Expressing compassion and wisdom
in the midst of a modern life


Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & RitualPractice LeaderComment

Are you taking Wednesday off for a #DayWithoutAWoman, a nationwide event demonstrating the solidarity of women? Then come to the Empty Hand Zen Center for tea, talk and meditation led by Guiding Teacher Reverend Konin Cardenas. We'll enjoy each others' company and discuss the Zen teachings of liberation and equality for women. 4:00 pm at 45 Lawton Street, New Rochelle, NY

Your Venerable State

Study & ArtsPractice LeaderComment

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.”

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 awakening life by living an awakening life.

Moon over Mount Diablo

Moon over Mount Diablo

Next, 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. It would also lessen the practitioner's concern with the appearance of the body.

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 are already with the capacity to realize Buddhahood.

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

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 them.


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. 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 Sublime Abodes, 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.


The Temptation to Turn Away

Study & Arts, Sangha & Inclusion, Service & EngagementPractice LeaderComment

When events in your life provoke fear or anger or any number of other difficult feelings, it's tempting to turn away. It's tempting to think that you can or should just withdraw, or put up a wall, or do your best to dismiss the things you can't understand. However, the history of mankind has shown that these responses do not work. For thousands of years, people have experienced pain and dissatisfaction as a result of their efforts to separate from others.

A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is emptiness, the fact that nothing comes into being permanently or independently. All things and all people must come into being, momentarily, in dependence on other people and things. That is to say, emptiness also means inseparability. There is no way to be separate. This is consistent with the laws of physics, as well as the Buddha's teachings.



Yet the illusion of separation is deep and pernicious. It begins with our sense of our own bodies, which develops during infancy.  And it continues into adolescence and beyond, as we develop an identity, a fixed view of self. Often times our identity is based on who we are not. We remind ourselves that we are not our parents, we are not our friends, and we are not our spouses. We remind ourselves, over and over again, that we are a certain kind of person, one that is defined at least in part by our skin. Is this really true?

Ultimately, there is no escaping the fact that this sense of difference is flawed and that it leads to difficulty. For example, when you see a star at night, that is a wave or a particle of light contacting your sense organs, the eyes. According to the Buddha, this creates a moment of eye consciousness. Then your brain sets out to identify it and to construct thoughts and feelings about it. So this tiny particle, which has traveled billions of miles and many years to reach your eye, effects both your body and mind in tangible ways. Thus, you are physically and mentally connected with, inter-being with that star across space and time. And due to the length of time that it takes for that light to reach your eye, the star may not even exist anymore. Yet, you are aware of its presence. How could you be separate from the stars?



And so it is with your relationship to all other beings on this Earth. You may think that reinforcing the separation is going to help, that it will lessen the pain and loss. You may think that building a mental or physical wall, or withdrawing from the situation will improve the situation. However, in the long run walls must come down, and withdrawal only compounds our loss. 

It is for this reason that the early Mahayana sutras teach about emptiness and the path of compassion together. Take the Diamond Sutra, for example. When Subhuti asks the Buddha how to control his thoughts, the Buddha replies that he should make a vow to save all beings, even while acknowledging that there are no beings to be saved. That is, we train the mind through compassionate activity that is in accord with the fact of emptiness. We know that to be human is to appear, in any given form, only for a flicker of an instant. One who deeply understands the implications of that will work to help others see it, so that they might have less confusion and suffering too.

Thus, when the events of life make you want to withdraw, it's the best time to step forward into the divide. It's the best time to remember that we are all human, and we are all more or less confused about how life really works. Despite that confusion, we are all also part of the vast fabric of reality, and therefore part of one family. Like the stars, we have a finite time to shine. So let's shine while we can.


The Courage of the Big Cats

Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionPractice LeaderComment
Bodhidharma by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Bodhidharma by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Zen practice is sometimes described as the study of the self. This description, in part, arises out of the old story of an interaction between Bodhidharma, Zen's first ancestor in China, and the student who later became his dharma heir, Huike. The story can be found in the koan collection "The Gateless Gate," Case 41. 

