Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ajahn Sumedho on Identity

Ajahn Sumedho: Without any real core or essence

We’ll sacrifice our life for an illusion, to try to protect our identities, our positions, our territories. We’re very territorial. We think this England here belongs to the English. When we take that apart, does this plot of land here say it’s England? When I do jongrom (walking meditation) outside, does the earth come up and say, “You’re walking on me — England.” It’s never said that, never! But I say I’m walking here in England. I’m the one who’s calling it England, and that is an identity, a conventional identity. We all agree to call this plot of land here ‘England’, but it’s not really that; it is what it is. Yet we’ll fight, torture and commit the most atrocious acts over territory, quibbling about just one inch of property on a border. The land doesn’t belong to anybody; even if I own land legally — “This belongs to Ajahn Sumedho” — it doesn’t really; that’s just a convention.

When we bind ourselves to these conventions and these illusions, then of course we’re troubled because these are so unstable and not in line with Dharma. We end up wasting our lives around trying to increase this sense of identification, the sense of, “It’s mine, it belongs to me and I want to protect it. I want to hand it down to future generations.” On and on like this, into future lives and the generations that follow. We create a whole realm of illusion, personality and identity with the perceptions that we create in our minds, which arise and cease, which have no real core to them, no essence.

We can be very threatened when these illusions are threatened. I remember first questioning the reality of my personality. It scared me to death. When I started questioning, even though I didn’t have particularly over-confident, high self-esteem (I have never been prone towards seeing myself in megalomaniac perceptions; usually the opposite, very self-critical), even then, I felt very threatened when that security, that confidence in being this screwed-up personality was being threatened. There is a sense of stability even with people who are identified with illnesses or negative things, like alcoholics. Being identified with some sort of mental disease like paranoia, schizophrenia or whatever gives us a sense that we know what we are and we can justify the way that we are. We can say, “I can’t help the way I am. I’m a schizophrenic.” That gives us a sense of allowing us to be a certain way. It may be a sense of confidence or stability in the fact that our identities are labelled and we all agree to look at each other in this way, with this label, with this perception.


So you realise the kind of courage it takes to question, to allow the illusory world that we have created to fall apart, such as with a nervous breakdown, where the world falls apart. When the security that is offered, the safety and confidence that we gain from that illusion starts cracking and falling apart, it’s very frightening. Yet within us there’s something that guides us through it. What brings us into this monastic life? It’s some intuitive sense, a sense behind the sense, an intelligence behind all the knowledge and the cleverness of our minds. Yet we can’t claim it on a personal level. We always have to let go of the personal perceptions, because as soon as we claim them, we’re creating another illusion again. Instead of claiming, identifying or attaching, we begin to realise or recognise the way it is. This is the practice of awareness (sati-sampajanna), paying attention. In other words, it’s going to the centre point, to the Buddho (the one who knows) position. This Buddha image in the temple: it’s the still point. If you look at this Buddha-rupa, it’s a symbol, an image representing the human form at the still point.

(Ajahn Sumedho is the senior monk of the Western Forest Sangha, as well as former abbot of Wat Nanachat in Thailand & Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England. His teachings are highly regarded across the globe. In the above talk, I have replaced the Pali word Dhamma with the more widely known Sanskrit term Dharma, both meaning 'Buddhist teachings' & 'the truth of the way things are.')

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Happy Buddha Day!


Today is Buddha Day, or, to give it its Pali name Visakha Puja, also known as Vesak. This is the day when Buddhists across the globe celebrate the birth, enlightenment, and death of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Not all Buddhist traditions celebrate Buddha Day today, but many do, and here in Thailand it is the main Buddhist festival of the year (and there are lots!). But why bother to commemorate the Buddha's life and enlightenment in this way? Well, it is an occasion that we can use skillfully to encourage reflection on his life and teachings in relation to our own existence. And, what's more, it is an opportunity to consider the debt that we owe him for showing us the way to liberation from suffering.

The Buddha's birth is a special event, of course, as it is not often that a fully-awakened one is born into the world. If Shakyamuni Buddha was never born, then the Buddhadharma would never have been established for us to use to awaken with.Similarly, if the Buddha had not realized the cessation of suffering under the Bodhi Tree, then we too would not know how to do the same. Furthermore, his apparent demise shows us that rebirth and continual suffering of these separated selves can be transcended, allowing the spacious awareness that we truly are to shine forth. Homage to the Blessed, Noble, and Perfectly Awakened One, indeed!

