Archive for January, 2013

Each of us on a daily basis encounters pain.  It can be a physical pain such as a backache, toothache, or headache.  Or it can be psychological or emotional pain like situational depression, a broken heart, or anxiety.  How we deal with the pain will determine how long it lasts, the after effect it has, and the influence it has on our life today and in the future.

Charles Fillmore, the co-founder of Unity Church, used to say that “pain was inevitable, but suffering was optional.”  Wow, that sounds simplistic doesn’t it!  But if we do not learn some techniques to work with the painful experiences we have as they appear we will end up suffering and often suffering for an extended period of time. 

Brenda Soshanna in her wonderful book Zen Miracles: Finding peace in an insane world (2002), writes, “In Zen we learn how to feel and accept painful moments, to become larger than our pain.  When we are willing to accept our experience, just as it is, a strange thing happens: it changes into something else.  When we avoid pain, struggle not to feel it, pain turns into suffering (page 15).”

For example if you stub your toe on the leg of the bed in the morning when you are making the bed—man that hurts!  You probably jump up and down on the other foot, hold your toes, and holler out: OUCH! OUCH! OUCH!  If someone is near they may even run in to see if you are okay.  But unless you broke one of the toes within a few minutes the pain seems to dissipate, you begin getting ready for work, and within a short time forget about the incident.

Brenda goes on to say, “There is an enormous difference between pain and suffering.  Pain often cannot be avoided.  Suffering can.  As we learn the difference between them, many fears subside (page 15).”  The pain of hitting your foot on the leg of the bed can be easily avoided.  Tomorrow morning you can put on your shoes or slippers before making the bed, you could be more careful about how you walk around the bed, or where you place your feet when making the bed.  Easy enough! Skip the pain—but make the bed! 

Emotional or psychological pain is not quite as easy to fix and to keep from turning into “suffering.”  Learning how to use meditation and contemplation in your life is one way to keep the pain from moving into suffering.   And even if you get to the suffering meditating or sitting, as we call it in Zen Buddhism, can help shorten the suffering period.  The longer we meditate and the more often we do it our ability to avoid the suffering is increased. And after sometime of practicing this technique what once took you several hours or days to minimize or eliminate the pain/suffering may take only minutes. 

You may be thinking “that’s crazy” when I try to meditate and I have a problem it just runs round and round in my head taking over all the space, thoughts, energy, and time and no matter how hard I try it does not go away so I just end up getting up and I quit trying to meditate or  sit.

Brenda suggests this: “In Zen, we learn how to feel and accept painful moments, to become larger than our pain.  When we are willing to accept our experience, just as it is, a strange thing happens: it changes into something else.  When we avoid pain, struggle not to feel it, pain turns into suffering (page 15).”  So go for it, feel the pain, have what I call a “pity party.”  When I am in emotional pain I allow myself to have no more than a 24 hour “pity party” and then I’m done.

I can have the “pity party” while I’m sitting, doing the dishes, standing in the shower, or making the bed.  “Pity parties” can be done anywhere, anytime.  Then get over it.

Then take the time to do what Brenda says, “We are not using others, ourselves, or the goods the world provides to ‘make’ our lives right.  As we sit, we see how our lives are already right. And we say thank you (page 34).”

Mumon’s Verse may help you as well:

The spring flowers, the autumn moon;

Summer breezes, winter snow.

If useless things do not clutter your mind,

You have the best days of your life.


So the next time you feel the pain you can avoid the suffering altogether, remember Charles said it was optional, or you can do like I do have your “pity party” and then sit with the pain/suffering for a while and let it have its own “pity party.”  Then be done with it.  Remember that your life is already right, and so are you, say thank you and get on with your life!  Let me know how it works out! The best days of your life are coming…

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I have been invited to study to become a monk in my Buddhist tradition and began wondering about the roles that women have played throughout the years.  I went to the library and found a beautiful book by Sandy Boucher, Opening the Lotus: A Woman’s Guide to Buddhism. It is filled with great tips to help with your practice and wonderful information about the history of women in Buddhism where I was introduced to the Therigatha sutras (poems). The tips and practices shared here although written for and about women, of course, can be practiced by men as well.

I searched the internet for a few minutes and found the Therigatha sutras translated there.  I began to review the topics and ideas that these nuns wrote about during the time of the Buddha. I was especially intrigued by the title and the closing line of this one.

Dantika & the Elephant

Coming out from my day’s abiding
on Vulture Peak Mountain,
I saw on the bank of a river
an elephant
emerged from its plunge.

A man holding a hook requested:
“Give me your foot.”
The elephant
extended its foot.
The man
got up on the elephant.

Seeing what was untrained now tamed
brought under human control,
with that I centered my mind —
why I’d gone to the woods
in the first place.

