This question is most
likely very familiar to Buddhists in the West. This article however, originally
comes from Sri Lanka (Daily News). The question is therefore directed towards
Sri Lankan Buddhists, but that doesn't make the answer any less interesting for
Buddhism is listed under the great world religions. That could just mean that it is one of the religions that is still followed and is not yet dead, like so many of the great religions that lightened the life of the Egyptians and Greeks.
But we are ask the question as to whether Buddhism is a living religion in particular as to whether the teachings of the Buddha are not to difficult for modern day Buddhists to apply to their daily life. Do we think that the Buddhist discipline is outdated and irrelevant for modern day situations? Has the philosophy of Buddhism proven not to stand up to modern science and technology?
Is the fact that we are world citizens in conflict with a religion that was taught to people coming from a small part of India 2,500 years ago? Do we find that the absence of an external authority who lays down the discipline taught by the Buddha has gradually led to the disintegration of that discipline?
That Buddhism is written about in books and on the Internet does not make it a living religion. It is about its use by living people.
Keeping Buddhism alive means that the Buddhist values are kept alive, not through public celebrations, but because individuals strive to live up to them. The most noticeable Buddhist characteristic is the deep and lasting understanding of the suffering which is an unavoidable part of existence. If we by our way of thinking, speaking or acting add to human suffering, then we also damage the foundations on which Buddhism stands. If we take our refuge to violence as the only way of bringing about an end to social and political conflict, if we as members of society earn our living by means which damage the hearts and minds of others through alcohol, tobacco and drugs, if people find it easy to life with the human shortcomings of greed and longings, then don't we contribute to bringing the Buddhist religion in danger.
More and more people leave Buddhist values behind them and argue: Buddhism is Buddhism, business is business. What they are doing is divorcing Buddhism from their political, economic, social and cultural life.
This is one of the unavoidable consequences of the modern trend towards the awareness of human rights. Whilst this movement has thrown light onto much of the suffering in the world, there is also a tendency in our society to lay too much emphasis on the individual. Most people are given an misleading sense of what human freedom is. Individuals tend by their nature to stand up for what they believe their rights to be, to strive after pleasure, to give expression to their feelings and to follow their longings. The unhappy result is that they are a part of the wider society. Easy access to weapons, or being members of organised structures often makes them forget their responsibility for the community whose well-being is also their own well-being.
On the other hand: when leaders have let go of Buddhist principles of responsibility for the well-being of those they serve, and when, as a result, the servants of public order revolt both against the leaders and public order, then of course a society degenerates. If the society degenerates, then Buddhist principles no longer have fertile ground.
We Buddhists, especially the so called learned amongst us, become more and more preoccupied with exalted, abstract ideas of Buddhism such as metta, karuna, peace and understanding. Unfortunately there is less preoccupation with their actual practice, with putting them into practice in daily life situations, at work, in society.
We have for example brought nearly everyone up to be a good person, but not to know when hate or jealousy arises in their mind and therefore they give expression to these things. They feel happy in their preoccupation with rituals and celebrations which for them are an unmissable source of pleasure. The true value of their religion is in danger of dying out through non-use.
What is urgently asked of learned Buddhists is to make clear the practical relevance of Buddhist principles in the context of aggressive norms and values which are increasingly make up part of modern society. What we need is a way of celebrating Vesak, etc. with a programme of activities to bring particular Buddhists practices into use.
We should not forget that it is not only reminding people of Buddhist Teachings in daily life situations that will bring about this transformation. Behaviour does not come forth so much out of ideals and ideas, as from our hearts, our inner feelings.
The question is: do we know our own heart? Do we have a feeling of responsibility for our own feelings, our own life? Buddhism requires that we become awake.
When we wake up we begin to have a deep feeling of our human circumstances, of the reality that all beings are essentially the same. Then the barriers between self and another become less important. Then people wake up to their own responsibility.
What does that mean?
Responsibility means to live fully with the movement within ourselves and the ability to recognise those animal tendencies which arise from time to time, and to ensure that they do not live their own life. A Buddhist does not have to be responsible to others, not even to the Buddha. If he only has an example to become awake to live an alert life, be mindful and aware of his own tendencies, then a feeling of natural responsibility will develop for himself and for all the beings with which he comes into contact.
That is the sort of attitude which leads to Buddhism being a living religion.
The Denma Translation Group
We are all leaders in our own way. We all face conflict and chaos in our lives. but the wise leader seeks victory beyond aggression. An essay by The Denma Translation Group, authors of a new translation of The Art of War.
The Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese text known in the West as The Art of War, shows us how to conquer without aggression. It teaches "taking whole," by which an enemy is overcome without being destroyed. For over two millennia this text has been studied in East Asia. Now its tradition has the possibility of taking authentic root in the West. Anyone seeking to work skillfully with conflict can benefit from its insights.
The Sun Tzu speaks to conflict from a place we call victory. Victory implies the attainment of one's objective. But true victory is much more than that. Taking the view of the whole, it encompasses the views of both its enemies and allies. It looks beyond immediate loss and gain, going to the root of all contention. It is utterly flexible. Victory is more a way of being than a final goal. It is the ground on which we can most effectively participate in conflict.
Victory lies beyond the dichotomy of war and peace. War is sometimes necessary, but it devastates much that is good. Perfect peace is not possible in human society. The issue, therefore, is neither how to avoid conflict nor better arm ourselves, but how to engage it in a way that is sane, kindly and effective. Sometimes this may require the use of force, but the highest skill lies in "subduing the other's military without battle."
These ideas do not belong solely to the Sun Tzu or any other proprietary group. They are basic human knowledge. Yet the Sun Tzu sets them out with unusual directness. It demands that we understand the structures of contention and master all its relevant factors, from organization, supply and the psychology and forms of conflict, to configurations of seasons and terrain. It urges us to penetrate the surface tangle of phenomena so that their truer patterns become visible.
We must also develop a thorough knowledge of ourselves, the habits of our thought, the passions, dislikes or blindnesses that influence our perception and judgment. This discipline means sustaining an openness of mind, leaving a space for our natural intelligence to arise. Through such processes we begin to relinquish the acquisitiveness of small victories and come to take the perspective of the whole.
The epitome of this practice is the general, the central figure of the Sun Tzu. This general is a sage commander, someone who goes beyond the conceptualizing activity that constitutes good planning, effective strategy or even wisdom. Seeing the whole, the sage commander creates endless forms from within it. This ability arises from human capacities to see, hear and know the world that are common to everyone.
The general is the sage commander who wields power in the midst of contention and conflict. He is a remarkable example of human skill and wisdom. He speaks with authority and is effective and resourceful, in tune with larger patterns. He commands the battlefield. The general personifies an idealized wisdom, making what might otherwise seem distant and unreachable relevant to our everyday life. Upon closer examination, we can see some element in each of his qualities and actions that reflects our own experience in situations of conflict. Just like the sayings in the text that change our way of thinking with a few words, the image of the sage commander can reshape our actions during times of great challenge. This shows us taking whole, how to conquer without fighting.
For the Sun Tzu, the key to skillful action is in knowing those things that make up the environment and then arranging them so that their power becomes available. It is not necessary to change the nature of things in order to come to victory.
The sage commander starts with himself. Thus his first question is not what to do but how to be. Simply being oneself brings about a power often lost in the rush to be something else. A rock is just a rock, and a tree just a tree. But the text tells us that:
As for the nature of trees and rocks-
When still, they are at rest.
When agitated, they move.
When square, they stop.
When round, they go.
Thus the shih [force] of one skilled at setting people to battle is like rolling round rocks from a mountain one thousand jen high. (Chapter 5)
The torrent these things become as they roll down the mountain side is unstoppable.
Because the sage commander has settled into being who he is, he is no longer constantly comparing himself to others. He is not embarrassed, and doesn't need to pretend to be more than he is. There is no gap between his words and his action. Thus he acts from his own ground of strength.
The sage commander is genuine because he appreciates himself as he is. This gives rise to gentleness, where he can allow things to be as they are, rather than forcing them to be a certain way. This kindness is not based on the logic of ethics, nor do his actions necessarily conform to conventional standards of behavior.
Knowing how to be means that the sage commander doesn't hover above the ground or perch upon his seat but sits like a mountain, of the nature of the earth. Being who he is, he is a compass point by which others can obtain their bearings, so that they too can relax into who they are. Simply by being who he is, holding his seat, he has already accomplished much of his goal.
Since his activity radiates a quality of completeness, his actions display a deep conviction. This engenders trust, so others believe in what he does and says. Thus he leads the people and ensures the welfare of the state.
When the sage commander leads the troops into battle, they must follow without hesitation. He works hard to earn this loyalty by knowing and caring for his soldiers. With natural inquisitiveness about how people function, the sage commander connects to his troops in an intimate and personal way.
And so one skilled at employing the military takes them by the hand
as if leading a single person.
They cannot hold back. (Chapter 11)
Every circumstance is an opportunity for the sage commander to cultivate this relationship, and every exchange can deepen his connection with his troops.
Loyalty is above all based on appreciation. It develops when people appreciate what they are involved in, and when appreciation is expressed for them. The sage commander earns the loyalty of the troops by first genuinely expressing loyalty to them in even the smallest gestures. He doesn't miss the opportunity to win someone's trust, and never gives up on anyone. In this way, he creates a unified entity where before there were many individuals, and gains a military that follows him through extreme conditions and conflict.
He looks upon the troops as his children.
Thus they can venture into deep river valleys with him.
He looks upon the troops as his beloved sons.
Thus they can die with him. (Chapter 10)
His natural inquisitiveness manifests as respect for the intelligence of his troops. Even negativity is not an obstacle, since he responds to the intelligence expressed within it. Thus mutual respect strengthens the bond between the sage commander and his troops.
The bonds forged by intimate contact and mutual respect provide the ground for hard training and difficult tasks. Constant socialization and reinforcement of values are necessary to build cohesiveness. But it is through this kind of effort that these bonds can develop into fierce loyalty.
Working with Chaos
The ground of battle, and indeed all of life, is unpredictable, full of chaos and uncertainty. From an ordinary perspective, chaos is the disorder between the last discernible order and the future order that has not yet come. It is a dangerous and uncertain time, when things that seem solid and fixed fall apart.
Chaos is indeed a great challenge for the general. If he himself is chaotic, his ability to command the situation is seriously undermined.
He is chaotic and unable to bring order. (Chapter 10)
And the outcome of his own confusion is a confused and ineffective military:
The general is weak and not strict.
His training and leadership are not clear.
The officers and troops are inconstant.
The formations of the military are jumbled.
This is called "chaos." (Chapter 10)
The sage commander, however, always takes the bigger view. While in the midst of confusion, he sees how chaos forms its own particular order. Though the course of a hurricane along the coast is unpredictable, it is part of a weather pattern that is intelligible.
Chaos is born from order.
Cowardice is born from bravery.
Weakness is born from strength. (Chapter 5)
Chaos and order are two aspects of the same thing. Together they constitute the totality of our experience, the good and bad, the confusion and clarity-how it is all interconnected and constantly shifting. From the smaller perspective we experience these as opposed. But in order to take whole, the sage commander must work with this totality. He resides in the fundamental orderliness of the chaos, and thus for him:
The fight is chaotic yet one is not subject to chaos. (Chapter 5)
While chaos is generally a difficult and uncomfortable time, it is also dynamic, a time of great openness and creativity. The sage commander develops an appreciation for its potent quality. Since he holds no fixed position, chaos is not a threat. He is not undermined by uncertainty. Rather than giving in to the impulse to control chaos when it arises, the sage commander rests in the chaos, and allows it to resolve itself.
This trust resembles conventional patience, in that the sage commander refrains from action. Yet rather than an act of forbearance, it is a matter of letting things happen in their own time. It is a withdrawing from the smaller skirmishes to allow a greater victory to ripen.
When it has rained upstream, the stream's flow intensifies.
Stop fording. Wait for it to calm. (Chapter 9)
Chaos then becomes a powerful time for the sage commander to take effective action. He can use it as an ally, particularly against a highly solidified position. Chaos can undermine that situation, unraveling it rather than forcing a confrontation. Trying to overpower solidity by building up greater solidity merely triggers the cycle of escalation.
Since the sage commander appreciates and accommodates chaos, he sees more clearly what is taking place within it. Thus he knows how shih (forces) will develop and can catch the moment when one small gesture will be more decisive than a tremendous effort applied at the wrong time or place.
Being prepared and awaiting the unprepared is victory. (Chapter 3)
Allowing a chaotic situation to develop demands courage, for it often means that in the short term things will get worse rather than better. There is always the chance that something of value will be harmed. But in the interplay of chaos and order, things don't always resolve themselves in a linear manner, so they must be allowed to run their course. Achieving a fundamental, long-term solution is more important than resolving immediate irritation and discomfort. So he allows the situation to develop, and, with patience, finds the right moment to make the critical impact.
Faced with chaos or conflict, the sage commander looks first to the largest reference point. No matter what ground he has been given, he always thinks bigger. Loosening his gaze on the immediate and short term, suspending his habitual view, he looks to the space around things. This allows lesser objectives to change and develop naturally. These smaller goals are often woven closely together and in competition with one another. Yet even as they shift position and change shape, they can still support the larger goal. He is careful not to fixate on a particular way they might manifest and thereby avoids insignificant skirmishes.
The best illustration of this is in how he works with problems. A problem usually arises when one holds to a view that has become too small and inflexible. Addressing a problem as it is presented often reinforces the fixation that initially gave rise to it. The sage commander focuses on the bigger perspective that holds the key to both the problem and the solution. There he can catch the possibilities that are hidden from others and attain the victory they cannot see.
In seeing victory, not going beyond what everyone knows is not skilled.
Victory in battle that all-under-heaven calls skilled is not skilled. (Chapter 4)
According to the Sun Tzu, victory arises only in the moment.
These are the victories of the military lineage.
They cannot be transmitted in advance. (Chapter 1)
How then does the sage commander find victory? Once again, this comes back to knowing-first himself and then the other-as the source of all skillful action. Relying on his own genuineness, he creates the ground for victory in his actions and environment, but most importantly, in his mind.
The sage commander is beyond the sway and manipulation of others. His preparation, then, is not so much focused on the accumulation of strength as on taking a position outside the reach of attack. His perspective prepares the ground of no defeat. Thus he steps outside the possibility of attack altogether, remaining beyond grasp. If he cannot be found, the enemy has nothing to fight against.
Of old, those skilled at defense hid below the nine earths and moved
above the nine heavens.
Thus they could preserve themselves and be all-victorious. (Chapter 4)
The sage commander moves beyond defeat by being victorious over his own aggression. He neither ignores nor indulges in it. Aggression gives the enemy something to fight against. This mires the general in battle. The sage commander responds to aggression by creating space, which relaxes the situation and, paradoxically, brings it more under his control. It's like controlling a bull by giving him a very large pasture.
Residing in victory, the sage commander creates both the ground for the enemy defeat to arise and the openness to catch it when it does. In this way he is victorious before the battle is fought.
The sage commander forms the ground and brings others around to his victorious perspective. He forms himself as well as the environment, and thus narrows the enemy options. He offers them the choices he wants them to have, and leads them where he wants them to go. The sage commander attains victory when the enemy can see no other alternative and chooses what he has offered. It is all-victorious when they see that option as best for them, and have no idea that they were directed there.
One skilled at moving the enemy
Forms and the enemy must follow,
Offers and the enemy must take.
The text suggests various ways in which the sage commander may shape the ground. The ultimate is creating preponderance or shih, which is simultaneously the configuration of forces and the power inherent within them. The sage commander forms the ground to bring about favorable shih. He doesn't change the nature of things, only their circumstances. Thus he gains their power. As the sage commander shapes the ground to create advantage, he waits for the node to arise and then swiftly acts. This is the critical moment when preponderance can be applied and victory assured.
A victorious military is like weighing a
hundredweight against a grain.
A defeated military is like weighing a grain
against a hundredweight.
One who weighs victory sets the people to
battle like releasing amassed water into a
gorge one thousand jen deep. (Chapter 4)
In this complex and essentially uncontrollable world, the ultimate outcome of present actions is not predictable. The enemy of today may be a friend tomorrow. The sage commander seeks a victory that is ongoing. Taking whole allows him to preserve the possibilities-to keep every option open.
Taking whole means conquering the enemy in a way that keeps as much intact as possible-both your own resources and those of the enemy. Such a victory leaves something available to build upon, for both you and your former foe. Destruction leaves nothing, and its aftermath diverts valuable energy from the larger victory.
Taking whole starts with defeating the enemy's strategy, both large and small. Strategy is the means by which all actions are coordinated and all resources allocated. The enemy's strategy makes their actions coherent and focused. Defeating it unravels their cohesion and dissolves their alliances. Thus the sage commander renders the physical destruction of their forces unnecessary. He accomplishes this through the skillful use of forming and transforming the ground of battle. This is as much a matter of mind as it is of the physical conditions of warfare.
And so the superior military cuts down
Its inferior cuts down alliances.
Its inferior cuts down the military.
The worst attacks walled cities. (Chapter 3)
Swiftness rules when it comes to taking whole. It allows the sage commander's military to seize the moment when advantage arises. The sage commander's patience allows him to await that moment. When it comes, he can act with lightning swiftness. All in all, he gets to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible. He is not slowed by relating to what the enemy chooses to show, but sees the purpose behind their actions, making quick work of a conflict that could otherwise be destructive for all.
The most profound method the sage commander employs to attain victory is the extraordinary and the orthodox. He engages the enemy with what they expect. This is the orthodox, that which is familiar and understandable, what the enemy can easily see. It confirms their projections. However, the sage commander conquers the enemy with what they never imagine. This is the extraordinary. It is not any particular action but simply what the enemy does not expect.
To do so, he works with the enemy's perception of the world. If the enemy believes the sage commander's position to be protected, they will not attack; it does not matter if it is undefended in fact. More than anything, the sage commander must understand his enemy's processes of thought. Whatever the nature of someone's thinking, strong or weak, it forms a pattern. As such, it systematically includes and excludes. These are both its strengths and limitations. If the sage commander can discern the enemy's patterns, he knows what is orthodox within it. Then, in response, the extraordinary is apparent to him:
One skilled at giving rise to the extraordi-
As boundless as heaven and earth,
As inexhaustible as the Yellow River and
the ocean. (Chapter 5)
The patterns of his enemy's thought are obvious to the sage commander, the way a road map indicates where the next highway exit leads or a facial expression reveals so much about someone's intention. Part of this comes from familiarity with the world. However, it is less a matter of specific information than of his understanding of basic human existence. All these are still the orthodox. But he himself always thinks bigger, seeing beyond them into something the enemy cannot conceive. This doesn't require special equipment or techniques. It works with the ordinary things of the world and has a quality of everyday magic.
The all-victorious sage commander doesn't attain victory by bringing the enemy over to his side. Instead he creates the existence of a larger view that includes both sides. It is the ground from which all interests arise. But there is no promise of victory, no formula or guideline that will ultimately ensure that victory comes about. Nor is there is an absolute measure of victory. The sage commander can only refer back to his ground of basic genuineness.
Taking whole is victory over aggression. It arises in the unique moment of each circumstance. It preserves the possibilities. Victory is ongoing, a way of being rather than a final goal. It means embracing all aspects of the world. Trying to reject parts of it perpetuates the struggle, in oneself and in the world. Victory over war is victory over this aggression, a victory that includes the enemy and thus renders further conflict unnecessary.
From The Art of War: A New Translation. ©2001 The Denma Translation Group. Used with permission of Shambhala Publications.
The Denma Translation Group is led by James Gimian and Kidder Smith, director of the Asian Studies Program at Bowdoin College. The members all received training in a contemplative discipline created by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called the Dorje Kasung, which draws on the practices of Tibetan Buddhism, the Shambhala vision of enlightened society, and some Western military forms. The primary author of this essay is James Gimian. It is adapted from The Art of War: A New Translation, available in January from Shambhala Publications.
Lama in the Lab
by Daniel Goleman
Lama Oser strikes most anyone who meets him as resplendent-not because of his maroon and gold Tibetan monk's robes, but because of his radiant smile. Oser, a European-born convert to Buddhism, has trained as a Tibetan monk in the Himalayas for more than three decades, including many years at the side of one of Tibet's greatest spiritual masters. But today Oser (whose name has been changed here to protect his privacy) is about to take a revolutionary step in the history of the spiritual lineages he has become a part of. He will engage in meditation while having his brain scanned by state-of-the-art brain imaging devices.
To be sure, there have been sporadic attempts to study brain activity in meditators, and decades of tests with monks and yogis in Western labs, some revealing remarkable abilities to control respiration, brain waves or core body temperature. But this-the first experiment with someone at Oser's level of training, using such sophisticated measures-will take that research to an entirely new level. It can take scientists deeper than they have ever been into charting the specific links between highly disciplined mental strategies and their impact on brain function. And this research agenda has a pragmatic focus: to assess meditation as mind training, a practical answer to the perennial human conundrum of how we can better handle our destructive emotions.
This issue had been addressed over the course of a remarkable five-day dialogue held the year before between the Dalai Lama and a small group of scientists at his private quarters in Dharamsala, India. The research with Oser marked one culmination of several lines of scientific inquiry set in motion during the dialogue. There the Dalai Lama had been a prime mover in inspiring this research; he was an active collaborator in turning the lens of science on the practices of his own spiritual tradition.
It was at the invitation of Richard Davidson, one of the scientists who participated in the Dharamsala dialogues, that Oser had come to the E. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior, on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin. The laboratory was founded by Davidson, a leading pioneer in the field of affective neuroscience, which studies the interplay of the brain and emotions. Davidson had wanted Oser-a particularly intriguing subject-to be studied intensively with state of-the-art brain measures.
Oser has spent several months at a stretch in intensive, solitary retreat. All told, those retreats add up to about two and a half years. But beyond that, during several years as the personal attendant to a Tibetan master, the reminders to practice even in the midst of his busy daily activities were almost constant. Now, here at the laboratory, the question was what difference any of that training had made.
The collaboration began before Oser even went near the MRI, with a meeting to design the research protocol. As the eight-person research team brief Oser, everyone in the room was acutely aware that they were in a bit of a race against time. The Dalai Lama himself would visit the lab the very next day, and they hoped by then to have harvested at least some preliminary results to share with him.
Tibetan Buddhism may well offer the widest menu of meditation methods of any contemplative tradition, and it was from this rich offering that the team in Madison began to choose what to study. The initial suggestions from the research team were for three meditative states: a visualization, one-pointed concentration and generating compassion. The three methods involved distinct enough mental strategies that the team was fairly sure they would reveal different underlying configurations of brain activity. Indeed, Oser was able to give precise descriptions of each.
