Category Archives: quotations

It just keeps on getting better


Well, just in case anyone is wondering, I’ll provide a little update. I’m almost at the end of my first determined study of the Diamond Sutra, which I started in July. Yesterday I spent about two and a half hours on chapters 27, 28, and 29. There are only three chapters to go, but it’s really blowing my mind now — so I wasn’t quite ready to complete it today!

I am still sitting for 30 minutes every morning. I went through a very restless period for about a week or two when I kept quitting early almost every day (only about five minutes early, but I was in some weird agitated state, and my one leg hurt and I just couldn’t get past it). That was followed by about five days that were so excellent, I told someone that my legs had fallen off (I was thinking both of Dogen saying “Shed body and mind,” and of the legend about Bodhidharma’s legs falling off when he sat for nine years). Since then, I’ve had both kinds of days.

I went to another three-day silent retreat recently; I think it was my fourth one. Maybe my fifth. No, probably my fourth. Anyway, I realized that it’s quite likely that I will gain some new wisdom each time I go to a retreat, and so, even if they are damned inconvenient and very difficult, I will continue to go. When I’m able. I was inspired by the Zen master, who said he attends about one retreat per month. Whoa. That’s a whole lot of distance on the bodhisattva path, I’d say.

I came across a reference to a new book, Ten Zen Questions, not long ago. I had an Amazon gift certificate, so I bought it — and it’s inspired me to take a more active approach to questioning reality. I think a lot of Western Zen people put a big emphasis on a kind of psychotherapy style of practice — you’re looking deep within yourself to discover your true self, after all. But the explorations recounted in this book keep bringing me back to that Bodhidharma quotation about the mind and reality:

If you use your mind to study reality, you won’t understand either your mind or reality. If you study reality without using your mind, you’ll understand both.

Another way it appears:

Using the mind to look for reality is delusion. Not using the mind to look for reality is awareness.

Now, the author, Susan Blackmore, is definitely using her mind — maybe too much! But her accounts about her experiences on the cushion (and off, to some extent) have prompted me to watch more of the things my mind does — more than just my feelings and reactions and impulses, that is. For example, lying in bed this morning, I asked myself what I actually know (knew) at that moment, when my eyes were still closed. I knew I was on a bed and under covers. Did I “know” what bed I was in? I remembered getting into my own bed last night. But did I really know that was the bed I was in when I woke up — without opening my eyes?

The book and its questions have challenged me to look at memory, at perceptions, at my six senses (the 18 domains) from some new angles, which is very interesting. I am finding that more and more of what I consider to be reality is in fact just stuff in my head.

Another thing I noticed concerned vision (and memory). I was sitting on my cushion and asked myself what I knew about the room (where I always sit). I realized I could not see the floor lamp, which was about 18 inches to my right, but a little behind me. How did I know there was a lamp there? Of course, I remembered it. I bought it recently, to replace an old one that stood in the same spot. I remembered the old lamp too. In fact, I remembered both lamps equally well. So how did I know which one was there?

I feel as if I am pushing the edge of something. Give way, something says, pushing. The edge yields a little and springs back. I’m going to go on pushing it.



The Metta sutra and Metta chant


Only recently was I introduced to the Metta chant. The practice of chanting these words reinforces our aspiration to feel true compassion for all beings — and very specifically, not only the nice ones, but also including the most horrible, awful people we can imagine.

The chant starts with us, ourselves:

Aham avero homi
May I be free from enmity and danger

abyapajjho homi
May I be free from mental suffering

anigha homi
May I be free from physical suffering

Then it continues:

Sabbe satta
May all beings

sabbe pana
all breathing things

sabbe bhutta
all creatures …

avera hontu
be free from enmity and dangers

abyapajjha hontu
be free from mental suffering

anigha hontu
be free from physical suffering

sukhi – attanam pariharantu
may they take care of themselves happily

Dukkha muccantu
May all being be free from suffering

Yattha-laddha-sampattito mavigacchantu
May whatever they have gained not be lost …

You can read the complete chant here, at BuddhaNet.

The Metta Sutra is a different text (read a good English translation here). The teaching is the same:

As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, and all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.


The fire-boy, chasing fire


Experience the oneness of all things and all beings:

All the universe is an unceasing process, pursuing things and making them the self, pursuing the self and making it things.

This comes from the chapter titled Ikka Myoju in Dogen’s Shobogenzo (The Heart of Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō, tr. Norman Waddell and Masao Abe, p. 33). Dogen said the only way to experience this truth is through zazen, or sitting meditation. We can read and study and chant and listen to Dharma talks for 1,000 years, but without zazen, we realize nothing.

He was, in fact, rather insistent on this point. Not only did he compose the Fukanzazengi to praise the benefits of sitting meditation; he also spent the first chapter of Shobogenzo doing the same.

