They say humor is the best medicine. Norman Cousins famously recovered from a heart attack by watching Marx Brothers movies. I could use some humor. Last night I turned on the TV to look for some. I tuned in to the Emmys. There’s always some humor on awards shows. Well, let me tell you in case you missed it, there were jokes a plenty. Unfortunately, none of them were funny. Well, maybe they were. Maybe I’m just too old to get them. Now, that’s really funny, and the joke is on me.

Anyway, I gave up on the Emmys about half-way through and decided to create some humor of my own. At least, that’s what I intended it to be  . . . So, today’s post is a toast . . . to sacred cows.

Sacred Cow — n. informal; a person, institution, custom, etc, unreasonably held to be beyond criticism (or bad jokes).

Sacred cows make the best hamburger.

- Mark Twain

Secretly, the Buddha knew that enlightenment could only be found at Dairy Queen but he was reluctant to reveal the teaching because the people's minds were not ready for it.


Surprisingly, few people are aware that the Dalai Lama is also a pulp fiction hero.


No one gives a dharma talk quite like Thich Nhat Hanh.


Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, Robert Thurman couldn't help but be frustrated when Ron Artest broke in on his lecture to announce he was changing his name to Metta World Peace.


Actually, I do have one sacred cow.


Last week in Sri Lanka, a group of roughly 100 Buddhist monks and their supporters destroyed a Muslim shrine said to have been built on a piece of property given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago. One of the participants, a monk named Amatha Dhamma Thero, told the BBC that “he and 100 other monks from various Asian nations destroyed the Islamic shrine because Muslims in the country were seeking to convert the locale into a mosque.”

According to the BBC report, “The mob waved Buddhist flags and – in one picture – burnt a green Muslim flag. There have been no other reports of what happened.” Witnesses to the incident claim the police were present but did nothing to stop the destruction. The police deny they were there, but the photo on the right, published on a number of sites reporting the incident, clearly shows men wearing some sort of uniform looking on.

A local senior Muslim denies that a mosque was planned.

Sinhalese is the majority ethnic group in Sri Lanka. Most Sinhalese are Buddhist. Theravada Buddhism is the state religion. Politicians and government officials routinely make pronouncements about how Sri Lanka is the center of Buddhism, and responsible for preserving dhamma, and so on. It’s sort of a Buddhist version of American exceptionalism.

Sri Lanka has a democratic, socialist government (the President is Buddhist). And while Sri Lanka has universal suffrage, the government has been accused of human rights violations in regard to the treatment of minorities, especially the Tamil who are Hindu. To be fair, there’s probably enough questionable treatment of others to go around on all sides over there. However, since I am a Buddhist, that’s the part  that interests me.

Some time back, I read an article by Chamara Sumanapala  entitled “Can A Buddhist Be A Racist Or A Nationalist?” The gist of his piece is that Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka are “misusing Buddhism as a tool to achieve their own ends.”

Sumanapala begins his article with this statement,

An observer of Sri Lankan politics would notice that many if not all nationalist and racist elements of the Sinhalese community are Buddhists.”

The Sinhalese see themselves as a “chosen people.” This belief stems from The Mahavamsa or “The Great Chronicle”, a Pali text, actually a poem, which advances the notion that the Buddha made magical flights to the island of Sri Lanka and chose its people to be responsible for the preservation of Buddhist dhamma.

Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor of Anthropology at Princeton and a leading scholar of Sri Lanka, writes,

The Mahavamsa is not just a text that gives us information on Sinhala-Buddhist identity; much more importantly it is a text that helps to create such an identity in a way that the previous chronicle, the Dipavamsa, did not. And central to that process of identity creation is the hero, Dutthagamani Abhaya (161-137 BCE), the man who conjoins the land or the place, Sri Lanka, with the sasana, already blessed by the Buddha as a place where the Dhamma will flourish. And when the anguished king asks the monks what consequences will befall him for having killed millions of people, the monks reply, that no real sin has been committed by him because he has only killed Tamil unbelievers, no better than beasts. And more gratefully the Mahavamsa monks assign Dutthagamini a place in heaven in the proximity of the next Buddha, Maitreye.”