To mark this day of days, we need not go to a temple and take part in rituals if we cannot or would rather not. It's up to us to find appropriate ways to express our recognition and gratitude to the Buddha for what he has done for us. Perhaps this might be a simple ceremony conducted in front of a small shrine at home, or maybe a brief reflection on his qualities and teachings coupled with meditation will suffice. Of course, if we do decide to attend a full-blown public ritual with all the trimmings, then that can be wonderful too. As long as it's respectful and from the heart, go for it!

Another way to mark Buddha Day is to recognize the Buddha within. This, again, is best attempted with a modicum of decorum and a certain sincerity. Quietly looking home at where you are looking from, you might notice that where others see your face, and where you feel it, there is also an awareness that although empty in itself, is nevertheless full of all that you experience. This knowing is not your knowing as so-and-so, nor does it belong to somebody else, such as a god. It is what it is: clarity gazing upon the world. Staying with this unconditioned wakefulness, every conditioned thing or process can be observed to arise, exist, and end, including all these thoughts, memories, emotions, and sensations that we normally take to be 'me.' What better way than this, whether we take part in ceremonies or not, to acknowledge the Buddha. Happy Buddha Day!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Kukai on the Mantra 'A'

Close your eyes and say, "A."

All sentient beings have in the core of their minds a portion of purity which is completely appointed with all practices. Its essence is extremely subtle, clear, and bright, and it remains unchanged even when transmigrating in the six destinies. It is like the sixteenth phase of the moon. When the bright aspect of that phase of the moon meets the sun, it is merely deprived of its brightness by the rays of the sun and therefore does not appear, but from the start of the moon that then rises it gradually waxes day by day until the fifteenth day, when it is perfectly full and its brightness unobstructed.


Therefore, the practitioner of meditation first arouses the brightness within his original mind by means of the letter A, gradually makes it pure and brighter, and realizes the knowledge of non-arising. The letter A signifies the original non-birth of all things.

(Kukai, also known as Kobo-Daishi, 774–835, was the founder of Shingon (Esoteric) Buddhism in Japan.The syllable A is an important mantra in Shingon meditation practice, and is pronounced like the a in father.)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

D.T. Suzuki on Nihilism

D.T. Suzuki: Much ado about nothing?

A monk asked Joshu, "What would you say when I come to you with nothing?"

Joshu said, "Fling it down to the ground."


Protested the monk, "I said that I had nothing; what shall I let go?"


"If so, carry it away," was the retort of Joshu.


Joshu has thus plainly exposed the fruitlessness of a nihilistic philosophy. To reach the goal of Zen, even the idea of "having nothing" ought to be done away with. Buddha reveals himself when he is no more asserted; that is, for Buddha's sake Buddha is to be given up. This is the only way to come to the realization of the truth of Zen. So long as one is talking of nothingness or of the absolute one is far away from Zen, and ever receding from Zen. Even the foothold of Sunyata must be kicked off. The only way to get saved is to throw oneself right down into a bottomless abyss. And this is, indeed, no easy task.

(Taken from 'An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, the Japanese scholar credited with introducing Zen Buddism to the West. Joshu (Zhaozhou in Chinese) was a famous Zen master of the 8th & 9th centuries)

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Heart Sutra

Prajna-paramita-hridaya Sutra
(Heart-of-transcendent-wisdom Discourse)

When the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara was engaged in the practice of deep transcendent wisdom, he perceived: there are the five aggregates; and these he saw in their self-nature to be empty.

Here, Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form; what is form that is emptiness, what is emptiness that is form. The same can be said of sensation, thought, confection, and consciousness.

Here, Shariputra, all things are characterized with emptiness: they are not born, they are not annihilated; they are not tainted, they are not pure; they do not increase, they do not decrease.

Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no formations, no consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, sound, smell, taste, touch, objects; no element of vision, till we come to no element of consciousness; there is no knowledge, no ignorance, no extinction of knowledge, no extinction of ignorance, till we come to there is no old age and death, no extinction of old age and death; there is no suffering, no cause, no cessation, no path; there is no knowledge, no attainment, and no non-realization.

