I made a mistake the other day when I suggested that we should try to engage more in “inductive” reasoning. That should have read “deductive”. To me, the names are misleading. I get them mixed up because “deductive” calls to my mind the image of a detective assembling clues, moving toward the solution of some crime.

But now that I think I have it straight . . . Western science and philosophy is based on the inductive method, where examination is conducted systematically, step by step, until a conclusion is finally reached. Like my detective. Eastern philosophy, however, uses the deductive method, in which the conclusion comes first. In this approach, as utilized in Eastern philosophy, the conclusion is assumed to be valid until proven otherwise, and based on the conclusion it is hypothesized that if one does this, then that will happen.

So, here in the West, to even begin to understand Buddhism, we have acclimate ourselves to another way of thinking. The reason so many of us have a difficult time grasping Buddha-dharma is because we remain stuck in the inductive mode. Perhaps some of us are not even aware that this philosophy relies on a completely different mode of reasoning than we are accustomed to using.

It’s really a strange phenomena. Many people want to practice Buddhism, want to call themselves Buddhists, and yet, they are so resistant to many of its principles. There are quite a few people these days who are picking, tearing them apart, because, in my opinion, they don’t understand it. They don’t get it, so they want to prove to you that it’s not worth understanding, that it’s not really valid. I can’t begin to fathom how anyone could follow a philosophy and yet have so little confidence in it. I think that would change if they could develop more understanding of this deductive approach.

Related to this subject is the principle of the Five Eyes (panca-caksu), or five kinds of vision, which has its origin in Pali sources and was later explained in great detail by Nagarjuna in the Maha-Prajna-paramita Sastra.

The five eyes are:

(1) the physical-eye, or the faculty of sight, that sees the ordinary objects before it;

(2) the spiritual-eye sees birth and death, good and bad, causes and conditions;

(3) the eye of Wisdom sees the true nature of things, emptiness, nirvana;

(4) the eye of Dharma is inspired by the thought of universal compassion;

(5) the Buddha-eye, the eye of awakening.

It’s said that only a Buddha holds all five, but does not use them all at the same time. Only the physical-eye is innate at the beginning, the four other kinds of vision are potentialities that must be cultivated. In his translation of the Diamond Sutra, the great Ch’an monk, Hsuan Hua (founder of City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, California), commented:

Are they produced from within or do they come from outside? The five eyes are not produced from within; nor do they come from outside: nor do they exist in the middle. Cultivate, use effort, and when your skill is sufficient you will have them naturally. Before sufficient skill is attained, no amount of seeking will cause them to function. Seeking is false thinking. Seeking without the thought of seeking brings a response.”

The four eyes preceding the buddha-eye are limited. However, the eye of the Buddha is said to be free from delusion and filled with compassion for all beings. Ascending the Five Eyes is a purification process, as Nagarjuna points out:

All the five eyes of the Buddha arise from prajna-paramita [transcendent wisdom]. The bodhisattva while cultivating prajna-paramita purifies his five eyes.”

The “five eyes” were once explained to me as five different ways of perceiving Buddhism:

(1) the Physical-eye is where we start from, simply apprehending physical objects; for instance recognizing that Buddhism is a religion with temples and priests and monks and lay people and statues, etc.

(2) the Spiritual-eye is also the eye of experience: Buddhism is viewed as a philosophy that contains excellent wisdom.

(3) the eye of Wisdom: Dharma becomes a tool.

(4) the eye of Dharma: Dharma become the focal point of life.

(5) the Buddha-eye: Buddhism is not merely a religion, a philosophy, discipline, or a way of life – it embraces all that and then goes beyond. With this eye, one has cultivated the two qualities of wisdom and compassion, but compassion becomes the primary motivation of life.

As previously stated, the first four eyes, or ways of viewing, are limited. The physical and spiritual eyes cannot see beyond mere form. The eye of wisdom sees the emptiness in form and embraces both the ultimate and relative, but compassion is not yet at the center. The eye of dharma, the aspiration to realize awakening for the sake of others, is the portal into the highest kind of vision.


When the bodhisattva becomes the Buddha the eye of wisdom itself comes to be called in turn the eye of the Buddha. As ignorance and other klesas [mental afflictions] including even their traces, will all have been concluded, (the bodhisattva) gains a clear comprehension in regard to every thing . . .  When one gains the eye of the Buddha nothing remains unseen, unheard, uncomprehended and unrecognized.”

