Eileen Chang (Sept. 30, 1920 - Sept. 8, 1975)

I have an abiding interest in Chinese literature, both ancient and contemporary, but my knowledge is by no means comprehensive. Consequently, I had never heard of Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) until a couple years ago.

One autumn afternoon I was standing outside of my apartment building when an Asian woman approached and began taking photos of the building. I didn’t think anything of it, since our place receives a fair amount of attention due to it having been a location in the classic film noir, Double Indemnity (we’re also a stop on several sightseeing tours).

I guess the woman felt uncomfortable with me standing there, despite that I really wasn’t paying much attention to her, and she felt compelled to explain why she was taking photos. I thought I knew why.

“I take pictures because a famous Chinese writer lived here.”

“Really? Who?”

“Eileen Chang.”


“Lee Ang make film of one of her stories.”

To which I brilliantly replied:

“Oh, you mean Ang Lee.”

Yes, that’s who she meant. The director of such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. The woman quickly departed and I quickly went upstairs to Google this Eileen Chang. Five minutes later, I regretted not inviting the woman in to look around so I could pump her for every bit of information she had on Eileen Chang. The woman knew which apartment Eileen Chang rented (just two doors down from my own apartment), so she must have had more info. But how was I to know?

Eileen Chang, as it turned out, was an well-known and influential writer in China during the 1940’s. On her Wikipedia page it reads: A poet and a professor at the University of Southern California, Dominic Cheung, said that “had it not been for the political division between the Nationalist and Communist Chinese, she would have almost certainly won a Nobel Prize”.

Eileen Chang wrote short stories and novels, to considerable acclaim, and wrote scripts for a number of popular Chinese films. However, that was a few decades before Ang Lee made Lust, Caution, based on Chang’s short story by the same name.

As a young woman, Eileen Chang’s attitude was rather reminiscent of James Dean’s (today is the 55th anniversary of his death), for in 1944, at the age of 24, she wrote, “To be famous, I must hurry. If it comes too late, it will not bring me so much happiness . . . Hurry, hurry, or it will be too late, too late!”

In 1952 she left Shanghai, moved to New Hampshire where she married her second husband, a screenwriter named Ferdinand Reyher. She was 32 at the time and he was 61. Reyher died in 1967 and afterwards Eileen Chang worked for a number of universities, including UC Berkeley, until 1972.

After that, she apparently became a recluse. I don’t know when she moved into this building, but I understand that she left around 1978, shortly before my own arrival. In 1995 she was found dead at the age of 75 some miles west of here (Westwood) in what has been described by all accounts as a “barren” apartment. Her death certificate states the immediate cause of her death to be Arteriosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease (ASCVD).

You can read the details of her life here, and more here.

I can imagine that her apartment in my building was equally barren, similar to this one, what in California we call a single (one room, bath and kitchen) just a floor below:

I can picture her gazing out the window as she pauses in her work, putting the finishing touches on Lust, Caution, which took her almost 20 years to complete, or slaving over her translation of The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai (Biographies of Flowers Beside the Sea), “a celebrated Qing novel in the Wu dialect by Han Bangqing,” which was not found until after her death. She would have been able to see the Hollywood sign, the hills and the luxurious homes that dot them, and instead of the ugly apartment building that is next door now, an old Craftsman style house. She likely had a bed of some kind and perhaps a desk, although probably not much more than that. Maybe some curtains. I don’t know but I have a feeling that she wrote by hand and didn’t use a typewriter.

Chang was considered a consummate prose stylist and an interesting aspect of her literary career is that in some cases, she was also her own translator. Some of her other works in English translation include Love in a Fallen City, The Rice Sprout Song and Written on Water.

I wish I knew more about her, especially about her time  in this building. She would have been around 58. I wonder if she was a recluse then. Interestingly, this building seems to attract people of the reclusive persuasion.

Eileen Chang’s life is wrapped in a certain amount of mystery, so much of the details will probably remain unknown, although I suspect I would know more if I was able to read Chinese.

