‘The Buddha’ on PBS


Wow, a two-hour documentary about the Buddha is coming on PBS — April 7, 2010 — see the Web site for details!

You can see some preview videos in the “Story and Teachings” section of the site.

PBS also notes that “customized curriculum guides for teaching mindfulness and compassion in the classroom, inspired by the Buddha,” will appear on the Web site later this year.


Connecting or separating


This post at the Progressive Buddhism blog really gave me a lot to think about: Saving the world by sitting on our butts.

Sometimes when a person most needs the support of friends and family, some of those folks desert the person. There are all kinds of reasons why you or I might cut off contact with a friend or family member. Some of the reasons might be correct (from a Buddhist or compassionate point of view). Sometimes we know our action is not correct — but we do it anyway.

Sometimes when we try to support or engage with a person, even with good intentions, we do more harm than good (see The lesson of the cicada for a resonant example).

Some practitioners of Buddhism think it’s best to sit on the cushion, that going out into the world and engaging with other beings is not the ideal practice. (Others such as the Peacemakers think almost the opposite.)

If you were in the middle of a Buddhist retreat and you got word that someone you care about was in the hospital, would you promptly leave the retreat and go to that person?

Sit with that for a bit.

Then look and see whether you had these thoughts:

  • It would depend on who it was.
  • It would depend on why he or she was in the hospital.
  • It would depend on the travel arrangements.

That’s a lot of dependencies, isn’t it?


Learning to be patient


This morning I was sitting with a situation. I’m not sure how to respond to the situation.

So, first, I just looked at it. I set the situation in front of me, and I looked at it.

I saw that thinking would not actually yield anything except a bunch of scenarios, all of them pretty much equal. So, I quit thinking.

Then this well-known Zen saying appeared in my mind:

Spring comes.
The grass
grows by itself.

After a brief interlude of calm, peaceful feelings, I thought: Geez, you’re turning into someone like one of those well-meaning Christians who go around spouting proverbs at people. “Do unto others …”

As that thought drifted away, and I watched it go, I remembered the full moon, hidden by nighttime clouds. The moon is always there, even when we can’t see it. When the clouds move aside, we can see the moon.


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.


A one-year anniversary


Today is the one-year anniversary of the founding of this blog. It’s been a good experience for me, because through writing this blog, I have discovered many other interesting Buddhist blogs. Through them, I have been challenged and informed. You can see some of the blogs I like best in the blogroll here, under the heading “Zen Blogs.”

When I started it, I thought I would post one photo and one quotation to the blog each day for 108 days. That’s not how it turned out. I soon wanted to write other things related to my practice — not just quote the words of others. Also, the daily posting dropped away in February as I became busy with my homework for a university course in the traditions of Buddhism.

I like to think that even though this blog does not have a large readership, people might discover it through one search or another and gain something helpful or useful from what they find here. I appreciate all the supportive comments I have received.

What next? Don’t know!


5,000+ Buddhists in U.S. military


Air Force Cadets can practice inside a 300-square-foot Buddhist chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., according to National Public Radio.

The chapel was paid for by the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism.

Out of 1.4 million people in the military, 5,287 identified themselves as Buddhists as of June 2009.

In September, NPR broadcast a story about the first-ever Buddhist chaplain in the U.S. Army.


Karma and the bus: Grey’s Anatomy


SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the first two episodes in Season 6 (the current season), don’t read any more.

What happened to George made me think about karma. And that led, in turn, to some thinking about no-self.

One way of understanding karma is to see it in terms of cause and effect. The sutras often say we plant a seed (cause), and the kind of fruit (effect) we get depends wholly on that seed. So then you naturally ask, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”

What did George ever do to deserve being hit by a bus?

Well, the simple answer is: He walked in front of the bus.

I’m not joking. Seriously, that is cause and effect. Now, if you don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, you don’t know George. George was one of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet. He had a lot of friends — most of them women. (He wasn’t really close with guys.) He was never mean or cruel. As a doctor, he was super-sensitive.

You have to ask why a guy like that would get killed in a brutal, painful way — and at a young age. How can that be right?

Karma isn’t about right or wrong. Some people would say George must have done something really awful in a past life — that would explain why he had this painful death. That view assumes that death is a bad thing for the person who dies. But if you watched the season opener of Grey’s Anatomy, you know who’s really suffering — his friends, and his mom. They are all suffering a lot. But George — he’s gone. Do you think the dead suffer?

Now, being hit by the bus would be horribly painful. Pain is suffering. And for the short time George lived after he was struck by the bus, he probably felt a lot of physical and emotional pain. The direct “seed” of all that pain is the bus. And why did George step in front of a moving bus? To save a life. Someone else’s life.

What kind of cruel universe rewards a hero — someone who saves a life — with horrible pain and anguish? Stop. The universe isn’t cruel. It isn’t good, either. The universe simply is. A common word used in English-language texts about Buddhism is suchness. It is as it is. Just that.