Take this with a grain of salt. It doesn’t mean that a Buddha is some sort of superhuman being. The most significant thing a Buddha sees, hears, comprehends and recognizes is (ala Avalokitesvara) “the cries of the world”, for as Nagarjuna stated, when a bodhisattva gains the vision of a buddha, compassion becomes the sole motivation of life.

And it should go without saying, that the sort of wisdom and compassion we are talking about is cultivated only through the twin paths of meditation and ethical conduct.

I recently read an interview with a guy who says that the aesthetic of meditation is broken. I must be pretty dumb, because I don’t understand that at all. Aesthetic has a number of meanings, but dash if know which applies here. He also says that Buddhism needs to improve itself by looking to the design world, although he doesn’t specify which one if any he is referring to, and he talks about delivery models. The only thing I know about delivery models is Domino’s. They usually get the pizza to my door sooner than they say it will take over the phone. That, to me, is a good delivery model.

What’s broken is our approach to meditation, and for that matter, Buddhism. People make it all too complicated. Overcoming suffering is more important than any of the above stuff, or attaining various stages of realization or becoming stream-enterers or arhats. Being a bodhisattva is more important than becoming a buddha.

That’s why in the Heart Sutra, the Buddha stays in the background and a bodhisattva takes center stage and why one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples seeks guidance from the bodhisattva and not from the Buddha. The Mahayana authors of this sutra were sending a message. They apparently didn’t feel that they could just come out and say it, so they made their point with allegory. I think they were casting the bodhisattva as the higher ideal.

The seed of this thought was sown in my mind some 14 years ago at the Dalai Lama teachings on The Precious Garland. It’s just grown since then. I supposed it might qualify as a realization. The funny thing about realizations, though, is that they’re not much use unless you act on them. That’s the hard part. Putting them into action. That means changing our behavior, the way we think, speak and act. We should be more concerned with changing our lives than with trying to redesign the dharma-wheel.

As I said, I think it’s our approach that’s broken. The problem is with us and not the so-called delivery models. For one thing, I feel that if you are analyzing meditation in terms of how it is presented or what you want to achieve or even what you experience while meditating, then you’re doing something wrong. I’m not suggesting that presentation is unimportant, but it’s not as critical as learning how to practice meditation, and no teacher can practice for you. Nor am I saying that goals are verboten or you shouldn’t observe thoughts that come up during meditation. But you have to let them go. Especially once you get up from the meditation mat.

In fact, what we do after meditation is what Buddhism is all about. The only crucial issue in meditation is to what degree we have calmed our mind and how we are able to utilize that calmness, that clearness of mind, to transform our life. The goal is to overcome suffering. The first step in conquering suffering is to accept it. I’d say that acceptance trumps just about everything else. Our Western minds are geared towards deductive thinking, analyzing everything. You may not like hearing this, but Buddhism does require a certain amount of becoming Asian and by that I mean engaging in more inductive thinking.

People have a tough time with concepts like karma and rebirth because they resist them. They approach Buddhism as if it were a belief system and they don’t want to believe anything and they damn well don’t want to be told to believe in anything. We haven’t been able to completely throw off our Judeo-Christian conditioning. That’s understandable, after all, we’ve been brainwashed. There is probably a better word to use, but it comes down to the same thing. Our previous religious experience was precisely about belief. That’s not so important in Buddhism. So, if you don’t want to believe in karma or rebirth, then don’t. Just quit resisting. Let it go. And definitely, quit griping about it.

If we can leave resistance behind, if we can let go, then it doesn’t really matter if in the end we come to the conclusion that these concepts are not reasonable or if we think that they’re the greatest things since sliced pizza. All that truly matters is that we learn to become more accepting and let go of our attachments. If you stop resisting one thing, then you can stop resisting something else. Like suffering.

I would say that an understanding of karma helps in this regard because the prime point of karma is that we create our own suffering. Knowing this on a deep intuitive level will help us come to terms with it. Another way to put this is that we want to take away suffering’s power. When suffering comes there is really no way to resist it. We have to accept suffering. To do otherwise is to be in denial.

It’s like the errant thought that arises during meditation. We recognize it, accept the fact that it has arisen, and let it go. I am suffering. I must accept the fact of it. Lamenting the fact or wishing that I were not suffering changes nothing. Meeting suffering head on in this way helps us chip away at its power to destroy our lives.

