Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A loving sangha, a committed group of ordinary people

In Buddha’s time, there was not a teaching of the triple treasure: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.  Only the first 60 disciples had direct contact with the Buddha and these original disciples had two refuges, Buddha and Dharma.  After Buddha died, and the disciples grew in number, the third refuge came into being – the Sangha.  (Stilton, “A Concise History of Buddhism”)

The Jewel of the sangha has become very important.  We can’t do this alone.  We don’t have the strength alone to go against the forces of our culture and live by the teachings.  Spiritual practice has often been described as moving upstream, against the current, like the salmon.  We need to develop our ability to stop and look deeply, to concentrate (samatha) and to have insight (vipassana).  Otherwise, without these tools of spiritual life, we lose ourselves in the story.  Life flies by like a dream if we don’t learn to stop and deeply see and it is very hard to do this in isolation.

From Thich Nhat Hanh in “Touching the Earth”
“If the practice center is organized in such a way that everyone is an island, without much contact, affection or warmth from other members, even if they were to practice for 10 to 20 years, there will be no fruit.  We need to put down roots.  Without roots, it is difficult to function happily.”

A sangha’s most important mission is to have a nonjudgmental kindness that runs through it.  Where everyone feels welcomed and valued.  That feeling of acceptance is what allows us to explore different dimensions of life, which might scare us. We can feel safe to do our healing and transformation in front of the eyes of the community. How vulnerable it feels to have our strengths and weakness revealed, as it seems to happen in a functional, healthy Sangha.

I remember the first time I felt totally accepted.  Coming from a very critical family, it was quite an unusual, healing experience.  I had gone done to Hokyoji Monastery for a 2-month training period in the early 80’s and I was shocked by the unconditional acceptance I felt, both from Katagiri-Roshi and from the group, even in the face of conflict which naturally arise in groups of human beings.

The establishment of the unconditional kindness is more important that the actual decision we are trying to make.  If we are grounded in this sense of inclusion, the sangha can handle diversity of opinion.  Our practice of holding steady in the face of difference and conflict should help us maintain this.  The decisions can arise out of the collective wisdom of the group, which has maintained its unity in the face of diverse views.  This is a developed skill that comes out of our council practice, which is a form of talking in a circle that allows everyone to express themselves and to be heard.  At Clouds, it has been supported by Insight Dialogue practices which help us learn how to deeply listen and to speak our truths and then finally, to trust what emerges.  It is wonderful if the group includes some well-seasoned practitioners as their voice will come from a deeper place of non-duality and experience.  The teachers’ voices will also have a place in the deep listening of the sangha circle.

Thich Nhat Hanh:
Do not expect any teacher or sangha to be perfect.  We need only a committed group of ordinary people in order to receive great benefits from the practice.

Buddha said, that in the appearance of the manifested world, we are always dissatisfied.  I think that is true of sangha too.  We have our own ideas, needs and projections that we place on the sangha and struggle with.  The grass is always greener somewhere else or with a better teacher.  We want to keep our dualistic opinions that some priests are better then others, some systems of teaching are better than others, some teachers are better than others.  These evaluations can be constant and keep us irritated and anxious.  It is very difficult to settle down in our own practices, in what is, while we keep these comparative evaluations going endlessly.

Katagiri-Roshi would not allow us to publicize who was speaking at lectures because he wanted the students to come without preference and evaluation, and receive the teaching of the day whether considered superior or inferior.

What is a good enough parent, teacher or sangha?  Largely, practice comes from within and our vow to uphold the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  We are constantly dissatisfied, the Buddha said in the 1st and 2nd noble truths.  The Sangha prospers when we root ourselves in our own practices, are committed to our vows, and have a non-judgmental attitude to ourselves and others.  Then, an ordinary group of committed people can receive and extend the benefits of the triple treasure with the attitude of “things as they are”.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Watering the good seeds

Spiritual practice is a little easier when things are going well, right?  It’s easier to be loving, centered and peaceful when the world is favorable.  But when the world is on the wrong side of the 8 worldly winds:
·      Pleasure and pain
·      Gain and loss
·      Success and failure
·      Praise and blame
When we are on the negative side, then, we have to deal with our queasy feelings in our torso and guts, moment after moment.  Sometimes our kleshas can last for a long time. That’s harder and it requires a great deal of concentration, patience and returning over and over to the moment to practice positively.  At these times, we have to guard our minds so fiercely.  The mind’s habit is to drag us down the hole of watering our negative seeds.  We get off on it actually.  In an upside-down way, we somehow like building our anger, anxieties and fears rather than reducing them.