One of the methods chosen, one-pointedness-a fully focused concentration on a single object of attention-may be the most basic and universal of all practices, found in one form or another in every spiritual tradition that employs meditation. Focusing on one point requires letting go of the ten thousand other thoughts and desires that flit through the mind as distractions; as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put it, "Purity of heart is to want one thing only."
In the Tibetan system (as in many others) cultivating concentration is a beginner's method, a prerequisite for moving on to more intricate approaches. In a sense, concentration is the most generic form of mind training, with many non-spiritual applications as well. Indeed, for this test, Oser simply picked a spot (a small bolt above him on the MRI, it turned out) to focus his gaze on and held it there, bringing his focus back whenever his mind wandered off.
Oser proposed three more approaches that he thought would usefully expand the data yield: meditations on devotion and on fearlessness, and what he called the "open state." The last refers to a thought-free wakefulness where the mind, as Oser described it, "is open, vast and aware, with no intentional mental activity. The mind is not focused on anything, yet totally present-not in a focused way, just very open and undistracted. Thoughts may start to arise weakly, but they don't chain into longer thoughts-they just fade away."
Perhaps as intriguing was Oser's explanation of the meditation on fearlessness, which involves "bringing to mind a fearless certainty, a deep confidence that nothing can unsettle-decisive and firm, without hesitating, where you're not averse to anything. You enter into a state where you feel, no matter what happens, 'I have nothing to gain, nothing to lose.'"
Focusing on his teachers plays a key role in the meditation on devotion, he said, in which he holds in mind a deep appreciation of and gratitude toward his teachers and, most especially, the spiritual qualities they embody. That strategy also operates in the meditation on compassion, with his teachers' kindness offering a model.
The final meditation technique, visualization, entailed constructing in the mind's eye an image of the elaborately intricate details of a Tibetan Buddhist deity. As Oser described the process, "You start with the details and build the whole picture from top to bottom. Ideally, you should be able to keep in mind a clear and complete picture." As those familiar with Tibetan thangkas (the wall hangings that depict such deities) will know, such images are highly complex patterns.
Oser confidently assumed that each of these six meditation practices should show distinct brain configurations. The scientists have seen clear distinctions in cognitive activity between, say, visualization and one-pointedness. But the meditations on compassion, devotion and fearlessness have not seemed that different in the mental processes involved, though they differ clearly in content. From a scientific point of view, if Oser could demonstrate sharp, consistent brain signatures for any of these meditative states, it would be a first.
Oser's testing started with the "functional MRI," the current gold standard of research on the brain's role in behavior. The standard MRI, in wide use in hospitals, offers a graphically detailed snapshot of the structure of the brain. But the fMRI offers all that in video-an ongoing record of how zones of the brain dynamically change their level of activity from moment to moment. The conventional MRI lays bare the brain's structures, while fMRI reveals how those structures interact as they function.
The fMRI would give Davidson a crystal-clear set of images of Oser's brain, cross-cutting slices at one millimeter-slimmer than a fingernail. These images could then be analyzed in any dimension to track precisely what happens during a mental act, tracing paths of activity through the brain.
Oser, lying peacefully on a hospital gurney with his head constrained in the maw of the fMRI, looked like a human pencil inserted into a huge cubic beige sharpener. Instead of the lone monk in a mountaintop cave, it's the monk in the brain scanner.
Wearing earphones so he could talk to the control room, Oser sounded unperturbed as the technicians led him through a lengthy series of checks to ensure the MRI images were tracking. Finally, as Davidson was about to begin the protocol, he asked, "Oser, how are you doing?" "Just fine," Oser assured him via a small microphone inside the machine.
"Your brain looks beautiful," Davidson said. "Let's start with five repetitions of the open state." A computerized voice then took over, to ensure precise timing for the protocol. The prompt "on" was the signal for Oser to meditate, followed by silence for sixty seconds while Oser complied. Then "neutral," another sixty seconds of silence, and the cycle started once again with "on."
The same routine guided Oser through the other five meditative states, with pauses between as the technicians worked out various glitches. Finally, when the full round was complete, Davidson asked if Oser felt the need to repeat any, and the answer came: "I'd like to repeat the open state, compassion, devotion and one-pointedness"-the ones he felt were the most important to study.
So the whole process started again. As he was about to begin the run on the open state, Oser said he wanted to remain in the state longer. He was able to evoke the state but wanted more time to deepen it. Once the computers have been programmed for the protocol, though, the technology drives the procedure; the timing has been fixed. Still, the technicians went into a huddle, quickly figuring how to reprogram on the spot to increase the "on" period by fifty percent and shorten the neutral period accordingly. The rounds began again.
With all the time taken up by reprogramming and ironing out technical hitches, the whole run took more than three hours. Subjects rarely emerge from the MRI-particularly after having been in there for so long-with anything but an expression of weary relief. But Davidson was pleasantly astonished to see Oser come out from his grueling routine in the MRI beaming broadly and proclaiming, "It's like a mini-retreat!"
Without taking more than a brief break, Oser headed down the hall for the next set of tests, this time using an electroencephalogram, the brain wave measure better known as an EEG. Most EEG studies use only thirty-two sensors on the scalp to pick up electrical activity in the brain-and many use just six.
But Oser's brain would be monitored twice, using two different EEG caps, first one with 128 sensors, the next with a staggering 256. The first cap would capture valuable data while he again went through the same paces in the meditative states. The second, with 256 sensors, would be used synergistically with the earlier MRI data.
This time, instead of lying in the maw of the MRI, he sat on a comfortable chair and wore a Medusa-like helmet-something like a shower cap extruding a spaghetti of thin wires. The EEG sessions took another two hours.
It seemed from the preliminary analysis that Oser's mental strategies were accompanied by strong, demonstrable shifts in the MRI signals. These signals suggested that large networks in the brain changed with each distinct mental state he generated. Ordinarily, such a clear shift in brain activity between states of mind is the exception, except for the grossest shifts in consciousness-from waking to sleep, for instance. But Oser's brain showed clear distinctions among each of the six meditations.
The EEG analysis bore particularly rich fruit in the comparison between Oser at rest and while meditating on compassion. Most striking was a dramatic increase in key electrical activity known as gamma in the left middle frontal gyrus, a zone of the brain Davidson's previous research had pinpointed as a locus for positive emotions. In research with close to two hundred people, Davidson's lab had found that when people have high levels of such brain activity in that specific site of the left prefrontal cortex, they simultaneously report feelings such as happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness.
On the other hand, Davidson's research has also found that high levels of activity in a parallel site on the other side of the brain-in the right prefrontal area-correlate with reports of distressing emotions. People with a higher level of activity in the right prefrontal site and a lower level in the left are more prone to feelings such as sadness, anxiety and worry. Indeed, an extreme rightward tilt in the ratio of the activity in these prefrontal areas predicts a high likelihood that a person will succumb to clinical depression or an anxiety disorder at some point in their life. People in the grip of depression who also report intense anxiety have the highest levels of activation in those right prefrontal areas.
The implications of these findings for our emotional balance are profound: we each have a characteristic ratio of right-to-left activation in the prefrontal areas that offers a barometer of the moods we are likely to feel day to day. That ratio represents what amounts to an emotional set point, the mean around which our daily moods swing.
Each of us has the capacity to shift our moods, at least a bit, and thus change this ratio. The further to the left that ratio tilts, the better our frame of mind tends to be, and experiences that lift our mood cause such a leftward tilt, at least temporarily. For instance, most people show small positive changes in this ratio when they are asked to recall pleasant memories of events from their past, or when they watch amusing or heartwarming film clips.
Usually such changes from the baseline set point are modest. But when Oser was generating a state of compassion during meditation, he showed a remarkable leftward shift in this parameter of prefrontal function, one that was extraordinarily unlikely to occur by chance alone.
In short, Oser's brain shift during compassion seemed to reflect an extremely pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others' well-being, it seems, creates a greater state of well-being within oneself. The finding lends scientific support to an observation often made by the Dalai Lama: that the person doing a meditation on compassion for all beings is the immediate beneficiary.
The data from Oser was remarkable in another way, as these were also most likely the first data ever gathered on brain activity during the systematic generation of compassion-an emotional state for the most part utterly ignored by modern psychological research. Research in psychology over the decades has focused far more on what goes wrong with us-depression, anxiety and the like-than on what goes right with us. The positive side of experience and human goodness have been largely ignored in research; indeed, there is virtually no research anywhere in the annals of psychology on compassion per se.
While Davidson's data on compassion were surprising in themselves, still more remarkable results were about to be reported by Paul Ekman, one of the world's most eminent experts on the science of emotion, who heads the Human Interaction Laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco. Ekman was among the handful of scientists who had attended the Dharamsala meeting, and he had studied Oser a few months earlier in his own laboratory. The net result was four studies, three of which are described here.
The first test used a measure that represents a culmination of Ekman's life's work as the world's leading expert on the facial expression of emotions. The test consists of a videotape in which a series of faces show a variety of expressions very briefly. The challenge is to identify whether you've just seen the facial signs, for instance, of contempt or anger or fear. Each expression stays on the screen for just one-fifth of a second in one version, and for one thirtieth of a second in another-so fast that you would miss it if you blinked. Each time the person must select which of seven emotions he or she has just seen.
The ability to recognize fleeting expressions signals an unusual capacity for accurate empathy. Such expressions of emotion-called micro-expressions-happen outside the awareness of both the person who displays them and the person observing. Because they occur unwittingly, these ultra-rapid displays of emotion are completely uncensored, and so reveal-if only for a short moment-how the person truly feels.
From studies with thousands of people, Ekman knew that people who do better at recognizing these subtle emotions are more open to new experience, more interested and more curious about things in general. They are also conscientious-reliable and efficient. "So I had expected that many years of meditative experience"-which requires both openness and conscientiousness-"might make them do better on this ability," Ekman explains. Thus he had wondered if Oser might be better able to identify these ultra-fast emotions than other people are.
Then Ekman announced his results: both Oser and another advanced Western meditator Ekman had been able to test were two standard deviations above the norm in recognizing these super- quick facial signals of emotion, albeit the two subjects differed in the emotions they were best at perceiving. They both scored far higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. "They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges-even Secret Service agents," the group that had previously distinguished itself as most accurate.
"It appears that one benefit of some part of the life paths these two have followed is becoming more aware of these subtle signs of how other people feel," Ekman notes. Oser had super acuity for the fleeting signs of fear, contempt and anger. The other meditator-a Westerner who, like Oser, had done a total of two to three years in solitary retreats in the Tibetan tradition-was similarly outstanding, though on a different range of emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust and, like Oser, anger.
One of the most primitive responses in the human repertoire, the startle reflex, involves a cascade of very quick muscle spasms in response to a loud, surprising sound or sudden, jarring sight. For everyone, the same five facial muscles instantaneously contract during a startle, particularly around the eyes. The startle reflex starts about two-tenths of a second after hearing the sound and ends around a half second after the sound. From beginning to end, it takes approximately a third of a second. The time course is always the same; that's the way we're wired.
Like all reflexes, the startle reflects activity of the brain stem, the most primitive, reptilian part of the brain. Like other brain stem responses-and unlike those of the autonomic nervous system, such as the rate at which the heart beats-the startle reflex lies beyond the range of voluntary regulation. So far as brain science understands, the mechanisms that control the startle reflex cannot be modified by any intentional act.
Ekman became interested in testing the startle reflex because its intensity predicts the magnitude of the negative emotions a person feels-particularly fear, anger, sadness and disgust. The bigger a person's startle, the more strongly that individual tends to experience negative emotions-though there's no relationship between the startle and positive feelings such as joy.
For a test of the magnitude of Oser's startle reflex, Ekman took him across San Francisco Bay to the psychophysiological laboratory of his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of California at Berkeley. There they wired Oser to capture his heart rate and sweat response and videotaped his facial expressions-all to record his physiological reactions to a startling sound. To eliminate any differences due to the noise level of the sound, they chose the top of the threshold for human tolerance to huge sound, like a pistol being fired or a large firecracker going off near one's ear.
They gave Oser the standard instruction, telling him that they would count down from ten to one, at which point he would hear a loud noise. They asked that he try to suppress the inevitable flinch, so that someone looking at him would not know he felt it. Some people can do better than others, but no one can come remotely close to completely suppressing it. A classic study in the 1940's showed that it's impossible to prevent the startle reflex, despite the most intense, purposeful efforts to suppress the muscle spasms. No one Ekman and Robert Levenson had ever tested could do it. Earlier researchers found that even police marksmen, who fire guns routinely, are unable to keep themselves from startling.
But Oser did. Ekman explains, "When Oser tries to suppress the startle, it almost disappears. We've never found anyone who can do that. Nor have any other researchers." Oser practiced two types of meditation while having the startle tested: one-pointed concentration and the open state. As Oser experienced it, the biggest effect was from the open state: "When I went into the open state, the explosive sound seemed to me softer, as if I was distanced from the sensations, hearing the sound from afar." Ekman reported that although Oser's physiology showed some slight changes, not a muscle of his face moved, which Oser related to his mind not being shaken by the bang. Indeed, as Oser later elaborated, "If you can remain properly in this state, the bang seems neutral, like a bird crossing the sky."
Although Oser showed not a ripple of movement in any facial muscles while in the open state, his physiological measures, (including heart rate, sweating and blood pressure) showed the increase typical of the startle reflex. From Ekman's perspective, the strongest overall muting came during the intense focus of the one-pointedness meditation. During the one-pointedness meditation, instead of the inevitable jump, there was a decrease in Oser's heart rate, blood pressure and so on. On the other hand, his facial muscles did reflect a bit of the typical startle pattern; the movements "were very small, but they were present," Ekman observed. "And he did one unusual thing. In all others we've tested, the eyebrows go down. In Oser they go up."
In sum, Oser's one-pointed concentration seemed to close him off to external stimuli-even to the startling noise of a gunshot. Given that the larger someone's startle, the more intensely that person tends to experience upsetting emotions, Oser's performance had tantalizing implications, suggesting a remarkable level of emotional equanimity.
Finally, in the last experiment, Ekman and Robert Levenson showed Oser two medical training films that have been used for more than three decades in emotion research simply because they are so upsetting. In one a surgeon seems to amputate a limb with a scalpel and saw-actually preparing an arm stump to be fitted with a prosthesis-and there is lots of gore and blood. But the camera focuses only on the limb, so you never see the person getting the surgery. In the other, you see the pain of a severely burned patient, who stands as doctors strip skin off his body. The main emotion evoked in the scores of research subjects who have viewed both these films during experiments is highly reliable: disgust.
When Oser viewed the amputation film, the emotion he reported feeling most strongly was the usual disgust. He commented that the movie reminded him of Buddhist teachings about impermanence and the unsavory aspects of the human body that lie beneath an attractive exterior. But his reaction to the burn film was quite different. "Where he sees the whole person," Ekman reported, "Oser feels compassion." His thoughts were about human suffering and how to relieve it; his feelings were a sense of caring and concern, mixed with a not unpleasant strong sadness.
The physiology of Oser's disgust reaction during the amputation film was unremarkable, the standard changes indicating the physiological arousal seen during that emotion. But when he spontaneously felt compassion during the burn film, his physiological signs reflected relaxation even more strongly than they had when the signs had been measured during a resting state.
Ekman ended his report of the results by noting that each of the studies with Oser had "produced findings that in thirty-five years of research I have never seen before." In short, Oser's data are extraordinary.
From the perspective of neuroscience, the point of all this research has nothing to do with demonstrating that Oser or any other extraordinary person may be remarkable in him or herself, but rather to stretch the field's assumptions about human possibility.
A decade ago the dogma in neuroscience was that the brain contained all of its neurons at birth and it was unchanged by life's experiences. The only changes that occurred over the course of life were minor alterations in synaptic contacts-the connections among neurons-and cell death with aging. But the new watchword in brain science is neuroplasticity, the notion that the brain continually changes as a result of our experiences-whether through fresh connections between neurons or through the generation of utterly new neurons. Musical training, where a musician practices an instrument every day for years, offers an apt model for neuroplasticity. MRI studies find that in a violinist, for example, the areas of the brain that control finger movements in the hand that does the fingering grow in size. Those who start their training earlier in life and practice longer show bigger changes in the brain. Still, neuroscientists do not know with certainty what accounts for this change-whether the change is in the synaptic weights as added connections bulk out neurons, or whether an uptick in the number of neurons may also be playing a role.
A related issue revolves around the amount of practice that it might take in order for the brain to show such a change, particularly in something as subtle as meditation. There is an undeniable impact on the brain, mind and body from extensive practice. Studies of champion performers in a range of abilities-from chess masters and concert violinists to Olympic athletes-find pronounced changes in the pertinent muscle fibers and cognitive abilities that set those at the top of a skill apart from all others.
The more total hours of practice the champions have done, the stronger the changes. For instance, among violinists at the topmost level, all had practiced a lifetime total of about ten thousand hours by the time they entered a music academy. Those at the next rung had practiced an average of about seventy-five hundred hours. Presumably a similar effect from practice occurs in meditation, which can be seen, from the perspective of cognitive science, as the systematic effort to retrain attention and related mental and emotional skills.
Oser, as it turned out, far exceeded the ten-thousand-hour level in meditation practice. Much of that practice came during the time he spent in intensive meditation retreats, along with the four years living in a hermitage during the early period of his training as a monk, as well as occasional long retreats over the subsequent years.
While Oser may be a virtuoso of meditation, even raw novices start to show some of the same shifts. This was clear from other data Davidson had gathered on similar brain changes in people just beginning to practice a variety of meditation called mindfulness. These studies had given Davidson convincing data that meditation can shift the brain as well as the body. While ÷ser's results suggested just how far that shift could go with years of sustained practice, even beginners displayed evidence of biological shifts in the same direction. So the next question for Davidson to tackle was this: Can specific types of meditation be used to change circuitry in the brain associated with different aspects of emotion?
Davidson may be one of the few neuroscientists anywhere who can dare to ask this, because his lab is using a new imaging technique-diffusion tensor imaging-to help answer this question. The method shows connections among different regions in the nervous system. Until now, diffusion tensor imaging has mostly been used to study patients with neurological diseases. Davidson's lab is among a select group that use the technique for basic neuroscience research, and the only one to be using it for research on how methods that transform emotion may be changing the connectivity of the brain.
Perhaps most exciting, the images created by diffusion tensor imaging can actually track the subtle reshaping of the brain at the heart of neuroplasticity. With the method, scientists can now, for the first time ever, identify the changes in the human brain as repeated experiences remodel specific connections or add new neurons. This marks a brave new frontier for neuroscience: it was only in 1998 that neuroscientists discovered that new neurons are continually being generated in the adult brain.
For Davidson, one immediate application will be searching for new connections in the circuitry crucial for regulating distressing emotions. Davidson hopes to see if there actually are new connections associated with a person's increased ability to manage anxiety, fear or anger more effectively.
From the scientific perspective, what does any of this matter? Davidson sums it up by referring to The Art of Happiness, a book the Dalai Lama wrote with psychiatrist Howard Cutler, in which the Dalai Lama said that happiness is not a fixed characteristic, a biological set point that will never change. Instead, the brain is plastic, and our quota of happiness can be enhanced through mental training.
"It can be trained because the very structure of our brain can be modified," Davidson said. "And the results of modern neuroscience inspire us now to go on and look at other practiced subjects so that we can examine these changes with more detail. We now have the methods to show how the brain changes with these kinds of practices, and how our mental and physical health may improve as a consequence."
Oser, reflecting on the data gathered in Madison, put it this way: "Such results of training point to the possibility that one could continue much further in such a transformation process, and, as some great contemplatives have repeatedly claimed, eventually free one's mind from afflictive emotions."
When I asked the Dalai Lama what he made of the data on ÷ser-such as being able to mute the startle reflex-he replied, "It's very good he managed to show some signs of yogic ability." Here he used the term yogic not in the garden-variety sense of a few hours a week practicing postures in a yoga studio but in its classic sense-referring to one who dedicates his or her life to the cultivation of spiritual qualities.
The Dalai Lama added, "But there is a saying, 'The true mark of being learned is humility and mental discipline; the true mark of a meditator is that he has disciplined his mind by freeing it from negative emotions.' We think along those lines-not in terms of performing some feats or miracles." In other words, the real measure of spiritual development lies in how well a person manages disturbing emotions such as anger and jealousy-not in attaining rarified states during meditation or exhibiting feats of physical self-control such as muting the startle reaction.
One payoff for this scientific agenda would be in inspiring people to better handle their destructive emotions through trying some of the same methods for training the mind. When I asked the Dalai Lama what greater benefit he hoped for from this line of research, he replied: "Through training the mind people can become more calm-especially those who suffer from too many ups and downs. That's the conclusion from these studies of Buddhist mind training. And that's my main end: I'm not thinking how to further Buddhism, but how the Buddhist tradition can make some contribution to the benefit of society. Of course, as Buddhists, we always pray for all sentient beings. But we're only human beings; the main thing you can do is train your own mind."
Daniel Goleman, twice a Pulitzer prize nominee, is the bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence (Bantam) and Healing Emotions (Shambhala).
From Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? Narrated by Daniel Goleman. © 2003 by Mind and Life Institute. Published by arrangement with Bantam Books, an imprint of The Bantam Dell Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
From Shambhala Sun, March 2003.
Plums and Lizard Tails
by Noa Jones
Spring is blossom season in Japan. Drifts of petals like snow decorate the parks and streets. On May 15, 1995, in this season of renewal, venerable Zen master Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi wrote an inka poem bestowing final approval on his senior disciple, Tetsugen Glassman Sensei, the "eldest son" of the White Plum sangha, placed it in an envelope and gave it to his brothers. Hours later, before dawn broke over the trees of Tokyo, Maezumi Roshi drowned. His death shocked his successors, students, wife and children, and the Zen community at large. At age 64, he was head of one of the most vital lineages of Zen in America; he was seemingly healthy, fresh from retreat, invigorated by his work and focused on practice. Recently elected a Bishop, he was at the zenith of his sometimes rocky relationship with the Japanese Soto sect. But before he'd barely started, he was gone.
Senior students scrambled for tickets and flew from points around the world to attend the cremation in Tokyo. Three months later, at the public ceremony in Los Angeles, Maezumi Roshi's adopted home, Jan Chozen Bays read a poem to an eclectic crowd of mourners-11 of Mazezumi's 12 first generation successors. including Glassman (now also known by his clown name, Bernie the Boobysattva), Dennis Genpo Merzel and John Daido Loori, plus third and fourth generation dharma heirs, rabbi roshis, professor successors, Catholic priest senseis and others. Chozen Roshi wept as she recited:
I knew the watch and glasses
but not the face they said was yours
there cold in drifts of white flower petals.
