This article at piqued my interest: “Meditation key to understanding UFO’s says local Meetup Director.”

In addition to being a “Meetup Director” (whatever that is), this guy, whose name is Brian Ruhe, is also a former Buddhist monk. Key word: former. I don’t know about Ruhe, but I have a feeling that about 95% of all former Buddhist monks became Buddhist monks just so they could quit and say they are former Buddhist monks, thereby giving themselves some credibility.

Anyway, according to this article, “In his book, Freeing the Buddha, Vancouver UFO Meetup Group founding Director and UFOBC Research Associate Brian Ruhe argues that some UFO’s ‘are devas from the god realm who have the power to manifest themselves as unidentified flying objects, when and where they choose.’”

Rare artist's rendering of a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin' Purple People Eater from Planet ?

Ruhe’s  theory is that UFO’s may not be spaceships or flying saucers at all, but celestial spirits flying around. He says we have to develop ourselves up to the UFO/deva’s level. I guess they get their jollies by fooling us into thinking they’re from another galaxy, but in actuality they’re just regular ‘ol earthbound deities. I don’t know about you but that kind of takes the fun out of UFO’s for me.

Now, living here in Southern California I encounter aliens every day. Unfortunately, none of them are from outer space. I’ve always wanted to have a close encounter with an ET or see a UFO. For a moment when I first saw that article, I thought that perhaps through meditation I could learn to communicate with them. Maybe I could invite them over sometime. But if they’re just spirits, I think I’ll stick with meditating on the emptiness of all things . . .

Speaking of wild, nutty theories, here’s one I’m proud to call my very own: Mitt Romney is not really the son of George W. Romney, American businessman and Republican Party politician, he’s actually the illegitimate son of Lyle Waggoner from the Carol Burnett TV show. The resemblance is uncanny.

Lyle Waggoner - Mitt Romney

I saw this on ABC news; maybe you did too: in Atlanta, GA, 8-year-old students practicing “compassion meditation.” All the kids interviewed agreed that daily meditation made them “nicer.”

The reporter remarked,

“There is now an explosion of cutting edge science suggesting that compassion meditation can physically remodel your brain for kindness. At the University of Madison Wisconsin they studied Buddhist monks and found that when they did compassion meditation they produced levels of certain brain waves that were simply off the charts.”

Back in January, in a post entitled, The Challenge of Mindfulness, I wrote about a study conducted at the University of Massachusetts that showed meditation increases the grey matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) and stimulates positive changes in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

It would seem that science is just catching up to something that the Buddha and some others knew thousands of years ago. In fact, maybe some Buddhists are just catching up with the power of compassion, too.

According to one scholar, Professor Richard Gombrich, Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford, the Buddha not only stressed the propitiousness of compassion but also its redemptive power. I just recently ran across this interview of some years ago. When asked about new discoveries in Buddhist scholarship, Gombrich replied,

Probably the most important single one relates to the Theravada doctrine, which said that kindness, compassion, sympathetic-joy and equanimity are very desirable, but if we only achieve those, we will only be reborn in a higher heaven called the ‘Bratna-world.’ This is a complete misunderstanding of what the Buddha actually meant. The Buddha was simply using brahmanical language at the time. What he meant was that they are salvific states and that we reach nirvana through them . . .

I think the implications are pretty massive in a way. If, for instance, you show that the Buddha thought that compassion was salvific, it could be of interest to many Buddhists.

I think from the Mahayana point of view, it is taken for granted that’s exactly what the Buddha was saying. However, the point is not about which Buddhist branch has had a keener view on compassion. It’s simply how central the practice of compassion is to the Buddhist path. A point I don‘t think can be restated too often. One of the reasons that I mention it so frequently is really just to remind myself. Left to my own devices, altruism is not necessarily the direction I would lean. I have to work at it. And I think that’s true for many people. Selflessness is a quality that most of us have to cultivate.

The transformative power of compassion and altruist action is hardly a new discovery. For years now, studies have shown that altruism has many tangible benefits, many of them physical. Some fifteen years ago I gave a dharma talk in which I mentioned that altruism or “helping” had been shown to help alleviate chronic problems such a hypertension, arthritis, depression, allergies, headaches, back pain and multiple sclerosis. I noted how helping also strengthens the immune system and enhances feeling of well-being and confidence, and I talked about a phenomenon called a “helper’s high” that accompanies altruistic acts. This high, possibly the release of endorphins into the bloodstream, appears to have two stages: an initial rush of euphoria, followed by a longer period of calm.

