WordsThoughts of Thich Minh Tri
I’d like to share a perspective on useful emptiness. To get there though, first a comment about judgement, and a sutra or two, and my favorite Chinese Patriarch.
A few years back I posted a thought to a popular social media site that said: “What if enlightenment was as simple as becoming non-judgmental”. That comment was met by some skepticism but it was just a reflection of what I was thinking at that moment, not a thesis I was trying to establish. I really didn’t give it much more thought. I was not seeking to convince anyone of anything and I wasn’t seeking enlightenment.
Time and practice continued. One of the things that comes up a lot in a study of Buddhism is the important of the Heart Sutra. I would see comments like Karl Brunnholzl’s “The Heart Sutra Will Change You Forever” and that, per Shambala press, “the Heart Sutra stands akin in importance to the “Lord’s Prayer” for Christians” as well as “the Heart Sutra is considered …to contain the essence of instructions for the practice of an experience of reality permeated by wisdom and compassion”. So, seemed important. I started to study it.
Reading the Heart Sutra alone didn’t help. Although the sutra itself is only a page long, it is a lot to try to wrap your head around. I read a book about it. I started to look at alternative definitions – some by friends in the Buddhist community, some by renowned teachers like Thich Naht Han. I talked to dharma friends and watched the Dali Lama on YouTube. I didn’t get it. It didn’t click.
If you are not familiar with the Heart Sutra, it includes text like “Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness is form; sensation, perceptions, formations, and consciousness are also like this”. So it isn’t just a bit of text that I could just read and say “oh, sure, that makes sense” and move on.
Part of the problem is that it – like anything else in Buddhism – isn’t intended to be learned, but to be experienced. The writings on the Heart Sutra were the fingers that point at the moon. I got stuck looking at the fingers and eventually, after feeling like it was simply beyond me, gave up.
I switched to a study of the Platform Sutra. This I greatly enjoyed. The Platform Sutra revolves around lessons and the dharma as explained by someone who started out as a poor illiterate peasant boy and became the great Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an, His Holiness Hui Neng.
On an aside, it was really important to me to find out that not all Buddhist figures are ultra-intelligent people who memorize books and can name the ‘8 of this’ and ’16 that’ and ’32 these’. I struggle with retaining information and book learning due to some poor choices made in my youth and rely greatly on having information available to me via electronics.
Early in the Platform Sutra, it says “One day, after he delivered firewood to a shop, he overheard a man reciting the following line from the “Diamond Sutra” – “Depending upon no-thing, you must find your own mind.” Instantly, Hui Neng became Enlightened. The verse stated: “All Bodhisattvas (Compassionate Ones) should develop a pure mind which clings to no-thing whatsoever; and so he should establish it”. These were cool concepts and ideas to read even when they didn’t fully make sense to me at that time. Another concept that struck me deeply was when Hui Neng said “all dharmas are empty”. I didn’t understand what that meant but here, unlike the heart sutra, I didn’t feel a need to understand it. Instead, that line, “all dharmas are empty”, sat in my mind and my heart, just kind of resting. At peace.
Until, at some point months later, I attended a sangha that did things differently that I had seen them done before. What it was that was different isn’t important – if you hang around Buddhism any amount of time, you’ll see different influences in different traditions. The important part for me is that when I encountered something “different”, instead of following that with a value judgment regarding the way things were done, the idea and the words that “All Dharmas are empty” floated up to my consciousness. And the rest of the sangha was both easy and pleasant. I was released from ‘That’s not the way we do it’ or ‘real Buddhist do it this way’ or ‘I don’t like it when they do it that way’. This ease, this peace that came from the idea of emptiness, lead me to once more return to the Heart Sutra.
“Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Form itself is emptiness, emptiness is form”. What is the Heart sutra saying here? The Dalai Lama teaches that “existence can only be understood in terms of dependent origination.” Dependent origination is a teaching that no being or thing exists independently of other beings or things. Or put another way, Red Pine writes that because all phenomena exist interdependently with other phenomena, all distinctions we make are arbitrary.