They said it was your body
we carried in kesa-covered box.
How could I know?
Before you always carried us.
Soon they bring us sharp white bone pieces.
Now I know you.
Now I know you.
Losing your teacher. Imagine setting sail in a shark-infested, choppy ocean without a ship, without clothes even. The loss of a spiritual guide has sent populations spiraling into a state of confusion throughout history. All Buddhist schools have known the perilous vacuum left by the death of a guru or a roshi. Shi'ites and Sunnis wasted no time starting wars upon Muhammad's death. Sons and daughters battled in the void that Swami Muktananda left behind. The Mormon Church divided into twelve quorums following the execution of Joseph Smith. Even baboons are prone to quarrel when the dominant dies.
And so there they were, over five hundred students suddenly naked and at sea. Would they sink? Dissolve into other sanghas? Float to other gurus? Or would they learn to swim?
Taizan Maezumi's own journey began at sea in 1956 when he bought a one-way ticket on a freighter to Los Angeles, where he would assume a position as priest under Bishop Togan Sumi at Zenshuji Temple, the Soto headquarters of the United States. "He came with a mission," says Daido Roshi, abbot of Zen Mountain Center in upstate New York, "not just to transmit the dharma to his immediate successors, but to envision the future generations and what they would need."
At the time, many traditional institutions in Japan were declining into bureaucracies. Monks survived by performing rituals-Yasutani Roshi called them "funeral directors." But in the West, outmoded models of God and religious systems were being tested by the progressive elite, proto-hippie beats and academia. The Zen stirrings of Alan Watts, Gary Snyder and other early students attracted seekers who, though maybe a bit doe-eyed, showed great enthusiasm for authentic study. "Those days I think Zen across the board was a hippie Zen," says Daido Roshi. "It was more romance and fascination with the aesthetic than a religious calling."
Many found the teachings of D.T. Suzuki, which lead East Coast scholars to Eido Tai Shimano Roshi and Phillip Kaplaeu. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was attracting students in San Francisco, but the Zen Center and Green Gulch were still a twinkle in his eye. Southern California was without a major center and without a teacher.
Maezumi, then only a sensei, was an unknown, but he had qualifications, training and a valuable rebellious streak. He was a product of World War II: during the occupation of Japan, a group of American soldiers used his family temple to house anti-aircraft missiles. He was a curious teenager eager to learn English, and free lessons came in the form of hanging out with the soldiers. They also taught the young monk, ordained at 11 like most boys born into temple families, to smoke cigarettes and drink beer.
Maezumi's father, Baian Hakujun Kuroda Roshi, head of the Soto Sect Supreme Court and one of the leading figures of Japanese Soto Zen, sent the young Taizan Maezumi to live with the famed Rinzai teacher Osaka Koryu Roshi. Departing from his family's tradition, Maezumi studied koans with Koryu Roshi and went on to receive degrees in Oriental Literature and Philosophy from Komazawa University. He then finished his early training at Soji-ji, one of the two main Soto monasteries in Japan. When he received shiho from his father in 1955 (shiho is the dharma lineage transmission that authorizes a person to teach), he became a Soto sensei.
What made Maezumi Roshi so extraordinary was his official recognition by both major schools of Zen. Haku'un Yasutani Roshi of the Rinzai sect approved him as a teacher in 1970, as did Koryu Osaka Roshi in 1972, both bestowing shiho and inka (the Rinzai tradition of final approval). Transmissions by these three masters-his father, Haku'un Yasutani Roshi and Koryu Osaka Roshi-confirmed him as an independent teacher and dharma successor in three separate lineages.
But it was the American soldiers and their English lessons that gave Taizan Maezumi Sensei the edge he needed to be sent across the Pacific. The Japanese Mission in Los Angeles needed an English speaker-but not to teach Zen to Americans. "The Japanese community often suffered under painful racial prejudice and wanted to gather together for comfort in familiar rituals," says Chozen Roshi. "They wanted keep to their culture and language alive for their children."
This meant, for Maezumi, performing funerals and marriages, not formal Zen practice. He dug in nevertheless, enduring long hours at the Soto Mission, completing his own koan studies, performing memorials and services while moonlighting as a translator, writing fortune cookies, working as a gardener and never forgetting his vow to serve the dharma.
By the late 1960s, American students in Los Angeles started sniffing around Little Tokyo for a teacher. People like Bernie Glassman (then an aeronautical engineer at McDonnell-Douglas) and Charlotte Joko Beck had already tasted what Zen practice had to offer, but were seeking direct, ongoing contact with a master. Maezumi Sensei, though still busy serving the Japanese community, answered the call.
He began holding gatherings in a room at the temple. His orientation towards zazen, sitting practice, set him apart from the bishops who ministered to the Japanese congregation. Maezumi Roshi's style was warm, dynamic and direct. He lettered a sign on the zendo reading, "If you want to clarify the Great Matter of life and death you are welcome. Otherwise, better get out!" Buddhanature was "so obvious-" he would say, "right before your eyes."
"He could see through the camouflage of personality and talk straight to the seeker beneath," says Chozen Roshi.
"His task was to introduce Zen to us," says Glassman. "We were to swallow what we could, and then manifest it in our way, and spit up what didn't make sense for us."
Word spread quickly. Maezumi Sensi left the temple and moved to an apartment, then into a house in the heart of Koreatown. He threw himself into teaching. "His life belonged to his students," says Daido Roshi. "He gave himself completely to the teachings."
Under his guidance a sangha came together and matured. The dilettantes left and serious practioners stayed. What developed was White Plum Asanga, one of the most successful lineages of Zen in the West. Through Maezumi's teachings and transmissions, a community of well-trained yet individualistic students took root. "He had a really great vow to spread the dharma and help people realize the nature of life," says Wendy Egyoku Nakao Sensi, a third generation dharma heir who received transmission from Bernie Glassman. "Roshi was so clear about it that it didn't really matter when the obstacles came."
From the start the program was rigorous, with an emphasis on zazen and weeklong practice sesshins. The main course was traditional koan study-memorization of and reflection on hundreds of paradoxical passages whose very impossibility points to the nature of ultimate reality. Each koan requires intense one-on-one time between teacher and student; they will wrestle with the paradox until the master feels the student has grasped its meaning, transcended it and is ready to move on to the next. Such immediate contact with Maezumi helped solidify their trust in him and vice versa.
Egyoku Sensei is now abbot of Zen Center of Los Angeles Buddha Essence Temple, the "mother temple of the lineage" established by Maezumi Roshi in 1967. She says that, around the time Maezumi Roshi started it, ZCLA attracted determined Zen students. Scores of them. The center began swallowing up neighboring properties, eventually occupying an entire city block. Genpo Roshi and Bernie Glassman quit their day jobs and became residents.
As visiting teachers in Boulder in 1976, Glassman and Genpo Roshi observed the naissance of Naropa Institute and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's energetic sangha. Genpo Roshi says he parlayed lessons learned from Trungpa Rinpoche (he calls Rinpoche his "dharma uncle") into organized community-building of the White Plum sangha. The LA sangha mushroomed. "From a group of eight resident members in 1972, we had more than 100 people sitting zazen on a daily basis," recalls Genpo Roshi. Though the numbers were high, Maezumi Roshi maintained deeply personal relationships with his students. He began giving mind-to-mind transmission, a tradition that linked his students to the great masters of the past: Yasutani Roshi, Soto sect founder Dogen Zenji Roshi, Bodhidharma and Buddha Shakyamuni himself.
The LA center was the first of six that Maezumi Roshi founded in the United States, South America and Europe. He was meticulous about following the forms of his tradition, and this meant getting the paperwork done correctly. He formally registered each center, each dharma heir and every monk with Soto Headquarters in Japan.
Meanwhile, he was also building his own family. He married Martha Ekyo Maezumi, a cultural anthropology student, in 1975 after two years of courtship. They had three children together, Kirsten Mitsuyo, Yuri Jundo and Shira "Yoshi" Yoshimi. But, Ekyo admits, "his focus was always on his students and their practice. We wanted some time and attention too but it wasn't always there. It was unfortunate, but we all adored him and enjoyed as much time as we could together. It certainly wasn't easy."
Doctors often tell elderly patients that having a small heart attack is a blessing. Seismologists consider little earthquakes good news. These little episodes respectively strengthen the cardiovascular system and release the pressure of the earth. This principle could be applied to the White Plum sanga, which in 1983 suffered a crisis that arrested hearts and shook the ground for many students.
When Maezumi Roshi admitted in public that he was an alcoholic, he did so with deep remorse. But remorse alone could not prevent a mass exodus. Puritanical American idealism with its unrealistic expectations led many to assume the master was above vices. "In fact he was a great teacher with unresolved issues," recalls long-time student John Daishin Buksbazen. "It knocked the idea of the perfect guru into a cocked hat."
Seeing their Japanese master at a human level forced students to re-examine their own motivations. Why had they come here? Some came to work out personal problems, seeking salvation, seeking answers to the great "Who am I?" and "What is reality?" questions. Others came looking for bliss experiences without drugs. And some were merely attracted to the exoticness of Zen aesthetics and form. Whatever the reasons, suddenly they had to assess what practice meant to them and jettison the rest. ZCLA began to sell off its properties. Many made a permanent break from the group, including Maezumi's third heir, Charlotte Joko Beck.
One of those who felt the crisis most keenly was Ekyo Maezumi, Roshi's wife. But she speaks without a trace of bitterness. "It helped the students to see that the teacher wasn't omnipotent and the teacher was human," says Ekyo. "It made each person realize that they were responsible for their practice." Using money sent from Maezumi Roshi's mother, Ekyo moved the children to Idyllwild, a small California mountain community. With time, she gained perspective: "I can take it as a learning experience."
There were others who felt the same. In a revealing documentary shot by Ann Cushman at the time of the crisis, one student expressed heartbroken joy with his fallen guru. "Disillusionment is great," he told the camera crew. "It means I've stopped being illusioned and from that point of view my relationship with the teacher has worked. I am not angry, but free."
Genpo Roshi was not fazed. "Many of us were already quite independent, so I think we were not as hard hit," he says. "So much depended on where you were in your practice. I always felt with Roshi that the deepest connection was to his realization and understanding and that was never shaken by how he manifested in his life."
Egyoku Sensei found the sangha ultimately resilient. "This community has an incredible capacity to regenerate itself." She likens it to a lizard. "Its tail is cut off but it keeps coming back. That event doesn't define us. It was a pruning. Life pruned us. We had to look at it and ask what does the sangha need to grow again?"
Like the abrupt removal of training wheels, the episode was scary and then exhilarating. While Maezumi focused his efforts on the Zen Mountain Center in Idyllwild, senior students began fanning out, setting up their own orders and experimenting with the form. "Through training, all the talents and knowledge we had developed for our own success became tools for the dharma," says Chozen Roshi.
And for the most part, those talents were channeled to serve others. Glassman had already moved east to set up the Zen Community of New York. He began drifting apart from White Plum as an institution but stayed connected to the practice and lineage through his interpretation of Zen as social action. He founded the much-written-about Greyston Bakery and the more recent Peacemaker Order. Daido Roshi, originally a military man and an artist (a student of the legendary photographer Minor White), emphasized monastic Zen meditation and koan study at his center but with the radical change of training men and women together. He also started a publishing company, a prison program and various environmental initiatives.
Genpo Roshi, once a competitive athlete, was one of the most experimental teachers of the second generation. After teaching in Europe and establishing the international Kanzeon sangha, he settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he developed the Big Mind technique, a blend of Jungian psychology and Zen. Genpo Roshi discovered that by asking a few Socratic questions, he could "bring about a transcendent experience, opening up the Zen eye or Buddha eye." It's a bold statement.
"I am sure this seems like a quick fix and in a way it is, but Zen has always been known as the sudden school. Zen masters are always seeking ways to create a sudden enlightenment so it is well within our tradition to be non-traditional," says Genpo Roshi with disarming confidence. "Zen teachers have always been a bit bizarre."
"We don't have to all do what Genpo is doing because he is doing that," says Egyoku Sensi, who is busy with her own groundbreaking ideas. "But we can respect and trust that expression and learn from his experiences."
"One of the things about Zen is that it has the ability to take the shape of the container it is in," explains Daido Loorie. "The fundamental teaching is the same-which is basically awakening and realization-but the upaya, the skillful means people use, changes."
It takes considerable skillful means to find trustworthy students. The White Plum sangha is comprised of the 12 direct lineage holders of Maezumi Roshi, and all of four generations of their heirs. Glassman was the first to name his own successor, giving shiho to writer Peter Matthiessen, who founded Sagaponack Zendo. Glassman went on to ordain 16 others, including rabbis, Catholic priests and poets. He sought people who would not emulate him but who could "realize the essence of Zen, strictly realizing and actualizing the oneness of life." How each student interpreted or manifested that was up to the individual. The only constant was an emphasis on daily zazen practice. "But for me that's like emphasizing eating as part of the day," says Glassman.
About fifty successors have since been named in the lineage worldwide but even with White Plum's annual meetings, it's hard to keep track. Daido Roshi likens it to a large extended family. "I know some of the successors," he says, "but they have successors who I wouldn't know if I ran into them on the street. The one thing that connects us is that we came from the same teacher."
Naming heirs involves traditional, esoteric shiho ceremonies that take place over the course of a week. Details are not for public discussion. But everyone would say that naming an heir is profoundly personal. "What we are talking about is human experience which is a very difficult thing to put to words except poetry," says Daido Roshi. How does a teacher know how his or her heir should be? "It is like asking someone how he knows he is in love. It is an intuitive sense of recognition. Not so rational."
"You know when you know that they know what you know," says Genpo Roshi. "You see that they see through the same eyes."
After things settled down, Maezumi Roshi continued teaching, holding retreats and leading his students to (paraphrasing Dogen Roshi's words) study the self, forget the self and be enlightened by the ten thousand dharmas. "He had the meatiest, juiciest time as a teacher ahead of him, he was reaching a nice ripe old age," says Genpo Roshi. But just when the sangha seemed to be riding smoothly, their teacher let go. On the spring day when Maezumi Roshi died, it was again time to prune.
In his will, Maezumi named Bernie Glassman as president of White Plum. Glassman assumed the role, convening an annual meeting with all the heirs, seeing to appointments and guiding the sangha, but only until the dust settled. The group still meets once a year, usually in the early spring, but Glassman no longer attends. And while he will always be part of the lineage, he does not consider himself part of the organization. Genpo Roshi is the current president of White Plum. "I think I am vice president," says Daido Roshi. "It's not that formal. We hang out, usually for a couple of days. It's celebratory and at the same time business."
Egyoku Sensei was put in charge of ZCLA after several bumpy attempts at reorganization. Maezumi's shoes were not easy to fill. "Our founding teacher had died. We had to strip it down again," she says. "We had to ask, 'What are the ingredients left? What was our legacy? Who is willing to work?'"
It took time and a forceful act of nature for Egyoku to accept her new role. In December 1997, a fire started by a space heater in what used to be Maezumi Roshi's residence at ZCLA, where Egyoku Sensei was trying to make her home. Afterwards, a fireman took her to survey the room, gutted and charred. Suddenly, Maezumi Roshi appeared by her side. "Something is gone now," he said. "That's a good thing, Egyoku. Now do what you have to do here." She finally felt a release that allowed her to completely overhaul the center. "Nothing has been left unturned. But someday it will be cut back again."
The successors all seem to agree that Maezumi's trust in them is the backbone of the strong legacy. It allowed them to own the teachings. "It's not about preserving something, it's about making it grow," says Egoku Sensei. "It was not for him to develop American Zen in the West. His job was plant the seeds. What it would look like, how it would manifest, was up to us. He had tremendous faith in us."
Genpo Roshi recalls that just before his death, Maezumi Roshi said he felt he was a hindrance to the dharma taking root. "In a way, his death was a gift-it freed us. The ball was handed over and we had to develop new ways of approaching the teaching in the West."
And that meant tweaking tradition. Genpo Roshi decided not to make any drastic changes for at least a year. "I knew this would be a rocky time and a time to just grieve," he says. "After that I started making lots of changes."
With Genpo Roshi in charge, Glassman was free to focus on building the Greyston Mandala and his international Zen Peacemaker Order. He renounced his monastic vows and gave up his elegant Zen robes in favor of street clothes and a clown nose. The term "traditional Zen" does not compute with Glassman. "Maezumi Roshi was not carrying out the tradition of the Japanese Soto sect when he came here," he says. "The Soto sect of Japan was not carrying out the traditions of Chinese Zen. You have to be careful with the word 'traditional.' We honor a lot of eccentric people." He likens it to Snow White's seven dwarves, each with his own style. "And I'm Dopey," he says.
But it is unlikely that Dopey could have established a multi-million dollar commercial enterprise that not only provides tasty cakes and bread but also supports a network of community development organizations. Which is what Bernie the Boobysatva and his successors have done in the name of Zen. Greyston Mandala now employs several hundred people in Yonkers at its highly successful bakery, and serves a few thousand more by providing housing, an AIDS clinic, childcare and other services.Construction on a new $10 million complex designed by Maya Lin is under way.
Glassman continues to clown at refugee camps, meet with Israel peace groups, and has developed an "internet of activists and activist groups" he calls Indra's Net. "Each one of us is a jewel in the node of a giant net," he says, "and each jewel reflects every other jewel." By linking up, "we can be a more active force in social change."
The sangha did not sink after Maezumi's death, it did not dissolve. Buoyed like petals strewn on the water, the heirs of Maezumi Roshi are going their own way-from streets of New York to Salt Lake City to Tel Aviv to an island off of the Dutch coast. Egyoku Sensei, a natural born organizer, has masterfully restructured ZCLA, creating a model of healthy center administration based on shared stewardship. She also introduced a lineage of women to the sangha by researching great female masters of the past, like the first Buddhist nun, Mahaprajapati Gotami Mahatheri, and including their names in the chants. Chozen Roshi, a pediatrician and a mother, has focused on what she calls a "family-style" Zen at her center in Oregon "with an eye on abuse of power and boundary crossing issues." Genpo Roshi recently gave shiho to two new successors and teaches Big Mind seminars around the world. Maezumi's children are also blossoming-Yuri is heading off to study French cuisine at the Cordon Bleu, Yoshi is on the dean's list at UCSB and Kirsten is pursuing an acting career in Hollywood.
"To me, Maezumi's genius lay in his ability to see the buddhanature and also teaching potential in many different kinds of people," says Chozen Roshi. "There are some Zen teachers who have no successors or maybe one or two. Maezumi was more the Tibetan style-scatter the seeds widely, some will grow and some will not. We won't know for several generations which of his successors have established lineages that will continue."
What we know for sure, though, is how Maezumi Roshi felt about the dharma. On the evening of his death, in the inka poem he wrote to Bernie Glassman, he said,
Life after life, birth after birth
Do not let die the Wisdom seed of the Buddhas and Ancestors.
Truly! I implore you!
Noa Jones is a freelance writer for The Los Angeles Times and other publications. Her last story for the Shambhala Sun-An Uncommon Lama-appeared in the November 2003 issue.
and Nirvana Are One
The following excerpts from the Hevajra Tantra discuss the tantric idea that there is no fundamental difference between cyclic existence and nirvana. Buddhas perceive them as undifferentiable, but ordinary beings, because of their delusions, think in terms of dichotomies, and so imagine that the path and goal are separate.
Then the essence is declared, pure and consisting in knowledge, where there is not the slightest difference between cyclic existence and nirvana.
Nothing is mentally produced in the highest bliss, and no one produces it,
There is no bodily form, neither object nor subject,
Neither flesh nor blood, neither dung nor urine,
No sickness, no delusion, no purification,
No passion, no wrath, no delusion, no envy,
No malignity, no conceit of self, no visible object,
Nothing mentally produced and no producer,
No friend is there, no enemy,
Calm is the Innate and undifferentiated....
The Enlightened One is neither existence nor non-existence; he has a form with arms and faces and yet in highest bliss is formless.
So the whole world is the Innate, for the Innate is its essence.
Its essence too is nirvana when the mind is in a purified state.
reason we practice meditation
By the venerable Thrangu Rinpoche
the spread of Buddhism in America, the Kagyu lineage was in the forefront of the
sending of lamas to America. Of these lamas, the three great progenitors of the
dharma in America were His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, His Eminence Kalu Rinpoche,
and the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It was very unfortunate that in the
1980s we lost all of these great beings, but in the aftermath, there were a number
of remarkable lamas in the lineage who stepped forward to fill their places and
to bring great benefit to sentient beings. Amongst these, in the forefront of
them, was The Very Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, abbot by appointment of
His Holiness Karmapa of Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. He is also abbot of his own
monasteries in Nepal and Tibet, and by appointment of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche,
of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia. In addition he has been very generous and kind
to Western students, teaching the dharma extensively in retreats and seminars
throughout the world. Rinpoche taught in Seattle for the first time in May 1996.
This transcript is from his teachings the evening of May 24.
I'd like to begin by welcoming all of you here tonight. I recognize that you've come here out of your sincere interest in, and wish to practice, genuine dharma, and out of your respect for my teaching. And this is all delightful to me, and I thank you for it. I consider myself fortunate to have such an opportunity to form such a connection with you. To begin, I would like to recite a traditional supplication to the teachers of my lineage, and while doing so, I invite you to join me in an attitude of confidence and devotion. (Chants)
The essence of the buddhadharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is practice. And when we say practice, we mean the practice of meditation, which can consist of either the meditation known as tranquillity or that known as insight. But in either case, it must be implemented in actual practice. The reason we practice meditation is to attain happiness. And this means states of happiness in both the short term and the long term. With regard to short-term happiness, when we speak of happiness, we usually mean either or both of two things, one of which is physical pleasure and the other of which is mental pleasure. But if you look at either of these pleasant experiences, the root of either one has to be a mind that is at peace, a mind that is free of suffering. Because as long as your mind is unhappy and without any kind of tranquillity or peace, then no matter how much physical pleasure you experience, it will not take the form of happiness per se. On the other hand, even if you lack the utmost ideal physical circumstances of wealth and so on, if your mind is at peace, you will be happy anyway.
