Monday, July 30, 2007

Lesson 11 - Don't Embarrass the Buddha

This week I have a special treat for my dharma friends. A Video Dharma talk! I think that many westerners who have not attended dharma talks have an idea of a stiff ritual enviroment but this is not the case usually. Lamas and Dharma instructors usually are very funny people who love to laugh and help you see where you can laugh at yourself. Make no mistake about it though there is good solid dharma here. The person who I have chosen for your dharma talk is a master at this approuch his name is Tsem Tulku Rinpoche he was recognized by His Holiness the Dalia Lama as an incarnation and was instructed by him. I think you will find this a wonderful addition to your dharma instruction. Check back later this week for a look at some of the deities and figures in Buddhism. I will start a series of entries of this subject. The first dieties we will look at are the female deities White Tara and Quan Yin. Enjoy today's dharma talk!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Lesson 10 - Meditation

Today's lesson is on Meditation. I could write a book on this subject but for purposes of this blog I will keep it simple and concise. Meditation can take many forms, walking meditation where practitioners walk in a defined manner while focusing concentration often done in Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. There is Vipassana meditation, a Sanskrit word meaning insight. Samatha which is a calming pacifying meditation popular in many Yoga classes. There are guided meditations with the practitioner focusing on mental visualizations. All good forms of meditation. The meditation I have found most useful in my own life is called Kalibasa in the Shum language of India. It is a technique that I believe with practice anyone can use. I will make the point here that meditation is a skill that must be honed. Many people have commented to me "I can't mind just will not slow down!" This is the case for everyone. Meditation at first is not an easy task. So be patient with yourself and grow into your practice. It will become easier with time. In Buddhism we call this racing of the mental faculties the "monkey mind", I think this term gives an adequate description. The mind is wild and out of control in its state as we normally view it. When you sit down and see how frantic your mind is this is good! You can understand why you might be stressed with all of those thoughts bouncing around uncontrollably in there. The goal of meditation is to witness this and then work to make the mind a calm and peaceful state. You do this by first being aware. When thoughts arise in your meditations look at them like passing clouds. Just notice them and then let them drift away. The mind can be peaceful but the "monkey mind" needs to be trained. Keep at it and the rewards will be great.

What will follow is a structured outline of Kalibasa meditation.

We now come to the practical aspects of meditation. In the beginning, it is best to find a suitable room that is dedicated solely to meditation. If you were a carpenter, you would get a shop for that purpose. You have a room for eating, a room for sleeping. It is best to have a separate room just for the purpose of meditation. If you are fortunate to have this, wash the walls and ceiling, wash the windows. Prepare a small altar if you like, bringing together the elements of earth, air, fire and water or place on your altar those representations of faith that are aligned with you. If it is not possible to dedicate a room to meditation then I would suggest a special area of a room, free from clutter and only used for this purpose. Establish a time for your meditations and meet those times strictly. This is VERY important. There will be days when you just don't feel like meditating. Good. Those are often the best days, the times when we make strong inner strides. The finest times to meditate are six in the morning, twelve noon, six in the evening, and twelve midnight. All four of these times could be used, or just choose one. The period of meditation should be from ten minutes to one-half hour to begin with. Posture is important as well in meditation. By sitting up straight, with the spine erect, we transmute the energies of the physical body. Posture is important, especially as meditation deepens and lengthens. With the spine erect and the head balanced at the top of the spine, the life force is quickened and intensified as energies flood freely through the nerve system. It is best to keep the tongue touching the inside of the front teeth lightly and breathing through your nose. In a position such as this, we cannot become worried, fretful, depressed or sleepy during our meditation. But if we slump the shoulders forward, we short-circuit the life energies. In a position such as this, it is easy to become depressed, to have mental arguments with oneself or another, or to experience unhappiness as the energy flow is restricted. So, learn to sit dynamically, relaxed and yet poised. The full-lotus position, with the right foot resting on the left thigh and the left foot above, resting on the right thigh, is the most stable posture to assume, hands resting in the lap, right hand on top, with both thumbs touching.

