Remembering the Rendezvous with Rama

Today is the 65th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, known as the Mahatma or “Great Soul.” One of the most important and remarkable figures of the 20th Century, Gandhi is perhaps best remembered for the way he led India to independence through the use of non-violent civil disobedience, and in so doing, inspired civil rights and freedom movements around the world.

Gandhi was a deeply spiritual man. Prayer and meditation were as important to his strategy as were fasting and marching. In Buddhism, prayer is not a central part of the practice. The Buddha was a bit pessimistic about the so-called power of prayer. Yet, there is a correlation between the purest form of prayer and meditation. With that in mind, today I offer a short sketch of Gandhi’s evening prayer service and some brief thoughts of his on prayer, meditation, and mantra.

gandhi-3bI am unsure of the source of this description of Gandhi during evening prayer. I saved it off my old website on Buddhist Meditation. I believe it is by Eknath Easwaran.

The sun had set when we got back from his regular evening walk. Hurricane lanterns were lit; Gandhi settled down at the base of a neem tree as ashramites and the rest of us huddled in. I managed to get a seat close by, where I could fix my whole heart on him.

Some hymns were sung, a Japanese monk opened with a Buddhist chant, a British lady began one of Gandhi’s favorite hymns, John Henry Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light,” and then Gandhi’s secretary began reciting the second chapter of the Gita. Then it happened . . . Not that I can describe it very easily. Gandhi’s eyes closed; his body went stock still, his eyes closed in deep concentration, as if absorbed in the words; it seemed as though centuries had rolled away and I was seeing the Buddha in a living person. I saw what we had almost forgotten was possible in the modern world: a man had conquered himself . . .

I believe I found these quotes at

Gandhi on Prayer and Meditation*

I do not forbid the use of images in prayer. I only prefer the worship of the formless . . .

Prayer is no flight of eloquence; it is no lip-homage. It springs from the heart. If, therefore, we achieve that purity of the heart when it is ’emptied of all but love’, if we keep all the chords in proper tune, they ‘trembling pass in music out of sight’. Prayer needs no speech. It is itself independent of any sensuous effort. I have not the slightest doubt that prayer is an unfailing means of cleaning the heart of passions. But it must be combined with the utmost humility.

Even if your mind wanders in meditation, you should keep up the practice. You should retire to a secluded spot, sit in the correct posture and try to keep out all thoughts. Even if they continue to come, you should nevertheless complete the meditation. Gradually the mind will come under control.

On Mantra**

First, mantra should come from the heart. To install mantra in the heart requires infinite patience. It might take ages. But the effort is worthwhile. However, one’s mantra cannot be heartfelt unless one has cultivated the virtues of truth, honesty and purity within and without. This does not mean that one should give up reciting on the ground that one has not the requisite purity. For recitation of mantra is also a means for acquiring purity.

For one who has experienced peace and is in quest of it, mantra will certainly prove to be a philosopher’s stone. The [divine nature] has been given a thousand names, which only means that it can be called by any name and that its qualities are infinite.

In 1933, Nichidatsu Fujii, a Nichiren priest and later founder of the Nipponzan-Myohoji order (well-known for their Peace Pagodas) visited the ashram in Wardha, where he lived for some time and taught Gandhi how to chant Namo-Myoho-Renge-Kyo while beating a drum. This is likely the “Buddhist chant” mentioned above. Although, Gandhi liked this chant, it is difficult for me to believe he would have had much regard for Nichiren’s extremist philosophy.

The mantra that Gandhi chanted throughout his life and which had the most meaning to him was Om Sri Rama Jaya Rama, Jaya, Jaya Rama (Om Victory to Rama, victory, victory to Rama.)

In a talk he gave some nine months before he was assassinated, Gandhi said, “Even if I am killed, I will not give up repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully.”

Rama is an avatar of the god Vishnu, held by some to be a supreme being. Rahim is derived from al-Rahim, an Arabic word meaning “The Merciful.”

Indeed, when Gandhi was shot, the last words on his lips are reported to be either “Rama, Rama,” “He Ram” (“Oh God”), or “Rama Rahim,” according to different accounts.


* K.L. Seshagiri Rao, Mahatma Gandhi And Comparative Religion, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1990



Use Life

Once at a four-day teaching in Los Angeles, during a question and answer period, the Dalai Lama was asked, “What is the quickest and easiest way to attain enlightenment?” The question caused the Dalai Lama to break down in tears. When he recovered his composure, he began to tell a story about the Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, who facing death, was giving his last instructions to a disciple and showed him the calluses on his behind. Milarepa said, “Look at this, this is what I’ve endured, this is the mark of my practice.” Just as the translator was relaying this, the Dalai Lama interrupted and, in one of the few times he spoke English during that teaching, exclaimed, “Don’t think quickest, easiest, cheapest!”