We practice meditation, therefore, in part in order to obtain the short-term benefit of a state of mental happiness and peace. Now, the reason why meditation helps with this is that, normally, we have a great deal of thought, or many different kinds of thoughts running through our minds. And some of these thoughts are pleasant, even delightful. Some of them however, are unpleasant, agitating, and worrisome. Now, if you examine the thoughts that are present in your mind from time to time, you will see that the pleasant thoughts are comparatively few, and the unpleasant thoughts are many - which means that as long as your mind is ruled or controlled by the thoughts that pass through it, you will be quite unhappy. In order to gain control over this process, therefore, we begin with the meditation practice of tranquillity, which produces a basic state of contentment and peace within the mind of the practitioner.
An example of this is the great Tibetan yogi Jetsun Milarepa, who lived in conditions of the utmost austerity. He lived it utter solitude, in caves and isolated mountains. His clothes were very poor; he had no nice clothes. His food was neither rich nor tasty. In fact, [for a number of years] he lived on nettle soup alone, as a result of which he became physically very thin, almost emaciated. Now, if you consider his external circumstances alone, the isolation and poverty in which he lived, you would think he must have been miserable. And yet, as we can tell from the many songs he composed, because his mind was fundamentally at peace, his experience was one of constant unfolding delight. His songs are songs that express the utmost state of delight or rapture. He saw every place he went to, no matter how isolated and austere an environment it was, as beautiful, and he experienced his life of utmost austerity as extremely pleasant.
In fact, the short-term benefits of meditation are more than merely peace of mind, because our physical health as well depends, to a great extent, upon our state of mind. And therefore, if you cultivate this state of mental contentment and peace, then you will tend not to become ill, and you will as well tend to heal easily if and when you do become ill. The reason for this is that one of the primary conditions which brings about states of illness is mental agitation, which produces a corresponding agitation or disturbance of the channels and the energies within your body. These generate new sicknesses, ones you have not yet experienced, and also prevent the healing of old sicknesses. This agitation of the channels and winds or energies also obstructs the benefit which could be derived from medical treatment. If you practice meditation, then as your mind settles down, the channels and energies moving through the channels return to their rightful functioning, as a result of which you tend not to become ill and you are able to heal any illnesses you already have. And we can see an illustration of this also in the life of Jetsun Milarepa, who engaged in the utmost austerities with regard to where he lived, the clothes he wore, the food he ate, and so on, throughout the early part of his life. And yet this did not harm his health, because he managed to have a very long life, was extremely vigorous and youthful to the end of his life, which indicates the fact that through the proper practice of meditation, the mental peace and contentment that is generated calms down or corrects the functioning of the channels and energies, allowing for the healing of sickness and the prevention of sickness.
The ultimate or long-term benefit of the practice of meditation is becoming free of all suffering, which means no longer having to experience the sufferings of birth, aging, sickness and death. Now, this attainment of freedom is called, in the common language of all the Buddhist traditions, buddhahood, and in the particular terminology of the vajrayana, the supreme attainment, or supreme siddhi. In any case, the root or basic cause of this attainment is the practice of meditation. The reason for this is, again, that generally we have a lot of thoughts running through our minds, some of which are beneficial - thoughts of love, compassion, rejoicing in the happiness of others, and so on - and many of which are negative - thoughts of attachment, aversion, jealousy, competitiveness, and so on. Now, there are comparatively few of the former type of thought and comparatively many of the latter type of thought, because we have such strong habits that have been accumulating within us over a period of time without beginning. And it's only by removing these habits of negativity that we can free ourselves from suffering.
You cannot simply remove these mental afflictions, or kleshas, by saying to yourself, "I will not generate any more mental affliction," because you do not have the necessary freedom of mind or control over the kleshas to do so. In order to relinquish these, you need to actually attain this freedom, which begins, according to the common path, with the cultivation of tranquillity. Now, when you begin to meditate, [when] you begin to practice the basic meditation of tranquillity meditation, you may find that your mind won't stay still for a moment. But this is not permanent. This will change as you practice, and you will eventually be able to place your mind at rest at will, at which point you have successfully alleviated the manifest disturbance of these mental afflictions or kleshas. On the basis of that, then you can apply the second technique, which is called insight, which consists of learning to recognize and directly experience the nature of your own mind. This nature is referred to as emptiness. When you recognize this nature and rest in it, then all of the kleshas, all of the mental afflictions that arise, dissolve into this emptiness, and are no longer afflictions. Therefore, the freedom, or result, which is called buddhahood, depends upon the eradication of these mental afflictions, and that depends upon the practice of meditation.
The practice of tranquillity and insight is the general path which is common to both the paths of sutra and tantra. In the specific context which is particular to the vajrayana, the main techniques are called the generation stage and the completion stage. These two techniques are extremely powerful and effective. Generation stage refers to the visualization of, for example, the form of a lineage guru, the form of a deity or yidam, or the form of a dharma protector. Now, initially, when first encountering this technique, it's not uncommon for beginners to think, what is the point of this? Well, the point of this is that we support and confirm our ignorance and suffering and our kleshas through the constant generation of impure projections or impure appearances which make up our experience of samsara. And in order to transcend this process, we need to transcend these impure projections, together with the suffering that they bring about. A very effective way to do this is to replace these gradually, replace these projections of impurity with pure projections based on the iconography of the yidam, the dharmapala, and so on. By starting to experience the world as the mandala of the deity and all beings as the presence of that deity, then you gradually train yourself to let go of mental afflictions, let go of impure projections, and you create the environment for the natural manifestation of your own innate wisdom.
Now, all of this occurs gradually through this practice of the generation stage. The actual deities who are used can vary in appearance. Some of them are peaceful and some of them are wrathful. In general, the iconography of the wrathful deities points out the innate power of wisdom, and that of the peaceful deities the qualities of loving-kindness and compassion. Also, there are male deities and female deities. The male deities embody the method or compassion, and the female deities embody intelligence or wisdom.
For these reasons, it's appropriate to perform these practices of meditation upon deities. And because these practices are so prevalent in our tradition, if you go into a vajrayana practice place or temple, you will probably see lots of images of deities - peaceful deities, wrathful deities, and extraordinarily wrathful deities. And you'll see lots of shrines with some very eccentric offerings on them. Initially, if you're not used to all this, you might think, "What is all this?" And you might feel, "Well, the basic practices of tranquility and insight make a lot of sense, and are very interesting; and all these deities, all these rituals, and all these eccentric musical instruments are really not very interesting at all." However, each and every aspect of the iconography, and each and every implement you find in a shrine room, is there for a very specific reason. The reason in general is that we need to train ourselves to replace our projection of impurity or negativity with a projection or experience of purity. And you can't simply fake this, you can't simply talk yourself into this, because you're trying to replace something that is deeper than a concept. It's more like a feeling. So, therefore, in the technique by which you replace it, a great deal of feeling or experience of the energy of purity has to be actually generated, and in order to generate that, we use physical representations of offerings, we use musical instruments in order to inspire the feeling of purity, and so on. In short, all of these implements are useful in actually generating the experience of purity.
That is the first of the two techniques of vajrayana practice, the generation stage. The second technique is called the completion stage, and it consists of a variety of related techniques, of which perhaps the most important and the best known are mahamudra and dzogchen or "The Great Perfection." Now, sometimes, it seems to be presented that dzogchen is more important, and at other times it seems to be presented that mahamudra is more important, and as a result people become a little bit confused about this and are unsure which tradition or which practice they should pursue. Ultimately, the practices in essence and in their result are the same. In fact, each of them has a variety of techniques within it. For example, within mahamudra practice alone, there are many methods which can be used, such as candali (see footnote) and so forth, and within the practice of dzogchen alone there are as well many methods, such as the cultivation of primordial purity, spontaneous presence, and so on. But ultimately, mahamudra practice is always presented as guidance on or an introduction to your mind, and dzogchen practice is always presented as guidance or introduction to your mind. Which means that the root of these is no different, and the practice of either mahamudra or dzogchen will generate a great benefit. Further, we find in The Aspiration of Mahamudra by the third Gyalwa Karmapa, Lord Rangjung Dorje, the following stanza:
It does not exist, and has not been seen, even by the Victors.
It is not non-existent, it is the basis of all Samsara and Nirvana.
This is not contradictory, but is the great Middle Way.
May I come to see the nature which is beyond elaboration.
And that is from the mahamudra tradition. Then, in The Aspiration for the Realization of the Nature of the Great Perfection by the omniscient Jigme Lingpa, an aspiration liturgy from the dzogchen tradition, we find the following stanza:
It does not exist, it has not been seen, even by the Victors.
It is not non-existent, it is the basis of all Samsara and Nirvana.
It is not contradictory, it is the great Middle Way.
May I come to recognize dzogpa chenpo, the nature of the ground.
In other words, these two traditions are concerned entirely with the recognition of the same nature.
So both short-term and ultimate happiness depend on the cultivation of meditation, which from the common point of view of the sutras (the point of view held in common by all tradition of Buddhism) is tranquillity and insight, and from the uncommon point of view of the vajrayana is the generation and completion stages.
Meditation, however, depends in part upon the generation of loving-kindness and compassion. And this is true of any meditation, but it is especially most true of vajrayana meditation. The reason is that the specific vajrayana practices - the visualization of deities or meditation upon mahamudra and so on - depend upon the presence of a pure motivation on the part of the practitioner from the very start. If this pure motivation or genuine motivation is not present - and, since we're ordinary people, its quite possible that it might not be present - not much benefit will really occur. For that reason, vajrayana practitioners always try to train their motivation, and try to develop the motivation that's known as the awakened mind, or bodhicitta.
Now, as an indication of this, if you look at the liturgies used in vajrayana practice, you'll see that the long and extensive forms of vajrayana liturgies always begin with a clarification of, or meditation upon, bodhicitta, and that even the short and shortest liturgies always begin with a meditation upon bodhicitta, loving-kindness and compassion, the point of this being that this type of motivation is necessary for all meditation, but especially for vajrayana practice.
The only real meaning that we can give to our being born on this planet - and in particular being born as human beings on this planet - and the only really meaningful result that we can show for our lives is to have helped the world: to have helped our friends, to have helped all the beings on this planet as much as we can. And if we devote our lives or any significant part of our lives to destroying others and harming others, then to the extent that we actually do so, our lives have been meaningless. So if you understand that the only real point of a human life is to help others, to benefit others, to improve the world, then you must understand that the basis of not harming others but benefiting others is having the intention not to harm others and the intention to benefit others.
Now, the main cause of having such a stable intention or stable motivation is the actual cultivation of love and compassion for others. Which means, when you find yourself full of spite and viciousness - and it is not abnormal to be so - then you have to recognize it, and be aware of it as what it is, and let go of it. And then, even though you may be free of spite or viciousness, and you may have the wish to improve things, you may be thinking only of yourself; you may be thinking only of helping or benefiting yourself. When that's the case, then you have to recollect that the root of that type of mentality, which is quite petty and limited and tight, is desiring victory for yourself even at the expense of the suffering and loss experienced by others. And, in that case, you have to gradually expand your sympathy for others, and therefore this cultivation of bodhicitta or altruism in general as a motivation is an essential way of making your life meaningful.
The importance of love and compassion is not an idea that is particular to Buddhism. Everyone throughout the world talks about the importance of love and compassion. There's no one who says love and compassion are bad and we should try and get rid of them. However, there is an uncommon element in the method or approach which is taken to these by Buddhism. In general, when we think of compassion, we think of a natural or spontaneous sympathy or empathy which we experience when we perceive the suffering of someone else. And we generally think of compassion as being a state of pain, of sadness, because you see the suffering of someone else and you see what's causing that suffering and you know you can't do anything to remove the cause of that suffering and therefore the suffering itself. So, whereas before you generated compassion, one person was miserable, and after you generate compassion, two people are miserable. And this actually happens.
However, the approach (that the Buddhist tradition takes) to compassion is a little bit different, because it's founded on the recognition that, whether or not you can benefit that being or that person in their immediate situation and circumstances, you can generate the basis for their ultimate benefit. And the confidence in that removes the frustration or the misery which otherwise somehow afflicts ordinary compassion. So, when compassion is cultivated in that way, it is experienced as delightful rather than miserable.
The way that we cultivate compassion is called immeasurable compassion. And, in fact, to be precise, there are four aspects of what we would, in general, call compassion, that are called, therefore, the four immeasurables. Now, normally, when we think of something that's called immeasurable, we mean immeasurably vast. Here, the primary connotation of the term is not vastness but impartiality. And the point of saying immeasurable compassion is compassion that is not going to help one person at the expense of hurting another. It is a compassion that is felt equally for all beings. The basis of the generation of such an impartial compassion is the recognition of the fact that all beings without exception really want and don't want the same things. All beings, without exception, want to be happy and want to avoid suffering. There is no being anywhere who really wants to suffer. And if you understand that, and to the extent that you understand that, you will have the intense wish that all beings be free from suffering. And there is no being anywhere who does not want to be happy; and if you understand that, and to the extent that you understand that, you will have the intense wish that all beings actually achieve the happiness that they wish to achieve. Now, because the experience of happiness and freedom from suffering depend upon the generation of the causes of these, then the actual form your aspiration takes is that all beings possess not only happiness but the causes of happiness, that they not only be free of suffering but of the causes of suffering.
The causes of suffering are fundamentally the presence in our minds of mental afflictions - ignorance, attachment, aversion, jealousy, arrogance, and so on - and it is through the existence of these that we come to suffer. Now, through recognizing that there is a way to transcend these causes of suffering - fundamentally, through the eradication of these causes through practicing meditation, which may or may not happen immediately but is a definite and workable process - through this confidence, then this love - wishing beings to be happy - and the compassion of wishing beings to be free from suffering, is not hopeless or frustrated at all. And, therefore, the boundless love and boundless compassion generate a boundless joy that is based on the confidence that you can actually help beings free themselves.
So boundless love is the aspiration that beings possess happiness and the causes of happiness. Boundless compassion or immeasurable compassion is the aspiration that beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering. And the actual confidence and the delight you take in the confidence that you can actually bring these about is boundless joy. Now, because all of these are boundless or immeasurable or impartial, then they all have a quality, which is equanimity. Which is to say that if these are cultivated properly, you don't have compassion for one being but none for another , and so on. Now, normally, when we experience these qualities, of course, they are partial; they are anything but impartial. In order to eradicate the fixation that causes us to experience compassion only for some and not for others, then you can actually train yourself in cultivating equanimity for beings through recognizing that they all wish for the same thing and wish to avoid the same thing, and through doing so you can greatly increase or enhance your loving-kindness and compassion.
This has been a brief introduction to the practice of meditation, and how to train in and generate compassion. If you have any questions, please ask them.
Question: Rinpoche, can you speak a little bit about the difference between pure projection and impure projection, and in particular, where do pure projections actually come from?
Rinpoche: First of all, impure projections are how we experience because of the presence in our minds of kleshas or mental afflictions. Because we have kleshas, then we experience friend and enemy - that to which we are attached and that towards which we have aversion - we experience delight and disgust and so on. And all of these ways we experience the world - all these ways we experience are fundamentally tinged with, at least tinged with unpleasantness.
Now, what is called pure appearance or pure projection is based on the experience of the true nature or essential purity of what, in confusion, we experience to be five types of mental affliction, or the five kleshas. The true nature of these five kleshas is what are called the five wisdoms. For example, when you let go of fixation or obsession on a self, or with yourself, then the fundamental nature of the way you experience is a sameness, a lack of preference or partiality, which is called the wisdom of sameness. And, when you recognize the nature of all things, then that recognition which pervades or fills all of your experience is called the wisdom of the dharmadhatu. And so on.
Now, when you experience the five wisdoms rather than the five kleshas or five mental afflictions, then instead of projecting all of the impurity which you project on the basis of experiencing the kleshas, you project purity, or you experience purity, which is the actual manifestation of these five wisdoms as realms, as forms of buddhas, and these are what are called the pure appearances which are experienced by bodhisattvas and so forth. Now, in order to approach this, in order to cultivate the experience of these wisdoms and the external experiences which go along with the experience of these wisdoms, we meditate upon the bodies of these buddhas, the realms, palaces and so on. By generating clarity of these visualized appearances and stabilizing that, then gradually we transform how we experience the world.
Question: In practicing compassion, there's the practice of tonglen, which is the sending and receiving, taking the suffering from all sentient beings and giving them the happiness and merit that we have. And, in this practice, I've practiced it before, and it seems to go well for a while, but then there's a subtle sense of "I" that creeps in that says, "I don't really want to take the suffering," or its, "I can't deal with too many people having cancer, I just can't take it all on myself," and so one kind of loses a little courage in the practice. So, could you illuminate us on this practice, and how to overcome these obstacles and really develop heroic mind?
Rinpoche: What you say is very true, especially in the beginning of undertaking this practice. And, in fact, its okay that it be experienced that way. Even though there is a quality of faking it about the degree to which you actually really are ready to take on the suffering of others in the beginning, there's still benefit in doing the practice, because up until you begin this practice, you've probably been entirely selfish. And, to even attempt to fake altruism is a tremendous improvement. But it doesn't remain insincere like that, because eventually the habit starts to deepen and starts to counteract the habit of selfishness.
Now if, when you began practicing tonglen, you already had one hundred per cent concern with the welfare of others and no concern for your own welfare, then you wouldn't need to practice tonglen in the first place. So, it is designed to work for a practitioner who's starting from a place of selfishness and to lead them into this place of concern for others. And, gradually, by using the practice, you will actually cultivate the sincere desire to take suffering away from others and experience it yourself; you will cultivate real love and compassion for others. But on the other hand, you don't really do the practice in order to be able to, at that moment, take on the suffering of others and experience it yourself; you're really doing it in order to train the mind. And by training your mind and developing the motivation and the actual wish to free others from suffering, then the long-term result is that you have the ability to directly dispel the suffering of others.
Question: Rinpoche, you said that we may not be able to - one person may not be able to directly affect or remove short-term unhappiness or suffering of another person, but that we can learn to generate the basis of another's happiness, ultimate happiness. So could you say more, please, about how one person can generate the basis of ultimate happiness for another person?
Rinpoche: Well, the direct basis of establishing another being in a state of freedom or happiness, long-term or ultimate happiness, is being able to show them how to get rid of their mental afflictions and to teach them how to recognize and therefore abandon causes of suffering. And, through doing so in that way, then you can establish them gradually in ultimate happiness. But even in cases where you can't, for whatever reason, do that, by having the intention to benefit that being, then when you yourself become fully free, then you will be able to actually help them and gradually free and protect them as well.
Question: Rinpoche, can you say a little more about the practice of letting go when the mind is agitated, as you described, as used in mahamudra and dzogchen? I experience my mind when I sit as being agitated. And there's the practice of letting go. And I'm wondering if you can just say more about that in a practical way?
Rinpoche: In general, the main approach that is taken in the mahamudra and dzogchen traditions is applied when you are looking at the nature of your mind. Now, kleshas or mental afflictions are thoughts, and thoughts are the natural display of the mind. Thoughts may be pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant, they may be positive or negative, but in any case, whatever type of thought arises, you deal with it in exactly the same way. You simply look directly at it.
Now, looking at the thought, or looking into the thought, or looking at the nature of the thought, is quite different from analyzing it. You don't attempt to analyze the contents of the thought, nor do you attempt to think about the thought. You just simply look directly at it. And when you look directly at a thought, you don't find anything. Now, you may think that you don't find anything because you don't know how to look or you don't know where to look, but in fact, that's not the reason. The reason, according to Buddha, is that thoughts are empty. And this is the basic meaning of all the various teachings on emptiness he gave, such as the sixteen emptinesses and so on.
Now, to use anger as an example of this, if you become angry, and then you look directly at the anger - which doesn't mean analyze the contents of the thoughts of anger, but you look directly at that specific thought of anger - then you won't find anything. And, in that moment of not finding anything, the poisonous quality of the anger will somehow vanish or dissolve. Your mind will relax, and you will, at least to some extent, be free of anger.
Now, you may or may not, at this point, understand this, but in any case, you'll have opportunity to work with this approach tomorrow and the next day, and over the next couple of days you may come to have some experience of this.
So, we're going to conclude now with a brief dedication. But I would also like to thank you for demonstrating your great interest in dharma, and listening and asking questions.
footnote: gtum-mo in Tibetan, meaning fierce or wrathful and referring to a kind of psychic heat generated and experienced through certain meditative practices of the vajrayana. This heat serves to burn up all types of obstacles and confusion. Included in the Six Doctrines of Naropa, the Six Doctrines of Niguma, and the Six Doctrines of Sukhasiddhi.
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Doubts about Pure Land
By Tien Tai Patriarch Chih I
Translated by Master Thich Thien Tam
Great Compassion is the life calling of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Thus, those who have
developed the Bodhi Mind, wishing to rescue and ferry other sentient beings across, should
simply vow to be reborn in the Triple Realm, among the five turbidities and the three evil paths.
Why should we abandon sentient beings to lead a selfish life of tranquillity? Is this not a lack
of compassion, a preoccupation with egoistic needs, contrary to the path of enlightenment?
There are two types of Bodhisattvas. The first type are those who have followed the
Bodhisattva path for a long time and attained the Tolerance of Non-Birth (insight into
the non-origination of phenomena). This reproach applies to them.
The second type are Bodhisattvas who have not attained the Tolerance of Non-Birth, as
well as ordinary beings who have just developed the Bodhi Mind. If they aspire to perfect
that Tolerance and enter the evil life of the Triple Realm to save sentient beings, they should
remain in constant proximity to the Buddhas. As stated in the Perfection of Wisdom Treatise:
"It is unwise for human beings who are still bound by all kinds of afflictions, even if they
possess a great compassionate mind, to seek a premature rebirth in this evil realm to
rescue sentient beings.
"Why is this so? It is because in this evil, defiled world, afflictions are powerful and
widespread. Those who lack the power of Tolerance (of Non-Birth) are bound to be
swayed by the external circumstances. They then become slaves to form and sound,
fame and fortune, with the resulting karma of greed, anger and delusion. Once this
occurs, they cannot even save themselves, much less others!
"If, for example, they are born in the human realm, in this evil environment full of
non-believers and externalists, it is difficult to encounter genuine teachers. Therefore, it
is not easy to hear the Buddhadharma nor to achieve the goals of the sages.
"Of those who planted the seeds of generosity, morality and blessings in previous lives
and are thus now enjoying power and fame, how many are not infaturated with a life of
wealth and honor, wallowing in endless greed and lust?
"Therefore, even when they are counselled by enlightened teachers, they do not believe
them nor act accordingly. Moreover, to satisfy their passions, they take adavantage of
their existing power and influence, creating a great deal of bad karma. Thus, when their
present life comes to an end, they descend upon the three evil paths for countless eons.