In the story Huike says that his mind is not at peace, and he asks Bodhidharma to help him with this. Bodhidharma agrees to help saying, "Bring me your mind, and I will set it at rest." However, after some time, Huike responds by saying, "I have searched for the mind and finally it is unattainable." To which Bodhidharma replies, "I have thoroughly set it at rest for you." (Translation by Thomas Cleary) 

Thus, our earliest Zen role models were engaged in the study of the self, the study of how best to live in a human body and mind. This is the study of what we mean when we say "body and mind." This is the study whose culmination is setting the mind at rest. And when this study yields a result that points to the limits of human conceptual capacity and to the boundlessness of mind, then it begins to show us how we can rest. It's ironic really, particularly when placed in the context of a Western society that highly values the intellect and its capacity for investigation and categorization. Yet, it can be a deeply satisfying experience to come face-to-face with the knowledge that you can't figure something out. That fact is fundamentally a good thing.

In order to see it as a good thing, though, a practitioner must have the courage to face the facts and then consider the potential responses. That is, if you encounter the limits of your concept of mind and react in fear or complacency, then you have missed the opportunity it presents. To say that it is enough simply to lead your life whatever way you like, because it is impossible to understand, is also to waste a whole lifetime of opportunities. So what might be a skillful way to study the self?

Shakyamuni Buddha gave us a pointer about this kind of practice in his teachings called "The Dhammapada." In this text the Buddha teaches:

Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle, yet she indeed is the noblest victor who conquers herself.
The Buddha teaching at Sarnath

The Buddha teaching at Sarnath

The Buddha speaks of conquering one's self, meaning to stop being fooled by one's sense of separation. And what to make of the military reference? For me, it points to the value of courage, perhaps the most important attribute of a warrior. That is, in the study of the self you must have courage - the courage to face the conditions of your life, to face the conditions in the world, to face the nature of suffering and of inconceivability. In fact, the great bodhisattvas, enlightening beings, are usually referred to as mahasattvas as well. "Mahasattva" is a Sanskrit word that can be literally translated to mean "great being" but its roots and connotation provide more nuance. The term mahasattva originally referred to the large cats - lions and tigers - as noble, courageous beasts. Later it came to be associated with people who were also noble and courageous. 

So today I encourage you to have the courage of the big cats. I ask you to consider how you might find the courage to face your life, to face a world which seems to be separate from you. I encourage you to face the desire to separate from the world, and to have the courage not to turn away, but to turn toward it. Study the desire to build a wall and have the courage to step across that divide, toward a self that is incredibly more vast than any wall could contain.






Art in the Service of Wisdom

Study & ArtsPractice LeaderComment

A complete expression in this moment, 
one that is spontaneous and unique,  
while fully embracing all things.

The enso is used in Japanese Zen Buddhism to illustrate all things complete and harmonious in each moment. It is also a demonstration of the simplicity and harmony of the teaching of Zen, a tradition that views words and concepts as somewhat inadequate in their ability to express the true nature of reality.

Thus, the art of painting came to be used in the service of wisdom.

Drawing circles in the air and on the ground had long been a form of teaching in Chan Buddhism. We hear of it in the form of koan stories. For example, in "Book of Serenity" case 77 entitled "Yangshan's Enough," we read:

The monk drew a circle [in the air] and held it up with his hands, like a titan holding the sun and the moon, and said ‘What character is this?’ Yangshan then drew a circle around the character for infinity.
— Translation by Thomas Cleary

The monk is demonstrating that all things are embraced in the enso. Carrying it like Atlas, he is also demonstrating that each of us fully encompasses the whole world. This is because we are inseparable from it, through the function of emptiness that pervades our experience of the six senses. Yangshan agrees. In his verse comments, Tiantong, says this about it:

The void of the circle of the Way is never filled. The letters on the seal of emptiness are still unformed.

