Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Power of Imagination

Buddhadharma is so much deeper than I had ever imagined...

I have heard that Buddha spoke of 84,000 Dharma "Doors," or approaches to enlightenment, but I had always considered this a gross exaggeration. What I'm finding in my study of Mahayana  is drawing me closer to appreciating the tremendous scope and diversity of the teachings.

My previous experiences with Buddhism were focused on the "flavors" of Japanese and ancient Chinese Buddhism - Nichiren, Shin, and Zen (Chan in Chinese.) The approach to the Dharma of these various schools is what I'd describe as "Protestant." Although they do have their various chants, iconic representations i.e. Gohonzons and Scrolls, they, for the most part focus on the more stark aspects of Buddha's teachings, stripped of many of the rituals and practices found in other schools.


The Nichiren Buddhist approach is focused on drawing out the inherent Buddha nature that is within all living beings through focusing the mind on the meaning of the Lotus Sutra and the practice of venerating its teachings. 

The Shin Buddhist approach focuses on the futility of using our own deluded mind to realize our Buddha nature - perceiving correctly perhaps that we cannot solve our human problems with the mind that creates them. So the focus of Shin Buddhism is not on a particular sutra or scripture, but rather on the source of the sutra - the personification of the source of Buddha's compassion - in the form of Amida Buddha.

Zen, on the other hand, focuses less on the character of Buddha and the Sutra practices - and emphasizes the direct experience of Buddha through self-directed discipline and diminishing of the ego and focuses on transcending the duality of consciousness. It is the iconoclastic approach to Buddhism. It could be said that Zen is to Buddhism what Quakerism is to Christianity.


My latest passion in Buddhist teachings is from New Kadampa Buddhism, which although rooted in Vajrayana - is actually an independent school within Mahayana, based on the teachings of Buddha interpreted by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso - who I think maybe the closest thing to a modern day Buddha - at least an emanation of Buddha. 

What draws me to the New Kadampa approach is the emphasis on using the imagination to change the "wiring" in our thinking - to visualize the mind that we want to obtain - the mind of Bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment.)

The New Kadampa movement is the more Catholic version of Buddhism in that it engages the mind together with the body in a devotional approach to Buddha and his legacy of teachers and masters - all the senses are engaged in practicing the Dharma. It uses prayers to open the heart, mantras to focus the mind, and contemplation to deepen the awareness of the state of the mind. 

I have always found it difficult to meditate on the breath or on a mantra - but adding the visualization of an alternate reality with the imagined emotional states that result - helps to bring about a change in consciousness. 

The path of the Kadampas is a comprehensive approach that uses all of the tools of the mind to bring about the experiences of emptiness, or potentiality of the true nature of reality. It isn't an easy path by any means - actually it is probably not correct to call it a path - because it is really a means to realizing the present reality of Buddhahood that is our true being.

I feel at home with this form of Buddhism. It fits me very comfortably. It offers the perfect balance of inner peace and outward altruism - fueling my good intention of becoming a Buddha for the benefit of all.

"May everyone be happy,
May everyone be free from misery,
May no one ever be separated from their happiness,
May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment."

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Only A Child

"I thought I met a man who said
He knew a man who knew what was going on…..
I was mistaken, only another stranger that I knew 
And I thought that I'd found the light
To guide me through my nights and all this darkness…...
I was mistaken, only reflections of a shadow that I saw 
And I thought I've seen someone
Who seemed at last to know the truth…..
I was mistaken, only a child laughing in the sun, in the sun
- “Laughing,” by David Crosby

Babies are bubbles of love popping up all over the universe

Monday, August 11, 2014

Calm Abiding

I've never felt that I was able to meditate "properly." Meditation always seemed to make my mind more active than ever - so that instead of stilling the mind, it tended to stir up more distractions than ever.

Yesterday afternoon I tried something that's a little different. It is meditation technique or technology that is focused on observing the sensation of the breath as it passes through the nostrils rather than just on counting the breath, which is what is emphasized in a lot of meditation training.

This form of meditation practice comes from  the Tibetan Mahayana traditions and is called "Calm Abiding," or "Shamatha."  

"There are many stages in mental development, but as soon as we are able to maintain the mind in a calm state, at that very moment there is joy and peace. This is reflected in the body becoming relaxed, and then the mind becomes more relaxed. As the mind calms down, the hidden enlightened qualities emerge more and more."

