Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Free Buddhist eBooks

I found two excellent websites that offer FREE Buddhist ebooks (as pdf's). The first is the Numata Center, publishers of Gudo Nishijima's translation of Dogen's masterpiece, Shobogenzo. This title, amongst a handful of sutras (the Vimalakirti and Lotus Sutras, Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, and the Hui Neng's Platform Sutra, to name a few) is available for free download. Click here to check it out.

Another great site is For an extensive list of free ebooks as pdf files, click here. For general resources, ranging in everything from Buddhist comic strips, audiophiles, to an online magazine, click here.

As these are free resources, please support them with a donation if you can. If you know of any other open source resources, please feel free to share them below.

Happy reading and tons of metta.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The impermanence of laundry

If you're anywhere as neurotic as I am, weekends are more stressful for you than the work week. I try to cram all of my chores--cleaning, vacuuming, laundry, yard work--into Saturday morning, so that I can "relax" the rest of the weekend. I don't know about the Zen"just doing the dishes," but when I'm unloading the dishwasher, all I can do is think about the next five items on my to-do list. When I'm home, I'm thinking about going to the gym; when I'm at the gym, I'm thinking about being home with the kids. It's textbook dukkha.

I'm stressed in the car ride home from work because I miss my family and can't wait to get a head start on ironing my clothes for the week (crazy, I know).

When I'm doing the laundry, I swear I have to fight back the temptation to take off the clothes I'm wearing and throw them in the washing machine. I'm haunted by the impulse to get things over with "once and for all," for finality. And of course it's unobtainable. As a Buddhist I'm well aware of the fact that nothing stays the same from moment to moment, not my mind and not the bathroom sink. No sooner is it clean than it's already getting dirty.

That's the nature of reality--impermanence. And the more I practice the more aware I am of my resistance to it. I think it's human nature to seek permanence, to assuage the existential dread of uncertainty. We cling to the dual fantasy that things are permanent and that they can actually satisfy us for good. ("If I only get this one last [fill in the blank with your obsession of choice], I'll be fulfilled." What a joke!) Both are impossible, and yet I still find myself fighting the circumstances of my life. Deep down I know that I will have to vacuum the stairs again next weekend, but that doesn't stop me from attacking them as if this time could somehow be the last.

Nothing illustrates this more than the laundry basket--the moment it's empty, it starts to fill back up. Whatever satisfaction I gain from completing the laundry is short-lived. Soon it dissolves, replaced by...dirty socks and towels.

I suppose that's the heart of our practice--learning how to accept things as they are, to stop resisting, not in resignation, but with genuine wisdom. That's easy to say, but harder to put into practice. For while I know this intellectually, I'd be lying if I said that next weekend that seductive voice isn't going to return, saying, "Hurry up and do the laundry," torturing me with the temptation of finality. Of control, of lasting fulfillment.

All of which are illusory.

I guess, like everything in life, it takes time to truly understanding this. We sit and meditate, pay mindful attention to the fleeting nature of the the mind, until we know impermanence in our bones. Until we are the impermanence, the flux and flow of life.

But that's a long way off.

In the meantime, I guess I might as well relax while I can; Saturday is still almost a week away.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons Flickr user: Sappymoosetree.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Happy Bodhi Day!

In Japan, December 8 is observed as the day the Buddha reached enlightenment. For Buddhists, I suppose, it's kind of like Easter is to Christians.
Last night, I tried to explain to my four-year-old daughter the significance of today's date. I told her the story of the Buddha, and to simplify it, I said that today, many years ago, Siddhartha Gotoma sat beneath the Bodhi tree and became a Buddha.

To this she said, "So it's his birthday."

At first I was about to correct her, but then I realized that in a way she was right. In a sense, the Buddha's awakening was a kind of rebirth.

Sensing this, she said, "Can we have a birthday party? With pink and blue balloons!"

I said maybe. I'm such a sucker.

Today is a very--if not the most--important day for Buddhists (or at least for those who recognize today as Bodhi day). If I could, I would take the day off work and sit in meditation. Next year I plan to. For me, today is the anniversary of one of the greatest moments in history--the day that Buddha realized the Dharma.

I can never express enough appreciation for the Dharma and the Buddha's selfless commitment to humanity. Every moment of every day I try to embody the Awakened One's extraordinary teachings. Thank you so much, Buddha!

With infinite reverence and gratitude, I bow.

Photo of Bodhi tree borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Peter Garnhum.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Don't forget to smile :)

Who ever said that Buddhist's don't have a sense of humor? Here's a little Buddhist cartoon I thought up:
"Gee, this sure doesn't feel empty!"

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Abraham Lincoln's Photography.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Where did my "I" go?

Last Sunday I was sitting zazen in the zendo when I started to feel woozy. My head became heavy and my mind spacey. I've had similar symptoms before when my blood sugar drops (I'm mildly hypoglycemic).

This put me in an awkward position. Should I get up and tell the jikido? I wondered. Or should I just sit it out? Trying not to get too anxious, I decided on the latter and just began to observe the sensations. Peering inside, I tried to penetrate the feeling of unreality. Quickly I found it, a kind of solid barrier in my nerves, almost a literal physical pressure around my body. It was manageable and not too unpleasant, so I decided to have some fun with it. I probed the feeling deeper, and what I found fascinated me.

The moment I located the sensation, my sense of "I" disappeared. Not in a non-dual, dropping of body and mind Dogen way; but in the sense that for the life of me, I couldn't identify who was experiencing any of this. Sure I knew who I was--my name and memories--but I couldn't locate this sense of I. I've had these kind of depersonalizing experiences before; they can be real creepy. You feel disembodied from your own thoughts and mind. It's very unsettling, not at all like the accounts of Buddhist breakthroughs I've read.

But this wasn't like that. It was more interesting than anything else. No matter how hard I tried to find this sense of I--something I take for granted virtually every moment of my life--I failed. Sure I was conscious and there was awareness, but it was a vacant awareness (I'm intentionally not using the word "empty," for it's a loaded Buddhist word and I don't think this was a case of sunyata. But then again, maybe it was).

Interested, I kept searching for my "I," but it continued to elude me. I think this is what the Buddha meant by anatman. There was nothing I could say with certainty was "me" or "mine," for my sense of "I" had vanished.

This persisted through walking meditation, all the way up until I ate an apple in the car. Then, either as my blood sugar leveled or the drive home distracted me, everything snapped back to "normal." It wasn't any kind of transcendental experience--I certainly don't feel changed by it--rather, it all felt kind of ordinary. Mundane even.