In great appreciation for the circle of the Way, both literal and figurative, Zenkei Shibayama Roshi published, in 1969, a large-format book containing reproductions of three centuries of enso, and the accompanying calligraphy and art. Some enso are painted in a clockwise direction, others in a counter-clockwise direction. They begin the stroke at various points on the circle. Each one reveals a bit about the individual who painted it. No two enso are identical. It reminds us that an enso blossoms from a particular moment in time, and thus its variation is great. 

And so it is with our lives. No matter in which direction you go, you are still in the midst of the activity of great Buddhadharma. All the while, you are a unique instance of causes and conditions, and thus the variation in what you experience is great. Never forget this and you are assured of great harmony.

Grappling With the Green-eyed Monster

Sitting & Ritual, Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionPractice LeaderComment

A long, long time ago there was a monk who had been working in the kitchen and then, overnight, was promoted to Abbot of a prestigious monastery. The retiring Abbot felt sure that this would cause a stir. So he sent the new Abbot on a journey, on a long walk, and told him not to come back for three years, to allow time for people to absorb the news. As expected, many of the other monks in the monastery were upset and actually set out in pursuit of the new Abbot.

Have you ever felt like one of the monks that went after the new Abbot? Have you ever thought, "who is this fool that landed that job?" Perhaps you have had the feeling that someone didn't deserve some special recognition they had received, or that they weren't qualified for some role for which they had been chosen. Maybe you have felt envy that someone you knew received a special gift. These days there is a lot of envy in the public discourse, people who are expressing dismay or upset or anger at the recognition given to others, or the gifts that are given to others. This is sometimes cloaked in "critique," or it is sometimes cloaked in "indignation." Yet, often, this is a form of envy.

Envy is defined by Merriam-Webster as, "the painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage." Notice that the smart folks who compile the dictionary mention that pain is involved. Notice that they also acknowledge that envy has to do with what we want for ourselves, regardless of whether we are actually able to obtain it. For this reason, envy has also been called "the green-eyed monster." When we are caught by envy, it can create suffering and states of mind that lead to other harmful thoughts and actions. Again, this seems to be clearly displayed in the public discourse, and occasionally even celebrated.

So how can one practice skillfully with envy? A teaching from Shantideva, the 8th Century Indian Buddhist scholar, comes to mind. He taught:

If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying?
If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?

That is, a skillful practitioner will recognize that envy is a judgement that rejects, or simply ignores the present state of things. A practitioner will recognize that envy is based in a story about how things "should" be, according to one's own point of view. Shantideva's teaching suggests a different approach. Instead of being caught by the story, simply consider the present moment and an appropriate response. Can you do something about it? If so, then there is no need for envy, because you can set about doing something.  Is there nothing you can do about it? If there is nothing that can be done, then there is even less reason to be caught by the story of what "should" be. You can simply see it as a figment of your imagination. Thus, a skillful approach to working with envy is to see that it is a feeling that arises because of inattention to the present reality.

But what happened to the new Abbot and his pursuers?

The dialogue that ensued when Huishun, the leader of the pursuing group, caught up to Huineng is recorded in the "Platform Sutra" and the collection of koans titled "No Barrier." Here is Thomas Cleary's translation:

When the Ancestor saw Huishun coming, he set down the robe and the bowl (that he had been given by the former Abbot as proof of his succession to Abbot of the monastery). He said to Huishun, "This robe symbolizes faith; could it be right to fight over it? You can take it away."

Huineng, 7th Century Chinese Ch'an Master

Huineng, 7th Century Chinese Ch'an Master

This act is itself a profound teaching. The robe symbolizes faith, because it was said to be the very robe that the Buddha gave to Mahakasyapa. Whether or not that is historically accurate is not as important as the fact that, for many people in and outside the monastery, the robe was dear. In fact, one way to think about any Zen robe, monastic or lay, is that it represents deep trust - the trust between the person who gave it and the person who received it, the trust of the person who gave it to the giver, and so on, stretching back for centuries.