After that, they are reborn as humans of low social and economic status. If they do not
then meet good spiritual advisors, they will continue to be deluded, creating more bad
karma and descending once again into the lower realms. From time immemorial, sentient
beings caught in the cycle of Birth and Death have been in this predicament. This is called
the 'Difficult Path of Practice'."
The Vimalakirti Sutra also states,
"If you cannot even cure your own illness, how can you cure the illness of others?"
The Perfection of Wisdom Treatise further states:
"Take the case of two persons, each of whom watches a relative drowning in the river.
The first person, acting on impulse, hastily jumps into the water. However, because he
lacks the necessary skills, in the end, both of them drown. The second person, more
intelligent and resourceful, hurries off to fetch a boat and sails to the rescue. Thus, both
persons escape drowning.
"Newly aspiring Bodhisattvas are like the first individual who still lacks the power of
Tolerance (of Non-Rebirth) and cannot save sentient beings. Only those Bodhisatttvas
who remain close to the Buddhas and attain that Tolerance can substitute for the Buddhas
and ferry countless sentient beings across, just like the person who has the boat."
The Perfection of Wisdom Treatise goes on to state:
"This is not unlike a young child who should not leave his mother, lest he fall into a well, drown
in the river or die of starvation; or a young bird whose wings are not fully developed. It must bide
its time, hopping from branch to branch, until it can fly afar, leisurely and unimpeded.
"Ordinary persons who lack the Tolerence of Non-Birth should limit themselves to Buddha
Recitation, to achieve one-pointedness of Mind. Once that goal is reached, at the time of death,
they will certainly be reborn in the Pure Land. Having seen Amitabha Buddha and reached the
Tolerance of Non-Birth, they can steer the boat of that Tolerance into the sea of Birth and Death,
to ferry sentient beings across and accomplish countless Buddha deeds at will."
For these reasons, compassionate practitioners who wish to teach and convert sentient
beings in hell, or enter the sea of Birth and Death, should bear in mind the causes and
conditions for rebirth in the Pure Land. This is referred to as the 'Easy Path of Practice' in
the Commentary on the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattvas.
All phenomena are by nature empty, always unborn (Non-Birth), equal and still. Are we not
going against this truth when we abandon this world, seeking rebirth in the Land of Ultimate
Bliss? The (Vimalakirti) Sutra teaches that "to be reborn in the Pure Land, you should first
purify your own Mind; only when the Mind is pure, will the Buddha lands be pure." Are not
Pure Land followers going against this truth?
This question involves two principles and can be answered on two levels.
A) On the level of generality, if you think that seeking rebirth in the Pure Land means
"leaving here and seeking there", and is therefore incompatible with the Truth of Equal
Thusness, are you not committing the same mistake by grasping at this Saha World and
not seeking rebirth in the Pure Land, i.e., "leaving there and grasping here"? If, on the
other hand, you say, "I am neither seeking rebirth there, nor do I wish to remain here,"
you fall into the error of nihilism.
The Diamond Sutra states in this connection:
"Subhuti, ... do not have such a thought. Why? Because one who develops the Supreme
Enlightened Mind does not advocate the (total) annihilation (of the marks of the dharmas.)"
(Bilingual Buddhist Series, Vol. 1. Taipei: Buddhist Cultural Service, 1962, p. 130.)
B) On the level of Specifics, since you have brought up the truth of Non-Birth and the
Pure Mind, I would like to give the following explanation.
Non-Birth is precisely the truth of No-Birth and No-Death. No-Birth means that all dharmas
are false aggregates, born of causes and conditions, with no Self-Nature. Therefore, they have
no real "birth nature" or "time of birth". Upon analysis, they do not really come from anywhere.
Therefore, they are said to have No-Birth.
No-Death means that, since phenomena have no Self-Nature, when they are extinguished,
they cannot be considered dead. Because they have no real place to return to, they are said
to be not extinct (No-Death).
For this reason, the truth of Non-Birth (or No-Birth No-Death) cannot exist outside of
ordinary phenomena, which are subject to birth and death. Therefore, Non-Birth does not
mean not seeking rebirth in the Pure Land.
The Treatise on the Middle Way states:
"Dharmas (phenomena) are born of causes and conditions. I say they are thus empty.
They are also called false and fictitious, and that is also the truth of the Middle Way."
It also states:
"Dharmas are neither born spontaneously nor do they arise from others. They are born
neither together with nor apart from causes and conditions. They are therefore said to
The Vimalakirti Sutra states:
"Although he knows that Buddha Lands / Are void like living beings / He goes on
practicing the Pure Land (Dharma) / to teach and convert men." (Charles Luk, The
Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra, p. 88.)
It also states:
"We can build mansions at will on empty land, but it is impossible to build in the middle
of empty space."
When the Buddhas preach, they usually rely on the Two Truths (ultimate and conventional).
They do not destroy the fictitious, provisional identities of phenomena while revealing their
That is why the wise, while earnestly striving for rebirth in the Pure Land, also understand
that the nature of rebirth is intrinsically empty. This is true Non-Birth, and also the meaning
of "only when the Mind is pure, will the Buddha Lands be pure".
The dull and ignorant, on the other hand, are caught up in the concept of birth. Upon hearing
the term "Birth", they understand it as actual birth; hearing of "Non-Birth", they (cling to its literal
meaning) and think that there is no rebirth anywhere. Little do they realize that "Birth is precisely
Non-Birth, and Non-Birth does not hinder Birth."
Because they do not understand this principle, they provoke arguments, slandering
and deprecating those who seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land. What a great mistake!
They are guilty of vilifying the Dharma and belong to the ranks of deluded externalists
All the Pure Lands of the Buddhas of the ten directions have equal qualities and virtues.
Their Dharma Nature is also the same. Therfore, the practitioner should meditate on all
the virtues of the Buddhas and seek rebirth in the various Pure Lands of the ten directions.
Why should he specifically seek rebirth in the Pure Land of one particular Buddha (i.e.,
Amitabha)? Is this not contrary to the truth of "equally in seeking rebirth"?
All the Pure Lands of the Buddhas are, in truth, equal. Nevetheless, since the majority of
sentient beings in our world generally have dull faculties and defiled, scattered minds, it will
be difficult for them to achieve samadhi, unless they concentrate exclusively on one realm.
The practice of constantly focussing on Amitabha Buddha is the "Single Mark Samadhi".
Because the Mind is exclusively devoted to one thing, the practitioner achieves rebirth in
the Pure Land. In the Sutra Rebirth According to One's Vows, Buddha Sakyamuni was
asked by a Bodhisattva, "Honored One! There are Pure Lands in all ten directions. Why
do you especially extol the Western Pure Land and urge sentient beings to focus continuously
on Amitabha Buddha, seeking rebirth in His Land?"
The Buddha replied, "Sentient beings in this Saha World generally have polluted, scattered
minds. Therefore, I only extol one Pure Land in the West, focussing their Minds on a single
realm. If they meditate on all Buddhas, the scope of attention will be too broad, their Minds
will be lost and scattered and they will find samadhi difficult to attain. Thus, they will fail to
achieve rebirth in the Pure Land.
"Furthermore, seeking their virtues of one Buddha is the same as seeking the virtues of
all Buddhas -- as all Buddhas have one common Dharma Nature. That is why to focus
on Amitabha Buddha is to focus on all Buddhas, to be born in the Western Pure Land is
to be born in all Pure Lands."
Thus, the Avatamsaka Sutra states:
"The bodies of all the Buddhas / are the body of any one Buddha. / They have the same
Mind and the same wisdom. / They are also equal in power and fearlessness."
The Avatamsaka Sutra further states:
"It is like the full moon, round and bright, its image reflected in all rivers and ponds.
Although the reflection is everywhere, there is but a single moon. So it is with ... (the
Buddhas). Although they appear in all realms, their bodies are non-dual."
In summary, based on these examples, the wise will understand the truth that "one is all, all is
one". When this truth is grasped, concentrating on one Buddha is precisely concentrating on all
There are many Buddhas and Pure Lands in all the ten directions. Even if sentient beings
in this world have polluted, scattered minds and dispositions, so that focussing on many
Buddhas makes it difficult for them to attain samadhi, why should they not recite the name
of any Buddha, as they wish, and seek rebirth in any Pure Lamd, in accordance with their
vows? Why concentrate specifically on Amitabha Buddha and seek rebirth in the Land of
Common people lacking in wisdom should follow the teaching of the Buddha rather than
acting arbitrarily on their own. This is why, from time immemorial, Pure Land practitioners
have all diligently recited Amitabha Buddha's name.
What does it mean to follow the Buddha's teaching?
During his entire preaching career, Buddhs Sakyamuni constantly enjoined sentient
beings to focus on Amitabha Buddha and seek rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
This is mentioned in such sutras as the Longer Amitabha Sutra, the Meditation Sutra,
the Amitabha Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra ... In numerous sutras,
the Buddha constantly urged us to seek rebirth in the Western Land. This is not only
true of the sutras; in their commentaries, the Bodhisattvas and Patriarchs unanimously
advise us to seek rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss.
Moreover, Amitabha Buddha possesses the power of His forty-eight compassionate vows
to rescue sentient beings. The Meditation Sutra states:
"Amitabha Buddha possesses 84,000 signs of perfection, each sign has 84,000 minor marks
of excellence and from each minor mark 84,000 rays of light shine forth, illuminating the entire
Dharma Realm (cosmos) to gather in, without exception, all sentient beings who practice Buddha
Recitation. If any sentient being recite His name, there will be correspondence between cause
and response, and he will surely be reborn."
Furthermore, the Amitabha Sutra, the Longer Amitabha Sutra, etc., teach that when
Sakyamuni Buddha preached these sutras, the Buddhas of the ten directions, numerous
as the grains of sand in the River Ganges, all "extended their tongues to cover the entire
universe", bearing witness to the truth that any sentient being who recites Amitabha
Buddha's name shall be assured of rebirth in the Land of Ultimate Bliss, thanks to the
great, compassionate vow-power of the Buddha.
We should know that Amitabha Buddha has great affinities (causes and conditions)
with this world. As the Longer Amitabha Sutra states:
"In the Dharma-Ending Age, when all other sutras have disappeared, only this sutra will
remain for another hundred years to rescue sentient beings and lead them to the Western
This demostrates that Amitabha Buddha has strong affinities with sentient beings
in this defiled world.
Although one or two sutras have, in a general way, urged rebirth in other Pure Lands, this
cannot be compared to the fact that numerous sutras and commentaries have earnestly pointed
out to the Land of Ultimate Bliss as the focus of rebirth.
Ordinary people are entirely enmeshed in heavy evil karma and are full of all kinds of
afflictions. Even though they may have some virtues as a result of cultivation, they find it
difficult to sever even a fraction of their defilements and hindrances. The Land of Ultimate
Bliss, on the other hand, is extremely purely adorned, transcending the Triple Realm. How
can such depraved common mortals hope to be reborn there?
There are two conditions for rebirth: "self-power" and "other-power". As far as self-power
is concerned, while the ordinary beings of this world, totally bound (by their attachments and
afflictions), may have some level of cultivation, in reality, they still cannot be reborn in the Pure
Land nor deserve to reside there.
The Peace and Bliss Collection states:
"Those who first develop the Bodhi Mind -- starting from the level of completely fettered
ordinary beings ignorant of the Three Treasures and the Law of Cause and Effect -- should
base themselves initially on faith. Next, when they have embarked upon the Bodhi path, the
precepts should serve as their foundation. If these ordinary beings accept the Bodhisattva
precepts and continue to uphold them unfailingly and without interruption for three kalpas,
they will reach the First Abode of Bodhisattvahood.
"If they pursue their cultivation in this manner through ... the Ten Paramitas as well as countless
vows and practices, one after another without interruption, at the end of ten thousand kalpas they
will reach the Sixth Abode of Bodhisattvahood. Should they continue still further, they will reach
the Seventh Abode (Non-Retrogression). They will then have entered the stage of the 'Seed of
Buddhahood', (i.e., they are assured of eventual Buddhahood). However, even then, they still
cannot achieve rebirth in the Pure Land" -- that is, if they rely on self-power alone.
With regard to "other power", if anyone believes in the power of Amitabha Buddha's
compassionate vow to rescue sentient beings and then develops the Bodhi Mind,
cultivate the Buddha Remembrance (Recitation) Samadhi, grows weary of his temporal,
impure body in the Triple Realm, practices charity, upholds the precepts amnd performs
other meritorious deeds -- dedicating all the merits amd virtues to rebirth in the Western
Land -- his aspirations and the Buddha's response will be accord. Relying thus on the
Buddha's power, he will immediately achieve rebirth.
Thus, it is stated in the Commentary on the Ten Stages of Buddhahood:
"There are two paths of cultivation, the Difficult Path and the Easy Path. The Difficult Path
refers to the practices of sentient beings in the world of the five turbidities, who, through
countless Buddha eras, aspire to reach the stage of Non-Retrogression. The difficulties are
truly countless, as numerous as specks of dust or grains of sand, too numerous to imagine.
I will summarize the five major ones below:
a) Externalists are legion, creating confusion with respect to the Bodhisattva Dharma;
b) Evil beings destroy the practitioner's good, wholesome virtues;
c) Worldly merits and blessings can easily lead the practitioner astray, so that he ceases
to engage in virtuous practices;
d) It is easy to stray onto the Arhat's path of self-benefit, which obstructs the Mind of
e) Relying exclusively on self-power, without the aid of the Buddha's power, makes
cultivation very difficult and arduous. It is not unlike the case of a feeble, handicapped
person, walking alone, who can only go so far each day regardless of how much effort
"The Easy Path of cultivation means that, if sentient beings in this world believe in the
Buddha's words, practice Buddha Recitation and vow to be reborn in the Pure Land,
they are assisted by the Buddha's vow-power and assured of rebirth. This is analagous
to a person who floats downstream in a boat; although the distance may be many
thousands of miles, his destination will be reached in no time. Similarly, a common being,
relying on the power of a 'universal monarch' (a kind of deity), can traverse the 'four
great universes' in a day and a night -- this is not due to his own power, but, rather, to
the power of the monarch."
Some people, reasoning according to "noumenon", (principle) may say that common
beings, being "conditioned", cannot be reborn in the Pure Land or see the Buddha's
The answer is that the virtues of Buddha Recitation are "unconditioned" good roots.
Ordinary, impure persons who develop the Bodhi Mind, seek rebirth and constantly
practice Buddha Recitation can subdue and destroy afflictions, achieve rebirth and,
depending on their level of cultivation, obtain vision of the their level of the rudimentary
aspects of the Buddha (the thirty-two marks of greatness, for example). Bodhisattvas,
naturally, can achieve rebirth and see the subtle, loftier aspects of the Buddha (i.e.,
the Dharma body). There can be no doubt about this.
Thus, the Avatamsaka Sutra states:
"All the various Buddha Lands are equally purely adorned. Because the karmic practices
of sentient beings differ, their perceptions of these Lands are different."
This is the meaning of what was said earlier.
Although sentient beings, completely enmeshed in afflictions and evil views, may achieve
rebirth in the Pure Land, they are bound to develop afflictions and perverse views constantly.
Under these circumstances, how can they be said to have "transcended the Triple Realm
and attained the stage of Non-Retrogression"?
Those who are reborn in the Pure Land, though they may be ordinary beings totally
enmeshed in evil karma, cannot ever develop afflictions or perverse views, nor can they
fail to achieve non-retrogression. This is due to five factors:
a) The power of the Buddha's great, compassionate vow embraces and protects them;
b) The Buddha's light (wisdom) always shines upon them and, therefore, the Bodhi
Mind of these superior persons will always progress;
c) In the Western Pure Land, the birds, water, forests, trees, wind and music all preach the
Dharma of "suffering, emptiness, impermanence and no-self". Upon hearing this, practitioners
begin to focus on the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha;
d) Those who are reborn in the Pure Land have the highest level Bodhisattvas as their
companions and are free from all obstacles, calamities and evil conditions. Moreober there
are no externalists or evil demons, so their Minds are always calm and still;
e) Once they are reborn in the Pure Land, their life span is inexhaustible, equal to that of the
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Thus, they can peacefully cultivate for countless eons.
As a result of these five causes and conditions, sentient beings who are reborn in the Pure
Land will certainly achieve non-retrogression and will never develop afflictions or perverse
views. Sentient beings in this world of the five turbidities, on the other hand, have short life
spans and face a host of perverse conditions and obstructions. Therefore, they have great
difficulty achieving non-retrogression. This truth is self-evident and beyond doubt.
The Bodhisattva Maitreya is a One-Life Bodhisattva who is now in the Tushita Heaven.
He will succeed Buddha Sakyamuni and become a Buddha in the future. I venture to think
that we should cultivate the loftier aspects of the Ten Virtues and seek to be reborn in the
Tushita Heaven, to see Him in person. When the time comes for Him to descend to earth
and become a Buddha, we will follow Him and certainly achieve Sagehood in the course
of His three teaching assemblies. Therefore, where is the need to seek rebirth in the Western
Seeking rebirth in the Tushita Heaven could be considered equivalent to hearing the
Dharma and seeing the Buddha. It seems very similar to seeking rebirth in the Western
Pure Land. However, upon close scrutiny, there are many great differences between
the two. Let us cite two points for the sake of discussion.
A) Even though we may cultivate the Ten Virtues, it is not certain that we will achieve
rebirth in the Tushita Heaven. As states in the sutras:
"The practitioner must cultivate the various samadhi and enter deeply into right concentration
to obtain rebirth in the Inner Court of the Tushita Heaven."
From that we can deduce that the Bodhisattva Maitreya lacks the expedient of "welcoming
and escorting". This cannot be compared to the power of Amitabha Buddha's Original Vow
and His power of light, which can gather in and rescue all sentient beings who concentrate in
Moreover, when Buddha Sakyamuni explained the meaning of the "welcoming and escorting"
expedient in his exposition of the nine grades of rebirth, he earnestly enjoined sentient beings to
seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land. This expedient is very simple. The practitioner need only
recite the name of Amitabha and, thanks to the congruence of sentiment and response, he will
immediately achieve rebirth. This is analogous to an enlistment campaign: those who wish to
join the army may do so immediately, as their desire parallels the goal of the state.
B) Secondly, the Tushita Heaven is, after all, still within the Realm of Desire (to which our
Saha World also belongs). Therefore, those who retrogress are legion. In that Heaven, the
birds, rivers, forests, trees, wind ... do not preach the Dharma and thus cannot help sentient
beings destroy afflictions, focus on the Triple Jewel nor develop the Bodhi Mind. Moreover,
in that realm, there are goddesses who kindle the five desires in the Minds of celestial beings,
to the point where few of them escape distraction and infatuation.
How can this be compared to the Western Pure Land, where the trees and birds proclaim
the wonderful Dharma and the wind sings enlightenment, destroying the afflictions of sentient
beings and reinforcing the Bodhi Mind of practitioners? Moreover, in the Pure Land of
Amitabha Buddha, there are no seductive beings or beings concerned with self-enlightenment
alone. There are only pure vessels of the Mahayana way. Therefore, afflictions and evil karma
cannot arise. Under these circumstances, how can cultivators fail to achieve the stage of
non-retrogression swiftly? We have only drawn a few points of comparison, yet the differences
between the Pure Land and the Tushita Heaven are already obvious. How can there be any
further doubt or hesitation?
Moreover, seeing the Bodhisattva Maitreya and achieving the fruits of Arhatship is not
necessarily a sure thing! During the lifetime of Buddha Sakyamuni, there were many who
saw the Buddha but did not achieve Sagehood. In the future, when the Bodhisattva
Maitreya appears in the world, the same will be true: countless sentient beings will see
Him and listen to the Dharma but not attain Arhatship. Such is not the case in the Pure
Land of Amitabha Buddha: to be reborn there is to be assured of attaining the Tolerance
of Non-Birth, with no possible retrogression to the Triple World nor bondage to the karma
of Birth and Death.
In the Accounts of the Western Land, (i.e., India), there is the story of three Bodhisattvas,
Asanga, Vasubandhu and Simhabhadra, all of whom practiced meditation, determined to seek
rebirth in the Tushita Heaven. They all vowed that if the first one of them to die were reborn
in the Inner Court of the Tushita Heaven and saw the Bodhisattva Maitreya, he would return
and inform the others. Simhabhadra died first, but a long time elapsed and he still had not
returned. Later, when Vasubandhu was nearing death, Asanga said to him, "After paying
your respects to Maitreya, come back and let me know right away." Vasubandhu died, but
did not return for three years. Asanga inquired, "Why did it take you so long?" Vasubandhu
answered, "After paying my respects to the Bodhisattva Maitreya, listening to His sermon
and exhortations, and respectfully circumambulating Him three times, I came back immediately.
I could not return sooner because a day and night in the Tushita Heaven is equivalent to four
hundred years on earth."
Asanga then asked, "Where is Simhabhadra now?" Vasubandhu replied, "He has strayed
into the Outer Court of the Tushita Heaven, and is now entangled in the five pleasures. From
the time of his death to now, he has been unable to see Maitreya."
We can deduce from this anecdote that even lesser Bodhisattvas who are reborn in
the Tushita Heaven are subject to delusion, not to mention common mortals. Therefore,
practitioners who wish to be assured of non-retrogression should seek rebirth in the
Western Pure Land rather than the Tushita Heaven.
From time immemorial, sentient beings have committed countless transgressions. Moreover,
in this life, from infancy to old age, they create additional evil karma because they do not have
the opportunity to encounter good spiritual advisors. Under these circumstances, how can it
be said that "At the time of death, they will achieve rebirth with only ten perfect utterances of
the Buddha's name"? Furthermore, how do you satisfactorily explain the teaching that such
practitioners "transcend the binding karma of the Triple Realm"?
In truth, it is difficult to assess the number or the strength of the good and evil kamic seeds
that sentient beings have created from time immemorial. However, those who, at the time of
death, encounter a good spiritual advisor and accomplish ten utterances, must have created
good karma in the past. Otherwise, they could not even meet a good spiritual advisor, let
alone accomplish ten pure recitations!
Now, lest you think that the evil karma from beginningless time is heavy while ten utterances
at the time of death are light, I shall cite three reasons why rebirth in the Pure Land does not
necessarily depend on the weight of bad karma, the amount of practice or the duration of
cultivation. The three reasons concern a) the Mind, b) the conditions and c) the issue of certainty.
The trangressions committed by sentient beings spring from deluded, perverse thought.
Recitation of the Buddha's name, on the other hand, arises from right thought, that is,
hearing of Amitabha Buddha's name and true virtues. One is false and the other is true.
There is no possible comparison between them!