In any case, today is her birthday and I thought a remembrance here might introduce some readers to this remarkable woman and writer.

Here are a few excerpts. In the first, notice how she bridges the span of time with just a few carefully chosen words:

“The Golden Cangue”

The green bamboo curtain and a green and gold landscape scroll reflected in the mirrors went on swinging back and forth in the wind–one could get dizzy watching it for long. When she looked again, the green bamboo curtain had faded, the green and gold landscape was replaced by a photograph of her deceased husband, and the woman in the mirror was ten years older.

“Lust, Caution”

Though it was still daylight, the hot lamp was shining full-beam over the mahjong table. Diamond rings flashed under its glare as their wearers clacked and reshuffled their tiles. The tablecloth, tied down over the table legs, stretched out into a sleek plain of blinding white. The harsh artificial light silhouetted to full advantage the generous curve of Chia-chih’s bosom, and laid bare the elegant lines of her hexagonal face, its beauty somehow accentuated by the imperfectly narrow forehead, by the careless, framing wisps of hair. Her makeup was understated, except for the glossily rouged arcs of her lips. Her hair she had pinned nonchalantly back from her face, then allowed to hang down to her shoulders. Her sleeveless cheongsam of electric blue moire satin reached to the knees, its shallow, rounded collar standing only half an inch tall, in the Western style. A brooch fixed to the collar matched her diamond-studded sapphire button earrings.

“Sealed Off”

When he saw the smoked fish [another passenger is carrying with gingerly care], he remembered the steamed spinach buns that his wife had asked him to buy at a noodle stand near the bank. Women are always like that! Buns that are bought in the hardest-to-find, most twisty-wisty of tiny alleys have to be the cheapest and the best. She didn’t consider how it made him look–a man smartly dressed in dapper suit and tie, with tortoiseshell glasses and a leather briefcase, and then, tucked under his arm, these steaming hot buns wrapped in newspaper–how ridiculous!

Happy Birthday to Eileen Chang, and James Dean, well . . . as some guys once said, you were too fast to live, to young to die, bye-bye . . .

Stephen Hawking says that it’s not necessary to invoke God in order to explain the creation of the universe. I feel the same way about God and Buddhism. It is not necessary to invoke God to explain dharma.

But for some reason that baffles me, a lot of people think it is.

Now, you will hear some individuals say that the Buddha neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a supreme creator being. This agnostic interpretation is not quite correct.

First, we have to consider what is meant by the word “God.” If one is referring to the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the truth is that the subject never came up. There is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that this God, Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Allah, was known in India during the Buddha’s time. It’s possible, but there are no references to this particular God in any traditional Buddhist literature. Consequently, the Buddha could hardly speculate on something he had never heard of.

While it appears that Buddha was tolerant of native Indian deities, this does not mean that he took them seriously. At the same time, there is little ambiguity about his attitude to some other notions.

One of these was the concept of Brahman, a term that originally referred to magical power harnessed through the Vedic mantras. At some point, Brahman became associated with the power of creation. Another view of Brahman was that of an impersonal “word-soul” fused with the individual self (atman). Later, Brahman, then identified with Prajapati, an earlier creator deity, became Brahma and was transformed into a personal deity, the god of creation.

In the Brahmajala-sutta, the Buddha criticizes ideas such as the externalism of the world and the self, and world creation by a supreme being or force. David Kalupahana, in Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, says “In fact the Buddha did not consider the content of this knowledge to be identical with any Ultimate Reality. Nor did he consider such knowledge as constituting salvation.”

But the most important clue we have to the Buddha’s thinking on this subject is found in his own doctrine of causality, pratti-samppada or interdependency, in which things arise continually owing to causes and conditions. In this view, there is no beginning, only, if we must, a beginningless beginning. This basic Buddhist doctrine has often been represented as the Wheel of Existence, and in Buddhaghaosa’s Visuddhi-Magga, as presented by Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, it reads, “No God, no Brahma can be found, no matter of this wheel of life, just bare phenomena roll, depend on conditions all.”

