this bright world is yours to discover


The Wisdom of the Heart Sutra - There are Not Two Truths

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

If you have practiced in a Zen center, you may have you been exposed to the Heart Sutra. The Sutra is sometimes very difficult to understand because it appears to be negating so many things that we take for granted as real. However, it has a more subtle meaning than mere negation.

Form itself is emptiness. Emptiness itself form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations and consciousness.

That is, the absolute reality of all things as lacking permanent, independent existence - which simply means they are conditional, impermanent, inter-connected, lacking eternal substance - is completely manifested in their mundane form. We see them demonstrating these principals day in and day out but, typically, it's easier to resist that daily teaching because ignorance is less threatening to our sense of a separate, autonomous self.

This is not the genius of Zen, but of all of Mahayana Buddhism, to have restated the Buddha's teachings in a way that points toward dropping the dualistic view of absolute and relative. Ironically, however, it is often used as a way of reinforcing the "two truths" view which again creates a dualism.

The beauty of Buddhism is that the teaching is, and has always been, that each one of us needs only a body and mind to realize the most profound, sacred, truths, to realize the nature of a human life, and to realize that our everyday experience can be a tool for creating more suffering and confusion or discovering the highest wisdom and peace.

Do bodhisattvas seek Nirvana?

Sangha & Inclusion, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Student: I listened again to the [recording of the ] seminar and [the Buddhist teacher and academic] says that in early Buddhism the goal was Nirvana and he contrasts that, the elimination of passions, with the goal of the Mahayana of enlightenment which is not the elimination of the passions, but the evocation of the passion of compassion. A bodhisattva would not then be seeking nirvana but enlightenment, or acting out of enlightenment. Could you say a bit about your understanding of Nirvana? Do bodhisattvas pursue Nirvana or enlightenment?

Konin:  The question of Nirvana (Sanskrit) or Nibbāna (Pali) is such an fascinating one. The records that we have quote the Buddha as having said these three things about it, many times, in many of his discourses:

"This is truly peace, this is the Highest, namely the end of all kamma (karma) formations, the forsaking of every substratum of rebirth, the fading away of craving, the detachment, the extinction, Nibbāna."

"Enraptured with lust (desire, greed), enraged with anger, blinded by delusion, overwhelmed, with mind ensnared, man (a human being) aims at his [her, their] own ruin, at the ruin of others, at the ruin of both and he [she, they] experiences mental pain and grief. But, if lust, anger and delusion are given up, man aims neither at his own ruin, nor at the ruin of others, nor at the ruin of both, and experiences no mental pain and grief. Thus is Nibbāna, immediate, visible in this life, inviting, attractive, comprehensible to the wise."

"The extinction of greed, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of delusion: this, indeed, is called Nibbāna."

So, as you can see, there is Nibbāna described as something that seems to be possible only at or after death, a cessation of the rounds of rebirth. It is likened to the flame of a candle going out, not being passed to another candle. When the Buddha died, he said that he was passing into Mahaparinibbāna, meaning great, final extinction or cessation. 

Interestingly, he also speaks of a realm he called "the deathless." He is quoted as saying this about it:

"Truly there is a realm where there is neither solid, nor fluid, neither heat, nor motion, neither this world, nor any other world, neither sun, nor moon. This I call neither arising nor passing away , neither holding still, being born, or dying. There is no foothold, no development, no basis. This is the end of suffering. There is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, informed. If there were not this unborn, this unoriginated, this uncreated, this unformed, release from the world of the born, the orginated the created, the formed would not be possible. But since there is an unborn, unoriginated, uncreated, informed, there is release from the world of the born, the created, the created, the formed." 

What is this realm? What is the deathless?

