Archive for April, 2013

I am so excited to begin writing about “The Three Pure Precepts” they are simple yet powerful maxims to live by.  Robert Aitken in his book The Mind of Clover (1984) writes, “In Mahayana Buddhism, these lines underwent change reflecting a shift from the ideal of personal perfection to the ideal of oneness with all beings.  The last line was dropped, and the third rewritten:

 [Zen Buddhism-Dhammapada]

Renounce all evil;

Practice all good;

Keep your mind pure—

thus all the Buddhas taught.

                [Mahayana Buddhism]

Renounce all evil;

Practice all good;

                Save the many beings (page 4).”

I’ll begin with the first verse.  For each of us the word “evil” will mean something different.  For some our religious beliefs say that consuming alcohol is evil and that a person who loves someone of the same sex is evil.  Thus, is the conundrum: How do I define the word for myself and for others? How do I know it when I see it?  How can I stop it when it is coming from and through me?

For some things the word “evil” is a little too strong and that may allow us to be rude, or critical, or thoughtless and still “believe” that we are upholding the Pure Precept of “renouncing all evil.” This happens because many times we are only willing to see it when it is coming from others but not from ourselves.  For sure, evil is in the eye of the receiver.  If you were the receiver of these words or actions how would you feel? What would you do?  Since we are working toward being “one with all others” I imagine it might be very painful. If you are practicing mindfulness you will pause and listen to your thoughts and observe your behavior and then you can make the judgment as to whether or not these words or actions directed at the “other” might be considered “evil.”  Being mindful gives you the opportunity to choose to either continue or to stop.

 Another great way to “renounce all evil” is to practice the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When I read this in a Dharma talk by Roshi James Ismael[1] it rang a bell for me and I thought, “What a great idea!” If I include this maxim in my life it will help me to pause when I think evil thoughts or are contemplating evil deeds.  In that moment of pause I will be able to reflect upon my next words or actions and choose to renounce them and take a different path. If I start each morning with my mind set on being one with all sentient beings I would be kinder and gentler.  Doing this just may help me be less critical at home or at work with myself and others.

To save the many beings may mean saving them from you with your negativity in behavior and thinking.  It also may mean saving you from your own negative thinking and recriminations.  This too is a part of the violation of the vow that we take to “renounce all evil” evil to self and others!

So this week our task is to begin working on The Three Pure Precepts beginning with #1.

Things to focus on this week:

1.       Set your intention each morning to practice the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”  live a life where being one with all others is reflected in your thoughts, words, and actions.

2.       Define the word “evil” for yourself.

3.       Be mindful throughout the day and listen to your thoughts and observe your behavior then determine if those words or actions directed at the “other” or at “yourself” might be considered “evil.”

4.       Finally, keep a journal on this precept and make note of how learning to “renounce all evil” in thoughts, words, and actions is affecting your life.

[1] Reflections on the Three Pure Precepts
A Dharma talk by Roshi James Ishmael Ford, 3 June 2002
Henry Thoreau Sangha, Boundless Way Zen

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So far we have talked about the first two refuges (Buddha and Dharma/teachings) and today we will be working on the third: the Sangha.  Robert Aitken in his book The Mind of Clover (1984) says this, “Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha can be understood here to mean realization, truth, and harmony (page 4).” This is achieved through the harmony of the Buddha and the Dharma which is accomplished through the fellowship that comes with being a part of a group practicing, sitting, and working on the teachings (Dharma) of Shakyamuni Buddha.

I love what it says in the book Soto Zen an Introduction to Zazen (2002):

Each of us needs to make personal vows based on our talents and abilities.  We don’t need to be a Buddhist priest. We don’t even need to be zazen practitioners.  Whether we are schoolteachers, lawyers, farmers, or mechanics—through our work and through our family life, we can find a wholesome way to benefit all living beings.  Through our activities we can make this world a healthier place.  I believe that this is our practice as bodhisattvas in the modern age.  There is no secret method to resolve all the problems we face, but each of us can take vows, practice repentance, and continue to make our own small but steady efforts.  And I believe that in order to live this way, zazen practice, as taught by Dogen Zenji, is a great help (page 15).

