Inspiring the Discovery of a Wiser World

Recent talks with our Dharma friends

Sangha & Inclusion, Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Guiding Teacher Konin Cardenas has recently returned from her visits to the Red Clay Sangha in Atlanta, Georgia and the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group (SBMG in California). The Sunday morning talk at Red Clay was offered on June 3rd. It is a talk about what the Buddha's awakening might mean to you, and it is available here:


The Sunday evening talk, that same night, at SBMG is a talk about finding compassion in the five aggregates of human experience. It can be accessed here:


May they be a support to your awakening life!

Going Forth and Reaching Back

Sangha & Inclusion, Service & Engagement, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment
 Ven. Dhammadipa (also known as Konin) kneeling on left, Ven. Cittananda kneeling on right

Ven. Dhammadipa (also known as Konin) kneeling on left, Ven. Cittananda kneeling on right

On May 11th, I formally took the eight precepts of an Anagarika in the Theravada tradition. Though I have been practicing eight precepts for some time now, wearing the white robes felt very light. It also made for a clear and appropriate transition from my black attire as a Zen priest. This step marked my intention to wholeheartedly take up the Theravada way, and during the ceremony I took dependence on Ayyas Santacitta and Anadabodhi as my teachers in this tradition. I can honestly and joyfully say that it is their commitment to demonstrating the path of practice of the early Buddhist teachings that enabled me to aspire to this practice myself.

Then, on Saturday, May 12th at Buddhi Vihara in Santa Clara, California, I went forth in the Theravada tradition, after many years of practice in the Soto Zen tradition. Going forth is an outward, conventional expression of an enigmatic evolution that is happening within. Having known the Ayyas for six years, and having visited Aloka Vihara a few times in the past, I came to live here in October of 2017. At that time, I was in search of a place where the practice would support turning inward, where practice would support a transformation of mind, heart, and body toward its natural clarity and peace. For me, the practice of monastic renunciation, the practice of Vinaya, is just such a support. It allows me to set down, again and again, those things that are unessential. It allows me to commit my entire life’s effort to the activity of being an instrument of Dhamma. And, it is like reaching back all the way to the beginning of the Zen lineage in which I was ordained 11 years ago, integrating the practice of the Original Teacher Gotama Buddha and the earliest disciples. I received the name “Dhammadīpā,” which means light or lamp or island of Dhamma.

The day of the Pabbajja was a shining example of blending like milk and water, as the more than eight sanghas that were involved joined together to make the day’s events both memorable and easeful. In particular, Ayya Sudinna, the Pavatinī (Preceptor) who came all the way from Carolina Buddhist Vihara in Greenville, South Carolina was so joyful. It was a day full of mudita (empathetic joy), not just for me, but also for Ayya Cittananda who received her bhikkhuni (higher) ordination. It seemed to me that everyone shared such heartfelt caring for each other. The beautiful sunny weather was reflected in our hearts, and the great generosity of the dana revealed how deeply sangha members are moved by the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. My heart is full of gratitude and joy for everyone who is playing some part in making it possible for nuns to go forth into this life. Anumodana! I rejoice in your good works!

Who Baked the Cookies?

Study & Arts, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

It seems as though we are living in an era of fierce certainty, an era in which the reasons for one’s certainty are not nearly as important as the ferocity with which they are proclaimed, an era in which the exclamation point must accompany any idea if it is to be taken seriously. Respect goes to those who declare their certainty, and those who lack certainty are dismissed as weak or confused. Particularly with regard to matters of personal spirituality, contemporary American society seems to demand absolute certainty. Even within the Buddhist community there is talk of the “real Buddhists” and the “not real Buddhists” as though one could be certain that their tradition was the only real Path. 

Yet Buddhist practice often asks us to question certainty, even when it appears to be based on solid information. Buddhist practice pokes holes in our certainty, crushes our proverbial soap box, knocks over the proverbial stool on which we would like to stand above the questions that plague a human life. In fact, Buddhism extols the virtue of simply not knowing. Yet how are we then to have strong belief in Buddhism? What is the benefit of questioning certainty? Is there anything truly skillful about not knowing?

If we take an everyday conversation as an example, it might help to illustrate the point. Say that you overheard the following conversation:

A: I don’t know who baked those cookies, but I’m really glad they did. They were delicious.
B: Yeah, that was C.
A: Oh, did you help C bake the cookies?
B: No, but C is always baking cookies. It was C.