The first observation you may have when thus seated for meditation is that thoughts are racing through the mind substance. You may become aware of many, many thoughts. Also the breath may be irregular. Therefore, the next step is to transmute the energies from the intellectual area of the mind through proper breathing, in just the same way that proper attitude, preparation and posture transmuted the physical-instinctive energies. Through regulation of the breath,thoughts are stilled and awareness moves into an area of the mind which does not think, but conceives and intuits.

There are vast and powerful systems of breathing that can stimulate the mind, sometimes to excess. Deep meditation requires only that the breath be systematically slowed or lengthened. This happens naturally as we go within, but can be encouraged by a method of breathing called kalibasa in Shum. During kalibasa, the breath is counted, nine counts as we inhale, hold one count, nine counts as we exhale, hold one count. The length of the beats, or the rhythm of the breath,will slow as the meditation is sustained, until we are counting to the beat of the heart, hridaya spanda pranayama. This exercise allows awareness to flow into an area of the mind that is intensely alive, peaceful, blissful and conceives the totality of a concept rather than thinking out the various parts.

Remember as with any skill practice makes perfect. Give yourself the gift of having a wellspring to draw from and start meditating today. It is beneficial for the soul and as many researchers have noted on the body as well. Only with a calm mind can one practice the dharma. This is why meditation is a corner stone of Buddhist practice. When you start to meditate you will start to experience your TRUE self.


Monday, July 9, 2007

Lesson 9 - The Precepts

This Lesson is probably the most important lesson I will give you. It is the rock from which we Buddhist stand and is hands down the most fundamental of the practices. The Buddhist precepts are a moral code by which we live our lives. When you become a Buddhist you take vows that state you will uphold these precepts. You will see that the precepts are not written in such a way that say "thou shalt..." this is a defining difference in Buddhism which I think sets it apart from many other religious paths. In Buddhism we do not say one MUST do anything...rather we realize that by doing one thing we bring virtuous karma and while doing other things we generate negative karma. So the precepts should be looked at in this manner. What we do has cause and effect, following the precepts insures us that we are generating positive karma for ourselves and the world while avoiding those actions which rain down negative karma on us personally and the world at large. Having said this let us begin learning about the precepts.

We will start with the lay precepts these are the precepts that those of us who are not monks or nuns will follow on our Buddhist path. They are as follows.

1) Refrain from destroying life. We all have life. The universe itself is life. We should not destroy that of which we are a part of. This is the first vow for a good reason. If you do this you will go a very long way in not generating negative karma. This precept is why Buddhist do not eat meat. This precept has some deep implications and I will do my best to try to help you gain a good understanding of this. When you eat meat not only do you generate the negative karma from that action but you also generate a type of karma from the cause of this action. If you did not eat meat then animals would not have to suffer as they do being penned up and slaughtered, there would not be people generating the negative karma of actually killing those animals. So do you see how the action of you eating meat extends itself? If you did not eat the meat there would be no need for the animals to suffer or for people to do a negative occupation such as slaughtering animals. So if you wish to reduce your negative karma this is the one thing that will get you the farthest on that goal. This is also why you will never see a Buddhist kill an insect. ALL life is precious and worthy of us honoring it. Even the tiniest of be careful and don't step on ants! Negative karma is easy to generate.

2) Refrain from taking what is not given. We all have our own place in the world, our own position and property. We should not invade others position or property. So we should not steal.

3) Do not desire too much. We all have desire, but excessive desire is not the origin of happiness. It destroys our composure. Too much desire tends to make our lives very unhappy. This vow is usually interpreted also in regard to relationships. We should live in the morality not to have immoral desires for others. If you are in a relationship it would be considered immoral sexual conduct to desire another. In the monks and nuns vows this is the vow of celibacy.