Of course, I don’t know the entire story of the incident last week, or how much of what Chamara Sumanapala writes is valid, or to what extent attitudes fround in The Mahavamsa have actually shaped the culture of Sri Lanka, but on the surface none of it sounds very buddistly, as Jeff Bridges would say.

Destruction, whether it be Buddhist statues carved in the side of a cliff or a Muslim shrine, is an act of hate. I’ve always thought of Buddhism as being concerned with the art of construction, specifically the construction of shrines of loving-kindness in human hearts.

All beings tremble before violence.
All fear death.
All love life.

See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?
What harm can you do?

He who seeks happiness
By hurting those who seek happiness
Will never find happiness.

For your brother is like you.
He wants to be happy.
Never harm him
And when you leave this life
You too will find happiness.

from the Dhammapada, rendered by Thomas Byrom

Rep. Weiner admits at last that his denials last week were false, apologizes but refuses to resign.

One of America's first political sex scandals involved Alexander Hamilton after it was revealed he had an affair with a married woman.

This is a fine mess he’s gotten himself into. It’s almost chilling to think of that as he was thinking about how he could lie his way out of it, Weiner might have caught a few minutes of news coverage of the Casey Anthony trial where her videotaped lies were played in court.

Two different situations but the same behavior of denial and deception.

Politicians and other celebrities engage in bad behavior partially because of a sense of entitlement that we, addicted to culture, give them. They want more power, more love, more glorification. One of the women who received photos from Weiner stated he needed to know that she wanted him.

Nan Britton wrote the first kiss-and-tell book, in which she claimed to have an affair with Pres. Warren Harding. She was 24. He was 55.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews said, “We expect people who govern to be able to govern themselves.” Instead of a sense of entitlement, politicians should be motivated by a sense of responsibility. I think most start out that way, but then they find out it’s easy to take shortcuts. They discover they can get away with stuff. Because they are entitled to. Because they are famous. Because people like them and want them.

We’ve turned politicians into rock stars. Well, the media has. It’s something they’ve sold to us and we’ve been willing buyers.

It’s not a new problem. In the Tao Te Ching it is written,

If you do not glorify great men
Then people will not quarrel
If you do not cherish possessions
Then people will not steal
If you wish to be rid of desire
Then do not look at objects of desire.

If we only glorified the great . . . but most of the people we exalt aren’t even near great.

On the surface, it seems like a form of narcissism. After all, what could be more vane than sending out pictures of yourself to women in that manner. However, I don’t think that’s what is going on here. It’s more like, if I can get this person to like me, glorify me, give more power, then I’ll be happy, or happier.

These obsessions stem from the fact that we look outside of our own lives for happiness. We think happiness can be found in other people, in acquiring money, having sex, being glorified by others.

Tarzan was outraged when reporters accused him of sleeping with this woman while Jane was away.

I think religion is the major cause for this condition. From the very beginning of life we’re told to look to something external for happiness and salvation. This supernatural being will reward us if we are good, punish us if we do bad, but most of all, this being wants us to love him, want him.

We’re conditioned to look outside, counting on friends, lovers, jobs, cars, money and so on to bring us the satisfaction that already exists within, if we would only look there and tap into it.

This is why I believe that Buddhism has a unique message and a real answer for this problem. As far as I am aware, Buddhism and Taoism are the only two major religious philosophies that teach self-power. The rest are all looking to some other-power to save them.

That doesn’t mean that Buddhists are necessarily immune to the syndrome. We certainly do our share of placing certain people on very high pedestals. We need to pull back on the glorification of teachers. If we don’t give them power (beyond what a teacher should reasonably have), then they cannot abuse their power.

The sage leads by opening the mind of people,
And helps them to satisfy their needs
by weakening their attachments
and strengthening their spirit.
The sage helps all people to let go of their desires,
and then, confounds those who think
they possess superior knowledge.

By practicing doing nothing,
Everything is in harmony.

Religious scholar Huston Smith is 92 today. A very happy birthday to him.

Smith is best known for his book “The Religions of Man”, first published in 1958 and apparently now titled “The World’s Religions.”  It’s considered to be a classic primer to comparative religion.