Sometimes I like to say that you just have to surrender to the dharma. People don’t like the word surrender, though. They resist it. As I am using the word, it implies acceptance, not some form of slavery. Quit fighting. Quit analyzing so much. Practice the art of acceptance.

We can examine everything in various ways and yet never escape the truth that ultimately there is not a single thing that can be seized as substantial.

But you don’t have to accept my words. You can resist them if you like. That’s your privilege. After all, I’m not enlightened. I’m not an arhat or even a stream-enterer. But please, if nothing else, heed my advice about delivery models. When you want a good, hot pizza delivered fast, call Domino’s.

I was sorting through some old papers the other day and ran across something I printed off the Internet about ten years ago that I thought would be nice to share with you today. It’s the last paragraph of a dharma talk given by Ven. Jen-chun, founder and guiding teacher of Bodhi Monastery (in New Jersey) and the Yin Shun Foundation, a charitable foundation, who passed away earlier this year.

If you want to practice the Mahayana path, you should contemplate the sun, the sky, and the sea. In the morning, when the sun has just risen, contemplate it and try to allow your mind to be that luminous. Take time to contemplate the sky and try to achieve a mental state that is like empty space – clear and without obstruction. Go to the seashore and contemplate the boundless capacity and unobstructedness of the ocean. If you engage in these contemplations, they will benefit you. On the other hand, if you allow yourself to be governed by the environment and pulled this way and that, you will not attain the Mahayana path.”

Now, as always, we don’t want to take this literally. I can just imagine someone reading this and thinking to themselves, oh rats, now I have to get up at dawn and contemplate the sun if I want to practice Buddhism. No, what we want to do is try to capture the spirit of these words and Jen-chun is asking us to be like the sun, the sky and the sea – to make our minds bright, clear and vast.

I thought the other day that the destruction of the self – that notion of a permanent, independent ego-entity – is actually just the realization of a sense of the infinite within the mind, to become infinite by recognizing that we already are.

Some 2500 years after the time of the Buddha and there is still much confusion and disagreement in regard to the teachings on the concept of the “self.” And yet, nothing could be clearer than this short statement from the Sunna Sutta or “Empty Sutra” found in the Samyutta-Nikaya:

Sunnam attena va attaniyena ya – Empty is the world, because it is void of a self and anything belonging to a self.”

Both attena and attani relate to the Pali word anatta, which is normally described as “no-self” or “no-soul.” The statement above is virtually the same as the one in the Heart Sutra, in which Avalokitesvara “sees” that the five aggregates are sunyata-svabhava or “empty of own-being.” But the self is not just the skandhas. Svabhava refers to a being-ness, essential nature, which is unconditioned and not dependent upon anything to come into existence, a spirit or soul that, unchanged, continues on after physical death. It’s also the sense of self, the sense of “I”.

This notion of self-hood is ignorance. The view from self is narrow, limited, egocentric – finite.  Buddhism encourages us to free our minds, to break through our limitations in thinking so that we can see ourselves, paraphrasing John Donne, as a piece of the universe, a part of the main.

Or, like Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath,

Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then . . .”

Realizing the infinite in a deeply intuitive way goes beyond merely recognizing the vastness of existence, as one would admire a beautiful sunrise, a clear blue sky or sea. And yet, for Rabindranath Tagore, whose phrase “the endless further” is used as the title of this blog, the appreciation of beauty, apprehending the truth of beauty, was a path to the infinite.

In Prabhat Sangit (“Morning Songs”), he wrote of his first realization of the infinite. For Tagore, it was a mystical experience:

One morning, I stood on the balcony of our Calcutta house and looked at the gardens of the free school. The sun was just rising behind the green branches of trees, and I looked on. Suddenly, I felt as if a layer was removed from my eyes. I saw an effable beauty, I felt an inexplicable joy within the depths of my own being and I found the whole universe soaked in it. My discontent vanished instantaneously and a universal light flooded my entire being.”

Perhaps he was thinking of that maiden voyage into the infinite, when he wrote this poem:

The same stream of life that runs through
my veins night and day runs through
the world and dances in rhythmic

It is the same life that shoots in joy
through the dust of the earth in
numberless blades of grass and breaks
into tumultuous waves of leaves and

It is the same life that is rocked in the
ocean-cradle of birth and of death,
in ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious by the
touch of this world of life. And my pride
is from the life-throb of ages dancing
in my blood this moment.

Are you infinite? Have you ever been infinite? Not necessarily awakened but beautiful . . .