All distinctions we make are arbitrary. We use distinctions to create judgements, never realizing that they are based on nothing more than our perception. Since our perception is only specific to us, it is flawed in a way, as we create our own perceptions based on what we experience through form, sound, smell, taste and touch. We can try to see things from another person’s perspective. Some of us are very good at empathizing -and make no mistake- that has great value. But when you get cut off in traffic, you take not only present actual information such as, is it a truck or a car? A fancy expensive car or an older one with some wear and tear? Did it have NY license plates or was it Kentucky? We take that information, add it to our views of NY drivers or people who drive oversized trucks, and all of our past experience of driving and being cut off in traffic, and then add it to our state of mind and a number of other things. And we mumble to ourselves ‘asshat’ and think we know the truth of that person. When we realize that our entire perception of the event is based on a story of what actually happened – instead of what actually happened – we can smile to ourselves and think ‘empty’. Empty of intrinsic value. Empty of truth.
Once I realize this, once I really get it, then what is left of judgment? Since I know that my story about ‘those NY drivers who can’t be bothered to check their side view mirrors cause they are always in a rush, only care about themselves and are probably laughing at me because they think Ohio people are bumpkins and …and …and…’ is at best incomplete, why tell the story at all?
When someone angrily denounces a policy I agree with or rejoices in something that I dislike, instead of me trying to figure out what is wrong with that person, instead I realize my view and opinion are empty. I don’t have to attach to an idea of agree or disagree, revel in or dislike. It is enough that I am me, and you are you. From this position, I am open to hearing the person and can seek common ground if need be – or maybe the skillful thing is to be ok with being different.
When I realize that I don’t know the story – that Dependent origination tells me that things arrive in the context of other thing – this allows me to find compassion. Instead of me brushing someone off for not believing in something that is so obvious to me, I realize we believe what we do because of the conditions around us. Some of us can find freedom after being raised in a toxic and unskillful environment; others might need to be heard and listened to and loving kindness to find a new path. And always we realize we too are empty – what makes us so sure we are smart and wise in all things? Maybe we are – but never just accept it. Always wonder, question, poke, keep your eyes open and looking.
I will leave you with this quote by Dogen
“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 actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
Many Buddhist and nearly all Buddhist traditions accept the idea of rebirth, based on karma gained/lost throughout life. The differences between Buddhist traditions, in general, have to do more with specific details of rebirth, such as whether or not there is an intermediate state between births.
Secular Buddhist, as a tradition, interpret things differently, of course, suggesting that the Hungry Ghost (one of the Hell levels) realm is a state we might find ourselves in here and now. Some Zen Buddhists as well as suggest discussions of rebirth and different levels of Hells and Heavens are methodology rather than doctrine. Others would disagree, saying that “you must make the utmost effort to accomplish you enlightenment in this life, and not to postpone it into eternity, reincarnating throughout the three worlds” (Wumen Huikai, a famous Zen master).
What do I believe? For me, the traditional view isn’t really important. Buddhism allows me to decide what makes sense to me. My teacher has never said ‘If you don’t believe this, you are wrong’. Instead, the question is what is skillful, what is aligned with compassion?
Specifically, my teacher says “As a Buddhists, I’m not really thinking about what’s to come or what has already taken place. It is the now – the being right here right now – that is the underpinning on why I do this practice. If there is truth in that, then at the moment of transition (death) the same will be true. So what does it matter to figure it out now?” (Thich Minh Thien). He also suggests that when wondering about death from a ‘what happens next’ perspective, to take a look at the “Heart of Great Wisdom” sutra.
Which leaves it to me; what do I believe? Well, I don’t know. I’ve had a few ‘to strange to be coincidences’ events in my life. And a few feelings of reliving something that felt like a past life resurgence. But it is also true that I believe in the scientific method. And that the entire ‘if you are good you go to a good place…’ sounds like a fairy tale told to keep people in line. I am pretty skeptical about the ‘gain good merit by donating to our church/sangha/temple’.
The question really comes down to do I believe I have a soul; an everlasting “self” that goes from body to body, lifetime to lifetime. Where would I find this soul? It gets tricky here because a core Buddhist belief is there anatman or no-self. No permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul. So what goes reborn? And anyway, where would I find that soul? It isn’t in my left arm, as if it gets chopped off, I’d still be me. The ego is a tricky thing and will do anything to protect itself, including creating the concept of a soul that continues on throughout all time.
