the embodiment of love

If we wish to use our life to benefit the world,
then we must become of the world.
– Barry Briggs, ‘Generosity and Transparency

Every year, at this time of year, I am re-drawn to, and re-connect with, the religious tradition of my personal and cultural heritage. I am glad of it and I welcome this amazing time to learn from others, because there is so much good stuff in Christianity that I can draw from and which can enliven my Buddhist practice, especially in the central Christmas image of the Nativity.

Because Buddhas are born kings, in palaces, sheltered from suffering, wheras Bodhisattvas, those beings that embody Love and Compassion, can take on any form. Bodhisattvas are closer to us, we can imagine them as shepherds or carpenters, with dirty robes and work-hardened hands, or as a baby born in the toughest of circumstances come to show us how to live.

I went to a carol service this week at the small Anglican church here in Bangkok, and in one of the teachings someone quoted a passage from a writer called Max Lucado setting the Nativity scene, which I later looked up. Lucado writes: “The stable stinks like all stables do. The stench of urine, dung, and sheep reeks pungently in the air. The ground is hard, the hay scarce.”

The beauty of the Christian message is, for me, this very real embodiment of the otherwise abstact notions of Wisdom and Compassion. How else are we to understand these ideas if not in our very lives? Jesus’ birth represents the unfailing possibility of love, kindness, and understanding right where we are. It’s always here, we simply have to wake up. As Max Lucando writes, “Those who missed His Majesty’s arrival that night missed it not because of evil acts or malice; no, they missed it because they simply weren’t looking.”

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth
And by greed and pride the sky is torn –
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
 – Madeleine L’Engle

Happy Christmas to all you Christians, to all you Buddhists, to all you Bodhisattvas (and that’s all of you) everywhere!
– From everyone at Wake Up and Laugh!

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Links:
Barry Briggs: Generosity and Transparency
Max Lucado: God Came Near

Picture:
The gorgeous image used here, with permission, is by the artist and Pastor John Stuart. His amazing art blog is well worth checking out: http://stushieart.wordpress.com/

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some personal thoughts on the perfections

“The Buddha-Dharma is the fruit that has ten thousand flavors, the flower with ten thousand fragrances. It can be said that practitioners are the farmers who raise these fruits and the gardeners who tend these flowers.”
Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the Paramitas. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a collection of virtuous practices, each re-enforcing and supporting each other, after all, it is the solid practicality of Buddhism that I’m naturally drawn to. No, my problem (apart from the obvious one of making them manifest in my life) is understanding why those particular ones.

Personally, I’d like to slightly re-write the Paramitas to suit myself and my own particular path and challenges, and I believe that is a legitimate way to treat these tools, to make them entirely and personally your own. But at the same time, it is useful to be able to talk a common language and so I’ll stick to the traditional presentation here. What follows are just some personal reflections.

Dana-Paramita – Giving
Shouldn’t we re-name this? Couldn’t we use a word that points more directly to what exactly our practice, our priority, our major aspiration really is? Giving is lovely, both in terms of giving the Dharma and giving real, solid, necessary material aid, but doesn’t the word ‘Compassion’ better reflect our vows, and the very purpose of giving? While generosity is a wonderful practice, Compassion is the very practice itself.

Sila-Paramita – Precepts
Of course the order of the Paramitas is not so important, after all each reflects and supports the others. But traditionally the perfection of sila, morality, comes second, but surely it is both gate and foundation to this path. It is by taking precepts that one becomes Buddhist, and this remains a practice and a challenge throughout one’s life. However, if we see the first Paramita as ‘Compassion’, then we can see the second as being the foundation of the first.

Ksanti-Paramita – Patience
Sometimes this Paramita is called patience, sometimes endurance or forbearance. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his wonderful commentary on the Lotus Sutra, renames it ‘Inclusiveness’, saying that the practice consists of “continually making your heart bigger and bigger so that it can accept and embrace everything.” For myself, in my own practice, I’d like to add the notion of ‘Gratitude’ to this paramita, something that is not discussed enough in Buddhist circles but something that can transform many otherwise painful situations.