So where do we learn Dogen Zenji zazen (meditation) practice?  First, check the internet to see if there is a Buddhist group in your area.  If not, you can sit with people online at various websites.  You can read, listen to lectures, and find Buddhist chants on line as well.  So you can sit and learn all by yourself. Then one day you may even invite a friend to sit with you if there is no community near where you live.  Start your own small group where you can encourage and support each other.   It will help to be mindful of the time spent in sitting and reading and making notes of your progress.

If you are able to go away for a day or a week you can find many opportunities to study and learn at some of the most beautiful and wonderful Zen centers right here in the United States.  One of my very favorites, beyond my home group, is the Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, NY.  They have ongoing programs all year long and you can find information about them at their website www.mro.org.  Your local groups may have opportunities to sit for a half day (zazenkai) or a, full day and sometimes even 3 to 10 days.

We even have groups that sit in the prisons around the country.  I am a small part of our prison ministry team where we go twice a month to sit with our men and women who are incarcerated.  There are several hundred sitting in the Florida prisons all around the state.  I know that if you want to become a part of a community of people using zazen meditation you can find the tools and groups in so many places, if you just look.

Open your mind to the possibilities!  They will appear before you know it.  Having support from people of like mind is very helpful.  It is especially helpful when you think you’re sitting is not going right, or it is too hard, or too time consuming, or too frustrating.  Having that family/community of people to talk with is so helpful.  Why, because they have had or currently have all the questions, challenges, and problems that you are experiencing and will be glad to walk through them with you.  Help is on the way when you join a Sangha, you’ll be glad you did.

Things to focus on this week:

  1.  I will begin each day with the intention of finding an opportunity to sit in meditation either with a Sangha or on my own.
  2. I will look for information on the teachings locally, on the internet, and through friends when I need help. Finding a Zen teacher/Sangha is a great step toward learning and growing.
  3. Next, I will keep the self-recriminations to a minimum and know that even the Buddha took a long time to find his truth and enlightenment.

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The Dharma means “the teachings” in Zen Buddhism.  When we begin to practice Buddhism we are asked to take refuge in the teachings of the Buddha.  His teachings are practical and positive and they can make a tremendous difference in your life if you put them to use.

The Dharma is filled with great ideas much like the 10 commandments from the Old Testament such as do not kill and do not steal.  Plus additional ideas such as do not speak of the faults of others and do not cloud the mind. Living by these types of teachings can make your life full of love, peace, joy, and positive relationships.  Along with that we have the Three Pure Precepts or the Bodhisattva vows to not create evil, to practice good, and to actualize good for others. If we just took one of these ideas and worked on it for a week or a month imagine how our lives could be transformed.

Norman Fischer talks about making practice your whole life in his new book Training in Compassion Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (2013).

. . . we discover that our practice (and our life) isn’t about—and has never been about—ourselves.   As long as spiritual practice (and life) remains only about you, it is painful.  Of course, your practice does begin with you.  It begins with self-concern.  You take up practice out of some need or some desire or pain.  But the very self-concern pushes you beyond self-concern. Zen master Dogen writes, ‘To study Buddhism is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self.’  When you study yourself thoroughly, this is what happens: you forget yourself, because the closer you get to yourself, the closer you get to life and to the unspeakable depth that is life, the more a feeling of love and concern for others naturally arises in you.  To be self-obsessed is painful.  To love others is happy (page 65-66).

So our plan for life is one which includes practicing each and every day.  For me it is sitting (Zazen) every morning from 4:15-5:00 a.m.  I begin my sitting by setting my intention.  You can create your own intention, of course, but mine goes like this: I sit in order to save the planet and all sentient beings. I sit in honor of my mother and father who gave me life and the desire to do good.  This sets the tone for my sitting in the quiet and keeping that noisy “monkey mind” at bay with love and compassion.  I often listen to a CD by the wonderful Vietnamese monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hahn, where I meditate to the sound of the bell.  It really helps me keep focused on my breath and helps to keep the “monkeys” quiet.

