Posts Tagged ‘Bodhidharma’

My special friend, Dr. Davele Bursor, and I went on Sunday to the beautiful Center for Spiritual Living (formerly Science of Mind Church) in Boca Raton and when I opened the bulletin they had a little prayer card in there with this affirmation on it: Today I use kindness plentifully in every thought, act, and circumstance.

Yet, when I got home and turned on the TV there was very little kindness being projected toward people of all political persuasions, religions, ethnic groups, and professions.  It seems that we’ve forgotten the basic ideas of what it takes to make a country livable, one that will grow and prosper and be a safe place in which to grow up, raise our children, and live a happy, healthy, peaceful, and successful life.

Civility has left the discourse and simple religious and spiritual principles have gone out the window. There are “Dragons in the Trees” as one of our Zen members, Lawrence Janssen, writes in his book of poetry Zen Paradox: No Knowing.

Mara the prince of darkness
Exuberantly dances from cloud to cloud
Dragons silently wait in withered trees
No howls of approval or broken rice bowlsbridgewood-white-tree-flower.b
Only swords readied for an execution
Nobel truth twisted and distorted
With cunning argumentation
We witness the ritual of self immolation
As vultures circle endlessly
Overwhelmed by shame and guilt
The teacher raises a flower in hope
The compassionate words and nurturing spirit
Of Bodhidharma echo in the land (page 23)![1]

Too few voices “echo in the land” for kindness for our brothers and sisters around the world—so let us be the voice of reason, of love, and of kindness during this troubling time.  Begin by being kind to yourself.  Then move that energy out into your family, friends, co-workers, and strangers.  Be the voice of reason; raise the flower of hope with your compassionate words as Larry encourages us to do!

Let’s do it! You’ll meet your good today when you help others meet theirs!

In gassho,


[1] Janssen, L.I. (2013) Zen Paradox: No Knowing. Xlibris.com

2 http://listeningwiththeeye.squarespace.com/galleries/bridgewood-white-tree-flower




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Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious.  In the realm of the flawless Dharma, not expounding upon error is called the Precept of Not Speaking of Faults of Others (page 65).”[1]  This for me is one of the hardest things to overcome.  It seems like I have been working on this one forever, but I know it has not actually been forever.  In Robert Aitken’s book The Mind of Clover he talks about the difference between fault finding and simply recognizing basic information that is “free of any moral judgment.” He gives an example of the “silent mind” identifying and saying “She has an awful temper.”  As if you might be saying, “Her hair is brown.”  He goes on to write, “On the other hand, fault-finding, discussing the faults of others—these are acts of rejection.  The difference is one of attitude (page 66).”[2]

He also relates it to Dogen Zenji saying “Don’t permit haphazard talk.”  I have found recently that I am much better at catching myself as the words come into my mind and then stopping them from coming out the other end.  I am embarrassed to say that sometimes I just feel like gossiping and knowingly say them anyway.  Thankfully that is becoming rarer each and every day and I am now down to about once every other day actually letting them escape from my lips.

It could be that I have a giant note in all caps taped to my desk lamp that says “DO NOT SPEAK OF THE FAULTS OF OTHERS!  It’s like my mother scolding me day in and day out to “be nice.”  But it seems to be working so that even when I am not at my desk I can see that sign in my mind’s eye and hear the voice of mother!  What a combination—enough to scare anyone into a new habit or way of thinking or behaving.

If we add this to our Buddhist way of living with all things in a compassionate, kind, and loving way we will not be able to speak about the faults of others.  If we are working toward self-liberation we will take the time to go within and discover what is holding us back from being that loving compassionate being in this very moment.  Is it my fear of rejection, my memories of being raised by a critical parent, or being taught by a critical teacher?  Are these memories and habits blocking me from living and expressing myself as a bodhisattva would?

Take a look at your life at home, at work, and at play.  Is the environment a pleasant place to be—one that you are excited to go to? Or is it an unpleasant situation that brings criticism, fear, judgments and the like out in you? Do you then end up directing that negativity toward others?  Whose responsibility is it anyway to make your life full and rewarding?  Whose responsibility is it to make the Sangha, the work place, and the home a compassionate, supportive, safe, and fun place to be?

Aitkin goes on to say, “In fact, realization of Buddha-nature is not possible alone, and not possible unless one is open to nurturing (page 68).”[3]  Even Thoreau found his reclusive life at Walden Pond an opportunity to be kind to the animals, the trees, and the far away neighbors or towns people for he enjoyed them as much as they enjoyed him.  But for most of us we do not live in the middle of the woods without electricity, flush toilets, cell phones, or the internet! We live in a community filled with people and things. For this community to be a better one—it must begin with me.

Today I will remind myself to not speak of the faults of others.  To observe my words as I think them and then ask myself what kind of “attitude” would be indicated if I spoke them. If they were not generated from within as compassionate words focused on the “other” with selflessness—then I need to be silent.  I need to let them slip away out into the ethers of nothingness and begin again–this time with kindness, love, and compassion.   This allows the person to see something that they may need to address and be willing to fix it. Now they go away feeling good about their relationship with me and thinking about how I shared with them in a loving, caring way.  This is the way to live the life of a bodhisattva.