Also ruled out is the possibility of a First Cause and a creator as such, ideas that Nagarjuna later thoroughly destroyed with his Madhyamaka dialectic: “Why would an efficacious creator be dependent? He would of course produce things all at once. A creator who depends on something else is neither eternal nor efficacious. If he were an entity he would not be permanent, for things are perpetually instantaneous . . .” [Bodhicittavivarana]

Approaching the subject from every angle, Nagarjuna demonstrated how a First Cause and/or creator deities such as Isvara are not logical and therefore, not tenable.

The plain truth is that no matter how you present it, twist it, shape or shade it, creators and supreme beings do not fit in with Buddha-dharma.

Nyanaponika Thera writes, “From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings.”

In some cases today, the word “God” is used as a reference to “being” or “ultimate reality.” However, this too must be rejected, as Nyanaponika Thera goes on to say: “On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality.”

I don’t feel that there is any need for Buddhists to rely on this word. The vast majority of people in the world when they hear “God” cannot help but hold an image in their mind associated with the common usage of the word, that of a supreme creator being. God just has too much baggage to be useful. From a Buddhist point of view, as a term, label, concept, name, being – however it is posited, it is nothing.

Some well-known and respected Buddhist teachers, from Shunryu Suzuki to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, have attempted to either use God as a tool to facilitate dharma understanding or to show links and parallels between Buddhism and other religions. While well intentioned, it’s misguided.

Just because God as a concept is familiar to Westerners, does not mean that it is at all helpful in explaining Buddha-dharma. I think this usage is actually counter-productive as it only reinforces the notion of a supreme-being on the subconscious level. Many Westerners want to cling to the concept of God, even though they are in denial about it. That’s one reason why using God as synonym for bodhicitta, dharmakaya or any other Buddhist concept, in my opinion, is misleading.

Buddhism is not in competition with other faiths. We can debate whether or not Buddhism deserves to be called a religion, but what is incontrovertible is the fact that Buddhism stands unique in the realm of religious or spiritual philosophy. The only “religion” that comes close to approaching Buddhism is Taoism, so then linkage with other religions, especially the three Western monotheistic religions, is tenuous at best.

I must admit that I have a problem with those who want to be both Christians and Buddhists, along with similar hybrids. It seems like spiritual schizophrenia to me. It’s like being pulled in two directions. Ultimately, regardless of how “God” is conceived, it becomes outer-directed. Buddhism is inner-directed. I just don’t see how they can be compatible. However, that is a discussion involving tariki, other power, and jiriki, inner power, which must be left for another day.

And speaking of another day . . . As I write this, it looks like Southern California is in for another day of brutal temperatures. Monday was a record-breaking 113. I don’t think I have ever experienced such truly blazing heat in my life. Now I know what Avichi, the Hell of Incessant Suffering, must be like. It is at times like this that I kind of wish there was a God to invoke, to implore . . . Please God, make it cooler, make the heat go away . . . send some more clouds, send some rain, a marine layer, anything . . . please? If you could just do this one thing, I promise I’ll be good . . . just help relieve my suffering this last time and I’ll change, I swear . . . I’ll do whatever you want me to . . . Pretty please . . . God?

I haven’t written a poem in quite a while, but last night these words came upon me:

life supreme
the all of true
inevitable locks
the keys to locks
shapings worn
open gates

arcane goddess
embodies the world dream
and we in soul evil
world vain
rent our knowledge
from prison darkness

open the gate
a plums song is heard
on whistles way
completing a distance
once traveled
in sweat and sleep

before we mourn
the death of dreams
let creative forces live
mending nature
let it be as itself
of soul beautiful
all beautiful
in what goddess wings

that in all fertilities
flesh forces us

then we come to a
gate like love
to denounce the
vultures of form

Marilyn Monroe sang about tropical heatwaves and started them.