—Venerable Khenpo Rinpoche

In Tibetan Buddhism this form of meditation is a "preliminary practice," a necessary step to moving into deeper contemplation, and is intended to rest the mind so that inherent primordial wisdom can shine through.

Calm Abiding meditation practice over time slows down the rapid-fire process of the mind and we gradually become aware of our natural wakefulness and deep awareness naturally arises.

The practice is very simple:
  1. Sitting comfortably in a solid posture, simply focus attention on the sensation right at the nostrils as the breath comes in and out. 
  2. If you are agitated or distracted, shift focus to the movement of the belly as you breath in and out. 
  3. Try to allow 25% of your attention to the breath and the rest to be open to whatever is happening, i.e. sounds and smells etc.
  4. When it is noticed that a thought arises, don't suppress it, don't follow it, and don't feed it. Just be aware that you are thinking and then gently bring your attention back to your breath without any self talk or "mental gymnastics."
This is a practical method of training the mind to keep coming back to one-pointed attention, so don't be discouraged if you keep getting distracted. This IS the purpose of the practice  - bringing the attention back to one point, time after time.

Focus only on the breath in a relaxed way, consciously experiencing your inhalation and exhalation. Keep being aware as thoughts arise but return the mind to the sensation of the breath. During your meditation periods, this may be as far as you get, but this is very good and has benefits enough to improve your life.

As you continue to practice, your mind will become calm and awareness will start to arise. Gaps may open up between thoughts. As you continue the practice, this periodic pause may increase in length.

The fruit of this practice is the natural realization that the mind CAN be controlled. 

The next step after experiencing this calming of the mind (which may be quite some time - patience is a huge virtue in Buddhist meditation!!!) is to begin "Placement Meditation" - which focuses on a topic for contemplation. 

That's a topic for another day.....or perhaps another life!!!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Eight Steps to Happiness

This morning I visited the Vajrayana Kadampa Buddhist Center in Oak Park.

It wasn’t my first visit - I’d been there several times before.

There is a wonderful, peaceful atmosphere in this small Buddhist meditation space.

It’s the Chicago center of the New Kadampa Buddhist Tradition, founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. The New Kadampa movement has somewhat of a controversial status among Vajrayana, or Tibetan Buddhist practitioners. It has had the reputation of having some cultish behavior amongst some of its top leaders, but, after researching some of the accusations, I tend to think that it was more a case of over-enthusiastic, and over-zealous behavior by a few individuals. I think this happens quite often when an ancient, foreign tradition is adopted by the more rigid, authoritarian western mind. The zealousness that should be focused on personal transformation becomes distorted and directed as disciplinary intentions towards those who are not perceived as being “totally committed.”


Now, there’s a lot of superstitious and religious “clap trap” associated with Tibetan Buddhism - and even more so with Kadampa, because of all the “divine beings” and “holy objects,” and dwelling on the idea of merit and reincarnation etc. I really don’t have much time for all that, and generally find myself tuning out when all the prayers to Je Tsongkapa are going on. In the "Liberating Prayer,” that is chanted at the beginning of the meeting, Shakyamuni Buddha is addressed as the "Supreme unchanging friend,” which puts him right up there as God….which I don’t believe was Shakyamuni’s original intention at all!!!


However, having said that….there is a tremendous power in the “technology” of the teachings of the New Kadampa Tradition, and today’s teaching was focused on directing the mind to the heart of compassion - establishing intention and possibility for indestructible, sustaining happiness.

The teacher this morning was Rafael Valadez, a lay practitioner, who was sitting in for the resident teacher and monk; Gen Kelsang Dorje, (an American monk, originally from New York. But once you direct your vocation to Kadampa - I guess you become Tibetan???) 

Rafael spoke on Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s book “Eight Steps to Happiness. which is based on the beautiful poem, "Eight Verses of Training the Mind" composed by the great Tibetan Bodhisattva Geshe Langri Tangpa.