I don’t think any of that has changed since then. Nor is it been any secret that meditation offers many of the same benefits. But now, we have empirical evidence about the changes that actually take place in both the compassionate and the meditative mind.

This is good news. But the best news was delivered by the ABC reporter, who said that meditation is “not just for Buddhists. This is totally secular. Anyone can do it.”

And, it makes you nicer.

Recently I received a comment on my January 28, 2011 post, “The Challenge of Mindfulness,” that I felt expressed concerns perhaps on the minds of others, so I thought I’d answer it here:

Hello! Very recently have I began reading about mindfulness and meditation, and although without seeking professional opinion, I have already identified that should I enroll in a meditation course, I will be unable to focus. As I learn more from books and blogs (like this one) I tend to think that I have been living life mindlessly, doing things merely because it has been my routine for my whole life. I seriously am considering going into a meditation class, changing my perspective in life and being aware of myself and the life I am living. I have always had questioned whether I will be able to attain the state of “inner peace” by being mindful, but I guess I wouldn’t really know until I try. I do hope I will be able to be fully aware, “mindful” of myself. I just need to know the first step.

As we fare along the path of mindfulness, we encounter obstacles. Many of these are self-made. They are inner hindrances. Meditation master Chih-i of the T’ien-t’ai school called them screens because they act as coverings that obscure our vision. One of the screens Chih-i advises us to remove is the screen of doubt. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, he says, “When doubt veils the mind, it is difficult to open any dharma doors.”

Perhaps the hardest doubt to remove is doubt about oneself. We might think that we are not capable of finding inner peace. Chih-i says, “When doubt such as this is at the forefront of one’s mind, the chih-kuan dharma door is closed, and therefore, realization is unobtainable.”

It’s only natural to have some doubts. It’s unwise to be over confident. Then, we may have other kinds of doubts, such as a doubt that we will ever climb Mt. Everest. That’s a perfectly reasonable because not many people do climb Mt. Everest. However, when we doubt our ability to achieve things that are definitely within our grasp, like finding more meaning and joy in our life, this is not reasonable. It’s the kind of doubt that locks the dharma door before we even have a chance to open it.

So we have to let doubt go. Release it.

And there are other screens we need to remove.

We need to let go of expectations. Some people start with a desire to attain enlightenment, to have grand realizations and so on. They set up expectations that become obstacles because they distract from the task at hand. The aim of mindfulness is not that complicated. We merely want to calm our mind and develop more awareness in the present moment. But it takes single-minded focus.

In letting go, we do not give up the intention to realize our expectation, rather we let go of our attachment to expectation. The idea is to transform expectation into aspiration.

We need to let go of fear. Some people feel conflicted about whether or not to take a meditation course because they fear that they might indoctrinated into something. They don’t want to sign up, join up, or anything else. They just want to find some peace of mind. But you don’t have to become a Buddhist to practice mindfulness.

The Buddha did not invent meditation. Yet, his meditation instructions are the first recorded in history. Most forms of meditation, Buddhist and otherwise, begin with the same step-by-step instructions the Buddha gave some 2500 years, and they focus on the same object of meditation he identified as the most effective, the breath. With this in mind, almost any meditation course that teaches you how to meditate while focusing on your breath will do. It doesn’t have to be Buddhist.

I don’t believe you can learn meditation completely on your own, over the Internet, or from a book or video.  Meditation is far too subtle to grasp without some personal instruction. But if you take a secular meditation course and then you want to learn some of the underlying concepts and how Buddhism suggests we utilize this tool, you can always supplement your beginning practice with some reading. Two excellent books are The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana.

The list of thing we need to release goes on. Letting go helps us approach meditation with an open mind, with fewer hindrances to get in our way. Overcoming these three screens of doubt, expectation, and fear is the best first step.

Anyone, everyone, can find inner peace. It’s not an insurmountable goal. It’s not Mt. Everest. But whether you are climbing a mountain or ascending to the plateau of awakening, you must take steps to get there. The second step is just to do it, to practice, to meditate.

My own daily practice is very simple. Mindfulness and reciting the Heart Sutra. Often I will chant the Heart Sutra mantra for an extended period. I recently saw some discussion about this online. I don’t recall ever coming across any hard and fast rules about how one should chant the mantra. You can chant it once or twice at the end of the sutra or for an hour if you want. It’s up to you. In addition, you can chant the mantra by itself, at anytime. I also chant different mantras and use some other meditation techniques I am familiar with, but I always return to the basics. For silent meditation, that means mindfulness, counting or following the breath the way the Buddha taught.