We’re having a heat wave. 98 today. And it’s just starting. 99 tomorrow. 101 on Monday. I don’t have air conditioning. I only need it a couple weeks out of the year. Look’s like this is going to be one of them.

It’s too hot to write, or do much of anything that requires any real thinking. It’s really tough on the poor kitty. She’s been lying on the relatively cool linoleum floor in the kitchen all day. I joined her for a while. Wasn’t bad.

No fires, but there will be. A lot of dry brush out there . . . Ah, nothing like autumn in Southern California with the smell of smoke in the air and ashes floating down to earth on gentle breezes . . . Last year we had the Station Fire that lasted two months. Each day a huge mushroom cloud of smoke towered above the hills and mountains east of the city. You can see the photos I took here.

Earlier this week I was feeling a bit melancholy. September for some reason seems to the month in which big changes in my life have always occurred: geographic changes, meeting significant people, starting new jobs, and so on. One I marked yesterday was the 28th anniversary of the day that I officially became a Buddhist. I celebrated with a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream. Let me tell you, on a really hot night, that is Nirvana.

So, I was feeling melancholy . . . or maybe pensive is a better word. Reflective. Anyway, I thought about this passage by Nichiren. I don’t often quote Nichiren because for the most part his writings are so dogmatic they aren’t very useful to anyone outside of the tradition which bears his name. Sometimes, though, he could be rather poetic.

This is one of those instances and I’d like to share it with you:

How swiftly the days pass! It makes us realize how short are the years we have left. Friends enjoy the cherry blossoms together on spring mornings and then they are gone, carried away like the blossoms by the winds of impermanence, leaving nothing but their names. Although the blossoms have scattered, the cherry trees will bloom again with the coming of spring, but when will those people be reborn? The companions with whom we composed poems praising the moon on autumn evenings have vanished with the moon behind the shifting clouds. Only their mute images remain in our hearts. The moon has set behind the western mountains, yet we shall compose poetry under it again next autumn. But where are our companions who have passed away? Even when the approaching Tiger of Death roars, we do not hear. How many more days are left to the sheep bound for slaughter?

Deep in the Snow Mountains lives a bird called Kankucho which, tortured by the numbing cold, cries that it will build a nest in the morning. Yet, when the day breaks, it sleeps away the hours in the warm light of the morning sun without building its nest. So it continues to cry vainly throughout its life. The same is true of people. When they fall into hell and suffocate in its flames, they long to be reborn as humans and vow to put everything else aside and serve the Three Treasures in order to attain enlightenment in their next life. But even on the rare occasions when they happen to be reborn human, the winds of fame and fortune blow violently and the lamp of Buddhist practice is easily extinguished. They squander their wealth without a qualm on meaningless trifles but begrudge even the smallest contribution to the Buddha, the Law, and the Priest. This is very serious, for then they are being hindered by messengers from hell. This is the meaning of “Good by the inch invites evil by the yard.”

Letter to Niike

Actually, there is some doubt as to whether this is an authentic Nichiren writing. Regardless, it’s a nice passage.

I’ve never felt that Buddhism was concerned with discovering, embracing or flaunting our ‘inner child,’ except perhaps in the sense of experiencing a “renaissance of wonder,” to borrow a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I may not have a good handle on what the term ‘inner child’ means, but it sounds like something that belongs with “pop” psychology and spirituality. Practicing Buddhism is about finding inner wisdom, a process that requires a certain level of maturity, and should result in an increased level of maturity.

Spiritual maturity isn’t a topic I’ve heard discussed much. As a concept, I imagine that you could easily pick it apart, and yet, I think it’s a quality that’s recognizable when you see it, hear it, or read it.

Obviously, spiritual maturity is tied in with our mental and emotional maturity. Scientists have a newly developed scan that can measure the maturity of the brain which according to reports is “an advance that someday might be useful for testing whether children are maturing normally and for gauging whether teenagers are grown-up enough to be treated as adults.” [Washington Post]

I don’t know if there’s any way to gauge something as subtle as spiritual maturity. At the same time, if they someday developed a scan for it too, I wouldn’t be that surprised.

