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Tuesday
Jun012004

Forum: Understanding Dogen

    Dogen has come a long way. When Zen first got hot in the U.S. during the 1960’s, Dogen was just another obscure Japanese master in the writings of D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, and the American version of Dogen’s Soto Zen school was just a handful of kids in San Francisco doing zazen at Sokoji with Shunryu Suzuki. These days, Soto Zen is all over the country and Dogen’s name is all over Amazon (780 hits). Dogen must be by now our most famous Zen master, ranking up there in the pantheon of Buddhist authors with stars like Nagarjuna (664 hits).

    Dogen’s rise to stardom may be partly a function of the spread of his school in America, but his reputation as a Buddhist author goes beyond his status as founder of the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. Like Nagarjuna, and unlike most Zen masters, he is seen as a philosopher. Unlike Nagarjuna and most Zen masters, he is seen as a philosopher with important things to say about Buddhist practice—both how we should think about it and what we should do about it.

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Tuesday
Jun012004

Are There Any Who Are Not Beginners?

The essential way flows everywhere; how could it require practice or enlightenment? The essential teaching is fully available; how could effort be necessary? Furthermore, the entire mirror is free of dust; why take steps to polish it? Nothing is separate from this very place; why journey away?

And yet, if you miss the mark even by a strand of hair, you are as far apart from it as heaven from earth. If the slightest discrimination occurs, you will be lost in confusion. You may be proud of your understanding and have abundant realization, or you may have acquired outstanding wisdom and attained the way by clarifying the mind. However, even with high aspirations, if you wander about and get an initial glimpse of understanding, you may still lack the vital path that allows you to leap free of the body.

Observe the example of Shakyamuni Buddha at the Jeta Grove, who practiced upright sitting for six years even though he was gifted with intrinsic wisdom. Still celebrated is the Master Bodhidharma of Shaolin Temple, who sat facing the wall for nine years, although he had already received the mind seal. Ancient sages were like this; who nowadays does not need to practice as they did?

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Tuesday
Jun012004

Does No-Thought Mean No Thought?

In a famous Chan lineage story we hear that the Fifth Patriarch’s leading student, Shen Hsiu, composed a verse that equated practice with continually removing dust. When the illiterate Huineng heard a boy chanting the verse, he composed his own, which ended,

Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?

For this, he was recognized as the Sixth Patriarch. The void he experienced is wunien, a mind that cannot be defiled by any dust of thought. As a result Huineng (638-713), the illiterate wood-cutter, was probably the first master who taught wunien (thoughtlessness) as the central tenet of Chan Buddhism.

Wunien is reflected in the approach Chan practitioners take in even basic meditation methods, such as counting the breath. The meditator hopes that with continued practice discursive thoughts will subside and therefore regards a state of less discursive thought—or more thoughtlessness—as signifying improvement in meditation practice. Indeed, the word wunien itself would seem to indicate as much. In Chinese, wu means “no,” “without,” “nothing” or “empty of,” and nien refers to “thoughts” or “objects of the mind.” So, taken together, they could be rendered sensibly as “no-thought” or “thoughtlessness.”

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Tuesday
Jun012004

In with the Bad Air, Out with the Good

“Give and Take” mounted on the breath is the magic device
Bringing love, compassion, and the special mind.
To save all beings from this world’s great ocean,
Please bless me to awaken true bodhimind.

From “An Offering Ceremony to the Spiritual Masters” by The First Panchen Lama

As the First Panchen Lama suggests, the practice of tonglen—give and take—is a major way of subduing our self-cherishing, ego-pleasing thoughts. Ego is our biggest obstacle to developing bodhimind. When we try to destroy ego, we are training our mind—the mind that ignores all other people, the one that thinks we are the most important person of all. Once we have been able to destroy our selfish, egoistic thoughts, we begin to act as our true selves and we have a real ability to benefit ourselves and others.

Right now, the ego blocks our capacity to help not only others but also ourselves. We have to understand that we cannot really help anyone until we have learned how to help ourselves. But the ego prevents us from helping ourselves by presenting a false notion of what it really means to help ourselves. What does our ego want?

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Tuesday
Jun012004

The Cho-mos of Ladakh: From Servants to Practitioners

Jan Willis reveals why life is getting better for the nuns of Ladakh.

Tucked away on a high plateau in the far northwest of India lies the dry and windswept region of Ladakh, one of the most beautiful and remote outposts in the Buddhist world. To the east it is bordered by the Himalayas. To the west lies war-troubled Kashmir and Pakistan. From the fifth to the fifteenth century Ladakh was an independent Tibetan kingdom and many Buddhist monasteries were established there.

Modern-day Ladakh—whose population of 160,000 is about evenly divided between Buddhists and Muslims—is still home to many monks and nuns, but for generations nuns have held a grossly inferior position. I first travelled to Ladakh in 1995 to attend the Sakyadhita Conference of Buddhist Women held in its capital city, Leh. I was astounded by the appalling conditions of Ladakh’s nuns, who seemed to be mere helpers for the monks, with no status and no attention being paid to their spiritual path. But on a return visit in July 2003, I was able to see how the work of the Ladakh Nuns Association in the intervening eight years had made it possible for many of Ladakh’s nuns to move away from servitude and towards becoming true spiritual practitioners.

