Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Practice of a Flower

In many Buddhist traditions there are established practices that focus energy on well-being for ourselves and others. One of these practices is known as “metta” or loving-kindness. In a typical metta practice, you might begin by expressing the wish for your own happiness, peace and well-being, and then move on to sharing the same sentiments for someone you like; someone to whom you feel neutral; and someone you dislike; culminating in offering metta to all beings. While there are many ways to practice metta, one way is simply to speak the words. It might sound something like this, “May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from physical and mental suffering. May all beings awaken to their True Nature.”

However, some years ago, in a class on the fundamentals of Buddhism at San Francisco Zen Center, the instructor Ingen Breen said something that was quite meaningful to me. He suggested that one traditional way of offering the last intention was to wish for one’s own or for others’ “spiritual success.” When asked by another student more specifically about what spiritual success might look like, he replied, “like a flower.” Oh, I thought, be successful the way a flower is successful. Lovely!

Successful Flowers

To me this is a wonderful expression of right effort. As far as I can tell, the flower does not have a plan to improve itself, or to become something other than what it is, or to compare itself to the flower next door and try to be more humble. The flower is simply, completely, fully flower in each moment. It bursts forth, fulfilling its flower nature without any hesitation or ulterior motive. It is the complete expression of flower in each instant and it cannot be anything else but, by simply being what it is, it is also a complete expression of Buddha Nature. It displays, in a way that can be heartbreaking, the truths of impermanence, no fixed self, and emptiness.

Perhaps this is why practitioners in the Zen tradition enjoy recounting the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s transmission to Mahakashyapa. In this traditional tale, the Buddha is said to be sitting before a large gathering of monks on Vulture Peak. He is expected to give a Dharma talk but, instead, picks up a flower and twirls it. Only Mahakashyapa is said to have smiled, indicating his understanding. What was it that Mahakshyapa came to know? At that moment the Buddha could have tried to explain what he meant by holding up the flower, or he could have tried to elicit some explanation from Mahakashyapa. But instead he said only, “I have the eye of the true Dharma, and I now transmit it to Mahakashyapa.”

To find our own true expression, complete in this moment, free of preconceived ideas, and notions of progress or impediment, that is the Buddha Way. Yet this is not an exhortation “to let it all hang out” or “to go with the flow” or “to let everything go.” If anything, right effort requires that we stop seeing our lives as a flow, and instead meet each instant directly and skillfully, letting each thing take its dharma position. In fact, “letting” is already extra, because each thing is already in its dharma position. So it’s up to me, as a practitioner, to experience my own dharma position in relationship to each thing. Then I may find myself fully expressing that which the flower already knows.

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Those Old Shoes

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.”

Moon over Mt. Diablo

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 awakened life by living an awakened life.

Then, 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.

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 already are a Buddha.

This kind of insight is invaluable. This is Right View. The problems of your life are simply the material for your practice. It is up to you to turn them in that way.

Van Gogh’s “A Pair of Shoes Black”

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 pair. 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. But 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 Brahmaviharas, 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.

Going Beyond the Rainbow

Last night I attended the dharma talk at SFZC City Center. The speaker was an invited guest, Ayya Anandabodhi. As one of the first nuns to be ordained in America in the Theravadan tradition she, and Ayya Santacitta, have received quite a bit of attention. Myself, I’d been inspired by their vision of starting a practice place for women, and had been meaning to visit the Vihara for a while. It’s just down the road a piece, near the ocean at the edge of San Francisco. But, this nun’s life was full enough that I never quite made it there.

Still, as sometimes happens, our paths crossed. What a lovely, unexpected arising. I’d gone down to visit another nun, Sister Santussika, who has even more recently begun a nunnery, this one in Millbrae. When I arrived, I found that the Ayyas were there, as well as Anandabodhi’s attendant and other women who give generously of their time to the two sanghas. I was quite pleased to make all of their acquaintance. As it happened we, together with Ajahn Guna, Santussika’s son who is also a monk, gathered together in front of the main altar and chanted a bhikkhuni blessing for the new temple. We chanted in both Pali and English, and despite the fact that it was all a new form for me, I felt comfortable and integrated.

A Visit to the Karuna Buddhist Vihara
August 2012

So it was with a sense of anticipation that I went over to City Center, to visit with a new friend, in way. And a truly fascinating thing happened. I’d had a late dinner due to waiting on another friend. When I went up to Blanche’s apartment to change into my robes, I noticed that Anandabodhi and Maria, her attendant who will soon be ordained sangha too, were waiting in the usual place to go down to give the talk. Stepping past them into Blanche’s room, I became aware that the sky in the window seemed to be a bit more colorful than usual. I pulled back the curtain only to find a broad, wondrous rainbow arching over the entire city, framed by a rose-colored sky. It was stunning, and I motioned to the nuns to come have a look. Then, the most amazing thing happened. Ayya Anandabodhi looked at the rainbow and said, “Oh, it’s for a woman we know. The rainbows seem to come out for her.” Even though it had just appeared, even though it could be seen in this place where she was waiting, even though, as Maria pointed out, there hadn’t even been any rain that day and it was nearly twilight, Anandabodhi didn’t think that the rainbow was for her. Her first thought was that it was for her friend.

Rainbow 6 c. Entheos

Rainbow 6 c. Entheos

This was, for me, a teaching in generosity and selflessness – a way of seeing the world that didn’t being with “me” or “mine.” She saw the world as a gift for others and smiled in gratitude for my having shown it to her. Reflecting on this moment, I’m reminded of the 10 Oxherding Pictures, wherein the practitioner, represented by a boy growing up, goes through two phases of realization about his relationship to the world. In one phase, he experiences the joy of releasing the deluded view of the world as being about him or related to him. Later, that same practitioner sits down to ponder the stillness of releasing the sense of himself as defined by the world. For me, Ayya Anandabodhi demonstrated at least the first and maybe also the second when she, in a fleeting instant, declined to accept the rainbow as a gift to herself. Beautiful!