Things to focus on this week:

  •  Step one: Begin by deciding how you will reign in those gossip filled hurtful thoughts and words.
  • Step two: Set your intention to do so before the thoughts even get a change to slip out of your mouth.
  • Step three: Remember to be mindful of your thoughts that will help you in identifying the ones that should not be shared and the ones that should.
  • Step four: Finally, keep a journal on the precept and make note of how learning to embody truth in all its aspects thoughts, words, and actions is affecting your life. Good luck with that!

[1] Aitken, R. 1984.  The Mind of Clover Essays in Zen Buddhist Ethics. North Point Press:NY

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.


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What is the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie?  For some this may be difficult to discern because lying has become such a staple in their lives that they cannot tell the difference between it and the truth.  A friend of mine used to say “the truth would have served her better.”  But alas, the truth was not told.

Dictionary.com defines it thus: “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.” We have even divided up our lies into categories and given them different names.  Let’s say we’ve got the following list:

  • white lies
  • outright lies
  • bold-faced lies
  • deceitful lies
  • malicious lies
  • exaggerations
  • deceptions
  • plagiarism
  • the beneficial lies

The last on the list is written about in Reb Anderson’s book Being Upright Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (2001).[1]  He takes what is called the “beneficial lie” and relates it to the person during World War II in Nazi occupied Europe who lied about a person’s whereabouts in order to keep them from being imprisoned and/or put into a concentration camp.  From there he says,

In the practice of the Bodhisattva precepts, our ultimate concern is for the welfare of all beings.  We therefore extend the meaning of ‘not lying’ to include ‘not speaking in a false or harmful way, or standing by in silence when others speak in a false or harmful way.’  All speech based on self-concern is false or harmful speech, and speaking the truth naturally arises from selflessness. (122).

This really simplifies the list above doesn’t it!  Boy that makes it much easier for me than trying to determine whether what I’ve just said is on the list. All I have to do is ask myself—is what I am saying based on self-concern or on the concern for another.  If it is based on “concern for another” then I am apt to be going in the right direction as I travel the bodhisattva way of living. If it is not then I need to think before I say the words and choose words that show my concern for another rather than for me.

Next, he talks about the times when “speaking the truth” can get us in trouble and he says, “Buddha said that you should not speak the truth when it is harmful, but we need to distinguish between what is harmful and what is hurtful.  Sometimes people tell you the truth and it hurts a lot, but it is very helpful  (page 125).”

I remember a time in my life when my nephew was about five or six years old and he was pushing his younger sister and my brother-in-law ran over and told him he was a bad boy and to stop pushing his sister.  But I did not want him to think badly of himself at such a young age so I took him aside and told him that he was not a “bad boy” that he was a “good boy” but his behavior toward his sister was not good and could hurt her if she fell down.  I made the clear distinction between him and his actions and what was actually “bad.”  I doubt that my words stopped him from pushing his sister in the future, but I hope that they helped minimize his negative self-thinking in the future.

My brother-in-law’s comments were “harmful” and I hope mine would be considered somewhat “hurtful” but something he needed to hear to help him grow into a more loving caring adult.   I am happy to say that he has!

What harmful or hurtful things have you said this day?  Reb talks about “right speech” in the community or sangha.  He says, “ . . . it generates trust and harmony within the community and becomes a strong support for others’ liberation.  . . .when members of the sangha speak falsely or act in a way that encourages others to use false speech, it brings about a deterioration of trust among people in the community and undermines the practice of liberation (page 126).”  What happens at the Sangha is exactly what happens at your home, office, or school.  Life plays out the same in all ways and in all places.

So let’s take a look at our self and use this week to practice not telling lies.  Let us focus less on self-concern and more on selflessness and doing good for all others through our words and actions as we follow the bodhisattva way.

Things to focus on this week:

  •  Step one: Begin by deciding how you will refrain from false speech and focus on right speech instead.
  • Step two: Set your intention to do so before each possible encounter.
  • Step three: Remember to be mindful of being upright in all you do and do not harm others with your false speech.
  • Step four: Finally, keep a journal on the precept and make note of how learning to embody truth in all its aspects thoughts, words, and actions is affecting your life. Good luck with that!

[1] Anderson, R. 2001, Being Upright Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts. Rodmell Press: Berkeley, CA

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Mitsunen Roku (Lou Nordstrom) one of the most loveable and outstanding teachers in our linage of Zen Buddhism wrote a wonderful little book entitled Essays in Zen Daoism (2010).  In it he has a chapter entitled “On Being Honest,” and boy is he honest about being honest!  He writes, “Freud was right: human beings have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception, and nowhere is this more prominent than in the pervasive, perennial need to believe in a ‘higher, spiritual nature. (page 71)’”

For me this is a reason to continue learning, searching, and seeking that “higher spiritual nature” for it just may be there and my lower personality or human frailties may just be a temporary state of consciousness.  Whether or not we believe there is a “higher spiritual nature” is up to each of us.  We may not have the conviction of Mitsunen Roku when he writes, “We would like to think of ourselves as bodhisattvas committed to the salvation or liberation of all beings.  Honestly, how much do you really care about the suffering of others?  What sort of negative emotions do you actually feel about other human beings?  What do you honestly feel about the one you love?  Catullus said, ‘I love, and I hate; and I am torn in two.’ That’s honesty! (page 72).”

