“I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.”

—Thích Nhâ’t Hạnh

Miracle

A Fragment from My Morning Pages

The sun was shining when I first sat down, and how it’s already overcast. That’s okay. There’s a beauty in shadow just as there is in full sun. How I love life!

I was going to write, “How I love MY life,” but then I realized that “I” have nothing to do with this feeling. It’s not about me or mine. There’s no sense of possession here.

In fact, there’s no “I” to be experiencing it. It’s just the naked experience.

Life.

Love.

Ah…! Yes.

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Bodhi Day: Celebrating the Buddha’s Enlightenment

Buddha’s Enlightenment Day celebrates the result of Siddhartha Gautama’s search to understand himself. In Buddhist tradition, it is the most important day of the year. It is celebrated on December 8th each year.

During the week preceding the celebration, Zen Monasteries around the world hold their most strenuous retreat of the year. In some cases, they do not even stop to sleep for the whole 7 days.

The significance of Bodhi Day lies with the Buddha and his universal peace message to humanity. As we recall the Buddha and his Awakening, we are immediately reminded of the unique and most profound knowledge and insight which arose in him on the night of his Enlightenment. This coincided with three important events which took place, corresponding to the three watches or periods of the night.

During the first watch of the night, when his mind was calm, clear and purified, light arose in him, knowledge and insight arose. He saw his previous lives, at first one, then two, three up to five, then multiples of them: ten, twenty, thirty to fifty. Then 100, 1000 and so on. During the second watch of the night, he saw how beings die and are reborn, depending on their Karma, how they disappear and reappear from one form to another, from one plane of existence to another.

During the final watch of the night, he saw the arising and cessation of all phenomena, mental and physical. He saw how things arose dependent on causes and conditions. This led him to perceive the arising and cessation of suffering and all forms of unsatisfactoriness, paving the way for the eradication of all taints of cravings. With the complete cessation of craving, his mind was completely liberated. He attained to Full Enlightenment.

This wisdom and light that flashed and radiated under the historic Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya in the district of Bihar in Northern India, more than 2500 years ago, is of great significance to human destiny. It illuminated the way by which humanity could cross from a world of superstition, hatred, and fear to a new world of light, true love, and happiness.

How to Celebrate Bodhi Day

The best way to honor Bodhi Day is by simply increasing your meditation period on or near December 8th. You may want to read a Dharma book or chant a text instead, or in addition to your meditation. You may also want to do some volunteer work or make a charitable donation around this time.

But there are also ways to make the day more festive.

You can bring your own bodhi tree (a ficus tree of the genus ficus religiousa) into your home and decorate it. Multi-colored lights symbolize the interconnectionednesss of all things. Three shiny ornaments represent the Triple Jewel of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. ​

You may wish to have a meal of rice milk, which is what Sujata offered the Buddha to nurse him back to health prior to his enlightenment.

Children are particularly welcome at Bodhi Day ceremonies, as they are given an opportunity to offer flowers to the Buddha. You can celebrate with your kids at home by making cookies in the shapes of trees or leaves. Since the bodhi tree’s leaves are heart-shaped, you may already have suitable cookie cutters on hand.

Happy Bodhi Day!

 

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Coming Down from the Mountaintop

I live a very quiet life. My home is in the suburbs. I no longer “work” except as a Zen Priest and a Reiki Master. I don’t have to commute in traffic. And I spend virtually all my time around adults. 

​So when “Auntie Sandy” got pressed into service on a weekend trip helping to watch two 10-year-old nephews and a 2-year-old niece, it was a real test of my practice.

I love all three of these kids. They’re each terrific. None of them are bratty or particularly challenging on their own. But I have (1) no experience as a parent, and (2) not much maternal instinct. So I felt like I was flying blind.

Combine that with the fact that the whole thing just kind of grew organically – without the parents communicating their expectations to me or their kids – and we were all a little unclear on the limits of my authority. Luckily, as I said, these are great kids, and none of them back-talked me or refused to obey. (Though I sensed the boys were considering their options!)

One thing I found very effective when dealing with all three of them was saying “Please” and “Thank you.” When Nephew #1 (we’ll call him N1) refused to get out of his swim trunks to go hiking with the family, I said, “N1, please don’t be difficult. We’d like to do this as a family, and we want you along.” And I got cooperation, albeit a bit grudgingly. Once he was dressed and ready to go, I thanked him; and I was rewarded with a bright smile.

What does this have to do with meditation or Buddhism? Everything.

