A prayer for Bangladesh

This weekend in southeastern Bangladesh Buddhist homes and temples were robbed and destroyed on a huge scale. Newspaper reports vary, some say four Buddist temples were burnt down, others put the figure at eleven. Some reports say 15 homes were torched, others say forty.  The fact is, they came under a sustained attack from a huge mob (the most common report is of 25,000 people) and were targetted specifically because of their religion.

When I first read this yesterday my initial reaction was one of grief and anger. Grief at the idea of Buddhists being forced from their homes, watching as they were robbed, and then being left homeless as their homes, and places of worship, were destroyed. The attackers even beheaded Buddha statues to complete the insult and harm. Anger followed close behind. My first anger was directed at those who carried out the attacks. My second wave of anger was directed against the western Buddhist blogoshere which completely and utterly ignored the attacks.

(A year or two ago a Christian pastor in the US suggested that Tiger Woods should convert to Christianity, the Buddhist blogs spent months condemning him. But Buddhist temples  are burnt to the ground in Bangladesh and Buddha statues beheaded and the blogosphere is silent).

I was angry, sad, unsettled, and felt isolated and powerless. What could I do to help? What is the proper response. Thankfully, I knew enough to get off the Internet and onto my meditation block. Practice was difficult. My breathing was fast and every time I thought about it my heart rate would increase again. Eventually some peace came as I prayed. “Let there be comfort” I prayed, “let those who did this wake up”, “let those that suffer find strength”. Eventually it was one prayer only, again and again, “let there be peace”.

I’m still unsettled, I’m still angry. My prayer for peace brought some to me, but what does it do for those in Bangladesh? How does it help them? Is our Buddhism so self-centred that all we can do is sooth our own hearts while, effectively, ignoring the suffering in the world?

Well, Thich Nhat Hanh writes that “When you have enough of the energy of compassion and love in you, your heart grows big and you can embrace everything and everyone – even those you call your enemy. When you can look deeply into your ‘enemy’ and see that he is a victim of ideas, notions, and misinformation, of conditions in his own life and his culture and society, then you can remain calm, your heart remains open, and you will have a better chance to help him get in touch with his humanity, his innate Buddha nature, and transform the seeds of hatred and violence within.” (“Peaceful Action, Open Heart”, p. 192).

So, while not ignoring or suppressing my anger, but just siting with it, here is my prayer for Bangladesh. For all those that lost their homes and their temples, and all those who caused the destruction too. It is taken from “A Thouasand Hands of Compassion”.

May the bright eye of wisdom fill the universe with light
shining brightly, illuminating all.
May all beings
become one, become one
one with all Buddhas
one mind, one mind
one body, one body.

May all beings
escape together
escape from suffering
and become free.


Let there be peace. Let there be peace. Let there be peace.


Some links:

Seoul: city of Dharma

Last week I re-visited Seoul and was struck, once again, by what a great place it is for anyone interested in Buddhism. In fact, in my opinion, it is the best, and certainly the most welcoming, place to go for anyone from the west who is interested in the Dharma but is limited to English-language only study.

I went to see my friend and teacher Chong Go Sunim, but having got to the city a little early, I visited the new Temple-stay building opposite Jogyesa Temple. Not only is the whole idea of Templestay wonderful, the new building is great. You can arrange temple stays there (as you’d expect!) and there is also a bookshop, and superb buffet style temple-food restraunt on the 2nd floor – vegan, cheap, and delicious. I wished this had been here years ago back when I lived in Seoul – I’d have been a regular!

There is nothing like this building in Thailand or Japan (the other Buddhist countries I am most familiar with)  – a central place for arranging Temple-stays and great vegetarian food for visitors. (Can you stay in a Japanese temple? Possibly, but I’ve never seen it promoted. Can you eat vegetarian food in a Thai temple – I was never able to find any in all the years I spent living and attending Dharma events there). Really, compared to other places I’ve lived in, the Korean Sangha has provided a lot of great opportunities for the world to study Buddhism.

And nearby is the Buddhist English Library of Seoul – which is where I first met Chong Go Sunim and my Dharma brothers. I didn’t have time to go in and say hello this time, but have often done so in the past. You always get a warm welcome. You can go there to read or chat, and they have a busy schedule of English-language Dharma events. Chong Go Sunim runs a Saturday afternoon class there, and there are others too. I remember a few years ago studying with a Tibetan monk in English in the library on Saturday mornings. And a Burmese monk on Thursdays.

