For anyone dedicated to a spiritual path, the concern that recurs most often is how to keep one’s daily activities in line with one’s highest aspirations. Special religious activities may punctuate the calendar to give energy to this daily quest, but the basic issues of any spiritual life are shaped by the need to ensure that the particulars of one’s day-to-day decisions don’t run counter to one’s larger vision of a life well-lived.
Upasika Kee Nanayon was born near Rajburi, Thailand, to a Chinese merchant family in 1901. Early in her life, her mother taught her the rudiments of Buddhist practice, which she applied as fully as her career allowed. At age forty-four, with the death of her father, she sold her business and founded a forest retreat center, where she devoted her life to a rigorous schedule of meditation and study. To the community of friends and family that grew around her Upasika Kee would give extemporaneous talks, some of which were recorded, transcribed and freely distributed. As word of her teachings and practice spread, Upasika Kee Nanayon became one of the best-known lay teachers, male or female, in Thailand. She died in 1993. This article is excerpted from Pure and Simple: The Extraordinary Teachings of a Thai Buddhist Laywoman (Wisdom Publications), selected and translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
It’s important that we discuss the steps of the practice in training the mind, for the mind has all sorts of deceptions by which it fools itself. If you aren’t skillful in investigating and seeing through them, they are very difficult to overcome, even if you’re continually mindful to keep watch over the mind.
by Reginald A. Ray
Among Buddhists in the West, the traditional practice of giving is often considered a lay virtue aimed at achieving a better rebirth in the next life. While there is nothing particularly wrong with this understanding, it has a serious drawback: giving is often assumed among more serious practitioners to be a relatively lesser practice in Buddhism, superseded by the elite forms of ethics, scholarly study and meditation. This assumption is inaccurate and has led to a unbalanced, distorted version of Buddhism, not only among scholars but also among Western practitioners.
Descriptions of the practice of giving are found, as is well-known, in the earliest Buddhist texts. Perhaps surprisingly, at least for some, the giving practices outlined there possess much depth, subtlety and sophistication, and certainly do not conform to the prevalent stereotypes of “lay Buddhism.”
In the early texts, the practice of giving articulates the way in which (usually) lay donors and their renunciant (monastic and yogic) recipients establish relationships with one another. As the texts emphasize, the renunciants make the first gesture of giving by presenting themselves to the lay person as a potential “field of merit” or “object of offering.” In practical terms, this means that on their alms rounds they turn up at the door of a home and offer their willing—and generous—availability for a relationship with the lay person living there.
by Felix Holmgren
When I walk into Vishva Niketan, the “Universal Abode of Peace,” I encounter camera and lighting gear all around its pavilion. They are trained on the man I’ve come to meet—the founder, ideologue and illustrious spokesman of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka. Dr. Ariyaratne, I am told, is being interviewed by national TV; please wait.
Back outside the pavilion, I slowly make my way through the lush surroundings, up and down paths with names like Karuna Path (“Path of Compassion”). Vishva Niketan was built to serve as a space for dialogue and peacemaking, but it has the air and function of a meditation center. This dual role is typical of the Sarvodaya movement’s belief that nothing substantial can be achieved without the compassionate outlook and mindfulness cultivated by meditation.
I’ve been practicing in the Theravada tradition for six years. About seven years ago I was diagnosed with dysthymia (chronic mild depression), which occasionally escalates into full-blown depression. About two and a half years ago I began taking antidepressant medication to control the deeper depressive episodes. The first medication I tried helped for a while and then seemed to quit. The one I’m using now keeps the deep depression at bay but I think it’s destroying my mind. I’m finding it difficult to concentrate, my memory is deteriorating, and I’m becoming somewhat apathetic.
My state of mind is interfering with my meditation practice. My doctor wants me to give the medication another three months but I’m afraid my mind will become mush and there will be no hope for my enlightenment in this life.
Since becoming a Buddhist, I’ve wanted to ordain in the Theravada tradition and devote the remainder of my life to intensive practice. But I’m married. I’m also concerned that my current state of mind would lead to failure as a monastic. Any ideas?
When You Are You, Zen Is Zen
by Edward Espe Brown
In the late sixties when the back-to-the-land, “turn-on, tune-in, drop-out” counter-culture was in full swing—when the People’s Baker baked bread and gave it away for free—Suzuki Roshi told us in a lecture, “Your culture is based on ideas of self-improvement... Improvement means that instead of going to Japan by ship, now you can go by jumbo jet. So improvement is based on comparative value, which is also the basis of our society and our economy. I understand that you are rejecting that idea of [material] civilization, but you are not rejecting the idea of improvement. You still try to improve something. Isn’t that rather materialistic? ...Buddhists do not hold so strongly to the idea of improvement.”