Being truthful with self is probably more difficult than being truthful with others.  At least it is for me!  My mother is one of those inherently honest people.  She would not take even a penny if it did not belong to her.  She has a vivid sense of right and wrong, truth and lies.  So I guess I got some of it from her.  But I often find myself being untruthful with myself.  I tell myself things like, “Don’t worry eating this piece of cake won’t add a single pound to your waistline if you just eat it mindfully.”  Or how about this one:  Driving over the speed limit is okay because it is more important to be on time to Zen to help set up.

He writes, “Be honest about the nature of the motivation behind your practice (page 72).” Who cares what you practice for or which practice you decide to take up?  You can be a great Catholic, Buddhist, Atheist, or Theosophists as long as you are truthful to yourself about why you practice the principles, truthful to yourself about why you believe what you believe, truthful to yourself about why you act the way you act because of those principles.

He quotes Bodhidharma who said, “Vast emptiness, no holiness!” The fantasy of a higher nature is about holiness, sacred as opposed to profane reality.  Bodhidharma didn’t speak of Buddha-nature, true nature, essential nature; he said, in a spirit of radical honesty, ‘I KNOW NOT!’ Do you honestly know who or what you are (page 71)?”  Yeah, if you do!  Yeah, if you don’t!

This week our practice is on truthfulness. Regardless, of whether we do or don’t honestly know who or what we are today is a great day to begin looking at our lives and seeing how truthful we are to others and to ourselves.  We all need to examine our lives with open eyes.  However, we need not be critical of what we find, but we do need to be open to an occasional “AH HA.”  Then decide what you want to do about it, if anything.  Sometimes it is cruel to be truthful to someone who may think they look great in that chartreuse shirt or blouse, sometimes the person may be better served if we let him or her know in a kind and loving way that this may not be his or her best color choice.  Let the person know what looks great on them and tell them why.

Life is a challenge, living a life of truthfulness is an even greater challenge.  So when the times get tough just know you are in good company with Bodhidharma and just admit “I know not!”  Then do what your heart tells you is right and honest and truthful with compassion and love and you can’t go wrong with that!

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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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At the end of Ronald and Mary Hulnick’s wonderful book Loyalty to Your Soul The Heart of Spiritual Psychology they write “. . . spiritual evolution slowly seeps into every crack and crevice of your life, and you slowly shift from saying the true answer to living the true answer (page 203).”  This adventure in living is a special opportunity to learn how to live a spiritual life instead of a material life.  It is for each of us in this New Year an opportunity to live a life of love, peace, joy, compassion, and forgiveness: Forgiving others and more importantly forgiving ourselves.

The Hulnick’s like to refer to an analogy of carrying a backpack filled with rocks on our backs every day.  These rocks are a symbol of our anger, hatred, fear, rules, rights/wrongs, must does, and self-recrimination that have built up throughout our lives.  Life is hard, just like the rocks we carry around, the rocks that are dragging us down in our jobs, relationships, health, and most importantly our ability to arise to a place of positive self-realization.

Many of us may have experiences such as Emperor Wu did when he mourned the passing of the venerable bodhisattva, Bodhidharma,  as described in Janet Jiryu Abels book, Making Zen Your Own Giving Life to Twelve Key Golden Age Ancestors (2012).

Alas, I saw him without seeing him.

I met him without meeting him.

I encountered him without encountering him.

Now, as before, I regret this deeply.

She asks us to ponder these questions:

  • Who do we see without seeing?
  • Who do we meet without meeting?
  • What do we encounter without encountering?
  • Do we regret this deeply?
  • And if we do, what are we going to do about it (page 20)?

These questions brought to mind an experience I had in Target as I was checking out one day.  I ran in for a few simple things and was so engrossed in my own thoughts and to-do list that I did not pay attention to the person who was checking me out until I saw this beautiful hand reach out to me to give me my change.  I realized I had made him “invisible.”  I had not looked at him, no less made eye contact with him.  Had I left the store before this thought came into my mind I would not have been able to tell you if the clerk was a man, woman, young, old, black, brown, or white.

So I took the opportunity to slow down, to look him in the eyes, smile, and thank him for his help and I wished him a good day.  Jiryu goes on to write at the end of this passage, “Where is Bodhidharma right now? Wake up! Bodhidharma is sitting on your cushion.”  He or she is serving you in the department stores, teaching your children; putting out your fires, answering your 911 calls, mowing your lawns, nursing your sick, or painting your house.  He or she is you and you are him or her.

I felt like I had dropped a great big rock from my backpack after that encounter.  I’d like to drop many more of them as I work my way through 2013.

This realization also helped me move in my life from just “saying the true answer to living the true answer.”  I hope that this means that each day I can actually see spiritual evolution slowly seeping into every crack and crevice of my life…that I can meet Bodhidharma on the cushion and in the grocery store.  Wish me luck!

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