At these times, it is most important to stay in the moment and reflect on impermanence. This too shall pass. To stay in the moment with kindness and patience, using metta phrases that plant the small seeds of wholesome thought.  Radical acceptance of the way things are right now can give us a measure of rest right in the middle of our continuing difficulties.  Radical acceptance can bring more ease.  We practice staying in the timelessness of the moment and reflect on the huge universal perspective.

My husband loves to remind me of Jizo’s stellar qualities.  He particularly likes the quality of unflagging optimism, which is Jizo’s beautiful attitude.  How can we be unflaggingly optimistic in this crazy world or within our crazy minds especially when things aren’t going so well?

May I be at peace in the ups and downs of life.  Really at peace.  In this very moment, no matter what, can I rest with things as they are?

Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, “Touching the Earth, intimate conversations with the Buddha”, writes:

Lord Buddha, I want my practice of mindfulness and my actions of body, speech, and mind to enable me every day to advance courageously on the path of transformation and healing for myself and for the world.

If by chance the negative seeds in me are watered and develop into mental formations, I shall do my best to find a way for those mental formations to return to the depths of my consciousness in the form of seeds.  I know that if these mental formations arise frequently, they will quickly grow strong, while if they are allowed to lie still for a long time in the depths of my consciousness they will grow weaker. You have taught us to practice right attention, to bring bright and beautiful mental formations back again into our conscious mind, and to allow them to replace the unwholesome mental formations.

I love the way Thich Nhat Hanh says that our negative mental formations can return to the depths of our consciousness in the form of seeds (returning to the storehouse consciousness, the collective mind) We can unwind the holding of our ideas, views and formations, letting them go back down to the size of a seed and to lie still for a long time within us.  Lying still, the seeds will grow weak.  That gives me hope and courage that it is possible to find peace in my own life.  He calls it maintaining our inner hermitage beyond right and wrong, success and failure. 


Tuesday, May 8, 2012


As we practice, we begin to change our basis of operation in our minds.  We practice interrupting our self-centered desire system that produces our decisions and actions and open up to a mind-ground that has quite a different perspective.  As our understanding of the truth of reality opens, our minds can be connected to the universal mind as we function in the world of form.  Acknowledging the needs and functioning of the conventional world, we begin to behave in our ordinary lives with a consistent connection to universal consciousness.

A tall order?  Yes, indeed, but this is the practice.  It requires very strong concentration and mindfulness, to see emptiness and impermanence in each moment. In the Tibetan lingo, this is called “automatic emptiness”.  Ironically and simultaneously, we take loving care of the form or mental state that appears in each moment.  This is wholeheartedly embracing the totality of our life.  The universal perspective and the unique specificity of each moment meet and express life.

First, we have to make a connection to the universal mind-ground.  That is why we emphasis zazen or meditation.  Through quieting our discursive mind, we can begin to feel the mind-ground of all beings and all places.

To really feel or know the universal mind-ground, there are subtle practices that help us discern when we are still attaching to a view and clouding this clear, open, unencumbered Mind.

