Posts Tagged ‘Awakening’

Touching the Limitless

August 6, 2017

“But do not ask me where I am going. As I travel in this limitless world, where every step I take is my home.”

In the above quote Dogen Zenji, the founder of the Soto Zen School of Buddhism in Japan, captures the essence of the Nembutsu — the core practice of Pureland Buddhism. Nembutsu has many forms. In our tradition, Nembutsu involves the recitation of “Namo Amida Bu.”

“Namo” represents us as unenlightened beings. This is not negative, just realistic. As much as we would all like to be enlightened, the reality is that we are caught up in various conditioned thoughts, emotions, and actions. We get annoyed, angry, impatient, etc. We are blown through life by our past actions and our continuing desire to find happiness and avoid suffering. This is fundamental ignorance.

“But do not ask me where I am going.”

Dogen’s first sentence is the “Namo” of the Nembutsu. This is not an ordinary statement. Dogen’s is not saying, don’t ask me a mundane question like, “Are youflip-flops going to the market?” He is saying instead, don’t be confused about reality. There is no “Dogen-ness” that is going.

He is indicating that if we really look within, we cannot find any SELF that is a true first cause. All that we find are moments of experience arising from/with various causes and conditions. Because we do not see/understand the reality of dependent arising in each moment, we are foolish and deluded beings.

“As I travel in this limitless world,”

In the first phrase of the second sentence Dogen reveals the nature of reality as limitless. This is the “Amida” of the Nembutsu. Amida is measureless. Amida is unconditioned, beyond the human habit of dividing, separating, measuring, and comparing. To see the world as it truly is, we must get beyond the measuring mind. Unfortunately, the mind that measures — the thinking mind — cannot think itself out of our reality conditioned by thought. Amida, the measureless, must break in upon us from “outside” and awaken us from the dream world of conditioned thought. Once we awaken, we begin to see the limitless (Amida) in even the most ordinary of tasks and circumstances.

“…where every step I take is my home.”

In the second phrase of the second sentence, Dogen brings us back to earth. It is not good to be caught up and confused by our fundamental ignorance, nor is it possible to live our entire lives “measurelessly.” We are, after all, human beings. We live and die. We eat, dream, and have lives. Our survival depends on our ability to judge, measure, and make distinctions.

Our awakening must be lived in the world. Living that awakening as a foolish and ignorant human being is the “Bu” of the Nembutsu. Nothing is changed. We still get up in the morning and have breakfast and then go to work. We do all the normal things of life. However, we have seen the Buddha. We have been touched by the reality of the limitless. We have awoken, if only briefly, from the dream of conditioned thought. We have discovered the preciousness of each moment. Thus, our lives are lived more deeply. And, hopefully, we act more lovingly in the world.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Traditions and Beyond

March 20, 2016

“Mr. Shoji had a fifteen-year-old daughter named Satsu. She was smart as a tack and possessed extraordinary powers of insight. Whenever her father went to practice at Shoin-ji [temple] Sats would accompany him. She would sit from evening until dawn in a state of total absorption. Before long she experienced an enlightenment. Once her father, seeing her doing zazen on top of a bamboo chest, scolded her.

‘What are you doing!’ he said. ‘Don’t you know there’s an image of Buddha in that chest!’

Satsu’s reply astounded him: ‘Then please allow me to sit where there’s no Buddha!’”

Hakuin’s Precious Mirror Cave, Edited and translated by Norman Waddell, Counterpoint Books, 2009. Page 199

This is a wonderful story illustrating that once genuine insight has arisen, there is very little difference between various Buddhist traditions. It is story from the Rinzai tradition of Zen, but the message will resonate with Pure Land practitioners as well.

Hakuin_EkakuThough insight transcends tradition, we still need traditions. Traditions preserve and transmit the skills, techniques, and knowledge necessary for deep spiritual practice. They provide an anchor we can hold on to when our identity as a separate and independent being becomes unreliable.

People that are spiritually driven need traditions to guide us. The religious life can be difficult and we need the teachers, fellow practitioners, and guidance that can be found in a particular tradition. For a more casual practitioner, a tradition may not be necessary.