We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thanks for your comment and I hope this helps.

Monday’s post featured a selection from Chih-kuan for Beginners by T’ien-t’ai master, Chih-i. A reader emailed this question: “What does “shallow” mean in this context: ‘Consequently the chih-kuan dharma door to enlightenment is not shallow.’?”

First, some background: Because it began as essentially a Madhyamaka school, Nagarjuna (150–250 CE) is traditionally held to be the 1st Patriarch of the Chinese T’ien-t’ai (Celestial Terrace) School, while Chih-i (538–597 CE), the 4th Patriarch, is considered its actual founder. Chih-i was one of the great philosophers of Buddha-dharma, and as I wrote the other day, is placed in the same class as the Buddha and Nagarjuna, which is why there is a tradition of regarding him as the “3rd Buddha.”

Chih-kuan for Beginners (also known as Hsiu-hsi chih-kuan tso-ch’an fa-yao; T’ung meng chih-kuan; Hsiao chih-kuan) is considered one of his minor works, but in actuality, it may be his most influential. It was the first popular introduction to meditation in Chinese Buddhism. In the 8th century, it became the model for meditation instruction in the Ch’an school. Japanese scholar Sekiguchi Shindai says that many later meditation manuals were also patterned on this short treatise, including Fukan zazen gi by Dogen (1200-1253 CE).

This introductory manual was supposedly written for Chih-i’s brother, Ch’en Chen, an army general. It’s said that Ch’en Chen was terminally ill but after performing the repentance mentioned in the text, he completely recovered. Most scholars, however, don’t believe that Chih-i personally wrote anything, rather his “works” are compilations of his lectures, fashioned into a number of individual texts, primarily by Kuang-Ting, his immediate disciple. Paul Swanson says, “It [Chih-kuan for Beginners] was probably compiled while Chih-i was sequestered on Mt. T’ien-t’ai (from the age of 38 [575] to 48)—a time when he had a ‘great awakening’ . . .”

Although Chih-kuan for Beginners is a rather short work, it nonetheless contains all the necessary instruction that one needs to begin and maintain a meditation practice. That is not to say that the text was intended to be used as a substitute for personal training with a qualified instructor. “Beginners” is a bit of a misnomer because, in spite of its short length, it goes into nearly microscopic detail on the “essentials” for practice, and thus, it is extremely valuable to more advanced practitioners.

“Consequently the chih-kuan dharma door to enlightenment is not shallow.” “Shallow” is meant literally. Even the simplest teachings of Buddha-dharma are extremely deep. Another translation reads, “If one understands accordingly, then it will be quite apparent that this Dharma entryway of stopping and contemplation is truly not a shallow one.” A few sentences on in the Luk translation it says: “Instead of slighting the seeming shallowness of the text, Truth-seekers should blush to find that these steps are difficult to practice.”

On one hand, Chih-i (or the compiler) is simply expressing some humility. It may be false humility as far as the “seeming shallowness of the text” is concerned, for anyone who reads Chih-i’s works, shallow is the last word that comes to mind. Nonetheless, humility is a good quality for both teachers and practitioners to cultivate.

Earlier in the selection from Monday’s post, Chih-i mentions that if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion the practice is unbalanced. To stay balanced I feel it’s important to always go back to the prime points, return to the basics. All these ancient masters say the same thing, that everything you need to fare on the Way you get at the very beginning. Chih-i tells us that the path does not go beyond the practice of chih and kuan, concentration and insight, or as Chih-i understood the terms, stopping and seeing.

That’s why I think it is important to have a “lifetime beginners” spirit, and why I am skeptical of those who claim to have attained arhatship or enlightenment. Even to suggest it says to me that there’s an attachment formed to the idea. So if you become enlightened at 27 or 33, what is there left for you? I can’t help but feel that the attachment only grows until it destroys the seeking mind, the beginner’s spirit. I don’t know if it is what Chih-i calls “stupidity” or “infatuation” but either way, I don’t buy it.

Buddha-dharma is both profound and simple. It is simple because what is so complex about a calm mind? It is profound because it is pointing directly at the true nature of reality, which ultimately is beyond our comprehension. Same thing with meditation. Counting your breath. What could be simpler than that? Staying in the present moment. At times, nothing can be more difficult.

Consequently the chih-kuan dharma door to enlightenment is not shallow. When receiving beginners to initiate them to the Path, it is easy to preach the Dharma which is, however, very difficult to practice. How, then, is it possible to expound in full what is deep and subtle?