At first glance, this conversation may appear innocuous. Person A states that they don’t know who baked the cookies, and person B uses their past experience to state that person C baked them. However, if we are rigorous in examining this conversation, we might take note of the question that person A posed. Was person B actually present in the moment of baking cookies, therefore making their statement based on firsthand information? Another clarifying question would be asking whether person B heard directly from person C that they had baked the cookies. If neither of those things are true, then it seems that person B cannot actually say with certainty that person C baked the cookies.

Maitreya Buddha 16.jpg

Now one might think this is splitting hairs, a small matter really, and not worth even exploring further with person B. Yet this conversation demonstrates how certainty has taken the place of not knowing, and how stating this certainty without any qualification has taken the place of seeing the situation more accurately. For example, person B could have said, “I imagine that person C baked those cookies because they are always baking cookies around here.” Such a statement would be more precise, and would still convey person B’s idea about who had been baking.

Still, it might seem trivial. Such a small difference in meaning doesn’t have much bearing on the real world, one might think, and certainly not on such lofty matters as world peace or personal liberation. Keep investigating, for not knowing stands in contrast to knowing. Like background and foreground, both must be clearly seen if one is to integrate the whole picture.

Suppose that person C did not actually bake the cookies. Maybe C always bakes cookies but, since C always has to bake the cookies, D decided it would be helpful to bake the cookies this time. Then, person B’s statement to person A is misinformation. The mistaken statement is, perhaps accidentally, sowing the seeds of delusion both in person B’s mind and in person A’s mind by stating something that is not accurate. This is the opposite of finding clarity in the mind, the opposite of seeing clearly the reality before us.

And there is an aspect of this exploration that is even more intriguing.  Even if person B was correct in saying that person C had baked the cookies, the statement is still based in wrong view. It is wrong view based in treating an inference as an actual fact. Such an inference would be fine if it were specifically acknowledged, thereby clarifying the statement as a belief, and not a statement of fact. However, stated as a fact, when it is in reality an inference, is sowing the seeds of delusion in the person B’s mind and in person A’s mind because it fails to capture the truth of not having personal experience of the situation. It fails to capture the truth of not knowing. It fails to accurately describe the uncertainty that exists in person B’s relationship to the matter of who baked the cookies. Therefore, the statement is reinforcing wrong view.

 the flag of Brazil, where the Pirahã people live in the Amazon forest

the flag of Brazil, where the Pirahã people live in the Amazon forest

Others might say things differently. Take, for example, the Brazilian native peoples known as the Pirahã. British ethnologist Daniel Everett spent a total of seven years with them, studying their language and culture. He was fascinated, because the Pirahã do not seem to have any past tense in their language, and they do not seem to talk about anything that has not been experienced by themselves or someone they have spoken too. Everett, who wrote a book about his travels titled, “Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes” states that the basis of Pirahã culture is, “Live here and now.”* This creates specific limitations on what they can discuss or even think about. So it represents an extreme, not an ideal. However, it demonstrates a certain accuracy about personal speech that can be a useful pointer. Everett reports that the Pirahã are comfortable living without trying to describe what they have not experienced.

The honesty and clarity of not knowing has been expressed as Buddhist teaching for thousands of years. For example, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni gave this teaching in the Numbered Discourses, Book of the Threes, No. 28:

“And what, monks, is the person whose speech is like dung? Here, if he is summoned to a council, to an assembly, to his relatives’ presence… and questioned as a witness thus: ‘So, good man, tell what you know,’ then, not knowing, this person says, ‘I know,’ or knowing, he says, ‘I do not know’; not seeing, he says, ‘I see,’ or seeing, he says, ‘I do not see.’ …This is called the person whose speech is like dung.”**

 Image from Dreamstime

Image from Dreamstime

Here we find the Buddha making a strong statement about the smelly nature of saying that one knows when one does not know. At first glance, one might suppose that the Buddha is only referring to outright lying, however that would be limiting the scope of what he presents here. Presented in this light, as though one were a witness, it is easy to understand how an inaccurate statement could cause great harm. This is a teaching on the attributes of right speech, an aspect the Noble Eightfold Path, described in much of Buddhism as the path to liberation.

And this was not all that the Buddha said about speaking with certainty. He also gave discourse after discourse exhorting people to investigate the nature of their firsthand experience. The Buddha taught that, by accurately investigating firsthand experience, one might have an encounter with the Dharma, the law. In this context, Dharma can be understood as the nature of reality which the Buddha described as, “apparent here and now, encouraging investigation, to be experienced individually by the wise.”