Some months later when I tried to use that as an excuse not to practice hard, he said, “Ed, if your practice is not advancing, it’s going downhill backwards—fast.”
So what is this advancing that is not getting caught up in improvement? (And wouldn’t that be the real way to improve?) Everyday mind is the way.
The question of whether my practice or meditation is working raises the further question of how I know. Is my meditation working if I feel happy, loving or confident? If I am less anxious and free of stress-related mental and physical ailments? If I am a better worker, spouse or person? If I am a more active sangha member and bodhisattva? If I am more enlightened?
Yes, answer utilitarian-minded practitioners. Most of us prefer to reduce it to following instructions and getting guaranteed results, much like learning how to operate a VCR. We expect these results, so if we get them, our meditation must be working. That is why we sit, especially we Americans. We do it for a reason or benefit. And if it doesn’t work we fix it.
As a beginning meditator, I expected success and worked hard to achieve it. Predictably, the harder I worked, the less effective were my various efforts—counting breaths, techniques of relaxation, chanting, introspection, exercise of will and discipline, and problem-solving. I worked hard and followed all the instructions, yet felt frustrated and cheated. Meditation is not a technique to achieve anything. If you expect something and pursue it, you’re a dog chasing its tail. The faster you turn to get it, the faster it moves from your grasp.
Defined by Sarah Harding
To define the concept of the yidam is to approach the essence of Tibetan Buddhism. The yidam is a special deity one works with in meditation as a means towards recognizing one's own awakened nature. The word is said to be a contraction of yid kyi dam tshig, which essentially means to bind one’s mind (yid) by oath to a deity who embodies enlightened mind.
In Tibetan Buddhism there are innumerable kinds of deities, but the yidam is defined by the very distinctive role it plays in meditation. Yidams may be sambhogkaya buddhas, tantric deities, bodhisattvas, dharma protectors or historical figures. In all cases, the yidam is the very manifestation of enlightenment, and every aspect of it is ultimately meaningful. The yidam is one of the so-called Three Roots that are the objects of refuge in vajrayana: the guru, the yidams, and the protectors and dakinis. As such, it is said to be the root of spiritual power or accomplishment (Skt. siddhi). How does that work?
In this teaching on the wisdom chapter of Shantideva’s The Way of the Budhisattva, His Holiness the Dalai Lama dismantles the belief in self by examining the nature of body, feelings, mind and phenomena.
In The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicaryavatara), Shantideva’s presentation of the identitylessness, or selflessness, of phenomena is explained first by means of the four mindfulnesses—mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of mind and of phenomena.
So, according to Shantideva’s text, first we reflect upon the nature of our own body. This is done by contemplating the body’s general and specific characteristics, for example, the aging process and the impure substances that constitute bodily existence. Generally speaking, meditating on the mindfulness of body, reflecting upon the nature of our own body, is the approach explained in the Hinayana scriptures. However, we can extend this contemplation to the nature of the body, feelings, mind and phenomena of all beings, who are limitless like space. Then it becomes a training of the mind according to the Mahayana path. When we contemplate the emptiness of these four factors—body, feelings, mind and phenomena—we are practicing a mindfulness meditation focused on the ultimate truth.
Walking meditation, says Sayadaw U Silananda, reflects the Buddha’s injunction to practice mindfulness while in all the four postures, and in all the activities of our lives.
At our meditation retreats, yogis practice mindfulness in four different postures. They practice mindfulness when walking, when standing, when sitting and when lying down. They must sustain mindfulness at all times in whatever position they are in.
The primary posture for mindfulness meditation is sitting with legs crossed. But because the human body cannot tolerate this position for many hours without changing, we alternate periods of sitting meditation with periods of walking meditation. Since walking meditation is very important, I would like to discuss its nature, its significance, and the benefits derived from its practice.
The practice of mindfulness meditation can be compared to boiling water. If one wants to boil water, one puts the water in a kettle, puts the kettle on a stove, and then turns the heat on. But if the heat is turned off, even for an instant, the water will not boil, and if one continues to turn the heat on and off, the water will never boil. In the same way, if there are gaps between the moments of mindfulness, one cannot gain momentum, and so one cannot attain concentration. That is why yogis at our retreats are instructed to practice mindfulness all the time that they are awake—from the moment they wake up in the morning until they fall asleep at night. Consequently, walking meditation is integral to the continuous development of mindfulness.