This is similar to a house which has been boarded up for ten thousand years. If the windows
are suddenly opened to let the sunlight in, all darkness immediately dissipates. However long
the period of darkness may have been, how can it fail to disappear? It is likewise for sentient
beings who have committed transgressions for many eons but achieve rebirth at the time of death
through ten pure recitations.
Transgressions grow out of dark, inverted thoughts, combined with illusory circumstances
and environments. Buddha Recitation, on the contrary, arises from hearing of Amitabha Buddha's
name and pure virtues, combined with the aspiration for enlightenment. One is false and the
other is true. There is no possible comparison between them!
This is analagous to a person struck by a poisoned arrow. The arrow has penetrated deep
inside his body and the poison is strong, deeply wounding his flesh and bones. Still, if at that
moment he hears the "celestial drum", the arrow will "shoot out" of his flesh by itself and the
poison will be neutralized. The arrow has not penetrated so deep nor is the poison so strong
that he cannot recover! It is likewise for sentient beings who have committed transgressions
for many eons but achieve rebirth at the time of death through ten pure recitations.
c) Certaintiy of Salvation
When sentient beings commit transgressions, they do so enter from the "intervening mental
state" or "post-mental state". These two mental states do not apply, however, at the time of
death: there is only one extremely powerful, utterly intense thought of recitation, letting go of
everything before dying. Therefore, rebirth is achieved.
This is analogous to a very large, strong cable which even thousands of people cannot break.
Yet, a child wielding a "celestial sword" can cut it in several pieces without difficulty. It is also
similar to a huge pile of wood, accumulated for thousands of years, which, when set on fire by
a small flame, is completely consumed within a short time. The same is true of someone who
has practiced the Ten Virtues throughout his life, seeking rebirth in the Heavens. If, at the time
of death, he develops an intense perverse thought, he will immediately descend, instead, into
the Avici (Never-Ending) Hell.
Although bad karma is intrinsically false and illusory, the overpowering strength of Mind
and thought can still upset a lifetime of good karma and cause the individual to descend
onto evil paths. How, then, can Buddha Recitation, which is true, wholesome karma,
generated intensely at the time of death, fail to upset his bad karma, even though that karma
may have been accumulated from time immemorial? Therefore, someone who has committed
transgressions for many eons, but, at the time of death accomplishes ten recitations with a
totally earnest Mind, will certainly be reborn in the Pure Land. Not to achieve rebirth under
such circumstances would indeed be inconceivable!
The sutras teach:
"A single utterly sincere recitation of Amitabha Buddha's name obliterates the grave
wrongdoings of eight million eons of Birth and Death."
This is possible because the practitioner recites the Buddha's name with a Mind of utmost
sincerity and therefore can annihilate evil karma. As long as, on his deathbed, he utters the
Buddha's name in such a frame of Mind, he will be assured of rebirth. There can be no further
doubt about it!
Traditionally, it has been explained that the dying person's ability to recite ten utterances is
due entirely to previous good karma. This explanation is not, however, correct. Why is this
so? It is because, as a commentary states, "if it were merely a question of previous karma,
only the vow for rebirth would be necessary, and there would be no place at all for practice ..."
The practitioner who, on his deathbed, accomplishes ten recitations, is able to do so
because of his previous good conditions (enabling him to meet a good spiritual advisor)
and because of his own wholehearted recitation. To attribute rebirth in such circumstances
exclusively to previous good karma would be a great mistake! I hope that practitioners
will ponder this truth deeply, develop a firm Mind, and not be led astray by erroneous
The Western Pure Land is ten billion Buddha Lands away from here. Common, ordinary
people are weak and frail. How can they reach it?
The Western Pure Land is described as being ten billion Buddha Lands away from here
only with respect to the limited concepts of ordinary people with eyes of flesh and blood,
mired in birth and death.
For those who have attained the pure karma of rebirth in the Pure Land, the Mind in
samadhi at the time of death is precisely the Mind reborn in the Pure Land. As soon as
the thought (of rebirth) arises, rebirth is achieved. Thus, the Meditation Sutra states
that "the Land of Amitabha Buddha is not far from here!" Moreover, the power of karma
is inconceivable. In the space of one thought, rebirth in the Pure Land is achieved. There
is no need to worry about distance.
This is analogous to a person asleep and dreaming. Although his body is on the bed,
his Mind is travelling all over, to all worlds, as though he were awake. Rebirth in the
Pure Land is, generally speaking, similar to this example.
I have now resolved to seek rebirth in the Western Pure Land. However, I do not know
which practices to cultivate, nor what the seeds of rebirth in the Western Pure Land are.
Moreover, ordinary people all have families and have not rid themselves of lust and attachment.
This being the case, can they achieve rebirth?
If a cultivator wishes to be assured of rebirth, he should perfect two practices: the practice
of "disgust" (at the five desires) and the practice of "joyfulness in vows".
A) The practice of "disgust" refers to the fact that common people have been bound by
the five desires from time immemorial. Thus, they wander along the six paths, enduring
untold suffering! In that quagmire, unless they become disgusted with the five desires, how
can they escape the cycle of birth and death?
Therefore, the Pure Land cultivator should constantly visualize this body as a mass of
flesh and bones, blood and pus, a skinbag containing phlegm, pus, urine, feces and other
foul-smelling substances. The Parinirvana Sutra states:
"This fortress of a body -- only evil, deluded demons could tolerate living in it. Who
with any wisdom would ever cling to or to delight in such a skinbag!"
Another scriptures states:
"This body is the confluence of all kinds of suffering; it is a jail, a prison, a mass of ulcers;
everything is impure. In truth, it is not worth clinging to -- even the celestial bodies of deities
are no different."
Therefore, whether walking, standing, sitting or reclining, whether asleep or awake,
cultivators should always visualize this body as nothing but a source of suffering, without
any pleasure, and develop a sense of disgust ... (thus gradually becoming free from lustful
Moreover, the cultivator should also engage in the Seven Types of Meditation on Impurity
(e.g., as a fetus, in the impure, dirty area of the womb, drinking the mother's blood, emerging
from the womb with pus and blood gushing forth and foul odors in profusion ... after death,
the body swelling up and rotting away, with flesh and bones in disarray ...).
Our own bodies being thus, the bodies of others are likewise. If we constantly meditate
on these seven impurities, we will develop disgust toward those male and female forms
which ordinary people judge handsome and beautiful. The flames of lust will thus gradually
If, in addition, we can practice the meditations on the Nine Kinds Of Foulness, (e.g.
meditation on the fresh corpse, the bloated corpse, the bleeding and oozing corpse, the
skeleton ... and other progressive stages of decay of the human body after death), so
much the better.
We should also vow to be forever free from rebirth in a deluded, impure male or female
body in the Triple Realm, eating a hodgepodge of foods, and aspiring instead to be endowed
with a Pure Land Dharma Nature body.
This constitutes a general discussion of the practice of disgust.
B) There are, in general, two aspects to making the joyous vow of "rescuing oneself
1) The practitioner should clearly realize the goal of rebirth -- which is to seek escape
from suffering for himself and all sentient beings. He should think thus: "My own strength
is limited, I am still bound by karma; moreover, in this evil, defiled life, the circumstances
and conditions leading to afflictions are overpowering. That is why other sentient beings
and myself are drowning in the river of delusion, wandering along the evil paths from time
immemorial. The wheel of birth and death is spinning without end; how can I find a way
to rescue myself and others in a safe, sure manner?
"There is but one solution: it is to seek rebirth in the Pure Land, draw close to the Buddhas
and Bodhisattvas, and, relying on the supremely auspicious environment of that realm, engage
in cultivation and attain the Tolerance of Non-Birth. Only then can I enter the evil world to
rescue sentient beings."
The Treatise on Rebirth states:
"To develop the Bodhi Mind is precisely to seek Buddhahood; to seek Buddhahood is
to develop the Mind of rescuing sentient beings; and the Mind of rescuing sentient beings
is none other than the Mind that gathers in all beings and helps them achieve rebirth in the
Moreover, to ensure rebirth, we should perfect two practices: abandoning the three
things that hinder enlightenment and abiding by the three things that foster enlightenment.
What are the three things that hinder enlightenment?
First, the Mind of seeking our own peace and happiness, ego-grasping and attachment
to our own bodies. The practitioner should follow the path of wisdom and leave all such
thoughts far behind.
Second, the Mind of abandoning and failing to rescue sentient beings from suffering.
The practitioner should follow the path of compassion and leave all such thoughts far
Third, the Mind of exclusively seeking respect and offerings, without seeking ways to
benefit sentient beings and bring them peace and happiness. The practitioner should follow
the path of expedients and leave all such thoughts far behind.
Once he has abandoned these three hindrances, the practitioner will obtain the three
things that foster enlightenment. They are:
First, the "undefiled Pure Mind" of not seeking personal happiness. That is, enlightenment
is the state of undefiled purity. If we seek after personal pleasure, body and Mind are defiled
and obstruct the path of enlightenment. Therefore, the undefiled Pure Mind is called consonant
Second, the "Pure Mind at peace", rescuing all sentient beings from suffering. This is because
Bodhi is the undefiled Pure Mind which gives peace and happiness to sentient beings. If we
are not rescuing sentient beings and helping them to escape the sufferings of Birth and Death,
we are going counter to the Bodhi path. Therefore, a Mind focussed on saving others, bringing
them peace and happiness, is called consonant with enlightenment.
Third, a "blissful, Pure Mind", seeking to help sentient beings achieve Great Nirvana.
Because Great Nirvana is the ultimate, eternally blissful realm, if we do not help sentient
beings to achieve it, we obstruct the Bodhi path. Hence, the Mind which seeks to help
sentient beings attain eternal bliss is called consonant with enlightenment.
How can we abandon the things that hinder enlightenment and abide by the things
that foster enlightenment? -- It is precisely by seeking rebirth in the Western Pure Land,
remaining constantly near the Buddhas and cultivating the Dharma until Tolerance of
Non-Birth is reached. At that point, we may sail the boat of great vows at will, enter
the sea of Birth and Death and rescue sentient beings with wisdom and compassion,
"adapting to conditions but fundamentally unchanging", free and unimpeded. This ends
our discussion of the goal of rebirth.
2) The cultivator should next contemplate the wholesome characteristics of the Pure Land
and the auspicious features of Amitabha Buddha.
Amitabha Buddha possesses a resplendent, golden Reward Body, replete with 84,000
major characteristics, each characteristic having 84,000 minor auspicious signs, each sign
beaming 84,000 rays of light which illuminate the entire Dharma Realm and gather in those
sentient beings who recite the Buddha's name (Ninth Visualization in the Meditation Sutra).
The Western Pure Land is adorned with seven treasures, as explained in the Pure Land
In addition, when practicing charity, keeping the precepts and performing all kinds of
good deeds, Pure Land practitioners should always dedicate the merits toward rebirth
in the Pure Land for themselves and all other sentient beings.
If the practitioner can cultivate joyfulness in vows, as set out in Section B, he will develop
a Mind of hope and longing for the Pure Land and achieve rebirth without fail. This is what
is meant by vowing to rescue oneself and others.
Universal Technique of S.N. Goenka
S.N. Goenka is interviewed by Zen teacher and poet Norman Fischer.
Norman Fischer: Please tell us, if you will, how you became involved in practicing and teaching Buddhist meditation.
S.N. Goenka: At first, I hesitated in getting into the Buddha's teaching. I was born and raised in Burma in a very staunch, conservative Hindu family. We were told from a very young age that the Buddha was wonderful because he was an incarnation of Vishnu. But his teaching was not considered good for us.
However in 1955, at the age of 31, I started experiencing severe migraines and couldn't get any help or relief. At that time, a very good friend-I have always been very grateful to him-said, "Go and take this ten-day meditation course." I hesitated. If I became a Buddhist, what would happen to me? I wouldn't believe in a soul, I wouldn't believe in God. Then I would go to hell. No, this was not for me.
I hesitated for a few months, but then my friend pushed me again: "Why don't you go and see U Ba Khin?" As well as being a teacher of vipassana (insight meditation), U Ba Khin was a householder, and in fact, a government official. When I went to see him, I immediately felt that he was a saintly person. The first thing I said was, "I have come for my migraine headaches." He said, "No, Goenka, I can't help you. Go to a doctor."
Because of that response, I was very much drawn to
him. You see, at the time I was a very popular person in my own community. I was
president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as president or secretary
of at least twenty social organizations, including hospitals and schools. Usually,
a guru feels great about having such a prominent person as a student. But instead
he said, "No, I won't take you." He had no attachment to name or fame
or gain. He explained very lovingly, "Look, what I teach is a path of high
spirituality from India, but our country has lost it. Don't devalue it. Don't
make use of this technique to treat some physical disease. This technique is to
take you out of all misery, not just the misery of a migraine."
His approach attracted me, but I was still doubtful. This was Buddhism, after all. Then he asked me a question: "You are a leader of the Hindu community here in Burma. Does your Hindu religion have any objection to sila [Pali: morality]?" No religion in the world would say that they are against morality. So I replied, "No sir, I have no objection to sila."
He continued: "How can you observe sila if you have no control over your mind? I will teach you control of the mind. I will teach you samadhi." In Hindu scripture, samadhi, concentration, is regarded as a very high thing. The rishis, the great meditators, all do samadhi. But we householders don't know what samadhi is. We revere samadhi, but we don't know what it is. If somebody wants then that is wonderful. "No sir," I replied, "I have no objection to samadhi."
Then he said, "Well, mere samadhi won't do. It will control your mind, but deep inside the behavior pattern is like a sleeping volcano. It will erupt again, and you will forget everything and you will break your sila. So I will teach you the purification from the deepest level of the mind, panna [Pali: wisdom]. Do you have any objection to panna?"
At the time, I was a teacher of the Bhagavad Gita. I'd been explaining prajna [Sanskrit: wisdom] to people, but I never really knew it, I never practiced it. It was mere talk. Many times after giving a lecture on prajna, I would come home and feel so sorry. Why had I spoken of all these things? I had no trace of liberation from craving, liberation from aversion. I had so much ego and yet I talked of prajna. So I said to U Ba Khin, "If somebody teaches me panna, no sir, I have no objection."
he replied," I will teach you only sila, samadhi and panna. Nothing else.
Just accept that. If you accept that, then come." So I took the ten-day course
and I found it good. The teachings of the Buddha were so complete, so pure.
Fischer: In my Zen practice and in other forms of Buddhist practice, there is a lot of ritual, and also clergy and hierarchy. Do you feel there's any benefit or advantage for Buddhism in ritual?
Goenka: I don't wish to condemn anybody, but if my teacher had asked me to perform rites or rituals, I would have said good-bye. My own Hindu tradition was full of rituals and ceremonies, so to start again with another set of rituals didn't make sense. But my teacher said, "No ritual. Buddha taught only sila, samadhi, panna. Nothing else. There is nothing to be added and nothing to be subtracted." As the Buddha said, "Kevalaparipunnam." [Pali: "The whole technique is complete by itself."]
Fischer: Can you please tell us about your course of instruction in vipassana-the details of it, how it goes, how you teach people?
Goenka: Everyone who comes to the basic ten-day vipassana course must take five precepts, because morality is very important as a basis. New students, at least for those ten days, must observe these precepts very scrupulously. If one keeps on breaking sila, one cannot practice at all. After the ten days are completed, students are their own masters. If they find it is good for them to continue with the precepts, then they can do so. Older students take eight precepts.
For the samadhi aspect of the program, we work with the respiration, the breath. We use the natural breath as it comes in and as it goes out, keeping attention to a limited area-the entrance of the nostrils. Then from the fourth day onward one is trained to observe the sensations throughout the body-pleasant, unpleasant or neutral-and understand their basic nature. Every sensation has the same nature: arising, passing away, arising, passing away.
Understanding this impermanence, one maintains equanimity as
much as possible. One doesn't react, and not reacting starts changing the habit
pattern at the deep level of the mind. Over time, one has built up and strengthened
the blind habit pattern of reaction. Any pleasant experience-craving. Any unpleasant
experience-aversion. This habit pattern has to be broken. It can be broken at
the surface level, but the Buddha wanted to purify the totality of the mind, so
we work at the deepest level.
Fischer: Do practitioners simply observe whatever sensations arise in the body, or do they go systematically through the different parts of the body?
Goenka: We use a systematic approach. We want the students to reach the stage where they experience all kinds of sensations and experience them in every part of the body. If you work systematically, then the stage of experiencing all kinds of sensations throughout the body comes much earlier.
Fischer: Is this a guided meditation, in which you say, "Notice sensations at the top of the head, notice sensations here, notice there."?
Goenka: Yes, very much so, in the sense that the students remind themselves to keep on moving systematically. If they don't notice any sensation, they stay for about a minute and then move on calmly. Whether some sensation crops up or nothing crops up, you keep moving.
Fischer: The sutras speak of many kinds of people with many different tendencies. Do you find that this technique works better for some kinds of people than others, or that some people can't do it?
Goenka: In my experience, I haven't found a single person who has been unable to do it. The most illiterate people from the villages in India, people who had never heard what Buddha taught, and people who are long-time devotees of Buddha-all get equal results. It's so simple. When I ask them to observe the breath, they observe the breath. An illiterate person can also observe the breath. And they can take their attention to a particular part of the body. Why should there be any difficulty?
Fischer: You addressed the World Peace Summit at the United Nations. What is the relevance to world peace of a meditation technique, which seems like a very personal thing?
Goenka: We want peace in the entire human society, yet we don't care whether there is peace in the mind of the individual. When we talk of human society, the human being matters most. And when we talk of peace, the mind matters most. So the mind of each individual matters most. Unless there is peace in the mind of the individual, how can there be peace in the society?
There may be different techniques. We don't say that this is the only way. For me it is the only way, but other religions say that they have another way for people to find peace and harmony. Very good, go ahead.
But what I am teaching is universal. Anybody can practice
it, from any religion or tradition, and they will get the same result. We have
people coming to vipassana courses from every religion in the world, and they
all get the same result. I don't tell them, "Convert yourself from this religion
to that religion." My teacher never asked me to convert to a religion. The
only conversion is from misery to happiness.
Fischer: The fact that there is no ritual makes it easier for people all over to join.
Goenka: More than two thousand Christian priests and nuns have taken the meditation course. One nun, a mother superior who was over 75 years old, told me, "You are teaching Christianity in the name of Buddhism. I should have learned this technique fifty years ago." Because there was no technique in her background. She had sermons on love and compassion for others, but they still left her asking how to actually practice love and compassion. With the vipassana technique you purify the mind at the root. Love comes naturally. You don't have to make an effort to practice metta, loving-kindness. It just comes.
Fischer: So even though there is no conversion effort, others are nonetheless attracted to this practice?
Goenka: People are attracted by the results of the practice that they see in others. When a person is angry, the influence of that anger makes everybody unhappy, including themself. You are the first victim of your own anger. This realization is another thing that attracted me to the Buddha's teaching. In my early days, I believed that you lived a moral life in order not to disturb the peace and harmony of the society. In other words, as a Hindu I understood that one must live a life of morality to oblige society.
when I took my first ten-day course, I started to understand that I was not obliging
anybody else, I was obliging myself. Because when I performed any unwholesome
action, I couldn't perform that action unless I had generated defilement in my
mind. Every defilement, every unwholesome action, starts with an unwholesome mind.
As the Buddha said, "Pubbe hanatu attanam, paccha hanati so pare"-"you
first harm yourself and then you harm others." You can't harm anybody without
That was so revealing to me. Previously when I was angry, my mind was absorbed in thinking about the other person and the situation. My mind would just roll around in that without knowing that it is such thoughts that fuel the fire of anger. I had never been taught to observe myself. When I started observing myself, I discovered anger, lots of burning. My whole body burned, my heart rate increased, tension increased. I thought, "What I am doing? I am burning myself!"
Having practiced the meditation technique,
now I know that when I live a life of sila I oblige myself first, not others.
Others get obliged, which is good, but I am the first person to benefit. That
is a wonderful difference in the Buddha's teaching from any other teaching I know.
Fischer: I understand that you have a good friendship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Can you tell us how that developed, particularly since His Holiness' tradition, with all its color and ritual, contrasts with your approach?
Goenka: In the first year when I moved to India from Burma, there was a big public function put on by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's followers, who had become Buddhists. They invited me to their annual celebration of the day that Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. There were some one and a half million people in attendance. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was invited, along with me and the Japanese teacher Fuji Guruji. We were invited as chief guests, and each of us gave a speech. Mine was translated into Tibetan and His Holiness liked it so much that he said that he wanted to meet me and discuss things.
We started at nine o'clock the next morning and at two-thirty or three we were still talking-all about technique. He was very happy with my teaching. But when I said, "Quite a few people on the second day or third day see light," he responded, "No, no. That must be illusion. How can somebody see light in three days? It takes years to see light."
I replied, "Venerable sir, I saw light in my eyes. And so have many other people. I would not say it is an illusion. You better send a few of your lamas and let them experience it. If I am wrong, I will rectify it. I don't teach them that they must see light. It is merely a sign, a milestone on a long path, not the final goal."
So he sent three lamas to my next course in Sarnath. All three of them saw light, and they were so happy. When they went back and explained that to His Holiness, he was also happy. He said, "Goenka, come here and give a course to my people." Then I wrote him back, "When I give a course these are the rules. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but if your high lamas don't agree to my rules, I cannot teach." He sent a message back to me, "Goenka, they will follow whatever you say for the full ten days. So don't worry; they will follow your rules."
The course took place in the Tibetan library in Dharamsala, not far from where His Holiness was living. On the first day, when I told all the very top-ranking lamas my rules, they protested: "But every day, we have rituals to perform, we have to chant so many recitations, we have to prostrate so many times."
"Nothing doing," I replied. "For ten days, nothing doing." And they said, "No, we can't break our life-long vow." So I sent word to the Dalai Lama, "Sir, I can't teach. Your people don't agree. I'm sorry, I have to go." And he sent word to the lamas through his private secretary, "You have to followGoenka's instructions, even if it means breaking your rules. Whatever he says, you must agree to do." They all did it, and they got the same result. Rites or no rites, rituals or no rituals, the technique gives results.
I don't go out during a course, but the Dalai Lama wanted to discuss how it was
going, so I visited him two times. We had long discussions in detail about the
technique I teach and about his technique also-without judging, just exploring
with inquisitiveness. We each enjoyed our discussions tremendously. Since then
we have been friends.
