Posted in Zen Buddhism

The Buddha’s Enlightenment Day

December 8th is the date generally agreed upon in Zen to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment or awakening. The Buddha lived on the lunar calendar, so the actual date on our solar-based calendar would move every year. (Think of Passover or Easter – they move because they’re based on the lunar calendar.) In Japanese, Bodhi Day is called “Rohatsu.” It literally means “eighth day of the twelfth lunar month.”

Traditionally, the way to celebrate or honor the day would be to sit in meditation from sunset the night before until sunrise on the 8th. This is what the Buddha did. Today, in Zen monasteries around the world, the monks and nuns sit for the entire week leading up to Bodhi Day.

Householder Practices

As people with jobs and families, we may not have the time to sit for an entire week, or even overnight. Here are some ways to mark the occasion, going from the simple to the more elaborate.

Just Sit

Meditate more than you normally do. If you don’t sit at all during the work week, and December 8th falls on a workday for you, sit for five minutes. Go out in your car if you have to, but find some quiet and do it.

A Note About Posture

Sit however your normally sit: on the floor, in a chair, it doesn’t matter. Get comfortable. Do not allow any physical limitations to keep you from the task at hand.

Sit Under a Tree

The Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree, a Ficus religiosa or sacred fig. If you don’t have a fig tree, any old tree will do. If you have a Christmas or Yule tree set up, you can use that. The Buddha preferred to meditate outdoors (and I highly recommend that), but if the weather isn’t to your liking, you can stay indoors.

Review Your Precepts

If you’ve taken Buddhist precepts, this is a good day to read through them and check in with how you’re doing upholding them. Ideally, you are reciting your precepts every full moon and new moon. But who are we kidding? Householder life gets in the way. So if it’s been a while, do it now.

Read

Read something the Buddha said. Or read something by an historical or modern Buddhist teacher that resonates with you. If you have time, contemplate what you read. To retain the information better, read it like you’re going to teach it within 24 hours, then corner a willing friend or family member, and tell them all about it. Or you can journal about your reactions to the reading.

A Note on Journaling

I strongly recommend handwriting a journal as opposed to typing one. The reason is that it’s slower. And recording our thoughts more slowly slows the brain down. The ideas become richer. Don’t take my word for it: try it for yourself.

Practice Gratitude

The Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama, went on an arduous, six-year quest to find the answer to his burning question: why is there suffering in the world. I’m grateful that he did that. But he didn’t do it for me; he did it for himself. What I’m most grateful for are the next 45 years: the time he spent walking and teaching anyone who cared to listen. When I deeply ponder the effort he expended on behalf of all beings, I am moved nearly to tears.

Then I consider all the additional people who taught in a direct line from him to me (82 of them), and the tears come. So many selfless people! So many obstacles overcome to share the Dharma! I am overcome by thankfulness.

Go Deeper: Write it Down

It doesn’t matter if you ever go back and review what your write. The fact is that writing about something engages a different section of your brain than merely thinking about it. So now you’ve recorded the information in two different places in your brain, doubling your chances of it having a long-lasting effect. Plus, writing slows down your thoughts, allowing them to expand in unexpected directions.

Personally, I’ve kept a gratitude journal since 2010, even during my cancer journey. Every day, I answer these three questions from M.J. Ryan’s book Attitudes of Gratitude:

  1. What am I grateful for?
  2. What did I enjoy today?
  3. Where do I feel satisfied?

Or you could use this list from Seventeenth Century Dutch Rabbi Baruch Spinoza:

  1. Who or what inspired me today?
  2. What brought me happiness today?
  3. What brought me comfort and deep peace today?

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

Meister Eckhart, 13th Century German Catholic mystic

Decorate

You can decorate your home for Bodhi Day. Adding lights to a tree is one traditional method, and with Christmas and Yule trees readily available, it’s easy enough to do. I have a number of Buddhist-themed holiday ornaments that I put on our tree each year and leave up until the tree comes down right after the new year.

You can also display images of the Buddha, especially statues.

Creating an Altar

There are many articles on the Internet about setting up an altar according to different Buddhist sects. Here’s a really simple one.

  • Place a statue of the Buddha on a riser, like an upside down bowl. (Use the nicest bowl you have. Drape a doily or napkin over it if desired.) If you don’t have a statue, print out an image from the Internet and lean it against something so that it’s upright.
  • Burn incense in front of the Buddha as an offering. Personally, I say “Thanks, Sid,” when I do so. (Yes, the Buddha and I are on a first name basis.)
  • If you wish, add two candles, one on each side of the Buddha. White is good, or use your favorite color.

Take the Day Off

This one requires some advanced planning and isn’t available to everyone. But if you can, take a personal day or vacation day from work and spend time in the Dharma. When I was a college professor, I used to swap days with one of the Jewish professors: I’d cover their class on the first day of Hanukkah and they’d cover mine on Bodhi Day – with our supervisor’s consent, of course.

Summing It All Up

Chose what works for you. Buddhism, like life, isn’t “one size fits all.” Here’s the core of what I do on this day:

  • Remember,
  • Be grateful,
  • Practice to honor those who came before and for the sake those who will come after.