After practicing deeply in a tradition we can broaden our scope to include other approaches. This often happens naturally with mature practitioners. They draw from diverse teachings and traditions to express and deepen their understanding.

Having encountered the Buddha, the Dharma is everywhere. Until we “see” the Buddha, it is best if we follow a tradition that can show us where to look.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Proclaiming the Vision of the Pureland

March 8, 2016

In the first issue of Lion’s Roar, formally known as Shambhala Sun, teachers form various traditions are asked the question, “What is the most important [Dharma] teaching to proclaim in today’s troubled world?” Below is my response.

The most important Dharma teaching is the vision of the Amida’s purified realm of awakening (Sukhavati). It is a realm in which all of the troubles faced by us today have been overcome through the Dharma. There is no prejudice, war, or privation in the land permeated by the compassion of the Buddha.

AmidaIt may be tempting to think of Amida’s Pureland as just a myth, a story for a primitive time before the western scientific model. However, doing so would be a grave mistake. A Pureland is the natural fruit of the practice of the Dharma, both individually and collectively. The vision of Sukhavati shows us that as Dharma practitioners we are co-creators, or perhaps co-realizers, of an awakened and compassion-centric society.

Sukhavati does not only exist far to the West. It is not just a post-death destination. It is accessible in each and every moment. There is nowhere and no one that exist outside of the influence of Amida’s Pureland of awakening.

The vision of Amida’s land of love and bliss, frees us from the compulsive and often disheartening need to see immediate results from our practice. The work of awakening is beyond time. It is trans-historical. Our successes and failures in the short-run are less important than our continual opening to the Buddha.

When our heart is open to the Buddha, our actions begin to reflect the Dharma. We become capable of greater love, compassion, and courageous selfless action than we thought possible.

However, awakening to the reality of Buddhahood also means recognizing our shortcomings, our foibles, and self-clinging. We are humbled in the presence of the Buddha.

Collectively we can create the beautiful music of awakening, which is said to fill Amida’s Pureland. To do so, we need a conductor. That conductor is the Buddha. The sheet music is the Vision of the Pureland. The instruments are ourselves, with our diverse gifts, skills, and personalities.

Ultimately, the vision of Amida’s Pureland is the revelation of the world transforming power of the Dharma, as expressed through unconditional compassion for all beings.

Namo Amida Bu!

Mindful of the Measureless

March 3, 2016

Amida Buddhism is often identified as the spiritual path of “other-power.” Instead of beginning with the dynamic and strenuous yoga of self perfection, Amida Buddhism begins with acknowledging our shortcomings and taking refuge in the Buddhas – that which is other than self.

Chorten_at_Milarepas_CaveWhereas we – self clinging beings – exist in the world of measurement, comparison, and judgement; Buddhas are beyond measure. The qualities of a Buddha are likewise unconditioned. They are Dharma –  spontaneous expression of the measureless reality of awakening. As beings who measure, we cannot truly understand Buddhas or Dharma. As the Lotus Sutra reminds us, “Only a Buddha together with a Buddha can fathom the ultimate reality of things.”

Nembutsu, Mindfulness of Buddha, is the practice of remembering the measureless – the infinite openness of awakening. It is very much akin to Roshi Bernie Glassman’s “unknowing.” Except that in Roshi Glassman’s case, unknowing is something we take on, a sort of practice or training.

For Amida Buddhist “unknowing” is simply recognizing the already existent reality of measurelessness. In the presence of the Buddhas, we see that we are foolish and limited beings caught up in self clinging.

Nembutsu reminds us that we can never see the all the effects of “our” actions, nor understand the multitude of causes and conditions motivating the actions of others. Living in the world, we strive to bring as much love and compassion as possible into each moment. After that, we must let go and take refuge in the Buddhas. In the context of the measureless lifespan of a Buddha, short-term failures or successes are often not what they appear. Gandhi, for example, may have never taken up the struggle for Indian independence if he had not suffered the defeat of being thrown off a train in Maritzburg, South Africa, because he was “colored.”