A vital element in our practice and understanding of dharma is a sense of appreciation. In the way I’m using the word, it’s not the same as gratitude. Gratitude is a feeling in response to something received – a kindness, a gift, an opportunity. Appreciation, on the other hand, is a quality that should always be present and is not dependent upon any external causes. It goes beyond merely being an aesthetic admiration of the beauty and wonder of life. We develop this sense of appreciation at the very core of our being and it encompasses everything we observe and experience. That includes appreciation for our sufferings.

We naturally want to avoid suffering. We seek freedom from life’s miseries. Buddhism is supposed to help us attain nirvana, which is freedom from sufferings. In Mahayana, we say that sufferings are nirvana. Many people wonder how that makes sense. How can nirvana be the very thing we are seeking to escape?

Understanding “sufferings are nirvana” begins with the recognition of a simple fact: it is only through suffering that we can even approach nirvana. It’s like the simile of the raft. You’re on this shore and in order to reach the other shore, where nirvana awaits, you must cross over the sea of suffering. There’s no other way. You have to do it.

In Shoji (“Birth and Death”), Dogen wrote,

When we see that sufferings are themselves nirvana, there is no need to avoid suffering or to seek nirvana. Only with this understanding is there a possibility for freedom from birth and death.

“Birth and death” is often a metaphor for Samsara, this mundane world we inhabit, and because Samsara is permeated with suffering, so it too is a metaphor, representing suffering itself. What Dogen is saying is that nirvana can be found only in the here and now, in this world, in the midst of suffering.

He also says that there is no need to avoid suffering, but the truth is we cannot avoid them. Now, he’s actually referring to the non-dual nature of sufferings and nirvana, and he may not have also had the idea of cultivating appreciation for suffering in his mind when he wrote those words, but they certainly lend themselves to that additional interpretation.

Appreciation for one’s sufferings may be a hard concept to wrap our minds around, but when you consider, for instance, that suffering can be a teacher, it starts to make sense.

I didn’t pay that much attention in the past when people would tell me about the loss of a pet. Kinda like baby pictures. To me, all babies look the same. Ho hum. Yawn. But now I know what it feels like to lose a beloved pet. When I hear of someone’s loss in the future, I’ll be able to feel their pain. I had to do through my own suffering to be able to see the suffering of others. My personal suffering taught me a lesson.

A small lesson, perhaps, and yet, that’s what life really consists of – small things. The big stuff, the large events of life come few and far between, actually. Typically, life is just a series of small moments. That’s one reason why mindfulness practice is so beneficial. Because mindfulness helps us to become aware and have appreciation for the small, present moments that make up our life. And the small lessons.

Appreciation is a prerequisite for awakening. We often think of awakening as being this big, esoteric thing. A quality of an elevated state of being. But awakening, too, essentially is rather small. At least, it starts out that way. It’s just being aware of the moment you’re in. Thich Nhat Hanh came up with a little verse I like a lot:

Breathing in, I am happy.
Breathing out, I smile.
I am in the present moment.
It’s a wonderful moment.

That moment may be joyful or sorrowful. Buddhism doesn’t make any distinctions between what sort of present moments are worthy of our awareness. Nevertheless, whether the moment is good or bad, if you have appreciation, it’s wonderful. To be able to see it in that way is the essence of awakening, perhaps even the key to freedom.

We cannot avoid sufferings, so when they come, try to cultivate appreciation. It’s hard to do, but within your suffering is something very valuable for your life. Remember that irritation is the stimulation that produces a pearl. Should a tiny grain of sand get inside an oyster’s shell, the oyster coats the irritant with layers of fluid, and from that coating, a pearl is formed. No irritation, no suffering – no pearl.

My present tribulation is not so heavy,
And will be beneficial;
Let me be glad of a suffering
That redeems the world of its suffering.

- Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life

If you want to have truly enjoyable sex then stay away from religion. That’s according to Darrel Ray and Amanda Brown’s “Sex and Secularism” survey. They claim that atheists have far better sex lives than religious people who are plagued with too much guilt to have any fun fornicating. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, and Baptists have the highest levels of guilt, while Catholics and Lutherans are at the lower end.

I don’t know where Buddhists rank in this, if at all, because I didn’t download the full study. To do that you have to sign up for whatever it is Darrel Ray is selling. Apparently, he is a noted psychologist and atheist who may or may not have some affiliation with the University of Kansas (his assistant in the survey is a student there). I should also mention that this was an online survey (of 14,500 people, it’s claimed) and as such I don’t know if it passes the muster for academic surveys, which I  assume is what Ray is purporting it to be.