The next day, the Dalai Lama said that it really doesn’t matter if one becomes enlightened or not. The purpose of existence, he said, is to be of benefit to others, “and if a person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose.”

Consider the words “purpose of existence.” It implies that there is purpose to life. Naturally, people see that purpose differently, according to their own world-view. The view the Dalai Lama was speaking from was that of the bodhisattva, who undertakes the mission to relieve the suffering of others.

Shi Ming: “Use Life”
Shi Ming: “Use Life”

The Chinese term for “mission” is shi ming, which is made of two characters when put together literally mean “use life.” Outwardly, the bodhisattva’s mission is an altruistic one, but there is a more fundamental task at hand, and that is to use life, not to waste it.

There are those who fear that in service to others they will become subservient, or that in the practice of compassion, others will take advantage of them. But these fears are based on a limited view of what service means, what to be of benefit to others entails. Creating art is a benefit to others. Building a road serves others. A smile can help relieve someone’s suffering.

The point is to go beyond the routine of life, to use life, not merely live it. It means to regard each present moment as an opportunity to do something. Great or small, it doesn’t make a difference. Just do something that goes beyond yourself.

One of the greatest challenges of life is learning how to use it. When we use life in a meaningful way, we gain a sense of purpose. When we gain a sense of purpose, we have a mission. When we are dedicated to the fundamental mission of using our life for something worthwhile, we find myriad ways to be of benefit to others. Then everything we do can be a form of service. Nothing is wasted. Each moment is like a small drop of water poured into the ocean that lasts until the ocean itself evaporates.

So, use life.



Journeys on the Silk Road, Journey to the Other Shore

journeys2It has taken me awhile but I’ve finally finished reading Journeys on the Silk Road: A Desert Explorer, Buddha’s Secret Library, and the Unearthing of the World’s Oldest Printed Book by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters. I received a free review copy from the publisher some months ago. The only reason it took me so long to read it is that I had a some other books to read first, and for once, I stuck to my plan, although I must say that I was constantly tempted to jump ahead to this one because I knew it would a ripping good yarn, as they used to say. And it is.

Journeys on the Silk Road tells the fascinating story of Aurel Stein, an archaeologist, who traveled along the Silk Road through India, Tibet, and China in search of relics for the British Museum. It details his various expeditions, the friendships made, the politics and intrigue encountered, and the artifacts he discoveried.

At the heart of the book is the account of Stein’s trek across the desert, accompanied by his faithful “sidekick” Chiang, a Chinese scholar, and a fox terrier named Dash, to the “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas”, near Dunhuang, Western China in 1907. The cave contained nearly 40,000 scrolls. Stein purchased several thousand from the monk who opened the cave, for the middling sum of £130. Among these was a copy of the Diamond Sutra that turned out to be the world’s oldest printed book.

Stein took the scrolls back to England, but it was some years before anyone realized the significance of this particular copy of the Diamond Sutra, which is now on display at the British Museum.

Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters also relate the story of how the Diamond Sutra was printed, which is an incredible story in itself.  Not only is the cave scroll of the Diamond Sutra the world’s oldest printed text, but

diamond-sutra-frontispiece2The Diamond Sutra’s frontispiece is also the earliest known woodcut illustration in the world. The illustration is rich in detail and symbolism. The faces of the shaven-headed monks who surround the Buddha are drawn with such skill as to create individual portraits . . .

The Diamond Sutra of 868 was the product of a mature, sophisticated printing industry. Nothing like it existed in Europe.”

I have only one complaint about the book, and it’s a small one. The authors say that “Buddha Shakyamuni delivered the teaching known as the Diamond Sutra in a garden near the ancient Indian city of Sravasti.” The reality is that the Diamond Sutra was adapted from one of the larger Prajnaparamita sutras, which the Buddha had nothing to do with, as they were composed/compiled centuries after his passing.

That aside, you don’t have to be a Buddhist, interested in archeology or exploring, to enjoy this book. The authors are excellent story-tellers, and the story is so engrossing, that once started, I think anyone would have a tough time putting it down.

