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Archive for November, 2013

When I first arrived at my Zen group Doshin Sensei gave me some tips on sitting.  He suggested that I set my intention first and then go into watching and counting my breath.  That resonated with me because I am a person who has written down my goals and worked to attain them my entire life.

Not long after that we had a wonderful teacher, Dr. Brenda Shoshanna author of Zen and the Art of Falling in Love, come to visit us for a weekend retreat at the Southern Palm Zen Group.  I went and had dokuson (private meeting with a teacher) with her and during the visit we talked about my relationship with my mother.  She gave me some sage advice and told me that when I set my intention I could include my parents in it.

I have three lines that I say when I begin.

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 taught me to do good.  I ask the Buddhas of all directions to light the lamp of dharma for all those on my prayer list named and unnamed and for all those who are groping in the darkness of suffering.

I then go into the silence counting and/or watching my breath and letting the universe take care of the rest.

There is a Zen Koan that goes like this:

One day, Layman Pang and his daughter, Lingzhao, were out selling bamboo baskets.  Coming down off a bridge, the Layman stumbled and fell.  When Lingzhao saw this, she ran to her father’s side and threw herself to the ground.
“What are you doing?” cried the Layman.
“I saw you fall so I’m helping,” replied Lingzhao
“Luckily no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.

Joan Sutherland reflects on this koan in the beautiful book The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women.

Lingzhao’s action obliterates the idea that there is a helper and a helped.  Compassion isn’t a commodity we deliver but a commitment, according to Chan, to help liberate the intimacy already inherent in any situation.  ‘What is most intimate?’ the koan suggests that we ask.  Usually the most intimate response to another’s difficulty begins with the willingness not to flee.  Fleeing can take the form of abandoning the situation, and it can also mean escaping into ‘helping,’ into a whole constellation of ideas about what ought to happen.  Intimacy is being willing to stay and accompany and listen, to be vulnerable and surprised and flexible.  It’s a willingness to fall with someone else, and see what becomes possible when we do (page 294).[1]

So what does this story have to do with thanksgiving?  For me it reminds me of what happened with my mother when I began setting my intention—we became the best of friends and I was given the opportunity to be her caretaker, as she had done for me in my early years.  I give thanks to the universe for bringing me the opportunity to be like Lingzhao and throw myself down beside her and say, “I saw you fall so I’m helping.” And thus it was with my father in his last years as well.  And so I give thanks for my Buddhist teachings which have given me the strength and “willingness not to flee” when others could have and did.

Namaste mom and dad wherever you are…

So I take this opportunity now to give thanks for my teachers, mentors, and friends at the Southern Palm Zen Group, for my dear departed parents, for my friends and family, for the men that I sit with at our prison ministry, and for all of my clients who keep me employed doing what I love to do the very most—teaching.

In gassho, Shokai

ingassho


[1] Caplow, F. and Moon, S. Editors (2013) The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. Wisdom Publications. Somerville: MA

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Once again I will attempt to unwind the mystery of the Heart Sutra the next several sections of the sutra are on the concept of emptiness.

O Shariputra, form is no other than emptiness,
Emptiness no other form;
Form is exactly emptiness,
Emptiness exactly form;
Sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness
are likewise like this.

The sutra above says, “form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.”  Now that’s a brain twister!  How can something be both form and not form, full of something and yet full of nothing?  When I hit my shin on the coffee table that doesn’t feel like it’s full of “nothing” to me! So rather than try to break this idea down intellectually let’s work on using this idea to help us during our sitting and to help us deal with the outer world more effectively and compassionately.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu talks about emptiness in his book Meditations2.  He writes this:

When the Buddha talks about emptiness in the Pali Canon, he does so in two major contexts.  One is this sense of dwelling in emptiness as the mind gets still and the emptiness begins to surround things.  That’s the side of emptiness that’s obviously positive.

You can maintain this spacious sense of dwelling in emptiness and, at the same time, the things that used to bother you, the things that used to weigh you down, become empty, too; empty of self. Because they’re empty, they don’t disturb the emptiness of your awareness. You can live together.  You can live with these things but not be weighed down by them (page 168).[1]

Since I created this reality I can change it at any time and I can create a new reality out of the emptiness that is everything.  I can take the weight out of the fear, negativity, thoughts, actions and the like anytime I want to because if everything is emptiness then I can take those things back to their true nature or emptiness and remove those negative thoughts and emotions that I have attached to them.  I can free myself of them.

I can see this as a glass filled with something, something that may not be healthy for me and in doing so I can empty that glass.  I can pour its contents into the sink or onto the ground and look back into that glass and see nothing.  I can begin to fill it up again, if I so choose, with something healthy more fulfilling for my mind and body.