Since then, when a strong emotion arises, I've tried to play with it and search for the "I" feeling. And while the experience isn't as poignant as it was on Sunday, I still can't locate the person feeling any of this. There is only sensations and perceptions.

I feel like Derek Zoolander staring at his reflection in a puddle. "Who am I?" he asks, a goofy expression on his face.

"I don't know," his reflection says back, flashing his signature male-model "look."

And neither do I.

But then again, who is it that doesn't know?

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Jahnia.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Rebel Indeed

The West needs a great Dharma teacher, someone who understands our problems and neuroses; Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche may very well be that teacher. His latest book, Rebel Buddha, is testimony to his extraordinary insight into both human nature and the Dharma. He's a teacher who truly understands how to apply Buddhism to the lives of Westerners, because, despite being born and educated in India, he's lived in the U.S. since the early '90s. Which means he's familiar with all of the challenges of modern American life--everything from road rage and iPods to the stress of managing a career and raising a family.

What impressed me the most about Rebel Buddha is that Ponlop Rinpoche isn't trying sell you his brand of Buddhism. Rather, he wisely recommends that Western Buddhism grow organically. Instead of surgery, he recommends planting a seed and allowing it to grow in a shape reflecting the needs of its (American) practitioners. This is a very radical stance for Ponlop Rinpoche, considering that he studied for years in a traditional Tibetan monastery. But it should come as no surprise, especially in light of Rebel Buddha's title and main theme--Buddhism is a form of radical rebellion, one that runs, to use the Buddha's own words, "against the stream." We each have a Buddha inside, and it will take nothing short of a revolution to awaken it.

Ponlop Rinpoche recognizes that Asian Buddhism in American clothing cannot sustain itself for long; in order for Buddhism to thrive in America, it must take on a life of its own. Despite whatever backlash he might receive from his peers and teachers, Ponlop Rinpoche encourages us to see past Buddhism's Asian cultural legacy, to stop clinging to cultural vestments, and return to the heart of the Buddha's teaching--to the Dharma itself. Historically, Buddhism has always adapted; its migration to the West should be no different.

Rebel Buddha is written in accessible, humorous prose; its tone comfortably conversational. While reading it, I often had the impression that Ponlop was an old friend (or spiritual mentor) and speaking directly to me. I enjoyed it very much and highly recommend you read it. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche will surprise you on every page with his keen and good-humored wisdom.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black and Blue Friday

You don't have to be a Buddhist to see how greedy people are. It's textbook irony that the day after Thanksgiving--a holiday intended to show thanks but that often degenerates into mass gluttony--is dedicated to gratifying our deepest material desires. Shoppers literally fight one another in order to buy their loved one gifts--again, talk about irony. The apotheosis of American greed occurred last year when that poor employee was trampled to death at a Walmart in Long Island. And for what? So some guy could get a deal on his kid's DVD player?

I just don't get it. I don't understand the whole Christmas mentality, how people spend their hard-earned money on crap they don't need, or encourage this senseless materialism in their children by spoiling them with gadgets and gizmos galore. Call me Tyler Durden if you want, but when I turn on the TV this time of year, all I see is greed.

I can't speak for other spiritual traditions, but that doesn't fly in Buddhism. As a Buddhist, you can't make excuses for allowing your desires to run rampant. Chalking it up to "'tis the season" just doesn't cut it. Self-absorption is still self-absorption, and narcissism is still narcissism, regardless of what time of the year is. Mindfulness doesn't go on vacation, and greed doesn't get any "free bee" days. For Buddhists, the Dharma never sleeps.

My recommendation is to to stay home today. Spend time with your family. Show how thankful you are by not buying anything. Because in the end, you don't need it; you're perfect and complete the way you are.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Michael Holden.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Trouble at the book store

Here's a short one. I was in the bookstore today with a coupon but decided that I didn't want to buy anything. As I was leaving, I offered the coupon to another customer (to be nice, figuring that since I wasn't going to use it, someone else might as well--the whole Good Samaritan thing), when in swooped a snooty employee.

"Actually, you're not allowed to do that," he scolded in his snippiest voice. "The coupon was sent to you, not her."

"Oops," I said, feeling like an idiot. Then I accepted the coupon back and walked away.

Minutes later in my car, I replayed the scene over and over again in my head. I mean, here I am trying to be a nice guy, I reasoned, and this jerk comes in and makes me feel like a moron! So what if he was doing his job; he could have done it a little nicer.

This lasted for about two minutes when I finally remembered my practice and told myself to stay mindful, to stop fighting the embarrassment burning in my chest. I took a deep breath and opened myself up to the physical sensations. Soon they began to diminish, and so I started investigating the lingering embarrassment and anger. It was then that I felt their emptiness. Normally when I try to study a strong emotion, it feels like I'm chewing on a hot iron ball. But now, as the feelings were ebbing, I witnessed firsthand their transitoriness. In fact, I couldn't hold onto them even if I had wanted to. It is the nature of emotions (and all phenomena for that matter) to fade and change.

Whether or not I was right or wrong didn't matter. What mattered was that I didn't cling to the experience and its accompanying emotions. I let them arise and diminish, unchallenged. As this happened, I felt a subtle sense of freedom, which itself then faded. (Apparently it's just as easy to get caught by a feeling of freedom--trying to trap it into something solid--as it is with any other experience.)

I drove the rest of the way home, waiting for the embarrassment to return. It didn't. Now I kind of understand what the Dalia Lama means when he says that we should thank those people who challenge us.

They give us an opportunity to practice.

Maybe I should shop at that bookstore more often!

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr used: brewbooks.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mr. Tortilla Head

Just for fun, I'm always on the lookout for new ways to understand or apply the Dharma to pop culture. Last week I was watching Toy Story 3 with my four-year-old daughter and I found myself puzzling over a clever little scene Pixar cooked up.

Woody and the rest of the Toy Story gang have been accidentally donated to day care. There they are imprisoned by an evil gang of toys. As part of their impossible escape plan, Mr. Potato Head must free himself the sandbox where he has been locked. Because his potato body is too big to fit through the narrow hole in his cell, he tosses his appendages--arms, ears, eyes, mouth--through the hole. He then proceeds to attach his parts onto a tortilla! In a jelly-like, wobbly mess, Mr. Tortilla Head maneuvers his way around, eventually helping the heroes escape.

Immediately my mind was sent reeling. "Wait!" I thought, "how can his body parts operate without his potato body? That doesn't make sense."