So! To the question of ‘do I have a soul?’, I say – ‘I don’t know’. In other words, I have no proof one way of the other. This isn’t being an agnostic, it is simply being open-minded and realizing I don’t have all the information yet. Perhaps it is a bit more than that though because I don’t have all the info and I am ok with that.
So, if asked, I would say most Buddhist believe in rebirth, based on karma. But not all do, and that is ok, they don’t have to.
If asked what I believe, I’d say I don’t know, but my practice of compassion aligns with most of the worlds religions as being a good person, so maybe if one of those religions is correct I’ll be ok in the afterlife. If not, maybe I’ll be reborn a frog. But today, the focus should be today, being alive and living.
SitYou can use a meditation cushion (zafu) or meditators bench (Seiza Bench) or just use a chair. If using a chair (which I often do), make sure it is a solid one (no desk chairs with wheels). Sit toward the front edge of your chair. Once you are sitting, you’ll want to roll your pelvis forward, so you are sitting on the two bones in your bottom, sometimes called the sitting bones. Allow your back to be straight and dip your chin a bit. In your sitting, find a balance. You don’t want to be worried about being sitting ramrod straight, but don’t slouch either. Think of the string of a music instrument – not too tight or too loose.
BreathRest attention on the breath as it travels in and out of the nose. Just allow yourself to feel the breath. You may find it useful to count it – on the in breath, mentally say “in”, and on the outbreath, mentally count “one”. We will come back to the breath in a minute.
Hands. Do something with your hands. You may want to make a steeple, or “lions paw”, or forefinger and thumb touching, or prayer hands. Or something else. Regardless of which position (mudra) you pick, it is yours, and you’ll want to keep using it when you meditate.
MindHere is the part that people find the most challenging, both in getting over their own preconceived views of what meditation is as well as what they are supposed to be doing…and just sitting still with your self! As you sit and breath, with the intent to rest attention on the breath, counting away, you’ll find the mind wants to wander. Stories of the past, the future, what else you could be doing, are you doing this right, I took a right on my way to work when I meant to go left but I came across a nice little store where I found that vase that had oh right meditating. Your mind will wander. It is ok. If your mind wanders 10,000 times during your sitting, it is ok. Come back to the breath. I use a mantra I heard that, as I recognize my mind has wandered, I say to myself “Recognize, relax, return to the breath”. I am acknowledging that my mind has wandered, I am not allowing myself to be frustrated about it, and I am getting back to sitting with the breath.
- One thing that will make this practice easier are to be consistent in when and where you meditate (every morning, by this bookcase)
- Start with a timer set for 10 minutes. When you are ready, you may find it beneficial to go to 20 or 30 minutes.
- If you find yourself saying “I am not doing a good job at meditation!” then congratulate yourself on your sitting in one spot for 10 minutes practice.
- When meditation is easy, then practice meditation when it is easy. When meditation is hard, practice meditation when it is hard.
Here in my home town in Ohio, there is a house that was rented and converted into the local center for a specific sect of Buddhism. A few months later, a monk moved in and now lives there. Other groups used the facility as well and on occasion, the Westerners that practiced there would see him. The fellow had many monastic duties. But he also had a lot of down time to catch up on daytime soaps and smoke cigarettes. I never got to know him but it was valuable for me to realize that he was both a monk and just another person.
When most people think of monks they naturally think about people living in monasteries, disconnected from modern life and spending all their time meditating and studying sutras. In the Buddha’s time, this was certainly true – lay followers provided the daily food that monks required as well as often provided shelter for monks. And of course this is still true in many Buddhist countries – monks are given donations by followers in a way not so dissimilar as how a Christian priest may be provided for here in the United States.
I only personally know a few monks – they are ones who were born and live in the United States. They represent a few different traditions – Eastern traditions like Vietnamese Zen as well as Western such as Pragmatic Buddhism. These monks do not avoid working. The culture of the USA is one that financially supports the dominant religion (Christianity) but is less likely to support the Buddhist monk. It isn’t unheard of, but less likely than a Christian minister.