Nembutsu allows us to trust in the Buddhas. It aligns our life with the compassionate activities of the Buddhas, who can work on and through us, despite of our self-clinging. Indeed, the light of the Dharma often leaks out of those who trust in the Buddhas. Our internal process, which we in the West are obsessed with, is often not relevant to the expression of measureless compassion. Did the mendicant, who inspired Prince Siddhartha to take up the holy life, know that his visit to the village would play a crucial role in the life of the Buddha to be? Was the mendicant in a good mood or a bad mood that day? Was he at peace – joyful? Was he angry or jealous or lustful? We don’t know, and it is not relevant. His presence in the village that day, no matter his mind state, was enough to set the future Buddha on the path to awakening.

Nembutsu means resting in the presence of the Buddhas. It is basking in the spontaneous joy and unconditional love that surround all Buddhas. Having felt unconditionally loved and been touched by the measureless, we can (as the Zen saying goes) “return to the market bearing gifts.”

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Photo: By Greg Willis from Denver, CO, usa (Chorten at Milarepa’s Cave) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Charity is More than Small Change

February 22, 2016

Charity is a fundamentally religious act that affirms the sacredness and value of each person. Unfortunately, Charity as a word and concept has fallen out favor in today’s society. We no longer call groups that serve the poor, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable Charities. We do not usually think about our “giving,” to an individual in need or an organization that helps the less fortunate, as Charity.

The word, charity, comes from caritas which is the Latin translation of Agape – Love.  Thus Charity is an act of love.  Love, as it is used here, is not mere sentiment. Love is the desire for the wellbeing and fulfillment of the other. Charity, as an act of love, is unconditional. It is given to the deserving and the undeserving alike.

Charity is Love expressed through actions for the welfare of others. Without love our generous and kind acts can become a kind of transactional relationship, a social or religious duty to be fulfilled. We may expect certain “returns” for our “investment” of kindness and can be hurt  and disappointed when individuals are ungrateful, apathetic, or even unpleasant in response to our generosity.

The limited human world of birth and death, what Buddhists might call Samsara, is made up of continual measurement – quantification. We are continually judging and comparing. And, not necessarily in a useful way that can help us navigate the challenges of day to day living. Rather we are continually comparing one moment with another moment, one experience against another. It is something that rarely gets turned off and is the source of dissatisfaction. In contrast, the the bliss of awakening – the realm of the Buddhas – is found in measureless love, compassion, and wisdom.

ChenrezigLove, like compassion, affirms our relatedness with everything else. When we “are love,” there is no separation, no isolation, no aloneness. Love cannot be faked. It expresses itself through a thousand little “tells” in our being.  When it flows through us, it can lift the spirits all in its sphere of influence. In awakened beings, Saints and Bodhisattvas, love can be a powerful force that radically transforms lives.

Of course, “being love” – expressing unconditional love and compassion towards others – is not something that we, as beings limited by self-clinging, can do.  Unconditional love and compassion arise naturally as we release our tight grasp on “I-ness” as the whole of our identity. The more that we “get out of the way,” the more our lives become expressions for the measurelessness of the Buddhas.

This “letting go” can arise spontaneously. However, it is usually the result of the continual cultivation of compassion, love, and forgiveness.  These are practiced daily, through acts of kindness to friends and strangers alike, in the forgiveness of small hurts, and the recollection of, and empathy for, the suffering of others. In short, through acts of Charity. We give what we can to each person we encounter. Most of the time it is just friendship, perhaps a kind word, and most certainly a genuine wish that they be happy, peaceful, and filled with a loving heart. Because a heart filled with love is a source of joy which overflows in all directions indiscriminately.

Charity is a religious act of love. Without Charity we are stuck in a world of buying and selling, of mistrust and judgements. Through Charity we express the measureless compassion of the Buddhas. Thus the prayer of pureland Buddhists is, Namo Amida Bu! I take refuge in, or open myself to, Measurelessness of Awakening, which is the source of true Charity.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Image: Chenrezig, Bodhisattva of Compassion

Faith and The Way of the Bodhisattva

February 9, 2016

There are two books that I dip into on an almost daily basis. One contains the shorter and longer Pureland sutras. The other is Shantideva’s, The Way of the Bodhisattva. The Former is epic in its depiction of Amitabha’s valiant vows creating a vast realm of awakening and bliss attainable by all. The latter is a collection of contemplations and meditations to loosen our clinging to self and the world that we believe to be so substantial.