Where was Mr. Potato Head's control center, his essence? Was it inside of his potato body, or in his individual parts? If the former, then the scene would be impossible because his parts were acting with a life of their own, without his body. If the latter, then in which individual part (eye, ear, nose) did his essence reside? Both were impossible.

By now you probably see the Buddhist connection. Buddhism posits the idea that there is no inherent self or essence abiding inside of us; rather, what we generally refer to as the self is simply the participation of the five skandhas--form, sensation, perception, mental formations (or volition), and consciousness. Nowhere inside (or outside, for that matter) of these will you find any evidence of a self.

The same goes for Mr. Potato Head. There is no essence to him; it can neither be found inside of his entire body nor his individual parts. Because it's a conventional reality. This self-clinging, from a Buddhist perspective, is the root of all suffering, for from it comes all subsequent forms of clinging. This is not to say that the day-to-day 'I' ceases to exist (because it never had any concrete or ultimate reality in the first place). I can still function and refer to myself as 'I,' but now I see the self for what it is--a construct designed for conventional purposes. Mental shorthand.

The Toy Story scene culminates in a symbolic masterpiece, at least in Buddhist terms. Mr. Tortilla Head is pecked to pieces by a pigeon. His tortilla body falls apart, thus exposing the conventional nature of the self.

Mr. Potato Head photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: KiSS_Ze_CHeF.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smoking Buddha

Can a Buddha be a chain smoker? An alcoholic? Be a gambler or have some other kind of clinical obsession/addiction? This was the topic of conversation I had the other day. My friend commented that she was turned off by a Buddhist teacher because he was a chain smoker. She didn't know how seriously she could take a teacher who didn't have the will power to stop smoking. This may sound moot, but given Buddhism's emphasis on desire and clinging, I think it is a perfectly valid question; it begs us to ask, "What is a Buddha?"

Stories of the Buddha often paint him as a serene, beatific being, immune to the turbulence of events around him. Although still human, he has transcended all earthly desire. This picture reminds me of a saint--in the world but not of it. Clearly, smoking is inconsistent with this image of the Buddha. But we all have to use our own personal judgment to determine how much faith we put inside this image of perfection.

I think that part of the confusion has to do with the terms we use when discussing enlightenment. In Zen (some schools at least), a great deal of emphasis is placed on satori, a breakthrough or enlightenment experience. Much of Rinzai training aims directly at this. But is satori enlightenment?

Every couple of years the Buddhist community is shaken by scandal, where some highly respected teacher is accused of abusing power (usually sexual). So what about these guys? Are they enlightened? Obviously they don't match the traditional image of the transcendental Buddha seated on a lotus flower.

My best answer is that these teachers may have had an enlightenment experience but are not themselves enlightened--if they were, they would understand that their actions are harming others and would therefore refrain. Of course all humans are going to have habits and personality tics--I don't think that enlightenment scours all that away--but I have a hard time reconciling severe behavior disorders with the image of a fully enlightened being. Perhaps that is naive or idealistic of me.

So, can a Buddha be an addicted smoker, gambler, drinker? My gut tells me no, but then again I'm not enlightened. I'll tell you when I get there.

What do you think?
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: AndyRamdin/

Friday, November 12, 2010

Psychotherapy and Spirituality

I recently finished reading Mark Epstein's Psychotherapy Without the Self, and found his treatment of the subject fascinating. Let me begin by saying that I'm not a psychologist--I teach high school English--so I'm certainly no expert in the field of psychotherapy. Epstein, a psychotherapist himself, leans towards traditional Freudian psychonalysis. Most of the text synthesizes the work of Freud and a British psychologist named Donald Winnicott with the Buddha's teaching, namely that of anatman or no-self.

The book is denser than some of Epstein's other mainstream work (I'm thinking of Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going on Being), the prose tighter, the material more challenging. It certainly is not your usual feel-good Buddhism-meets-psychology title; this is serious psychoanalytical theory.

A point that resonated deepply with me was Epstein's response to Jack Engler's famous statement, "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody." I first heard this from Ken Wilber, the amazing American uber-philosopher. Basically what it means is that before you transcend the ego, you must heal it first. Jumping over neuroses won't cure them. You may experience transcendental bliss during deep samadhi, but the moment you snap out of meditation, your old mental hang-ups will still be there to greet you.

Epstein challenges this. He points out that this assumption may cause more pain than it relieves, in that it implies that psychotherapy and meditation are at odds, or at the very least that the latter picks up where the former left off. This tends to split the self into two: a psychological and a spiritual being--a false division, according to Epstein. It may also frustrate someone on the spiritual path, because the person, perhaps unconsciously or intuitively following Engler's dictum, thinks, "Why am I so depressed (or angry or anxious)? I meditate; I should be happy (or calm or less nervous)." I know I have.

This false dichotomy, "that the meditiatve path can begin only when a cohesive self is attainted[,] is to run the risk of ignoring meditation's impact on the infantile narcissistic residue" (38). In other words, meditation can help people confont and understand the source of their suffering. Meditation and psychotherapy need not be at odds; in fact, they can work cooperatively to reveal the true nature of the self--impermanent, conditioned, and empty.

I like this a lot. It highlights a conflict I have found in my own practice: why aren't I a calmer person as the result of meditation? This leads me to feel guilty and/or ashamed, because it's hard not to feel like a Buddhist failure when you find yourself still frustrated by the stress of mundane events (I should be above all this! the thinking goes). But that's not true (or fair).

There is no spiritual me as opposed to some mental, everday me.
Overall, Engler and Wilber, I think, create an unnescessary false dichotomy in the self through their maxim. Epstein puts it best when he writes, "My ultimate position [is] that both 'somedbody' and 'nobody' are fasely reified positions that do not do justice to what it means to be a person or to grapple with the self" (16). Well put.

As I think the above quotations suggests, in this book Epstein explores the self in all its complexity and inner conflict. I highly recommend this title, especially for those intested in psychology. Check it out; I think it's well worth the read.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I won't Kill Bill

Not so long ago I overheard two Buddhists discussing films, and was surprised when one of them said that Kill Bill was his favorite movie. Really? I wondered. Are Buddhists supposed to watch--or rather enjoy--movies like that?

If you haven't seen it, Kill Bill bears Quentin Tarantino's bloody signature--gore, violence, rape, and other nasty subjects. I haven't seen the movies in years, but I do remember disliking it. Not because I was a Buddhist (I wasn't practicing then), but because it just struck me as crude and senselessly violent (in one scene Lucy Liu gets her arm severed and paints the room--I mean literally paints the room--red with blood).