I have always thought his section on Buddhism was rather good. I especially like the way it starts:

Buddhism begins with a man . . . While the rest of the world was wrapped in the womb of sleep, dreaming a dream known as the waking life, one man roused himself. Buddhism begins with a man who shook off the daze, the doze, the dream-like inchoateness of ordinary awareness. It begins with a man who woke up.”

Unlike other religious philosophies, Buddhism is not concerned with magic or the supernatural. Buddha-dharma is about human beings, human affairs, earthly events. The experience Gautama had beneath the Bodhi Tree was neither mystical nor mysterious; it was a human experience. It has to be, or else we could never hope to have the same experience ourselves.

Smith tell us that the Buddha’s teachings were earth-bound, rational, and pragmatic. He lists six corollaries of religion and then gives six reasons why Buddha-dharma is “almost entirely disassociated” with them:

1. Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.

2. Buddha preached a religion devoid of ritual.

3. Buddha preached a religion devoid of speculation.

4. Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition.

5. Buddha preached a religion of intense self-effort.

6. Buddha preached a religion devoid of the supernatural.

Then he presents six terms that summarize the Buddha’s approach to religion:

1. It was empirical.

2. It was scientific.

3. It was pragmatic.

4. It was therapeutic.

5. It was democratic.

6. It was directed to individuals.

[Smith offers an explanation to each of these, however it would too lengthy to include them here.]

Buddhism is a humanistic philosophy in the most literal sense. It was given by a human being to human beings. The teachings addressed human problems, the human malaise, human suffering. Even though there may be gods in the background, the dharma Buddha taught was not about them. The only mystery he was seeking to solve was the mystery within the human mind.

Earlier in the book, Smith writes,

Finally religion brushes with mystery. It is always mixed up with magic and mysticism and miracles; with the occult, the esoteric, and the uncanny; with things like spiritualism and the supernatural. Rationalists may complain and all will deplore its credulity and excesses in some of these directions. Religion’s final business is the infinite, the beyond, the beckoning, and its coin is ecstasy. It will always, therefore, lie tangential to what is mundane, ordinary, and prosaic and move away from these even when it can only grope in the direction of their alternative.

When I compare this description of religion with the lists, I can’t make out why Smith keeps referring to Buddhism as a religion. It seems to me that he makes a convincing case otherwise. The way I understand Buddhism is that the “mundane, ordinary, and prosaic” are never moved away from – on the contrary, that is the direction the Buddha encouraged us to head toward. It is actually the mystical that is tangential. Mysticism may be employed, but it is only a tool. Supernatural powers may be on display within the literature, but only as metaphors. It’s the same thing when we talk about the mind being infinite like space. It’s a metaphor for openness and interdependency.

In “The Religions of Man”, Huston Smith says, “Religion’s final business is the infinite.” Interestingly, Rabindranath Tagore, whose phrase “the endless further” I took for the title of this blog, is well known for his book “The Religion of Man.” It was published some 27 years before Smith’s book and while it was not on the subject of comparative religion per se, Tagore did discuss at length his ideas on the universality of religion. This passage conveys what I think Buddhism means when it talks about the infinite. Here, Tagore is discussing

[What] Buddha has described as Brahmavihara, “living in the infinite”. He [Buddha] says . . . ‘To be dwelling in such contemplation while standing, walking, sitting or lying down, until sleep overcomes thee, is called living in Brahma’.

This proves that Buddha’s idea of the infinite was not the idea of a spirit of an unbounded cosmic activity, but the infinite whose meaning is in the positive ideal of goodness and love, which cannot be otherwise than human. By being charitable, good and loving, you do not realize the infinite, in the stars or rocks, but the infinite revealed in Man. Buddha’s teaching speaks of Nirvana as the highest end. To understand its real character we have to know the path of its attainment, which is not merely through the negation of evil thoughts and deeds but through the elimination of all limits to love. It must mean the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself, which unites in its bosom all those to whom we must offer our sympathy and service.

So, we should always approach Buddhism with our feet on the ground and not with our heads in the stars. The Buddha was not on some “cosmic” mission. His quest was earthly. His dragons were the windmills of the mind.