However, Nibbāna had already happened for him in the second and third senses described above - the sense of freedom from the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion, complete rest in the mind. The Buddha said he dwelt in Nibbāna after his awakening/enlightenment, and his students who reached the highest ideal of awakening were called Arahants (Pali) or Arhats (Sanskrit). They were called that after having achieved this same freedom from the three poisons, again, called Nibbāna. This, he seems to have said, is available to everyone during their lifetime, and is a peace beyond any peace you can presently imagine. That is, until you have a taste of it. We can for brief periods be free from the three poisons, in moments of profound, bright clarity. That is a taste peace of mind, and that too is an experience of Nibbāna in this lifetime. 

As regards a bodhisattva, it is really important to remember that the bodhisattva ideal as a path also exists within the Theravada, or so called Hinayana, teachings. The Buddha referred to himself as a bodhisattva before his awakening. During the early periods of the Mahayana, practitioners were just beginning to take up the Buddha as a role model, rather than as a teacher. They chose to take up the attainment of Buddhahood as their goal, not the Arahant as a goal. Still, they ordained, lived and practiced in the same monasteries as those practicing the teachings we now know as Theravada [Sthaviravada, Sravakayana or Hinayana], who took the Buddha as a teacher who advocated the Arahant path. Yet it's really important to notice that, even though the Buddha was a bodhisattva, he didn't keep coming back to human form forever to help beings. He said that after his death he would be gone from any realm of rebirth forever. He goes on helping beings forever through the legacy of his teachings, which he said were sufficient for everyone to wake up by.

As I understand it, it was much later that the bodhisattva path came to be understood as coming back forever to keep helping beings. However, when it gets expanded in that way, then it makes sense that a bodhisattva wouldn't seek the final Nibbāna that the Buddha experienced and advocated for his students, because that would mean that their rebirths would come to an end.

9_koi_jump from yourkoipond dot com.jpg

Finally, as for eliminating passion versus generating compassion, I have to say that my experience of the paths is that both are deeply based in compassion for all beings. The Buddha, echoed by the later Mahayana teachers, clearly stated that the most compassionate thing one could do for another was to help them to realize enlightenment, to wake up to the true nature of all things, to realize complete, final liberation from suffering.

In my view, compassion arises from two directions. One way of generating compassion is to remember that all beings suffer and don't want to suffer, and so we should do the right thing by them and for ourselves. We should be kind and ethical. This is a compassion that is fairly easy to generate. It is also a form of generating compassion that will lead the one who practices it to fewer obstacles in their life of practice. Another way of generating compassion is to see the way in which all beings are intimately, physically and mentally inter-dependent, impermanent, and very subtly deluded. Then, like the fingers on the hand, one intuitively has kindness towards everything with which one is intimately connected. Causing harm doesn't make sense anymore. Supporting everyone's enlightenment is the only thing that makes sense. All of the schools of Buddhism that I have studied and experienced are generating both of these two forms of compassion. That said, I have to add that there are some forms of practice that really tax my ability to see them as compassion. Unfortunately, delusion about compassion can enter the practice life too.

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.


Art in the Service of Wisdom

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

A complete expression in this moment, 
one that is spontaneous and unique,  
while fully embracing all things.

The enso is used in Japanese Zen Buddhism to illustrate all things complete and harmonious in each moment. It is also a demonstration of the simplicity and harmony of the teaching of Zen, a tradition that views words and concepts as somewhat inadequate in their ability to express the true nature of reality.

Thus, the art of painting came to be used in the service of wisdom.

Drawing circles in the air and on the ground had long been a form of teaching in Chan Buddhism. We hear of it in the form of koan stories. For example, in "Book of Serenity" case 77 entitled "Yangshan's Enough," we read:

The monk drew a circle [in the air] and held it up with his hands, like a titan holding the sun and the moon, and said ‘What character is this?’ Yangshan then drew a circle around the character for infinity.
— Translation by Thomas Cleary

The monk is demonstrating that all things are embraced in the enso. Carrying it like Atlas, he is also demonstrating that each of us fully encompasses the whole world. This is because we are inseparable from it, through the function of emptiness that pervades our experience of the six senses. Yangshan agrees. In his verse comments, Tiantong, says this about it:

The void of the circle of the Way is never filled. The letters on the seal of emptiness are still unformed.