4) Refrain from Lying. We are living in the universe. The universe is the truth itself. Truth and honesty are bound together. If we want to find the truth we must be honest. If we are not honest we can never find our real situation in the universe.

5) Refrain from intoxicants that cloud ones mindfulness. I have seen in my own Buddhist path this precept interpreted in a few ways so I will explain them to you as such. One school of thought says that this precept was originally intended to refer to not making ones livelihood by selling intoxicants. Other schools of thought say this precept was designed to mean not to partake of intoxicants on religious days. Personally I look at this precept in terms of merit. Of course should you choose a life that does not involve partaking of intoxicants I think you will receive more merit. I think if you partake of alcohol or drugs and attend a ceremony at the temple it would also be very obvious that you would generate great negative karma from the disrespect of this action.

Okay those are the precepts for the lay. If you wish you can vow to take the other additional precepts. All monks and nuns entering the monastery must take these additional vows.

6) Only eat at appropriate times. Which means only eat from sunrise to noon.

7) Refrain from viewing or participating in shows or wearing jewelry. This precept in our modern world relates to not viewing things that disturb our mind. Watching violence on TV. It also relates to not being showy and wearing lots of jewelry in a prideful manner.

8) Refrain from using high luxurious beds. This precept is about humility.

Those are the basics of Buddhist precepts. I will now give you a few more that I feel apply to those Buddhist true to the dharma. These precepts are good for the lay to follow as well and are mandatory for all monks and nuns to follow.

9) Don't discuss failures of Buddhist priest or layman.

10) Don't praise yourself or berate others.

11) Don't begrudge the sharing of Buddhist teachings or other things but share them freely.

12) Don't become angry.

13) Don't abuse the Triple jewels. The Buddha, the dharma, the sangha.

I hope this gives you a good code of moral conduct to follow. If you do these things I assure you, you will generate good karma and stay away from those actions which will create negative karma. I will leave you with one last thought on the precepts. My guru once told me. If you are unhappy with some aspect of your life you should look to the precepts and see which one you are violating. If you are the victim of people talking negative about you, you are talking negative about others. If you are suffering physically maybe you are violating the first precept and causing others to suffer. All of our lives are cause and effect, nothing happens TO us. We generate our own karma. Carefully observing the precepts is a must for all Buddhist who wish to live a good and fruitful life.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Lesson 8 - Emptying Your Cup

Last lesson we talked about temple life and I gave you a resource for audio dharma talks by the tibetan master Gehlek Rimpoche. In this lesson I would like to further give you a taste of the transmission of dharma through a written dharma talk.

As a child I looked forward every week to going to the temple for our weekly dharma talks. It was a chance to learn something that I always found useful in my daily life also I always felt transported to faraway lands as the Geshle would tell these insightful dharma stories...see this is the way that the dharma has been disseminated from the time of the Buddha. These wonderful stories told over and over never changing yet always spot on to any age’s problems, ancient yet modern in their relevance. Please enjoy.

Dharma Talk ~Emptying Your Cup~

One of my favorite stories concerns a Buddhist scholar and a Zen Master. The scholar had an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and was an expert on the Nirvana Sutra. He came to study with the master and after making the customary bows, asked her to teach him Zen. Then, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.

The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, she poured the tea into the scholar's cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, "Stop, stop! The cup is full; you can't get anymore in."

The master stopped pouring and said: "You are like this cup; you are full of ideas about Buddha's Way. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can't put anything in. Before I can teach you, you'll have to empty your cup."

This story is and old one, but it continues to be played out in our lives day-by-day. We are so enamored of our own ideas and opinions and so trapped by our conditioning that we fill ourselves up to the brim and nothing can get in.

The third ancestor in china, Seng Ts'an, said, "Do not search for the truth; only cease to cherish opinions." If we empty ourselves out, let go, and cease to hold on to our views, the truth will come to us.