Buddhism begins with a man . . . This is why a Tendai priest named Nichiren once said, “The real meaning of Shakyamuni Buddha’s appearance in this world lay in his behavior as a human being.”

Most people think of tai chi as a form of gentle exercise, but technically, it’s a martial art. It’s also a way of meditation, and a way of life.

Tai is “great.” Chi does not mean “energy” or “life force” (ch’i, qi, ki) as one might expect, instead it refers to yin and yang (two polar forces in the universe) fused into the Great Ultimate, represented by the Tai-chi (taiji) symbol to the left. The Great Ultimate is fundamentally the Non-Ultimate, or the Ultimate of Non-being.

The health benefits of tai chi are pretty well documented now. Many studies have determined that tai chi has a positive effect on mental health, cardiovascular fitness, high blood pressure, muscle strength, flexibility and aerobic capacity. A new study by the Korea Institute of Oriental Medicine in Daejeon, South Korea and the University of Exeter (UK), published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, concluded that while tai chi offers little help in easing the symptoms of cancer or rheumatoid arthritis, “tai chi, which combines deep breathing and relaxation with slow and gentle movements, may exert exercise-based general benefits for fall prevention and improvement of balance in older people as well as some meditative effects for improving psychological health.”

Here are the so-called Eight Truths of Tai Chi, translated by Waysun Liao* from “early manuscripts by unknown masters.” I don’t know if “truths” is the right word, for they are not facts, but rather principles, ones that apply not only to tai chi but also to meditation itself, and for that matter, daily living.

The Eight Truths of T’ai Chi

1. Do not be concerned with form. Do not be concerned with the ways in which form manifests.

2. Your entire body should be transparent and empty. Let inside and outside fuse.

3. Learn to ignore external objects. Allow your mind to guide you, and act spontaneously, in accordance with the movement.

4. The sun sets on the western mountain. The cliff thrusts forward, suspended in space. See the ocean in its vastness and the sky in its immensity.

5. The tiger’s roar is deep and mighty. The monkey’s cry is high and shrill. So should you refine your spirit, cultivating the positive and the negative.

6. The water of spring is clear, like fine crystal. The water of the pond lies still and placid. Your mind should be as the water and your spirit like the spring.

7. The river roars. The stormy ocean boils. Make your ch’i like these natural wonders.

8. Seek perfection sincerely. Establish life. When you have settled the spirit, you may cultivate the ch’i.

* Waysun Liao, T’ai Chi Classics (Random House, 1977)

Life is good and to be enjoyed.

The individual self is one with nature, an integral part of the vast universe. The Buddhist quest is to realize our “greater self” and to obtain liberation from the “lesser self”, the self of ego, self-cherishing and clinging. The view from the greater self is like the view from the top of mountain. It’s hard not to be enthralled with the vista. The lesser self is like standing on the land below in the fog. The view is limited.

To me, this is what is meant by the phrase chen-k’ung miao-yu (Jp. shinku-myou) or “true emptiness, wondrous existence.”

Chen-k’ung or “true emptiness”, refers to the realm of thought, the mind that realizes the emptiness of all things. It’s a state of mind that, free from attachments, is likened to space – it’s non-obstructive, open, infinite. Miao-yu, “wondrous existence”, says Buddhist scholar Ng Yu-kwan, “would imply an affirmative but non-attaching attitude toward the dharmas [things] in the world.” In other words, emptiness does not deny or reject existence, rather it offers us insight into the mystery of existence, it’s inexplicableness, and the glorious interdependency of everything.

Chih-i interpreted the word miao as “subtle.” Paul Swanson, in Foundations of T’ien-T’ai Philosophy, states, “For Chih-I the word ‘subtle’ symbolized and summarized that which is beyond conceptual understanding and thus it is the word most appropriate to describe reality, which is ultimately indescribable.”

This is similar to what is expressed in the Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be known is not the infinite Tao.
The name that can be named is not the infinite name.
The unnamable is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is mother to ten thousand things.
Those without constant desire see into its subtlety.
Those with constant desire, only see its limit.
These two have the same origin
But are given different designations.
We call them both mysteries.
Deepness within deepness:
The gate to all subtleties.