My meditation practice has taught me to pause before I react. And my Buddhist training as allowed me to remember I love these kids and want them to be happy. I’m not trying to force them into submission, I’m trying to express my compassion and understanding. I got that N1 didn’t want to go on this hike. But family trips mean we all give a little so we can enjoy each other’s company. Once I understood his point of view, I could help him see ours. And what could have been a contest of wills was peaceably resolved.

Nephew #2 made the critical error of making fun of the baby when she spilled some popcorn on the carpet. After his third or fourth snarky remark, my niece’s mom, N2’s other aunt, made him go clean it up while she was cleaning up after lunch. I stayed out of the fray for a while, then went to help him. There was a lot of “It’s not fair!” and “I’ve done more than anyone else!” He tried to leave once, claiming he was done, but I calmly told him that we weren’t done while there was still a mess. He and I worked together a little longer, he settled down, and I let him out of the rest.

Here’s where the Middle Way comes in: backing up N2’s other aunt while not making N2 work so hard that he became resentful of his little cousin. He was nice to her the rest of the trip, so I think we struck the right balance.

I’m coming away from this trip with a whole new respect for parents!

And a renewed gratitude to this practice that allowed me to remain calm and sane in the midst of life’s chaos.

In the words of Somerset Maugham, “It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.”

~ Rev. Dr. Jabo Prajna

Posted in The Spiritual Life, Zen Buddhism

The Meditation Habit

I’m currently re-reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Bodhisattvas.” No, wait, it’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey. But this time, I’m reading it as Bodhisattvas, and it works great that way!

Covey says that a habit is formed by the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. As I was listening to this section (okay, I’m actually listening to it on audiobook rather than reading it), I wondered how to apply it to meditation. This is what I came up with.

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Knowledge

Knowledge of meditation answers the questions “What?” and “Why?”
So what is meditation, anyway? Here’s a great answer from buddhanet.net: “Meditation is a conscious effort to change how the mind works. The Pali word for meditation is ‘bhavana’ which means ‘to make grow’ or ‘to develop’.”

In Zen, we sit without a goal. If we have a goal, we set ourselves up for disappointment, and then, suffering. But if we could have a purpose without getting attached to the outcome, it would be to pay attention to our mind moment-to-moment.

As for the “why” of it, you probably already have some good ideas on this question or you wouldn’t be reading this. Just yesterday, a new study came out showing that meditation can alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder in active-duty military members. (Read more about that here.)

It’s long been known that meditation helps us to slow down, relax, and be calmer. Scientists have confirmed that meditation changes the physical structure of the brain, leading to greater happiness:

“As we showed in ‘Super Genes,’ actually meditation changes your gene expression so within one week of meditation you see a 40 percent increase in the enzyme called telomerase, which is an anti-aging enzyme,” said [Deepak] Chopra, who co-authored the book “Super Genes” with Dr. Rudolph Tanzi. (Read the story here.)

And in keeping with the Bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism (of which Zen is a part), when we’re happier, we tend to be kinder to others, which makes them happier, so they’re kinder to others, and so on, and so on, and so on…

Skill

Skill in meditation answers the question “How?”

Sometimes it seems that there are as many ways to meditate as there are people on earth! Here’s a simple one, called “Mindfulness of Breathing.”

Pay attention to your breath. Notice where you feel it moving in your body: your nose, upper lip, throat, chest, stomach – there’s no one answer here; it’s where you feel it. Once you’ve felt it, just keep paying attention. That’s it. When you’re breathing in, be aware that you’re breathing in. When you’re breathing out, be aware that you’re breathing out. When you pause after you inhale or exhale, be aware that you’re pausing.

Simple, right? Certainly. Easy? Well, we call it practice for a reason.

Here are some more tips to keep your thinking mind occupied with your breath. You can count your breaths. Start over when you reach 10, or when you catch yourself thinking. You can recite a mantra silently to yourself as you breathe. Breathing in, ask “What is this?” Breathing out, answer “Don’t know.”

When thoughts come, and they will, gently release them and return your attention to your breath. You might think the word “thinking” to yourself, labeling the thoughts as you let them go. Don’t go into any more detail, like labeling the type of thought, or you’re just indulging in more thinking!

Desire

So now we know what meditation is, why it’s good for us and the world, and how to do it. But if we’re not sufficiently motivated to get our butts on the cushion, none of that matters.

Desire, for me, comes down to motivation. Here are four things that motivate the hell out of me. See if one or more of them works for you.​

This Precious Human Existence

Many people think that this merely means they were born human this time around – and if you don’t believe in rebirth, this isn’t terribly motivating. But it means far more than that. This precious human existence refers to the fact that you have encountered the Dharma and are capable of understanding it. Think of how many billion people alive today don’t have that advantage.