Twenty-Five_Bodhisattvas_Descending_from_Heaven,_c._1300Superficially, these texts seem worlds apart. The Way of the Bodhisattva provides a set of pretty straightforward techniques and trainings in how to cultivate the qualities of a Bodhisattva. It contains chapters on Bodhicitta, Awareness, Vigilance, Patience, Perseverance, Meditation, and other important Bodhisattva practices.

The Pureland sutras, on the other hand, recount a fantastical story that defies rational understanding. They tell the story of a Buddha who lives far to the West and whose compassion and motivation are so pure that he/she has been able to create a realm in which even the most unworthy of individuals can become Buddhas.  Further, the Wisdom and Compassion of this Buddha is so vast that, “There is no place where it cannot be known.” The name of this Buddha is Amitabha (Measureless light), or alternatively Amitayus (Measureless life), or just Amida Buddha (Measureless Awakening).

According to the Pureland sutras, all that is required of us as practitioners is faith in and continuous recollection of Amida Buddha. Doing so ensures our rebirth in Amida’s pureland, where we will eventually become Buddhas. In this life, such recollection of Amida Buddha awakens in us awareness of our connection with the unconditional compassion, deep wisdom, and boundless joy of the Buddha.

Thus we enter the Pureland, and by extension the Dharma, through faith in the Buddha. Faith is not belief. Faith arises as the result of contemplation, examination, and experience. Faith must be reliable, something we can depend on when all else is lost. And to be reliable, our faith in the Buddha must be tested and confirmed by personal experience over time.

Deep faith allows us to let go of “self” centered concern for personal salvation or spiritual perfection, and focus instead on the well-being of others. It is faith in the Buddha that enables us to take up the Bodhisattva Vow to “save all beings.” Faith in, and recollection of, Amida Buddha allows us to participate in the collective expression of Amida Buddha’s measureless compassion. This is the Wisdom Mind-Heart of the Buddhas – Bodhicitta: the desire to free all beings from suffering and the causes of suffering.

This is important. Because if we take up a text like The Way of the Bodhisattva, with the wrong motivation, then we may be confused as to why we are practicing. We may think that we are cultivating patience, for example, so we can become less angry. However, Bodhisattvas cultivate patience not so that they will be less angry, but rather because anger is a barrier to helping others.

We must be careful to avoid making spiritual practice a type of work, a goal oriented practice that we undertake to become better people. The religious life is not about perfecting our personalities. It is, rather, the process of opening. It is the loosening of our death grip on what we believe to be our Self and embracing the Buddha. If we have faith in the Buddha, then awakening and compassion will work through us despite our limitations, flaws, and shortcomings.

If we rely on the Buddha and seek to benefit of all beings, then The Way of the Bodhisattva is an invaluable tool and resource. However, we must be mindful of our motivation. Why are we studying a text like The Way of the Bodhisattva? Do we want to engage in practices primarily to fix ourselves and make us nicer people?  Or do we want dive deep into the ocean of Awakening that is Amida’s Measureless light and become prisms through which that light is refracted in to the world around us?

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Bodhisattvas are the spiritual heroes of the Mahayana. They have dedicated themselves to the wellbeing of others.

In the Presence of the Buddha

October 26, 2015

This past Friday we had a gathering of our local Sangha (Community). It is a time to sit in the presence of the Buddha, chant the name of the Buddha – “Namo Amida Bu”, listen to the Dharma, and share our lives with one another. This particular night was special. It felt as if we were basking in the joyous and loving aura of a living breathing Buddha.

Garden BuddhaOf course none of us present were – or are – enlightened beings. Our practice, however, centers on remembering the Buddha and reciting the name of the Buddha. It is a very Bhakti (devotional) practice in which we are always turning the mind and heart towards the beloved – Amida Buddha.