Virya-Paramita – Effort
LIke patience, the name of this Paramita can have some negative overtones, giving rise to the idea that you must constantly push yourself forward, leading to stress and pain. But true diligence, again in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “is born from joy”. So why not re-name this Paramita as ‘Joy’ and be done with it? But then again, that might also lead to expectations and disappointments. So I just prefer to call this Paramita ‘Practice’.

Dhyana-Paramita – Meditation
The Paramitas are for every moment of our lives, not just those few grabbed minutes when I remember to sit on my meditation block! So personally I prefer the way that Seon Master Kusan Suryeon, in a marvellous essay on the Paramitas, calls this one the Paramita of Stillness and Stability of Mind. We could call this Paramita ‘Peace’. For myself, though, I’d re-name it ‘Faith’. For me faith in the Buddhas and in our own inherant Buddha-nature is the very bedrock of stability and peace. When faith is there, everything can be let go to it.

Prajna-Paramita – Wisdom
The two wings of Buddhism are Wisdom and Compassion and I love how the Paramitas start with Compassion and come round to meet Wisdom here – with precepts, patience (gratitude), effort (practice), and meditation (peace and faith) forming the body of the practice. Not wisdom as in book-learning (or Sutra-learning) of course, but wisdom as understanding. As Daehaeng Sunim writes, “True wisdom is obtained only through applying and experiencing”.

The Seventh Paramita
That marvellous essay on the Paramitas by Seon Master Kusan Suryeon that I mentioned earlier is called ‘The Seven Paramitas’. Seven because he allocates one practice to each day, with Monday being Dana and Tuesday Sila and so on, and gives Sunday, the seventh day, the seventh Paramita: ‘The Perfection of the Simultaneous Practice of All the Paramitas’. I think that’s a wonderful idea, and if I had to come up with a name for this one, I’d call it ‘Love’.

“By awakening to our ‘True-I’, and through the practice of befitting ourselves and others, let us show kindness to others, accomplish the Path of Bodhisattvahood, and transform this world into a Buddha Land.”
Seon Master Kusan Suryeon

Link:
Seon Master Kusan Suryeon: The Seven Paramitas – The Right Road

Bangkok Seon – a one-day workshop

 Bangkok Seon:
a one-day meditation workshop in the Korean Zen tradition with the American Zen monk Chong Go Sunim
 
Saturday February the 19th, 2011
at the Bangkok Korean Zen Centre
8.30am to 6pm
 
On February the 19th, 2011, the American Zen monk Chong Go Sunim will be returning to Bangkok to run a one-day English-language meditation workshop at the Korean Zen Centre in Ekamai. The workshop is from 8.30am to 6pm and is open to all comers interested in Korean Zen Buddhism and meditation, regardless of background or previous meditation experience.
Workshop Leader: Chong Go Sunim

Chong Go Sunim (Sunim is the Korean word for Buddhist monk) was ordained in the Korean Jogye Order (the largest Buddhist Order in Korea) in September 1993. He completed an MA in Seon Studies at Dongguk University in 2003 and received certification from the Jogye order in 2002 allowing him to ordain others and serve as an abbot. His own Dharma teacher is the Venerable Seon Master Daehaeng Kun Sunim.

Chong Go Sunim practices at the Hanmaum International Centre in Korea where he helps translate the works of Master Daehaeng Sunim into English and other languages. He also takes care of several Dharma groups and gives Dharma talks in English and Korean.

Schedule:
 
Full schedule to be announced, but the day will include talks, group discussion, sitting meditation, walking meditation, Q and A, opening and closing ceremonies, and breaks for lunch and tea.
 