Geshe Langri Tangpa (AD 1054-1123)
"With the intention to attain
The ultimate, supreme goal
That surpasses even the wish-granting jewel,
May I constantly cherish all living beings. 
Whenever I associate with others,
May I view myself as the lowest of all;
And with a perfect intention,
May I cherish others as supreme. 
Examining my mental continuum throughout all my actions, as soon as a delusion develops whereby I or others would act inappropriately, may I firmly face it and avert it. 
Whenever I see unfortunate beings
Oppressed by evil and violent suffering,
May I cherish them as if I had found
A rare and precious treasure. 
Even if someone I have helped
And of whom I had great hopes
Nevertheless harms me without any reason,
May I see him as my holy Spiritual Guide. 
When others out of jealousy
Harm me or insult me,
May I take defeat upon myself
And offer them the victory. 
In short, may I directly and indirectly
Offer help and happiness to all my mothers,
And secretly take upon myself
All their harm and suffering. 
Furthermore, through all these method practices,
Together with a mind undefiled by stains of conceptions of the eight extremes
And that sees all phenomena as illusory,
May I be released from the bondage of mistaken appearance and conception."
Rafael spent approximately 90 minutes on the application of the first stanza - and, although hard to hear and follow at times, it was therapeutic and transformative.

I could spend my life working on applying these eight verses to my way of life. Their manifestation in our lives would be the realization of enlightenment.

Geshe Kelsang Gyatso sums up the power of these eight verses when he says:

“The path to enlightenment is really very simple - all we need to do is stop cherishing ourself and learn to cherish others.” 
- Eight Steps to Happiness, p. 52

This is the key to enlightenment - the realization of the heart of reality. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Falling into Grace

I have to come clean about my practice of Buddhism. I find myself constantly looking for the appropriate "facts" about Buddhism so that I can justify my practice or beliefs in certain ways of practice. Sometimes I wonder if I'm more concerned about being right than I am about being happy!

I seem to have always been a seeker after truth. But it's not really truth I'm after - it's convenience!!

When I began my spiritual seeking so many years ago - it was happiness that I was really looking for. Not so much looking for answers as to which was the "true" path to follow - but more to find the keys to an indestructible happiness that isn't based on exterior circumstances and emotions.

As part of that process I've tried to find a community, or Sangha, that I could engage in; meaningful conversation, accountability and friendship.

I did find that kind of community a long time ago - when I called myself an Evangelical Christian. For the most part it seemed that I was happier then. But, in general, Christian doctrine has a negative effect on me - it makes me exclusionary and judgemental. I seem to target all of the teachings that isolate me from the rest of the community.

I have to go back to the basics of what I am actually seeking, and as I do that I realize that Shinran Shonin and I have something in common. Not that I can compare myself to Shinran - but at a rudimentary level - I can make the same observations about myself as he did.

"Even though I take refuge in the True Pure Land faith, 
(or in my case the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra) 
It is difficult to have a mind of truth.
I am false and untrue,
And without the least purity of mind.
We men in our outward forms
Display wisdom, goodness and purity.
Since greed, anger, evil and deceit are frequent,
We are filled with naught but flattery.
With our evil natures hard to subdue,
Our minds are like asps and scorpions.
As the practice of virtue is mixed poison,
We call it false, vain practice."

- Shinran Shonin, Shinshu Shogyo Zensho, II, p. 257

Unlike Nichiren, Shinran had no confidence in his ability to fulfill the vows of a Buddhist priest. He declared himself to be most in need of the boundless compassion of Amida Buddha - and therefore, displayed a down to earth approach to embracing the full power of the Dharma.

Like Shinran I seek the warm embrace of grace - the happiness that comes from being totally accepted and loved as you are, complete unconditional love.

The experience of Nembutsu, or contemplating the name of Amida Buddha, the primordial Buddha - i.e. Namu Amida Butsu. Is like swimming in the ocean and surrendering to the natural buoyancy of water - to fall into a boundless grace that needs no response or effort. 

This song by the Christian duo, Out of the Grey, describes this sense of grace perfectly. 

"He couldn't find the words to describe his thoughts
Couldn't paint a picture to illuminate his heart
But I knew what he had seen
He tried to trace the changes that had taken place
I saw them written all over his face
And I knew what he had seen
In the cup of cooling water
In the clouds of soothing shade
In the arms of love encircling him
He saw the shape of grace

There was a time he'd said that he could never believe
In the kind of mercy he did not need
And he drew himself away
It was a broken heart and an endless thirst
That drove him to the love he did not deserve
And he knew what he had found
In the cup of cooling water
In the clouds of soothing shade
In the arms of love encircling him
He found the shape of grace

(What did he find?)

In the cup of cooling water
In the clouds of soothing shade
In the arms of love encircling him
He found the shape
Of grace

In the cup of cooling water
In the clouds of soothing shade
In the arms of love encircling him
He saw the shape of grace

(What did he find?)