For me this time sets the tone for the day.  It helps me focus on my intention throughout the day and to accept any opportunity that comes my way to help save the planet and all others.  It can be as simple as giving a ride to the elderly man who works in Walgreens and walks to work each day, or to the neighbor who missed her bus when on the way to an event at the clubhouse.  It reminds me to recycle my garbage, to shut the water off while brushing my teeth, to turn off the lights and fans when I leave the room, and not to idle my car while I am in the drive-in line at the bank.  Simple things like this sound crazy and even insignificant, but if everyone did simple things like this what a more compassionate and loving world we would live in.

When we take refuge in the Dharma we begin teaching through our behavior.  Our family members, co-workers, and friends will notice the difference in no time.  They may even begin to ask you what you are doing.  They may comment about how happy, peaceful, or calm you seem these days.  They will notice that you are enjoying life more and more and losing your temper less and less.  If this is what you would like to see happen in your life then I hope you will take up the 2nd refuge and spend time with the Dharma (teachings).

Start with something simple and work your way up to the hard stuff!

Things to focus on this week:

  1.  I will begin each day with the intention of finding an opportunity to use what I am learning through the Dharma (teachings) in the “real world.”
  2. I will look for information on the teachings locally, on the internet, and through friends when I need help. Finding a Zen teacher/group is a great step toward learning and growing.
  3. Next, I will keep the self-recriminations to a minimum and know that even the Buddha took a long time to find his truth and enlightenment.


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For those of you who have been following my blog on the 10 Paramitas I hope you will enjoy the next series of blog posts on the 16 Buddhist Precepts: Three Refuges, the Three Pure Precepts, and eventually the Ten Grave Precepts.  Each post will give you the opportunity to learn about the precept and then I hope you will take some time to focus, sit, and practice each one.  It may take you many months, but the adventure will be worthwhile.  It can help you get through the daily challenges and misfortunes of life with some ease and peace and it can help you help others to make this a better more compassionate place in which to live.

For those who have not studied Buddhism and may come from a different spiritual or religious background just knowing that someone is asking you to take refuge in the Buddha may be a little “off putting” as some might say.  But if we understand what students and followers of Buddhism think about the man Siddhartha Gautama you will see how you too can use this refuge in a positive life affirming way.

The Buddha is not someone like Jesus Christ who is worshiped and venerated as though he was the one and only son of God at the top of the hierarchy or in a trinity with God.  Siddhartha was a man who spent the early part of his life searching for the meaning of life and the causes of its inherent suffering. In the process he walked down many different paths looking for the answer.  Exactly like many of you are doing today.  Then one day he decided he was just going to sit in silence as long as it took and it worked.  Some say he sat under the Bodhi tree for 49 days where he finally attained enlightenment.  He was then given the name Buddha which means an “awakened one.”

How odd that all he got was the title “awakened one” yet how wonderful indeed!  Because guess what that means—I can be a Buddha and you can be a Buddha if we take our pursuit seriously.  From that time forward his followers began looking to have the same experience he did and they practiced sitting (Zazen) in the hopes of becoming enlightened. But they did more than just sit—they walked through life using the principles he taught and they soon discovered that when they did this they found their lives filled with peace, love, joy, and compassion and some even found enlightenment.

Norman Fisher in his book Training in Compassion Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong (2013) writes this in his introduction.

Compassion and resilience are not, as we might imagine, rarified human qualities available only to the saintly. Nor are they adventitious experiences that arise in us only in extraordinary circumstances.  In fact, these essential and universally prized human qualities can be solidly cultivated by anyone willing to take the time to do it.  They can become the way we are and live on a daily basis.  We can train our minds.  We are not stuck with our fearful, habitual, self-centered ways of seeing and feeling (page x).

Therefore, if you would like to see your life emptied of fear, negative habits, and self-centeredness I hope you will take some time to focus on becoming the Buddha.  You may not make it in this life, but there is no harm in trying—in fact, only good can come from it.  So let’s begin today!