For the benefit of beginners, I now briefly present the following ten essentials for treading the right Path so that they can achieve the progressive stages leading to (their realization) of nirvana. Instead of slighting the seeming shallowness of the text, Truth-seekers should blush to find that these steps are difficult to practice. However, if their minds are ripe for the teaching, in the twinkling of an eye their sharp wisdom will have no limit and their spiritual understanding will become unfathomable. If they aimlessly drag about words and terms and allow their feelings (and passions) to distort the teaching, they will fritter away their time and will fail to achieve realization; they are like a man who counts the treasures belonging to others. What advantages can they expect therefrom?


It is an acknowledged but underappreciated fact that the modern Buddhist traditions of Japan owe a lot to the Tendai school and its Chinese parent, T’ien-t’ai. As I mentioned in a recent post, it was because of the efforts of Tendai founder, Saicho, that the Buddhist schools in Japan adopted the “bodhisattva precepts” as the basis of ordination. Furthermore, the Zen, Jodo (Pure Land) and Nichiren schools all originated from Tendai, as their founders were originally priests in that tradition.

Meditation as practiced by the Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen schools also developed out of the teachings of the de facto founder of T’ien-t’ai, Chih-i. Today, T’ien-t’ai is often described as a “philosophical school” however this is inaccurate, as it was also very much a meditation school. Buddhist scholar Neal Donner has noted that of thirty-five works by Chih-i which remain extant, about half deal with practice. Indeed,  Chih-i was the first Chinese Buddhist to produce a meditation manual. The fact that Chih-i’s contributions to Buddhist doctrine are such that he deserves to be placed in the same class as the Buddha and Nagarjuna is probably the chief reason that many scholars have tended to emphasize the philosophical aspects of his teachings at the expense of his meditation instruction.

Donner also notes (in The Great Calming and Concentration of Chih-i) that in his early works, Chih-i used the term ch’an (Chinese translation of dhyana or “meditation”) for spiritual practice and later replaced it with chih-kuan:

It is of great interest, however, that while Chih-i used the word ch’an in the earlier work, this was replaced by the word chih-kuan in the MHCK [Moho Chih-kuan] and others of the master’s later opera, so that since that time, it has been the term chih-kuan which has signified religious practice in the T’ien-t’ai (and Tendai) school, while the Ch’an school appropriated for itself the term which Chih-i had already discarded as not being comprehensive enough.

Zazen (Ch. zuo-ch’an), the heart of Ch’an/Zen practice means “seated meditation”, a somewhat generic term. Japanese Zen also uses the terms shikan and shikantaza. Shikan has two referents: it refers to chih-kuan, which is the Chinese translation of samatha-vipasyana (concentration and insight), a term for the traditional method of Buddhist meditation; and it refers to the system of meditation associated with Chih-i and the T’ien-t’ai school: chih-kuan or “stopping and seeing.”

The best explanation of Chih-i’s chih-kuan that I have found is in a footnote to the translation of T’ung Meng Chih-kuan (“Chih-kuan for Beginners”) by Charles Luk (Lu K’uan Yu):

Chih Kuan: samatha-vipasyana. Chih is silencing the active mind and getting rid of discrimination, and kuan is observing, examining, introspecting. When the physical organism is at rest, it is called chih and when the mind is seeing clearly it is kuan. The chief object is the concentration of mind by special methods for the purpose of clear insight and to be rid of illusion.

Donner makes some even more interesting points in the postscript to his thesis. He remarks on the differences between the Mahayana approach to meditation and that of the other branch, which the Mahayanists gave the derogatory name of Hinayana. The Mahayana understanding of emptiness led their meditation practitioners to recognize the non-duality of concentration and distraction. Hinayana practitioners, on the other hand, quoting the Chinese text Ta-chih-tu-lun, “[try to] exclude distraction and seek concentration, developing thoughts of anger amid dharmas of distraction, and developing thoughts of attachment amid dharmas of concentration.”

Donner further notes a tension in early Mahayana between the dhyana (meditation) approach and the prajna (wisdom) approach. He mentions the threefold division of the Eightfold Path, also known as the “three knowledges”, which is dhyana, prajna and sila (morality or ethics), saying “that dhyana (samadhi) and sila produce prajna – in this case, prajna is understood as an effect or result, though it may also be considered a cause, and then is better understood as ‘intellection,’ ‘gnosis’ or ‘discernment.’

And yet, sila was not truly “Mahayanized” until Saicho founded the Tendai school in Japan.