As a text, the Diamond Sutra is another kind of journey – a sometimes-confounding, paradoxical trip through the themes of change, emptiness, and the Bodhisattva path, an expedition that challenges our notions of self, others, our journey, and even, enlightenment – Diamond Wisdom, that cuts through ignorance, delusion, and attachment.

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha advises us to realize that our wayfaring has no real destination, that there is only the journey itself. As we set out on the path, we might think that we will eventually arrive at some destination, see a horizon called enlightenment. However, that horizon is just an illusion, a bubble in our minds, a dream.

MP407This teaching has been taught with a hidden meaning: This dharma is like a boat, once it carries a wayfarer across the sea of suffering to the other shore, it can be abandoned. So much more for that which is non-dharma.

– Diamond Sutra

The hidden part of the sutra, and really, the hidden teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, is that ultimately there is no other shore. There is only this shore, where we are right now, this very moment, which can be a shore at the edge of the sea of suffering, or can be the shore of nirvana, depending on how far our Diamond Wisdom has developed.

I beg the pardon of long-time readers if they feel that I am repeating myself as I state once again my feeling that enlightenment is not a destination, but a process, and once our wayfaring has led us to a plateau we might call enlightenment, another horizon appears before us, a further horizon, The Endless Further. Since this is more or less the theme of the blog, I feel it needs to be mentioned every so often.

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

– Ernest Hemingway


The Six Subtle Dharma Doors

doors-1d3The Six Subtle Dharma Doors (Lu Miao Fa Meng) is a manual attributed to T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i that explains a meditation method consisting of six steps, each one of which is said to directly bring about purification of mind and the transcendence of suffering.

Still well known in Asian, both the text and the technique are relatively unfamiliar here in the West. One can find references to the Lu Miao Fa Meng here and there, for instance, Thich Nhat Hanh in several of his book mentions “The Six Wonderful Dharma Doors.” He describes them as “counting the breath, following the breath, concentrating the mind, observing to throw light on all that exists, returning to the source of mind, and going beyond the concepts of subject and object.”

Lu Miao Fa Meng
Lu Miao Fa Meng

There is an English translation of Chih-i’s text, titled “The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime,” and it appears to be a good literal, and authoritative, translation, yet I wonder how familiar the translator is with the teachings of the T’ien-t’ai school. For one thing, in the title of the work, we find the Chinese character miao (pronounced “meow”), that this translator renders as “sublime”, which is certainly acceptable, but he associates it with the term pranita, rather than the Sanskrit sad (or sat), which has a more direct relationship with T’ien-t’ai doctrine and practice.*

Miao is an key term in Chih-i’s philosophy. In “Profound Meaning of the Dharma Flower [Lotus Sutra]”, he devotes a lengthy section discussing the meaning of miao and miao-fa (saddharma). For Chih-I, miao meant “subtle”: “beyond conceptual thought.”**

As The Six Subtle Dharma Doors focuses on the breath, there is another, more literal aspect of “subtle” to consider. The breath is the perfect object for meditation because it is so subtle. One of the chief aims of meditation is to let go of discursive thinking, and we often breathe without thinking about it at all. It follows, then, that it should be relatively simple to focus on the breath without attaching a great deal of conceptual thought to the process.

In Lu Miao Fa Meng, Chih-i tells that the name “six subtle dharma doors” (or gates) means they are linked together and mutually inclusive. As progressive steps, though, the sequence moves from learning to concentrate the mind, to effortless mindfulness of breath, calming the mind, severing delusions, returning to original mind (which includes returning to the original teachings and meditation of the Buddha), and finally, realization of the emptiness (non-substantiality) of all dharmas, or things.

The Six Subtle Dharma Doors falls under “Subtlety of Practice”, the third of Chih-i’s three categories of Subtlety (Subtlety of Objects, Subtlety of Knowledge, and Subtlety of Practice), and is actually a rather simple meditation technique, although the last three steps  are not as straightforward as the first three.

Yin Shih Tzu
Yin Shih Tzu

The textural source for this meditation that has been most helpful to me is from Yin Shih Tzu. His explanation and instructions from Chapter 6 of his book Experimental Meditation for the Promotion of Health appears in Secrets of Chinese Meditation by Charles Luk. The same material was translated into English some years ago in Tranquil Sitting.

Evidently, Yin Shih Tzu, was a lay person who first studied Taoist meditation as a member of the Dragon Door Sect (Lung Men Tsung) and later went on to master practices taught in the T’ien-t’ai, Ch’an and Tibetan schools. In the early 1950’s, when he was in his 80’s, he wrote several books that are considered classic works on the subject of meditation. In Luk’s book, the Lu Miao Fa Meng is translated as “The Six Profound Dharma Doors,” while in “Tranquil Sitting” it is rendered as “The Six Mystical Steps.”

