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Recent talks with our Dharma friends

Sangha & Inclusion, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Guiding Teacher Konin Cardenas has recently returned from her visits to the Red Clay Sangha in Atlanta, Georgia and the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group (SBMG in California). The Sunday morning talk at Red Clay was offered on June 3rd. It is a talk about what the Buddha's awakening might mean to you, and it is available here:

https://zoom.us/recording/share/um0KeK_-uHGPJizR_x2z1_i5Lns8X5Lz-CkbcJUXOS6wIumekTziMw 

The Sunday evening talk, that same night, at SBMG is a talk about finding compassion in the five aggregates of human experience. It can be accessed here:

http://av.dharmaseed.org/teacher/631/talk/50410/

May they be a support to your awakening life!
 

Your Venerable State

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

In recent days I’ve had quite a few encounters with the inescapable sufferings of illness, aging and death. While there are many Buddhist teachings about these experiences, one in particular stands out to me lately. It is the koan of Master Ma. The case goes likes this:

Master Ma was unwell. The Head Monk came to him and asked, “How is your venerable state these days?” Master Ma replied, “Sun-face Buddha, Moon-face Buddha.”

The student’s question can also be understood as, “What is your condition?” or “How are you?” It may be an inquiry into the Master’s health, into his awakening, or into his enlightened nature. The Master’s response incorporates a reference to the Sutra of Buddha Names in which it is said that the Sun-face Buddha lives for 1800 years, and the Moon-face Buddha lives for one day and one night. So it’s easy to interpret this dialogue to mean that the Student is inquiring about whether the Master’s awakening is intact, and the Master responds with a phrase that means that whether he lives for a long time or a short time, he will always be a Buddha.
However, that view might not reflect the teaching of this dialogue. First, it’s helpful to investigate the practice of a Buddha. What is the practice of a Buddha? Whether long-lived or short-lived, a Buddha’s practice is to point all beings toward their true nature, and to embody true nature. This means that a Buddha is practicing all the time, demonstrating an awakening life by living an awakening life.

Moon over Mount Diablo

Moon over Mount Diablo


Next, it’s helpful to investigate sickness and death. What is the practice that is appropriate to sickness and death? Shakyamuni Buddha instructed his disciples to study sickness, aging, and death as a means of developing insight. Specifically, he encouraged them to study corpses and places where cremations took place. To what end? According to the Buddha, studying the inevitable decay of the body would offer insight into impermanence and, therefore, into the teaching of no self. It would also lessen the practitioner's concern with the appearance of the body.

So, putting all that together, I believe that Master Ma’s reply actually means something like, “Whether for a short time or a long time, illness is simply something else to practice with when you are a Buddha, which is right now.” That is to say, any kind of suffering is simply something else to practice with because you are already with the capacity to realize Buddhahood.

This kind of insight is invaluable. This is Right View. The problems of your life are simply the material for your practice. And the joys of your life are equally material for your practice. It is up to you to turn them in that way.

It brings to mind a time many years ago when my daughter taught me a lesson. She was about seven years old, and had taken to giving her best friend her belongings. Shoes, toys, books, clothes – all ended up at Alicia’s house. And I, as the purchaser of those items, was a bit distressed about it. I wondered why my daughter didn’t have enough shoes, when I’d gone to the trouble of buying her plenty of them.

 

So, one day, I sat her down and asked her why she was giving away her things. Without saying so, I wondered whether she didn’t like the things I was buying her, or whether perhaps Alicia’s family didn’t have enough money to buy her shoes. My daughter’s reply was astonishing. She said, “Mommy, to me, those are just my old shoes or toys that I don’t even play with anymore but, to Alicia, they are a gift. It makes her happy.” I was speechless. Here was my daughter talking about practicing sympathetic joy, one of the four Sublime Abodes, while I worried about the details! In one sentence my seven year old had reminded me that I could choose to see life as a problem or as a practice.


And so it was with Master Ma, who told his disciple not to worry about his illness, but to practice with it. I try to walk in his shoes even today.

 

The Temptation to Turn Away

Study & Arts, Sangha & Inclusion, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment

When events in your life provoke fear or anger or any number of other difficult feelings, it's tempting to turn away. It's tempting to think that you can or should just withdraw, or put up a wall, or do your best to dismiss the things you can't understand. However, the history of mankind has shown that these responses do not work. For thousands of years, people have experienced pain and dissatisfaction as a result of their efforts to separate from others.

A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is emptiness, the fact that nothing comes into being permanently or independently. All things and all people must come into being, momentarily, in dependence on other people and things. That is to say, emptiness also means inseparability. There is no way to be separate. This is consistent with the laws of physics, as well as the Buddha's teachings.

NASA

NASA

Yet the illusion of separation is deep and pernicious. It begins with our sense of our own bodies, which develops during infancy.  And it continues into adolescence and beyond, as we develop an identity, a fixed view of self. Often times our identity is based on who we are not. We remind ourselves that we are not our parents, we are not our friends, and we are not our spouses. We remind ourselves, over and over again, that we are a certain kind of person, one that is defined at least in part by our skin. Is this really true?