Chih-i’s meditation teachings some centuries earlier then focused essentially on dhyana and prajna. He was not the first Buddhist to stress the need for balance between the two, however, it is a message he repeats often. The key to understanding Chih-i is through appreciation of his non-dualistic, holistic inclination and his love for harmony and inclusion.

It is a message that has relevance to us today, as we see that some persons feel that Buddhism can be learned primarily from study and acquiring knowledge, while others believe that it is only through meditation that any benefit is realized.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Chih-i’s Chih-kuan for Beginners, as translated by Luk:

The attainment of Nirvana is realizable by many methods whose essentials do not go beyond the practice of chih (samatha) and kuan (vipasyana). Chih is the first step to untie all bonds and kuan is essential to root out delusion. Chih provides nourishment for the preservation of a knowing mind and kuan is the skilful art of promoting spiritual understanding. Chih is the unsurpassed cause of dhyana and kuan begets wisdom, he who achieves both chih and kuan is fully competent to work for the welfare of self and others. Hence, the Lotus Sutra says: ‘The Buddha while dwelling in Mahayana used the transcendental power of the dhyana and wisdom (prajna) which he had realized to liberate living beings from birth and death.’ Therefore, we know that this twin realization is like the two wheels of a cart and the two wings of a bird. Partial practice of them is wrong.

Hence, the sutra says: ‘The practice of dhyana alone, while wisdom is disregarded, causes stupidity and the practice of wisdom alone, while dhyana is disregarded, causes infatuation.’ Although stupidity and infatuation are relatively minor faults which differ from each other, their contribution to recurrent wrong views is identical.

If dhyana and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient; how can it lead to speedy realization of the Supreme Fruit? Thus is why the sutra says: ‘Sravakas [voice-hearers, disciples] cannot perceive the Buddha nature because of their excessive dhyana; Bodhisattvas of the tenth stage do not perceive it clearly because of their excessive wisdom; (and) all Tathagata Buddha perceive it clearly because their dhyana and wisdom are in equal proportion.’

Therefore, chih-kuan is the main gate to the great nirvana, the unsurpassed path of self-cultivation, the index to perfection of all excellent virtues and the true substance of the Supreme Fruit. Consequently the chih-kuan dharma door to enlightenment is not shallow.

When receiving beginners to initiate them to the Path, it is easy to preach the Dharma which is, however, very difficult to practice.

Mindfulness is not a comfort zone. It’s a challenge.

First, let us consider what mindfulness, that is, sitting in meditation does. Numerous studies have shown there are tangible benefits to be gained from meditation. The most recent one will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. MRI images were taken of the brains of volunteers two weeks before and after they took an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness.  MRI scans of a control group of people who did not participate in the course were also analyzed.

You can read the details here at Science Daily, where Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author is quoted as saying,

Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.

Specifically, the study found increase in the grey matter density in the hippocampus (important for learning and memory) in participants and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. No increases were found in the control group.

That brain structure is changed by meditation may not exactly be proof of Dogen’s maxim that “sitting is enlightenment” (“practice and enlightenment are one”, shusho-ichinyo) but just sitting certainly has verifiable and substantial benefits. These studies only confirm what many persons have known for a long time. In 1954, some fifty-seven years ago, meditation master Yin Shih Tzu wrote in Tranquil Sitting,

Meditation develops your innate energies. With practice, you can take charge of your mind and body, preventing disease before it arises. Shouldn’t everyone make an effort to learn something like this? Superficially, meditation looks easy, but if you practice without patience, determination, and a long-term sense of devotion, you will never realize its benefits.

Yin Shih Tzu alludes to the first two challenges of mindfulness. One, is simply to do it. Actually, meditation doesn’t always look easy. I can think of any number of activities that require less effort and concentration. The second challenge is to keep doing it. Not so easy either. Perhaps it is not everyone’s experience, but for me, maintaining a regular practice has at times been a real struggle.

However, the biggest challenge is to carry mindfulness in our daily life. It’s one thing to be mindful while sitting or when engaged in some dharma activity. What really matters, though, is when we are in any one of the seeming infinite irritating, frustrating, patience-testing, humor-losing, anger-provoking situations we encounter almost daily.  That’s when mindfulness really counts.

As the study cited above shows, just sitting in meditation, by itself, can naturally produce changes that help us keep our cool in stressful situations, as well as improve our ability to focus and maintain attention to whatever we’re doing; still, some active discipline is required on our part. There’s that split-second, that flash of a moment, when we make a decision to react in either a positive, neutral, or negative way. I know from my own experience that no amount of time spent on the meditation mat can aid if you have not learned the basic art of controlling your mind and emotions. Meditation helps with that, too, and that why we sometimes call it “training the mind”, and yet in the end, it’s up to us.

