“In the end, it’s not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away” – Shing Xiong

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

wandering mind

A bagger at the grocery store asked me what kind of nun I was the other day. I told her simply “Buddhist.” “Cool” she said. I reflected on how I had thought that ordination represents a different lifestyle option for westerners, western women in particular. It was what I had hoped for, sisterhood and intentional living. Later that night I thought what does it mean anymore? I thought about the evolution, the changes over time in what I consider the vocation to be. So what does it mean today? Recently during a class a professor had made a comment about who would want to take an oath of poverty or chastity today. One of those Freudian slips in the form of a bad joke, actually it is his habit to make those jokes but it was not common for him to have people like me in his class. Reminded me of similar japes during a community emergency response training class I had taken earlier in the year.  It seemed so odd because I had done so and believe it worthwhile. Was I so unusual? No, at least one other in the class had spoken to me of considering ordination in their past. And I am over fifty now, have had that life that he thinks so desirable, and am glad to have left it behind.

So what does it mean to me today to be a Buddhist nun?  I object to the word nun. It’s a catholic term, and incorrect. Buddhist is even incorrect. So first there is a constant awareness of semantics, the impact of language upon understanding and expectation. External communication. There is also a constant awareness of mind and body, awareness of opinion and wants. Internal communication. Extroversion and introversion, WaiGuan and NeiGuan, interaction and integrity are the daily fields of play. Mind and body are one word in Pali, the language of the Theravada Buddhist canon. The separation in English is not without benefit to us because awareness should be evaluated and exercised in both. This is Discernment, the third division of the Noble Eightfold Path which includes Effort, Mindfulness and Stillness.

When I spoke of my intention for seeking refuge to a certain monk many years ago I said I wished to do no further harm, to benefit others, and to increase the good in the world. He seemed offended and I didn’t know why until later I learned that those are the three pure precepts in that tradition. I think he thought I was not being authentic, he could not read the feeling in me, the Qi. Nevertheless, I had struggled to bring the words to describe my true intent. This is the third daily awareness, intention, the reason for every action. And when the actions are not in keeping with the intention then the practice is to return again to the intention and release, let go and begin again with kindness.

So these are the three daily practices that mean I am a Buddhist nunk: language or speech, awareness or discernment and intention or understanding. Each is nestled in the three roots of happiness with persistence and attention. Repetition keeps me busy and is the primary expense. I think today the practice will continue to death and beyond, as it does to sleep and beyond, sometimes it’s a burden and sometimes it’s a great friend. Nunk is not a typo, it’s a new word that is not gender specific, that can be humorous, that lovingly more simply says this one has resolved to remain chaste and not seek wealth but rather to bring benefit to all as clearly as able.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ven. Dr Karuna Dharma

This dear one has gone from this life and I will not see her again as she was. She showed us great kindness and gave us the Boddhisattva vows that mean everything to us since receiving them. At the Grand Ordination which she presided over and at which we were ordained,  her presence calmed that air like any wise adult  taking charge of a gaggle of children. When she perceived that the ordination itself was anticlimactic she suggested the Boddhisattva Vows to us and we accepted knowing full well the reality of the power and challenge involved. I felt then the knocking on the doors of the ages and multiverses and still do. When that occurs it is not just this lifetime that affected, it is all. How marvelous to be in touch with that now and forever. Another thing I recall was her concern for me, that I not be too hard on myself, she told me " you can have a cookie in the evening you know...it's ok." She also accepted us for the noble friends we are and saw the benefit outweighed the hardship. I have so often thought of her and her kindness and will always be grateful to have had her be a grandmother to me.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


In the weeks just following midterms there is time to roam and good fortune brings me roaming to Ayya Khema's talks. Once upon a time Hirosan listened to Ajahn Brahm when we went out but these days she listens to Ayya Khema, so she is often in my heart and after midterms I replaced lectures and questions from classes with her talks on meditation in my MP3 player. What a pleasure. Paralleling that, the next monastic gathering of western buddhists has been on my mind. I would dearly like to go and make some friends among the monastic community, because there is a chance of some common ground and mutual support. Venerable continuously reminds me that I am a monastic, that the similarities outweigh the differences within the Sangha, and reassures me that I am doing well. We focus on practical daily events withing the context of Dhamma and work is done within where ever you go, it would not be different had we managed to find a monastery to live in. In doing research for the previous post's paper I came across another reassuring tidbit, and am grateful to Ven. Master Hsing Yun for bringing it to light and Ven Kusula Bhikshu for posting it.