Some years ago Norman Fischer, former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, wrote a book entitled Taking Our Places: the Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, and while it’s aimed at teenagers, I think we’re talking about a quality that transcends the measure of one’s years:

When I think about the world of the future, with so many difficult choices ahead, I know that only mature people will be able to deal with what arises. I am heartened by the many people I know – young and old alike – who are concerned with their own maturity and willing to work toward it with courage and energy. The development of human maturity does take much work and effort. But I am sure we are all capable of doing the work and enjoying the fruits. Maturity can’t be hurried or produced on schedule. Growth takes time. We have to steep ourselves for a while, like a good cup of tea. We need to go through what’s necessary for us to endure . . .

Our particular lineage of Zen, founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, puts little emphasis on enlightenment. It’s not that we are unconcerned about enlightenment or that we are opposed to it. Enlightenment is certainly important. Personally seeing the truth of the teachings, breaking through the habit of self-centeredness, opening out to something much wider, and having some clarity and flexibility – all of this is crucial . . . Maybe someone is not very enlightened, or not enlightened at all. But if he or she is mature, it is good enough, for as Suzuki Roshi taught us, it is the ongoing practice, carried out with balance, faith, perseverance, kindness, and willingness to reach out to others, that is the most important thing. To practice like this takes a quiet and stable maturity.

Buddhist practice should be life changing. There are concrete measures we can take to facilitate transformation and enhance our practice. Three important ones would be:

Active listening – this is a new buzzword, but I rather like it. Most of us really don’t listen very well. Active listening means to make a conscious effort to understand and interpret what we hear. This also applies to study, since reading is listening with the eyes.

Learning from contemplative thinking – reflected in the ways that we change our thinking, learn to make better choices, engage in better actions, and avoid repeating negative patterns. Learning in Buddhism is more than acquiring knowledge and gaining insight, it’s akin to the psychological sense of behavioral change, learning to use new behaviors.

Commitment to growth – spiritual and personal growth are difficult to maintain, development occurs over time and requires dedication and determination, along with the spirit to take advantage of every opportunity for growth.

Here are some more important characteristics. You might be familiar with the physical characteristics of a Buddha (the 32 Signs and the 80 secondary characteristics) but these you may not have run across before. I’m not sure where I got this list, but it lays it all out nicely, I think. After all, maturing spiritually is just becoming a Buddha:

Characteristics of a Buddha

1. Does not stumble.

2. Not harsh in speech

3. Always mindful.

4. Makes no distinctions.

5. Always able to concentrate.

6. Has an open mind.

7. Enthusiastic about things.

8. Maintains energy.

9. Mindfulness never fails.

10. Concentration never fails.

11. Wisdom never fails.

12. Deliverance never fails.

13. Thinks before acting.

14. Thinks before speaking.

15. Avoids negative thoughts.

16. Understands the past clearly.

17. Has vision for the future.

18. Lives in the present moment.

One of the stated goals of Buddhist practice is non-attachment, to break free of conceptual thinking or as Nagarjuna described it, to “stand outside appearance, outside sensation, outside concepts, outside forms, and outside consciousness.”

In our pursuit of this goal, we are led to the ultimate truth, where we discover that all signs (nimitta) are meaningless. Nothing more than just labels to cling to, they are utterly false.

Yet, to live in this saha or mundane world, we must use signs, for without them there is no language and no communication. Signs have a practical value. It is helpful to be able to use names and labels to differentiate between various objects, for instance, to convey the difference between a pear and an apple. We know they are both fruit, but we want to determine which variety.

Nagarjuna says that designations and the objects they designate are not one, nor are they different.  They cannot be one for if that were the case then the word would burn when we said “fire.” They cannot be different because there is no designation without a thing designated and vice versa.

Language and the attempt to communicate lead us away from the ultimate truth and into the world of appearance, designation and differentiation – the trap of conceptual thinking wherein we seize and cling to false things believing them to be real. How can we break free from conceptual thinking when every word, every sentence, and for that matter, every thought, binds us further?

