Friday, January 27, 2017

Buddha's Last Words

Have been reading Mary Oliver's poem The Buddha's Last Instruction today:

"Make of yourself a light"
said the Buddha,
before he died.

I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal—a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.

     An old man, he lay down
     between two sala trees,
     and he might have said anything,
     knowing it was his final hour.

The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.

     Around him, the villagers gathered
     and stretched forward to listen.

Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.

     No doubt he thought of everything
     that had happened in his difficult life.

And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire—
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.

     Slowly, beneath the branches,
     he raised his head.
     He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

Such a simple poem. Nothing fancy, no fancy rhymes, nothing; except a vivid picture of a rising sun and a setting sun. Beautiful in its simplicity and directness, it points out the power the Buddha's message has to illuminate our lives, if we only sit, notice, and let it wash over us.

Light and darkness have always been synonyms for enlightenment and delusion. Here, as the Buddha's body comes to an end, his message, who he is, begins to rise, dispelling the darkness for those eager to hear his message.

The first time i read it, i thought that Mary's comment, "I think of this every morning" was in relation to the opening words of the poem. I've decided that that can't be right, and now think that she is referring to the stanza after this. When you sit, and live, for that matter, in what Shunryu Suzuki called Beginner's Mind, you come to understand at the gut level just what Mary is saying, that as he approached death, the Buddha could have said anything. Anything. His disciples and the people in the region hung on his every word. He could have told them that to seek enlightenment they had to do X, Y, and Z. That they had to believe in A, B, and C. That the only sure way to enlightenment was to go back to the sacrifices and rituals of the Vedas. He could have said anything.

And the sad fact is, the people who gathered around him on that day, leaned in, ready to accept anything. Even though, all his life he had taught that he was not the teaching, just the messenger. The message had to come out of them, themselves.

As he lay there dying, as he gazed out over the crowd of people, i'm sure there was this palpable feeling amongst the people of something coming to light. And as he made eye contact with people, it was probably as if those beautiful, warming rays of sunlight were touching each of them personally.

When word first started to spread that he was dying, for most people, the light in their life had suddenly gone out. Now, as he looked out over his flock, the sun was beginning to rise again. The warmth of his love spread over everyone, with each and every person soaking it in as if it were their own. There was still time, they hoped, for him to impart one last message, one last teaching.

He could have said anything. He could have said nothing. But they were afraid, they needed something. Slowly he raised his head. One-by-one he looked them in the eye to make sure they were listening. And when they were ready, he spoke his last sentence, washing them all in the brilliant light of his love.

Make of yourself a light.

The truth doesn't die with my body. The truth is in each and every one of you. The light can only be found in one place — inside yourself. Remember all i've taught. Remember that, as i managed to find the light, so too can you. Remember that the way is inward, not outward. Remember that the clouds can be removed, that the light can be seen. Remember, this is your challenge, not anyone else's. You can only work this out on your own, no one can offer any more than a pointing finger.

And remember, that you are all in this together. You are all one. Make of yourself a light. A light that shines on all others. Make your life so that it shines as an example to all. Make your life so that it serves to help all. Make of your life so that what you do, say, and think benefits all. Make your life shine as bright as the sun in the sky.

Mary is right to remind herself each morning that the Buddha could have said anything, but he chose to remind everyone that their lives were up to them. He could have said anything, but he chose to remind them that their duty was to light the world, not seek an external light. He could have said anything, but he chose to tell us that each and every one of us must start each day with the intention to use the next 24 hours looking for that light within.

Make of yourself a light.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Camino de Santiago

I think i've decided that i will finally walk the Camino Frances within two years. Maybe sooner. The time feels right.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Did You See That?

Another nice quote from some of my notes on Nisargadatta Maharaj:

"Learn to look without imagination, to listen without distortion: that is all. Stop attributing names and shapes to the essentially nameless and formless, realize that every mode of perception is subjective, that what is seen or heard, touched or smelled, felt or thought, expected or imagined, is in the mind and not in reality, and you will experience peace and freedom from fear."

Nisargadatta Maharaj

This doesn't mean that nothing really exists "out there," and that everything is a mental construct. No. What it does mean is that as we receive perceptions of that external reality through our six senses — eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin contact, and thoughts in the mind — our brain then MODIFIES EACH AND EVERY ONE of those perceptions.