Booking:

All participants must book a place in advance. Not least because the Zen Centre will be providing lunch and will need to know the numbers in advance. Please be very sure you will be attending before booking your place. Places can be booked by leaving a comment on this post or by seeing me (Marcus) at various Dharma events in Bangkok between now and February.

Location:

The Bangkok Hanmaum Seon Centre
86-1 Soi 4 Sukhumvit 63
BTS Ekamai Station – Exit 1

Take Exit 1 from Ekamai Station, and go down Ekamai Road (aka Sukhumvit 63). Turn right along Soi 4 and go to the end. Turning left you will see the Centre on your right a few meters along. A motorcycle from Ekamai can also take you there cheaply. Ask for the ‘Wat Gao-lii’ (Korean temple).

Scroll down to the bottom of the page for a map and photographs.

A few points to note:

  • Please try to arrive in plenty of time as the workshop will start at 9am sharp. We will try to finish at 6pm sharp too. Although discussion will almost certainly continue in a nearby restaurant or coffee shop!
  • There are no bare feet in Korean temples, it would be much appreciated if those wishing to come will remember to bring socks!
  • This is a good chance here in Bangkok to practice meditation in a Zen Buddhist temple with a fully ordained Zen monk in a close and supportive practice group. See you on February 19th!

Korean-Temple

Links:
Wake Up and Laugh: The Bangkok Seon Club
Therevada-Zen: Chong Go Sunim’s last visit to Bangkok
Littlebang: more details and background

letting go

“When you let go, you can truly live.”
 – Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim

Therevadan Buddhism isn’t my path, but I’ve lived in Bangkok for most of the past ten years and there are certain teachers here and in this tradition I never miss seeing if I can help it. Foremost among them is Ajahn Brahm. Born in London in 1951, ordained in Wat Saket in 1974, disciple of Ajahn Chah for nine years at Wat Nong Pah Pong, and now Spiritual Director of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia, he is rightly famous for the depth of his experience and knowledge and the wonderful way in which he is able to present the Dhamma.

His teaching is seemingly simple, full of stories, warm anecdotes, and his famous, unashamedly oft-repeated, jokes, but his humour serves to present teachings of great depth. I’ve not always agreed with everything I’ve heard from him, but I have benefitted greatly from his wisdom and especially from his skillful instructions regarding practice. I mention all this because he was here again this week and during the workshops I attended he gave a short teaching so profound and eye-opening I just had to share it here.

I don’t know which sutta it comes from, and it doesn’t matter even if it doesn’t, but Ajahn Brahm told a story of how Buddha was wandering along with Ananda when they came across a monk sitting under a tree in meditation. The monk was sat on the ground with a straight back, his hands were folded, and his head and neck at just the right angle. He was deep in meditation and had been for some time. The Buddha turned to Ananda and said “I’m worried about that monk.”

A few minutes later they came across another monk sitting under a tree in meditation. He was on a comfy cushion, his back was bent forward and he’d fallen asleep. Every now and then he’d wake up only to nod off again. He was even snoring. The Buddha turned to Ananda and said “this monk I’m not worried about at all, he’s doing just fine.”

The point, of course, is about letting go. With his perfect posture and iron will, the first monk had turned meditation into a competitive sport, even if the only person he was competing against was himself. He wasn’t abandoning the ego, he was building it. Ajahn Brahm talked about a friend of his in Wat Nong Pah Pong years ago who was admired for his diligence and discipline, sitting upright while others would be half asleep with heads almost on the floor. Eventually the friend disrobed, the whole experience of monkhood had been, he discovered, an exercise in ego, nothing but a constant struggle.

The second monk, the one the Buddha wasn’t worried about, had the sense to relax. If he nodded off, then he nodded off, no big deal. He was able to let go, let go of his need for perfection, and let go of the struggle. Even more, he was able to trust that things would be just fine without his striving and without his perfection. It reminded me of  Daehaeng Kun Sunim’s comments on practice. Specific regimens, she says, will come to a dead end, but “if you keep letting go and entrusting, and experiencing the results of this, then the path that seemed narrow in the beginning will gradually widen, and in the end will become a great avenue and gateway to the truth.”