Ultimately, there is no escaping the fact that this sense of difference is flawed and that it leads to difficulty. For example, when you see a star at night, that is a wave or a particle of light contacting your sense organs, the eyes. According to the Buddha, this creates a moment of eye consciousness. Then your brain sets out to identify it and to construct thoughts and feelings about it. So this tiny particle, which has traveled billions of miles and many years to reach your eye, effects both your body and mind in tangible ways. Thus, you are physically and mentally connected with, inter-being with that star across space and time. And due to the length of time that it takes for that light to reach your eye, the star may not even exist anymore. Yet, you are aware of its presence. How could you be separate from the stars?

NASA

NASA

And so it is with your relationship to all other beings on this Earth. You may think that reinforcing the separation is going to help, that it will lessen the pain and loss. You may think that building a mental or physical wall, or withdrawing from the situation will improve the situation. However, in the long run walls must come down, and withdrawal only compounds our loss. 

It is for this reason that the early Mahayana sutras teach about emptiness and the path of compassion together. Take the Diamond Sutra, for example. When Subhuti asks the Buddha how to control his thoughts, the Buddha replies that he should make a vow to save all beings, even while acknowledging that there are no beings to be saved. That is, we train the mind through compassionate activity that is in accord with the fact of emptiness. We know that to be human is to appear, in any given form, only for a flicker of an instant. One who deeply understands the implications of that will work to help others see it, so that they might have less confusion and suffering too.

Thus, when the events of life make you want to withdraw, it's the best time to step forward into the divide. It's the best time to remember that we are all human, and we are all more or less confused about how life really works. Despite that confusion, we are all also part of the vast fabric of reality, and therefore part of one family. Like the stars, we have a finite time to shine. So let's shine while we can.

 

Companionship and Camaraderie

Sangha & Inclusion, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment
Ananda turned to the Buddha and said, "This is half of the holy life: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie." The Buddha replied, "Don't say that, Ananda. Don't say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life."
Image from What-Buddha-Said.net

Image from What-Buddha-Said.net

 

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, is quoted in the Upaddha Sutra as having said that dharma friendships are the whole of our spiritual life. In the Sutra he goes on to say that just as his students have depended on him for spiritual friendship, and have thereby been able to pursue the Noble Eightfold Path of practice, so too each of us depends on our spiritual friends to help us walk the path. This is a teaching about sangha. It means that the Buddha and Ananda, our Dharma teachers, and all of our fellow practitioners are our personal sangha.

But what is it that makes a sangha? Each one of us might have a different answer to this question. Originally, in the Buddha's time, Sangha meant the community of women and men who were ordained as nuns and monks. At that time, ordination was sometimes as simple as the Buddha saying, "Come monk." Still there was a strong sense of renunciation, and a person took on a difference appearance and lifestyle when they became part of the early Sangha.

Over the centuries various Buddhist traditions have evolved from the historical Buddha's teachings and, in modern day Zen, sangha is understood to mean the fourfold sangha of lay women, lay men, ordained women and ordained men. Thus, anyone who is a Zen practitioner is part of the Zen sangha. It can include people of any age, any background, any culture or skin color, and any amount of practice experience.

For me, sangha means the people who share an intention to live an awakening life, a life that returns again and again to the work of bringing compassion and wisdom into our hearts and into the world. Without this shared intention and the actions that make it come alive, we cannot really call ourselves part of a sangha. Both things are necessary - the intention and the action. It is work, but it is the most worthwhile kind of work you can do if you want to have peace of mind.

Thus, taking refuge in sangha is one of the key vows of a Buddhist. You may appreciate the teaching of Buddhism, and that may or may not make you a Buddhist. You may enjoy the people, places and things associated with Buddhist practice, and that may or may not make you a Buddhist. To take refuge is to turn for guidance to Buddha understood as awakened nature, the Dharma understood as the teachings, and the Sangha understood as the people who make these teachings present in the world. Once you take refuge, then you are ready to take the vows. 

 

At times like these, when we are again and again faced with the brevity of human life, it is even more important to take refuge in the sangha. And, as the words "companionship and camaraderie" imply, the sangha restores itself, renews itself by coming together. Centuries ago nuns and monks would walk for miles to gather together on the full moon and the new moon. They did this so that they might hear the teachings, and share with their dharma friends about how their practice had been going. For these reasons, we too need to come together in the zendo, sometimes in silence and sometimes making joyful noise. We can only manifest the many aspects of sangha by gathering together for the activities of practice. 

So I invite you to make the effort to find your sangha - whether by walking, driving, or flying - for the sheer joy of being around others who are also on this path. I invite you to return to our shared intention, to our personal, embodied dharma connection. I invite you to be the sangha, manifest the path, come.