It may sound strange but you should be pleased to know that things are empty, for it is what makes existence truly wondrous.

In The Heart of Understanding, Thich Nhat Hanh, commenting on the maxim “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” from the Heart Sutra, says,

‘Emptiness’ means empty of a separate self. It is full of everything, full of life. The word ‘emptiness’ should not scare us. It is a wonderful word. To be empty does not mean to be nonexistent.”

When one has attained this understanding of the oneness of true emptiness and wondrous existence and is liberated from thought processes that form attachments, our saha or mundane world is transformed into a world of ten thousand wonders.

The message today then is that letting go of attachments does not mean that we cease enjoying life and seeing emptiness does not mean to depreciate beauty.

Because, as Han-shan Te-ch’ing said, “so-called existence is called ‘wondrous existence’ because the illusory existence is fundamentally non-existent”, we can see the world around us clearly, without veils of desires and attachment before our eyes, or as if we were standing on a mountain above the fog, and that enables us to embrace what we see and what is enjoyable about life from a profoundly higher level of appreciation.

Life is good and to be enjoyed.

Enjoy being a laughing, smiling, happy Buddha all day.



The title of this post comes from a line in a Bob Dylan song. I don’t know if Bob believes in reincarnation or not. I rather doubt it, since he has fairly conventional religious views. But who knows? Shirley MacLaine definitely believes in reincarnation. Buddhists probably shouldn’t because it’s not really a Buddhist concept. Buddhism teaches rebirth.

Reincarnation is the theory that the same person will be reborn in successive bodies. The core teachings of Buddhism say nothing about this. Reincarnation found its way into Buddhism through the assimilation of folklore and native beliefs. Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul or a self that can transmigrate. So, rebirth is different from reincarnation. What Buddhism is talking about is a continuum of consciousness. The difference may seem slight, but its there.

Still, some people may wonder if then rebirth isn’t also just another supernatural belief we should cast off. The funny thing is, I don’t think of rebirth as being supernatural. It seems rather scientific to me.

Looking at existence just in terms of the cycle of birth and death, we know everything that is born will eventually become old and sick and then die away. On that, there is no question. What happens next is debatable. Yet, it would appear from the way nature and the universe behaves that things are recycled. Leaves fall to the ground to become compost that helps other plants to grow and it’s also food for worms and the worms become food for ants and beetles, and so it goes in a continuous cycle.

The universe itself continuously recycles energy and mass at both the subatomic and macro-atomic level. Atoms, molecules, planets, suns, and even galaxies are destroyed and the energies are dispersed to be reassembled in other forms. Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics called this “the Cosmic Dance”:

The exploration of the subatomic world in the twentieth century has revealed the intrinsically dynamic nature of matter. It has shown that the constituents of atoms, the subatomic particles, are dynamic patterns which do not exist as isolated entities, but as integral parts of an inseparable network of interactions. These interactions involve a ceaseless flow of energy manifesting itself as particles are created and destroyed without end in a continual variation of energy patterns . . . The whole universe is thus engaged in endless motion and activity; in a continual cosmic dance of energy.”

Here we also have science revealing patterns of interdependency, consistent with the Buddhist concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada). Additionally, science tells us that new matter and energy are created about every trillion years. So, evidently what we see as birth and death is not birth and death at all, it is only the transformation of matter and energy. It’s recycling.

Some years ago, Princeton physicist Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok of Cambridge University unveiled the “cyclic universe theory” which suggests, “that space and time may not have begun in a big bang, but may have always existed in an endless cycle of expansion and rebirth.”* The beginningless beginning . . .

I don’t feel that it’s deal breaker if existence does not unfold exactly as Buddha-dharma has laid out. It’s the overall principle that is important. Nor, do I believe it is out of the realm of possibilities that the recycling of energy may not also apply to living beings. For these reasons, I am reluctant to dismiss rebirth as just some supernatural notion that deserves no attention or contemplation.

Yet, I think people make too much of the question of rebirth. People shouldn’t feel that, well, if I practice Buddhism then I will be expected to believe in this “supernatural” stuff. But if you keep your mind open, then it’s possible that you might perceive deeper meanings about the inevitability of change and life manifesting itself in interrelated patterns within cycles of  time and nature.