“I saw my parents as gods whose every wish must be obeyed or I would suffer the penalty of anguish and guilt.” – Natalie Wood

Still, I think there might be some truth there. Certainly religion is not the only cause for guilt. Yet, there’s no escaping the fact that for thousands of years, guilt and religion have seemed inseparable. At least, here in the West.

All of us experience feelings of guilt from time to time. Some folks more than others. Research suggests that guilt settles in around the ages of three to six. Some psychologists believe that guilt can be healthy stimulus to change our behavior for the better. Buddhism doesn’t see it quite like that.

We often see guilt defined as a “feeling of responsibility.” Actually, though, it is a form of feeling. In Buddhism, guilt is viewed as a negative emotion, a form of self-loathing. It’s just another suffering.

The Buddha encouraged his followers to face their problems with clear and calm minds. Acknowledging one’s faults and errors and taking responsibility is crucial, as is repentance. According to Wikipedia, “Repentance is a change of thought to correct a wrong . . .”

[By the way, a few months ago I wrote about confession and repentance in Buddhism. You can read it here.]

“Sin, guilt, neurosis; they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” – Henry Miller

This is what Buddhism asks us to do: change our thoughts. Buddhism never encourages us to be passive. There is always some action to be taken. A change in thinking can lead to a change in behavior. The self-pity and shame that accompanies guilt is not constructive. What is constructive, however, is to make a determination to not want to do it anymore.

“Want” is the key word here, because guilt, I believe, is a choice. Some people want to feel guilty, they want to feel bad. They subconsciously seek out negative experiences (or create them) and, as in the repetition compulsion Freud talked about, they repeat behaviors that produce feelings such as guilt. Or, they assume guilt needlessly.

Life is too fleeting to remain trapped in negative cycles. Every situation we face is an opportunity to gain wisdom. Guilt gets in the way of that. It’s a dead end street. I don’t believe it is a natural consequence of having a conscience, an inner sense of right and wrong, which I think is more akin to a crossroads. Because we know the difference between right and wrong, we can make the choice which way to go in the future. Lamenting over the past just wastes the time that could be better spent learning the lesson life is giving us and accepting our responsibility to change the situation by changing ourselves.

This approach is not unique to Buddhism. Just yesterday in Joplin, Mo., where no doubt some people are dealing with “survivor guilt”, President Obama said these words:

We can’t know when a terrible storm will strike or where or the severity of the destruction it may cause. . . .We can’t know why we are tested with the loss of a loved one, the loss of a home where we’ve lived a lifetime. These things are beyond our power to control but that does not mean that were are powerless in face of adversity. How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control, and it’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.”

Not all the storms of life are caused by weather, natural forces. We can create storms and the devastation they wreak is not always physical. And, just as there is not just one form of suffering, there is neither a single solution or single path for overcoming suffering. However, because of the emphasis on inner-directed contemplation and motivation, I feel that Buddhism offers rather effective solutions, which pierce directly into the heart of these storms.

In some cases, guilt is an indication of low self-esteem. Guilt and low self-esteem are mutually self-destructive, because for a person who already feels bad about themselves, adding on guilt only compounds the problem.

This is why the Dalai Lama, during his first visit to the United States in 1973, said this:

In such situations, where there is a danger of feeling guilty and therefore depressed, the Buddhist point of view advises adopting certain ways of thinking and behaving which will enable you to recover your self-confidence . . . Because such disturbing emotions are adventitious, they can be eliminated. To think of the immense well of potential hidden deep within our being, to understand that the nature of the mind is fundamental purity and kindness and to meditate on its luminosity, will enable you to develop self-confidence and courage.”

When we talk about the “self” in this way, we are not referring to the fictional self of ego and soul, the Big Me. Rather we are referring to self in the relative sense, i.e. our distinct individuality, our personal characteristics, the consciousness of our own identity or being.

“There was guilt in her smile, but nothing you could call remorse.” – Nick Charles, ex-Private Eye

As I’ve written several times recently, the practice and study of Buddhism should leave us feeling empowered. I’m not sure that message always comes through in Buddhist discussions, so I don’t feel guilty about repeating it.

Buddha told us to be like a lamp so that we can see light in a world of darkness. So that others can see the light. We are the light and knowing that should give us strength to persevere in any situation, to persevere in spite of ourselves. The light we shine also illuminates our way, keeps us from stumbling over the stones of such things as guilt.

