous meditation master. He has been abbot of the Buddhist forest monasteries Wat Pa Nanachat & Wat Ratanawan in Northeast Thailand.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Masao Abe on Realizing Emptiness & Suchness

Masao Abe (阿部 正雄, 1915 – 2006): Horizontal eyes, vertical nose.

Trying to grasp one’s self from the outside may be likened metaphorically to a snake trying to swallow its own tail. When the snake bites its tail, it makes a circle. And the more it tries to swallow its tail, the smaller that circle becomes. When the snake carries this effort to swallow its own tail to its final conclusion, the circle turns into a small dot, until finally it must disappear into emptiness. In more concrete terms, the snake must die through its effort. As long as the human self tries to take hold of itself through self-consciousness (out of which feelings of inferiority, superiority, etc. develop), the human ego-self falls into an ever-deepening dilemma. At the extreme end of this dilemma, the ego can no longer support itself and must collapse into emptiness. When the attempt of self-consciousness to grasp itself is pressed to its ultimate conclusion, the human ego must die. The realization of no-self is a necessity for the human ego. Some individuals only come to realize the necessity of confronting this dilemma on their deathbed. Others may existentially intuit the need for resolving this dilemma while still quite young, and thus embark on a religious quest. In any event, the realization of no-self is a “must” for the human ego. We must realize that there is no unchanging, eternal self.

In order to realize emptiness or suchness it is essential to face this dilemma and break through it. This realization of emptiness is a liberation from that dilemma which is existentially rooted in human consciousness. Awakening to emptiness, which is disclosed through the death of the ego, one realizes one’s “suchness.” This is because the realization of suchness is the positive aspect of the realization of emptiness.

In this realization you are no longer separated from yourself, but are just yourself. No more, no less. There is no gap between you and yourself; you become you. When you realize your own suchness, you realize the suchness of everything at once. A pine tree appears in its suchness. Bamboo manifests itself in its suchness. Dogs and cats appear in their suchness as well. A dog is really a dog. No more, no less. A cat is really a cat. No more, no less. Everything is realized in its distinctiveness.

Then for the first time you understand the familiar Zen phrases: “Willows are green, flowers are red,” or “The eyes are horizontal, the nose is vertical.” Trees, birds, fish, dogs or cats – from the beginning they always enjoy their suchness. Only man has lost that suchness. He is in ignorance. Therefore he does not know the reality of human life and becomes attached to this life and fears death. But when ignorance is realized for what it is through the realization of no-self, one may waken to “suchness,” in which everything is realized in its uniqueness and particularity.

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘The Buddha Eye’ edited by Frederick Franck, published by World Wisdom. Abe Masao was an author & professor of religious studies in both Japan & America, and was a close associate of D.T. Suzuki.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #8

Dhammapada, Verses 17 & 18:

The evil-doer suffers here and hereafter;
He suffers in both worlds.
The thought, “I have done evil,” tortures him,
And he suffers even more when gone to realms of woe.

The doer of good delights here and hereafter;
He delights in both worlds.
The thought, “I have done good,” delights him,
And he delights even more when gone to realms of bliss.

The first two lines of verses 17 & 18 of the Dhammapada both emphasize the Buddhist teaching of karma (action) and its results. Rather than repeat what’s been written in the previous reflections of verses 15 & 16, suffice to say that wholesome actions will have wholesome results and unwholesome actions will have unwholesome ones. This is the basic Buddhist teaching on karma & its results (vipaka) accredited to Buddha. Again, the previous article (Dhammapada Reflections #7) focused on the psychological implications of the results of karma, represented here with the thoughts, “I have done evil” and “I have done good” in the current verses. That our actions can inspire regret & grief, pride & joy won’t surprise many, so this aspect of the above verses won’t be elaborated on here.

The key term that relates to the results of our actions that this article will attend to is the term ‘suffering.’ Suffering is the common English translation of the Buddhist term dukkha, which actually has many connotations that the word ‘suffering’ doesn’t really cover. Dukkha also means angst, pain, unsatisfactory, imperfect, stressful, anxious & discontent amongst others. It’s worth noting that Buddha is said to have stated that, “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the ending of dukkha.”