Although I may be petite in size my mind, for all of my life, has been much “untrained” until I began to study the principles of metaphysics through the Unity Church and found the great benefits of meditation and contemplation.  When I started my seminary to train independent Unity ministers and teachers I wanted to include a course in the curriculum on world religions and in writing that curriculum and reviewing textbooks for the course I discovered that there were many similarities between Buddhism and the teachings and writings of Unity. Serendipity led me to the South Florida Zen Group and my new life and studies as I move from an independent Unity minister toward ordination as a Zen monk.

Yet, after several years sitting and studying Buddhism I find my thoughts can still be those of fear, anxiety, criticism and the like and they overtake my life as huge as an elephant—for sure!  So the analogy was not lost on me as I read and re-read this sutra.  I especially enjoyed the last verse, it freed me from my anxiety over the intrusion that these thoughts have had on me during the day, week, or month.  It allowed me to see that the time that I spend in meditation (sitting as we call it in Buddhism) and the time I have spent in the past in meditation and contemplation have not been in vain.

Each time I sit I am like the elephant taking a “plunge” in a river of calm and cleansing with a hand reaching out to me to help me move from confusion or fear to peace and compassion.  I am like the nun who wrote the sutra who realized that her walks in the woods were a way of cleansing her mind, body, and spirit of its human pains and sufferings and that allowed her to move into a world of a centered mind—one with all there is.

And in the sutra “Uttama” the woman ends her verse thus:

For seven days I sat in one spot,
absorbed in rapture & bliss.
On the eighth, I stretched out my legs,
having burst the mass
of darkness.

If you would like to tame the mind, burst the mass of darkness, or simply live a more peaceful and compassionate life I recommend sitting.  If you desire to be more focused at work, have improved relationships at work and at home, and to have a healthy body, mind, and spirit in all ways take the advice of the nuns who penned the Therigatha poems.  If they could do it in a time where there was no dishwasher, car, train, or bus, computer, washing machine, or epidural block during delivery you can too!

Many of you reading this blog already sit either by yourself or with a group and how wonderful is that! For those who do not have either  I recommend that you find a group near where you live, if there isn’t one, you can sit by yourself  as often and as long as you can.  You can find hundreds of Buddhist websites and links for readings, information, and tips. You can find groups, teachers, and individuals like you sitting, searching, and finding a simple way to tame the elephant in their minds.  It is a lifelong adventure that will transform your life.  I recommend it highly and I hope you will join me in this great and joyous adventure today.

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As I study the great Zen patriarchs and I come to Huineng I am reminded on this National day of Remembrance another great man who not only said but lived this question: Martin Luther King, Jr.  When Dr. King experienced discrimination in this life he set out to do the things he could do to eliminate it—not just in his life but in the lives of all Americans.  And then there was the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Huineng, who was poor and illiterate and one day as he was delivering wood to a home he heard the words of the “Diamond Sutra” and it is said, “his mind cleared and he understood.”  That led him to seek a teacher.

Janet Jiryu Abels in her book Making Zen your Own (2012) writes this about Huineng’s journey to find his teacher.

“So it was that after what must have been an arduous journey, this poor, insignificant, illiterate, twenty-four-year-old man of lowly birth found himself before Master Hongren himself.  Here is their exchange in an abridged version:

‘Where are you from?  What are you looking for?’

‘I come from the south.   I wish to be a Buddha.’

‘If you come from the south, you must be a barbarian.  How can you be a Buddha?’

‘People may be southerners or northerners, but in Buddha nature there can be no south or north.  I may be a barbarian but what difference is there in our Buddha nature?’

Indeed, what difference?  It is a question to ask ourselves of all whom we meet.  What difference is there in our common essentialness (page 23-24)?”

This is the ancient question that Dr. King grappled with each and every day.  Although he was born into a family of educated parents and was taught to read by his mother, who was a teacher, before he entered school, he too wanted to know why things were not open to him and others of color like him.  He wanted everyone to know that there was “no difference” in their “common essentialness” so much so that he was willing to give up his life for his mission.

I am sure that he, like Huineng, had been called a “barbarian” and worse in his life time, but it did not stop either of them from seeing the truth about themselves and all others.  All men and women are created equal and deserve such equal treatment in the law and everywhere.

Jiryu writes, “Let us leave the sixth patriarch as he gives his last talk before his death:  . . . ‘This is the great way.  After I die, just go on practicing as before, as though I were still here.  If you go against this teaching it is as though my life here as abbot were meaningless.  And so Huineng died.’  The year was 713.  He was seventy-five years old. Today, because of him we can each say to ourselves: ‘I seek the great teaching.  Why should I stop halfway (page 32-33)?’