The Impermanence of Life

As a cancer survivor, this is the one that really gets me. As Pema Chodron asks, “Since the fact of death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain, what’s the most important thing?” It probably isn’t checking Facebook.

The Defects of Samsara

“Samsara” refers to our cyclic existence of birth, death, and rebirth. And the defects are ways that life can suck. We suffer when we’re born; we suffer when we die. And in between, we suffer from illness and aging. We suffer when things change; we suffer when they stay the same. Luckily, meditation helps break our clinging to wanting to have things our own way. We crave less, and therefor suffer less.

Cause and Effect

Ah, karma, let’s not forget you. What goes around, comes around. You want to be surrounded by people who love you? Love other people. You want to have less drama in your life? Stop being a drama queen. You want to live an abundant live? Give generously. You get the idea. Meditation shows us what’s really important. Over time, we come to live our values. And then karma takes care of itself.

The Meditation Habit

Let’s put it all together. You have the knowledge of what meditation is and why it’s a good practice. You have the skill of how to do it. And, hopefully, you have the desire or motivation.

So get busy. It’s no accident that Lent is 40 days long. That’s how long it takes to form a new habit. (Sorry, one month doesn’t cut it for many people. Plan on 40 days.) In the beginning, you may need to experiment with what time of day to sit, where to sit, and for how long. The answer is whatever you’ll stick with. But do stick with it for 40 days.

Meditation has changed my life for the better, as well as the lives of billions all over the world and for thousands of years. If, after 40 days of sincere practice, you’re not completely satisfied, your suffering will be cheerfully refunded!

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Connections

This evening, one of my Zen students brought me a dozen eggs – from her chickens! I used to have a student who brought me kale and other produce from her garden.

I love this sort of “dana” (generosity). It makes me feel connected to the priests and monks of generations past, who received food offerings rather than money. It makes me feel connected to those priests and monks in other parts of the world, who still receive such offerings.

This type of connection is wonderful for our practice. When we chanted the Heart Sutra tonight, we discussed the fact that it’s been chanted for over a thousand years, by countless Buddhists. And that somewhere on the planet, other Buddhists were chanting it at the same time we were.

It’s the same reason I encourage people to say “we” in the Four Great Vows, even when reciting them at home by themselves. We’re never truly alone. We’re all part of the larger whole, and that never changes. So “together action” is always appropriate.

All this is part of the maha-sangha, the greater spiritual community. Even when we’re practicing by ourselves, others are practicing elsewhere. If not others in our Zen order, then other Buddhists. If not other Buddhists, then other spiritual people. We can feel that connection every time we practice, if we just remember to do so.

Don’t take my word for it; try it for yourself. The next time you meditate, chant, or read a Buddhist sutra, think about your connection to all the other people practicing at the same time. Remember all those who have practiced through the years. Feel the connection to them. Remember the interconnectedness of all beings. Then practice with the sangha.

~ Rev. Jăbō

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Posted in Zen Buddhism

The Buddha’s Daily Routine

The Buddha slept on his right side, with his hand under his head, one foot overlapping the other.

He got up early, around 4 am, to meditate. Since he was psychic, he checked on his disciples and revealed any plots before they were hatched. And he prayed for people. He also did walking meditation in his room.

Then he washed up and got dressed. At dawn, he headed out with his bowl to beg. He begged from the poor as well as the rich, so that they could earn merit, too. He stood silently at the gate of each house and waited to see if anyone came out with an offering. If not, he moved on to another house.

If the Buddha and his disciples were moving from one place to another, they generally traveled during the time of their begging rounds.

He took the food home to eat and was generally done by noon. If someone invited him to their home for lunch, he accepted and gave a teaching afterward.

Next, he gave his disciples a topic for contemplation. As was the custom, the Buddha and his disciples took a nap during the hottest part of the day. However, they did not lose awareness.

At dusk, the Buddha gave dharma teachings to any lay people who came. He used parables relevant to their lives, as well as questioning.

After the evening teaching, he took a bath and rested.

During the first watch of the night, after the lay people had returned to their homes, he taught the monastics. Then he went to sleep.

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Life of the Buddha, Part 5 of 5

This 5-part series consists of Rev. Dr. Jăbō Prajñā’s lecture notes for a series of talks she is giving on Thursdays at Buddhamouse, from 6:30 to 7:30 pm. For a more detailed biography of the Buddha, we recommend Buddha (Penguin Lives Biographies) by Karen Armstrong.