Nagarjuna goes on to say, “The Buddha’s dharma is based on two truths: the relative, or conventional truth, and the ultimate truth. Those who do not understand the relationship between the two do not understand the profound point of the Buddha’s teachings.”

This understanding is a gate to freedom.

Clinging to signs and appearances is just one end of the spectrum. At the other end are those who latch on to the ultimate truth and interpret everything from that perspective. They will stand on the ultimate to denounce the relative

They are justified in the ultimate sense, but  the efficacious aspect of the relative is disregarded. As a result, the ultimate becomes an object for clinging, and what on the surface appears to be non-dualistic thinking is actually the opposite.

Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, for whom the teachings of Nagarjuna were a primary influence, understood well this principle of the two truths. In Muchu Setsumu, he wrote, “Therefore, all things, both in a dream state and in an awakened one, are manifestations of the Truth.”

Dogen understood that the relative, represented here by the dream state, and the ultimate, the awakened state, are “two but not two.” They are one and the same truth. Each merely reflects a different aspect of the same reality. Two sides of the same coin.

Nagarjuna also tell us, “The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the conventional truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, Nirvana cannot be realized.”

In other words, we can use the relative to convey the ultimate. On one hand, the ultimate truth is inexpressible, but on the other hand, even though language is completely inadequate, it is possible to communicate our meanings for the ultimate truth by using concepts and signs. Language, then, becomes a tool to help us realize awakening.

Here we should see that the point is not merely that what is conventional or mundane is false. It’s actually about being be able to skillfully use knowledge of the ultimate in order to understand and utilize the relative, and to avoid clinging to either truth.

Through the false, we obtain the true. Looking at it another way, we can say that the relative truth is ultimate truth applied to daily life.

The Buddhas have the ability to keep free from clinging to individuality and yet help all in the spirit of great compassion. [Nagarjuna] points out that the Great Compassion is the root of the Way of the Buddha. The constitutive factors of the [dharma-body of the Buddha] are the limitless wisdom and the unbounded compassion; there are the different phases, different expressions of the ultimate truth of the undivided being on the plane of mundane life. It is as wisdom and compassion that the ultimate is relevant to the conventional, in regard to wayfaring.

K. Venkata Ramanan

As for the love story:

After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be
Assured that love is just a four letter word

Bob Dylan

Today, I’d like to direct your attention to a very good post by Katherine at On the precipice. She addresses a number of important topics pertaining to the present state, and the future, of Buddhism, particularly here in the West. I’m impressed with her thoughtful presentation.

She approaches these challenges, as she calls them, within the context of contemplative living, and although I suspect that my sense of that may not be the same as hers, it is a practice oriented perspective that resonates with me.

Katherine summarizes the issues as:  “1) The subject of dana and generosity, and how it has not very successfully been translated here; and 2) The issue of gender inequality and the general lack of (recognized as such) realized women teachers within the Buddhist institution — the same can be said for lack of racial diversity; as well as 3) The challenges for monasticism, particularly for women in the Theravada tradition.”

While that’s quite a lot to deal with, these issues have been bubbling for some time and some of them really should be dealt with in the present (you know, that place where we’re all supposed to be) and not be left to boil over some time in the future. I also feel that these issues transcend gender and tradition. As far as I’m concerned if there is inequality for some, there is inequality for all.

So, for those interested in these subjects, please read: Some Challenges of Living a Contemplative Life Today.

Another subject that is demanding our attention now is Islam and the biggest problem about it is ignorance. The sad fact is that most of us don’t know much about this faith. I think it’s important to have some understanding of different religions. Almost everything I understand about Islam, which isn’t much, has come from Karen Armstrong’s book, Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, which I recommend as a good introduction.

Now, Deepak Chopra has just published a new book, a novel called Muhammad: A Story of the Last Prophet. Say what you will about Deepak Chopra, he often acts (or is cast) in the role of a spokesperson for an alternative spiritual point of view that is fairly congruous to Buddhism, and that’s not a such a bad thing.