Ajahn Brahm talks about trying to control your mind and thoughts, trying to control anything in fact, as being like a farmer holding onto a rope trying to control a buffalo as it runs away. The rope can get twisted round your fingers and what will happen next? The farmer will lose his fingers. Crazy farmer, all he gets is pain and suffering, and in any case buffalos never go far. If the farmer had just waited a few minutes he could have just walked up to the buffalo and led it wherever he wanted to go.

“If you know how to let go and be at peace, you know everything you need to know about living in the world.”
 – Ajahn Brahm, ‘Practising In The World’.

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Links:
Ajahn Brahm’s Website
Ajahn Brahmavamso, ‘Practising In The World’
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Buddhism and Love

Even offering three hundred bowls of food three times a day does not match the spiritual merit gained in one moment of love.
– Nagarjuna

One of the things that I adore most about Christianity is how love is at its very centre. Jesus summed up his message and teaching in the commandments to love God, to love you neighbour (and he talked a lot about just who your neighbour is) and to love yourself (Matthew 22:36-40), and Paul, the first great leader of the early church, placed love at the very pinnacle of Christian life, even above faith (1 Corinthians 13:13).

I wonder if love’s being so central to Christianity explains why the word is so rarely used by many Buddhist writers writing in English. After all there is a tendency, especially in many of the Buddhist blogs and articles I come across, to want to make clear distinctions between Buddhism, the adopted religion of the writer, and Christianity, often the religion left behind.

But not all Buddhist teachers are shy of the word, and two that come instantly to mind are my own root teacher Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, and another Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hahn. Thich Nhat Hahn writes: “Do we need to love our teacher? Do we need to love our disciples? Do we need to love our Dharma brothers and sisters in order to succeed in our practice? The answer is, yes.”

But this imperative to love is not just about relations in the Sangha as a means of travelling along the path, it’s also about living in accord with the precepts and thus in harmony with the entire world: “Once love is in your heart you don’t have to do anything, you can practice the mindfulness trainings perfectly, very easily, without any struggle at all.”

Daehaeng Sunim is even more direct and goes even further in her call to love, sounding not a little unlike a certain well-known Galilean teacher from a couple of thousand years ago. “Love each other” she writes, “share each other’s burdens, and share what you have with others. This kind of love is more than enough to take care of everything in the world.”

Too often, to my mind, Buddhist writers stick to the term ‘compassion’, a kind of love-lite. Love is earthy, real, it’s based on flesh and blood and not just a nice notion. “The Buddha’s love and compassion and parents’ love and compassion for their children” Kun Sunim writes, “are both the same fundamental love.” I think there is a reason that in the four immesurables, Brahmavihara, love comes first and is different to compassion.

As loving-kindness it’s there in the Pali, most famously in the Metta Sutta (“Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life, even so let one cultivate a boundless love towards all beings”), and in the devotional texts too. The Thich Nhat Hanh quotes in this post, for example, come from his commentary on the Lotus Sutra (from which he thinks the most beautiful sentence is ‘The bodhisattva regards all beings with the eyes of love’), and the link between love and the Pure Land is obvious.

It’s also central to Zen, no matter that you might never be told that. When Daehaeng Sunim first awoke to her own True Nature, for example, she described the experience of Buddha-nature as being “full of love and warmth”, so much so that at first she responded simply by calling it “daddy” (which again puts me in mind of that same Galilean addressing his father on equally intimate terms).