This may be a very simplistic way of looking at this complex and mind boggling Buddhist idea of emptiness, but what good are the Buddhist teachings if they are not usable, understandable, or helpful in keeping us on this beautiful path of love, compassion, and kindness—none!

Many years ago I read an article in Unity Magazine about a woman whose life had begun with a very difficult and demeaning childhood.  So when anyone asked her about her childhood she told them the awful stories over and over again.  Her current life was filled with hardship and loss and one day she awoke to the idea that we call “emptiness” in her life and realized that even though she could not change the past she could change how she viewed it.  From that day on when someone would ask her about her childhood she would relate the same happy story over and over again of her favorite aunt taking her to the park and what a fabulous time they had.  It took time, but over the next few years she quietly built a new past in her mind and she began to remember small events that were good as she was growing up until she had created a new and loving past in her mind and a glorious new present began to appear.

Her cup was filled with fear, anger, and animosity until she chose to empty it and to begin filling it up with love.  If your cup is filled to the brim already how can you pour more tea into it?  You can’t! First you must empty it to make room for more tea. When sitting open yourself to this “spacious sense of dwelling in emptiness.”  Empty your cup and free yourself, as she did, of those things that are drawing you away from the place your heart most desires to be.  And even though those things are empty too we can see them without giving our power away to them.  How do we do that, keep sitting, and keep looking for the emptiness in all things and watch what happens in your life.

Choose emptiness.

Things to focus on this week:

1.  I will begin seeing the emptiness in all things today.

2.  I will remind myself that doing this can help me create a peaceful life filled with love and compassion for self and others.

3.  I will remember to see the emptiness in things of the past that may have hurt or hindered me and I will watch for the lightness in mind, body, and spirit and see the weight being lifted from me and the emptiness taking its place.

4.  Lastly, I will keep a journal of the opportunities that have been presented to me so I can keep track of my progress and my opportunities for growth.


[1] DeGraff, G. (Thanassaro Bhikkhu. (2006) Meditations2, Dhamma Talks, Metta Forest Monastery, Valley Center: CA.

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Once again I will attempt to unwind the mystery of the Heart Sutra this time lines three and four, “Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions. Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.”  I am again helped by the authors of two wonderful books Living by Vow a Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts written by Shohaku Okumura and Emptiness, Relativity and Quantum Physics by the Dali Lama.  So let’s begin this wonderful adventure!

Okumura writes, “In every moment we must awaken again to the impermanent reality of our lives.  Everything is always changing, and there is no substance.  In Mahayana Buddhism, this is called emptiness (page 136).” [1]

The Buddha said that “nothing is fixed, and there is nothing that doesn’t change.”[2]

The Dali Lama in his book Emptiness, Relativity and Quantum Physics wrote:

Thus, there are no subjects without the objects by which they are defined, there are no objects without subjects to apprehend them, there are no doers without things done.  There is no chair without legs, a seat, a back, wood, nails, the floor on which it rests, the walls that define the room it’s in, the people who constructed it, and the individuals who agree to call it a chair and recognize it as something to sit on.  Not only is the existence of things and events utterly contingent but, according to this principle, their very identities are thoroughly dependent upon others.[3]

And so, I could cut down the legs and cut off the back of the chair, if I so choose, and turn it into a coffee table, and when I no longer needed it for that purpose I could break it up and use it for fire wood, that would turn it into smoke and ash. Then it could be mixed into the garden compost pile and turned into fertilizer to help grow my beautiful tomatoes for the summer salad.

This clearly demonstrates the impermanence of all “things” and thus their intrinsic emptiness. So letting go of my desire to control things, people, and places I relieve myself of misfortune and pain—for their emptiness will appear to me soon enough and I will see the change in them with an open heart and mind.

Okumura goes on to say the following:

We can make a peaceful, stable foundation for our lives.  It’s called nirvana.  It is not a particular state or condition of our minds but rather a way of life based on impermanence and egolessness.  The Buddha taught that there are two different ways of living.  If we are blind to the reality of egolessness and impermanence, our life becomes suffering.  If we waken to this reality and live accordingly, our life becomes nirvana.  This awakening is called Bodhi or enlightenment (page 136).”[4]

Thus nirvana or enlightenment is not a place that you go like sitting on a cloud in heaven in a children’s story book.  It is a place to live today where our ego recognizes that all things change in body: physically; in mind: emotionally; in brain: through learning and creating new synapses; and finally, in my heart: through the wonder of wisdom.