Dr. King did not stop half way either he gave his life for freedom and justice for all people regardless of their birth, low or high, literate or illiterate, rich or poor, black or white.  He once said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”[1]  Today we follow in his footsteps as we continue to work for freedom and justice for all, and as we follow in the footsteps of Huineng and live a life where there is “no difference” in our “common essentialness.”

We too can make a difference in the world in which we live. Today is a very special day to continue on our current path or begin anew.  Not only is it the day we celebrate the life of Dr. King it is the second inauguration day for the first black president ever elected in the United States of America—a feat that could not have been won without the life and mission of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Through the example of these great men’s teachings and lives we too can help transform the world around us.  So why should we stop halfway—Huineng, Dr. King, and President Obama did not and neither should we.

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In The Dhammapada as translated by Irving Babbitt (1936) he writes, “Difficult is it to obtain birth as a human being, difficult is the life of mortals, difficult is the hearing of the true Law, difficult is the rise of the Buddhas (page 30).”  When I read that a little light went on in my brain and I just sat quietly for a few minutes reading and reading over and over again this small yet powerful phrase.

It has been many years since I thought about this concept.  We used to say that in another way in Unity.  We would let our students know how hard it was for that one tiny sperm out of the huge number (20 to 100 million of them) that went swimming up the fallopian tubes to meet with the egg and create you.  What were those chances—one in a hundred million?!  That surely makes everyone on this planet extra special and as hard as it was for the sperm to fight gravity and rush up that tube toward the egg—it is just as hard a life for many of you.

Each of us has had to swim upstream against the current at times whether it was as a child who may have been bullied or did not do well in school, or had to move from place to place because of the parent ‘s jobs or financial difficulties.  As adults we often find ourselves in many of those same predicaments, but now as the adult we are supposed to solve the problems and create a safe, healthy, and prosperous life for ourselves and our families.

These words by Zeami may be a little solace for you.

Ten thousand fold are the roads on which we pass through life

Our eyes are caught by many things

Darkness and light come and go

Far over the mountains we walked

Clouds are hiding our traces

The path that we traveled we no longer know.

Zeami (1363-1443)

It is not the difficulties in life I’m worried about, but how I handle those difficulties as I travel the ten thousand roads.  How I handle them is what has created my life and my character. Those thoughts, actions, and desires empower, help, or hinder me and affect those who are in my life, from family, to friends, to co-workers.  They even affect total strangers who may encounter me on this road of life. Those thoughts cause me to suffer greatly or to be filled with joy and peace.

Babbitt continues to translate The Dhammapada and offers us a path to relieve our suffering, “Suffering, the origin of suffering, the destruction of suffering, and the eightfold noble path that leads to the release from suffering. That is the safe refuge, that is the best refuge; having gone to that refuge, a man is delivered from all suffering (page 31).”  As I have written before the Buddha did say that there would always be suffering in the world.  So that being true, how can we deal with it so that it does not take us over and destroy our lives?

Practice the eight fold path as it says in the Dhammapada.  Try taking one of the things each week and working on it until you see some relief and lightening up in your life.  Even if the light only appears for a minute it is better to spend that minute in the light than in the darkness and sorrow.

The Eightfold Path: Teaching of Siddhartha Gautama the Buddha

  1. Know the truth.
  2. Say nothing to hurt others.
  3. Practice meditation.
  4. Control your thoughts.
  5. Resist evil.
  6. Free your mind of evil.
  7. Work for the good of others.
  8. Respect life.

With this simple weekly practice soon you will no longer know that old path that you had traveled, but a new one will have taken its place and you will be born anew.

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This month in our Zen study group we are learning about Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch after Shakyamuni Buddha in the Indian lineage and the first Chinese patriarch of Zen.  He is well known for many things and is to have said many brilliant and mind boggling things as well.  He believed in teaching without words and is quoted as saying, “The ultimate Truth is beyond words.  Doctrines are words.  They’re not the Way.”  Last night as I was leading the lesson on Bodhidharma I realized that his life was just this: learning by doing, not by studying!

Most of our religions today are based around reading, memorizing, studying, and talking, but very little of it is based upon “doing”!  Jesus was a doer he took his Judaism seriously and went out and did the work, healed the sick, fed the hungry, stopped the stoning of the adulterous, and more.  The Buddha discovered the truth through practice (sitting) and expected his followers to practice compassion, love, and hope with all people (doing)—rich and poor alike. Bodhidharma is to have spent six years sitting in a cave facing a wall—simply sitting.