So it is not surprising that our little Dharma Center was touched by the loving and blissful radiance of Amida. The Buddha is always present. It is we who, blinded by our self obsession, are unable to perceive the limitless compassion of the Buddha. We get caught up in our insecurities, our fears and judgements. We forget that reality is much bigger than our self-centered thoughts and the material world we bump up against daily.

Which is the whole point of reciting the name of Amida Buddha. The name is our connection to the reality of awakening – to that which is beyond birth and death. The name works on us continually – purify our mind-streams. It awakens our hearts so that we can experience Amida’s unconditional love and compassion directly. In Amida, none are unloveable – no matter how misguided. Touched by Amida’s boundless love our hearts are easily broken by the suffering of others.

The name – Namo Amida Bu – is non-other than Amida Buddha. To recite the name is to be in the presence of the the Buddha. Awakening is simply seeing that which is already present. It is nothing special. Yet in a moment of awakening, everything is changed.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Making Friends with our Fundamental Insecurity

July 5, 2015

No one likes to be afraid. Nevertheless, at an existential level, this is the reality of our situation. Nothing is secure. Our bodies are unreliable: subject to disease and death. Relationships change. Material things lose their value and/or decay. Emotions, positive and negative, arise unbidden. Thus insecurity continually expresses itself in various subtle and gross forms of anxiety. This anxiety is what the Buddha identified as dukka.

Our constant state of anxiety (dukkha) is painful. It changes our breathing and our heart rate, creates tension in the body, and stimulates the arising of various anxious making thoughts. Dukkha lies behind our anger, our craving, our need to be distracted. We lash out in anger when we are afraid. We try to accumulate pleasure to protect us from the pain of fear. Or we seek to escape fear through intoxicants be they substances or entertainments.

In short, because of our fundamental state of anxiety we often act in unwholesome ways that actually increase or perpetuate our insecurity and fear. 

Most of the time we are unaware of the subtle level of anxiety that runs continually in our minds. We see only the symptoms: anger, jealousy, desire, and unease. We may even wonder why we are never really happy, even though we know have much to be happy about.

For Buddhists, and probably contemplatives of all traditions, one of the most difficult practices we can undertake is “making friends” with our fundamental insecurity. We cannot fix or change or get rid of it. Attempts to do so are misguided and, at best, only hide this unpleasant and spiritually crippling illness. This anxiety, this illness, is our direct and personal experience of dukkha. It arises because we misapprehend the nature of reality and reify the self as something that is truly existent, i.e. permanent, eternal, and separate. 

We are so focused and identified with “our” thoughts, fears, sensations, etc., that we never see the container within which these contents, the things we mistake for our selves, are held. A container which is none other than Measureless Unconditioned Awakening. 

Thus in Pureland Buddhism longtime practitioners talk about the experience of being held by, or loved by, Amida Buddha. Amida Buddha is the reality in which we swim. Like the ocean itself, Amida supports and surrounds us. To recite the Nembutsu – Namo Amida Bu – is to continually remind ourselves of the vast radiant interconnected reality of Awakening. 

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

Refuge is the Heart of Buddhist Practice

June 12, 2015

If you have an interest in Buddhism, then you have some sort of karmic connection with the Buddha. Those who do not have such a karmic connection, simply will not encounter the Buddha or the teachings of the Buddha.

Even individuals who have a strong karmic connection with the Buddha Dharma may not become practitioners. They may instead be in a situation where they are near the Dharma. They may live close to a Buddhist temple. Perhaps they have a relative or spouse who is a practitioners, or maybe they have met Buddhists teachers or read Buddhist books.

However, for those who have a karmic connection with the Buddha and and wish to follow the Buddha, then “Taking Refuge” in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – The Triple Gem – is the explicit act of faith. Taking Refuge in the Buddha contextualizes the “worldly,”  and much advertised, refuges of: Youth, Beauty, Wealth, Power, Prestige, Romance, Intoxicants, Entertainment, etc. While these refuges may bring some happiness or escape from suffering, they are temporary and often entail their own forms of suffering. Youth fades with age. Power breeds enemies. Prestige knows jealousy.