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

Ole Nydhal is from Denmark. He’s a teacher  in the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Also the founder of  a worldwide lay organization, The Diamond Way. I’ve attended a few of his talks and have spoken with him, briefly, a couple of times. I like his informal teaching style and liberal attitude.

I know he’s the subject of a few controversies, but I’m too far away from them to have any opinions. The first time I attended one of his talks, he just walked into the room, wearing a plain white t-shirt and faded blue jeans, hopped onto the edge of a table and started talking. No pomp and circumstance, no fuss, no muss. He’s a Lama and that’s supposed to be a big lofty deal, right? When I spoke with him afterward he seemed to be a pretty ordinary, down-to-earth guy. That told me a lot.

Actually, being a lama is not really a big deal. It only means teacher.

I don’t remember where I culled this from, but it seemed like a natural segue from yesterdays post. Here is Lama Ole Nydahl talking about the nature of the mind:

There are two kinds of wisdom: that which concerns the things happening in the mind, and the kind which knows the mind itself. The first we learn in schools and universities. It enables us to have interesting jobs, earn good money, drive fast cars and die with more debt than our neighbor. It is very fine, but when they put us in the grave, all benefit is gone. This wisdom is limited to things that we cannot take with us.

Insight into the nature of the mind, on the other hand, can never be lost. Mind is open, clear and limitless like space – it has never been born and can never die. For that reason, whichever of its aspects we realize, they are of a permanent nature and will benefit us from life to life.

Mind in its true nature is open, clear, and unlimited. When it recognizes its space-like nature, all fear is lost. Knowing that our essence cannot be destroyed, complete security arises, a resting in oneself. The important insight here is that we are neither the body, which gets old, gets sick and dies, nor the thoughts, which come and go. What looks through our eyes and listens trough our ears right now is radiant space. It is beyond coming and going, birth and death.

Wisdom – the enlightening kind pointing to the mind’s timeless nature – also manifests as our true nature. It shines forth naturally when the veils of disturbing emotions and stiff ideas have been removed. Experiencing things both as they truly are and as they appear, one can benefit countless beings.

Photo: Ginger Neumann

In Japanese design there is a principle called kanso, a concept influenced by Zen philosophy that refers to simplicity, the grace and beauty of keeping it simple.

On the surface kanso would seem to be an apt description of Zen. I ran across an article the other day extolling this very concept, the idea that Zen is not complicated. I’m not going to link to it because I suspect that it’s part of some money-making blog thing, but the author, one Jeremiah Bourque expresses something I’ve heard many times before, that “Zen is a renunciation of enlightenment found via the trappings of organized religion, such as mass prayer, ritualistic chants, and large structures. Zen has no institutions, no bishops, no popes, and no dogma.”

If it were only that simple. Personally, I find traditional Japanese Zen to be extremely formalistic, and ritualistic. No popes or bishops, instead there’s the Zen teacher, the master, and the whole lineage and transmission system, all of which feels just very institutional at times, and Zen has its fair share of dogma. I’m not attacking Japanese Zen, just saying that’s the way I find it.

So, to me kanso in Zen is an aesthetic, pertaining to the sense of simplicity, but not the real thing. It’s the Zen attitude. Where I see it expressed most concretely is in the literature, art, and design, or for instance, in simple beauty of a rock garden. When it comes to the interaction between people part, the sad truth is that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Once we human beings get a hold of something, we just have to make it more complicated. Google is a good example. It started out as sort of the Zen search engine. Simple, not ornate, straightforward. Now it’s a complicated matrix with big brother overtones.

That too, is just how it is. The idea that you can really keep it simple, for very long, is just a pipe dream.

The Buddha started simple. He said: want to overcome your problems? Then, calm your mind. Of course, I’m simplifying it, yet, that was the message in a nutshell.  Originally, Zen was an attempt to reclaim that simplicity.

The Buddha’s meditation was very simple, too. He called it Mindfulness. Just focus on your breath and be in the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote, “We do not need to search for anything more. We only need to practice the simple exercises proposed by the Buddha . . .” Keep it simple.

Being a Buddhist is not about being anything special, nor is it especially or complicated. It’s just being an ordinary person. Doing ordinary things. Like the old Zen story: someone asked the Zen master, What is Buddha? What is Dharma? What is Sangha? And each time, the master replied “Go and drink tea.” In other words, you practice, you do your daily life, eat, sleep, breath. That’s true Buddhism.