I keep working on the teaching of no-self.

“Pursuing things and making them the self”: This begins when we are babies. I think it might start when we grab our toes and perceive them as our own, as part of the body, connected to us. We construct a self with I, me, mine — my toes, my hunger, my contentment, my toys. We add things to the heap as we grow older — my accomplishments, my pain, my money, my car. All of this adding is done with the mind only.

“Pursuing the self and making it things”: What am I? Am I this house, this son or daughter, this husband or wife? Am I this gun or computer or cash register or mixing bowl? Am I this set of beliefs I have adopted? Am I these clothes I wear? Am I these shoes?

The story of the fire-boy is retold here.


Courageous forbearance


I am still studying the Diamond Sutra. Chapter 14 is a long one, and it has challenged me fiercely.

  1. Charity / generosity
  2. Morality / ethics
  3. Forbearance / patience
  4. Vigor / perseverance/ diligence
  5. Meditation / concentration
  6. Wisdom

These are the Six Perfections (Paramitas). In the commentary on Chapter 14, I found much to ponder about forbearance.

In this sutra, the Buddha focuses on three of the Six Perfections, namely, those that counteract the Three Poisons: the perfection of charity, which counteracts the poison of desire; the perfection of wisdom, which destroys the poison of delusion; and the perfection of forbearance, which eliminates the poison of anger. Although this sutra only mentions these three by name, each is closely related to the other perfections: charity with morality, forbearance with vigor, and wisdom with meditation. (p. 235)

Merriam-Webster says that to forbear is “to control oneself when provoked”; to “be patient.”

Is it the perception of anger that forbearance eliminates? No, because if anger arises, then we will have a perception of that anger. With forbearance, we restrain our actions. We look our anger in the eyeballs, unflinching, and we refuse to budge. Looking at it, unmoving, we allow compassion to arise. We provide the space for compassion; we stop time so that compassion finds time to emerge.

In the fall 2009 issue of Tricycle, there’s a brief essay about forbearance on pages 14-15. Forbearance might look like cowardice, author Hsing Yun has written. But because of the great strength required to control our emotions, in fact forbearance is “an act of courage.”


Knowledge vs. wisdom


As I continue to study the Diamond Sutra, I encounter references to “wisdom” quite often in the commentary. Of course this makes a lot of sense if you know that the Diamond Sutra is also called “The Perfection of Wisdom.” This sutra is the pithy condensed version, by most accounts — we also have the “Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines” and even longer versions, about two dozen in all, according to the Buddhist scholar Red Pine. The Diamond Sutra is complete in only 300 lines.

At the excellent blog thinkBuddha, author Will Buckingham recently considered the distinction between knowledge and wisdom. He was mulling over a politician’s lament that kids nowadays do not know some of the important dates and events in their national history.

Given the innumerability of the objects of knowledge, establishing if there are things that are worth knowing for everyone, and establishing what these things are is a difficult process … Nevertheless, just for the time being, I want to leave this question to the educationalists and policy makers, and to ask another question, a question that I think is often overlooked: the question of what exactly we do with the things that we deem worth knowing.

Here, I think, things become more interesting, because this question forces us to deal with the ethics of our relationship with those things that we know, or that we claim to know. Because it seems to me to be more important, in the long run, that we should treat each other well, than that we should know any particular facts about battles, commandments or laws of nature. [Source]

In other words, all that knowledge in your head, or my head (and they are the same thing, are they not?), is not good for anything at all unless we use it for good.

There’s a line in the Temple Rules of the Kwan Um School of Zen that often floats up into my thinking:

If a snake drinks water, the water becomes venom. If a cow drinks water, the water becomes milk.


Reading the Diamond Sutra


A while back, I began to want to study some sutras. I first chose The Dhammapada because I thought it would be sort of fundamental and basic, like the ground floor of Buddhist teachings. That guess seemed spot-on as I read the Gil Fronsdal translation a couple of times.

However, I wanted something more substantial. Maybe more challenging. I was thinking about commentaries — so many learned Buddhist scholars have written commentaries over the centuries … shouldn’t I check them out?

So I wound up with The Diamond Sutra, a 2001 edition translated by Red Pine and published by Counterpoint. This text has been kicking my butt for a few months now.

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, if someone should claim, ‘the Tathagata teaches a dharma,’ such a claim would be untrue. Such a view of me, Subhuti, would be a misconception. And how so? In the teaching of a dharma, Subhuti, in the ‘teaching of a dharma,’ there is no such dharma to be found as the ‘teaching of a dharma.’ ” (p. 22)

Whoa! This is a major, stupendous koan! The first time through this text, I had to give up on the commentaries. They were too hard for me. So I contented myself with only reading the sutra (it’s 27 pages). Still too hard. So I read the first five chapters (3 and a half pages) about 10 times. Then I read the commentaries on those five chapters.