So should Buddhists watch these kind of movies? Zen sometimes takes a liberal stance regarding morality. Stories abound in Zen lore of eccentric masters who drink alcohol and visit brothels, all in the aims of saving people (the Bodhisattva's Vow) via upaya or skillful means. Or so the stories say. But then again, violence and drinking alcohol are two different things entirely.
And still, every book I've read about Buddhism disparages violence. Thich Nhat Hanh, a modern Zen master and near iconic Buddhist figure, rejects any form of anger as poisonous.

On a personal level, I question how I can claim to dedicate myself to a life of peace and nonviolence when I'm watching movies like Predator and Goodfellas on the weekends. Am I taking this too literally, am I being a stick in the mud?

Then again, don't movies saturated in violence violate the core Buddhist tenets of metta, karuna, and bodhicitta? Based upon the historical Buddha's teachings, he clearly rejects any forms of violence.

Part of me thinks that changing what we view or read to coincide with the Dharma is just taking Buddhist practice too far or too seriously; while another part of me thinks that this is exactly what practice requires--a complete and utter dedication to walking the Path. It's not just about sitting on a cushion, chanting, or walking meditation. If we want to transform ourselves we need to transform all of ourselves. Right?

And yet I still love Conan the Barbarian and Fight Club. I haven't watched them in years. Not because I'm Buddhist, but because I have children and don't have any time!

And if we choose to renounce violence, where do we draw the line? Shakespearean drama is rife with it--just read Macbeth or Othello. But that's considered high culture. And how about other explicit content? Should we give it all up?

Is there a difference between Hamlet and Laertes' duel and Lucy Liu slaughtering dozens of Yakuza mobsters in a literal bloodbath? I think there is.

Or maybe I'm just backpedaling. Maybe Thich Nhat Hanh is right and all violence is wrong. My gut tells me that the Buddha would agree.

Either way, at the end of the day each person has to make his or her own personal choice about what to watch, read, and view, and what not to. Personally, I know that I won't be watching Kill Bill or any film like that. And this time not just because of my children, but because I'm trying to cultivate compassion and stop feeding the flames of anger.

Basically because I'm a Buddhist.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: luvi.

Monday, November 8, 2010

American Buddhism

A popular discussion in Buddhist circles these days seems to be how "authentic" Western Buddhism is. I find this a puzzling debate for several reasons.

First, Western Buddhists, from what I've seen, appear to be very dedicated. Since many have converted to Buddhism--they haven't inherited the practice from their parents--they are energetic and engaged, as opposed to (and this, admittedly, is secondhand information, as I have never personally travelled to the East) some of the more "going through the motions" Buddhists in many East Asian countries. What I mean by that is that you don't see many Western Buddhists praying to the Buddha for a salary raise. Western Buddhists, for the most part (and again this is a generalization) are serious about their practice and don't expect worldly rewards from it (in the form of gifts or good health). They don't try to butter up the Buddha the way many people do God.

A more puzzling argument is that Americans are "Americanizing" Buddhism. This strikes me as just self-evident. For some reason people think of Buddhism as an a-cultural phenomenon arising in an a-historical context. This is absurd. Take Zen, for instance. Traditional Indian Buddhism evolved into Mahayana Buddhism, which then took root in China, adapting into Ch'an, Pure Land, Hua Yen, etc. Why should Buddhism's migration to the West be any different? To disregard the fact that Buddhism obeys its own teachings of impermanence is foolish; it invites a kind of sectarian elitism, the old "I got the real Buddhism, while everyone else doesn't" mentality.

Zen is a Japanese form of Buddhism; it's what happens when you transplant Chinese (Ch'an) Buddhism onto Japanese soil, the synthesis of Buddhism and Japanese culture. And Ch'an Buddhism is how Indian Buddhism takes form in China. Many Westerners, in their attempt to stay "true" to Buddhist tradition, fail to see this.

The fact is that Buddhism in the U.S. will not look the same as it does in Japan or China, or anywhere else in Asia. Why? Because America isn't Asia! Why should we disregard all that the West has to offer--psychology, science, etc.--simply to preserve something which by its very nature must change?

Buddhism will adapt; it has for 2,500 years, surviving persecution, political upheavals, and foreign invasions. I think it can sruvive a culture of iPode and cell phones. But the only way it will thrive in this new soil is by adapting. Thich Nhat Hanh has been extremely succesful at this by recasting the form of Buddhism to suit the needs and understanding of Westerners. For instance, he offers a positive approach to the teaching of shunyata or emptiness in the form of interbeing or interpenetration. This is far from the watered down "Western Buddhism" that many skeptics predict or accuse the West of.

I like to think of Buddhism's migration to the West as possibly the final dissemination of the Dharma, perhaps the greatest one in history.
Photo, "The Western Buddhist Order of the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara," borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Triratna photos.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Labeling thoughts - Part 2

In my last post, I discussed my practice of labeling thoughts. I realized later that I forgot to mention the most vital aspect to labeling--its long-term purpose.
Before I started Zen practice, I intuitively assumed that the ego was a solid, irreducible entity that existed inside of me and looked out on a separate, external world of objects. Meditation, and labeling thoughts in particular, has begun to erode that view of mine. The analogy I like to use is one relating to birth. When a women is experiencing labor contractions, her cervix begins to thin to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal. This process is called effacing. And that's how I see Zen practice--but instead of thinning the cervix, we're thinning the barriers of the ego.

The longer we sit and examine the nature of experience and this so-called 'I,' the less solid our sense of self becomes. In fact, no matter how hard we try to find the center of our being, to isolate some irreducible core, the more it eludes us. It's like the picture above--an endless hallway of shifting selves. In Buddhism, this is explained by the teachings of anatman and shunyata. According to the principles of no-self and emptiness, we lack the very thing that we falsely imbue ourselves with--an essence.

That's where labeling thoughts come in. The more we confront our ego-driven habits and impulses, label and acknowledge them, the more aware we are of them, and conversely, the less powerful they become. The barriers of this this false construct, the ego, begin to thin, to efface so to speak, and we experience moments of freedom. Freedom from greed, anger, jealousy, ill-will.

From my own experience, I have found labeling thoughts vital, in that it forces us to confront our own narcissism and eventually realize that the ego we are endlessly serving to protect and appease, is not a fixed, solid entity at all.