In the SGI they used to say, and no doubt still do, “Buddhism equals daily life.” This is the prime point of Buddhist practice. Because it’s in daily life that we confront our sufferings head on. And so, daily life is where we must overcome those sufferings. Total mindfulness.  That’s what we’re after. Or, as close to that as we can get. Daunting. Awesome.

Right meditation is not escapism; it is not meant to provide hiding-places for temporary oblivion. Realistic meditation has the purpose of training the mind to face, to understand and to conquer this very world in which we live.

Nyanaponika Thera, Power of Mindfulness

It’s important that always we make the connection between sitting and day to day activities. Daily life is the real challenge of mindfulness, and if you are like me, perhaps you’ve found that it is also where we get some of the most profound and useful realizations.

Nagarjuna taught that the city of Nirvana has three gates: emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness. These are also known as the three doors of liberation (vimoksamukha).

Emptiness (sunyata) is knowing that all things in their conventional or mundane aspect are non-substantial.

Signlessness (animittata) is the emptiness of signs. It refers to not seizing upon things in their mundane aspect and using them as objects for clinging.

Wishlessness (apranihitata) is abstaining from actions based on passion and desire.

Nagarjuna tells us that the three gates also correspond to knowledge, wisdom, insight, and that they are called samadhi because the gates cannot be entered without a “collected mind.” Without this crucial element the gates cease to be gates and become only “cases of confusion.” Using samadhi as an expedient, one enters the city of Nirvana free of passion and this is the real freedom, “the residueless of freedom.”

Dharma then is the path that leads to the three gates and samadhi or meditation is the vehicle that carries us along the path and into the city. Those who say that meditation does not lead to freedom  or Nirvana do not understand that in teaching samadhi it was like the Buddha handing us the keys to the car.

The city is not a real city because Nirvana is not a place but a state of mind. The gates themselves are only expedients in terms of emptiness, signlessness, and wishlessness. In respect to knowledge, wisdom,  and insight, these are the glimpses of enlightenment or Buddhahood we collect as we fare along the path. Yet, it should be obvious that none of these things are within our reach as long as we remain in states of confusion. A confused mind cannot think clearly let alone see clearly enough to be able to even make out gates or cities.

In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (as translated by Robert Thurman) it reads

What is ‘Joy in the pleasures of the Dharma’? . . .  it is the joy of unbreakable faith in the Buddha . . . It is the joy of the renunciation of the whole world, of not being fixed in objects, of considering the five aggregates to be like murderers . . . It is the joy of always guarding the spirit of enlightenment, of helping other beings . . .  it is the joy of the exploration of the three doors of liberation . . .  it is the joy of acquiring liberative techniques and the conscious cultivation of the aids to enlightenment . . .

True renunciation is done in the mind. It has little to do with what one wears as clothes, or whether one’s head is shaved or not, or one’s lack of possessions. On the other hand, it has everything to do with using the expedient of samadhi.

Back in June, I called attention to the story of Prasannamati Mataji, a Jain nun who “had given up all her worldly wealth  . . . had given up her family, and was wandering the Earth, treading as lightly as possible.” The Jains practice an extreme asceticism. For instance, while Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads, Jains pluck their hair out one by one. Jains cannot even beg for their meals. They can signal their hunger, but never ask for food.

Prasannamati Mataji’s commitment to this severe ascetic life was inspirational. Then what became a very moving story turned into an unsettling one.  Prasannamati Mataji had formed a deep attachment to her companion, a fellow nun. Falling ill, her friend decided to end her life by practicing sallekhana, the very slow ritual denial of food. When she died, Prasannamati Mataji came undone, and eventually she decided to join her friend by practicing sallekhana herself.

Prasannamati Mataji denied that was suicide. Suicide is a sin, she said, the result of despair. Yet, by the end of the story, her deep depression over the loss of her friend was all too apparent.

I’m not certain when the piece was written, it’s just one chapter in William Dalrymple’s book Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. Assuming that it took several years for the book to be written and published, and considering that Prasannamati Mataji’s sallekhana would take two or three years to accomplish, I wonder what her current situation is, or if she even has one. I haven’t found any recent information on the web.

I also can’t help but think the ending her like in such a way is a waste. For this woman has acquired so much wisdom and seems to have so much to give to others, if only by example. Prasannamati Mataji’s story, beautiful and haunting, has stayed with me all these months.

The cause of Prasannamati Mataji’s suffering was her attachment, her love for her friend. The author of the story wrote, “to be truly detached, you can’t love.”