Therefore, Shariputra, without attainment, bodhisattvas dwell depending on transcendent wisdom there are no obstacles; and because there are no obstacles in his mind, he has no fear and, going beyond wrong views he reaches final nirvana. All the awakened ones of the past, present, and future, depending on transcendent wisdom, attain to the highest perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, one ought to know that the transcendent wisdom is the great mantra, the mantra of great wisdom, the highest mantra, the peerless mantra, which is capable of allaying all pain; it is truth because it is not falsehood; this is the mantra proclaimed in transcendent wisdom. It runs:

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!

(Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond: Awakening! Hail!)

(Adapted by the author from D.T. Suzuki's translation of the Heart Sutra, with reference to many other renderings of the text)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Tagawa Shun'ei on Becoming Buddha

Tagawa Shun'ei - busy becoming Buddha...

“Becoming buddha” means that if we make an effort to truly understand the structure and mechanism of our own minds along with its various psychological functions, and endeavor to nurture wholesome psychological functions while trying to subdue the afflictive mental factors, somewhere at the other end of this path, the buddha-state will manifest itself. The consummation of this buddha-state is precisely the meaning of “becoming buddha.”
(Tagawa Shun'ei, 1957-present)

*Venerable Tagawa Shun'ei is a Hosso (Yogacara) Buddhist monk & abbot of and author of 'Living Yogacara, a fine introduction to the Hosso School in Kofukuji Temple in Japan)

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ajan Chah on Buddhist Psychology

Ajahn Chah gets to the heart of the matter

One day, a famous woman lecturer on Buddhist metaphysics came to see Ajahn Chah. This woman gave periodic teachings in Bangkok on the abhidharma and complex Buddhist psychology. In talking to Ajahn Chah, she detailed how important it was for people to understand Buddhist psychology and how much her students benefited from their study with her. She asked him whether he agreed with the importance of such understanding. 

"Yes, very important," he agreed. 

Delighted, she further questioned whether he had his own students learn abhidharma. 

"Oh, yes, of course." 

And where, she asked, did he recommend they start, which books and studies were best? 

"Only here," he said, pointing to his heart, "only here."

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Layman Pang & Reverend Dayu on Fundamental Reality

Layman Pang & the sound of two hands clapping

Layman Pang asked Reverend Dayu, “In order to help others attain it, Master Mazu dwelt in the fundamental reality. Did he pass this on to you or not?”
Dayu said, “Since I have never spoken with him, how could I know anything about his fundamental reality?”
The Layman said, “Then you have nothing to report about this experience?”
Dayu said, “I don’t have one word to give to the Layman on the subject.”
The Layman said, “If the teacher would be forsaking the heritage by giving me one word about it, perhaps he can describe it to me in two or three words.”
Dayu said, “That it can’t be described is exactly what the fundamental reality is all about.”
The Layman clapped his hands and left.

(Pang & Dayu were students of the great Zen master Mazu in ancient China.)

Friday, January 27, 2017

Ajahn Chah on the 'I'

Ajahn Chah saw through his 'I'

“Our body is unstable, altering and changing constantly. Hair changes, nails change, teeth change, skin changes—everything changes, completely. Our mind, too, is always changing. It isn’t a self or anything substantial. It isn’t really “us” or “them,” although it may think so. Maybe it will think about killing itself. Maybe it will think of happiness or of suffering—all sorts of things! It’s unstable. If we don’t have wisdom and we believe this mind of ours, it’ll lie to us continually. And we will alternately suffer and be happy.

The mind is an uncertain thing. This body is uncertain. Together they are impermanent. Together they are a source of suffering. Together they are devoid of self. These, Buddha pointed out, are neither a being, nor a person, nor a self, nor a soul, neither us nor them. They are merely elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Just elements.

When the mind sees this, it will rid itself of the attachment that holds that I am beautiful, I am good, I am evil, I am suffering, I have, I this or I that. You will experience a state of unity, for you’ll have seen that all of humankind is basically the same. There is no ‘I.’ There are only elements.”

(Ajahn Chah, 1918-1992)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Jan Chozen Bays on Grief


Jizo statues in Japan are dressed by grieving parents

“Grief lasts as long as it lasts. There will always be a hole in your heart that’s the shape of that life, which you knew however brief. People sometimes try to have another child right away, but that hole will never be filed in by anybody else. It will be with you your whole life, but it will soften and get filed in over time. It gets filed with love and happy memories, and with the prayer or hope that the life energy will go on—that it will reemerge in a beneficial place.” 
(Jan Chozen Bays, Zen teacher)