We Westerners, who cherish our opinions, find this difficult, for we have been brought up to value the rational thought processes above all else; this attitude is deeply embedded in us, for it goes all the way back to Aristotle and forms the basis for much of our way of life, at least as it is taught in our secular public school system.

But Seng Ts'ans's way -- empty yourself of opinions and truth will come to you-- also finds voice in Western culture, not in the mainstream, but in the lives and writings of assorted sages and saints. The Seventeenth-century Catholic poet Angelus Silesius put it this way:

God, whose love and joy
are present everywhere,
Can't come and visit you
unless you aren't there.

The deep peace and fullness that comes from living a spiritual life is not a matter of accumulating knowledge. If we empty our, insight and understanding will come. If not, we go forth into the world with our own ideas and opinions and we see the world through this filter.

Zen Master Dogen put it this way in Genjo Koan:

Acting on and witnessing myriad things with the burden of oneself is delusion. Acting on and witnessing oneself in the advent of myriad things is enlightenment. What this means is that when we approach things carrying our conditioning, ideas, or opinions, our perceptions are colored by them. This is the "burden of oneself" we carry. Unless we can empty ourselves and enter the moment free and open, our perceptions are clouded by delusion, and we can't see things clearly.

For example, if you are repeatedly told as a child, "Don't trust people; they're only out to use you," it may be difficult for you to approach a people openly, with an empty cup. If you have been used by people and have had these opinions reinforced, it will be even more difficult. Conversely, people carry much of what others have told us about our fellow man, what our own experiences have been, what we've read, and what advertising presents us. This becomes part of ourselves. It takes a great effort to unload this burden and see people, as they are when we meet them. To see with the eyes of a sentient being is to see through this filter of the self.

To see with Buddha's eyes is different. The second part of Zen Master Dogen's statement reads, "Acting on and witnessing oneself in the advent of myriad things is enlightenment." The myriad things (all beings) come forth as they are and confirm ourselves as we are. We learn from all beings what we are when we allow them to come forth as they are and see ourselves in their light. Then, as Angelus Silesius says, "God visits us;" we are no longer incomplete but full, with nothing lacking, in Buddhist terms, "awake." Then we see with Buddha's eyes.

If we see with Buddha's eyes, everything is fresh and new, for we receive things with a free and open mind, empty of preconceptions. My master had a way of approaching each encounter freshly, open to what was happening at that moment, with no carry over from what had happened in the past. Whenever he re-connected with people after a bad interaction, he never felt that he was still carrying anything. This was one of his greatest strengths.

Children are also like this. How many times have we seen children arguing and screaming at each other one minute and playing nicely, the best of buddies, the next? They can drop one moment's mental state and move on to the next with little carry-over. In our practice, this is called emptying the cup, cultivating an open mind, one that is able to meet every moment and be filled by it, rather than remaining closed and filling the moment from our own side. This is something we lose when we get older, and something we cultivate in our practice of zazen.

In the story we began with, the master showed the scholar how ideas and opinions about Buddha's way fill our cups and, as a result, we are unable to absorb true teaching when we encounter it. This teaching can come to us in the form of a living master who embodies it in everyday life. When encountering such a teacher, you should, in the words of Zen Master Dogen:

Listen to the teaching without trying to make it conform to your own self-centered viewpoint; otherwise, you will be unable to understand what is said.... Unify your body and mind and receive the Master's teaching as if water were being poured from one vessel into another.

The teaching can also come to us through any being, sentient or otherwise. If we are open to it, if our cups are empty, the water will fill them; if not, the water will flow onto the floor and be lost.

Lesson 7 - Temple Life

Today I would like to share with you a little about temple life. Many westerners learn the dharma by spending much of their time reading about the dharma. This however is not the mode of instruction in the east. Most Buddhist in a traditional setting learn the dharma through their own practices at home and through their involvement in ceremonies and dharma talks given in the temple or shrine. I would like to give you today an insight into that life and prepare you for visiting a temple.

