Foundational teachings on Buddhist meditation are contained throughout the collection of texts known as the Pali canon. Much of this material has been translated into English but remains hidden in rare or out-of-print books and obscured in the archaic language of a bygone age. Sarah Shaw successfully remedies this unfortunate situation with her new book, Buddhist Meditation: An Anthology of Texts from the Pali Canon (Routledge, 2006). The structure of Shaw’s anthology follows the list of forty subjects of meditation established by the scholar-monk Buddhaghosa in the fifth century BCE and used in Theravada countries to the present day. Under each heading, Shaw provides elegant and highly readable new translations of relevant passages from the Pali canon and its earliest commentators. With introductory chapters addressing questions such as “What is meditation?” this excellent anthology is both a practical handbook for meditators and a useful reference for students of Buddhism at any level.
By Barry Boyce
A humble man of small stature, living simply in a kuti (meditation hut) in the remote and impoverished northeast of Thailand, grew to be one of the most influential figures in Buddhism in the West. Ajahn Chah was not only an important teacher for the founders of the Insight Meditation Society, a largely secularized group devoted to vipassana meditation, he also left a legacy of rigorous Theravada monasticism that is carried on in monasteries and their associated lay communities throughout the world. This group of monasteries is led by Ajahn Chah’s senior Western monks. There is no overarching organization that carries on his legacy, but the age of the Internet demands a label, so when the far-flung community decided to create a web portal in 2001, they gave it the name forestsangha.org.
Before he encountered the dharma, explains Ajahn Amaro, his mother was his main example of great kindness and generosity. As she approached her death, he contemplated the relationship between the ultimate and relative realities, and concluded that the doctrine of emptiness does not negate the unique and powerful relationship between a mother and her child.
This is probably the last Saturday night talk that I’ll be giving for quite a while. I have received news from my sister in England that our mother is extremely ill, and the signs are that she won’t live for more than a few months. So I plan to fly to England in a week to be with her.
The Buddha once said (Anguttara Nikaya 2:32) that if you were to carry your parents around with you for their whole lives—your father on one shoulder and your mother on the other—even to the point where they were losing their faculties and their excrement was running down your back, this would not repay your debt of gratitude to them. But you could repay the debt if your parents were not virtuous and you established them in virtue; if they were not wise and you established them in wisdom; if they were stingy and you established them in generosity; if they had no faith in the spiritual path and you led them to it.
Abhidharma, Buddhism’s map of the mind, is sometimes treated as a topic of merely intellectual interest. In fact, says Thich Nhat Hanh, identifying the different elements of consciousness, and understanding how they interact, is essential to our practice of meditation.
The Vietnamese Zen Master Thuong Chieu said, “When we understand how our mind works, our practice becomes easy.” To understand our minds, we need to understand our consciousness.
The Buddha taught that consciousness is always continuing, like a stream of water. Consciousness has four layers. The four layers of consciousness are mind consciousness, sense consciousness, store consciousness, and manas.
While the images we habitually associate with enlightenment—whether buddhas, teachers, or deities—are usually male, awakened mind equally expresses itself in female form. Gelek Rinpoche argues that enlightenment is possible only when female and male energies are both fully present. He teaches us Tara practices to bring enlightened female energy into our lives.
I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City on the occasion of their exhibit Female Buddhas: Women of Enlightenment in Himalayan Art. I was happy to see this exhibit—the first of its kind, I believe—which focused on enlightenment in female form. It was long overdue, and I am grateful to the museum for providing such a wonderful show.
The fact that the show’s title included the word “female” makes it apparent that when we use the word “buddha,” most people imagine a male figure. Although it is true that buddhas can be male or female, it is also true that unless we say female, we assume it is male. That is our cultural baggage.
In this single talk, the Chan Master Sheng Yen surveys the path to enlightenment, explaining how it progresses and where its pitfalls are. Our intellectual understanding, our temporary realizations, even the exalted state of oneness—all must be dropped to realize the deepest emptiness, the highest truth.
We can speak of two kinds of emptiness: the emptiness of the dharma of teachings and the emptiness of the dharma of mind. The emptiness of the dharma of teachings can be understood through analysis and logic. The emptiness of the dharma of mind, however, can only be realized through actual experience. There is a real experience of this emptiness of the dharma of mind, but not all so-called experiences of emptiness are genuine.
The Relationship Between Social Engagement and Buddhist Practice
Introduction by Barry Boyce
It is hard to disagree with the idea that the way of the Buddha is to help others. If we help others, we get beyond carving out a space in which we can comfortably nest. Helping others challenges our tendency to zone out on a comfort binge of food, clothing, shelter, companionship, meditation—you name it. What could be better for promoting liberation and enlightenment than extending ourselves to others? And yet there could be big problems.
Being helpful can be very unhelpful. Much of what passes for help is really hindrance, as in, “Honey, I was just trying to help.” For one thing, we can comfortably delude ourselves into thinking we are a big help, and out of a desire to alleviate the pain we feel in the presence of someone else’s pain, give them exactly the Band-Aid they don’t need.
The Upper Middle Way: Have North American Buddhists renounced renunciation?
Historians of religion often repeat the accepted truth that it takes about two centuries for a culture to absorb a new religion and make it its own. Buddhism is certainly not a new religion on the world scene; nevertheless, it may be turning into something new as it is adapted to fit Euro-American culture. And this revised Buddhism might be neglecting crucial elements of the original teachings in favor of values and practices that give comfort to us in the receiving culture. As North Americans and Europeans, we seem particularly attracted to the enticing and psychologized project of spiritual enlightenment, but we are neglecting, at our peril, other fundamental Buddhist values and practices.
The point of zazen, says Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, is to live each moment in complete combustion, like a clean-burning kerosene lamp. In this talk at the Tassajara sesshin in the summer of 1969, the great Zen master explains Dogen’s teaching on practicing within imperfection and warns against the arrogance of the false self.
In our practice the most important thing to know is that we have buddhanature. Real practice happens when realization of the buddhanature takes place. Intellectually we know that we have buddhanature and that this is what was taught by Buddha. But even though we have buddhanature, at the same time, it is rather difficult to accept it. And although we have buddhanature, at the same time, our nature has an evil side. And although buddhanature is beyond good and bad, at the same time, our everyday life is going on in the realm of good and bad. So there is a twofold reality. One is the duality of good and bad, and the other is the realm of the absolute, or no good and no bad.
Q: There are lots of Buddhist resources available for the beginner or the person with modest experience (and a good income). But one can only read so many books and attend so many retreats. How does one get through that middle-to-later phase if one can’t go live in a monastery or sit with a teacher for several years?