Like the thinning of the cervix, the effacing ego gives birth--to our true nature. Our true face before our parents were born.

Or so I'm told...

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: !unite.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Vote with compassion

Well, tomorrow is November 2nd, election day, and I couldn't imagine our country being more divided. Republicans, Democrats, Tea Party--everyone is playing the blame game. "See where that party has gotten you! Vote for _________." As I watch the tide of negative political ads stream by, candidates spewing hateful vitriol, I'm astounded by their complete lack of compassion. One of the problems in this country (as always) is that we're being divided along party lines, driven by people committed to their party's ideals.

As Buddhists, we know that principles are a tricky thing. Buddhism, unlike other religions, doesn't have commandments; it has precepts. Precepts are guidelines, not concrete rules of moral longitude and latitude that one has to obey all of the time. The precepts are flexible. If there's one thing that Buddhism stresses, it's living wisely, avoiding doing something just because someone tells you to do it or because you've done it that way in the past. The Buddha encouraged us to think, examine, and question. This includes morality itself. Political views can often degenerate into a series of holier-than-thou arguments--"You're wrong because I'm right." Which is basically a way of saying that I'm right because my parents raised me a certain way and I grew up under such-and--such conditions, and you're wrong because you...didn't. Or because you don't agree with me.

Too often politics is reduced to a battle of egos.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, and the best advice I can come up with is to vote with compassion.

As corny as it may sound, whoever you vote for, whichever party you chose, I would hope that you vote for a candidate who is compassionate (as well as wise). Ask yourself, does _______ really have the People's best intentions in mind, or is s/he just trying to further his/her party's aims? Stir the pot? Exploit an opportunity?

Of late, I've noticed a lot of of angry politicians--do they have the best interests of humanity in mind, or are they just plain old angry?

I'm sorry to say, but I think there are a lot of candidates/politicians who couldn't pass this simple test.

So my suggestion is this: While you're in the voting booth, regardless of which party you belong to or which candidate you endorse, look deep inside and ask yourself why you're voting for this person instead of all the others. These are scary, turbulent times, and I think you would have to be a robot not to be emotionally draw into this political theater to some degree.

So close those curtains, peer deep inside yourself, past all the rhetoric and fear, and ask yourself, is this candidate the most compassionate? The most qualified?

Or do they just have my best interests in mind?

Be honest.

Let wisdom take it from there.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: laverrue.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Metaphysical grasping is still grasping

I'm currently reading Paul Williams' magnum opus Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. It's a fascinating read, packed full of information regarding the development of Mahayana. I'm about halfway through the book, and what I've begun to find is that as Mahayana evolved throughout its several-hundred-year development, its metaphysics grew increasingly more complicated.

From the Cittamatra's "mind only" philosophy (Buddhism's brand of idealism) to the Tathagatagarbha sutras' Buddha Nature, I find Mahayana writers/philosophers becoming more and more concerned with metaphysical speculation. Subtle and causal bodies, storehouse consciousness, dharmakaya/Tathagatagarbha/Buddha Nature, all of these seem to delve into the territory that the Buddha warned us about--metaphysical speculation. On many occasions, the Buddha cautioned us about getting caught up in philosophical quandaries, such as "Is the universe infinite?" "Do we have a soul? Is it eternal?"

To quote Stephen Batchelor, in the Pali Canon the Buddha repeatedly said, "Don't go there" to these types of questions. And yet, it seems to me that this is exactly what these Mahayana philosophers were doing. They were debating and speculating about ethereal bodies, the Self, etc.; meanwhile, the arrow of suffering is still buried fast in their legs. The danger, of course, in all this philosophizing is that we're just creating another object to cling to. Mental candy.

Perhaps I am being reductive, but what strikes me as the ultimate slate-cleaner regarding metaphysics is the fact that most of these philosophies don't agree. And since they can't all be correct, reason tells us that, in every place except in bizarre Quantumland, all but one of them must be wrong (unless you argue that they're all different ways of expressing the same thing--a form of upaya--a proposition that I'm growing leery of accepting).

A good question to ask is whether these paradigms are useful. If so, then use them, but don't grow attached to them; they're simply models of reality, not reality itself. When you're done with the raft, the Buddha says, you discard it. If they're not useful, if they're just causing us to run around in circles creating more and more theories, then I think we already have our answer.

Zen tends to avoid all this, in that it demands the immediate engagement of life as it is. Right here, right now. No philosophizing. "If you have a subtle body," a Zen master would say. "show it to me." Uhhh....


I don't intend for any of this to profane, but rather to express my own difficulty in synthesizing these later Mahayana developments into my practice.

For me, the Buddha always returned to the same project--relieving suffering. The way to do that is to stop clinging. And for the life of me, I can't see how positing some subtle ethereal body or complex metaphysical cosmology does that. To me, that's just another example of people getting caught in the cycle of speculation, a form of mental grasping.

What do you think?
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: sand dragon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Anchoring the mind

Over the past several months, the core of my practice has been mindfulness and labeling rogue thoughts as they arise. I learned the technique from Charlotte Joko Beck's Nothing Special, and its emphasis on using emotions and everyday mind states as practice is what drew me to the Ordinary Mind Zen school. In the past, trying to practice mindfulness, during meditation or while unloading the dishwasher, I would simply note a thought as it arose, let it go, and return to an open awareness of my breathing and other bodily sensations. But the difficulty, I found, is that the thoughts would almost immediately return. Pesky little devils!

Now, when I stop, acknowledge the thought with a label such as, "Thinking about meditation again" or "Angry about so-and-so's comment," the thought tends to stay away. Sure, it will rise again, but less frequently. It's as though the label is an anchor weighing the thought down.

An additional advantage of labeling is that it allows me to mentally catalogue which thoughts repeat themselves--to identify where I'm stuck. Whereas when I simply snapped myself awake and returned to the breath or the task at hand (as was my former practice), I lost a vital opportunity to track my thoughts. Now I can monitor what patterns are arising? What rut do I keep falling into?

This practice brings everything to the forefront of my awareness. It shines the light of attention on those slippery little thoughts that tend to slither in beneath the radar of my mind, the pesky ones that just keep returning. It identifies them so that the next time I spot them I say, "Oh you again?" Once I identify a thought, it's hard to overlook it or pretend I haven't seen it when it keeps surfacing.

But like any practice there are pitfalls: it's easy to get caught in the act of labeling and try to analyze or engage the thought itself. That's a trap. It takes practice to get the hang of spotting the thought, gently acknowledging it, applying a label, and then letting it go. But I definitely think it's worth it.