From Buddhism, Medicine, and Health ...Ven. Master Hsing Yun http://www.blia.org/english/publications/booklet/pages/37.htm
“VI. The Contribution of Monastics to Medicine:
In India, most monastics are well educated in the five sciences, especially in medicine, which they are required to study.  Because knowledge of medicine is mandatory for monastics, throughout Buddhist history there are many well-known monastic physicians, medical scholars, and medical texts.  For example, in the Buddhist sutras, we find countless references to and discussions about medicine.  Evidence also demonstrates that Buddhism has made a significant contribution to the world of medicine not only through the development of respectable health theories and principles but also through actual practice.  While by no means an exhaustive list, the following are brief accounts of Buddhist masters who have stood out in the history of Buddhist medicine.”

a paper in progress

AE research paper for extra credit

Contrasting Altruism In The Buddha Dhamma and Taoist Curriculum

Quote from Dr. Chan’s first lecture: “opening the door to question of ethics and intention – one of differences between Buddhism and Taoism is that Buddhists tend to say we are here to help other people while Taoists tend to say we have to respect everyone’s autonomy and if we are given permission to help we can help but otherwise we back off. The Dalai Lama is very clear about we are here to help people but Taoists viewpoint is that the suffering or illnesses we have, the lifestyle we have that creates those things are part of our karma and lesson process and when a person asks for help then we have permission to come in and say this is our viewpoint this is what we think. We don’t want to interfere with someone’s destiny or their sovereignty.” 

I have a personal agreement with what is said to be the Taoist viewpoint here and had not investigated whether that was in keeping with the Dhamma. I was moved to look for the Buddha’s words and commentaries regarding generosity and wisdom that would expand on previous studies. Upon investigation I found that the Dhamma is presented in a way that does not align directly with the Taoist belief in a curriculum but gradually revealed a symmetry between them. The Dhamma supports altruistic intention while instructing the practitioner how to gain insight and lose attachment to prevent causing harm. Generally there is a mass of reporting on those who sought and received assistance but never have I seen a reporting of the Buddha pushing Dhamma on anyone or advocating that. When speaking to Anjulimala the Buddha persisted in the face of threats but did so at the behest of those in fear of the murderer and it was his lack of fear that lead the killer to turn toward him, but until he did so the Buddha made no other effort than to remain unafraid.
From the Anjulimala Sutta, MN 86: “Who once was heedless, but later is not, brightens the world like the moon set free from a cloud.”

The purpose of the Buddha Dhamma is to relieve suffering thereby creating true happiness. Subtract one thing and its opposite will arise. Suffering is caused by attachment to some desired outcome, so if the attachment can be released we do not suffer from it and are free to be happy. This is the fundamental teaching of the Buddha: There is suffering (lack of happiness). The reason for suffering is attachment to desires. There is a way to end suffering, it is possible in this lifetime, right now – the prognosis is good. The Noble Eightfold Path is the prescription to follow to correct suffering.

 The Four Noble Truths outlined above are given in a formulaic manner familiar to those listening at the place and time they were given. Physicians of the day would state the diagnosis, cause, prognosis and treatment for someone who came to them seeking assistance.

False happiness is quickly lost, occurs at someone’s expense or has drawbacks attached, which create further suffering down the road. True happiness invigorates without dispersing, is beneficial to all and has a quality that lasts and causes concrete changes. The difference between the two has to be appreciated or we go astray.

Not one part of the Dhamma can be useful independent from the rest, the formula must be taken in its entirety. Because of difficulties in translation and communication all teachings must be evaluated in contrast with the whole. The various traditions and schools of Buddhism all share the Four Noble Truths so that is the basis for comparison. Centuries of dissemination and commentary have both clarified and muddied the doctrine and the discipline. Care must be taken to practice and speak from that experiential wisdom rather than from intellectual analysis.

 The three roots of happiness (the opposite of suffering) are compassion, generosity and wisdom – these cannot function independently and each must be cultivated with practice. The Noble Eightfold Path describes the path of practice. Buddhism is an experiential practice not intellectual. Wisdom (more clearly stated as Discernment) is developed through meditation. Meditation is a practice different from contemplation; it begins with a discipline that leads to Stillness. When Stillness is achieved the mind is no obstacle to Discernment and the path to true happiness is perceived. The active following of this path known as the Jhannas or Four BrahmaViharas or the Measureless States is Meditation. When meditation is practiced Discernment develops effortlessly.