Thus each day I am born anew. And so, I release the old ideas, ways, and limitations and am open and receptive to embrace the miracle and joy of seeing the emptiness of all five conditions and the impermanence in my life so I can be relieved of my misfortune and pain—if not forever, at least for today!

Things to focus on this week:

1.  I will begin seeing the impermanence in all things today.

2.  I will remind myself that doing this can help make a peaceful stable foundation for my life—or nirvana.

3.  I will remember to release the old ideas, ways, and limitations in my life and be open to allow new exciting things to appear.

4.  Lastly, I will keep a journal of the opportunities that have been presented to me so I can keep track of my progress and my opportunities for growth.


[1] Okumura, S (2012) Living by Vow A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Text. Wisdom Publications.: Somerville, MA

[2] Ibid.

[4] Okumura, S (2012) Living by Vow A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Text. Wisdom Publications.: Somerville, MA

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This sutra or scripture is one of the most important sutras in our tradition.  We chant this sutra every Saturday morning in our service.  It is a great chant that focuses on the teachings of Buddhism.  As a beginner it can be very confusing and sometimes mind boggling so in this new series of mine I will attempt to unwind the mystery of the Heart Sutra.   I am helped by the authors of two wonderful books Living by Vow A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Texts written by Shohaku Okumura and The Heart Sutra Translation and Commentary by Red Pine.  So let’s begin this wonderful adventure!

The first four verses are as follows:

 Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva
Doing deep Prajna Paramita,
Clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions,
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain.

Wow, that sounds like a big promise to all of us who take many opportunities to spend a significant portion of our lives focusing on “misfortune and pain.” So these lines are significant they are letting us know that what will be shared in this sutra could help keep us from focusing our attention, time, and energy in that direction.  The majority of the world would like to do this and those who enjoy wallowing in their “misfortune and pain” might just as well stop reading now and move on with their day.

Who is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, Red Pine says in some Sanskrit texts bodhisattva’s name “was translated into Chinese as Kuan-yin, meaning “He/She Who Looks Down Upon Sound (Cries).  . . .For the sound of this bodhisattva’s name has the power to echo through the universe and to make visible all who hear it, recite it, or recollect it.  And as Avalokitesvara becomes aware of them, they are graced by this bodhisattva’s infinite compassion (pages 44- 45).”[1]

Thus, Avalokitesvara has become known for the one who gives compassion to the world, which is a beautiful reason to name this the “Heart Sutra.”  For me all compassion comes from the heart, often times our compassion makes no sense to others.  It is beyond logic, reason, or knowledge, but streams forth from the wisdom of the heart.  As Shohaku Okumura writes, “Prajna means “wisdom.” Wisdom and compassion are the two main aspects of Buddhism and must always go together.  Without wisdom, compassion doesn’t work, and without compassion wisdom has no meaning; it’s not alive (page 134).”[2]

I am sure that everyone reading this has experienced from another or given to someone compassion under the most unique situation, one where others were saying—are you nuts!  Maybe the person did something unthinkable, or incomprehensible, or unkind, or even criminal, but yet you saw in his or her heart goodness beyond the act or the moment and you were overwhelmed with compassion.  That is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva alive in you as you. Although this may not have “completely” relieved the misfortune or pain it may have helped in minimizing its affects, future actions, or negative thoughts and allowed you to maintain compassion for the person or for yourself.

I had a student many years ago that had a most unspeakable crime committed against herself and her person and after much prayer and meditation on forgiveness was able to completely forgive her assailant and move on with her life in a loving and compassionate way to him and all others. That is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva alive and well on planet earth.

As we move through this sutra we will slowly take each section and examine how we can benefit by chanting it and incorporating the teachings into our lives.  Our ultimate goal in Buddhism is “to save all sentient beings.”  To do this we must think and act with compassion and wisdom like Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva today and every day.

I have given you plenty to do and plenty to think about so we will focus on “the emptiness of all five conditions” next time.  See you then!

Things to focus on this week:

1.  I will begin each day like Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva offering compassion to all sentient beings.

2.  I will remind myself that wisdom and compassion must go together.

3.  I will remember that wisdom is not knowledge, wisdom comes from above—it does not reside in the brain.

4.  Lastly, I will keep a journal of the opportunities that have been presented to me so I can keep track of my progress and my opportunities for growth.


[1] Red Pine (2004) The Heart Sutra Translation and Commentary. Counterpoint: Berkeley, CA

[2] Okumura, S (2012) Living by Vow A Practical Introduction to Eight Essential Zen Chants and Text. Wisdom Publications.: Somerville, MA

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