Give it a try.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Plbmak.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Fragmented Self

A few years ago I read The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran. It's an excellent edition, with a beautiful introduction and insightful chapter notes. In the introduction, Easwaran explores the Buddha's meditative insight and experience of nirvana. He says the Buddha experienced something like a particle decelerator of consciousness, so much so that during deep samadhi the Buddha could actually witness individual bursts of consciousness arising and diminishing like quantum matter.

How cool! I thought. I wonder what that would be like. And what's in between those quantum flashes of mental activity?

Lately, as I've been sitting zazen (miles far from deep samadhi), I've been marveling at how discontinuous consciousness actually is. I've found that consciousness--whether it be visual, mental, auditory, etc.--is discrete; it's broken into distinct moments of experience, and any continuity is illusory, a product my mind "filling in the gaps."Kind of the way a film appears to be continuous, but is really composed of a series of rapid-fire frames.

Take sight, for instance. When I stare at my kitchen table, an image appears in my mind; but when I shift my gaze to the sink, there's actually a gap in my visual consciousness as my eyes jump from object to another. What I've been noticing during zazen, as I pay attention to how my mind works, is that consciousness is far from fluid; there are gaps, and it's actually my mind that's filling in those blanks. Sometimes, in the calm of meditation, I get the impression that my whole sense of self is a mental story that I keep telling (or worse, believing); a series of habits, dispositions, attachments, that I have artificially frozen and ignorantly call a solid person. What the Buddha called clinging to a view of self.

Slowly, after enough practice, being aware of this process begins to erode our attachments and ego. For it's hard to think of ourselves as continuous, enduring (permanent) entities when we are constantly observing how fragmented our consciousness actually is.

This has forced me to redefine how I view my practice. I try to view mindfulness as an extension of zazen, where I'm paying close attention to how my brain works, to how my mind creates and edits experience. Not for the sake of mere cognitive awareness, but to help me spot when I'm being reactive and caught in a cycle of clinging. For the more aware I am of my attachments while we're experiencing them, the less likely I am to get caught by them.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: robayre.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Stop...meditation time!

I just recently purchased a meditation timer. Until now I have been peeking over my shoulder at the clock--a real bad habit. Ten minutes into a 25-minute sit and I'm starting to wonder what time it is: Have the laws of physics failed or what? Why is this taking so loooong!

So I glance at the clock every ten minutes or so. Suffice it say, my meditation was both disrupted and agitated. I had a hard time "settling in," to use meditative parlance (or medi-speak as I like to call it). Meditation felt like--although I wouldn't have used this word then--a duty or chore to be performed. So I finally broke down and decided to buy a timer.

Little did I know what I was getting myself into! Meditation timers range from $6.99 to $125. Now if you're anything like me, you're thinking, "$125 for a meditation timer! What, does it meditate for me? Cook me dinner?"

I won't go into any of the specifics or name any brands, but I couldn't fathom for the life of me how a timer could be worth that price. Eventually I settled on a cheaper model and my meditation thanks me.

The first time I used it I felt like I was lost at sea. Every few minutes I had to fight back the temptation to check the clock, or worse, check the timer! Old habits die hard--This piece of junk must be broken! There's no way 25 minutes takes this loooong. You get what you pay for; I knew I should have bought the $125 timer!

After an excruciatingly long time--my brow lathered in sweat and fists clenched--the timer finally chimed. It's about time! I thought.

It took a while for me to adjust. As silly as it may sound, it was an exercise in surrender; I needed to train myself to let go and allow the timer to do its job. What was interesting is that the transition really highlighted my control issues. I never realized how much I was holding back from the meditative experience until I asked myself to truly let go.

Now I'm free (or freer, I should say) to settle into the moment and dedicate myself to sitting. Just be one with the moment and try not to worry about when the timer is going to chime. Let it do its thing and I'll do mine.

Now if only that damn dog across the street would stop barking...
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: jakeliefer.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Great Koan

This weekend I attended a sesshin with the Orindary Mind Zendo at the Garrison Institute in New York state. It was my first retreat with the group and I had a wonderful experience. It's humbling to sit facing the wall for hours at a time--at the mirror of your mind, as Barry Magid the OMZ teacher calls it. You're consumed with thoughts, fears, frustratitions, anxietes--"Am I breathing too loud?" "Why is he swallowing so much?" "What did I get myself into!" "Damn my knees hurt." "Did the jikido(time keeper) fall asleep or what?--this is way longer than 30 minutes!"

And what I came to find is that the thread running through all these thoughts was always I, I, I. Every thought had me as its center. Not once did I think about someone else's discomfort. Naturally, I knew that other people were uncomfortable, frustrated, and anxious; but when you're sitting cross-legged and your back hurts, all you can think about is yourself and your own problems.

Although it might sound mundane or intuitive (duh-uh!), the greatest thing I learned from the retreat was that, even though you may not know the fellow meditators' names or even what their voices sound like, chances are they are just like you. They are uncomfortable and uneasy, perhaps sad and afraid.

If there's one Buddhist teaching that sesshin really drives home, it's that we all suffer. It's our shared inheritance as humans. It binds us together. And with that comes compassion for others' suffering. A sublte shift occurs between "I"- and "you"-oriented thinking, where the center of your mental and emotional gravity is reverses. You realize that your wants and desires are not the imperatives that you once thought they were. A space opens, and in flows the suffering of everyone around you. And with that compassion, and maybe even a little joy.

Sesshin is an extraordinarily transformative experience. I have never felt as close to my practice as I did this past weekend. But the true task, as always, is to carry that into our daily lives. Lay practice is hard--juggling work, family, exercise, friends, hobbies, and of course, practice itself. But there doesn't need to be a dichotomy between practice and our everyday lives; in fact, our lives are the best places to practice. But you already know that.

Charlotte Joko Beck put it best when she said, "Why do you call it a retreat? What are you retreating from?" It's a great question, a koan of sorts. Some might say that for lay practitioners, it's the one great koan--the Genjokoan, as Dogen might call it.

For in truth there is no seperation between our lives and our practice; they are one and the same. The task, of course, is, in the midst of our hectic and frustrating lives, to realize or remember this.

Easier said than done.


Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: h.koppdelaney.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fork in the Dharma

"If you come to a fork in the road, take it!" --Yogi Berra
Lately I've been reading Geshe Tsering Tashe's The Foundation of Buddhist Thought Series, six books that cover everything from the Four Noble Truths all the way to Emptiness and Tantra. I highly recommend them. But as I've been reading, I can' help but be struck by how different these Tibetan teachings are from Zen.

