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Tuesday
Mar012005

Readers’ Exchange: Is Your Practice Working?

When You Are You, Zen Is Zen

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.

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Tuesday
Mar012005

Forum Essays

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.

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Tuesday
Mar012005

Dharma Dictionary: Yidam

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?

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Wednesday
Dec012004

Who Am I?

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.

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Wednesday
Dec012004

The Benefits of Walking Meditation

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.

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Wednesday
Dec012004

A Zen Demonstration

It is enlightenment nature.

Above is the dwelling place of all buddhas.

Below are the six realms of existence.
One by one, each thing is complete.
One by one, each thing has it.
It and dust interpenetrate.
It is already apparent in all things.
So, without cultivation, you are already complete—
Understand, understand.
Clear, clear.

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Wednesday
Dec012004

Love Letters Sent by the Wind

“A single night of love is better than a hundred thousand years of sterile meditation,” he wrote. The life and poetry of Ikkyu, from Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu, translated by John Stevens and published by White Pine Press.

Ikkyu, born as the sun rose on the first day of 1394, was rumored to have been sired by the emperor Gokomatsu. His mother, a member of the influential Fujiwara clan, had been one of Gokomatsu’s attendants at court, but she had been slandered by the empress and subsequently ousted from the palace prior to Ikkyu’s birth.

Being in such difficult circumstances, Ikkyu’s mother was obliged to send him at age five to Ankoku-ji, a Rinzai temple in Kyoto, to be raised by the monks. The precocious little acolyte quickly distinguished himself at the monastery, attaining renown at an early age for both his keen mind and his impish behavior.

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Wednesday
Dec012004

Forum: Translating the Dharma

In this panel we get a rare glimpse of Buddhist translators talking shop. Although they are essential to the life of the religion, translators usually stay in the background, part of the unseen foundation of Buddhism. Most translators do not even put their names on their writing, for they are simply part of a committee. Could anybody name, for example, a member of the committee that translated the King James Bible, the most successful translation in history, which worked so well as a basis for Christianity in English that it shaped the development of the English language itself? And yet there is in most Buddhist cultures a special place of honor reserved for translators when they emerge from their quiet places. The Tibetans give a title, lotsawa, to their top translators and support them often with royal patronage.

Buddhist translators tend to think of themselves in historical context. They know that eventually the entire corpus of Indian or Chinese or Tibetan or whateverBuddhism will have to be transferred to English. This is a complex and multi-generational job, but it has to be done, as it has always been done in the past as Buddhism entered new cultures. Most people have come to know Buddhism through translations.

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Wednesday
Dec012004

In Translation: The View of the Conquerors

The Great Image is the biography of the great Tibetan translator Vairotsana1, one of the earliest translators of tantric texts from Sanskrit into Tibetan and an important figure in the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the four schools of Buddhism in Tibet. Recorded by his foremost disciples, this biography contains not only the details and events of Vairotsana’s life, but also the history of the Ati Yoga (Dzogchen) doctrine in general and the historical background of the Buddhist doctrine in detail, including how it appeared in the celestial and human realms through the mind lineage of the conquerors, the symbol lineage of the vidyadharas, and the hearing lineage of individuals.

This excerpt traces the Dzogchen lineage of the human realm, in India, beginning with Prahevajra (Tib., Garab Dorje), who received the transmission directly from the sambhogakaya buddha Vajrasattva. Brief biographies of each lineage holder precede short spontaneous songs (dohas) through which the teacher transmits the Dzogchen view, followed by the student’s expression of his or her realization.

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Wednesday
Dec012004

Deep in the Present Moment

Born in 1938 to a well-respected family on the Mekong River Delta, Sister Chan Khong learned at a young age the importance of caring for the sick, the hungry and the powerless. Her grandfather told her, “We have no money to leave you, but we bequeath you the merit we have earned from helping people in need.” She first went to help the poor at age 18.

In 1964 Khong, then a twenty-six-year-old biology teacher, helped Thich Nhat Hanh establish an organization to bring medical facilities, school supplies and other essential equipment to war-ravaged rural Vietnam. A few years later she traveled with him to Paris as part of the Buddhist Peace Delegation, trying to influence the peace talks aimed at ending the Vietnam War. Their desire for sanity and peace in the world led to the founding of Plum Village, a retreat center in France. Their sangha now includes major centers in California and Vermont.

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