The annual Buddhist festival of Wesak celebrates the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. The ceremony takes inspiration from the Buddha’s mythological birth story, and I describe a version of the ceremony and share some chanting from it. Then I discuss the way Wesak helps awaken our gratitude for the Dharma, for teachers, and for all of those beings who have made our lives possible.
The Buddhist precepts aren’t just guidelines help us live moral and beneficial lives, they are also practice tools for studying the self. And, as Zen master Dogen wrote, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off.” When we’re tempted to break precepts, it’s a sign that our “small self” has arisen, and we have the opportunity to observe what’s happening and explore new ways to respond.
Gratitude can be used as a practice to shift our attention from self-centered problems and complaints to an awareness of the miracle of simply being alive. It can help us be less reactive, depressed, anxious, and irritable, and more mindful and – frankly – happy. I explore the practice of gratitude and traditional Buddhist teachings about it.
The Lotus Sutra Parable of the Plants says that just as rain falls equally on plants big and small and each plant takes up what they need, so the Buddha shares the Dharma with all beings without any judgment or preference regarding their capacity, and each being receives what they need. I explore this message as well as the implication that there are indeed superior, middling or inferior practitioners and how this can challenge our ego.
If you practice Buddhism, it’s natural to ask yourself, at some point, “Am I a Good Buddhist?” It’s difficult to see ourselves as a good Buddhist when we fail to act in accord with our own deeper aspirations. And yet, according to Zen, no amount of practice is going make us into a Buddha, any more than you can polish a tile and make it into a jewel. So what is practice about? Ultimately, it’s about radically accepting ourselves while simultaneously honoring the call of our Buddha nature to work hard toward greater wisdom and compassion.
Parinirvana, the death of the Buddha Shakyamuni, is commemorated by a ceremony in mid-February in most Buddhist communities throughout the world. The Buddha gave several important teachings right before his death, and there is teaching contained in the very manner and fact of his passing. In this episode I describe the Parinirvana (Nehan) ceremony in my lineage and discuss what we can learn from it.
For the sake of ourselves and others, we need to learn to Bear Witness without burning out. Bearing Witness means exposing ourselves to the suffering in the world in all its forms out of compassion. At the root of all suffering are the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, so Bearing Witness also means being aware of those forces in the world and the effects they have. This practice can be agitating and emotionally exhausting, so we need to learn how to do it without burning out.
Active receptivity is what we’re aiming to cultivate in zazen, and in the rest of our practice. Despite the emphasis on what we’re NOT doing in zazen, it should lively and energetic activity, not passive. Think of putting aside your physical and mental activities in order to become incredibly quiet and receptive. Shhh! What’s that? It’s like we’re surrounded by the music of a whole symphony that we usually can’t even hear because of our internal and external chatter.
Recent events show how deep a divide has developed within the United States. Those guilty of crimes need to be held accountable, but how do we repair the social fabric of our nation? It may help to renew cultural respect for the value of decorum: Dignified behavior according to social standards for what demonstrates a basic respect for one another’s humanity and acknowledges our mutual dependence. I discuss the teachings on decorum in Buddhism, and how critical it is to social harmony.
Dissatisfaction can lead to Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is a Buddhist term literally meaning “awakened mind” that can translated as “the mind that seeks the way.” It’s the part of us which aspires to free ourselves and others from suffering – arising, ironically, from dissatisfaction. We think, “There must be a better way,” or, “There must be more to life than this.” Then we arouse the determination to find out, and this propels us down the path of practice. Therefore, it is critically important for you be dissatisfied with your life.
You can expect your Buddhist practice to go through a cycle of ebb and flow in terms of energy, inspiration, and focus. At times, hopefully, you feel motivated and determined, and experience a period of learning and growth. Then there will inevitably be periods where your practice loses momentum. It may feel dull or aimless, or you may fall back into old, not-so-healthy habits. It’s important you don’t give up practice in times of low ebb, but instead recognize this as part of a natural cycle.
Part of our bodhisattva path is embracing our uniqueness and finding our own particular, special bodhisattva capacity, talent, and calling. Each of us has our own unique way, or ways, of serving in this world. It just takes some imagination to discover them. Teachings from Avatamsaka Sutra can help stimulate our imaginations in this regard. In this episode I tell five more bodhisattva stories and reflect on how they might manifest in real life.
Part of our bodhisattva path is embracing our uniqueness and finding our own particular, special bodhisattva capacity, talents, and calling. Each of us has our own unique gifts to offer the world which will determine what kind of service we should devote ourselves to, it just takes some imagination to discover them. A teaching from Avatamsaka Sutra can help stimulate our imaginations in this regard.
Kshanti is the Buddhist perfection (paramita) of endurance. Practice can relieve suffering, but it takes work; it isn’t a magic pill that brings instant peace and bliss. An essential part of our practice is learning how to endure – but not in a passive way, but in a determined refusal to be beaten down, defeated, deflated, or stopped in our efforts to relieve suffering for self and other and bring about a better world.
The Lost Son parable of the Lotus Sutra perfectly conveys the difference between hinayana and Mahayana practice. Despite what we may think of ourselves, we already have everything we need – including the capacity for great liberation and service. At the same time, we need to practice in order to grow into our inheritance.
The emptiness of self is a Zen teaching that may seem rather abstract and philosophical, or even kind of nihilistic, depressing, or disorienting. Why does this matter? In brief, knowing the true nature of our self is what liberates us from fear and suffering.
In this episode I focus on how zazen is the dharma gate of joyful ease, because experiencing it as such is so profoundly restorative at a time when our lives tend to be stressful in many ways. I also think it’s necessary to explore the way in which zazen is the dharma gate of joyful ease because that dharma gate is subtle and can be elusive because to enter it we have to let go of all of our normal ways of operating.
Understanding people’s actions can be difficult. Sometimes we can’t help but feel disbelief, judgment, or disgust toward people based on how they respond to the suffering of others – particularly regarding the problems we’re facing as a society such as the climate and ecological emergency, the serious undermining of democracy, continued racial injustice, an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. The Buddhist teaching about the Six Realms of existence can help us understand people’s mind states and motivations, hopefully leading us to greater patience, less judgment, and – most importantly – insight into what might work best to get through to people and help them change.
To create a generous life in a crazy world, I suggest a recipe for practice containing three essential ingredients. A skillful balance of these ingredients helps you sustain energy, motivation, positivity, and equanimity even when so many things are falling apart, corrupt, unjust, discouraging, even frightening. It helps you maintain compassion and take responsibility as a citizen of the world without being overwhelmed and disheartened by the scale of the suffering, and helpf you take joy in your precious life without denying or ignoring suffering and injustice.
When we call suffering beings to mind and extend metta, we face reality while centering ourselves in our true self, which is boundless and interdependent with all of life. We recognize the wellbeing of others is not separate from our own wellbeing. This might seem like metta practice would open us up to even more suffering, thereby increasing our own fear and anxiety, but this is not the case. In fact, metta helps us face reality – an absolutely essential part of our Buddhist practice – while aligned with our deeper nature. This alignment results in a sense of plenty – of having resources to share. It results in a sense of strength, because we are centered in our boundless self and have given up our self-centered concern and defensiveness. Metta practice also counteracts our sense of powerlessness in the face of tragedy or difficult circumstances, and awakens our compassionate impulses to help.