Zen stresses non-duality, the ultimate interconnectedness of the universe. To a Zen master, any sense of a separate self is simply conventional. What I commonly regard as "me" is simply a case of mistaken identity--I am so much more than this limited, individual "me"; I am the entire universe. To quote Charlotte Joko Beck, the ego is a syndrome. It's like mistaking your fingernail for your entire body. In Zen, this is the common explanation for why we suffer--because we think that we are separate from everything and everyone else in the universe.

Tibetan Buddhism, or at least Geshe Tsering's Gelug school, sees things differently. From a Madhyamika Prasangika perspective, we suffer because we falsely imbue objects (including ourselves and others) with a false sense of independent, inherent existence. In other words, we think that objects and people have essences. There is some overlap between the two different schools, but the Tibetan emphasis is clearly on Emptiness while Zen leans towards non-duality.

Are Emptiness and non-duality the same thing, two sides of the same coin? Or maybe two different perspectives on the same principle?

If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I would have said yes. But I'm not so sure anymore.

When I first began studying Buddhism I was shocked to learn that not all Buddhists believe the same things. Imagine that! (How naive I was to think that people of different cultures would resoundingly agree on complex spiritual matters, simply because they all considered themselves "Buddhist.") I'm often amused when writers of a particular school try to pass off their tradition's interpretation as the definitive Buddhism. Enlightenment is..."seeing self and other as the same." "...seeing the emptiness of all phenomena, especially the self." "...the abandonment of clinging." And so on.

And just for the record. I don't even think that these writers do it intentionally. It's probably just a residual force of habit from studying in their school for so long.

Give this a try: Read four of five books of a given tradition, and you'll find that they all keep saying the same thing--"this is what Buddhism is." Then read five books from another tradition and I guarantee you'll find the authors making the same exact claim, except they won't agree with the first school!

So who's right? Maybe "right" is a lousy word, but come on...if they disagree, they can't both be right, can they?

Take Dogen, for instance. His most influential teaching (I feel) is that practice itself is Enlightenment. When you sit zazen, sit zazen. Don't try to attain anything; that's just adding another head on top of the one you already have. You are a Buddha when you practice wholeheartedly.

You would think that since Dogen was awakened, every other Buddhist master would agree with him, right? Far from it.

The whole "Sitting zazen is Buddha" is unique to Zen, and Soto Zen at that. A Tibetan lama would look at you like you're crazy if you said that you were a Buddha while you sat zazen.

"Are you nuts?" he'd say. "You're just as deluded as you were before you sat on the cushion! You haven't eliminated the tree poisons (greed, hatred, and ignorance)., let alone penetrated Emptiness."

And these are not minor philosophical differences; they're major enough to influence every aspect of practice, which explains why Vajrayana looks very different from Japanese or Chinese Buddhism.

Some people may chalk this up to upaya, or skillful means. "Maybe Dogen was simply trying to get us to forget about reaching Enlightenment," they'd say, "and just practice with all our hearts. Striving to 'attain' Awakening like just some other goal objectifies practice." It's possible. But sometimes I think that Buddhists use upaya as a kind of blanket statement to cover up the fact that not all Buddhist traditions believe the same thing.

"So what if koans are radically different from shikantaza. Not to mention Tantra or Mindfulness practice. They're all upaya."

I don't want to turn this into a "What's the real Buddhism?" conversation, but at some point each of us needs to make a decision as to which form of practice best addresses our individual needs. Personally, Zen works well for me, but I am also very interested in the philosophical end of Buddhism, an area of practice that Zen tends to neglect (or at the very least, under emphasize). So I'm supplementing. Is Madhyamika philosophy compatible with Zen practice? I'll soon find out.

One of the most difficult aspects of Zen practice (at least for me) is accepting uncertainty, and that's where I find myself every time I consider this topic. If we're looking for a definitive answer to this dilemma, then we're going to be disappointed--different schools of Buddhism have different doctrines, determined by culture, geography, and politics (to name just a few influences). I haven't found the "real" Dharma, and doubt whether such a thing exists at all.
Part of the problem, I think, may be the need to search for it in the first place. Certainly all of the schools of Buddhism agree on more than they disagree, and finding common ground is more productive than concentrating on philosophical differences.

But I would be lying if I said that the disagreements in Buddhist doctrine don't tie my stomach in a knot and send my head reeling.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: tonystl.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Not to harm a fly

This weekend I had company over. The weather was gorgeous, and so we ate outside. By sundown the mosquitoes were on the hunt. I try not to kill mosquitoes, so when I caught one on my arm, I tried my best to brush it off. I started this habit a couple years ago, about the same time I became serious about Buddhism. Sometimes, accidentally, the mosquito dies in the process.

If I spot a spider in the house, I try to catch it under a cup and release it outside. The same goes for beetles, ants, or other creepy crawlies. You get the picture.

I have to admit, sometimes I feel silly. It is, after all, only a bug, right? What's the big deal?

As a high school teacher I'm very critical of teenager's behavior. (Ten years in the classroom will do that to you!) If there's one thing that I've learned from teaching it's that kids and adults are not that different. The same attitude that upsets me in teenagers is prevalent in most adults I know--namely that they think the world exists for them. Literally, that the world was created for them: animals exist so we can make Big Macs out of them, and trees grow so we can cut them down to make notebooks out of them.

They think that the world was created for humans to do with as they please. To them, Earth is a giant playground for people to have fun in. Or worse still, a giant diaper... (you imagine the rest)

That's why Buddhism is so radical. Buddhists understand that, not only does every action have a consequence (karma), but that the world is a vast interconnected network, so that what I do affects you, and vice versa. In that way, Buddhists are committed to living mindfully to insure that they cause as little harm as possible (which is not to say that you won't find so-called "Buddhists" doing unsavory or unethical things--far from it!).

To come back to our little blood-sucking insect, the reason I don't kill them is not because I think I'll generate bad karma or that squishing the bug will have disastrous environmental consequences in the unforeseen future, but because I know that the way I treat a bug translates to how I treat other people, to how I interact with the world as a whole. If I think that a bug is annoying and squash it for entertainment or because its mere existence is "inconvenient" to me, then how tolerant and compassionate can I really be? (Alan Watts has a great spiel about this, where he criticizes humans for being selfish: we feed off of the world, consuming countless plants and animals throughout the course of our lives, but can't even spare a single drop of blood for another creature. How true it is!) The way we treat an insect, as small and insignificant as it may appear to us, reflects our relationship to the entire world.