Happy Bodhi Day! May all beings benefit.

“When we speak of meditation, it is important for you to know that this is not some weird cryptic activity, as our popular culture might have it. It does not involve becoming some kind of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed narcissist, navel gazer, “space cadet,” cultist, devotee, mystic, or Eastern philosopher. Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is. It is about coming to realize that you are on a path whether you like it or not, namely, the path that is your life.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn, from “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life”

On Meditation

Posted in The Spiritual Life

Dealing with Disappointment

“Get used to disappointment.” – Westley, The Princess Bride

I’ve been dealing with several disappointments lately, some major and some minor. Since I’m an introspective person by nature, I’ve asked myself two important questions. First, what are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment? And second, what’s the skillful way through it?

The “Why” of It

The threshold question we seem to ask in the West is, “Why is this happening to me?” Luckily, I’ve learned to let that one go. When I was going through cancer treatment, well-intentioned people (usually those into the New Age movement) asked me why I thought I had cancer. I told them I hadn’t thought about it, which was true. It didn’t occur to me to ask why I had cancer any more than it had occurred to me to ask why I got to work at my dream job or be married to the perfect man.

Someone asked the Buddha whether the correct question was “Who is this I who is experiencing this disappointment?” The Buddha said that that inquiry didn’t go deep enough. The better question, taking oneself out altogether, is “What are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment?”

Simply by taking the word “I” out of the question, we relax our grip on a sense of a solid, separately existing self. We are reminded of the interrelatedness of all things. Now we’re ready to take a deep dive into causes and conditions.

Let’s use a gardening analogy. There’s a beautiful orange tree in my backyard. Why is it there? Because (for the cause of) a seed was planted there. But that’s not enough. Conditions must also be right. In this case, we need the right soil composition, sunlight, and enough water. When these causes and conditions line up just so, I get to enjoy the orange tree and make fresh OJ!

So, what are the causes and conditions of this current disappointment? The causes are that plans have changed. There was and is absolutely nothing I can do about those plans being changed. That’s outside of my control. What about the conditions?

Ah, this is where it gets interesting. The conditions were that I was looking forward to those plans, I had expectations, I was attached (in the Buddhist sense of being overly attached in an unhealthy way) to those plans!

There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to fun events. It only becomes a problem when we’re so attached to the future – as I was – that we create disappointment and suffering for ourselves when plans don’t go the way we wanted them to.

Looking at my inquiry, I can clearly see that my clinging to my plans was the cause of my disappointment. It’s just like the Buddha said in the Second Noble Truth:

“Suffering, as a noble truth … is the five categories of clinging [to] objects” (Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta — SN 56.11).

The “How” of It

So now what? The logical answer seems to be letting go of my attachment and clinging to my plans. But when have emotions ever been logical? What is the skillful way through this disappointment and self-created suffering?

Acceptance, taking life as it comes. Fortunately, we Buddhists have a practice for that: equanimity meditation.

The practice goes like this. You choose three people, things, or events from your life. Once should be someone or thing you’re overly attached to. One should be something you’re don’t like. At all. And one should be something neutral, or close to neutral.

Start with the person or thing you like, and imagine them sitting on one side of you. Spend a few minutes tuning in to all the feelings you have for them. Then imagine the person or thing you don’t like on your other side. Once again, tap in to your feelings about them. Finally, place the neutral person or thing in front of you, and allow your feelings to settle. You should feel generally positive about this “neutral” person or thing, but without any emotional intensity.

Then try to feel all three at once! Take some time to see if you can balance your feelings for the two extremes to match what you feel for the central figure. You may want to remind yourself that they all have an equal right to exist, even if you enjoy being with one more than the others.

Once your feelings have leveled off, just breathe for a few minutes before ending your meditation.

In my meditation, I place my cherished plans on the side of too much clinging. I place something I absolutely do NOT want to have happen on my other side. (I don’t “catastrophize” here, picking the worst thing that could ever happen no matter how unlikely.) Then I place some other event, which would be nice but isn’t terribly exciting, in the middle. After a while, I come to realize that there are many likely potential outcomes for my particular situation, and any of them would be okay.

Wrapping It Up

In short, I am the architect of my own suffering – by clinging to my plans – and I can relieve my own suffering – by letting go through meditation practice. May all disappointments be as easily alleviated!

Late in the Evening

VTH (that stands for Venerable “The Husband”) and I went to the small, arts colony of Idyllwild, CA last weekend. After dinner, we were sitting on the porch of our rented mountain cabin, sipping tea. He got out his iPad.

“What are doing?” I asked.

“I’m going to play some Solitaire,” he replied. “What are you going to do?”

“Well, I could get out my Kindle, or I could watch the sky go from indigo to black.” I paused to consider the options. “The latter seems far more interesting.”

As it turned out, I made the right choice. Ah…  🙂

 

Posted in The Spiritual Life

No More Waiting

“I hate waiting.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

During my journey through cancer treatment, I did a lot of waiting. I waited in doctors’ offices, I waited in exam rooms. I waited in labs for my blood to be drawn, and I waited on hold with my insurance company to find out whether they’d approve payment. I waited in pharmacies for my prescriptions to be prepared, and I waited for the MRI to start. And all this while not knowing if I’d survive the process.

