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.

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 Zen Buddhism

Common Senses

In Zen, we talk a lot about what’s happening in the present moment. What do we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch right now?

In Buddhism, there are six sense doors: eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Everything that we experience comes in to our awareness through one of these doors. Let’s leave off the mind for now, and deal with our physical senses. These are the same five we’re taught in Elementary School in the West.

When we pay attention to our senses, it gives the “drunken monkey mind” less chance to wander into ruminations of the past or fantasies about the future. It may still tend to judge, however. “What a beautiful color!” “Ew! People actually eat this?!” Just bring the attention back to the sensory experience itself, releasing likes and dislikes.

The Buddha taught to follow the breath as a focus of meditation. The breath is great for two reasons. First, it’s always with us. No special equipment required. We don’t have to light a candle, put on special clothes, sit a certain way, or even sit down at all. Second, the breath is always moving. The motion gives us something to pay attention to.

Using the sense door of touch, we can tune in to where we feel the breath in the body. Is it in the chest? The stomach? Is there a sensation on the upper lip or nostrils as the breath moves past? Is the temperature of the air different on the inhalation and the exhalation? Using our sense of hearing, is there a sound when we breathe? Can we smell anything? There’s a lot going on with the breath.

Any time we need to quickly refocus our attention, we can come back to the breath. While waiting in the 15 Item or Less line behind the woman with 22 items, we can just breathe. While stopped at a red light when running late, we can just breathe. Even when being yelled at by a boss or a child, we can take a single, mindful breath.

But don’t forget all the other senses. The yelling boss is waiting for a reply, and you don’t have time to count to ten? Notice the color of his shirt, anchoring yourself in the present moment, and then answer. Be more aware as you move through your day. Pay attention to the world around you, rather than daydreaming.

Focusing on our sensory awareness in this way helps to quiet the mind. Less thinking results in less craving, and therefor less suffering.

But don’t take my word for it. Try it out for yourself. And tell me what you… “think.”

~ Rev. Jăbō

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Posted in Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism

Zen and the Dalai Lama

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The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, is coming to Southern California this summer.

“We’re Zen Buddhists. Who cares about the Dalai Lama?” you might think. It would be like a Baptist going to see the Pope.

Not exactly. The differences between the various branches of Mahayana Buddhism are much more about form than substance. To use another analogy from my Christian upbringing, the difference often is on the level of sprinkle vs. dunk for baptism. The core beliefs, and even practices, are surprisingly similar.

Vajrayana Buddhism, what we think of as “Tibetan,” is technicolor, and Zen is black and white. But both schools have meditation as their primary practice. Both teach on emptiness and the nature of mind. Both have as their goal the liberation of all beings.

An then there’s the fact that the Dalai Lama is a prolific author on Buddhism, a social activist, and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and you have a man worth listening to.

Tickets go on sale April 2nd, and you can get yours here.

I’m going. Hit me up if you want to carpool.

~ Rev. Jăbō

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