Of course the main thing is the temple nearby – and all over the city and country. I have never, in many years of living in and visiting the country, found a Korean temple locked or unwelcoming. From the main temple Jogyesa, where I popped in the other day to join in (no one batted an eyelid at the foriegner picking up his mat for the service), to the quietest, most remote, mountain temple, the doors are open and non-Koreans are welcome to sit, chant, bow, or whatever they like – both alone, and along with everyone else.

It was only a few hours in Seoul, but it really was a lovely time – and a reminder to me of just how wonderful this place is for anyone wishing to study Buddhism. I took a few photos too – but am having problems with WordPress and can’t get them onto the post. I also met my good friend and Dharma brother Joseph, and we joined in morning ceremony at the Hanmaum Seonwon in Anyang and then had a good long chat with Chong Go Sunim. A wonderful trip. Thank you both!

waking up to gratitude


I can hardly believe that no one has posted to this blog for two months. But life is busy. Chong Go Sunim handles so much at the Seonwon. Joe and Joseph have families to look after. I’ve no idea what Jabu is doing, Carl works hard. As do I.  Things change. Isn’t that pretty fundamental?

Plus, I wonder, what is left to say? I’ve just looked over the archives and liked what I saw! But how many times can one say it? How many ways can one say it in?

A colleague at work shared something of just that with me today. He told me about the Red Pine he was reading and asked me “aren’t you surprised at me, a Taoist, reading these Buddhist books?” “Ah, but it’s all the same” I said. “Exactly” he replied. “And the more I practice, the more I see it. The difficulty is putting it into words”.

Wake up, wake up!
You have slept millions and millions of years.
Why not wake up this morning?

That’s from Kabir, using his words. Quoted by Brother David Steindl-Rast in the introdution to “Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer”, in which he writes “… everything is gratuitous, everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is the measure of our gratefulness. And gratefulness is the measure of our aliveness.”

There are so many ways to say this. Stephen Mitchell, in his version of Psalm 17, writes “let me, when I awaken,/see nothing but the light of your face.” Awakening is to see the world as it truly is, as the face of God (if you stumble on this word, pick another, call it the face of Love or Juingong or Interconnectedness).  But already I’m lost, trying to write about that which is impossible to describe.

All I know is that the flowers on my little balcony are bursting with life and energy. I know that regardless of all the pain in this poor suffering world, I feel such gratitude for their purity and beauty. Barry at Ox Herding knows me well and, like all good teachers, he teaches for the student’s needs:  “I suggest getting down on our hands and knees in the dirt, bowing to whatever benevolent deity provides such extraordinary beauty!”

And talking of waking up to aliveness, here’s Kosho Uchiyama putting it into his words: “Aslong as we wake up and live life as universal self, we work in the direction where all things are alive.  And since everything we encounter is our life, with the attitude or spirit that our whole self is taking care of its own life we aim at giving life to all things, all situations, all people, all worlds.”

So many ways to say it. So many ways to express our gratitude for this glorious world and this glorious life. “Inherently life is one. Inherently, life is Buddha.” (Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim).

an entrusting mind

Last night at the Tsukiji Hongwangi Jodo Shinshu Temple in Tokyo, Rev. Youmyou Kadono spoke on the theme of “The most important Jodo Shinshu teaching: an entrusting mind”. And he told a story from his own life many years ago, as a young parent on a day trip with his daughter to Disneyland in Florida.

His child was really excited about seeing Mickey and all his pals, so much so that as soon as Mickey appeared she ran off towards him and was soon lost in the crowd. Rev. Kadono ran to catch up, but his daughter, aware that she was now lost and separated from her parents, had burst into tears.

“Don’t worry,” Rev. Kadono said, bending down to pick her up, “I’m here, I’ve got you. And if you get lost again,” he said, “just stay where you are, stay calm, I’ll be right there, I’ll find you.” Sure enough, later in the day she ran off again, and again got lost. This time though, when Rev. Kadono found his child, she was perfectly calm, simply trusting that he’d soon be there.