There are three differentiated practices, I have learned from Dan Brown.
1.    Ever-present awakeness, boundless, and timeless
a.     Ever-present, right here and now, there is no where we need to go or something we need to find in order to connect with it.
b.     Awakeness – open your eyes and heart to this very moment which requires an ability to concentrate without mental distractions.
c.      Boundless – we learn to not compartmentalize life in terms of space.  There is no isolated unit such as the body that is separated from our inter-being or inter-dependance.
d.     Timeless – again we learn not to compartmentalize life in terms of time. Past, present and future, all centralize around now.  There is no other time besides now and now doesn’t have boundaries.
2.     Ever-present, awakeness, boundless, timeless, AND non-dual
a.     No preferences, we call this in Zen.  All the opposites, equally express suchness, emptiness and unbounded openness.
b.     No state is more important than another state – There is an equality to phenomena.
c.      There is no differentiation between something that is high or superior and another something that is low and ordinary.
3.    Ever-present, awakeness, boundless, timeless, non-dual AND no longer individual consciousness
a.     Seeing things as coming from the seeds in the alaya-vijnaya or storehouse consciousness.
b.     We do not see our life from Manas – our individualized desire system. We can see things from universal consciousness and not twist reality around an idea of a centralized self.

When I feel stuck or contracted by the story of the present moment, I just practice saying the word,  “Timeless” or “no individual consciousness” or “no preferences, welcome this just as it is” and observe if there are changes in my mind and body by making this slight shift of focus.  Then, we must practice this over and over, until this is done with ease and no effort.  It becomes automatic!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Awakened Awareness

It seems that we get sidetracked in practice in many ways.  Buddha said that he was the “awakened one”.  Thich Nhat Hanh calls it mindfulness in every moment.  Katagiri-roshi explains that enlightenment is subject and object merged in every moment that arises.  It is a very rare and concentrated person who is able to say that they meet every moment as it is. 

We know only too well about being sidetracked by our personal stories, our circular compulsive thinking and our distractions.  The ancestors have called this “living in a dream.”  This dream is solidified by our mind of thinking, and then we make our conceptions solid and stand behind our assumptions and stories.

One of our practices is to find the mind that is "non-thinking" (Dogen) and we do this through zazen and concentration.  Letting our thoughts go, opening the hand of thought as each thought arises, and resting in open, spacious, sky mind.  Here is where subtle sidetracking may begin.  We begin to think that enlightenment is the achievement of a certain state of mind like silence or subtle energy raptures or serenity and happiness and then we begin to cling to those states.  It is possible to use practice to hold onto states and our “idea” of enlightenment, which is actually in the opposite direction to ever-present awareness or the “awakened one”.  These attachments cloud the mind.

The Tibetan practice has identified three special states which I'm learning from the Mahamudra teacher Dan Brown:
1.     Bliss - pleasant feeling, rapture and thrills
2.     Luminosity – everything is light, perceptual acuity
3.     Non-conceptual stillness – profound stillness

It’s odd to think of these amazing states as distractions. They are the passing scenery of concentration but very often meditators get attached to them.  We attach to them by first wanting to have these experiences as a future accomplishment.  Or if we are lucky to have a subtle experience, then we want to hold onto that experience and we manipulate to try to repeat it.  This conceptualizing about the subtle experiences detracts us from the aliveness that is happening right now.   These “states” can’t be used as markers of progress.  The attachment to them actually clouds our minds. Enlightenment is a moving target of moment after moment.   If we do not become attached to the states of mind that we prefer, we can begin to see all phenomena as empty, larger then self, and interconnected with everything. Then there are no clouds.

We can aspire to what is called “automatic emptiness”.  Each moment, phenomena, state, emotion or thought arises quickly in the present moment and then dissolves.  Our practice is to be right with each moment regardless of its content. We notice the moment’s birthing and notice that it is an expression of emptiness immediately and simultaneously.  Even the tendency to conceptualize is already expressed as emptiness.  This will leave our minds soft and buoyant, clear and not fixated on anything.

Dogen writes in Bendowa:
“The concentrated endeavor of the way I am speaking of, allows all things to come forth in enlightenment and practice, all-inclusiveness with detachment.

There are those who realize the way on hearing the sound of bamboo being struck, or who understood the mind seeing the color of blossoms.  Of those who understand the way upon seeing a form, or who realize the way upon hearing a sound, they do not have any intellectual thinking regarding the endeavor of the way, or have any self besides their original self.

Nevertheless, spreading the way of buddha ancestors does not necessarily depend upon place or circumstances.  Just think that today is the beginning.
                                                                        Translation: Kazuaki Tanahashi