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Wednesday
Jun012005

Forum: Barriers to the Dharma

A discussion of race, class and education, and how they’re limiting who becomes interested in Buddhism. Featuring Paul Haller, Marlene Jones, Charles Prebish, and Guy McCloskey.

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Wednesday
Jun012005

The Problem of Personality

Most of us are very committed to ourselves as personalities. The habit of viewing ourselves as a person is deeply ingrained in us. In Pali, that is called sakkaya-ditthi, which can be translated as “personality-view” or “the ego.” It means that we regard the five khandhas (groups)—body, feelings, perceptions, conceptions, and consciousness—as belonging to this person, as making up our identity. In investigating the personality-view, we do not grasp on to the perception of “no person” either. It is possible to take the concept of anatta (no self) and grasp that, and say, “There’s no self because the Buddha said there’s anatta!” But in that case we’re still grasping a perception. Grasping a perception of yourself as a nonself gets to be a bit ridiculous.

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Wednesday
Jun012005

The Zen Priest’s Koan

The occasion of a priest ordination always brings up questions about what it means to be ordained. We can look at this by examining what ordination has meant in Zen tradition, and also by considering our practice in the present day.

When I was about to be ordained in 1969, I asked Suzuki Roshi what it meant to be ordained as a priest and what I should do. He said, “I don't know."

Then I asked Katagiri Sensei, and he said, "Oh, I don't know."

I hadn't asked to be ordained. Suzuki Roshi asked me to, and I was quite surprised when he did. I thought that since he asked me, he would at least tell me what to do. But he didn't tell me much. At that time there were few American priests at the San Francisco Zen Center; I was only the fifth person to be ordained. The first one had left the center, two were in Japan, and the fourth was out of sight. So I didn't have any role models, except for our Japanese priests: Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Sensei, Chino Sensei, and Yoshimura Sensei.

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Wednesday
Jun012005

Endless Lifetimes, Endless Benefit

Venerable Tenzin Palmo is best known as the British nun who meditated in a Himalayan cave for twelve years, as described in the popular book, Cave in the Snow, by Vicki MacKenzie. Though she left retreat in 1988, she still finds herself describing that solitary life to others, and sometimes defending it. Her one request in granting this interview was: “Please, let’s not talk about the cave.”

Born in London, Tenzin Palmo was drawn to Buddhism from an early age, and in 1964, at age twenty, she sailed to India. There she met her guru, the eighth Khamtrül Rinpoche, and became one of the first Western women to be ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

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Wednesday
Jun012005

I Thought I Was Alone

I’ve been a Zen practitioner for thirty years. Ten years ago I was in a deep depression. If I sat down to meditate, demons took advantage of the opportunity to torment me, until I could no longer stand the pain. More than once I fled from the zendo, drove to the woods, and ran wailing through the trees.

I was afraid to be alone. If I had a car trip that was more than a half-hour long, I had to stop at a pay phone to call someone who could reassure me that I existed. I had no self, but it didn’t feel a bit like enlightenment.

To my great disappointment, my longtime meditation practice wasn’t helping me, and I stopped sitting zazen altogether. The depression continued in bouts for several years.

I was ill, and I got better. Now I sit regularly, both with my sangha and at home. I’m often restless and distracted, but I’m grateful to be alive. I enjoy solitude, as well as the company of others. I’m no longer bewitched. What’s more, I often feel—I’ll come right out and say it—happy.

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Wednesday
Jun012005

Forum Essays

Depression is violent and merciless. For anyone who has struggled with serious depression, the idea that it could possibly serve as an incentive to meditate is to grossly misunderstand just how debilitating major depression is. The constant barrage of negative thoughts seem to form an unbearable “helmet of doom,” and it is simply not possible to become curious about these thoughts and wish to explore them, as is often suggested for meditation practice. There is simply no space and no ground for this kind of practice in depression.

Because there is so much emphasis on the mind in Buddhism, there is a tendency to believe that if you cannot overcome your negativity, you must not be doing something right. If I could only meditate properly! If I could only spend more time at it! These laments are just variations of the same loop of negative thinking. People who imagine there is a bottom to “hit” before one can get better do not know that depression is a bottomless pit. There is no bottom to the dark. The worst of it is that you just keep falling.

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Wednesday
Jun012005

Dharma Dictionary: Khandha

The word khandha is the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit skandha, and their meanings are identical. Like many Pali (and Sanskrit) words, khandha has both a simple and a technical meaning, and both usages are found in the texts. The simple, or root, meaning of khandha as given in the Pali-English Dictionary is "mass, bulk, (gross) substance." This usage is used in the canon to refer to the bulk of an elephant, for instance. The word is also used specifically for a man's shoulders or back, and also for the trunk of a tree.

Used in a more technical sense, khandha refers to various aggregated collections. There is the phrase dukkhakhandha, "this whole mass of suffering," referring to samsaric existence. The principal technical usage of khandha, however, is in reference to the five khandhas as constituents of psychophysical existence. Sentient beings such as humans, animals, and devas are said to be composed of five khandhas—one physical and four mental. This is a formula often repeated in the suttas and may be considered as the most basic Buddhist analysis of what constitutes a conscious being.

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Tuesday
Mar012005

Mind Is Buddha

Damei once asked Master Mazu, “What is buddha?” Mazu answered, “Mind is buddha.”

Wumen’s Commentary

If you can at once grasp “it,” you are wearing buddha clothes, eating buddha food, speaking buddha words, and living buddha life; you are a buddha yourself. Though this may be so, Damei has misled a number of people and let them trust a scale with a stuck pointer. Don’t you know that you have to rinse out your mouth for three days if you have uttered the word “buddha”? If you are a real Zen person, you will stop your ears and rush away when you hear, “Mind is buddha.”

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Tuesday
Mar012005

Tiny, Slippery Spot of Mind: The four foundations of mindfulness in the Mahayana tradition

In the Mahayana tradition, mindfulness is regarded as wisdom, transcendental knowledge, which is known in Sanskrit as prajna. Mindfulness is also a method of working with our mind. It is the method of recollection, of watchfulness, which develops into the stage of awareness. But if you look at this mindfulness and awareness, you will see that there is not much difference between them. Once you have developed the discipline of mindfulness, awareness is simply the continuity of that mindfulness.

There are several stages we progress through in our study and cultivation of prajna. These become the means for integrating our understanding into our experience, and progressively developing that experience into the full state of realization. In this article, I will discuss the four foundations of mindfulness as they are understood and practiced in the general Buddhist approach and in the Mahayana tradition.

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Tuesday
Mar012005

Spring Comes, the Grass Grows by Itself: Remembering Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004)

I remember him best bowing. For years he rose at 3 a.m. to do five hundred prostrations before the regular 108 with the group at morning practice. He was a sturdy figure in his short, grey bowing robe. His arms swung freely both on the descent and ascent. His forehead pressed against the mat for a precise moment before he rocked forward on his hands to rise. “Much bowing,” he used to say, “your center becomes stronger and stronger.”

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