Her aim is to achieve spiritual freedom. But is she free? Or is her spirituality a sort of prison?

Buddhism has a different path: The Middle Way. We want to sever unhealthy attachments, the extreme forms of clinging, but we do not want to become so detached from life and the world that our love is restricted to only universal love.

A well-known Buddhist saying goes, “Life is precious. A single human life is more valuable that all the treasures of the universe.”

But we know that life is not simply a matter of being alive, just living. To live fully requires knowledge of know how to live meaningfully.

When our minds are open, we see that life is limitless. It has no bars, no fences. The only limit to life is the limit of our capacity to live it deeply, to the fullest. While at times we may be encumbered by physical limits, our capacity for living fully is for the most part determined by our thoughts.

So Buddhism teaches that our quality of life is equal to the quality of our mind. That’s why we are advised to cultivate positive, loving and creative thoughts. Buddhism teaches us how to train our mind and then how to use it.

This is perhaps the most valuable thing we can ever learn. It’s a different kind of education than the one we received in school, and even all our worldly experience cannot give us the same kind of lessons in living.

In one way, it’s learning how to be still and listen. We train ourselves to be still so we can hear the stillness that is deep within the mind. We learn to let this inner peace permeate our being, and then we learn how to let it permeate our environment. Our inner peace helps us make peace with the outer world.

Once we have achieved a state of harmony, we want to be able to maintain it. We learn how to skilfully manage the entanglements of life. We learn how to walk the tightrope of having things and not having unhealthy attachments to them. We learn how to give love but not seize love or cling to love.

Really, the greatest treasure might actually be found in simply acquiring these abilities.

We can choose how to think and how to live. Remember the old saying, master your mind, don’t let it master you.

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.

- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Meditation practice requires focus that goes beyond the ability to center our mind on one spot and keep it there. We also have to stay focused on practice itself. This kind of focus is like an auxiliary practice or a practice wrapped around the practice.

Artur Rubinstein, the famous pianist, once commented that if he missed practice for one day, he noticed it. If he missed two days, his family noticed it. If he missed three days, his audience noticed it.

If we’re inconsistent, it’s difficult to maintain focus. We can get pulled away very easily by distractions. When we lay off for a while, it is just that much harder to get the focus back.

Busy lives make it harder. Balancing everything, making time for this thing and that, some of which we have to do and some of which we want to do, and then to also practice . . .

Even when we are practicing on a regular basis, it can be tough. I’m not the most disciplined person in the world. For instance, I don’t always wake up in the morning with a burning desire to sit and meditate. I want to watch the morning news, check my emails, go outside with my coffee, almost anything else. I’ve had to use every trick in the book to get myself in front of the altar. The hardest part is to not begrudge doing it.

I feel like more might be gained in those times than in all the others when my practice seems to flow naturally, when it’s not such a challenge.

If we’re not challenging ourselves in our practice, or letting the practice challenge us, then we’re missing out on great opportunities for growth. Robert Thurman said once that Buddhism is just a bunch of tools. But tools have little value if unused.

The kind of focus I’m talking about could also be called determination, perseverance,  commitment – there’s many words that match. A line in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra reads, “Single-mindedly yearning to see the Buddha, they do not begrudge their lives.” Some translations have it as “they do not hold their lives dear” or “not caring for their own lives,” and “not hesitating even if it costs them their lives”.

I like the word “begrudge” because it has the connotation of “giving with reluctance.” So then to not begrudge your life means to not to live with reluctance.

And it means not to practice with it either. We are the Buddha we are yearning to see. But we cannot see this Buddha if we are reluctant, holding back, begrudging our practice or ourselves. When a begrudging attitude arises, we have to fight through it. Challenge ourselves. Stay focused. And to win over ourselves.

Only when you become skilled at churning, can you obtain butter. Likewise, you cannot ascend to the stage of wondrous realization without practice.

– Chih-i

‘Single-mindedly desiring to see the Buddha’ also means to see the Buddha in one’s own mind, to concentrate one’s mind on seeing the Buddha, and that to see one’s own mind is to see the Buddha.

– Nichiren

Tarzan's chimp, Cheeta, had a real bad case of Monkey Mind

Saturday CSPAN2’s Book TV re-aired a panel from the 2010 Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest this past June. The subject was how technology is affecting our minds and one of the panelists was Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

The book has been called a “Silent Spring for the literary mind.” I would say any mind. Carr is of the opinion that the Internet is changing our brains and not necessarily for the better.