Here are the opening paragraphs to Yin Shih Tzu’s instructions in Tranquil Sitting, as translated by Shi Fu Hwang and Cheney Crow, Ph.D.:

Breath is the origin of life. Anyone who cannot breathe will soon die. The nervous system cannot sustain its reflexes and the mind dies. His life is finished. Breath alone makes it possible for us to connect the body and the mind, and maintain life. The entry and exit of air through our nostrils depends on this breath. Although it is usually invisible to our eyes, breath has both form and weight, since it has both weight and form, during its passage it is also a material part of our body. We realize that entry and exit of the breath depend entirely on our mind, and that is part of the spirit. Since breath can connect the body and mind, we know that breath itself is part of the body and mind.

The six mystical steps will teach the practitioner to manage the technique of breathing. It is a method of continuous meditation. After learning the principles of Chih Kuan, the practitioner can go further to study the six mystical steps. Even without practicing the principles of Chih Kuan, he may begin the study of the six mystical steps.

The six mystical steps are: counting, following, resting, visualization, returning, and clarifying.”

And now, the practice:

The Six Subtle Dharma Doors, taught by T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i, based on instructions by Yin Shih Tzu.

The Six Subtle Dharma Doors center on breath and are a thorough method of meditation.

The method consists of: (1) Counting the breath (shu), (2) Following the breath (sui), (3) Stopping (chih), (4) Contemplating/seeing (kuan), (5) Returning (huan), and (6) Refining (ching).

1. Counting (shu)

Regulate the breath so that it is even and rhythmic. Count slowly, from one to ten, placing the count on either the inhalation or the exhalation, not letting the mind wander. If notice that your mind has strayed, go back to count one and begin again.

As you become comfortable and proficient with the counting method, your breathing will become so regular and subtle, that you will no longer need to count.

2. Following (sui)

When counting is no longer necessary, practice the method of following. Just follow the breath going in and out. As in counting, if the mind wanders simply bring your attention back to the breath. As practice progresses in this method, breath and mind become one. It will feel as if the breath is passing through all the pores of the body, and the mind is peaceful and still.

3. Stopping (chih)

Once the method of following has been mastered, the breath still may not be subtle enough. Stopping, then, is the next step. Here, the entire practice consists of simply focusing the mind on the tip of the nose. As this method proceeds, the practitioner should lose his or her constant awareness of a physical body and mind, indicating entry into level of deep quiescence.

4. Seeing (kuan)

The seeing method is visualization. It is also called “turning back the light of the mind upon itself.” Visualize the breath coming in and going out of the body. Eventually you can mentally observe the breath entering and exiting through every pore in your body. When the light of the mind is turned back in this way, the practitioner should see that all things are empty and without a substantial reality of their own.

5. Returning (huan)

After practicing seeing for some time, follow up with returning. The practice of returning consists of two steps. First involves visualization. Having already visualized the breath, the mind is now attuned to the art of intelligent visualization, which differs from intelligent activity. The aim here is to dissolve the duality between the mind that contemplates the breath and the breath that is contemplated. This opens the way for tracing the origin of one’s thought back to the fundamental, true mind.

The second step is to understand that like the breath, the mind also rises and falls. This is likened to water that rises in waves. Waves, however, are not the water. Thus, the mind that rises and falls is not the true mind. We look into true mind and see that it is uncreated, beyond ‘is’ and therefore, empty. As it is empty, there is no subjective mind that contemplates, and since there is no contemplating mind, there is nothing contemplated.

Going back to the true mind in this way is what is meant by “returning.”***

6. Refining (ching)

In returning, there may linger some idea of returning. The first step of refining is to clear the mind of any vestiges of this thought. The second step of refining is to keep your mind like still water, with all random thinking and discrimination stopped. In this way, you can observe your true mind.

In observing the true mind, one realizes that it does not exist apart from the random thinking mind that discriminates. It is like the waves disappearing on the surface of the water. This is called pure realization.

In The Six Subtle Dharma Doors, counting (1) and following (2) are the preliminary practice. Stopping (3) and seeing (4) is the main practice, and returning (5) and refining (6) are the concluding practice, or the “fruit of the meditation.” Stopping is the chief training, and seeing is its support.

Here ends the instructions on The Six Subtle Dharma Doors.