Buddha saw dukkha as the primary problem in existence, and he sought a way out, which he is said to have found. This is called nirvana, ‘snuffing out (of the causes of suffering),’ or bodhi, ‘awakening.’ Related to bodhi is the title buddha – ‘awakened one.’ Buddhist teachings & practices exist to reduce & eventually eliminate dukkha. Knowing this, the claim in verse 17 that the evil-doer suffers due to his or her actions becomes even more worthy of our investigation. There’s a sense in which we all accept the idea of karma & its results in that we can see the consequences of our actions. If I speak nicely to you, I will surely receive a different response than if I were to kick you! This is what John Lennon called ‘instant karma.’

The phrase “gone to realms of woe” can be understood in this immediate way, too. If I were to kick you and you beat me to a pulp in retaliation, then I’d certainly be in a realm of woe. And, this sorrowful situation would be of my own making. It would be karma-vipaka – the results of my actions. Silly me!

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.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Ajahn Liem on Buddha Essence

Ajahn Liem (1941-present): An awakened smile

Usually, in our behaviour we start off with our emotions, letting them lead us, just like the people out in the world who think their moods are what count. But emotions and moods are illusions that swindle. They are tricky. Sometimes they take us on a good path, sometimes on an evil one. Following our moods easily turns to our disadvantage.

We should take superior states of mind rather than moods and emotions as our guide. Why not let being the One who is called “Awakened” and “Blessed” lead us? Let “Buddha” walk in front of us. Let “Buddha” be the essence to take us along. Let “Buddha” be our guideline. Whatever we come to do, there will always be moods, but our practice is to let “the One who knows”, the qualities of awakening and knowing lead us. In this way eventually there is no danger. There are no drawbacks with these mind states. We are on the watch.

Let the various moods and emotions that come up simply be as they are. In this way we train really to be with ourselves. We train this very self to sit and really be there, to stand and be really there, to walk and really be there, until always, in whatever changing posture, we can be called fully aware. We are fully there through our peace. It’s different from being on top of our experience through getting carried away with pleasures and having fun. Instead, being fully up to life comes from peace of heart. If there is peace, we are in a state where we can adjust to anything that comes up, so we can always be in the appropriate mode. We see things correctly and have right understanding because the mental impulses (sankharas) are quiet. There are no proliferations. We feel the sankharas at peace. With all the kinds of opinions that could come up, we won’t start arguing.

When relating to the world and society, those who are intelligent, understanding and have a feeling of peacefulness will praise us. But should they praise us, we don’t get happy because of it. We don’t get infatuated with it. Ultimately, the praise of someone is just a product of the delusion of the one who expresses it. Just that much. We don’t have feelings of like and dislike. Praise is just what it is. We don’t feel that we need to foolishly run after it. We don’t want to get on the track of being a slave. If we maintain peace, there is nothing that can do harm to us. Even if others should blame, criticize or condemn us, making us subject to suspicions out of enmity, we nevertheless have peace. We have peace towards the anittharamana, the mental states we don’t wish to have, which don’t go according to our likes. Even they can’t cause us harm and be disadvantageous. Should someone criticize us, it’s just that much. Eventually it all dissolves by itself. It flows away in it’s own specific way. This is where the lokadhamma can’t dominate us, since we have nothing but peace in our hearts.

When standing, when walking, when sitting, when sleeping and when getting up, this is it. If we deal with society, and with things in the world around us, we can relate in a way that is of benefit for all. We don’t go astray and drift away. We behave like one who can let things be. We behave like samanas, like anagarikas (homeless ones), who are not bound up. This is the way we train. Training ourselves like this is really peaceful. We make peace arise all the time. Whenever we are in society, we will always have smoothness and tranquillity.

The above is extracted from the book ‘From the Darkness to the Light,’ which is freely downloadable here. Ajahn Liem has been a Buddhist monk since 1961, and is abbot of Wat Nong Pa Pong, a renowned Buddhist forest monastery in Northeast Thailand. He studied under the famous meditation master Ajahn Chah, and has taught Buddhism to monks & laity across the world.

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.