I am not interested in any kind of politics. Of course I have great sympathy for whatever is happening to the Tibetan people, but I can't take up that cause. It's not part of my duty as a dharma teacher. Even the most undemocratic person, even the greatest tyrant, will be a good person if he practices. Just as Buddha was not interested in the politics of the different kings of his day, so that's not my job either. His Holiness understands that very well. We are not political friends, but rather dharma friends.
He did keep
asking me about sunnata, emptiness. "You've got no sunnata?" he would
ask. But after I explained my understanding of it, he accepted what I said: that
when all solidity is dissolved in the technique, and there's nothing but vibration
remaining, that is sunnata. Then you experience something beyond mind and matter-sunna-nothing
to hold there. You have sunna of the mind and matter sphere and sunna of the beyond
mind and matter sphere. His Holiness seemed to be quite happy with that explanation.
He had no objection.
S.N. Goenka is a teacher of Vipassana meditation in the tradition of the late Sayagyi U Ba Khin of Burma (Myanmar). Norman Fischer is a poet and Zen priest who served as abbot of San Francisco Zen Center from 1995 to 2000. He is now a senior teacher at the Center and the founding teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation and co-author of the forthcoming Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Comment on the Rule of St. Benedict (Riverhead).
New World of Tibetan Buddhism
A roundtable discussion with Tim McNeill, Reginald Ray, Tenzin Palmo and Sangye Khandro.
Melvin McLeod, editor of the Shambhala Sun: Tibetan Buddhism is popular in the West today, but perhaps many people are not clear what defines Tibetan Buddhism. To begin with, what feature of Tibetan Buddhism do you think differentiates it from other types of Buddhism or other spiritual paths?
Sangye Khandro: I would say it is the profound blessings of the lineage of teachers, which one encounters through meeting one's own spiritual teacher. I became involved with Tibetan Buddhism because there were such profound, authentic teachers to connect with. And of course the teachings followed from that and were just as extraordinary. One discovers that the path of vajrayana leads to liberation in one lifetime-if one is able to maintain the connection with the spiritual teacher that started the whole process.
Reginald Ray: Tibetan Buddhism, like many other religions, has a comprehensive array of teachings, about practice, study, community and so on. But I think its unique feature is that it is a completely living tradition. It is absolutely vital and alive. That level of vitality and direct connection with the original spirit of the tradition is unusual among the world's religions.
Melvin McLeod: What is it that defines vitality or lack of vitality in a spiritual tradition?
Reginald Ray: Personal transformation and realization is at the heart of it. Because there is a living lineage that embodies the tradition in its entirety, it can communicate a very deep level of realization to new students, and provide a path for them so they can obtain the same realization.
Tim McNeill: Meeting my teachers, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, was the most profound experience of my life and the event that brought me to the Buddhist path. Beyond that, what I find unique about Tibetan Buddhism is the body of writings that have been preserved. There is a body of literature-most of it not even accessible in Western languages yet-that is pretty extraordinary and a special feature of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tenzin Palmo: I would add that there is also the supermarket aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, because it contains the fullness of all the traditions. Everything is there in 57 different varieties. But I don't know just how that will continue. The problem is that Tibetan Buddhism was so perfect for Tibetans, but whether or not the way it is packaged is perfect for Westerners-given the kind of society we have, with the kind of education and background we have-is hard to say.
Melvin McLeod: Yet Tibetan Buddhism does have considerable caché at this point. Would any of you like to speculate about the reason for the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in the West?
Tim McNeill: As someone who has been involved with Tibetan matters for 30 years, both politically and in terms of the dharma, I would say it's important first to acknowledge that a lot of groundwork was laid by many dedicated people to get where we are now. Then in recent years, of course, there has been a more visible geopolitical aspect to it, with the prominence the Dalai Lama received after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In our celebrity-oriented society, that kind of thing certainly has contributed to the growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism.
There is also the very colorful image projected by Tibetan Buddhism in all its many forms. There is an allure, almost a video-like image of Tibetan Buddhism, that I think is conducive to celebrity-which is of course the superficial side of the whole thing. But as far as what draws those who genuinely connect with the tradition, I would come back to the teacher.
Tenzin Palmo: It is true that in the Tibetan tradition there are so many incredible lamas and teachers, probably more than in any other tradition at this point. People meet with such masters and say, "I don't know what you believe in, but whatever it is, I want to get in on it."
Then, of course, Tibetan Buddhism is so colorful. When I first came to the dharma in the late fifties and early sixties, Tibetan Buddhism was regarded as something very esoteric and far out, a pretty degenerate form of Buddhism. But at that time nobody knew very much. Then in the late sixties we hit the whole psychedelic era and many young people were taking acid and traveling on the hippie trail to India and Nepal. Suddenly they met with Tibetan Buddhism and it was love at first sight. All of their psychedelic visualizations made them feel completely at home. They began a love affair with Tibetan Buddhism. Gradually they would warm to its deeper aspects.
Tibetan Buddhism is like a flower. You take away petal after petal after petal. There are so many layers; it is so vast and so deep. You can never get to the end of it. In that way, it constantly challenges you.
Reginald Ray: We might ask why this colorfulness has such an impact in our culture.
Tenzin Palmo: Maybe it's because our culture is so gray.
Reginald Ray: That's it, I think. In the beginning, students I work with are attracted to the vitality and color of the tradition. What I think they see is an invitation to deepen their experience of being alive. One of the aspects that keeps them engaged, as Tenzin Palmo just mentioned, is that the further they go, the more they find that Tibetan Buddhism has keys to unlock doors to deeper experiences of being a human being. Often people criticize the attraction we have to the exotic but I think there is some real spiritual meaning behind it. This tradition in particular can deliver. It opens doors into a new world and that engages people.
Sangye Khandro: Vajrayana is also referred to as secret mantra. People are always attracted to that which they don't know about, or which may be concealed or hidden. In this case, they have yet to connect with intangible, unceasing wisdom qualities, which are a self-contained secret until they enter as students through empowerment and begin to practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher.
Melvin McLeod. We have agreed that the teacher-student relationship is the essence of this tradition. At the same time, doesn't the hierarchical nature of that relationship pose difficulties for Westerners?
Reginald Ray: Often Westerners don't see hierarchy as facilitating intimacy between a teacher and a student. Our culture has an ingrained and implicit anti-hierarchical bent, probably related to our Protestant climate. In his early years in the West, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche felt that the forms of hierarchy he had inherited were actually getting in the way of his relationship with his students on a dharmic level. Obviously hierarchy is very important, but at the same time it may have to undergo a shift. In fact, among Tibetan teachers, I see considerable variation in the way they approach hierarchy.
Sangye Khandro: Trungpa Rinpoche taught very skillfully about the idea of natural hierarchy in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. No matter how much you try to go against it, the world has order, power and richness that is there naturally on a spiritual level. It doesn't matter what culture teachers come from, Tibetan or Western. If they are qualified spiritual teachers with wisdom, they have great merit, which places them in a natural hierarchy: they are in a position to benefit others immensely.
Tim McNeill: My teacher used to be very clear that tantra-far from being a system of dogma accepted on faith or authority-is a step-by-step exploration of the human condition leading to self-discovery. The fact it is empirical is what appealed to me most about it. As you gain insight, that validates what has been taught and experienced by others. Lama Yeshe went out of his way to be aware of our backgrounds and concerns, and to deal with Westerners as Westerners. He took a lot of grief in the early years from some Tibetans because he had such enduring and intimate contacts with Westerners and taught them in a different way.
Melvin McLeod: Given the wide range of books and programs currently available, what is your assessment of the quality of presentation of Tibetan Buddhism in the West today?
Reginald Ray: We have to make a distinction between Western teachers like ourselves and Tibetan teachers. One of the things that always amazes me about the Tibetan lamas is that they can teach in an introductory way to people who know nothing about Buddhism with the same skill that they teach at a much higher level. What I notice in myself and in other Western teachers is that we haven't quite figured out how to do that. I think sometimes the tradition gets distorted in our presentations, particularly at the beginning levels. It's something we definitely have to work on.
Tim McNeill: We are seeing a much higher level of quality in the translation of original texts and commentary, and that is very heartening. Many Westerners are now well-trained in Tibetan and Sanskrit, and the quality of this scholarship is quite important. It's also heartening that within academia there are so many people who are out in the open as both Buddhist practitioners and scholars.
Sangye Kandro: We would benefit if we had more of the classic translations available. In the bookstores I see many general books about Buddhism, books that are more for pleasure reading. We need to make more of the classic Buddhist material available to Western readers.
Melvin McLeod: Does Tibetan Buddhism lend itself to amalgamation with other traditions and disciplines, such as Western psychology or science, or should it be treated as a complete system whose integrity must be respected?
Tenzin Palmo: The Tibetans incorporated the dharma into the whole of their culture-with medicine, with architecture, with poetics, with whatever was of interest to them. You can apply good basic dharma principles to everything, as the motivation behind all of these activities.
Sangye Khandro: It seems important that we bring the skill of the dharma to these worldly issues, rather than trying to bring them to the dharma.
Tim McNeill: At a Mind Science Conference at MIT in 1991, the Dalai Lama said that while it was very nice to have inter-religious dialogues, he felt the most fertile ground for dialogue with the West was through the psychological sciences or neurosciences. That is why he has held so many conferences with Western scientists.
Reginald Ray: If we use the term "dialogue," then I think there is a tremendous amount that can happen. But the "amalgamation" question is interesting because it is true that later in Tibetan history, after Buddhism had been transplanted, forms began to emerge that represented a coming together of indigenous traditions and the tradition of Buddhism they had inherited.
In the West that process is probably going to take a long time. This may be a very conservative view, but I believe the job of our generation, and perhaps a few generations to come, is to take the Tibetan forms we've been given and practice them and see where they lead. Then we can look back from there and see how those forms led us to a particular state of realization. At that point the question can arise of what other forms in the culture can be integrated into the tradition. Today, you sometimes see people melding things together and creating hybrid forms, and I just think it is too early to do that. Our gift back to the tradition may be that we are willing to practice the forms we've been given for a few generations without fiddling around too much.
Melvin McLeod: What then needs to happen now to ensure a successful, genuine transmission of Tibetan Buddhism, and particularly the vajrayana, to the West?
Tenzin Palmo: I think what we need are people who have eaten the tradition and digested it, and for whom it is nurturing their whole being. We need great, realized people who have really actuated the tradition. That is what we are lacking. We have very good scholars, but where are the Milarepas?
Marpa went to India and took the teachings from Naropa. He didn't invite Naropa back to Tibet; he himself went back to Tibet. He didn't hold onto the lama; he actuated the teachings. He translated them, gave them to Milarepa, and did it all in Tibetan. He realized the teachings and passed them on. This is what we need: genuinely realized beings, not semi-cooked but completely cooked. Most of us are kind of half-baked. [Laughter]
Reginald Ray: This is a critical point and something that is not talked about enough. Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche said recently that he finds in teaching Westerners that they don't believe that Western people could drink from the depths of the tradition and realize anything. As a culture, we have a poor self-image embodied, for example, in the teaching of original sin. We have to realize that until there are Western people who achieve some kind of real and authentic realization-and it may not happen in this generation-the translation and the transplantation of Buddhism to this culture will not have occurred.
Tim McNeill: It seems to be all of a piece. The developing scholarship must be wedded with practitioners and monastic environments, environments that support and nurture practice. Some of that is happening; there are more places now for people to meditate in the West and to be supported by a community.
Reginald Ray: The strength of Tibetan Buddhism is in the different voices-the scholarly voice, the lay voice, the retreatant's voice. Some of us in the West tend to focus on practice as the only thing. For the tradition to survive long-term, the integrity of the diverse voices that have always been alive in Tibet must be maintained in the West.
Sangye Kandro: Traditionally, the success of the doctrine is said to depend on two aspects: scriptural understanding and realization. We Westerners are now responsible for making sure that those two aspects are present in the West and can be sustained.
Melvin McLeod: We have described Tibetan Buddhism as a vital tradition capable of transmitting profound realization to people of the present day. How confident do you feel that in the future this strong and vital transmission will remain alive in the West?
Tenzin Palmo: From the Tibetan side, I think it depends partly on whether new incarnations of all the great lamas trained in Tibet will arise, and then how these new incarnate lamas will be trained. How are the yogis and scholars going to get the kind of training received in the past so they can become genuine holders of the lineage?
And from the side of the Westerners, will they have totally immersed themselves in the practice, so that their whole lives become practice, so that they become worthy vessels to be filled with the nectar of the dharma? If we are all filled with dirty water, how can nectar be poured into such impure vessels? From our side, we have to clean out, but we have to ask ourselves whether that is happening at this time.
Reginald Ray: We haven't talked very much about our cultural context. Part of the ability of Tibetan Buddhism to continue to mature in the West depends upon solving certain problems that our culture presents. One of the main ones is the problem of community. How can we create sustainable forms of community that are real communities, not just organizations? We need places where people know each other over a period of many years, where there is intimacy, where you can encounter both the negative and positive sides of one another in a way that eventually leads to the deepening and encouragement of one's practice.
Sangye Khandro: I think we need to work harder to establish more institutes of Buddhist learning with courses in traditional study, and more retreat centers. We need not only dharma centers but also places where people study courses for years at a time, and places where people enter into long-term retreat.
The distinction of East and West is sometimes overemphasized. It is only based on the concept of time and direction, which has no true existence. I have one hundred percent confidence that the authentic Buddhist tradition will be sustained in the West. One day it may even happen that Buddhism in the West will be the source through which the pure traditions are brought back to the East. We have quite a responsibility that we need to acknowledge.
Tim McNeill is president of Wisdom Publications in Boston. He serves on the board of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. Reginald Ray, Ph.D., is professor of Buddhist studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. His new book is Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Tenzin Palmo was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1964, and spent 12 years in solitary retreat in the Himalayas. She is subject of the book Cave in the Snows. Sangye Khandro is a well-known traslator of both oral and scriptural Tibetan. She is a member of the Light of Berotsana Translation Group.
Lama Ole Nydahl
"We just have to remind ourselves that the source for any happiness is the mind itself."
few people are able to meditate in a meaningful way for long periods of time,
and only being caught in the conditioned world is a waste of potential. The best
is to integrate Buddha's teachings into one's daily life , and we Kagyus have
an excellent basis for doing that. Through our close bond with the Lama and the
exceptional Mahamudra teachings we can develop in every moment and in all situations.
Its focus is not on daily and hour-long sitting practices, but on the "King's
high-way": one behaves like a Buddha until one becomes one.
The non-dual view involves nothing more difficult than learning a few central truths about the nature of mind by heart and then training to see them working in the world. Being a Buddhist and not using these tools is simply stupid. In addition to the Ngöndro (preliminaries) and the spontaneous daily Karmapa meditations, it is also useful to keep the Lama in one's heart and let his light radiate out to all beings. Together, theses methods make it possible to watch the mind from the Mahamudra-level.
Frequent, even if light, readings of Mahamudra teachings by masters like Tilopa, the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje or the 9th Karmapa Wangchuck Dorje add rounding aspects to what will already be a conscious and steadily self-liberating life, and maybe the best helpers of all will prove to be our friends in the local center.
Our Kagyu groups under Karmapa Thaye Dorje grow everywhere through the sharing of experience. As the Mahamudra-view expands it gives meaning to all things in life. It is the most important possession we have because nothing but our view decides whether we are happy or unhappy, rich or poor. Without the Mahamudra one just becomes older but not wiser.
Whoever had this understanding of deepest meaning should never fall back to the level of common consumerism or let himself get caught in superficial and temporary fads like 'P.C.", political correctness. Standing by our timeless knowledge and the blessing we carry, makes us a refuge for all. Who of us has not often heard that mind is empty, clear and limitless? If we just live that and actively express our nature as indestructible, rich and loving, the Mahamudra will bring countless beings to timeless meaning and joy.
It is important not to lose courage if there are no tangible results for some time. The goal itself is the state where one expects nothing and the enlightening process always continues on subconscious levels. Do not suddenly think that you can not meditate and seek compensation through "soft sciences" or superstition. Discussing pyramids and horoscopes just leads to more confusion.
Our modern world surrounds us with pleasant and sensual impressions, but they are all impermanent. Only the consciousness which experiences them lasts. Of course, it is reasonable to fill our lives with beauty and to make people aware of the possibilities of their senses, but simply trying to convert unpleasant experiences into pleasant ones cannot lead to an ultimate goal. Only the recognition of the experiencer itself liberates us. This is why meditation with the right view is so important.
Except for when teaching others, I have little time for sitting meditation. My schedule which has included a new town nearly everyday for the last 22 years, starting 160 centers around the world does not permit that. Instead, I leave my mind in its own place and let my legs run around. You can do the same. Make the very best of every moment by always acting effortlessly and spontaneously and keeping the Lama in your heart. Let your neuroses float away on an oily film of mantras and see all things on the highest level. For example: when driving be aware of the delightful power of what moves under and around you.
Of course it is important to make enough distance to be able to choose the comedies and avoid the tragedies of life. For that purpose one should do sitting Diamond Way meditation as often as possible. But, if life is too demanding one should just make the best of the situation and either melt together with the Lama and act like him, simply being aware of the potential of what happens or staying with the vibration of the inner mantras. In all activities the feeling of being in a meaningful pure land should be kept and strengthened. We learn this best through spontaneous meditations during the natural pauses of the day and gradually this state of mind will pervade our lives and we become the unshakable refuge for all. We must not expect this to happen by itself, however; one can get lazy very easily. All enjoy having things done for them by others and, therefore, one must frequently remember that nobody can get enlightened for us. We would severely set others back in their development if we were to install the traditional kind of Buddhism which leaves the practicing to monks and nuns so others can keep on sleeping with a good conscience until it is too late.
It is only a question of time before our meditations will bring a steady state of bliss comparable only to union with our best partners. No outer means can create joys which are not inherently in ourselves. Searching for happiness through possessions or the impressions of our senses is like trying to move something from a long distance with a wobbly pole. It is very imprecise and one often gets unwanted results.
Working with the mind directly through meditation, however, is like a German sport car's precise stick-shift. It brings lasting results and is much more effective than activating outer props to feed pleasant experiences back to oneself.
Actually the conditioned world works like a conspiracy to keep us from finding lasting values. Everywhere we hear "buy this and you will be happy!" "Use this toothpaste and have success." "Travel there and you will have a great time...!" Just look at how many people try to sell you a sofa or a TV set and how few offer you Dharma-books? Therefore, knowledge about mind's absolute and relative nature is essential. We need to understand that every experience is like a individual dream inside a collective one and only the experiencer really exists. It is our great gift as Buddhists to the world that we - and probably the Advaita Vedanta Hindus - show the absolute goal: enlightened awareness beyond any duality or ego. That is why it is so important that we never become rusty or superficial, but always have a fresh new angle on enlightenment to inspire a changing world.
Although many wonder about our easy style, one becomes more and not less successful in the world by holding the relaxed Mahamudra view. Inner calm and space are also advantageous on the level of jobs and money. Unthinking people often carry things from A to B today and then back to A tomorrow, thinking they are doing productive work, but such meaningless repetitions fall away with an increasing overview. The more consciously one works, the more results the same effort will bring. For this reason also the busiest people should find some time for meditation. The blessing of whatever one touches will grow and the example will inspire others.
Back in the seventies a lama told me that a time is predicted when the Lama will have to beg his students to meditate. It is seen as a sign of decay and in several traditional Buddhist cultures it may have happened. We have the opposite situation in the west today: our search for the wonders of mind is fresh and alive. We just have to remind ourselves that the source for any happiness is the mind itself. With steady work we can bring it forth.
Kagyu Life International, No.2, 1995
Copyright ©1995 Kamtsang Choling USA
Importance of the Guru
The special techniques of tantra are said to be very powerful, but they can also be dangerous. Thus tantric texts warn meditators to find qualified spiritual guides (guru) who can help them to avoid possible pitfalls. One of the central practices of tantra is "guru yoga," in which one visualizes one's guru as a fully enlightened buddha. One who does this successfully is said to move quickly toward actualization of buddhahood. In the following passage the tantric master Tilopa teaches that finding a qualified guru is a prerequisite for successful tantric practice.
the ignorant may know that sesame oil--the essence--exists in the sesame seed, but because they do not know how, they cannot extract the oil. So also does the innate fundamental wisdom abide in the heart of all migrators; but unless it is pointed out by the guru, it cannot be realized. By pounding the seeds and clearing away the husks, one can extract the essence--the sesame oil. Similarly, when it is shown by the guru, the meaning of suchness is so illuminated that one can enter into it.
Bodhisattva's Vows of Universal Love
The following verses, written by Shantideva, are among the most eloquent expressions in Mahayana literature of the ideal mindset of bodhisattvas, who should dedicate all of their energies to helping other beings in every possible way.
Those who wrong me, and those who accuse me falsely, and those who mock, and others: May they all be sharers in enlightenment.
I would be a protector for those without protection, a leader for those who journey, and a boat, a bridge, a passage for those desiring the further shore.
For all creatures, I would be a lantern for those desiring a lantern, I would be a bed for those desiring a bed, I would be a slave for those desiring a slave.
I would be for creatures a magical jewel, an inexhaustible jar, a powerful spell, a universal remedy, a wishing tree, and a cow of plenty.
As the earth and other elements are, in various ways, for the enjoyment of innumerable beings dwelling in all of space;
So may I be, in various ways, the means of sustenance for the living beings occupying space, for as long a time as all are not satisfied.
Bodhisattva Works Alone
In Mahayana texts the bodhisattva is portrayed as a heroic figure, valiantly following the path to buddhahood for the benefit of others. The following passage indicates that this is a long and difficult path that each individual must traverse alone.
The bodhisattva is alone, with no...companion, and puts on the armor of supreme wisdom. He acts alone and leaves nothing to others, working with a will that is firm with courage and strength. He is strong in his own strength...and he thinks thus: "I will help all sentient beings to obtain whatever they should obtain....
`The virtue of generosity is not my helper--I am the helper of generosity. Nor do the virtues of ethics, patience, effort, concentration, and wisdom help me--it is I who help them. The perfections of the bodhisattva do not support me--it is I who support them....I alone, standing in this round and hard world, must subdue Mara, with all his hosts and chariots, and develop supreme awakening with the wisdom of instantaneous insight.'
Just as the rising sun, the child of the gods, is not stopped...by all the dust rising from the four continents of the earth...or by wreaths of smoke...or by rugged mountains, so bodhisattvas, great beings...are not deterred from bringing virtuous roots to fruition, whether by the malice of others...or by their wrong-doing or error, or by their mental agitation....They will not lay down their limbs of awakening because of the corrupt generations of humanity, nor do they waver in their resolution to save the world because of their wretched quarrels....They do not lose heart on account of their faults....