You certainly do not need a lot of ceremonial forms. Bowing and knowing how to sit just right and so on, are helpful, and downright ego busting sometimes, but not absolutely necessary. In meditation, what’s going on in your head (or not going on) is far more important than your head’s position.

I am just using Zen here as an example, not singling it out for any reason; an example of how things start out simple and become complicated. And as an ideal, because the ideal of kanso, simplicity, appeals to me. Every day should be Zen starting all over again from scratch. Just going back to the flower between the Buddha’s fingers.

Zen was supposed to be a special transmission outside of the sutras, and some Zen critics have interpreted that to mean that the sutras should be disregarded. That wasn’t it. The Lankavatara, Diamond, and Lotus sutras, among others, were studied and commented on extensively by the most of the great Zen teachers.

So when we talk about keeping it simple, it doesn’t mean to dismiss the doctrinal aspect of Buddhism. Practice sans study is a bad idea. In Chih-kuan for Beginners, Chih-i wrote:

“The practice of meditation alone, while wisdom [study] is disregarded causes stupidity, and the practice of wisdom alone, while meditation is disregarded, causes infatuation . . .Thus, if meditation and wisdom are not in equal proportion, the practice is deficient . . .”

Chih-i compared practice and study to two wings a bird and two wheels of a cart.

You might think you do not need to know anything to be a Buddhist, but it’s not really true. To be an “ordinary person” means to also have knowledge, seek and discover wisdom, and you can’t do that without some help. Studying with teachers and with other ordinary practitioners, or if you must, studying on your own, is indispensible.

Without a basic grasp of Buddhist doctrine, a person is vulnerable to manipulation. In fact, I think anyone interested in Buddhism should first do some study on their own before they commit to joining a group. Get a foundation of understanding. How else can you determine if what’s presented to you conforms to the basic principles of Buddhism?

Sufferings are caused by ignorance, and it is not possible to dispel ignorance without knowledge. It is crucial that one understands the causes that produce ignorance, and that knowledge can empower your practice.

So while the most transformative moments are in the present moment, the experience of meditation, of  just being in the present moment and then doing one’s daily life is not enough. The key lies in the chudo, the Middle Way, the art of finding the balance between practice and study.

Embrace the everyday, meditate, eat and drink, sleep, but don’t neglect study. It’s still kanso, keeping it simple.

In 1997, I attended the Dalai Lama’s teachings on Nagarjuna’s “Precious Garland”. It was four days of teachings and I taped it all. Fifteen 90 minute cassette tapes, some 22 hours of material. I transcribed it by hand, and then typed it up on a typewriter as I had no computer then. Needless to say, it was a time-consuming process, but it embedded the teachings in my mind.

In this section, the Dalai Lama talks about faith, and about how to use one’s “critical faculties” to judge both teachings and teachers:

Here Nagarjuna defines that someone who’s faith in the path, the Three Jewels, and the law of cause and effect, is grounded in a personal understanding and knowledge—such a person is someone who is said to possess the right kind of faith, the right kind of competence to engage in the path.

The kind of understanding that is referred to here, upon which one must ground one’s faith, is a fundamental understanding of the Two Truths [Skt. Samvrtisatya ‘conventional truth’ and paramarthasatya  ‘absolute truth’] of the Buddha’s teachings. Then on the basis of understanding the Two Truths, one will develop a good understanding of the Four Noble Truths. Understanding the Four Noble Truths will allow you to develop a greater appreciation of the Three Jewels, and though this understanding one can develop a deep conviction in the law of karma. Thus one will be able to engage in a dharmic life, and live according to a life-style that is with the bounds of an ethical and disciplined way of life. Such a person, whose faith and conviction in dharma is grounded in such an understanding, is said to be the ideal practitioner.

This sets the actual procedure of the process of the path, the first stage of the dharma practice is engaging in the practice where the primary emphasis is to disengage one’s body, speech, and mind from any kind of negative actions. So there is an element of restraint here, the next stage is to engage in the practice of understanding the Anatma [no-self] teachings. Once the level of understanding of no-self is developed then one should be able to adopt the third level of practice, which I view as the primary level, which is overcoming not only delusions but also the imprints left by delusions. Someone who is capable of understanding such an approach to dharma is said to be a wise practitioner, is said to be truly insightful.

So these considerations are directly related to the three qualifications that are recommended on the part of the student in Santideva’s  ‘Four-hundred Verses on the Middle Way’, where he defines three principle characteristics that are necessary on the part of the student listening to the teachings.