At the first level, it may be a physical modification. Do your eyes see the same color i see? On the extreme end, some people are color blind. Do your ears hear the same sounds as i do? People have different hearing abilities, some more acute than others. Do you smell reality the same way i do or are you more or less sensitive to odors that others? And the same for all six senses.

After that first gate, then every perception is run through out mind, where the raw input is modified based on our beliefs, desires, current state of mind, ideology, religious beliefs, political leanings, memories of past events, expectations of what we thought we will perceive, and on, and on.

And this doesn't even bring up the Buddhist beliefs of karma, and all the seeds of past events, thoughts, actions, stored in our alayavijnana, our store consciousness.

As teachers everywhere tell us, what we say we perceive, in almost every case, is not "reality as it is," but reality as we want to perceive it, as we have been taught to perceive it, as our history has led us to expect to perceive it. But is is not the Truth.

Teachers are constantly telling us to stop this habit — because that is all it is, a habit. Teachers tell us to simply notice that this is what we are doing and to work to undo the habit. This is learned on your meditation cushion.

Thursday, January 12, 2017


Found this quote in some old notes i have taken during past readings of Nisargadatta Maharaj. Gotta love the man — short, to the point, and spot on.
(Not quite a direct quote, i make one comment in the middle, but close enough to merit " ".)

"Our spiritual growth takes place in four stages:

"At the lowest level is our normal everyday conditioned existence. We live our days with our hopes, fears, desires, beliefs, book knowledge, and the countless other beliefs that we have been taught, actively and passively, to be “true.” We live our days believing that this body and mind are who we are.

"With some amount of meditation we can see above this falsehood. We can see that above and beyond all those conditioned beliefs, what is really “true” is that “I Am.” I am; no more, no less, but the old conditioned beliefs are now seen to be false, to not be who we are. Everything we believed before is seen to be impermanent, constantly changing, coming and going, so it can not be used to define who we are. We are above all that.

"With more meditation we are able to reach that place where we see that even this “I Am” is temporary. Just by saying “I Am,” you still have one foot in the old objective world. Therefore, even this, too, can not be who we are. In meditation, you can crawl between any two thoughts (my analogy, not his) and come to that place where you see that simple consciousness is the holder of even that “I Am.” “I Am” can come and go, but this consciousness remains. We are this consciousness and it begins at the moment of conception, even though “I Am” may take a year to develop after birth.

"With dedication, perseverance, and a relentless drive to go further, though, you can get to where you can see that even this consciousness is changeable and temporary. If you go mad, or use drugs, or get unbelievably angry (etc.), your consciousness takes a different appearance. It manifests differently. Therefore, being temporary, being changeable, it too can not be who you are.

"You come to See that above this consciousness that manifests as your physical body/mind, that manifests as the physical world, there is simple, all encompassing, ever present Awareness. Absolute awareness. That manifests as your consciousness, my consciousness, as everyone and everything. This unchanging omnipresent Awareness is who we are, and we have reached the end of our search.

"Does this Awareness know itself? No, it simply Is. It can only know itself through a manifested consciousness. This awareness always is, whether or not there is a conditioned being, a non-conditioned I Am-ness, or even a manifested consciousness.

"Our goal is to focus on the awareness, and nothing else. Seek it, not the conditioned experience that many people call enlightenment, which can come and go, can change — hence can not be the ultimate state.

"Seek this ultimate awareness."

[My underline]

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Who Are You?

"If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I think I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for. Between these two answers you can determine the identity of any person.”  
Thomas Merton

Good questions:  
- What am i living for? What gives my life meaning?

- What thoughts are preventing me from a life fully lived to that purpose?

Friday, January 6, 2017

Think You Know Everything?

Struggling with a brush pen with ink that doesn't want to flow all that well. Need a new tip? Just give it time? Don't know, but it still writes the sutra every day so i guess i'll just wait a while longer....