In great appreciation for the circle of the Way, both literal and figurative, Zenkei Shibayama Roshi published, in 1969, a large-format book containing reproductions of three centuries of enso, and the accompanying calligraphy and art. Some enso are painted in a clockwise direction, others in a counter-clockwise direction. They begin the stroke at various points on the circle. Each one reveals a bit about the individual who painted it. No two enso are identical. It reminds us that an enso blossoms from a particular moment in time, and thus its variation is great. 

And so it is with our lives. No matter in which direction you go, you are still in the midst of the activity of great Buddhadharma. All the while, you are a unique instance of causes and conditions, and thus the variation in what you experience is great. Never forget this and you are assured of great harmony.

Grappling With the Green-eyed Monster

Sitting & Ritual, Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

A long, long time ago there was a monk who had been working in the kitchen and then, overnight, was promoted to Abbot of a prestigious monastery. The retiring Abbot felt sure that this would cause a stir. So he sent the new Abbot on a journey, on a long walk, and told him not to come back for three years, to allow time for people to absorb the news. As expected, many of the other monks in the monastery were upset and actually set out in pursuit of the new Abbot.

Have you ever felt like one of the monks that went after the new Abbot? Have you ever thought, "who is this fool that landed that job?" Perhaps you have had the feeling that someone didn't deserve some special recognition they had received, or that they weren't qualified for some role for which they had been chosen. Maybe you have felt envy that someone you knew received a special gift. These days there is a lot of envy in the public discourse, people who are expressing dismay or upset or anger at the recognition given to others, or the gifts that are given to others. This is sometimes cloaked in "critique," or it is sometimes cloaked in "indignation." Yet, often, this is a form of envy.

Envy is defined by Merriam-Webster as, "the painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage." Notice that the smart folks who compile the dictionary mention that pain is involved. Notice that they also acknowledge that envy has to do with what we want for ourselves, regardless of whether we are actually able to obtain it. For this reason, envy has also been called "the green-eyed monster." When we are caught by envy, it can create suffering and states of mind that lead to other harmful thoughts and actions. Again, this seems to be clearly displayed in the public discourse, and occasionally even celebrated.

So how can one practice skillfully with envy? A teaching from Shantideva, the 8th Century Indian Buddhist scholar, comes to mind. He taught:

If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying?
If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?

That is, a skillful practitioner will recognize that envy is a judgement that rejects, or simply ignores the present state of things. A practitioner will recognize that envy is based in a story about how things "should" be, according to one's own point of view. Shantideva's teaching suggests a different approach. Instead of being caught by the story, simply consider the present moment and an appropriate response. Can you do something about it? If so, then there is no need for envy, because you can set about doing something.  Is there nothing you can do about it? If there is nothing that can be done, then there is even less reason to be caught by the story of what "should" be. You can simply see it as a figment of your imagination. Thus, a skillful approach to working with envy is to see that it is a feeling that arises because of inattention to the present reality.

But what happened to the new Abbot and his pursuers?

The dialogue that ensued when Huishun, the leader of the pursuing group, caught up to Huineng is recorded in the "Platform Sutra" and the collection of koans titled "No Barrier." Here is Thomas Cleary's translation:

When the Ancestor saw Huishun coming, he set down the robe and the bowl (that he had been given by the former Abbot as proof of his succession to Abbot of the monastery). He said to Huishun, "This robe symbolizes faith; could it be right to fight over it? You can take it away."

Huineng, 7th Century Chinese Ch'an Master

Huineng, 7th Century Chinese Ch'an Master

This act is itself a profound teaching. The robe symbolizes faith, because it was said to be the very robe that the Buddha gave to Mahakasyapa. Whether or not that is historically accurate is not as important as the fact that, for many people in and outside the monastery, the robe was dear. In fact, one way to think about any Zen robe, monastic or lay, is that it represents deep trust - the trust between the person who gave it and the person who received it, the trust of the person who gave it to the giver, and so on, stretching back for centuries.