Many centuries later Chan monastics also gave teachings about not knowing. In particular, they recorded a koan about not knowing, said to have taken place in Tang Dynasty China. The Japanese word "koan” means “a public case or proclamation,” and it is an abbreviation of the Chinese phrase, “kofu no antoku,” which referred to publicly declared legal decisions in ancient China. The word, thus, has the implication of information that applies to everyone. In contemporary practice, one might consider koans to be similar to legal precedents. They are describing situations from the past whose details are not exactly the same as in our own case, but they are nonetheless situations able to demonstrate something about practicing with our own case. They point to principles that are universally applicable because the principles are revealed in everyone’s daily life.

 Image by Andy Serrano

Image by Andy Serrano

In “The Book of Serenity,” a collection of ancient Zen koans, the following conversation is recorded as Case 20:

Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”
Fayan said, “Around on pilgrimage.”
Dizang replied, “What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”
“I don’t know,” said Fayan.
“Not knowing is nearest,” said Dizang.
Fayan was suddenly awakened.

Without analyzing the specifics of this dialogue, it appears that Dizang is teaching his student something about honesty and clarity. Apparently, even greater clarity was the result for Fayan. How could that be? Consider how opening to a limitless potential is an acknowledgment of what is always true.

Yet how do we begin to practice with our sense of certainty? When we’re certain, we’re certain, even if we know that we need to be clear about not knowing. How can we get a foothold here? One place to start is to reflect on a time when your certainty is proven wrong. Returning to the cookie example, person B might find a great opportunity for practice if they were to find out that D had baked the cookies and not C. First, B could observe their own reaction to being proven wrong, either privately or in public. Are they angry and defensive, lashing out verbally or even physically at messenger of the bad news? Are they depressed and self-critical, taking out their frustrations on themselves? Do they shrug it off, making it out to be a small matter, or even refusing to acknowledge the validity of the facts? Or do they laugh at themselves a bit and muse on the unpredictability of life? Often the type of reaction or response we offer to having been mistaken has more to do with the ways that we feel identified with a view than with the accuracy of the view itself. That is, the more we believe that certainty about an inferred view defines who we are or defines our value as a person, the more likely we are to have a strong negative reaction to the inaccuracy of that view. 

bodhidharma scowl.png

One way to practice skillfully with the news of having been wrong is to reflect on how that state of mind appeared. What was it that made us feel so certain about something incorrect? Where did we step in to fill in a gap in knowledge with our own view? Was it that we knew that we did not know, but did not feel comfortable appearing uncertain? Do we feel that we must know in order to be a certain kind of person, or to simply be a person of value? Again, there seems to be a lot of societal pressure these days to appear to be certain about one’s views. Starting with inquiry can help to open our minds and hearts to another perspective.

The twist is that, in the context of a society that rewards speaking with certainty, we have to muster some clarity and confidence of our own if we are going to speak about not knowing. We cannot depend on receiving rewards from others for expressing not knowing. Can we can feel inwardly confident about not knowing, rather than feeling anxious with a general sense of uncertainty or of certainty? We will have to discover our own rewards for the kind of speech that does not obscure not knowing.

Perhaps one reward is allowing for many possibilities in one’s experience of life, a kind of mental flexibility. Another reward might be feeling fewer instances of anger or depression due to making mistakes. Another might be sustaining a general sense of wonder and curiosity about our lives. Sekkei Harada Roshi, the Abbot of Hosshinji, a Zen training monastery in Japan put it this way, “There is something mysterious. Leave it mysterious.” Or to quote Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, former Abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” Each of us discovers our own rewards for not knowing. 

*Source-> http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/brazil-s-piraha-tribe-living-without-numbers-or-time-a-414291.htmle:

**Source: https://suttacentral.net/an3.28/en/bodhi translation by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Not By An Act of Will

Sangha & Inclusion, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

Reading the teachings of Buddhism, one encounters a lot of discussion about the nature of a human being, of a human life. It has been viewed from various perspectives, described according to various systems and frameworks, and explored in meditation and in the daily lives of millions of practitioners. Some say it's pure. Others say it's impure. Here’s how I practice with it.

A human life is a precious thing because it is so fleeting. It is the coming together of countless conditions, acted upon by the energetic principals of impermanence, karma, and dependent co-arising. Each moment is a unique transformation into one particular state of these conditions and energies, as they harmoniously arrive at resolution, at completion. Having come together, the state of the universe, and a human being within it, is so momentary that there is no way to pin it down. There is nothing that can been seen as wrong or right, pure or impure, about this state because it includes everything as mere instantaneous phenomena. It holds all things as mere conditions relating to other conditions in a flux of transformation. This is one way to express the ultimate or absolute perspective of a human life.