Wanted to add a few thoughts to my Kanjizai post of the other day. It has always been interesting to me that, as has been pointed out in many commentaries on the sutra, the two protagonists here are the paragons of wisdom and knowledge. Sariputra was considered by all to the be the most knowledgeable of all the Buddha's disciples. He knew the abhidharma inside and out, front to back, top to bottom. There was nothing you could ask him about abhidharma that he couldn't answer. He was, apparently, a walking dharmic encyclopedia.

Avaolokitesvara, on the other hand, is the epitome of wisdom, prajna. And that should make all first time readers stop reading, put their book down, and wonder — is there a difference between knowledge and wisdom? If Sariputra is all knowledgeable, doesn't that make him wise? In our everyday world, most people would say yes, they mean the same thing. As a Buddhist, though, they couldn't be further apart; they have completely different meanings.

Just keeping that tidbit in mind, right off the bat it is made clear that they are not only different, but that apparently wisdom has something to teach encyclopedic knowledge; or, conversely, even when you think you know everything, until you understand wisdom you are still a student.

So at the very beginning of the sutra, just after introducing Wisdom as the speaker, we are told that while he was practicing prajna paramita (顴自在菩薩行深般若波羅蜜多時...) he had an epiphany.

What does that mean, practicing prajna paramita? What does it mean to be practicing it deeply; or to be practicing the deep prajna paramita? I prefer to read it as deeply practicing but the difference is subtle. A dictionary will tell you that 'prajna' means wisdom and 'paramita' means going to the other shore, implying the shore of nirvana as opposed to this shore of samsara.

Kanjizai was seated in meditation, in a state of deep and profound samadhi. In that state, there was no longer a Kanjizai, no longer a Sariputra, no longer a meditator meditating. In that state, there was simply Being; awareness purely and simply being awareness. In that state, reality was purely and simply manifesting as what it was, no more, no less. With no filtration taking place through thought processes, predispositions, beliefs, ideas, hopes, desires, past teachings,... or anything else. This was pure, unadulterated, unchanged, untampered with, beingness, doing nothing but what it is...being.

That is the wisdom. Crossing to the other shore means not going anywhere, but simply crawling between two thoughts into that place where you are on the other side of your normal, talkative, endlessly blabbering on and on, mind. The other shore is right here on the zafu you sit on, nowhere else. And once there, seeing reality as it is, as it always has been, as it always will be, in all its naked glory (although that's just adding more useless adjectives) is the wisdom they talk about. 

Once you see this, once you see that this pure and simple awareness located on the other side of your thoughts, once you see that this is who you really and truly are, you have your fingers on wisdom. And at the start of the sutra, this is where we find Kanjizai, that one who sees the true existence of himself. And it is from this place, this deep samadhi, where he sees wisdom spread out in front of him, that the teaching comes.

I picture him speaking very slowly, with a beautiful smile on his face, as he starts by pulling Sariputra into the teaching by calling his name. "Sariputra...."

Sometimes i say to myself, 'ahhhh, to only have been there...' and then i realize i was, and i am, each and every time i sit down with a cup of tea and write out the sutra myself.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


One of the interesting things to me about the beginning of the Heart Sutra is the use of the name Kanjizai (顴自在) Bosatsu for Avaolokiteshvara. In Japan, it seems that almost everywhere else he/she is know as Kannon (観音) Bosatsu instead.

The kanji for Kannon imply a bodhisattva (bosatsu) who actively perceives (観) the sounds (音) of the world. One who listens for the cries of distress and supplications for help by all of us mortal beings stuck in samsara, and who vows to use any means possible to alleviate our pain and suffering.

The kanji for Kanjizai, though, to me, paints a different picture. Of course you can never remove the "the one who listens for the cries of the world" message from any talk of Kanjizai Bosatsu, but looking at the kanji you get another side of who this bosatsu is.

Kan (顴) still means to perceive; more than just to hear, more broadly meaning to perceive with any of the six senses. Ji (自) means oneself, yourself; pointing your finger directly at your heart (or nose, in Japan) and noting that you are referring to only yourself. Zai, or Sai, by itself (在) means existence, to exist.

So, Kanjizai Bosatsu (顴自在菩薩) can be the bodhisattva who directly perceives the existence of him/herself. The bodhisattva who perceives in a direct, unhindered, and unconditioned way, the manner that he/she truly exists. How does he/she do that? As the next phrase of the sutra says, 行深般若波羅蜜多時, he saw the truth of existence while deeply practicing, while deeply immersed in Prajna Paramita.