Some people may be thinking that it might not be the smartest thing to write a fictionalized account of the life of The Prophet, but Chopra is unconcerned about any possible backlash. Regardless if it’s a calculated risk in the commercial sense or an act of courage, hopefully it will encourage other writers who would like to explore various aspects of Islam but are reluctant to do so out of fear.

At SF Gate, Deepak Chopra shares his thoughts about writing the book: Muhammad and the Litmus Test.

Lastly, I think that if you put Zen in the title of something, it attracts people. That’s why I called this post The Zen of Everything. That was probably the idea behind the title of this article in the Atlantic which has absolutely nothing to do with either Zen or Buddhism: Zen and the Art of Picking Blackberries.

Well, there must be something to Buddhist-inspired names, as evidenced here: Bullish on Buddha?

Tenju Kyoju or “transforming heavy into light” is a term used in a number of Japanese Buddhist schools. Often understood as ‘lessening the effects of negative karma’, the presence of the Chinese character “chóng” meaning “repetition” suggests another sense, that of changing repeated negative patterns of thought, word and deed.

Habits can be hard to break. Deep seated thoughts are not easily dislodged. “Transforming heavy into light” is possible by cleaning up negative tendencies, habits and addictions. From a purely Buddhist point of view it is not altogether necessary to understand why we are compelled to repeat negative patterns, so much as it is to understand that we can stop it with the adoption of opposite behavior (pratiprak-sabhavana).

The Eastern spiritual traditions have developed many practices to effect the transformation of karmic tendencies. One aspect that is central to many of these practices is the taking of vows (vrata) which is said to form tendencies opposite to those ones that binds us to hard-to-eliminate negative thought patterns and habits.

If karma is dependent upon intention, then the patterns that produce negative karmic tendencies can be countered with the purest of all intentions: the vow to realize awakening for the sake of all living beings.

We call this Bodhicitta or the Thought of Awakening.

You who are accustomed to dwelling abroad in the marketplaces of destiny, seize firmly that highly priced jewel, the Thought of Awakening, so well-attested by all those with immeasurable minds . . . Whoever has committed the most dreadful evil may escape at once by taking refuge in this thought . . . This Thought of Awakening is to be understood as twofold: it is the idea of dedication to Awakening [bodhipranidhiccitta) and the actual pilgrimage towards it [bodhiprasthana].

Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life

It’s taught that the first instant in which a person conceives of the desirability of attaining awakening for the sake of others is identical with awakening itself. Of course, that should not be taken literally. It doesn’t end there. Once the thought has been produced, it is the subsequent determination to actualize the thought that nurtures the aspiration and sets in motion the conditions that make it possible for positive karmic tendencies to be strengthened and negative ones lessened.

The seeds of karmic potentialities reside deep within the consciousness, and it is from there, beginning with a new deep-seated thought pattern, bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, that we can “transform heavy into light.”

The sea of all karmic obstacles arises from illusions. If you wish to make amends for your past karma, sit upright and meditate on the true aspect of life, and all your offences will vanish like frost and dewdrops in the sunlight of enlightened wisdom.

Sutra of Meditation of the Bodhisattva Universal Virtue

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

The sky has changed. The light isn’t summer light anymore.

The days are getting shorter. The sunsets now have a deeper shade of gold.

Next week will be the Autumnal Equinox.

Time flies. It seems like it was autumn just a year ago.

Have you ever seen a wheat or barely field in late summer? Sometimes, when the crops have grown nicely and the heads of the plants are rich with grain, the tops bend over. The stalks of the plants can’t hold those rich heads of grain upright. And when the plant does not produce a full head of grain, it stands very straight as the breeze blows over it. This means that the heads are almost empty. Plants that are empty of grain will naturally stand higher and plants that are rich with grain will bend over. Actually, it is much the same with us.

Sermey Geshe Lobsang Tharchin