They think, `All creatures are in pain; all suffer from bad and hindering karma...so that they cannot see the buddhas or hear the true doctrine or know the sa[[dotaccent]]gha....All that mass of pain and evil karma I take in my own body...I take upon myself the burden of sorrow; I resolve to do so; I endure it all. I do not turn back or run away, I do not tremble...I am not afraid...nor do I despair. I must definitely bear the burdens of all sentient beings...for I have resolved to save them all, I must set them all free, I must save the whole world from the forest of birth, aging, sickness, and rebirth, from misfortune and wrong-doing, from the round of birth and death, from the dangers of error....For all sentient beings are caught in the net of desire, enmeshed in ignorance, held by the desire for existence; they are doomed to destruction, shut in a cage of pain...they are ignorant, untrustworthy, full of doubts, always fighting one with another, always prone to see evil; they cannot find a refuge in the ocean of existence; they are all on the edge of the gulf of destruction.
`I work to establish the kingdom of perfect wisdom for all sentient beings. I care not at all for my own liberation. I must save all sentient beings from the river of rebirth with the raft of my omniscient mind. I must pull them back from the great precipice. I must free them from all misfortune, ferry them over the stream of rebirth.
`For I have taken upon myself, by my own will, the whole of the pain of all living things. Thus I dare try every place of pain, in...every part of the universe, for I must not keep virtuous roots from the world. I resolve to live in each bad state for countless eons...for the salvation of all sentient beings...for it is better that I alone suffer than that all sentient beings sink to the bad transmigrations. There I shall give myself into bondage, to redeem all the world from the forest of suffering, from births as animals, from the realm of death. I shall bear all grief and pain in my own body for the good of all living things. I vow to work for all sentient beings, speaking the truth, trustworthy, not breaking my word. I will not abandon them....I must be their charioteer, I must be their leader, I must be their torchbearer, I must be their guide to safety....I must not wait for the help of another, nor must I lose my resolution and leave my tasks to another. I must not turn back in my efforts to save all sentient beings nor cease to use my merit for the destruction of all pain. And I must not be satisfied with small successes.
by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
is not easy. It takes time and it takes energy. It also takes grit, determination,
and discipline. It requires a host of personal qualities that we normally regard
as unpleasant and like to avoid whenever possible. We can sum up all of these
qualities in the American word gumption.
Meditation takes gumption. It is certainly a great deal easier just to sit back and watch television. So why bother? Why waste all that time and energy when you could be out enjoying yourself? Why? Simple. Because you are human. Just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness in life that simply will not go away. You can suppress it from your awareness for a time, you can distract yourself for hours on end, but it always comes back, and usually when you least expect it. All of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, you sit up, take stock, and realize your actual situation in life.
There you are, and you suddenly realize that you are spending your whole life just barely getting by. You keep up a good front. You manage to make ends meet somehow and look okay from the outside. But those periods of desperation, those times when you feel everything caving in on you-you keep those to yourself. You are a mess, and you know it. But you hide it beautifully. Meanwhile, way down under all of that, you just know that there has to be some other way to live, a better way to look at the world, a way to touch life more fully. You click into it by chance now and then: You get a good job. You fall in love. You win the game. For a while, things are different. Life takes on a richness and clarity that makes all the bad times and humdrum fade away. The whole texture of your experience changes and you say to yourself, "Okay, now I've made it; now I will be happy." But then that fades too, like smoke in the wind. You are left with just a memory-that, and the vague awareness that something is wrong.
You can't make radical changes in the pattern of your life until you begin to see yourself exactly as you are now. As soon as you do that, changes will flow naturally. You don't have to force anything, struggle, or obey rules dictated to you by some authority. It is automatic; you just change.
But arriving at that initial insight is quite a task. You have to see who you are and how you are without illusion, judgment or resistance of any kind. You have to see your place in society and your function as a social being. You have to see your duties and obligations to your fellow human beings, and above all, your responsibility to yourself as an individual living with other individuals. And finally, you have to see all of that clearly as a single unit, an irreducible whole of interrelationship. It sounds complex, but it can occur in a single instant. Mental cultivation through meditation is without rival in helping you achieve this sort of understanding and serene happiness.
The Dhammapada, an ancient Buddhist text, says: "What you are now is the result of what you were. What you will be tomorrow will be the result of what you are now. The consequences of an evil mind will follow you like the cart follows the ox that pulls it. The consequences of a purified mind will follow you like your own shadow. No one can do more for you than your own purified mind-no parent, no relative, no friend, no one. A well-disciplined mind brings happiness."
Meditation is intended to purify the mind. It cleanses the thought process of what can be called psychic irritants, things like greed, hatred and jealousy, which keep you snarled up in emotional bondage. Meditation brings the mind to a state of tranquility and awareness, a state of concentration and insight.
Meditation is called the Great Teacher. It is the cleansing crucible fire that works slowly but surely, through understanding. The greater your understanding, the more flexible and tolerant, the more compassionate you can be. You become like a perfect parent or an ideal teacher. You are ready to forgive and forget. You feel love toward others because you understand them, and you understand others because you have understood yourself. You have looked deeply inside and seen self-illusion and your own human failings, seen your own humanity and learned to forgive and to love. When you have learned compassion for yourself, compassion for others is automatic. An accomplished meditator has achieved a profound understanding of life, and he or she inevitably relates to the world with a deep and uncritical love.
The purpose of meditation is personal transformation. The "you" that goes in one side of the meditation experience is not the same "you" that comes out the other side. Meditation changes your character by a process of sensitization, by making you deeply aware of your own thoughts, words and deeds. Your arrogance evaporates and your antagonism dries up. Your mind becomes still and calm. And your life smoothes out. Thus, meditation, properly performed, prepares you to meet the ups and downs of existence. It reduces your tension, fear and worry. Restlessness recedes and passion moderates. Things begin to fall into place, and your life becomes a glide instead of a struggle. All of this happens through understanding.
Meditation sharpens your concentration and your thinking power. Then, piece by piece, your own subconscious motives and mechanics become clear to you. Your intuition sharpens. The precision of your thought increases, and gradually you come to a direct knowledge of things as they really are, without prejudice and without illusion.
Vipassana is the oldest of Buddhist meditation practices. The method comes directly from the Satipatthana Sutta, a discourse attributed to the Buddha himself. Vipassana is a direct and gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness. It proceeds piece by piece over a period of years. The student's attention is carefully directed to an intense examination of certain aspects of his own existence. The meditator is trained to notice more and more of his own flowing life experience.
Vipassana is a gentle technique, but it also is very, very thorough. It is an ancient and codified system of training your mind, a set of exercises dedicated to the purpose of becoming more and more aware of your own life experience. It is attentive listening, mindful seeing, and careful testing. We learn to smell acutely, to touch fully, and really pay attention to the changes taking place in all these experiences. We learn to listen to our own thoughts without being caught up in them.
The object of vipassana practice is to learn to see the truths of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and the selflessness of phenomena. We think we are doing this already, but that is an illusion. It comes from the fact that we are paying so little attention to the ongoing surge of our own life experiences that we might just as well be asleep.
Vipassana meditation is inherently experiential, not theoretical. In the practice of meditation you become sensitive to the actual experience of living, to how things actually feel. You do not sit around developing subtle, aesthetic thoughts about living. You live. Vipassana meditation, more than anything else, is learning to live.
There are a variety of methods within the vipassana tradition, but the method we are explaining here is considered the most traditional and is probably what Gautama Buddha taught his students. The Satipatthana Sutta, which was the Buddha's original discourse on mindfulness, specifically says that one must begin by focusing the attention on the breathing and then go on to note all other physical and mental phenomena which arise.
So we sit, watching the air going in and out of our noses. At first glance, this seems an exceedingly odd and useless procedure. The first question we might ask is: why have any focus of attention at all? We are, after all, trying to develop awareness. Why not just sit down and be aware of whatever happens to be present in the mind?
In fact, there are meditations of that nature. They are sometimes referred to as unstructured meditation and they are quite difficult. The mind is tricky. Thought is an inherently complicated procedure. By that we mean that we become trapped, wrapped up, and stuck in the thought chain. One thought leads to another which leads to another, and another, and another, and so on. Fifteen minutes later we suddenly wake up and realize we spent that whole time stuck in a daydream or sexual fantasy or a set of worries about our bills or whatever.
There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought. That difference is very subtle. It is primarily a matter of feeling or texture. A thought you are simply aware of with bare attention feels light in texture; there is a sense of distance between that thought and the awareness viewing it. It arises lightly like a bubble, and it passes away without necessarily giving rise to the next thought in that chain. Normal conscious thought is much heavier in texture. It is ponderous, commanding and compulsive. It sucks you in and grabs control of consciousness. By its very nature it is obsessional, and it leads straight to the next thought in the chain, with apparently no gap between them.
The difference between being aware of the thought and thinking the thought is very real. But it is extremely subtle and difficult to see. Concentration is one of the tools needed to be able to see this difference.
Deep concentration has the effect of slowing down the thought process and speeding up the awareness viewing it. The result is the enhanced ability to examine the thought process. Concentration is our microscope for viewing subtle internal states. We use the focus of attention to achieve one-pointedness of mind with calm and constantly applied attention. Without a fixed reference point you get lost, overcome by the ceaseless waves of change flowing round and round within the mind.
We use breath as our focus. It serves as that vital reference point from which the mind wanders and is drawn back. Distraction cannot be seen as distraction unless there is some central focus to be distracted from. That is the frame of reference against which we can view the incessant changes and interruptions that go on all the time as a part of normal thinking.
The next question we need to address is: Why choose breathing as the primary object of meditation? Why not something a bit more interesting? Answers to this are numerous. A useful object of meditation should be one that promotes mindfulness. It should be portable, easily available, and cheap. It should also be something that will not embroil us in those states of mind from which we are trying to free ourselves, such as greed, anger and delusion.
Breathing satisfies all these criteria and more. Breathing is something common to every human being. We all carry it with us wherever we go. It is always there, constantly available, never ceasing from birth till death, and it costs nothing.
Breathing is a nonconceptual process, a thing that can be experienced directly without a need for thought. Furthermore, it is a very living process, an aspect of life that is in constant change. The breath moves in cycles-inhalation, exhalation, breathing in, and breathing out. Thus, it is a miniature model of life itself.
The first step in using the breath as an object of meditation is to find it. What you are looking for is the physical, tactile sensation of the air that passes in and out of the nostrils. This is usually just inside the tip of the nose. But the exact spot varies from one person to another, depending on the shape of the nose. To find your own point, take a quick deep breath and notice the point just inside the nose or on the upper lip where you have the most distinct sensation of passing air. Now exhale and notice the sensation at the same point.
It is from this point that you will follow the whole passage of breath. Once you have located your own breath point with clarity, don't deviate from that spot. Use this single point in order to keep your attention fixed. Without having selected such a point, you will find yourself moving in and out of the nose, going up and down the windpipe, eternally chasing after the breath which you can never catch because it keeps changing, moving and flowing.
Make no attempt to control the breath. This is not a breathing exercise of the sort done in yoga. Focus on the natural and spontaneous movement of the breath. Don't try to regulate it or emphasize it in any way. Most beginners have some trouble in this area. In order to help themselves focus on the sensation, they unconsciously accentuate their breathing. The result is a forced and unnatural effort that actually inhibits concentration rather than helping it. Let go and allow the process to go along at its own rhythm. This sounds easy, but it is trickier than you think. Do not be discouraged if you find your own will getting in the way. Just use that as an opportunity to observe the nature of conscious intention. Watch the delicate interrelation between the breath, the impulse to control the breath, and the impulse to cease controlling the breath. You may find it frustrating for a while, but it is highly profitable as a learning experience, and it is a passing phase. Eventually, the breathing process will move along under its own steam, and you will feel no impulse to manipulate it. At this point you will have learned a major lesson about your own compulsive need to control the universe.
Breathing, which seems so mundane and uninteresting at first glance, is actually an enormously complex and fascinating procedure. It is full of delicate variations, if you look. There is inhalation and exhalation, long breath and short breath, deep breath, shallow breath, smooth breath, and ragged breath. These categories combine with one another in subtle and intricate ways. Observe the breath closely. Really study it. You find enormous variations and a constant cycle of repeated patterns. It is like a symphony.
Don't observe just the bare outline of the breath. There is more to see here than just an in-breath and an out-breath. Every breath has a beginning, middle and end. Every inhalation goes through a process of birth, growth and death and every exhalation does the same. The depth and speed of your breathing changes according to your emotional state, the thought that flows through your mind, and the sounds you hear. Study these phenomena. You will find them fascinating.
This does not mean, however, that you should be sitting there having little conversations with yourself inside your head: "There is a short ragged breath and there is a deep long one. I wonder what's next?" No, that is not vipassana. That is thinking. You will find this sort of thing happening, especially in the beginning. This too is a passing phase. Simply note the phenomenon and return your attention toward the observation of the sensation of breath. Mental distractions will happen again. But return your attention to your breath again, and again, and again, and again, for as long as it takes until it does not happen anymore.
When you first begin this procedure, expect to face some difficulties. Your mind will wander off constantly, darting around like a bumblebee and zooming off on wild tangents. Try not to worry. The monkey mind phenomenon is well known. It is something that every advanced meditator has had to deal with. They have pushed through it one way or another, and so can you. When it happens, just note the fact that you have been thinking, daydreaming, worrying, or whatever. Gently but firmly, without getting upset or judging yourself for straying, simply return to the simple physical sensation of the breath. Then do it again the next time, and again, and again, and again.
Somewhere in this process, you will come face to face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way, and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation; they have not. So they still feel relatively comfortable. That does not mean that they are better off. Ignorance may be bliss, but it does not lead to liberation. So don't let this realization unsettle you. It is a milestone actually, a sign of real progress. The very fact that you have looked at the problem straight in the eye means that you are on your way up and out of it.
As your concentration deepens, you will have less and less trouble with monkey mind. Your breathing will slow down and you will track it more and more clearly, with fewer and fewer interruptions. You begin to experience a state of great calm in which you enjoy complete freedom from those things we called psychic irritants. No greed, lust, envy, jealousy or hatred. Agitation goes away. Fear flees. These are beautiful, clear, blissful states of mind. They are temporary, and they will end when the meditation ends. Yet even these brief experiences will change your life. This is not liberation, but these are stepping stones on the path that leads in that direction. Do not, however, expect instant bliss. Even these stepping stones take time and effort and patience.
Mindfulness of breathing is a present-time awareness. When you are doing it properly, you are aware only of what is occurring in the present. You don't look back, and you don't look forward. You forget about the last breath, and you don't anticipate the next one. When the inhalation is just beginning, you don't look ahead to the end of that inhalation. You don't skip forward to the exhalation which is to follow. You stay right there with what is actually taking place. The inhalation is beginning, and that's what you pay attention to-that and nothing else.
This meditation is a process of retraining the mind. The state you are aiming for is one in which you are totally aware of everything that is happening in your own perceptual universe, exactly the way it happens, exactly when it is happening: total, unbroken awareness in present time. This is an incredibly high goal, and not to be reached all at once. It takes practice, so we start small. We start by becoming totally aware of one small unit of time, just one single inhalation. And, when you succeed, you are on your way to a whole new experience of life.
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, known affectionately as "Bhante G," was ordained as a Buddhist at age twelve in his native Sri Lanka. In 1968 he was invited to the United States to serve as general secretary of the Buddhist Vihara Society in Washington D.C., where he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from The American University. Now 76 years old, he is founder of the Bhavana Society and abbot of its monastery in the Shenandoah Valley. He is the author of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness and Mindfulness in Plain English, from which this article is adapted.
Adapted from Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. An updated and expanded edition of this book is available from Wisdom Publications in September.
I make my obeisance to the Buddha who is wise, free from all attachment, and whose powers are beyond conception, and who has kindly taught the truth which cannot be expressed by words.
In the transcendental truth there is no origination (utpada), and in fact, there is no destruction (nirodha). The Buddha is like the sky (which has neither origination nor cessation), and the beings are like him, and therefore they are of the same nature.
There is no birth either on this or the other side (of the world). A compound thing (samskrta) originates from its conditions. Therefore it is sunya by its nature. This fact comes into the range of knowledge of an omniscient one.
All things by nature are regarded as reflections. They are pure and naturally quiescent, devoid of any duality, equal, and remain always and in all circumstances in the same way (tathata).
In fact, worldings attribute atman to what is not atman, and in the same way they imagine happiness, misery, indifference, passions and liberation.
Birth in the six realms of existence in the world, highest happiness in the heaven, great pain in the hell,--these do not come within the perview of truth (i.e. cannot be accepted as true); nor do the notions that unmeritorious actions lead to the extreme misery, old age, disease, and death, and meritorious actions surely bring about good results.
It is owing to false notions that beings are consumed by fire of passions even as a forest is burnt by forest conflagration and fall into the hells, etc. As illusion prevails so do beings make their appearance. The world is illusory and it exists only on account of its cause and conditions.
As a painter is frightened by the terrible figure of a Yaksa which he himself has drawn, so is a fool frightened in the world (by his own false notions).
Even as a fool going himself to a quagmire is drowned therein, so are beings drowned in the quagmire of false notions and are unable to come out thereof. The feeling of misery is experienced by imagining a thing where in fact it has no existence. Beings are tortured by the poison of false notions regarding the object and its knowledge.
Seeing these helpless beings with a compassionate heart one should perform thc practices of the highest knowledge (bodhicarya) for the benefit of them.
Having acquired requisites thereby and getting unsurpassable bodhi one should become a Buddha, the friend of the world, being freed fron the bondage of false notions.
He who realizes the transcendental truth knowing the pratityasamutpada (or the manifestation of entities depending on their causes and conditions), knows the world to be sunya and devoid of beginning, middle or end.
The samsara and nirvana are mere appearances; the truth is stainless, changeless, and quiescent from the beginning and illumined. The object of knowledge in dream is not seen when one awakes. Similarly the world disappears to him who is awakened from the darkness of ignorance.
The creation of illusion is nothing but illusion. When everything is compoond there is nothing which can be regarded as a real thing. Such is the nature of all things.
One having origination (jati) does not originate himself. Origination is a false conception of the people. Such conceptions and (conceived) beings, these two are not reasonable.
All this is nothing but mind (citta) and exists just like an illusion. Hence originate good and evil actions and from them good and evil birth. When the wheel of the mind is suppressed, all things are suppressed. Therefore all things are devoid of atman (independent nature), and consequently they are pure.
It is due to thinking the things which have no independent nature as eternal, atman, and pleasant that this ocean of existence (bhava) appears to one who is enveloped by the darkness of attachment and ignorance.
Who can reach the other side of the great ocean of samsara which is full of water of false notions without getting into the great vehicle? How can these false notions arise in a man who thoroughly knows this world which has originated from ignorance?
The Three Words that Strike the Vital Point (Tsikum Nedek).
instructions come from the great master Garab Dorje, and they
constitute the primary mode of presenting the main practice of the
Luminous Great Perfection, which is called trekcho, or "breakthrough". With regard to Trekcho, all the many systems of instruction and practical guidance are summed up in this presentation called the "Three Words that Hit the Point."
This particular presentation of the teaching originated at the time
of the passing of Garab Dorje, the first human teacher of Dzogchen, when his lineage successor and principal disciple Majushrimitra supplicated him with great yearning, and from the midst of an expanse of rainbow light appearing in space Garab Dorje spoke and presented these teachings to Manjushrimitra. It is this presentation, in the form of the Three Words of Garab Dorje, that we have since relied upon as the ultimate presentation of trekcho. This is also sometimes referred to as the final testament of Garab Dorje.
The Root Text
Homage to the guru.
The view is Longchen Rabjam (Infinite Great Expanse)
The meditation is Khyentse Oser (Light Rays of Knowledge and Love).
The action is Gyalwai Nyugu (Son of the Victorious Ones).
For the one who practices in this way,
There is no doubt about enlightenment in one lifetime.
But even if not, there is happiness - a la la.
The view, Longchen Rabjam, is as follows:
To hit the vital point with the three lines,
First let your mind rest loosely,
Without projecting, without concentrating - without thoughts.
While relaxed and remaining evenly in that state
Suddenly exclaim a mind-shattering PHAT.
Forceful, short and sharp - emaho!
Nothing whatsoever- totally blank.
A blankness that is indescribable.
Recognize this as the dharmakaya awareness.
TO RECOGNIZE YOUR NATURE; THAT IS THE FIRST VITAL POINT
After this, whether you
are thinking or still,
Whether you are angry or attached, happy or sad,
At all times and on all occasions
Acknowledge the recognized dharmakaya,
And let the child luminosity unite with the already known mother.
Rest in the state of inexpressible awareness.
Destroy again and again stillness, bliss, clarity and thinking.
Let the syllable of knowledge and means suddenly strike down.
No difference between meditation and post-meditation.
No division between sessions and breaks.
Rest continuously in the undivided state.
However, as long as you have not attained stability,
It is essential to give up distractions,
Divide your meditation into sessions.
At all times and in all situations
Maintain the single continuity of dharmakaya.
Resolve that there is nothing other than this.
TO DECIDE ON ONE THING; THAT IS THE SECOND VITAL POINT.
this time, your likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows
And all your passing thoughts without exception
Leave no trace in the state of recognition.
By recognizing dharmakaya in what is liberated,
As in the analogy of drawing on water,
There is unceasing self-occurring self-liberation.
Whatever occurs is fresh food for the empty awareness.
Whatever is thought is an expression of the dharmakaya king,
Traceless and naturally free - a la la.
The way thougthts occur is the same as before,
But the way they are freed is the most special key point.
Without this, meditation is but the path of confusion.
Possessing it is the uncultivated state of dharmakaya,
TO GAIN CONFIDENCE IN LIBERATION; THAT IS THE THIRD VITAL POINT
This view endowed with three vital points
And the meditation of combinded knowledge and compassion,
Is aided by the general action of the sons of the victorious ones.
Even if the victorious ones of the three times were to confer
They would have no oral instruction superior to this.
The dharmakaya treasure revealer of awareness-display
Discovered this as a treasure from the expanse of knowledge.
It is unlike extracts of earth and stone.
It is the testament of Garab Dorje.
It is the heart of the three lineages,
It is entrusted with secrecy to heart disciples.
It is the profound meaning and words from the heart.
It is words from the heart, the essential meaning.
Do not let the essential meaning fade away.
Do not let the instruction dissipate.
This was the special teaching of Khepa Shri Gyalpo.
(Translation by Tulku Thondrup and Tulku Pema Wangyal)
"Let such instructions never be lost or wasted"