Here is a pretty accurate transcription of what Carr said at the beginning of the CSPAN2 program. After reading a sentence from Carr’s book (“The price we pay to assume technologies’ power is alienation.”) the panel moderator went on to ask him if he thought “alienation is a necessary byproduct of our winding up bombarded by all this stimuli?”

Yes, I do. I’m using alienation not in the kind of metaphysical sense, but in the very simple sense that technology alienates us in different ways from ourselves . . . it happens . . .  in the most extreme and the most personal and the most intimate ways with media and other technologies that we use to think with . . . I think we’re seeing it with the Internet and other digital technologies. One on the hand they give us enormous convenience, they give us access to far more information than we ever had access to before. But on the other hand . . . they are emphasizing a certain mode of thought and deemphasizing another mode of thought. I think what the net and related technologies are doing is emphasizing the side of our mind that wants to skim and scan and browse and jump around and gather as much information as possible,  a very kind of primitive side of our mind . . . but what they’re deemphasizing is a very different mode of thought, slower, quieter, more solitary, the mode of thought that underskins contemplation, introspection, reflection . . . and I believe that we’re seeing on a personal level and a societal level a shift away from those modes of thought to this ever faster more superficial . . . mode of thought . . . My fear is that lose our capacity for the more contemplative modes of thought we are going to lose something very important to us as individuals and also one of the underpinnings of culture in general.

If Carr’s right, or only half-right, perhaps we should reconsider how we choose to use the Internet and other new technologies. This would seem especially crucial for Buddhists, or anyone who practices meditation. According to Carr’s research, our brains are changing on a cellular level and not only are we losing our ability to pay attention and focus, but also we’re eroding our contemplative mind, the very thing that we as Buddhists are trying to cultivate.

Those who have been so earnestly promoting online practice and sanghas might now want to reevaluate. I’m not saying that they have no value, yet considering some of the rather extravagant claims I’ve read, not to mention some insensible criticisms of traditional modes of communication, I am beginning to feel that this is seriously misleading people, however unintentionally.

I am certainly aware that these new technologies are not going away, nor would I want them to, as I greatly appreciate and enjoy all the convenience, access to information and fun they provide. However, the prospect of a future overrun by people with ADHD is rather frightening.

Actually, Buddhism considers Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to be our normal state with or without technology. We call this “Monkey Mind.”

Those of you already familiar with the term might have noticed how Carr’s statement quoted above contained a very accurate description of Monkey Mind: “the side of our mind that wants to skim and scan and browse and jump around.”

Most scholars seem to believe that the term “Monkey Mind” originated in China. I’m not so sure. Chih-i in the T’ung Meng Chih Kuan or “Stopping and Seeing for Beginners,” composed in the 6th Century CE, quotes a sutra (which not identified in any English translation that I’m aware of): “A fixed mind is like a bound monkey.” This sutra could be an apocryphal Chinese text, but it could also be an authentic Indian sutra.

In any case, a modern meditation master, Yin Shih, in his book Experimental Meditation for the Promotion of Health, offers a good explanation of Monkey Mind:

The mind is like a monkey and does not stop for an instant. What then should we do? We should prevent this monkey mind from moving by tying it to a stake and it will cease jumping about aimlessly. In the practice of [meditation] the first step is to fix the mind on an object (hsi yaun chih). When the false mind moves, it looks for something that is called its object. When all of sudden it thinks of one object, then of another, and then of a third and a fourth; this is its clinging to objects. The purpose of [meditation] is to fix the wandering mind to a post in the same way that a monkey is tethered to a stake; this stops it wandering.

A number of reliable studies in recent years have shown that people with ADHD can benefit from meditation. In fact, nowadays, it is almost universally accepted that meditation is an effective tool for reducing stress, improving health, and boosting concentration and creativity.

Most of us know this and it shouldn’t be necessary to go through all the reasons why a “contemplative mind” is something that we should not only cultivate, but cherish. The questions we need to consider are: Does the Net and other digital technology cancel out everything we gain from meditation? Do we break even? How should we balance this out?

If, as Carr suggests, the contemplative mind is important both individually and culturally, then we need to take steps to protect it. Of course, not everyone is convinced by Carr’s arguments, and they point to the fact that the jury is still out, after all while some studies support his thesis, others have found significant cogitative benefits from exposure to the Internet and digital media. But if we ignore the possible negative effects, if we wait until the jury comes in, it may be too late to reverse the damage done.

Lastly, let me share with you something from Winston Churchill. It’s a piece of wisdom that has really helped me out as I’ve made my way down this long road of life: “Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room.”

Now you know.