That's why I became a vegetarian. I can survive without eating meat, so why make another living being suffer because I don't want to be inconvenienced by adjusting my diet?

That being said, what would I do if my house was infested with termites? I'd hire an exterminator. The Buddhist precept against killing is just that--a precept. It's not a commandment passed down from "up high," something to be clung to at all costs; it's a general rule for living. And like all rules, life will force us into situations where we must make exceptions. My house is built out of wood, the byproduct of dead trees. That's a fact, one that no amount of idealism will change. We live in a world where we must kill other beings in order to survive. As unfortunate as that is, it's a biological fact--right up there with the truth of impermanence itself.

And still...

I'm still far from seeing myself and "others" as the same, but I try my best not kill mosquitoes, or spiders, or ants. They are part of this world too, and have every right to live. (Until they threaten the integrity of my home, that is!) If my body or circumstances demanded it (if, say, I was trapped at the bottom of a well), I would eat an animal to survive. But only if I had to. The mosquitoes in New Jersey don't carry malaria or some other life-threatening disease, so I won't kill them on sight. I'll brush them away. For how I treat them reflects how I view others.

None of this makes me better or superior than anyone else. And yet, I do think it makes a difference--admittedly a small one, but a difference nonetheless. I try to make the world a better place, or at the very least, not a worse one.

I think that, more than anything else, is what makes me proud to be a Buddhist.

Photograph taken by Creative Commons flickr user: James Jordan.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What does a Bodhisattva mean by 'saving'?

Recently I had a conversation with a friend online and the question came up, "What does the Bodhisattva Vow mean by 'saving'?" I've recited and read the vow so many times that the question took me aback. What does 'saving' mean in this context?

The most obvious example is the form that it has taken in Western Buddhism over the past several decades--social engagement. Charitable organizations spearheaded by such Zen pioneers like Bernie Glassman and Thich Nhat Hanh epitomize this kind of social altruism. There is so much suffering in the world, and we can all do out part to help alleviate it.

But while that may relieve people's physical or even mental suffering, is that what the Boddhisattva's vow mean by 'saving'? (Please don't take that as criticism of these very noble causes; I have the highest respect for anyone who dedicates themselves to helping others. I'm just trying to dig deep into the question.) Isn't there a deeper problem at root here, one that can't be relieved by any amount of charitable work--the source of suffering itself? As Buddhists, we find ourselves in a precarious situation, in that we know the real problem in most people's lives is grasping, attachment, whatever you want to call it. But how do you actually 'save' someone from their own self-inflicted suffering?

I know what the books say--cultivate bodhichitta, prajna, compassion. But what does a Bodhisattva actually do? What does this 'saving' look like? In some abstract sense, I know that sitting zazen and following the precepts helps others, but besides proselytizing (wouldn't it be funny to start a door-to-door Buddhist "salesman" movement? Sorry, I just thought the image was funny!), what does 'saving' mean?

Again, as in most of my posts, I genuinely don't know. I personally would love to become a dharma teacher to help others. It's something I feel passionately about, and think (hope is more like it) I would be skilled at. I guess that's one way of helping others in a dharmic sense. But how else? A kind smile to a stranger, a loving embrace to a loved one, being caring and compassionate to someone in need...sure. But how else can this vow manifest itself in daily life?

I guess what I'm really asking is, "What does Bodhisattvahood actually look like?" I suppose all I have to do is look at people like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalia Lama--men who have dedicated their lives to the Dharma, humanity, and global harmony--for the answer.

Wow, that sets the bar pretty high!

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Devil.Bunny

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Who authored the Mahayana sutras?—and does it matter?

Here's a touchy subject. Modern scholarship suggests that Mahayana sutras were composed centuries after the Buddha died. The traditional Mahayana explanation is that the Buddha gave these teachings to his closest disciples to disseminate at a later point because the sutras were too advanced for followers to understand during his lifetime. Some teachers take this literally, while others view this as an attempt by early Mahayanists to legitimate the sutras they themselves were composing. Advocates of the latter theory have no quarrels with the possibility that the Buddha himself did not recite these sutras, for as far as they are concerned, the teachings represent a deep, absolute truth, so it doesn't matter who composed them.

I've been ruminating on this subject a lot lately. Did the Buddha recite the Mahayana sutras? And if he didn't, does it matter? I don't know. I suppose that as long as the Mahayana sutras don't contradict the Buddha's other teachingswhich, to my knowledge, they don't; rather they expand on ideas that were already present in the earlier Canonthen it doesn't matter to me who composed them.

What really interests me is whether or not early Mahayanists believed this. In other words, when Mahayana Buddhism was spreading to Tibet, China, Korea, and eventually Japan, did these "founding fathers"to borrow a phrase from American historythemselves question whether the Buddha himself recited the Mahayana sutras. I think the answer is a clear no. Fifteen hundred years ago, Buddhists didn't have access to the breadth of the Buddha's teachings like we do today. It's probably safe to say that the average Buddhist only heard/read several sutras in his/her entire lifetimehence the reasons why some Mahayana schools devote themselves almost entirely to one sutra. So there would be little if any opportunities to compare the style, vision, and scope of the Pali Canon to Mahayana sutras. For these early MahayanistsTsongkhapa, Bodhidharma, the Fifth Patriarchnot only were the Prajnaparamita sutras the Buddha's teachings, but they may have been the only teachings familiar to them. Or at the very least, these teachings would be considered the most important ones.

This offers a viable explanation to a quandary that has fascinated and perplexed me for a long timewhy Mahayana schools like Zen and Vajrayana tend to de-emphasize what other schools view as core Buddhist teachings (i.e. Mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path). The reason may be that their founders didn't have access to these early sutras, and instead relied almost entirely upon the Mahayana canon. This would explain why, in addition to the influences of local cultures, these traditions branched off in the directions that they didZen emphasizes non-duality while Vajrayana concentrates on emptiness. This would also explain why some later Mahayana masters' teachings don't easily fit with the Buddha's original suttas (I'm thinking of Dogen, who on at least one occasion argues against rebirth, and whose understanding of nirvana is drastically different than the one found in the Pali Canon).

This is a pet theory of mine. I'm no scholar, and I'm sure that greater minds than mine have explored this topic. If you've read about it, please let me know. Either way, tell me what you think.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: nathan x. sanders