“This”, Rev.Kandono said, “is the everyday benefit of the entrust mind, the mind that rests in faith” and it reminded me at once of Daehaeng Sunim’s teaching on entrusting. “Entrust everything to Juingong: entrust the things you understand and the things you don’t understand, entrust happiness and entrust suffering, entrust poverty and entrust disease.”

I know Japanese Pure Land is not Korean Zen, and some might think me mistaken for mixing the two, but this is how my path is, and I can’t help but be delighted by it. After all, as Daehaeng Sunim writes just a few lines later: “Don’t try to take care of things by relying upon theories, sutras, clever words, or other people’s ideas. Instead, just let go while believing that only Juingong can solve it.”

The great saving power of all Buddhas
becomes the saving power of my one mind.
With it I can live every day
free of entanglements.
So wonderful!
 – A Thousand Hands of Compassion 

Happy New Year

I’ve just got back from the temple. It’s not like Korea, where the temple would be full of people bowing and chanting and praying (how wonderful), in Japan people seem to do a whole lot less, and yet the feeling was great, very positive and very beautiful. It was just my local temple, rarely open except for at New Years, and we joined a short line to ring the temple bell. Afterwards there was a small fire and hot drinks and we said hello to our neighbours.

Earlier, walking in the park, I thought about what my New Year’s Resolution might be this year. Something, I thought, that I could stick to. Something to resolve all this time I spend worrying about the path. I mean, one day I think that just reading a single Sutra is the way forward, then I’ll think about some serious sitting, next thing you know I’m thinking that perhaps I need a retreat or a new altar! My resolution, I thought this morning, would be the answer, the one practice I need.

Silly me. Such nonsense. If I need a resolution, it is to spend less time thinking about practice, and more time actually practicing! The path, after all, is so simple. Let go. Entrust. Have faith that the foundation, under whatever name I might give it, is taking care of everything. Then it doesn’t matter what I do. So long as I’m living by the precepts, I can meditate if I want to, read if I want to, chant if I want to. I can follow any wholesome practice that feels right at any time. I can smile, and live in happiness.

Happy New Year!


In Seoul I used to attend Saturday Sangha with Chong Go Sunim and some of the good people you can see on the sidebar here. In Bangkok my Sangha was the Seon Club and the whole Littlebang group. Here in Tokyo, I’m working so hard I’ve hardly even had the chance to look for a spiritual community.

Yet at the same time the whole community is already here with me. My Dharma brothers all blog, Dharma friends email and say hi, even postcards are exchanged (thank you again Roy!). I live with my wonderful wife, truly the most patient Dharma teacher you could imagine, and I have the whole of the Internet!

Tonight on my walk home from work I was listening to a podcast from the wonderful Tara Brach, a talk called  “Taking Refuge” from January 2010. One bit, just as I was approaching my door, really caught my attention and I thought I’d share it here. What I love is the way she brings together both the outer and inner dimensions of refuge.

The outer refuge, the way we take refuge in the Buddha in an outer way, is – we bring to mind any being that expresses to us the enlightened heart-mind. It could be the Buddha, or Jesus, or the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kuan Yin, or any being, living or mythic, any spiritual figure that in some way represents that to us. And the way that we then take refuge is to imagine that being’s love and that being’s awareness. And then let ourselves sense how that lives through us.

The reality is that in many of our moments we live in this trance of a small and limited self. Many of our moments the idea of an awakened being is outside of us, down the road, something exotic, so when we talk about taking refuge in Buddha-nature it seems abstract. And yet this refuge is so powerful, so liberating. If you imagine for a moment how your life would change every day, many times a day, in some way you glimmer that this radiant awareness really is your very essence.  That in  a way this whole spititual path is undoing that trance. It’s stopping pedalling away. When we stop pedalling away we come home to an amazing amount of space and aliveness and awareness.

The full talk and many more, as well as guided meditations, can be found on her website http://tarabrach.com/. So really, with all these resources, how can I ever forget that I’m always in the midst of Sangha? How can I forget, as Daehaeng Sunim says, that within myself I always have a Dharma hall, “which is always filled with light and where Buddha is always present.”