In the cup of cooling water
In the clouds of soothing shade
In the arms of love encircling him
He found the shape
Of grace"

- "The Shape of Grace," by Out of the Grey 

However, unlike Christian grace - the grace of Amida is not just salvific in the sense of a future existence that only manifests after this life - it is an immediate awakening to Shinjin, which, although often translated as "faith," is really the experience of a "clear or clarified heart-mind," (Sanskrit: citta-prasāda) - the immediate possession of the enlightened mind of Amida Buddha. 

Shinjin is True-Entrusting. Not just believing, or placing hope in the compassionate vows of Amida - but the attitude and act of completely abandoning all personal efforts to attain liberation. 

Faith in Christianity is putting trust in the work of Jesus to deliver you to eternal life that manifests after death. Shinjin in Pure Land or Shin Buddhism is to experience the total transformation that comes from the experience of living in the immediate joy of reality as it is here and now - embracing each moment and overcoming the anxiety that comes from resistance to things as they are.

This kind of all-encompassing faith IS found in Christian scripture - for example, when St. Paul makes reference to "having the mind of Christ" - Philippians 2:5. This is the experience of Shinjin. Unfortunately, this message of immediate awakening to the mind of Christ seems to have gotten buried under a lot of dogmatic "paperwork" that makes Christianity appear so restrictive and exclusive.

The path of Amida - what I call the "ready baked" path of awakening - is so much more appealing to those of us that are "* morally incontinent," than the often self-righteous path of Christian "growth."

The Buddha spoke often about the principle of taking refuge - and the experience of Shinjin would seem to be the ultimate realization of that.

An expression I heard once from Rev. Patty Nakai - minister at the Buddhist Temple in Chicago, that she used to describe those of us who just cannot "clean up our act" enough to be free of hindrances to our happiness. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Oneness Buddhism

The other day I posted about Gyomay Kubose - the founder of the Buddhist Temple in Chicago. His impact on American Buddhism is relatively unrecognized amongst the various schools - but, he devoted his life to breaking down sectarian barriers that exist not only between other religions, but also between the various sects of Buddhism. Over time, this unique American Buddhism has been designated as “Oneness” Buddhism - because of it’s all embracing, and universal approach.

"I have always dreamed of establishing an American Buddhism - different from Indian, Chinese, or Japanese Buddhism - a uniquely American Buddhism that could be easily understood and practiced by Americans and that would contribute to American life and culture. This Buddhism can be explained in simple, everyday language and practiced in every aspect of our daily life. Yet, it is a unique Buddhist life-way, non-dichotomized and non-dualistic, that will bring about a peaceful, meaningful, creative life, both individually and collectively.” 
- Venerable Reverend Gyomay M. Kubose 

Rev. Kubose set a precedent in incorporating various elements of Buddhism into a simple practice that integrated with daily life - to me it’s like a cross between Shin, Zen and Nichiren. It focuses on the common elements of Buddhism that all schools agree on and doesn’t make dogmatic statements about the necessity of “variables” in the dharma like chanting versus meditation and the finality of authority of this sutra versus that sutra. To net it out I think Rev. Kubose re-discovered the essence of Mahayana - the Bodhisattva vows that proclaim the buddha-hood of all living things.

I must admit that I’d forgotten how beautiful the teachings of Oneness Buddhism are - and how much they transcend all the things that bother me about the more sectarian approaches of each of the other schools, but lately I’ve been re-reading Rev. Kubose’s books and the excellent “daily dharma” book “Bright Dawn” written by Rev. S. Koyo Kubuse - Gyomay Kubose’s son and dharma heir.

Here’s an example of the practical teachings of Oneness Buddhism:

Five Daily Life Guidelines


Eat sensibly and don’t be wasteful.
Pause before buying; see if breathing is enough.
Pay attention to the effects of media you consume.


Consider other people’s views deeply.
Work for peace at many levels.
Spread joy, not negativity.


Respect the people you encounter; they are your teachers.
Be equally grateful for opportunities and challenges.
Notice where help is needed and be quick to act.


Find connections between teachings and your life.
Do not become attached to your conclusions.
Mute your judgmental tongue.


Be open to what arises in every moment.
Cultivate the “Beginner’s Mind.”
Keep going, keep going…

- From website of Volusia Buddhist Fellowship 
(associated with Bright Dawn Center for Oneness Buddhism)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Dharma and Dogma

As a former Orthodox Christian, I often read from various spiritual sources and compare them with what I had been taught to believe about Christianity. 