Birth and death are just cycles of life and Buddhism says that throughout these cycles, nothing is created and nothing is destroyed. It’s just life, flowing . . .

This teaches us the humility of our mutual dependence as well as the universality of our true nature and the freedom from that most deadly of all illusions, the illusion of a permanent, separate ego. Whatever resists transformation condemns itself to death. There is no death for those who accept the law of transformation.”

Lama Anagarika Govinda, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness

The sweet pretty things are in bed now of course
The city fathers they’re trying to endorse
The reincarnation of Paul Revere’s horse
But the town has no need to be nervous

Bob Dylan, Tombstone Blues


Although Vesak (Pali: Vesakha; Sanskrit: Vaisakha) is often called the “Buddha’s Birthday”, it’s actually three celebrations rolled into one: the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni (Sage of the Shakyas), and of course, as the Buddha.

The date for Vesak differs according to tradition and country, but generally it’s held on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which would be today. So happy Vesak day to everyone.

Of course, no one knows for sure when the Buddha was born or when he died, or even if there actually was such a person. Sometimes I am inclined to believe that the Buddha’s story was crafted from that of Mahavira, who was the real architect of Jainism as we know it today, or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe there actually were two guys with nearly identical backgrounds who arrived on the Indian spiritual scene at basically the same time with very similar teachings. Maybe they’re both myths. It’s likely we’ll never know.

As far as Buddhism goes, it doesn’t matter. Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Because the Buddha is portrayed as a human being and not a god, his awakening represents the potential for awakening that exists within every human being. It’s not important whether one particular person was the first to awaken. Plenty of others awakened after him, and we can too. That potential is like a seed and when it sprouts in anyone, that person is, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.”

Tsung-mi (780-841), regarded as both a patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master, composed a work entitled Yuan Jen or “On the Original Nature of Human Beings.” It’s often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings. In this piece, he wrote,

All sentient beings posses the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.”

For Buddhists, then, the Buddha is the personification of all our ideals and values. He attained the highest spiritual achievement, but the same is never beyond our own reach. To me, Vesak is about commemorating that potential for Buddhahood. We are really celebrating ourselves. We are him and he is us. His day is our day.

The term ‘all Buddhas’ means Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni Buddha is synonymous with one’s very mind being Buddha. At that very moment when all the Buddhas of past, present, and future have become, do become, and will become Buddha, without fail, They become Shakyamuni Buddha. This is what “Your very mind is Buddha” means.

- Dogen, On ‘Your Very Mind Is Buddha’ (Soku Shin Ze Butsu)

I once had a disagreement with the monk who runs a local Buddhist monastery. I was concerned some of the people he had around were using him, taking advantage of his good nature. What bothered me the most was that he realized what was going on but was being complacent about it. During our conversation, out of my frustration I got a bit excited – but I thought for good reason – then I said, “I’m sorry. I’m passionate about things sometimes.” He replied, “That’s what we’re trying to cure.”

I wanted to say, “Yes, but passion can be good. What about a passion for peace? For justice?” But, I didn’t. He was uncomfortable having the conversation, so I dropped it. Later on, I understood that from his view of the cycle of birth and death, where he had lived countless lives in the past and would live countless lives in the future, some problems in this present life did not seem very important. Perhaps he also thought that being a doormat was a sacrifice he was making for the dharma. Maybe he felt that as long as it served his end, what did it matter? In that way, he was probably using them as much as they were using him.

While I understood his point of view, I was still disappointed he didn’t do anything. He comes from a culture where people naturally seek to avoid what they think might lead to confrontation. But, the feeling is not exclusive to that culture. Many people avoid talking about things directly for the same reason. Though, I suspect that it’s often just an way to avoid dealing with problems or difficult situations.

I like directness and I appreciate that quality in others. I like things to be clear, out in the open. I like to know where I stand and what others are thinking, even if it is unpleasant for me to hear. It’s preferable to being in the dark and not knowing.

