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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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Monday
Mar012004

See the True Nature, then Let Go and Relax in That

Melvin McLeod: Rinpoche, you are one of the leading teachers of Mahamudra, the highest philosophy and practice of the Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism. Would you describe the Mahamudra view of the nature of mind?

Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche: In Mahamudra there are three traditions: sutra Mahamudra, mantra Mahamudra and essence Mahamudra.

The sutra tradition of Mahamudra encompasses both the second and third turnings of the wheel of dharma [the teachings on emptiness and buddhanature, respectively]. According to the second turning of the wheel, the true nature of mind is beyond conceptual fabrication. That means it cannot be described as being existent or nonexistent, as being something or nothing, or as being permanent or impermanent. Mind cannot be described or conceptualized in any of these ways: the nature of mind is beyond all conceptual fabrication. Then, according to the third turning of the wheel of dharma, which are the teachings on buddhanature such as the Uttaratantrashastra,[i] the true nature of mind is described as luminous clarity. This is the enlightened essence of the buddhanature, completely free from any stain, completely free from any imperfection or flaw. This luminosity is inseparable from emptiness. So the true nature of mind is described as the union of clarity and emptiness.

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Monday
Mar012004

Buddha Is Right Here

Ignorance and Enlightenment

“There is no difference between buddhas and people, but buddhas understand their ignorance and we are ignorant of enlightenment.” A lecture on the “Genjo Koan,” given at Sokoji Temple, San Francisco, March, 1966.

In observing your practice, I notice it is just a small part of your life. You think it may be better to do something else instead of practicing zazen. But our practice is not like that. It is not one of twenty-four hours.

If I scold you, you may go. If I give you some candy, you will stay. I daresay you are impossible, like a child. You lack the confidence to study Buddhism as a whole life study. You think you can get away from Zen, from this zendo. Actually, once you enter, that’s it. Someday you’ll have to come back. I know that. I tried to get out of it many times, but I couldn’t.

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Monday
Mar012004

A New Vision for Zen Center

San Francisco Zen Center has been a mecca for serious Buddhist practitioners for more than thirty-five years. It operates three renowned practice centers in Northern California and offers community service and outreach programs for prisoners, the homeless and people in recovery. Teachers trained at Zen Center have founded some forty Zen centers and dharma groups around the country. Lectures by its legendary founder, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, continue to be published.

So why did this venerable institution decide that it needed a new vision and strategic plan?

“The main fact about Zen Center is its size and age,” says Norman Fischer, SFZC co-abbot from 1995 to 2000. “A lot of people have been doing Zen there for a long time. It’s the flagship Buddhist institution in the West. Because of this, it’s had to deal with organizational issues that younger, smaller sanghas haven’t, and it’s had a chance to make more mistakes. I wonder what will happen to some of the other Buddhist sanghas in the West when their charismatic founding leaders die.”

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Monday
Mar012004

Forum: Formless Meditation

BUDDHADHARMA: I’d begin by asking each of you to speak about your understanding of formless meditation from the point of view of your tradition. In Zen, for example, formless meditation often goes by the name of shikantaza, or “just sitting.” Reverend Bennage, could you say more about that?

DAI-EN BENNAGE: Yes, we say “just sitting,” but the “just” in “just sitting” doesn’t mean “just” in the usual way. It means thoroughgoing, total sitting. It’s like the feeling you would have if you were riding a horse at an incredible speed and you fell out of the saddle and found yourself between the saddle and the ground. What kind of state of mind would you have there?

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