Paul said that all of Christianity can be summed up in one word, love (Galatians 5:14), and it is no surprise that some of the most beautiful things ever said about love came from his pen. Buddhists would, naturally, like to add the idea of wisdom to his summation of the holy life, but only if that is the wisdom of real insight. Mere learning adds nothing:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

If you are unfamiliar with this passage then I urge you to look it up at 1 Corinthians verse 1 to 13. There is so much there that anyone from any tradition can learn from about love. But, if you prefer to hear much the same in more Buddhist terminology and from a Buddhist Zen Master, you can’t do much better than this passage here:

Love each other…Throw away stubbornness and arrogance. Let go of greed and desire, disolve attachments and clinging, and free yourself from jelousy and envy. With a compassionate smile, entrust all of these harmful states of mind to your foundation, and let them melt down and become one. This is the love and action of a Bodhisattva.
 – Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, ‘No River to Cross’, p.78

Jogye Order International Seon Center Opens

This just in from the website of the Jogye Order:

The Jogye Order International Seon Center is now open to be a center to promulgate Korean traditional culture and Korean Buddhist meditation (Ganhwa-seon) to the world. The opening ceremony for the newly built center in Seoul was held on November 15. Jogye Order President Ven. Jaseung, members of the Council of Elders Ven. Jeongmu and Ven. Jongha, Director of the Bureau of Education Ven. Hyeoneung, Director of the Bureau of Dharma Propagation Ven. Hyechong, President of the Central Council Ven. Boseon, National Assemblymen Choi Byeong-guk and Jo Yun-seon, and local officials and other monks and nuns with over 1000 people attended the ceremony.

Here’s the full report.
And here’s the new International Seon Center.

The Five Precepts

Early next year the Bangkok Hanmaum Seonwon will be holding a ceremony for those wishing to formally take Buddhist refuge and precepts. The exact date has yet to be announced, but anyone interested in taking part is encouraged to come along to the next Bangkok Seon Club for more details.

Last month, as we continued our discussion at a local ice-cream place, the topic of next year’s ceremony came up. Someone asked about the exact wording of the precepts in the Hanmaum tradition, and so here they are, as written on my own Certificate of Precepts witnessed by Chong Go Sunim:

The Five Precepts

Being in harmony with one’s fundamental mind is the source of all upright behaviour. So always observe within yourself, returning there whatever confronts you, and uncover your inherently bright, true nature.

1. The Precept of Not Killing.
Knowing that all other lives are part of my life,
I vow to treat all other bodies as I would my own.

2. The Precept of Not Stealing.
Letting go of desires for others’ possessions,
I vow to cultivate generosity.

3. The Precept of Avoiding Improper Sexual Conduct.
Letting go of lust and harmful states of mind,
I vow to strive to keep my mind pure.

4. The Precept of Avoiding Harmful Speech.
I will not tell lies.
Being careful of what I say,
I vow to live with truth and sincerity.

5. The Precept of Avoiding Intoxicants.
I will never drink to excess.
For the sake of myself and others,
I vow to live within my limits.

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Link: WUaL: On Formally Taking the Five Precepts

seon club notes – part four

Enlightenment does not mean getting rid of an unelightened self and then finding a self that is a Buddha somewhere else.
 – Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim
(‘No River to Cross’, p.59)

Before I write up the last of the great teachings I remember from October’s Seon Club, a short rant from me: The Buddha did not teach that the self does not exist! What he actually said is that there is no permanent, solid, unchanging self. What we usually think of as self is subject to change and is interconnected with everything else. Making the idea, sometimes voiced in Buddhist circles, that we must destroy the self, simple nihilistic nonsense.

In fact, the Buddha could be said to have even developed a kind of self-help programme: the Noble Eight-fold path. This is certainly the view of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who, in an essay entitled ‘Hang On to Your Ego’, writes that “If you open your mind to the idea that the Buddha was actually advocating ego-development instead of egolessness, you see that there’s nothing lopsided or lacking in his understanding of healthy ego functioning.”