Start by taking refuge in the Buddha, the “awakened one” and watch what happens.  It just could be the transformation you have been seeking.

Things to focus on this week:

  1.  I will begin each day with the intention of finding an opportunity to share compassion with at least one person: self, stranger, family member, or friend.
  2. When I feel a negative emotion I will ask myself, “What would the Buddha do?”
  3. Next, I will express compassion and caring for myself and for all others involved.

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What the heck is equanimity anyway?  Dictionary.com defines equanimity as mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain; calmness; equilibrium.  Wow, why didn’t they just say so?  Everyone would love to have more equanimity in his or her life that’s for sure.  What a wonderful day we would have if we were calm, composed, and emotionally stable throughout the day!  That, unfortunately, rarely occurs.

Most of us live our lives on a roller coaster moving up and down the emotional range from depressed to manic, from happy to euphoric, from bored to frantic.  What’s that all about? The Bhagavad Gita says, “Perform all thy actions with mind concentrated on the Divine, renouncing attachment and looking upon success and failure with an equal eye. Spirituality implies equanimity. [Trans. Purohit Swami]” That’s what it’s all about.

So how do we take this life of ups and downs, highs and lows, and turn our focus from the emotions to the Divine to spirituality to equanimity—meditation, contemplation, and sitting are ways that we can train the mind and body to stay “cool” as Allan Lokos writes, “A modern definition of equanimity: cool.  This refers to one whose mind remains stable and calm in all situations (Lokos, Pocket Peace).  I would love to be able to keep my mind stable and calm regardless of the situation I am in.  How about you?

Jean-Yves Leloup in his book  Compassion and Meditation: The Spiritual Dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity writes, “The meditative mind sees disagreeable or agreeable things with equanimity, patience, and good-will. Transcendent knowledge is seeing reality in utter simplicity. (146)”   So now is the time to begin a regular practice of meditation/sitting.  We used to say in Unity that prayer is talking to God and meditation is shutting up long enough to “listen” to God.  Sitting in the quiet and simply watching your breath or counting is an opportunity to create equanimity in your mind, body, and spirit and create a life of peace, patience, and good will.

That’s easy enough when your life is going along smoothly, but it is not so easy when your life is filled with challenges, problems, and fears.  There is one caveat though about having a regular meditation program in your life, it builds up inside of you like snow on the Colorado Rockies in winter.  Each day you sit or meditate some internal peace appears and helps you stay calm and collected for a particular length of time.  The next day you will discover that the time of peace and calmness increases and that increase is directly related to the time spent in the quite. Exactly like the depth of the snow in the Rockies.

If you have ever walked through the forest after a recent snow fall the quiet is incredible.  The peace and beauty is mind boggling.  The monkey mind quickly calms, the blood pressure goes down, and you are filled with the beauty of the moment and those anxious or fearful thoughts seem to have disappeared.  Equanimity has replaced them.

You are probably thinking, “Oh, that’s easy to do in that situation, but not in my life, rushing to work through traffic jams, deadlines imposed on me from higher ups, children with the flu, financial problems, college loan debts, and more!  In my life equanimity is impossible.”  It may not be easy, but nothing is impossible.  We got to the moon then Mars.  We found a cure for small pox and polio and many other diseases that masses of people died from in the past.  Someone believed that it could be done and they did it.

One of my favorite poems is by Edgar A. Guest: “It Couldn’t Be Done.”

Somebody said that it couldn't be done,
  But he with a chuckle replied
That "maybe it couldn't," but he would be one
  Who wouldn't say so till he'd tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
  On his face.  If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
  That couldn't be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: "Oh, you'll never do that;
  At least no one ever has done it";
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
  And the first thing we knew he'd begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
  Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
  That couldn't be done, and he did it.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
  There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you, one by one,
  The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
  Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
  That "cannot be done," and you'll do it.

Our plan for this week is to read and live our life like the man that Edgar Guest described in his poem.  Why not? Just think: if you start to sing as you tackle the thing that could not be done you can do it! Simply do it with equanimity!

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