For me, this alters who Kannon is when i read the Heart Sutra. He/She isn't a remote, unapproachable deity "somewhere out there" who is willing to help when we get to the boiling point and scream out in pain. No, This Kanjizai is an advanced version of you and me, a being that started out in the same shackles that we wear, but over time and with countless amounts of effort, overcame his/her conditioning and finally came to understand just who and what he/she really is. Just who and what he/she really isn't. Who was able to cut through all the conditioning, was able to crawl through the gaps between thoughts, and was finally able to stay there when and for as long as desired.

The egg had been hatched, so to speak. When he/she left the egg a new life came into existence; just as when the silk worm leaves the cocoon and the butterfly springs forth, one life is traded for another, even though the life is the same. 

And it is with this new life, this new way of being, this new ability to simply Be without all the conditioned "stuff" that entombs us now, that Kanjizai was able to sit and perceive what existence really is. And it is with this new life that all pain and suffering will disappear.

And it is only when you get to this point that you can honestly say that you perceive that form is not different than emptiness (and vice versa) and that form is exactly emptiness (and vice verse), and that this is true also for the other four skhandas. Until you get to this point, though, it's all just an intellectual understanding, which is not prajna.

When i hear "Kannon," i imagine a deity other than myself offering to help. When i hear "Kanjizai," i imagine myself sitting on my cushion, immersed in prajna paramita, and one day crawling out of the cocoon. In just the first few kanji, the Heart Sutra makes this a very, very personal journey.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year

2017. Already. That's amazing to me. When i was younger, years crept by ever so slowly. I could run, bike, and hike all summer and those months lasted forever. Now, it seems that as soon as i settle into my summer running/biking season, it's over and we're looking winter right in the eyes.

In any case, i'm wishing everyone the very best in this new year. Wishing all a year of fulfillment, a year of growth, a year of deepening love, and a year of success in all that you do.

I hope many of you have downloaded the Insight Timer app and have joined us in the challenge to meditate every single day this year. Look inside the app for the group called 365 Days Together. I would be especially pleased if i saw others from here in Locport joining, but sadly, i haven't yet. I would be almost ecstatic if i heard from some of my fellow henros saying that they are on the team. :-) Please consider joining us.

I have a pretty long list of books that i intend to work through this year, but i'll be spending the beginning months working on three books in particular. Because of the meditation challenge, i want to take the time to reread Daido Loori's The Art of Just Sitting. But this time through, i will slow down and let each chapter sink in before moving on to the next.

I will also spend between now and March working on two oldies, but far from moldies. Both are translations of some of the earliest Chinese writing that could be considered Zen. The first is The Zen Teachings of Huang Po: On The Transmission of Mind. The second book is Entering The Tao of Sudden Enlightenment, by Ta-Chu Hui-Hai.

After that, my plans right now are pretty eclectic. I'm going back to the practice of writing the Heart Sutra once each morning. Whether i use my ink brush pen or just a ball point pen hasn't been decided. I'll know by the end of the first week. On the science and math front, i've recently gotten back in to the habit of reading physics and spent a week with a video series on the discovery of the Higgs Boson. As the year starts, i'm going to pull out old video courses on physics and calculus and run through those again. At the same time, i'm pulling a course off the shelf on the founding of the US, from before the war to the writing of the constitution. Plus two shorter audio courses on the constitution and the prevailing ideals around that time.

As for running and biking, i'm planning on another 600 mile year of runs but haven't decided how much i want to do on my bike. My leaning right now is to simply aim for 600 miles on that as well, even though i know that isn't very much riding. We'll see. And, of course, there is my yoga practice; one class a week down at the yoga studio and several times a week in addition here at home. Would like to get up to 4 times a week at home, but don't know if that will happen.

I'll be on Shikoku for almost all of April this year. There's a chance i could be on the Kumano Kodo trails in October and then back in Shikoku again in November, but those trips won't be decided until this summer, most likely.

So that's how my year is looking. I'm excited about all these plans. Wishing all peace and love.

Happy New Year.