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Thursday
Sep012005

The Kind of Guru I Had

My grandmother’s eldest son, Samten Gyatso, was my root guru and ultimate refuge. He was also, of course, my uncle. I feel a bit shy telling stories about him, because I don’t want to sound as if I’m indirectly praising myself by lauding a family member. A disciple who emphasizes signs of accomplishment, clairvoyant abilities, and miraculous powers in stories about his own guru, may—instead of honoring him—end up discrediting him. Yet though he was a relative, there is no way I can avoid praising him. I don’t mean to be crude, but I’m related to him like excrement is related to fine cuisine.

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Thursday
Sep012005

Preserving a Master’s Memories

How would you describe Tulku Urgyen to the world at large?

Erik Pema Kunsang: Tulku Urgyen, you could say, was a profound mystic and a unique kind of philosopher, one who could guide people toward a type of insight that goes beyond theory and concepts. Observing how easily and naturally he worked with others, you could deduce what Tulku Urgyen himself experienced on a daily basis. Most of us would view his area of expertise—pointing out what things look like from the awakened point of view—as being very heavy and difficult. Yet, he made it extremely accessible. You practically weren’t allowed to leave the room until you agreed just how easy it was to see things from the awakened point of view. You couldn’t just nod your head in agreement, either. You actually had to experience that ease for yourself.

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Thursday
Sep012005

Not by Ourselves

For the past two hundred years in Japanese Soto Zen, the understanding of most teachers has been that shikantaza, literally translated as “just sitting,” was Dogen Zenji’s essential practice. In accord with this mainstream understanding, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi established shikantaza as our essential practice at the San Francisco Zen Center. A great deal of his teaching was intended to help us understand what it means to practice just sitting in its true sense. He also told us that his main job as a Zen priest was to encourage people to practice just sitting.

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Thursday
Sep012005

Forum: The Lojong Mind Training Practices

Compassion, it would appear, is easier said than done. All the world’s great spiritual traditions exhort us to be kind, and yet to judge by the state of our world, genuine compassion is rare. We have plenty of great thoughts about compassion, but how much are we actually doing about it moment by moment, day by day?

A system of practices that would upset our usual way of doing things and encourage compassion would seem to be in order. In fact, without such practices, a tradition like Buddhism, committed as it is to meditation, might easily lead to a private striving for peace, and many of us who practice Buddhism might easily fall into the trap of self-perfection.

Apparently Buddhist practitioners from long ago experienced this very problem, and at some point, a system developed within the Mahayana tradition to counteract ego’s tendency to convert whatever it encounters into its own territory. Like a family of viruses, this system of teachings, known in Tibetan as lojong, or mind training, attacks ego’s immune system and the myriad defenses it throws up to prevent us from experiencing a moment of openness and warmth.

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Thursday
Sep012005

Embracing Conflict

The story of dharma in the West is one of great success, marred by the occasional, but very public, failure. In some cases, entire sanghas have split into warring camps or been torn asunder by the interpersonal conflicts of their members. Over the years, a handful of teachers have been dismissed or disgraced, and countless disillusioned students have moved on. While the vast majority of sanghas continue to thrive, some are finding it necessary to adopt new, non-Buddhist approaches to resolving the conflicts that inevitably arise.

Consider these recent examples:

  • When the teenage son of a resident of Salt Lake City’s Kanzeon Zen Center admitted to stealing money from several residents, the sangha formed a “council circle.” As part of this ancient Native American ritual, everyone in the circle took turns passing a symbolic peace pipe—minus the tobacco—and voicing his or her feelings about the transgression.

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Thursday
Sep012005

In Translation: The Inexhaustable Dhammapada

The Buddha taught a path of liberation. To understand his teachings is to understand how to walk that path. Though he described it as an ancient pathway, hidden and forgotten until he rediscovered it, it remains as relevant today as it was in his time, 2,500 years ago.

By far the most popular text teaching how to walk this path is the Dhammapada, a collection of verses from the earliest period of Buddhism in India. I was introduced to this sacred text when my first Zen teacher gave me my first copy. In the twenty-five years since receiving that gift, I have read and reread the Dhammapada many times. I have found its teachings to be direct, wise, and inspirational. The verses point to a possibility of peace and freedom that I find breathtakingly simple in its profundity.

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Thursday
Sep012005

Trust Practice, Practice Trust

The genius of what the Buddha taught is that waking up does not depend upon his or anyone else’s realization. It does not rely upon a belief system, dogma, or doctrine. He encouraged us to find out for ourselves about the true nature of reality, which is dependent upon nothing whatsoever.

Master Rinzai says, “If your faith is insufficient, you will keep on wandering in confusion. No matter what the circumstances, you will be controlled and led around by others. You will not find freedom. ...Because you don’t have enough confidence in yourselves, you search outwardly.”

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Thursday
Sep012005

Dharma Dictionary: Kokoro

When I moved to Minneapolis from Japan in 1993 to teach at the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center, my daughter Yoko was five years old. She went to kindergarten and then elementary school there. And while she learned English at school, at home we tried to talk in Japanese. One time, when she was seven or eight, we were talking about the Japanese word kokoro. I pointed to my heart as we usually do in Japan to show where kokoro is. She pointed to her head and said, “Kokoro is here.” I was amazed to discover that she was already translating the Japanese word kokoro into the English word “mind.”

Kokoro is a common Japanese word that carries meanings conveyed by the English words “mind” and “heart.” It is used as an equivalent of the Chinese word xin and covers almost the same range of meanings. The Japanese use Chinese characters to write Japanese, and have also studied Chinese literature as an essential part of both secular and Buddhist education for more than 1,500 years, which has led to a convergence of meaning between Chinese and Japanese for many classical words.

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Thursday
Sep012005

Ask the Teachers

Narayan Liebenson Grady: If you were to choose not to get married, do you think that would do away with the question of attachment? There are charming stories about monks being attached to their one bowl or the color of their robe. Some of us are quite attached to our teachers. One can even be attached to the concept of renunciation. As you can see, whatever form we choose, it’s not so easy. We are adepts at clinging. Attachment is the problem, not the object of our attachment. Sometimes people try to deal with the suffering of attachment by avoiding commitment. This is called fear, not liberation. In this case, the point is not to let go of your partner but of the suffering that arises because of wrong understanding.

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Thursday
Sep012005

Readers’ Exchange: Generational Diversity Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and More

Usually when I think of diversity, I think of ethnic and socioeconomic realities. But there’s another kind of diversity that is crucial for any community to survive and flourish: generational diversity.

As a young practitioner in the Shambhala community—the Buddhist sangha that I grew up in—it was hard to see this kind of age diversity. The rise of my own strong interest in the Buddhist teachings in my late teens meant a very simple thing—while I was studying and practicing in this particular community, I was going to have to give up spending time with many other people my age. Both the teachers and the people in the courses I took were almost all at least twenty years older than me. Luckily, my own interest was strong enough that I could get over the lack of people who liked the same music as me. I didn’t really need to talk about hip-hop with the people I was studying Buddhism with anyway.

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