Tag Archives: transmission

Breaking with Tradition to Uphold Tradition

cave buddhas

There is a global movement toward re-establishing the full ordination of women in the Theravada, and Aloka Vihara is part of that movement. These bhikkhunis and the people that support them are Theravadan practitioners who are willing to acknowledge the shared heritage of all Buddhist lineages, rather than emphasize their differences. However, there is also global resistance to change, and a powerful monastic and political hierarchy that enforces a centuries old form of oppression. Studying the history of the origins of Buddhist women’s ordinations, and the forms that came down through the centuries does not provide complete clarity. There seem to be doctrinal inconsistencies and the basis for arguments on both sides of this debate. It may take generations to arrive at a consensus and, in the meantime, sincere women practitioners leave home and follow the Way.

Read about these sincere practitioners in the attached article, “A Sima on Northern California Land,” by Abiding Practice Leader Konin Cardenas.

A Sima on Nor Cal Land


The Answer Machine is Not In

Much has been said in recent months and years about the dynamics between teachers and students in Zen, primarily due to instances of boundary crossing that go beyond painful into harmful. This kind of relationship is unacceptable and should not be tolerated by students, teachers or sanghas. Yet there are Zen teachings that seem to lead to gross misunderstandings about the way to have a skillful relationship between teacher and student, particularly as that might be understood in Western culture.

One such teaching is the role of teacher in pointing out patterns of thought that the student is unable to identify for themselves. Often these patterns are ways that students relate to themselves but fail to acknowledge their own agenda. Sadly, some teachers have gone from shining the light of wisdom on such delusion to entangling it in an intimate, sexual relationship. Certainly this cannot lead to greater clarity for either person.

Bodhidharma's scowl

Bodhidharma’s scowl

Also, I believe there is another dynamic at play. I call it the “answer machine mentality.” That is, once a student begins to have confidence in a teacher, this can evolve into a desire for the teacher to provide the answers to all of the student’s questions. The student ties him or herself into all kinds of knots trying to find the perfect question. Certainly, Zen rituals such as Shosan, in which students present themselves one by one and have a public dharma encounter with a teacher, superficially seem to encourage this kind of thinking. Yet it could hardly be further from the truth.

Not only is the “answer machine mentality” a lazy way to practice, it also sets up a dependency upon the teacher who is seen as the source of wisdom, while the student is seen as simply a receiver. It is dangerous, in part, because it sets up a hierarchy in which the teacher can be tempted into thinking that the student lacks something which she or he can and should provide. Thus both teacher and student relate to each through the illusion of power dynamics and guru worship, sometimes confused with filial piety. It can even become a form of infantilization of the student and a Napoleon complex for the teacher. That is to say, it leads to even further delusion about the nature of the self.

This is sad, not only because it creates further entanglements, but also because it goes against Buddhist teaching. Each and every being is intrinsically capable of enlightenment, inherently able to relinquish suffering and experience ultimate wisdom. So hierarchy and experience are merely aspects of the veil which is the samsaric world. It is the student’s responsibility to find themselves equal to the teacher, and the teacher’s responsibility to point the student toward their true self again and again. The only “answers” would be directional – hotter or colder, if you will.

So I urge you who study the mystery, do not pass your time vainly crafting the perfect question and vainly awaiting the perfect answer to fall from your teacher’s lips. Bring forth the self that skillfully, completely meets the self and demonstrate how equal you really are!

A Monk Points Out the Dust

In today’s modern American koan, “No Monk Clean and Shining,” we are presented with two practitioners who are standing next to a recently waxed black car.

Black Bugatti

The first monk says, “That’s as close as any of us will ever get to being free from dust.”

The second monk says, “I can only hope to find peace in the midst of dust.”

The dialogue is brief yet, like all koans, it says a lot and raises a few questions. So let me offer a bit of commentary.

The tone of sarcasm from the first monk is inescapable. Clearly her world is thickly covered in dust. Do I detect a note of despair? The second monk is not clear either. Looking for peace is like crying out for thirst in the midst of water. Yet he won’t just conjure a drink, will he? Both are right that dust is inescapable. But how to be peace in the midst of the world’s dust? By seeing dust as no-dust!