However, the pivotal teaching that Huineng demonstrates with this act is that it is neither the robe nor the bowl that make him the Abbot. It is his unique, insightful expression of Dharma, his understanding of his own life as a teaching. So he can truthfully say that it is alright if someone else were to take the robe. The robe doesn't make the man, in this case or ever.  Yet someone who truly understands that, and can live that way, is unusual. We would do well to remember this when encountering Buddhist teachers, and people in every walk of life.

Returning to the story:

Huishun tried to pick up the robe but it was immovable, like a mountain. In fear, he said, "I have come for the teaching, not the robe. Please instruct me."

The pursuer has a sudden change of heart. He realizes that he cannot steal this venerated object from Huineng. He cannot steal the role of Abbot from Huineng. He cannot steal the Dharma from Huineng. So he wisely asks for the Dharma instead, even though he is feeling fearful. Perhaps it is this very recognition of his own fear that turns him toward the teaching. That would be a very skillful response, one that would reflect his years of practice.

The Abbot said, "Not thinking good, not thinking evil, right at this very moment, what is your original face?" 

This is the kernel of the koan. The first part of the question is a pointer that the response is one that is free of dualistic judgments, one that sets aside the mentality of dividing things or people into right and wrong. It points to the mind that recognizes the inherent harmony of all things, which is always present because they are all inter-dependent.

The second part of the question is a pointer to the immediacy of the response. It is not something that requires long years of study, though it may be informed by them, but rather emerges spontaneously in the present. That is to say, we live in the moment now, and the moment now is fully imbued with that which we are seeking. It is not something that awaits far off in the future.

The last part of the question tells us what kind of expression the Abbot is trying to elicit. He asks to see Huishun's "original face," sometimes also known as "your face before your parents were born." That is, Huineng is asking Ming to demonstrate his buddanature, the great activity which perfectly resolves all conditions in every moment. It is a function that is completely neutral, beyond any concept of right and wrong, though not obstructing either right or wrong.

In tears, Huishun bowed and asked, "Is there any meaning beyond the esoteric intent of the esoteric words you have just spoken?" The Abbot replied, "What I have just told you is not esoteric. If you turn your attention around to your own state, the secret is after all in you." 

From Huishun's reply it is clear that he has not fully penetrated the Abbot's question. In this case "esoteric" means "secret" or" hidden." Huishun's question implies that he has just received some special teaching from the Huineng. Huishun believes he has now become an "insider." Immediately correcting this misunderstanding, Huineng tells him that he is the "secret teaching" that he seeks. This is true for all of us.

The special gift, the special recognition that we seek is already ours. Practice is to give it to ourselves. It is simply a matter of turning our attention to align with inherent awareness. Then there is no longer any need to feel envious of someone else things or their role. You yourself have the most precious thing, the highest, most perfect Dharma. Though there are secret ceremonies and teachings you have not yet heard, those things will not, in and of themselves, enlighten you. There is no secret handshake or password that will make you a Buddha. You are already of the nature of Buddha, but when you look for it to come from somewhere else, you won't find it. If you try to steal it from someone, you rob yourself of the chance to express it. 

Does this mean that there aren't people who are unqualified for their jobs, or who have received a gift that you might like to have? No, it may actually be the case. However, even when that is true, you cannot take anything that is truly valuable from someone else. That is, the most valuable thing in the world is the Dharma, and only you can find your own Dharma, with the support and trust of those who devote their lives to pointing it out to you. Having found the Dharma and living from that place, you can find a skillful, pain-free response to a world that is subjectively imperfect. 

In the end, Huishun told Huineng, "You are my teacher."

May we all find our teachers, inward and outward and everywhere, so that we might vanquish the green-eyed monster within.