George’s intention was to save the woman who stepped into the path of the bus. It was a good intention. And that seed bore very good fruit — the woman’s life was saved. All her friends and family were spared the terrible suffering that George’s friends and family are experiencing now. George’s intention bore wonderful fruit.

What if George had simply been walking down the sidewalk and been killed by a bus that ran off the road? Then there would have been no intention on George’s part. Yet his friends and family would suffer just the same.

I think when people die, the greater suffering occurs among those who miss them. What George’s friends at Seattle Grace are experiencing is their loss of their friend, and it’s affecting each one of them in an individual way.

This is where I started thinking about self and no-self. All the bits and pieces of George’s life up to that moment had made him into a person who would save someone else’s life at the cost of his own. And each one of us is also a conglomeration of bits and pieces. We have not deliberately chosen each bit or each piece — they come from all over, starting at the moment we are conceived.

But no-self acknowledges that we can unwind or unravel those bits and pieces. We can reconstruct ourselves (with time, with Right Effort). That’s why karma is not destiny. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says you could wipe out all your previous bad karma if you practiced with diligence and attained the perfection of wisdom.

If you could unwind George’s life and examine it, you would see how his impulse to save the woman from the bus fitted perfectly with his whole persona. Whether it was the best use of his talents or his potential — well, that’s not how cause-and-effect works. If you make a decision that yields immediate fruit, then you forfeit the future. If you plant a seed that’s going to take 20 years to bear fruit, maybe you will not be around to harvest that fruit.

In other words, karma can be viewed as a system, just as the whole universe is a system. Everything is interconnected and linked. Each of us influences other people, and other people influence us. But we’re not just leaves blowing in the wind.

We do make decisions. We are able to choose.


Leonard Cohen, at the Zen monastery


A long 1998 article about Leonard Cohen’s Zen practice appears in Utne Reader:

Apart from Cohen’s 26-year-old son, Adam, and his 23-year-old daughter, Lorca, the Japanese roshi, or spiritual teacher, seems to be the one still point in his endlessly turning life, and now he accompanies Sasaki to Zen centers from Vienna to Puerto Rico and endures punishing retreats each month in which he does virtually nothing but sit zazen 24 hours a day for seven days on end.

And later:

… Cohen is telling me that he makes no claims to piety or knowledge; his training here, he says, is just a useful response to the “predicament” of his life. At times, as I listen, I can see the coyote trickster who has been working the press for decades. I feel disconcerted, almost, by his very niceness, his openness, his courtesy, as he keeps thanking me for “being kind enough to come here” and tends to my every need as if I were the celebrity and he the journalist …

And my favorite:

“For me,” he says, his voice soft and beautiful, a trace of Canada still in it, “the process is really more like a bear stumbling into a beehive or a honey cache: I’m stumbling right into it and getting stuck, and it’s delicious and it’s horrible and I’m in it and it’s not very graceful and it’s very awkward and it’s very painful” …

It’s delicious and it’s horrible. Hallelujah.


Questions about karma


I recently came across a post about karma at the Dharma Folk blog. It compares two texts about karma, written by two different present-day Buddhists (as opposed to long-dead sages). The ideas expressed by the two authors don’t exactly contradict each other, but they are different.

A lot of Buddhist teachings (some would say “philosophy”) are like this. Even if you stick with the oldest texts, you will find differences that confuse you. On some Buddhist forums, people spend thousands of words debating these distinctions. Of course, this is the way of religion (and philosophy) — debate over meaning is always going on.

First, there is the question of what karma is. Is it your past actions (of body, of thought, of speech) coming back to repay you in kind? This is a general way of thinking about karma. The past actions might be from this life or from a previous life.

Then there’s the matter of intention. It is said that for a past action to cause some effect, that action had to be intentional. Are you off the hook if while sleeping you dreamed a bad thing about somebody? I don’t know.

Third, there’s the whole question of rebirth and past lives. I have read that a lot of Western Buddhists reject the whole idea of rebirth. I have trouble understanding how we can be reborn in a new life if we have no self, no soul, to begin with. Yet, what is not born cannot die, and all beings are also that.

Fourth, we know that all great teachers practice skillful means, and what one teacher said to one audience of hearers might not match, exactly, the words said by another teacher to another audience at a different time and place. Is this a contradiction? Is one teaching more true than another? (I am often reminded of a lyric from Jesus Christ Superstar, which I memorized in full in my youth: “And what is truth? ‘Tis but a changing law. We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?”)

Some texts refer to karma as a fruit. The seeds you have planted will grow into what they must be. A seed of evil or sorrow will always yield a fruit of evil or sorrow. A seed of goodness and compassion yields a fruit of goodness and compassion.

There are teachings that say all one’s bad karma can be erased in a single moment, under special conditions that make it so. Can you cause these conditions to come about? Deliberately? By design? I don’t think so. The harder you chase that goal, the farther away it will recede. No goal, no aspiration.


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.