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Tuesday
Jun012004

Ask the Teachers

Q: Buddhism says that there are all kinds of beings out there—buddhas, bodhisattvas, deities—but I can't perceive them. Is there something wrong with me? How do I work with this discrepancy? What do I need to do to be able to feel or perceive them? What will it do for me when I can?

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Tuesday
Jun012004

Readers Exchange 

I like to get a little out of it now and then, but I don't like to get too out of it too much, and thus my rule is to do as little as possible of any intoxicants, including caffeine. I do tend to do too much, though I don't beat myself on the head for my excesses. I just pick myself up and keep going.

I see the precepts, including the fifth one, Refrain from taking intoxicants, as warning signs around certain areas of conduct—not absolute commandments but flashing lights suggesting we be careful and wary. We don't want to hurt ourselves or others, so we should take heed.

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Tuesday
Jun012004

Readers' Essays

In the Buddhist community of which I am part, while I was an active alcoholic there was a great tolerance for outrageous behavior. This drew me to the community in the first place but left me feeling lonely and misunderstood when I needed space from it in order to recover from alcoholism.

If I took a first drink, I didn’t know when I would stop, or what humiliating or dangerous thing might come to pass along the way. Despite knowing that and not wanting to go there, I did, repeatedly. Eventually it was one of the four reminders that brought me out of denial—the face of Yama, the lord of death, staring straight at me as a vision of what I was moving toward if I remained in addiction. I have not had a drink in 18 years.

It is curious that even when our practice is about becoming fully familiar with our own minds, we can still pull the wool over our eyes regarding our use of alcohol. A.A. calls alcoholism a “disease of denial” and alcohol itself “cunning, baffling and powerful.” That so few people in my Buddhist community recognized what I saw as a massive self-deception regarding alcoholism was baffling indeed. The methods proffered within my community for working with the problem were utterly insufficient in my case and I eventually turned to A.A. as a great source of collective wisdom and support. I was warmly welcomed and free to do whatever translating of theistic terms I wished. That people within my Buddhist community looked down on this was anything but compassionate and helpful.

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Tuesday
Jun012004

Dharma Dictionary: Vipashyana

The Sanskrit Buddhist term vipashyana (Pali, vipassana; Tib, lhagthong; Jap, kan), is composed of two parts: pashyana indicates “seeing” while the prefix vi- adds the meaning of “extraordinary.” Vipashyana means “to see things in an extraordinary way”—not as we think they are or want them to be but “as they truly are in and of themselves.” Vipashyana is thus the liberative insight that marks awakening and the sine qua non of enlightenment. In this sense, it is equivalent to prajna, the penetrating and immaculate experience of seeing things as they truly are (yathabhutam).

As described in traditional texts, the experience of vipashyana contains several primary features. First, it arrives suddenly and unexpectedly, cutting through whatever discursive thinking, emotion or other relative state of mind we may be going through. It comes as a surprise or even a complete shock. Second, it is an experience of something, in this case of the geography of things as they are. So the experience contains nothing of ego or its perspective. It is reality seen not from ego’s standpoint, but from the standpoint of reality itself. In this sense, the experience of vipashyana is compared to a sudden bolt of lightening that lights up the entire landscape of reality beyond our conditioned reference point. Third, the experience of vipashyana abruptly drops one into a world in which the subject-object dualism of “seer” and “seen” does not apply. As the Japanese Yogacara scholar Yoshifumi Ueda evocatively puts it, what we run into here is “reality ‘seen’ by reality.”

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Monday
Mar012004

Buddhahood in Three Dimensions

Chapter 1 of the Lotus Sutra takes us to Vulture Peak, near the city of Rajagriha in the kingdom of Magadha (present-day northeast India), where the Buddha has gathered with a large assembly of disciples, including Kashyapa, Shariputra, Maudgalyayana and Ananda, as well thousands of bhikshus and bhikshunis, including the Buddha’s aunt, Mahaprajapati and his former wife, Yashodhara. In addition, there are tens of thousands of great bodhisattvas in attendance, among them Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Bhaisajyaraja (Medicine King) and Maitreya. Also present are many thousands of gods, including Indra and the kings of the nagas, kinnaras, ghandharvas, asuras and garudas. The ruler of Magadha, King Ajatashatru, and his royal family and retinue are also in attendance. This vast multitude of many different kinds of beings is present in the assembly when the Buddha is about to deliver the Lotus Sutra.

This not only sets the stage for the delivery of the sutra in the historical dimension, but also reveals the ultimate dimension. The vast numbers of shravakas and bodhisattvas, the presence of gods and mythical beings, give us our first taste of the ultimate dimension and show us that the opportunity to hear the Lotus Sutra delivered by the Buddha is something very special, a great occurrence not to be missed.

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