So when I have to deal with a difficult person who evades discussion, I’m frustrated. I feel I am being stonewalled. Because I am also a somewhat emotional person, I dislike holding in my emotions. The challenge is not to vent my frustration in anger. A challenge I sometimes fail to meet.

This is not to say that anger is always a negative thing. Compassionate or righteous anger can be positive if directed in a reasonable way. However, I have learned from cold, hard experience that, just as we should master our mind, we need to also master our emotions. It’s basically the same thing. When we express our frustration, we need to be able to do so skillfully. The term we often use in Buddhism is upaya or “skillfulness.” Here it means coming from a place of wisdom and compassion and with cool-headedness.

Another teacher of mine once told me that if you want to reach a person’s heart, first you must know what’s already there. I hadn’t bothered to try to see the situation from the monk’s point of view. I was just looking at what was right and wrong.

We may not be able change others, but we can always change ourselves. The first step is to rethink what is in our heart. For that, we have to dispel our conceptions and judgments, often our biggest obstacles in communicating with others.

Even after we rethink and still feel we were right, so what? The important thing is how we use that right. We may think we have truth on our side; however, truth is neither negative nor positive, it’s merely a fact. The use of truth is where skillfulness comes into play.

There’s the analogy of the butterfly collector, who sees a beautiful butterfly and pins it to the board. There’s no escape for the poor creature. We can do that with people. We can so right, so justified in our point of view, that our attitude pins them to the board where there is no flexibility. When people feel this is happening to them, it is only natural that they shutdown and stonewall us.

It’s very easy to pin others, to perceive their faults. To some people the whole idea of finding out who is to blame has its own purpose. It’s part of trying to avoid the unsavory act of taking responsibility. But it’s a waste of time. You just end up with some sense of righteous indignation, which does not create any value or lead to any real solutions. To recognize “self” and realize how our ego is trying to protect itself at all costs, admitting that we were wrong or that we did something stupid, helps to defeat that nature, that egoism within. To do that is actually a great accomplishment.

Most of all, it is empowering. Realizing that we are the cause of our problems means that we are also the solution. We have both within.

The empowering aspect of responsibility is what gives us the means to prevent whatever we are going through from becoming a long, painful austerity. The difficulties we experience from our interaction with others can be overcome. Frustration may persist, but it becomes the joy of concern and not the suffering of human relationships.

In the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha tells this story:

There was once a boy called Himalaya Kumara or Snow Mountains Boy, so-called because he lived in the Himalayas where white peaks rose above the clouds and the rivers, streams, and ponds were clear, and the forests were deep green and filled with medicinal trees. Beautiful flowers decorated the countryside. It was home to countless species of animals and birds.

Kumara stayed there by himself. He lived off the sweet fruits, the varieties of which were innumerable. He spent much of his time in deep meditation. Kumara had mastered many teachings but he had never heard of Buddha-dharma or any of the Mahayana sutras.

Sakra, who was also known as Indra, the ruler of the Heaven of Thirty-three Devas, and all the other devas wondered at this boy who practiced so earnestly. Sakra said, “I see how this Snow Mountains Boy named Kumara seems intent upon his path, and his seeking seems pure, yet I am not sure about him. I will test him to see if he is a true seeker, an earnest wayfarer.”

Shakra went to the Snow Mountains where he assumed the form of the rakshasa (flesh-eating demon), a gruesome and terrifying creature.  He stood a short distance from where Kumara sat and recited a verse of a teaching that began:

All things change,
This is the law of birth and death.”

When Kumara heard this teaching, he was happy. Hearing this one-half of a verse was enough to fill him with joy. Right away, he got up from his seat, looked around, and said, “Who is it that has recited this half verse I have just heard?”

Kumara saw no one save the demon. He said, “Who has just opened the gate to liberation and speaks in the voice of all awakened ones? The half verse opens my mind, just as the evening moon causes the pure white lotus flower to open its petals.”

Still, Kumara saw not a single being but the demon. He asked himself, “Is it possible that this demon spoke the verse?” He went up to where the demon stood and said, “Well, hideous demon, where did you get this half of a verse? How did you come to possess a cintamani (wish-fulfilling jewel) of a  teaching?”