At some point, I decided I wasn’t going to wait any more. Life was more precious than ever before, and the Buddhist concept of “impermanence” had been smacked upside my head with the cosmic 2 x 4.

My first response was to take my Kindle to all medical appointments. That way I could read something that interested me and not feel that I was “wasting” my time by “waiting.” While I couldn’t take the Kindle everywhere, I could take it most places. If I’m in the middle of a good book – and I usually am – this is something I still do today.

This worked great until I got too sick from chemo to be able to read.

Then I remembered what the Buddha said about mindfulness of breathing: you can do it anywhere because the breath is always with you. So, I started meditating instead of waiting. I meditated in doctors’ offices, exam rooms, labs …you get the picture. Best of all, I could meditate in the MRI tube. (You can’t take a Kindle in there!)

As my treatments wound down and my life began to adjust to its “new normal,” I found other places to meditate: in the car at stoplights, in line at the grocery store, and standing around while other people got ready to go. Any time I found myself “waiting,” I took the opportunity to meditate, instead.

This has become part of my daily practice. Instead of either becoming frustrated by a delay, or daydreaming, I use this time in the best way I know how: for my spiritual practice.

I can honestly say that I don’t wait anymore. Care to join me?

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Best. Advice. Ever.

It was the fall of 1982. I was a college freshman, standing in line for one thing or another, back in the days before computers sped us all along. Next to me was a senior, dispensing wisdom and advice.

“Study,” he admonished us, “or don’t. But don’t study and wish you were doing something else, and don’t not study and feel guilty about it.”

At the time, this seemed like a pretty good idea to me. So, I implemented it right away. What I didn’t foresee was the profound impact it would have on my life.

This advice doesn’t just apply to studying. It applies to anything we feel we “should” be or “ought to” be doing. Either do it, or don’t do it. But don’t beat yourself up, either way. As a psychiatrist friend of mine likes to say, “Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!”

Most days, I meditate. I like the idea of doing seated meditation every day. Some days, however, I make a different choice. Perhaps something else is calling for my attention, so my meditation practice gets shortened, takes a different form, or gets missed altogether. And that’s okay!

I consciously choose how I spend my time and don’t regret it after the fact. Do I sometimes wish I had done things differently? Sure. I learn from those experiences. But I don’t wallow in guilt or other unskillful emotions as a result.

I do “this,” or I do “that.” Whichever I choose, I put all of my attention to the task at hand. I don’t daydream about “that” while doing “this,” nor feel that I should be doing “this” while doing “that.” Pick one! I tell myself. Commit! By focusing fully, I’m more productive and have time for more of both “this” and “that.” Instead of trying to multitask (which psychologists report doesn’t work, by the way; our brains aren’t wired that way), I monofocus.

Nearly 35 years later, I don’t recall what else that senior had to say, what he looked like, or why we were all standing in “that good old Baylor line,” but I remember that one piece of advice. It’s served me well.

Posted in Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism

The Four Great Vows

One of the sanghas to which I belong recently became a California non-profit. As part of that process, we wrote our bylaws. And, like our parent organization, the Five Mountain Zen Order, we decided to include the Four Great Vows in those bylaws.

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all.

Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.

The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all.

The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to realize it.

Most of us, when reading or reciting these vows for the first time, are struck my the impossibility of actually keeping them. And that’s okay; some vows aren’t meant to be “kept” so much as “attempted.”

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that intention is the key to the spiritual life. I remember Khenpo Ugyen Wangchuk giving a teaching on this in 2013. It can be tricky, because it requires tremendous self-knowledge and honesty. “Oh, I meant well…” isn’t good enough. Mistakes are fine, provided they come from a sincere heart.  But we must be clear about the sincerity and strength of our intentions. If we enter the spiritual life half-heartedly, we’re deluding ourselves that anything will change.

We also need effort, but that flows naturally from powerful intention. Let’s use meditation as an example. I intend to meditate every day. But I still have to follow up my intention with the effort of sitting my butt on the cushion. If I can’t seem to make that happen, then my intention wasn’t strong or heart-felt enough. If my intention is deep enough, if it’s felt in my bones, if I can’t imagine a world where I’m not meditating every day, then I’ll exert the effort and get it done.

All of which means: we’re not off the hook on these vows! We have to try. We help sentient beings whenever we can, from catching and releasing a bug that came into the home, to giving a stranger directions. We look fearlessly at our own spiritual ignorance and attempt to illuminate the dark places through meditation. We read, study, attend Dharma talks, and question everything until learning takes place. And we watch how we keep our minds, moment to moment.

What’s the point, if the vows can’t be kept? First of all, it makes a difference to that stranger who was lost! But even more basically, it’s training in how to keep going, even in the face of impossibility. If we can look at the enormity the Four Great Vows and commit to undertaking them, how much easier is that daily meditation practice by comparison!

May all beings benefit.

Jabo Prajna Chop Small

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.

Picture

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!