Mindfulness or ‘present moment awareness’ is practiced on and off the cushion, 24/7 and is not focused on external phenomena but on the mind itself: our interface with existence. The mind is like a terrier that continuously challenges its caretaker for authority, it thinks it knows best and responds to desires with fearsome wit and power but ultimately is foolish and only a tool or assistant to the one free from attachment. As Discernment is developed in meditation it is utilized in Mindfulness and perceptions can be contemplated through an unclouded lens that was previously marred by attachments.

Attachment to desires is also called sticking, clinging, holding, grasping. This causes obstruction or stagnation and is clearly seen in diseases with accumulation of substances such as Qi, Blood and Body Fluids. Desires are sometimes wrongly accused of being the root of suffering but desire is nothing more than motivation that moves us through life, leading us to explore and create. It’s our attachment to our desires that causes suffering. When our attachment to a desire or opinion is released suffering is relieved.

Attachment is cultivated, maintained and promoted through the telling and retelling of our stories. We tell ourselves and are agreed with, sympathized with. We tell our friends and families and get the same response or another response that inflames us just as well. What does inflammation do? It stabilizes, solidifies, restricts movement ostensibly to aid in healing but so often is the source of pain and limitation. This inflammation is prized and rewarded with association and identity that serve to make us feel safer. All safety is a delusion created by the urge to survive, but as Ayya Khema says that is a forlorn hope, the only written guarantee we can get is that none of us is going to survive. We are not here to survive though so much of our energy is spent striving to. Every one of us dies.

So why do we live as though we are not going to die? Why do we live in denial and delusion? Why is it so painful for most of us to contemplate death and loss? Because of attachment and this can be lessened, diminished, gradually released and let go of. As stated above when one thing is released its opposite grows to balance the energy. That is the practice of the Buddha Dhamma. It is a constantly spiraling teaching that returns again and again to the simple truths found in practice but obscured by intellect. Intellect often wants to create regulation and rules that appear to clarify but in fact hide the truths discovered in practice. This is often the outcome of so many of the commentaries, serving to keep the reader in their head and out of practice, or in the practice of rites and rituals rather than the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha taught that a human life is a rare and precious thing, as rare as a single grain of sand amid a vast beach of other possibilities. In this form we have so many advantages that can bring us to enlightenment if we do not squander it. But never did he say he could do it for us, or that we could do it for another. He could explain the gradual path, the middle way, so that some were convinced to try for themselves but he did not convert everyone, and taught that there are only a few with little dust in their eyes who could see. The Buddha was not judgmental, nor callous, not coercive and not threatening, he did not use fear or punishment as a means to gather followers or control disciples. Rather he taught that the Dhamma evoked reality, should be tested out and if not useful then set aside. The discipline he demonstrated was based on the Dhamma, the Noble Eightfold Path. The guidelines that were later codified were created as conditions arose and were never to be used to elevate one above the other but to bring harmony and further the practice that would lead to happiness.

The Discernment that is gained through practice does not allow one to impose ones’
opinion on another. That is what would happen if one attempted to help another without their asking for help. No one knows what another needs most. Like the cartoon of the boy scouts helping the old woman across the street while she shrieks that she doesn’t want to go that way. But that is what boy scouts are supposed to do, be helpful, help old ladies cross the street! This is not the help the Dalai Lama advocates, service is the path of compassion and generosity but without wisdom we could cause further harm. What if we are asked to serve someone who practiced a wrong livelihood per the Dhamma, they asked –should we not help them? Not if their intention is based in the Three Poisons: anger, greed or delusion (which would include fear and righteousness). Can we serve or help the poor by giving? Perhaps, but if what we give causes suffering, enables an addiction for instance, have we helped? No. What if we discern that what someone needs is to be looked in the eye and greeted “good morning” with respect and friendliness and we do that - have we helped? Probably, but there is no blanket statement that can be applied to all situations. Perhaps what would have given the most benefit to all would have been a direct challenge to their behavior. Every moment must be lived with attention and enthusiasm for the richness inherent in the experience right then because we can never “know” we can only choose to act from a place cultivated through Generosity, Compassion and Discernment.