I’m still working on this, on days when I feel alert and focused and smart. If I sit down with it for about two hours, I can work through about two chapters and the commentaries. Do I understand it? Heck, no. But I am enjoying it now. And little by little, I think some drops of water are falling on a very hard stone.


Desire is very hard to let go of


Lately I have been thinking a lot about desire. I found this in a text about the Four Noble Truths posted at Zen Mirror:

However how does this desire vanish, and how might it be extinguished? Wherever in the world there are delightful and pleasurable things, there this desire can vanish, and there it may be extinguished. Whether in the past, present, or future, whoever perceives delightful and pleasurable things in the world as impermanent, miserable, and without substance, overcomes desire.

The paradox is that to live is to desire. I’m tired, I want sleep. I’m hungry, I want food. I’m lonely, I want a friend. I’m sick, I want to be well.

I have some understanding of impermanence. Often in the course of a normal day, as I catch myself living in the past or planning for the future, I call myself back to the present moment. I chide myself: Be here now. This is the only thing that is real — this moment, now.

I am practicing with being as I am in that moment and not desiring it to be more than it is. Not appreciating it because it will end, but merely being present for it, that experience, whether it is pleasurable or the opposite.

One object of this effort, for me, is a person, my friend. My friend is someone I love, very much. I wish I could spend more time with him, but both of us have busy schedules. In this relationship, I’m working on just being there when we do have a chance to be together. Along with this, I don’t want to wallow in the past, remembering how nice it was to be together yesterday or last week. That wallowing is a way of NOT being in the present moment, and it also generates desire — I wish I were still there, in the past. The same is true of looking forward to a future meeting: If I’m imagining that (desiring that), then I am not here, now.

Also, anything in the past or in the future is not real. It is a chimera, a shadow, an illusion, a dew drop. The past was real, at the time. Now it’s gone. And the future — the future is never real.

Desire has three effects related to time (the very essence of impermanence): Looking at the past, I desire to be there, or to change it, or to have it again. Looking at the future, I desire for it to come now (instead of what is now), to be a particular way, to hold or to bring forth certain things. And looking at the present, I desire to extend it or prolong it when it is pleasurable, or to speed it up or escape it when it is not.


(Related: Desire is one of the three poisons.)

Crossing over the flood


The flood — the river of suffering. How should we cross over to the other shore beyond?

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Savatthi in Jeta’s Grove, Anathapindika’s monastery. Then a certain devata, in the far extreme of the night, her extreme radiance lighting up the entirety of Jeta’s Grove, went to the Blessed One. On arrival, having bowed down to him, she stood to one side. As she was standing there, she said to him, “Tell me, dear sir, how you crossed over the flood.”

“I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place.”

“But how, dear sir, did you cross over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place?”

“When I pushed forward, I was whirled about. When I stayed in place, I sank. And so I crossed over the flood without pushing forward, without staying in place.”

It sounds like Zen, but in fact this Ogha-tarana Sutta comes from the Pali canon.


Buddhist tool box: Three Characteristics


Recently I’ve been running into a lot of mentions of “insight meditation” and Vipassana (same thing), so I thought I’d do some searching for clearer information.

The Three Characteristics of Existence (Tilakkhana) are central to this practice:

  • Anicca (Sanskrit: Anitya): Impermanence, meaning all things and all existence, all conditions and all feelings, are not fixed, not permanent. All things will change. They are continually changing.
  • Dukkha (Sanskrit: Duhkha): Usually translated as suffering, but in this context, usually translated as unsatisfactoriness.
  • Anatta (Sanskrit: Anatma): Not-self, meaning there exists no essence, soul, or self. “All dharmas are marked by emptiness” is an expression of this.

Note that this is NOT exactly the same list as the Three Seals of Existence (a k a the Three Universal Truths; Three Dharma Seals). That list includes impermanence and no(t)-self, but instead of dukkha, it lists nirvana.

Vipassana refers  to a particular kind of meditation practice. It’s not the same as traditional Zen meditation practice. However, it’s possible to do both.

… it’s certainly good for us to try to sit beneath the Bodhi tree. Then we can be Buddha. But we don’t need to argue with others over this question. When one person says the Buddha was doing one kind of practice beneath the Bodhi tree and another person disputes that, we needn’t get involved. We should be looking at it from the viewpoint of the ultimate, meaning realizing the truth. There is also the conventional idea of “Bodhi tree,” which is what most people talk about, but when there are two kinds of Bodhi tree, people can end up arguing and having the most contentious disputes — and then there is no Bodhi tree at all. (Source: Venerable Ajahn Chah, 1979.)

So for now, I think I won’t worry about Vipassana. I have plenty of hard work to do in learning Zen meditation.