Taking Refuge in the Buddha is not a one time thing. It is an ongoing and ever deepening process. Refuge is the heart of Buddhist practice. If we could truly and completely take refuge then all of our actions – in body, speech, and mind –  would perfBuddha Wallectly reflect the Buddha and the Dharma. No other religious practices would be necessary. We would naturally live according to the Dharma. It would not, for example, occur to us to respond to hatred with anything other than compassion. Likewise we would not engage in harmful speech, action or thought. Such behavior would not be contrived or forced, it would arise naturally from our full and complete refuge in the Buddha.

Reflecting on our own lives we can see that we have not yet fully taken refuge. We still struggle to keep the precepts. We get caught up in the confusion arising out of the misapprehension of self as real. We often respond to the world with anger and craving instead of compassion and wisdom. We continually and habitually fall back into the fruitless search for happiness in the worldly refuges

Recognizing that we have not yet truly Taken Reguge, it is important to continually think about the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The easiest way to do this is to set aside time everyday to take refuge: Recite the refuge prayer and make prostrations to the Three Jewels. In our tradition, remembering the Buddha and taking refuge are combined in the “Nembutsu.”  Nembutsu is what might be called a pith and concise refuge prayer. It is made up of six syllables: NA MO A MI DA BU!  It means, “I take refuge in measureless awakening.” Because awakening is measureless, beyond the conceptual limitations of our deluded thoughts,  it is ever-present and thus accessible in any moment or any place. The Buddha’s radiance of perfect wisdom and compassion can be experienced in any circumstance, even if we are less than perfect ourselves. The Nembutsu becomes our continual reminder of and connection with the Buddha – Awakening – in all the activities of our life.

If you have the time and the interest, it is also valuable to read Buddhist texts and memorize short passages from these texts. Today it is easy to listen to and even watch Dharma teachings by many wonderful Buddhist teachers. The more we do these things, the stronger our karmic connection with the Buddha becomes. The more we align our life with the Buddha, the source of awakening and happiness, the more these qualities appear in our life and in the world around us.

In short, much of the suffering we experience, individually and as a society, is the result of taking refuge in something other than the Buddha.  Buddhas are, by definition, the perfection of wisdom and compassion. To take refuge in a Buddha is to renounce the things that do not reflect the awakened compassion, namely the three poisons of greed, hatred, and ignorance. It is these three that power the cycle of endless suffering known as samsara. They create the sufferings in our individual lives as well as drive the many social sufferings such as war, privation, and discrimination.

Taking Refuge. Aligning one’s life with the Buddha Dharma, not only brings us joy and peace but it offers those around us a way out of suffering.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul

The Difficult and Humbling Buddhist Path

May 11, 2015

As Buddhists, we live our lives for the benefit of all beings. We try to alleviate suffering with our words and actions. We pray that others may do good, abandon what is unwholesome, and be liberated from suffering and the causes of suffering. At the very least, we hope to avoid adding more suffering to others’ lives. 

Living a Buddhist life in the world is difficult. Practicing compassion for those around us is hard. We are continually challenged by encounters with people who are antagonistic, mentally ill, or completely enmeshed in unhealthy and unwholesome lifestyles. Our youthful and romantic notions about our ability to transform the world are shaken as we stumble over our own shortcomings and self-centeredness. Often we ourselves are the problem. We are the ones who need saving. We begin to understand that there is no hard distinction between benefiting ourselves and others. All beings are interconnected. Love benefits all. Hate harms all. Yet we continue to struggle to practice love instead of hate, and it is painfully obvious that we are completely lost. We are incapable of effecting our own or others’ liberation.

Startled by this humbling reality, we cling to the Buddha as our only hope. We observe the precepts to benefit ourselves as well as others. We undertake various religious practices for the same reason. We cultivate compassion, not so that we will be more compassionate, but rather so that there will be more compassion in the world. 

We follow the Dharma, not for ourselves, but so that we may all awaken together. Awakening is not a goal to be obtained in the distant future. Rather, awakening is an ongoing process of living love and compassion moment to moment, encounter after encounter. In those moments of love and compassion, the Buddha’s light, which is always present, manifest in the world. We sit in the presence of the Buddha while our confused and deluded selves fade into the background.

Namo Amida Bu!

Peace, Paul