* Pranita, is “pure, immaculate, beautiful.” Chih-i understood and used miao in relation to sad (or sat), as in the saddharma of the Lotus Sutra (a very important sutra for the T’ien-t’ai school), meaning “wonderful, beautiful, mystic, profound, subtle, mysterious.” [See A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, 1994 compiled by William Edward Soothill, Delhi., pg. 234] Without going into a lengthy explanation, it is suffice to say that the distinction between sad and pranita in relation to miao is important.

** See Hurvitz, Leon Nahu,  Chih-i (538-597): An Introduction to the Life and Ideas of a Chinese Buddhist Monk, 1959, UMI Dissertation Services, and Swanson, Paul, Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, Asian Humanities Press, 1989

*** “Returning” is also to return to the original meditation of the Buddha, as Chih-i maintained that The Six Subtle Dharma Doors was the method Shakyamuni used the night of his awakening beneath the Bodhi Tree. Even though he cites several ancient text in support of this claim, it must be noted that Chih-i’s sense of the Buddha was not historical, but more the Mahayana Shakyamuni, or quite possibly Shakyamuni as the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra.

Other Works Mentioned:

Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe, You Are Alive!: The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, Parallax Press, 1992

The Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime, Bhikshu Dharmamitra, translator, Kalavinka Press, 2009

Luk, Charles (Lu K’uan Yu), The Secrets of Chinese Meditation, Samuel Weiser, 1965

Shi Fu Hwang and Cheney Crow, Ph.D., Tranquil Sitting, Dragon Door Publications, 1994


“Integrity is not a conditional word.”

Today our nation is celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Well, most of us celebrate. I wasn’t alive when Dr. King was born, but I surely remember the day he died. I lived in New Orleans at the time. There were no riots, as in some other cities, but a great deal of tension and fear for several days afterward.

There are some who feel that Dr. was the victim of a conspiracy (a view upheld by a civil trial in 1999) and that his opposition to the Vietnam War was the tipping point that sealed his doom. During the 1999 trial, Reverend James Lawson testified that King alienated President Johnson and other powerful men in the government when he repudiated the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, in a speech at the New York City Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam”:

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted . . .  I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh

Dr. King went on to say, “This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words” and then he offered a quote. (read the entire speech) I have never seen the author of that quote identified, but I suspect it might have been Thich Nhat Hanh. They first met during the Buddhist monk’s visit to the United States in 1966. The meeting had quite an impact on Dr. King, and influenced the “Beyond Vietnam” speech.

In a 2010 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Thich Nhat Hanh recalled that meeting:

In June 1965, I wrote him a letter explaining why the monks in Vietnam immolated themselves. I said that this is not a suicide. I said that in situations like the one in Vietnam, to make your voice heard is difficult. Sometimes we have to burn ourselves in order to be heard. It is out of compassion that you do that. It is the act of love and not of despair. And exactly one year after I wrote that letter, I met him in Chicago. We had a discussion about peace, freedom, and community. And we agreed that without a community, we cannot go very far.

Oprah: How long was the discussion?

Nhat Hanh: Probably five minutes or so. And after that, there was a press conference, and he came out very strongly against the war in Vietnam.

Oprah: Do you think that was a result of your conversation?

Nhat Hanh: I believe so. We continued our work, and the last time I met him was in Geneva during the peace conference.

Oprah: Did the two of you speak then?

Nhat Hanh: Yes. He invited me up for breakfast, to talk about these issues again. I got caught in a press conference downstairs and came late, but he kept the breakfast warm for me. And I told him that the people in Vietnam call him a bodhisattva—enlightened being—because of what he was doing for his people, his country, and the world.

Oprah: And the fact that he was doing it nonviolently.

Nhat Hanh: Yes. That is the work of a bodhisattva, a buddha, always with compassion and nonviolence. When I heard of his assassination, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “The American people have produced King but are not capable of preserving him.” I was a little bit angry. I did not eat, I did not sleep. But my determination to continue building the beloved community continues always. And I think that I felt his support always.

Oprah: Always.

Nhat Hanh: Yes.

In 1967, Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. In his letter of nomination, King wrote, “Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.”

Although he was not awarded the Nobel Prize (there was no award that year), Thich Nhat Hanh’s peace work has earned him the respect of the world. His opposition to the war exiled him from his native land. When a person stands up for a great cause, the result is often sacrifice. Sacrifice is the heart of the bodhisattva. And so is integrity, a quality that men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh exemplify, a word summed up magnificently by crime fiction writer John D. MacDonald,

Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn’t blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won’t cheat, then you know he never will.”