Amrapāli was an extremely beautiful courtesan. She gave everything she had to the Buddha – her mansion and her mango groves – and became a nun. According to some accounts, she was approached by some local Brahman who were jealous of the Buddha and were trying to discredit him. They got her to agree to say she slept with the Buddha. But before she could tell anyone, she was bitten by a cobra and died. This tale may relate to a different courtesan, and according to many sources, Amrapāli remained a nun all her life and became an Arhat.

Another attempt to discredit the Buddha occurred that same year. Some ascetics in the area of Śrāvastī got a wandering ascetic named Sundari to spy on the Buddha. After they were sure that many people had seen her coming and going to Jeta’s Grove, they hired her killed and buried in a ditch. Then they reported her missing. But the hired killers got drunk and bragged about the deed, clearing the Buddha of any suspicion.

The Buddha maintained mindfulness in every activity. He walked 15 to 20 miles per day, between his begging rounds and traveling to different towns and cities. The sangha followed this rhythm even at other monasteries.

The Buddha went against the caste system and taught everyone. In modern India. Buddhists lose their caste, are considered outside the caste system, and are therefor allowed to have any job.

The first teachings the Buddha gave were on giving and morality. Later, he taught the Four Noble Truths and Not-Self.

The Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, attained supernatural powers and was liked by many, While meditating, he got the idea to take over the sangha. He teamed up with Ajatasatru, the son of King Bimbisara. Ajatasatru had taken over the kingdom by force, imprisoned his father, and starved him to death. He was now a powerful king.

Devadatta offered to take over the sangha, allowing the Buddha to rest. The Buddha declined, so Devadatta repeated the offer twice more, louder each time. Finally, the Buddha referred to Devadatta’s offer as “Something that tastes bad in the mouth, that one wants to spit out.” Devadatta was humiliated.

Later, at Vulture Peak, the Buddha was below the peak in the caves. Devadatta dropped a boulder on him. The boulder shattered and a piece hit the Buddha’s foot. Infectino set in, causing serious injury.

For his next attempt on the Buddha’s life, Devadatta got a war elephant, got it drunk, like it up at the Buddha, and released it. People ran away, but the Buddha walked on. Ananda threw himself in front of the Buddha, but the Buddha told him to move out of the way. The elephant stopped, took the dust from the Buddha’s feet, and put in on its head.

Devadatta claimed he was stricter than the Buddha:
1.     Only sleep in the forest
2.     Only accept alms
3.     Only wear rags
4.     Eat no fish or meat

He convinced 500 monks to leave with him. The Buddha was saddened by this and sent some monks, including Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana, to talk to those who had left.  Śāriputra and Maudgalyāyana were able to get the other monks to come back with them to the sangha. Devadatta was again humiliated and realized he’d made a mistake. He decided to go to the Buddha to apologize, but on his way there, he got sick and died.

The Buddha’s health began to deteriorate when he reached his 70s. He had aches and pains, and Ananda massaged his back in the late afternoon sun. By his early 80s, he was in a lot of pain, but practiced equanimity. Ananda expected the Buddha to give a final teaching, but the Buddha said, “I’ve been teaching for 45 years. I’m not the sort of teacher who keeps the teachings in a closed fist.”

The Sangha headed north, resting for weeks at a time. They stopped in a mango grove at Pava owned by the blacksmith Chunda. Chunda invited them to dinner. The Buddha told Chunda not to give pork to the sangha, but he ate it when it was offered to him. The Buddha became very sick, bleeding from his bowels.

Knowing he was dying, the Buddha instructed Ananda to tell Chunda that giving a Buddha his last meal was an act of great merit. He said that their teacher would be the dharma, discipline, and practice.

Ananda went to a shed so the Buddha wouldn’t see him crying. The Buddha called him back and told him that he, Ananda, would get enlightenment soon.

The Buddha sent for the people of the village and performed an ordination. He asked for questions. There were none, which he took as a sign that his work was complete.

His last words were, “Truly monks, I declare to you, it is the nature of whatever if formed to dissolve. Attain perfection through diligence.” He went into meditation and from there, passed into the deathless state of Nirvana. The earth shook, just as it had at his birth and enlightenment. It was approximately 483 B.C.E.

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Life of the Buddha, Part 4 of 5

This 5-part series consists of Rev. Dr. Jăbō Prajñā’s lecture notes for a series of talks she is giving on Thursdays at Buddhamouse, from 6:30 to 7:30 pm. For a more detailed biography of the Buddha, we recommend Buddha (Penguin Lives Biographies) by Karen Armstrong.