 Image: NASA Hubble

Image: NASA Hubble

However, simply saying such a thing is like a painted rice cake. It doesn't satisfy our hunger. It doesn't satisfy our thirst. For that reason, the historical Buddha got up from the seat of enlightenment and spent the remainder of his life explaining that one can only find one's peace with life by seeing its principles all the way to the bottom. He gave teachings from both the absolute and relative (or subjective) perspectives. He said that "tanha" or "thirst" is the reason for fundamental pervasive dissatisfaction or "dukkha." And he taught that meditation and an ethical life are necessary to have a firsthand experience of how and why this is so. Having seen it and experienced it clearly for oneself, one is no longer willing to engage in a life that creates dissatisfaction and is dominated by thirst.

From then on to the present day, sincere practitioners have received the Buddha's teachings and expressed them in fresh ways, extrapolated from them, or sometimes focused on just one aspect with great vigor. Some had profound revelatory insights and wrote breathtaking new teachings. Some walked the path adhering as closely as possible to the Buddha's own, as they understood it. Some shared the teachings of Buddhism with new cultures and countries, bringing forth those unique expressions. I don't subscribe to Buddhist elitism, claiming one form of the teachings to be the only valid form. That kind of thinking abounds, but I believe it fails to capture the incredible diversity and richness of human experience.

That said, I deeply agree with the Buddha's teachings to the Kalamas that the teachings must be lived in order to be effective, or even to be assessed for their effectiveness. And the Buddha gave us an incredible variety of tools with which to investigate the nature of mind, body, and human experience. Lately, I have been exploring many more of these early teachings, and living at a monastery where women train to put them into practice. As many of you know, for the past six months I have been in residence at Aloka Vihara, a monastery in the Theravada Forest Tradition in the West. I came here for many reasons, one of which is to fulfill a yearning that I have had for years to live only with other women practitioners.

Reflecting on my experience here, I notice shifts in meditative experience. I notice the way that the body responds with more relaxation and clarity. I notice that my life feels different than it did at other monasteries and practice centers. That it is different and quieter than, say, an urban center is to be expected. 

However, something unexpected happened to me during the extended period of silent practice that is called the Winter Retreat. As with each of the monastics, within the three months of silent Winter Retreat I had the opportunity to sit a "solo" retreat for three weeks. This meant that I lived in the forest, in rustic accommodations called a "kuti," focused exclusively on practice, with no contact with the community other than to see each other in passing once or twice per day. This is a new form of practice for me. Solo retreats are not done in Zen, a tradition that has been my path since I began practicing many years ago.

 The kuti in which I stayed, March 2018

The kuti in which I stayed, March 2018

I chose to begin the solo without any specific plan about how to practice - no schedule, no particular commitment to one style of meditation, bowing, or chanting. The only thing I was sure I wanted to do was to chant "metta." Metta is typically translated as "loving kindness," and chanting metta has been my daily practice for 12 years. The chant of metta is an intention for all beings to be well, happy, free from suffering, and to realize spiritual fulfillment. It is based in the Buddha's teachings on the four sublime abidings or "brahmaviharas," together with compassion, altruistic joy, and equanimity. 

There is much that could be said about the practices of metta and of solo retreat but, for now, I just want to say that each of the three weeks had its flavor. I was a bit surprised at the flavors that I experienced, even after many, many years of practice. The first week had the flavor of remorse. I had feelings of remorse about big things, about small things, about things I had done or said, or things others had done or said that I had been powerless to stop. I sat, and walked, stood still, and lied down with remorse sprinkled throughout the days. However, I was also chanting metta, for myself, for those I had harmed, for those who caused harm, and for my family, students, teachers, and all beings. I chanted and chanted, knowing that this positive intention for the well-being of others and for my own well-being has helped me to cultivate compassion and loving kindness in all the other parts of my life. Slowly the remorse subsided, and I felt much happier.

Then the second week was about the body. In very noticeable ways, my body began to feel more in tune with the forest. I could smell the pines, hear more birds and deer, sense the changes in the air. And I could relax. I was literally standing up straighter, and feeling the small muscles of my face get full and soft. Even though I was sitting many hours each day, I no longer had the pain in my right hip that I had been experiencing for years. All of this also meant that I felt happier and found joy, during times I was sitting and during the other times of the day. The body was finding its own wisdom.