One is open-mindedness. The second is intelligence, in the sense that one is able to employ his or her critical faculties. The third is that a person should have a good degree of enthusiasm and commitment.

If you lack the first qualification of objectivity, then you will be swayed by your prejudices and certain preconceptions that you may have and this would then color your judgment and you won’t be able to really appreciate what is being taught. Also, you won’t be able to engage in discourse.

The second qualification of intelligence is vitally important, especially for the Buddhist practitioner, for within the Buddhist scriptures there are different types of scriptures that are taught to different audiences for different purposes at different times. So, because of these specific contents, one should be able to apply a critical faculty to be able to judge what are the definite true meaning of the scripture and what are conditional, to what degree what is said explicitly in this scripture is contextual, relative to a particular context and cannot be applied universally across the board, or to what extent there is a deeper underlying subject matter that is being taught.

So on the part of the Buddhist practitioner there is a real need for the ability to draw from one’s own critical resources so that one is able to really discern the true meaning of the scriptures. Without a critical faculty, one may not be able to judge the validity of what is being taught to you, especially when one comes across a teacher who either out of ignorance of pride or certain prejudices gives a teaching that is not in the true spirit of the Buddhist teachings. Then if you lack this critical ability to determine the validity of the teachings, there is a real danger of being led astray.

Then the question is how do we determine what is being taught by a particular teacher is valid of not? And you can only do so by comparing it and relating it to your own understanding of the overview of Buddhist teachings.

It is vitally important for the practitioner to always examine whether what is being taught really accords with the cardinal line set in the basic teachings of Buddhism. If it does not accord with that cardinal line, then it is something to be rejected. This is always the bottom line to be constantly checked against the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.

Now the question of how do we acquire a knowledge of the basic tenets or an understanding of the fundament framework of the Buddhist path? Here I would suggest to all of you that before taking someone on as a teacher—one should not be hasty in selecting a teacher, rather one can attend lectures on the teachings and one should do as much reading as possible. These days there are books and texts available, thus try to develop a good body of knowledge of the basic framework of the Buddhist path, then you will be equipped with the critical ability to analyze and examine what is being taught, so that you will not be led astray.

And the third qualification is that you must have a degree of interest or commitment. This is important otherwise there will be an absence of engagement on your part.

D T SuzukiAlthough he is criticized by some today, D. T. Suzuki is still regarded as the man who “brought Zen to America.” In the days when I first started seriously reading about Buddhism, there were very few books available. Walk into any bookstore, at least in the Midwest and in New Orleans where I lived at the time, you would probably find the same measly five or six books. Invariably, one would be The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, and there was sure to be something by D. T. Suzuki.

D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966) was not an ordained Buddhist priest or dharma teacher, he was first and foremost a scholar, a professor of Buddhist philosophy.  For a while, in his forties, he was an active Theosophist. Later he and his wife, Beatrice Lane, also a Theosophist, founded the The Eastern Buddhist Society.

While he is associated mostly with Zen Buddhism, Suzuki was also an expert on Japanese Kegon and Jodo Shinshu. His books and essays, and his translations of Japanese, Chinese and Sanskrit Buddhist literature, were absolutely instrumental in introducing Buddhism to the West.

In recent years, Suzuki has been accused of complicity with Japanese nationalism during World War ll, most prominently by Brian Victoria, whose book, Zen at War, in my opinion, based on the section regarding the Soka Gakkai, has some serious flaws. Victoria’s account of Suzuki’s views has been refuted by Kemmyo Taira Sato in “D. T. Suzuki and the Question of War.”

Yesterday a reader asked how, knowing that the Mahayana sutras are not the actual words of the Buddha, was it possible for me to identify with Mahayana. A very reasonable question. One that I am sure many have wrestled with. You can read my response below. However, here is a better answer to that question by Prof. Suzuki himself, from Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism:

Mahayana literally means “great vehicle” and Hinayana “small or inferior vehicle,” that is, of salvation. This distinction is recognised only by the followers of Mahayanism, because it was by them that the unwelcome title of Hinayanism was given to their rival brethren, — thinking that they were more progressive and had a more assimilating energy than the latter. The adherents of Hinayanism, as a matter of course, refused to sanction the Mahayanist doctrine as the genuine teaching of Buddha, and insisted that there could not be any other Buddhism than their own, to them naturally the Mahayana system was a sort of heresy.

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