A merchant named Sudatta was the Buddha’s chief lay disciple. He was given the name  Anāthapiṇḍada. Looking for a place for the Buddha and his disciples to spend the rainy seasons, he found a grove belonging to Prince Jeta. He offered to buy it, but the Prince required that  Anāthapiṇḍada cover the entire area with gold. So he did: 1.8 million gold pieces. Then he built Jetavana Monastery, which became one of the Buddha’s favorite places, and he spent 19 out of 45 rainy seasons there.  Anāthapiṇḍada became known as the foremost of the Buddha’s disciples in generosity and character.

Queen Mallika convinced her husband of the value of the Buddha’s teachings, so he built another monastery. The rainy season retreat began, and many of the monks left their wandering lifestyle. The monastery residents because the local village priests. The wandering forest monks had no relationship with the lay community. They lacked stability but had freedom. Both the monastic and wandering (or forest) traditions continue to this day.

King Śuddhodana continued to practice his son’s teachings and became an Arhat before he died. When the Buddha heard that Śuddhodana was dying, he returned home again to preach to his father on his deathbed.

Meanwhile, the Buddha’s aunt and step-mother, Prajâpatî, had begun to follow the Buddha along with 500 other women. They asked him for ordination three times, and three times he refused them. When the Buddha moved on, Prajâpatî shaved her head, put on a robe, and followed him barefoot with her people. Their feet became swollen and their head sunburned. Ananda found them and went to the Buddha on their behalf. Again, the Buddha refused three times. The Ananda asked whether women could achieve the four levels of realization. The Buddha said yes. Then, realizing he had trapped himself in his own logic, the Buddha relented.

The Buddha created additional precepts for nuns for two reasons. First, to protect them. Such precepts included forbidding them from cooking or sewing for the monks. The other reasons was to place nuns under the monks’ authority. This may have also been to protect them, as women had no power or rights at that time. This remains a custom in most parts of the world today, but it is cultural, not religious.

There were 227 rules for monks and 338 for nuns. Many, perhaps most, Buddhist orders use the original rules. Other schools have modernized them. For example, the Five Mountain Zen Order has 58 precepts, or rules. They have eliminated all the ones which were redundant, culturally bound, or no longer made sense in modern life. FMZO ordains both men and women as monks, with identical precepts.

Prajâpatî, now called Mahaprajâpatî, became an Arhat. So did Yasodharā, who also had supernatural gifts.

One of the sutra experts among the disciples was accused of breaking a minor rule by one of the vinaya experts. Bickering ensued. “Even thieves get along better than bhikkhus.” ~Lama Tsultrim. The Buddha refused to intervene.

Eventually he took his bowl and staff and went into the forest. There the Buddha met an elephant who said he’d left his herd because he was tired of getting pushed around. “Tusker agrees with Tusker,” said the elephant. The Buddha hung out in the forest with the elephant for a while.

In the meantime, the accused sutra expert confessed his wrong and was readmitted back into the sangha. This event became the model for settling disputes.

Rahula, the Buddha’s son, became fully ordained at age 20. During his ordination ceremony, he reached Arhatship. Rahula was known as the foremost in quietly doing good.

When the Buddha reached 55, in the 20th year of his teaching, he decided to spend every rainy season in Jetavana, on the southern outskirts of Śrāvastī. He would give more teachings here than at any other monastery.

Also that year, he appointed his cousin Ananda as his permanent attendant. Ananda was not permitted to go on begging rounds with the Buddha, so there would be no temptation to take advantage of his position.

That same year the Buddha also began laying down the moral code: the Prātimokṣa. It was recited regularly with a pause after each precept for any confessions from the assembly. Many Buddhist traditions continue to do this twice each month, including Tibetan Buddhsts and the Five Mountain Zen Order. FMZO monks recite the Prātimokṣa on each full moon and new moon. The idea behind confession in Buddhist practice is that something damp that’s left wrapped for too long, will certainly rot.

Visakha, a married woman and eventual mother of 20 children, was the first matron of the lay sisters. She was even called in to settle disputes among the nuns from time to time. She had first heard the Buddha teach when she was only seven years old, at which time she became a Bodhisattva. As an adult, she donated the Migaramata Hall, on the eastern outskirts of Śrāvastī. It was named after her father-in-law, Migara, who had become a follower of the Buddha through her and had allowed her to donate to the Buddha and his disciples.