The third week arrived. By then I was feeling comfortable with having no particular rhythm to the days. I would sit as I felt ready, and do walking meditation at other times. Yet I began to notice a pronounced inclination to meditation on the breath entering the body at the nostril, using it as an anchor for concentration. Though I had occasionally had this feeling in the facial area before, I had not made the connection that it preceded the deeper concentration until that moment. The mind inclined itself deeper and deeper into this concentration, experiencing things never felt before.

All of that was fascinating and brought up lots of new areas of investigation for me, but the most important part came a few weeks after the solo retreat ended. One of the other nuns gave me the reference number of a sutta (teaching by the historical Buddha) about one type of dependent origination that can lead to liberation. This was in response to some exploration we were doing in the morning readings. Looking up the sutta, I was deeply moved to find that the 11 steps that the Buddha describes begin this way...

"For a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May freedom from remorse arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that freedom from remorse arises in a person endowed with virtue, consummate in virtue.

“For a person free from remorse, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May joy arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that joy arises in a person free from remorse.

“For a joyful person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May rapture arise in me.’ It is in the nature of things that rapture arises in a joyful person.

“For a rapturous person, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my body be serene.’ It is in the nature of things that a rapturous person grows serene in body.

“For a person serene in body, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May I experience pleasure.’ It is in the nature of things that a person serene in body experiences pleasure.

“For a person experiencing pleasure, there is no need for an act of will, ‘May my mind grow concentrated.’ It is in the nature of things that the mind of a person experiencing pleasure grows concentrated...."    AN11.2

Now, I am not claiming that I have consummate virtue, or that I am half way to complete liberation, or even that I have fully plumbed the depths of this sutta. Still I found this very encouraging. It deepens my confidence in the path of practice that I am following when I can relate my experience directly to teachings that describe a path to freedom. For me, acknowledgment of the gradual nature of a path that leads to sudden moments of life-changing clarity and peace is most realistic.

Though there are others, this description of the path starts with virtue, a vast topic that the Buddha described in various ways. However, for monastics he was very clear about prescribing certain practices that he saw as virtuous, especially forgoing all sexual activity, maintaining frugality about eating and material belongings, and humility.  In my view, this doesn't mean that some other path might not be better for someone else, or even for me at some point in the future. However, for my body and mind of this time and place, this practice is extremely supportive and skillful.

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Given this confidence and many other experiences over the past six months, I have decided to continue on the path of Theravada practice. I want to go forth as an ordained Buddhist nun in this tradition. I have found that the supports I need to walk the path of practice are right here at Aloka Vihara, in the place, the schedule, the people, and the forms. This ordination will be in addition to my precept vows in the Zen tradition, as is typical for Chinese Chan and many other Buddhist lineages.

So I have asked to stay for the long-term and the two nuns who are the founders here, Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta, have been gracious enough to open the door and welcome me. They will be my Theravada practice teachers, and Ayya Sudinna from South Carolina Buddhist Vihara is kind enough to be the “pavattini” or preceptor. That is, she is the nun presiding over the ordination because she has the requisite years of seniority and a generous heart. Typically, there are two one year periods of commitment to training as a novice 10 precept nun, and then one two year commitment of training as a bhikkhuni (a fully ordained Buddhist nun), should one chose to take up the 311 training precepts in full. The 10 ethical and renunciate precepts I will take up as training rules when I go forth on this path at "pabbaja" are:

1.    I refrain from taking the life of any living creature.
2.    I refrain from taking what is not given.
3.    I refrain from any kind of sexual activity.
4.    I refrain from false and harmful speech.
5.    I refrain from consuming intoxicants.
6.    I refrain from eating at an inappropriate time (between midday and dawn).
7.    I refrain from dancing, singing, music, and going to shows.
8.    I refrain from beautification and adornment.
9.    I refrain from lying on a high or luxurious bed.
10.    I refrain from handling money.

The key difference between these precepts and the eight I am currently keeping here at the Vihara is giving up the personal use of money. It means that I become totally reliant on the relationship of mutual support, as the Buddha set it up. And I promise to live so that relationship is communicated through my commitment and my robes. There is something beautiful about the way that everyone involved in this relationship is learning to let go in a variety of ways.

There will be more to write about the precepts as training rules, and the intentions and practices related to each of these. For now, look for an ordination announcement to come soon.

With gratitude to the Blessed One, Shakyamuni Buddha, to Mahatheri Mahapajapati Gotami, the first bhikkhuni, and to my Teacher in the Zen tradition, Ven. Shosan Victoria Austin, and all the skillful Buddhist teachers with whom I have had the good karma to practice, a lifetime of deep bows of appreciation!