The demon replied, “You should not ask. I have had nothing to eat for several days. Everywhere I look, I cannot find anything to eat. Owning to my hunger, my mind is not right and my words do not make sense.”

Kumara said, “Why are you reluctant to speak? If you tell me the other part of this teaching, I will be your disciple for the rest of my life. What you recited was not complete and thus the meaning is not entirely clear.”

The demon answered: “I have said, I am too hungry. I cannot speak.”

Kumara asked, “Well, what do you eat?”

“You do not want to know. When I tell people, they are fearful,” said the demon.

Kumara replied, “I do not fear you, and we are here alone. Will you not tell me?”

The demon answered, “I eat human flesh. I drink warm human blood. It is my lamentable fate to nourish myself in this way.”

Kumara said, “If you tell me the rest of the verse, afterward I will give you my body to eat. It is not such a great offering, for this body of mine will only wither away eventually, but it is all I have to give you. Besides, a tiger or a wolf could eat me and then I would be left without having realized a hair’s breadth of wisdom. I am now intent upon attaining the highest Awakening.”

The demon remained suspicious. He said, “I find it difficult to believe that you would give up your precious life just to hear eight characters of a teaching.”

“But I have witnesses such as Great Brahma, Shakra, and the four guardians of the earth, who will all attest to my sincerity of my offering!” Kumara replied.

Finally, the demon relented. He said, “If you wish to make an offering of your body, then listen carefully, for I shall now give you the second half of the verse.”

Kumara was elated. At once, he removed the deerskin clothing he wore and spread it on the ground for the demon to sit upon. Then he folded his hands, prostrated himself on the ground before the demon, and implored him to recite the remaining eight characters.

And the demon spoke:

When birth and death are transcended,
Silence is bliss.”

Kumara contemplated the meaning of the teaching and then he inscribed the complete verse on rocks, walls, and trees. When he returned to the spot where the demon stood, the demon looked at Kumara and said, “You now have the entire verse. The teaching is complete and you must be satisfied. If you desire to benefit all beings, give me your body now!”

Kumara put his clothes on, climbed a tall tree, and threw his body down for the demon to devour. As he fell to the ground, several voices sounded. Then the demon revealed his original form as Shakra, the lord of thunder, the ruler of Trayastrimsa Heaven, and he caught Kumara in mid-air and placed the boy on the ground.

“I wanted to test the sincerity of your seeking mind,” Sakra said. “You are a true seeker, a earnest and determined wayfarer. I encourage you to work for the benefit of others, so that they might obtain indestructible happiness.”

Then all the devas who had previously shouted out appeared and they fell on the ground. They touched Kumara’s feet and said: “Well done! You are a true seeker, a wayfarer who will benefit innumerable living beings and who, in the darkness of ignorance and suffering, desires to be a great torch.”

After Sakra and the devas had touched Kumara’s feet and praised him, they went away and were seen no more.

At this point in the story, the Buddha said to the disciples gathered around him, “Because I offered my body in the distant past to hear a single verse, a single teaching, as a result I was able to aspire to the highest awakening. It is no different for all of you. If you seek the incomparable Bodhichitta, the sublime thought of awakening, you must realize that in the end, your body will be nothing more than ashes. For this reason, it is futile to begrudge your life. If I was willing to give up my life merely to hear a single verse, then how much more appreciation you should have to hear two verses, or three, or even a complete sutra.”

The bhikkhus and the bodhisattvas listening to the Buddha’s words, who numbered as many as 80 billion hundred thousand, all nodded in agreement.

“I was willing to give up my life to repay the value I obtained from a teaching that benefits all living beings,” the Buddha continued. “That is why I say be glad you have this life and are blessed with the highest reward, the dharma that rescues the innumerable beings floundering in the sea of birth and death. Therefore, cast away your attachments for the benefit of others. Base yourselves on Dharma, and not the person; on the meaning, not the letter; on wisdom, not perception. And hold fast to your seeking mind, your wayfaring spirit, for the shape of Self that seeks in this way is called Buddha Nature.”

Painting of “Krishna. Spring in Kulu” by Nicholas Roerich; painting of “Sessen Doji” [Himalaya Kumara], unknown.