All we need now is for Chong Go Sunim to grab a microphone and master the art of podcasting too!

a post from Japan

“If you don’t know that your inherant nature is fundamentally bright, how can you save yourself and how can you give light to people around you?”
 – Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim

A short walk from Roppongi, an energetic upmarket area of Tokyo, is a truly beautiful temple.  It was first established in 1598 as an expansion of a small roadside Kannon shrine, but you won’t find it mentioned in any guide books – probably because the buildings, destroyed in 1945, are all, as far as I understand, post-war reconstructions. And yet it is large, traditional, serene, and contains a couple of items that make it my favourite temple in the city.

The first is the statue, the largest wooden statue of Kannon in Tokyo, rebuilt in the 1970s but gorgeous. It is a standing eleven-headed Kannon with two arms holding a vase, a lotus plant, a staff, and beads. The wooden nimbus contains a number of Buddhas and the hall is built around the statue in such a way as to really give an impression of size and a sense of awe. It is lovely.

The other thing I love most about Chokokuji is the main hall. Unlike so many other Japanese temple halls which are more often than not locked and inaccessible, the huge tatami mat hall here is open and is infused with a real sense of devoted practice. It reminded me so much of Korean temples, and performing some prostrations and spending some time sitting came naturally and effortlessly.

It is, I believe, Soto-Zen (in fact, the Tokyo Branch Temple of Diahozan Eiheji, but I’m not really very sure quite what that means!) and I understand they have some meditation classes open to all on Monday nights (see the link below), but what appealed most to me (with my devotional approach to these things) was the Kannon Ceremony on the 18th of every month.

I went along with Ikumi and got there good and early, and good thing we did as the seats were soon all taken! The monks sat around the statue and chanted (the Heart Sutra and the Kannon Sutra were both delivered so fast that few laypeople there could match the pace) and went through various ritual movements and everyone had the chance to go up and burn some powdered incense and pray.

And at the end, before the monks filled out, the head monk talked to everyone there. It had been a tough time for Japan this year he said, with Ikumi kindly translating for me, but the essential thing was to move forward. “Remember” he said, “Kannon is not just a statue, Kannon lives within each one of us and is always with us, and so we have the power to set our course, set our goals, and move forward.”

Link: http://global.sotozen-net.or.jp/eng/temples/foreigner/Chokoku-ji.html

letting go, being happy

There are times when I have more (impossible) questions and complaints than answers. Times I struggle so hard to reconcile all the theories and practices of all the different traditions I’m familiar with that I feel frustrated and quite angry.
And sometimes this bubbles over. Like a child raging in the supermarket, I pick fault, stamp my feet, and bewail the fact that there is no perfect philosophy, no perfect community, crying out in pain that I don’t know what I’m doing!
Thankfully, my friends respond. Carl, Young, Joe. “About the philosophical questions you raised, I wouldn’t worry too much”, Chong Go Sunim wrote. “They are all just skillful means aimed at untying the knots some people get stuck in…. so if they don’t click with you, it’s not a problem.”
Young, from the Bangkok Hanmaum group, wrote about how the experiences and insights we have and the words we use to describe them are two quite different things – and of course she’s right; all my confusion last week came from getting tangled up in words rather than simply relying on the practice.
The funny thing is, the trick to overcoming all this, the practice itself, is really very simple – the trick of letting go! Funny how I so often forget it, am still a complete beginner, prefering most of the time instead to live out never-ending intellectual and conceptual dramas.
The other trick is even simper (but boils down to the same thing) – to just do what makes you happy (combined with awareness of course!) … or, as Chong Go Sunim put it the other day, what makes you feel alive! I know that if I just let go and do what makes me fully alive, life is much simpler and better.
Today I practiced, and in the afternoon we went to a temple. The hall was empty and we bowed and sat, wandered around a little, talked to a monk, got some calligraphy done, then joined the service – just me and Ikumi and a single monk in a huge tatami shrine room with open windows, trees and sky.
Gorgeous, just gorgeous. No thinking, no worrying, no trying to work it all out – just letting go, just happiness!

“the whole of the holy life”

In 2009, as part of the Seonwon’s tenth anniversary celebrations, Chong Go Sunim visited Bangkok for the first time and gave a joint talk with Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikku on the subject of Buddha-nature. During his visit I accompanied him to various places in the city, including Wat Chanasonkram, the lovely temple opposite the western end of Khao San. Chong Go Sunim was struck by the good feeling in the main hall, and on the way out he took a few photos of the murals on the interior walls.