Our speech, action, livelihood can be guided by compassion, generosity and wisdom melded together in practice. During this melding we are in such good shape that we are impervious to harm, as a piece of metal being shaped by a smith on a forge, the heat, the hammer and the skill of the smith keep out imperfections, inclusions and impurities. See the Junha Sutta. Afterward the implement is tempered and strong, flexible yet obdurate so that it can accomplish the task it is designed for. This is the health achieved by Buddhist practice. It cannot be given to another; we must each achieve it for ourselves. This does not mean we should hide away and focus solely on private hermitage. That can be a portion of our life but not the whole, assisting others when grounded in the Three Roots of Happiness brings such happiness that our treasure is multiplied exponentially. So if another requests the Dhamma, requests assistance with anything that our stilled, composed and opened mind can discern is beneficial then we are able to give in a way that is limited only by the receiver, they get what they want and we get what we want, truly, fundamentally, unconditionally.

We create our own suffering. A human body will experience pain in some manner and measure that is inevitable. Suffering is entirely different. Unless pain is labeled as negative and associated with fear it does not cause suffering. Attachment to function, identity, and sensation is the basis of fear and negativity. We have expectations that outline our attachments in brilliant contrast to reality and this is where pain is enhanced by emotional baggage. It is efficient to simply focus on the positive, excluding the negative. To practice Gratitude and Appreciation and to do this now, before catastrophe so we are conditioned to them when difficulty arises.

Challenges, difficulties, traumas, catastrophes and disasters are experiences that rouse our spirits and kickstart our practice. When we see them as such then the silver lining appears and we release the delusion that our daily lives and ambitions are in keeping with the nature of reality. The nature of reality is that we all have only a short time here, our potential is limited only by our imagination and our conditioning. We don’t have much of a map or a clue but the Buddha has given us the first part of the puzzle. If we can follow the practice more becomes clear. It is a worthwhile act because it holds the promise of transcending the mundane. Many of us have beheld a hint of what the sacred holds beyond the mundane, the expansive possibility that fills the sails and encourages us to seek for more. It is up to each of us to do our best to pursue the course. But the course is not solitary or divergent; our interaction with others forms the course itself.

Our intention is the potential energy in our tank. Intention is the evidence Karma decides on. If we intend to harm but restrain or divert that action we still suffer, if we do not intend to harm but accidentally cause pain and suffering to occur then we are not culpable but only an instrument of the others’ own Karma. We need have no more than intention to help another. We can offer goodwill and beneficence and others can take it as they will or not. No harm comes from that offering. But if we decide to make the world right in our light, then we are acting without wisdom and doing at least ourselves harm.

There are parables in Buddhism that are valued in all traditions and one of the best and most commonly known is the one about the Farmer. This old grandmother has a small farm. One day a horse wanders in, lost and stray. The neighbors find out and say “what good luck!” Grandma says “maybe.” The horse becomes part of the farmyard and one day her grandkid takes it out riding. The horse gets spooked and throws the kid who breaks a leg. The neighbors find out and say “what bad luck!” Grandma says “maybe.” A war breaks out between local gangs and the kid is called to come fight but can’t because of the broken leg. The neighbors find out and say “what good luck!” Grandma says “maybe.” The neighbors find out and say “what bad luck!” Grandma says “maybe.”  The neighbors say “what good luck!” Grandma says “maybe.”  The neighbors say “what bad luck!” Grandma says “maybe.” Grandma’s wisdom is what we all need to cultivate to discern the benefit or harm available in any situation.

When a challenge like illness comes on a person there may be a hidden benefit that they are unaware of, or fully aware of. It is not for another to judge, but to perceive and possibly share if in keeping with the guidelines for Right Speech. Life is mysterious; we can only take in this moment. But we can prepare for this moment by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha who sought to end suffering did not become a physician but Awakened and became a Buddha to teach the Dhamma. Nevertheless he gave care when it was needed and offered Dhamma as requested when that care had accomplished healing to the point at which attention could be given. Through actions and teaching the Buddha advocated for us to maintain health attentively so that the practice will benefit, recognizing that mind and body are one. We are responsible for maintaining well-being so that we get the most mileage for the practice out of the body and mind we have. It is within the guidelines of Right Livelihood to be a healthcare provider, and the ordained can have another livelihood if the place, time and culture they exist in allows and would benefit from it and they choose to do so.

As I understand it the Buddha Dhamma shows how to live so that all benefit and move toward a happiness that “surpasses understanding.” We humans are not here to deliver a promise or build a better world because we are not equipped for that, we are here to be better people so that we cause no more harm than we already have either intentionally or not; to benefit all beings through the ripple effect by increasing our awareness and cultivating the Three Roots of Happiness: compassion, generosity and wisdom. And so we deliver on the promise and build a better world without grandma winding up on the wrong side of the street.