Reading a little from a selection of writings on the Dharma - I found:

"As a blind man feels when he finds a pearl in a dustbin, 
so am I amazed by the miracles of awakening 
rising in my consciousness. 
It is the nectar of immortality that delivers us from death, 
the treasure that lifts us from death, 
the treasure that lifts us above poverty 
into the wealth of giving to life, 
the tree that gives shade to us when 
we roam about scorched by life, 
the bridge that takes us across the stormy river of life, 
the cool moon of compassion 
that calms our mind when it is agitated, 
the fun that dispels darkness, 
the butter made from the milk of kindness 
by churning it with the dharma. 
It is a feast of joy to which all are invited."

"A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way Of Life" - Shantideva 

I also read from the Bible and stumbled upon this line in Luke 22:3

"And Satan entered into Judas......" 

From the context of this passage the implication is that the biblical Satan is a lot more accessible than God!

In Christian teachings it is believed that Satan only enters a person if invited.

Would this not also be true of God?

And if Satan can enter a person and cause them to do evil, in effect, changing their nature - cannot God do the same thing for good?

Apparently in Christianity, not only can God not come into a person unless invited - but the invitation is only fulfilled through a baptism and the partaking of consecrated bread and wine...and (in Orthodoxy), this can only happen after a significant amount of time as a Catechumen!!


It would seem that if it is God's desire that the world be saved and transformed - he could have entered thousands of women and given birth to thousands of saviors, or he could have entered Adam and transformed him - thus flooding the world with his presence. The Christianity that I once believed no longer makes sense to me - I must have been stunted mentally when I embraced this "crazy" belief.

Of course there are "crazy" beliefs in Buddhism too - I have to admit that chanting "Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo" over and over seems at least a little crazy....but I find that chanting increases my awareness of the power of my humanity. I am encouraged by the practice - it makes me happy. I am not dogmatic about it - although I was at one time. I'm realizing that it's not so much what you believe that transforms you - it's how you act upon that belief, and how it influences your life that really matters.

If Christianity is true - then it does not matter whether we believe in it or not - God has come to the earth and transformed humanity. If the transformation is only real if we believe it, then reality becomes conditional, which is a ridiculous concept. Christianity is based on believing that Jesus rose from the dead - which cannot be experienced - even if logically proven.

We cannot dispute that Buddhism is true, regardless of what we believe about the Buddha. Because Buddhism is a practice to realize yourself - it is not a means of salvation from punishment. The punishment is found in the very fruit of our actions. This is not a matter of debate - it's what really happens everyday in our can be experienced.


I'm not saying that Christianity is false - I'm just saying that it is a belief system based on an accepted reality. Buddhism is the observation and experience of reality as it is. It is a system of practice and not just a set of beliefs. The practice of Buddhism confirms the beliefs. While the practice of Christianity does not really confirm the reality of the confessed creed.

The bottom line for me is that Christianity does not make me happy - it makes me angry and discontent. While Buddhism encourages and affirms me and I am a happier person when I practice it.

With all the good things that are happening in my life; (new grandchild, good report from the doctor about my health, and a fair amount of security in my career) happiness is the way of the future for me. I need to focus on it more and spread the good news of it to everyone. Not to convert them to Buddhism - but to reveal that Buddhism works for me.

SHOTEN-ZENJIN (Abiding Benevolence of Life)

I chant Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo with a spirit of gratitude to the positive forces in the universe - called the Shoten-Zenjin in Nichiren Buddhism. The definition of Shoten-Zenjin is interesting:

"The gods that protect the correct Buddhist teaching and its practitioners. Gods who function to protect the people and their land and bring good fortune to both. Heavenly gods and benevolent deities is a generic term for the Buddhist pantheon that includes Brahma, Shakra, the four heavenly kings, the Sun Goddess, the gods of the sun and moon, and other deities. Many of these gods and deities were traditionally revered in India, China, and Japan. They became part of Buddhist thought as Buddhism flourished in those areas. Rather than primary objects of belief or devotion, Buddhism tends to view them as functioning to support and protect the Buddha, the Law, or Buddhist teachings, and practitioners."

- From "The Soka Gakkai Dictionary of Buddhism"

In more generic terms, I think that Shoten-Zenjin is a kind of anthropomorphism of the benevolent force of nature in the Universe that tends towards the support of life.