It’s also a view I’ve heard expressed by Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu, the guiding light of the Littlebang Sangha here in Bangkok, not least in a talk he gave on the subject a couple of years ago during his annual teaching series: “You DO have a personality” he said, “which in English is what we could call ‘self’. It is not permanent, nor unchanging, and therefore not an Atman,  but it is real. And Buddhism teaches you should develop and nurture this personality”.

I heard much the same from another Therevadan monk not so long ago too, Venerable U Vamsarakkhita speaking in Bangkok, said that the Buddha did not teach detachment. The Buddha did not tell people to cast aside their bodies and thoughts and feelings. Rather, he said, the Buddha taught people to examine them. And then, through this investigation, they will be better able to live in the moment, experiencing a richer more fulfilling life.

And of course our own root teacher, the inspiration for this blog, Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, says much the same, “There is no substance to the I that people have thought of as themselves” she writes. “However, it is said that I has no substance, not because such a reality does not exist, but because what is called I always changes from moment to moment.” And thank goodness for that. It is this constant change that makes our self-development possible.

And in Buddhism this self-development is carried out through the Noble Eightfold Path. The Buddha talked about developing skillful states such as morality, generosity, and wisdom, and breaking free of greed and anger and delusion. Right Effort was an integral part of his 8-step programme; and he encouraged people to support each other in this programme.

But what about ultimate liberation? Does the self disappear then? Despite all that’s been said above, are we, finally, left in a state of non-existence?  I must admit I find the idea of this both frightening and hard to understand. So, back to last month’s Seon Club discussion. “Enlightenment isn’t about annihilation”, Hyedaeng Sunim explained, “it’s about finding your true self, much bigger and more able than you ever thought imaginable”.

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Links:
Thanissaro Bhikkhu: Hang On to Your Ego
Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu: Notes on the Self

seon club notes – part three

Seon Club starts each month with everyone reciting the refuges and a little sitting meditation, and then we sit on benches in a kind of rough circle for our discussion. And every month Mrs Nam brings in a tray with little metal cups, seen everywhere in Thailand, and a big jug of cold water.

I placed my cup on the floor behind me, so as not to get in the way, and leant back to reach for it and have a drink. Sunim, following our discussion about the fairness or otherwise of the world, asked the group “what is the difference between an Englightened and an unenlightened person drinking water?”

“The taste of the water”, someone said. “The quality of the experience of drinking”, someone else added. “An Enlightened person” I thought to myself “would drink noiselessly and without drawing attention to himself!”

Sunim smiled at our answers and said “True. But the main difference in an Enlightened person would be, whilst drinking, the willingness and ability and action to help all other beings also quench their thirst too.”

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Photo: The incredible image that accompanies this post is, like all images in the seon club notes series, a generous contribution from Joseph. Thank you brother.

seon club notes – part two

I’m forever asking questions I’ve asked before, it must be really annoying for Sunim and everyone in the group. But there I was, asking, once again, about relying on the Buddha and transference of merit. Surely the Buddha, in all his compassion, sees my suffering and will give me a hand. Isn’t that what Amida Buddha promises?

“What you mean” someone laughed, “is that you want the Buddhas to do all the work for you!”

Sunim laughed too and gave her response. “It’s like those children’s toys” she said “that always spring up into their original position. So even if someone were to pick you up and carry you to another place, who’s to say you wouldn’t just re-find the position that you are most comfortable with?”

The whole group took Sunim’s analogy and ran with it, saying that it is possible to make our Buddha-naure, or Juingong, our centre of gravity rather than giving that role to our small selves, and that we can rely upon that Buddha-nature to always spring us back up. I’m sure they are right.

I’m also sure that Sunim is spot on; even if (or rather, when) Amida Buddha does carry (or perhaps kick!) me to the Pure Land, unless I make some effort and unless I develop the skill and habit of relying completely on my own inherant Buddha-nature, I may soon find myself back where I started!

“Amitabha Buddha existing within my mind, I vow to hurry and meet.”
 – A Thousand Hands of Compassion