However, the pivotal teaching that Huineng demonstrates with this act is that it is neither the robe nor the bowl that make him the Abbot. It is his unique, insightful expression of Dharma, his understanding of his own life as a teaching. So he can truthfully say that it is alright if someone else were to take the robe. The robe doesn't make the man, in this case or ever.  Yet someone who truly understands that, and can live that way, is unusual. We would do well to remember this when encountering Buddhist teachers, and people in every walk of life.

Returning to the story:

Huishun tried to pick up the robe but it was immovable, like a mountain. In fear, he said, "I have come for the teaching, not the robe. Please instruct me."

The pursuer has a sudden change of heart. He realizes that he cannot steal this venerated object from Huineng. He cannot steal the role of Abbot from Huineng. He cannot steal the Dharma from Huineng. So he wisely asks for the Dharma instead, even though he is feeling fearful. Perhaps it is this very recognition of his own fear that turns him toward the teaching. That would be a very skillful response, one that would reflect his years of practice.

The Abbot said, "Not thinking good, not thinking evil, right at this very moment, what is your original face?" 

This is the kernel of the koan. The first part of the question is a pointer that the response is one that is free of dualistic judgments, one that sets aside the mentality of dividing things or people into right and wrong. It points to the mind that recognizes the inherent harmony of all things, which is always present because they are all inter-dependent.

The second part of the question is a pointer to the immediacy of the response. It is not something that requires long years of study, though it may be informed by them, but rather emerges spontaneously in the present. That is to say, we live in the moment now, and the moment now is fully imbued with that which we are seeking. It is not something that awaits far off in the future.

The last part of the question tells us what kind of expression the Abbot is trying to elicit. He asks to see Huishun's "original face," sometimes also known as "your face before your parents were born." That is, Huineng is asking Ming to demonstrate his buddanature, the great activity which perfectly resolves all conditions in every moment. It is a function that is completely neutral, beyond any concept of right and wrong, though not obstructing either right or wrong.

In tears, Huishun bowed and asked, "Is there any meaning beyond the esoteric intent of the esoteric words you have just spoken?" The Abbot replied, "What I have just told you is not esoteric. If you turn your attention around to your own state, the secret is after all in you." 

From Huishun's reply it is clear that he has not fully penetrated the Abbot's question. In this case "esoteric" means "secret" or" hidden." Huishun's question implies that he has just received some special teaching from the Huineng. Huishun believes he has now become an "insider." Immediately correcting this misunderstanding, Huineng tells him that he is the "secret teaching" that he seeks. This is true for all of us.

The special gift, the special recognition that we seek is already ours. Practice is to give it to ourselves. It is simply a matter of turning our attention to align with inherent awareness. Then there is no longer any need to feel envious of someone else things or their role. You yourself have the most precious thing, the highest, most perfect Dharma. Though there are secret ceremonies and teachings you have not yet heard, those things will not, in and of themselves, enlighten you. There is no secret handshake or password that will make you a Buddha. You are already of the nature of Buddha, but when you look for it to come from somewhere else, you won't find it. If you try to steal it from someone, you rob yourself of the chance to express it. 

Does this mean that there aren't people who are unqualified for their jobs, or who have received a gift that you might like to have? No, it may actually be the case. However, even when that is true, you cannot take anything that is truly valuable from someone else. That is, the most valuable thing in the world is the Dharma, and only you can find your own Dharma, with the support and trust of those who devote their lives to pointing it out to you. Having found the Dharma and living from that place, you can find a skillful, pain-free response to a world that is subjectively imperfect. 

In the end, Huishun told Huineng, "You are my teacher."

May we all find our teachers, inward and outward and everywhere, so that we might vanquish the green-eyed monster within.