One picture came out particulaly well and was used over a whole page a month or so later in the Hanmaum Journal. And last month, at the start of his second visit to Thailand, Chong Go Sunim very kindly presented me with a large print of the photo which shows the colours and details of the mural with great clarity. The scene is a simple one of the Buddha, before his enlightenment, escaping his father’s palace on his horse Kanthaka with his attendant Channa holding on tight at the back.

The horse is not on the ground but, with legs stretched out front and back, is flying through the air. This is no ordinary leap, they are high above a river bend with mountainous shores, under a night sky full of red and orange tinged clouds behind which you can just make out a luminous full moon. Despite the action depicted in the scene it’s remarkably still.  Prince Siddhartha’s royal crown is perched upright on his head, and holding onto the flying horse looks like it involves no struggle or fear at all.

But the most remarkable thing about the picture is not the young prince or his devoted attendant or the magical horse, but five figures, picked out in white outline only, aiding him in his flight. One, with the multiple faces that denote Brahma, stands to the left, holding a gently flowing parasol above the future Buddha’s head. The other four almost ghostly figures, kneeling in traditional Thai sideways style despite being airborne, each hold aloft one of the horse’s hoofs.

I don’t believe, despite the daily chant in temples all over Thailand affirming otherwise, that the Buddha was self-enlightened. Not if by that we mean that his achievement was accomplished single-handedly, and this picture explains what I mean. The entire universe acted in his support. Heavenly figures held his horse aloft through the night sky. Then teachers came to guide him through his first comprehensive meditations. On the point of starvation, a young woman came to feed him and teach him the nature of kindness. Mara even helped him along. After his insight into how we all share the same nature, disciples came. A community was built.

Sangha is essentail to spiritual growth. My friend Roy, in a lovely photo essay entitled ‘Church’ beautifully describes how anything, everything, can be a church or sangha. And he’s right. “The only offering accepted here is presence – your very life” he writes. And “There is nothing that is not our teacher” Daehaeng Sunim teaches. “The resolute and unflinching mountains silently tell us, “Live like a mountain.” The ceaselessly flowing waters whisper, “Live like water.” The flowers that bloom in the midst of any kind of adversity quietly sing, “Live like a flower.” A weed living in harsh soil says, “Live courageously.””

But community in the more usual sense is also essential for most, for me at least, in providing support on the spiritual path, and during the course of my life I have moved through a number of wonderful communities. In various places and periods of time I have been a regular attender at a Quaker Meeting House, in an Anglican Church, in a small informal Therevadan sitting group, at Chong Go Sunim’s Saturday Sangha in Seoul, in the diverse group known as Littlebang here in Bangkok, and for the past two and a half years my main Sangha has been, as well as Littlebang, the wondeful Bangkok Seon Club and Seonwon.

One of the things I want to do in this post is to thank all my past communities for their amazing warmth and support. Especially, on the eve of my leaving Bangkok, to thank Seon Club. I’ve found in Hyedan Sunim, Mrs Nam, Young, all the regular members of Seon Club and Seonwon, and all those that have come along and contributed in so many ways, a truly inspiring and caring group, one that has aided and challenged me on my path. Thank you. And though sad to leave such a vibrant and friendly Sangha behind me, I know their influence will last many years to come.

Later this week I’ll be on a plane, leaving Bangkok, this city that I know better than any other in the world, heading to a new country a new life and to unknown future communities; and I can’t help but think again of that picture of the Buddha-to-be (and we are all Buddhas-to-be) flying away from home. He doesn’t strain forward, lean back, or flee the dangers surrounding him. He isn’t trying to control the horse that’s carrying him. He has set his direction, without which no travel would be possible, and now all he does is let go, and trust the invisible hands that are always ready to carry him to where he needs to go.

What are you looking for?
Whatever it is, you have to start by letting go;
Learn to trust the fundamental source within you.
Whether we call this Buddha-nature, God, or true self
Makes no difference. It has guided you and supported you
For a billion eons. Through it all things are connected,
And unseen energy flows back and forth
Between all lives and things.
Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim

WUaL!: Chong Go Sunim in Bangkok – 1
WUaL!: Chong Go Sunim in Bangkok – 2
WUaL!: Start by Letting Go
Return to the Center: Church