He was not reading books, philosophizing or talking, his life was “doing.”  What have you been doing with your life lately?  Is it just the chores, to-do lists, and projects at work or school that are the focus in your life?  Are you preaching the 10 commandments to others, but not living them yourself.  Doing. . . that is hard!  Talking. . . that is easy!  Living your truth as Bodhidharma and Jesus did—that was hard.

It is said that Bodhidharma took two years to travel from India to China to share his Truth about Buddhism.  Now in the years around 470-543 ca, when it is believed he lived, that was NOT an easy trip.  There were no jumbo jets, no high speed rail, and no paved 6 lane highways.  But that did not deter him; he was determined to do whatever it took to spread the dream of freedom and enlightenment that comes through the simple act of “sitting.”

He was not belying the fact that he learned about Buddhism through words such as the sutras, but he learned that in his brain, enlightenment came through the experience of sitting with those words or with no words, simply sitting.  The Truth is we need not depend on words, nor do we need to throw the books in the trash, neither do we need to take the words as the “one and only” path to enlightenment as many religions profess today. 

The best answer to this conundrum is the words of a student to Bodhidharma’s question to determine their state or “non-state” of realization, “The first disciple he questioned answered, ‘The way I understand it, if we want to realize the truth we should neither depend, entirely on words nor entirely do away with words; rather we should use them as a tool on the way.”  Bodhidharma answered him, ‘You have grasped my skin.’”[1]

Do not be the preacher or teacher who spouts words of goodness and love and then follows that with words of prejudice, hatred, fear, and lies about those unlike them.  Each of us must recognize the ultimate Truth is beyond words.  It is exemplified fully in our deeds: What deeds toward enlightenment, love, and compassion have you done today?

[1] Page 24, The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen,1991

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“The sacred dimension is not something that you can know through words and ideas any more than you can learn what an apple pie tastes like by eating the recipe. (pg. 25)” writes Adyashanti in his e-book The Way of Liberation: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.  Yet we continue to look for the answer to this question throughout our lives partaking in religious services in all faiths and traditions, in reading books, taking workshops and classes, and reading blogs like mine.  We ponder questions like:  Why am I here? What is life all about? Is there a God?  What is enlightenment?  Why are there wars?   .  .  .and more!

Adyashanti goes on to write, “The modern age has forgotten that facts and information, for all their usefulness, are not the same as wisdom—and certainly not the same as direct experience of reality.  We have lost touch with the intuitive wisdom born of silence and stillness, and we are left stranded in a sea of information that cannot deliver on its promise of ever-increasing happiness and fulfillment (pages 30-31).”

Wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge and much of the “knowledge” we share and seek, and create  is found through books, websites, YouTube, lectures, workshops, famous speakers, preachers, rabbis, and imams, and not through personal experience, inquiry, meditation, contemplation, or inner discovery.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a college professor and so I love all of those things and suggest that my students use them during their studies and courses, but I do not consider the results acquired “wisdom.”

In the Bible we call the book of Proverbs the Wisdom book its purpose is stated in the first seven verses:

“Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline, to help them understand the insights of the wise.  Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives, to help them do what is right, just, and fair.  These proverbs will give insight to the simple, knowledge, and discernment to the young.  Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become wiser.  Let those with understanding receive guidance by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables the words of the wise and their riddles.”

Notice the words do not say anything about facts and information, but wisdom gives “insight to knowledge.”  Maybe that is the problem with our lives and our world.  We are relying upon knowledge instead of wisdom and insight and therefore screwing everything up—our environment, our government, our educational system, our healthcare system, our drone wars, our obesity dilemma, and our neglect of the poor, hungry, and homeless around the world.

Adyashanti goes on to write, “. . . you are not the thoughts in your mind.  By removing the false belief that any thought can tell you what you are, you make space for a deeper understanding to reveal itself (page 29).” That “deeper understanding” is wisdom.   So how do we get to that “deeper understanding” or wisdom?  He suggests and so do I: meditation or sitting as we call it in Zen Buddhism.  Some of you may be thinking I’ve tried it and it didn’t work.  I did it once some years back and nothing happened.  Others may be thinking, “I don’t have the time in my busy schedule to take a leak no less meditate!”  Others may be thinking, “I have ADHD—meditate—you must be nuts!”

Adyashanti says, “Meditation is more a form of silent prayer than a technique to master.  . . . it is the highest form of prayer, a naked act of love and effortless surrender into silent abyss beyond all knowing.  Meditation is the art of ‘allowing everything to simply be’ in the deepest possible way. (pages 20-21).”

When you do this for one minute or one hour or one day or one year without any expectation of knowledge or wisdom, or peace and love, you will find the taste of apple pie to be something like nothing you have ever tasted before.  The apples are crisper and tarter and sweeter, the cinnamon and sugar is just right, the crust is light and flakey, and all is right with the world.

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