Sunrise 12/21/12

California Sunrise 12/21/12

This koan harkens back to the dialectic in the Platform Sutra of Huineng. It was the late 7th Century at a monastery in China. The Head Monk was expected to become the successor to the Abbot. Demonstrating his practice, he wrote this poem:

The body is the Tree of Wisdom.

The Mind is like a mirror bright.

Polish it, polish it at all times.

So that the dust will not alight.

Hearing the above poem, Huineng wrote the following demonstration of his practice:

The Tree of Wisdom does not exist.

There is no stand for the mirror bright.

Originally, there is not one thing.

So where could dust possibly alight?

In the end it was Huineng who became the 6th Chinese Ancestor. The Head Monk didn’t have it all wrong. He’s right that we must practice constantly in order to manifest our inherent wisdom. However, it’s his way of practice that’s a bit off. Practicing in order to get rid of the dust in our lives – be it difficult relationships, money problems, fear of losing a loved one or a cherished belonging, or despair over the state of the world – is a mistake. It ignores the fact all things are expressions of the truth.

The fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that it’s possible to find complete peace and equanimity in the midst of a mundane life, which is inevitably full of problems and joys. For me, this is what makes the Four Noble Truths the inspiration of a lifetime. There is suffering (truth #1), and there is a path to the cessation of suffering (truth #4), not by getting rid of things, but by transforming that which causes suffering into that which manifests awakening. This is the true practice of the direct, embodied experience of emptiness, impermanence and the world as it is.

A few days ago I met someone who has a fervid belief in one of the Christian traditions. Inexplicably, as he was describing his faith he stopped and declared, “You must accept things as they really are.” How right he is! So, please, wash your car and see yourself as the pure activity of washing car, an expression of the perfection of a mundane life.

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.

Who needs monks anyway?

In a country that prides itself on a secular orientation, there are many people who have questions about the role of religion and of monastics. For Buddhist monks in particular, there is often a lack of clarity about how the lay community can or should interact with them. And in fact, within some American Buddhist communities, particularly in today’s Zen sangha, there are lots of questions about the role of a monk even within the temple or monastery environment, as well as outside of it.

For one thing, in Zen, the term “monk” can be applied to any person of any gender or no gender who has received ordination, and thereby taken the 16 foundational ethical precepts. Or the term “priest” can  also be used for them, though it sometimes has the additional connotation of someone who has completed dharma transmission, a milestone which usually indicates someone who has the authority to ordain others. Or the term “nun” can be applied to the ordained sangha who are female. Or the title of Reverend is often used. But, for our purposes, all of these terms are interchangeable ways of speaking about those ordained in Zen. They all have basically the same vows, the same responsibilities and the potential for the same roles.Their activities may differ, but their basic vows do not. Personally, for myself, I prefer the term “nun” or one day if I am a full-fledged teacher, maybe “acharya.”

Takuhatsu in the snow

Practicing in Japan I learned that it’s possible for a monk to simply be the presence of the Dharma in the world. This was particularly obvious when we went on takuhatsu (alms collection walks), a weekly activity at the monastery where I lived for a year and a half. We would go to small towns and villages, dressed in our traditional robes and other monk-type gear, and visit each and every house. No matter the reaction – good, bad or indifferent – the town folk recognized us as monastics. This is important because it is an opportunity for them to encounter the teaching and to notice whether they feel inspired, enraged or something in between. Then, for me, this sense of presence extended to other activities outside the monastery, rituals within the monastery, and finally to everything in my life. I found that my having taken up this life made it possible for others to consider their own responses to the monastic life, either by making it possible for them to feel inspired to practice, generous and giving of their resources and time, or by sparking a sense of separation and difficulty, or some other response. But the critical point was the clarity and authenticity of the interaction. There was no mistaking that we were monks, and that meant that the laity could make clear choices about how to respond to us.

Three Zen Nuns

So it seems to me that the point, then, is not that everyone who wants to practice Zen in America should be a monk, but rather that a strong monastic community helps to sustain a strong lay community, and vice versa. A clear role for the monastic makes it more possible for lay people to take up their own practice. And that is the true meaning of sangha.