In most temples when you arrive you will notice a main hall where ceremonies take place and where the main altars may be held and surrounding buildings which usually hold monastic living quarters, buildings for secondary deity altars, dining halls and occasionally a public book store or monastery library. The principal image (the most important Buddhist image at the temple) is enshrined in the main temple building. All monasteries/temples are different but if you follow these general rules of protocol you will be fine when you make a temple visit. Upon walking up to the main hall you should see outside the main entrance door a place to put your shoes. Remove your shoes before entering the temple. After taking off your shoes, they should be placed neatly to the side. NEVER enter a temple wearing your shoes. Upon entering the temple doors you will usually see an offertory box. One should always be prepared to leave a monetary offering when visiting a temple. The donation box will either be directly inside the entrance door or adjacent to the altar. Bow twice upon entering the temple door and leave your monetary donation in the box. Now you will proceed to the main altar. Buddhist come to the temple as a part of daily life to make offerings and to pray. So when you walk to the main altar you should always do so in great respect with your palms together in reverence. Once you are in front of the main deity enshrined in the temple or shrine with your palms together touch your forehead (third eye), then your throat, then your heart and bow, this is a sign of respect and is symbolic of clearing the mind, speech and heart, then bow (in Tibetan Buddhism one would fully prostrate on the ground, in Chinese temples what is known as the half prostration where one goes down on both knees and bows is done) but for westerners visiting the temple a deep bow would be acceptable also in some temples or shrines the space available may not permit a partial or full prostration. If there is an offertory box there, people put money inside the box, in some japanese shrines there might be a large corded bell if this is the case ring the bell and offer a prayer. Then stand up straight and respectfully pray again. After that clap your hands together twice to pray once again. In most temples you may also light an offering of incense, which might be on the altar. If this is available light the incense, DO NOT BLOW OUT THE FLAME WITH YOUR BREATH, this is considered unclean so fan the flame out with your hand. Place the incense in the burner. You may then retreat to the temple or shrine floor to meditate or further pray. If you have lit incense it is not polite to leave until the incense has burned completely as this is disrespectful and not safe for the temple. I would like to make a note at this point about the deity or deities’ statues or paintings enshrined in a temple. Many westerners think that Buddhist believe that there is a spirit inside the statue that they are praying to this is most incorrect. No Buddhist thinks there is a spirit inside the statues or paintings; these iconic images are only used as symbols of the attributes of the Buddhas or bodhisattvas. This is not idolic worship in any fashion so please be clear on that. Here are some things NOT TO DO when visiting a temple or shrine. Taking photos inside of buildings, including temples and shrines, is generally prohibited. It is best to refrain from taking photos even at places where it is not posted. Eating and drinking is prohibited inside of most traditional buildings. It is best not to touch sliding doors, pull doors, hanging lattices and other fittings when it is not necessary to do so. Since these cultural properties are merely fitted into their running grooves, not only are they apt to become detached but they might also be damaged as a result. It is also just not acceptable to touch these iconic images this would be viewed as unclean as these items are tended carefully by fully ordained monks and nuns and are not to be touched by the laity. Please refrain from making noise, but rather visit these sacred places in silence. Even if you are not visiting them for religious reasons, you should nevertheless be quiet when viewing them.

If you are visiting a temple for a dharma talk or ceremony you would follow the same rules above then sit quietly on the floor or cushion to await the service. Speaking of dharma talks in giving you a little taste of the temple life I would like to give you a great web resource for dharma talks by one of the leading Tibetan masters Gehlek Rimpoche. Also below you will find a link to Buddha net where you can find a temple or shrine near you. Namaste!

To listen to dharma talk by Gehlek Rimpoche:

To find a temple:

Temples and Shrines are beautiful, peaceful places of worship and I would highly encourage any westerner to visit a temple. You will find that you will be very welcomed and it will certainly enhance your practice to experience Buddhism in its true form.