So if they are working and not living in a monastery, are they “real” monks? To answer this, we have to ask – can someone still follow the precepts of there tradition that are required of monks? For myself, as a novice, the ’25 Precepts To Be Kept by Dharma Teachers’ as well as the three pages on the ‘Novice Training’ list do have some activities that require being in a monastery or temple. But to the best of my knowledge, they do not require I ‘have no other other abode’. The point of being a monk is not to live in a monastery – it is to be responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the Buddha’s teaching. And although monastic practices can be valuable to assist in a monks training, we have to remember it is still simply a place, a building, an empty stack of bricks. So, does the modern layperson benefit from a monk living in a monastery? Perhaps so. But perhaps there is also benefit to the monk that lives with the people, facing the same issues and challenges. After all, if someone came to me and asked about troubles at work, it can be valuable to say “I work with people like that, here is what I do”. And to be seen by people who never get to a monastery.
In truth, this post was started more of an exploration of my own questioning. Can I be a legitimate monk without living in an Eastern monastery? Shouldn’t I give up my phone and laptop and motorcycle? Yet, the phone allows me to communicate with those that seek me. The laptop allows me to share a view via this blog and forums and to research. The motorcycle? Well, that is about enjoyment. Perhaps upon ordination as a full monk it will be advised I surrender those two wheels. Although the Buddha walked everywhere he went and avoided riding in carts, perhaps he would have chosen differently if he has a nice little 650cc to cruise around on.
“I am not strong or weak; I am whatever the situations require“
The Buddha spoke…
“Community, people are easily caught by four traps. The first is attachment to sensual desire. The second is attachment to narrow views. The third is doubt and suspicion. The forth is false view of self. The Way Of Enlightenment helps people overcome the four great traps.
“Community, the teaching on dependent co-arising will enable you to overcome every obstacle and trap. Contemplate the nature of interdependence in your daily life – in your body, feelings, mind, and objects of mind”
The next day in the main hall, Ananda repeated the Buddha’s Dharma talk. He named it Sutra of the Lion’s Roar.
From “Old Path White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha” By Thich Nhat Hanh, page 149.
The first trap – sensual desire – is spoken about often and most of the time the understanding is somewhat incomplete.
First off, sensual desire is not simply about sex. Sensual desire is any strong wish for or wants that is received by the senses. So a soft cloth, favorite music, nacho chips dipped in cheese, all of these appeal to us as sensual desires.
When I first started the path, I recall a friend saying they could never be a Buddhist because they did not want to give up desire. But let’s be clear – Buddhism, in my practice, does not require giving up things I desire. Some practices do suggest you avoid all desires to help cultivate a clear mind. Perhaps that is a path I’ll walk someday, seeking out a cave on a hillside without any concern if there is a good wifi signal.
But when considering the four traps, remember this one is “attachment to sensual desire”. It isn’t sensual desire that is the problem, but our craving to have it. When we smell the delightful dish you just ordered and can’t wait to eat it, or hearing the voice of a loved one and knowing you are going to share an embrace, this is not a problem. The problem arises when mindfulness is forgotten.
An example of this which certainly happens for me still is a want to eat more healthy. But when I see a piece of pie, my sensual desire arises. My ego wants to tell me stories about how wonderful it will taste, how I deserve it. I become convinced that I will be somehow better for indulging in this desire. A mindful response allows me time to remember that what my body actually craves is not pie. My tongue will tell me a different story, but as I reflect, I realize that I am not hungry. I have eaten a meal and the thought to ‘top it off’ with dessert is an illusion. Marriages that end due to cheating rarely have an intent to do harm; instead, it is the trap of sensual desire that causes our rational mind, our ethical heart, to become overwhelmed. And be it pie or harm causing sex, after we indulge, how often do we realize that it wasn’t worth it.’Never again’ we proclaim, ‘from now on I am going to stick to my diet’. And time goes by and another sensual desire arises.
Now, how you can not fall into this trap comes basically in two ways.
First, take the recovering drug addict. One thing that is taught is to avoid the people and places where you will put yourself in danger. Avoid the temptation altogether. New friends, new associations. Don’t go to places where your drug of choice is common. This might include bars, concert venues, or other places where your primary connection with the place was to get high. But if the addiction is junk food, smoking, or sex, these desires are harder to avoid. Junk food is so prevalent that having an apple or a candy bar is viewed as being a health nut. Smoking is frowned up inside many places now, but it is far from invisible. And the only way you’ll avoid sexuality in modern advertising is to avoid all media. So the path of avoidance for some means the life of a monastic – or we go back to that life in a cave mentioned earlier.
So along with some reasonable avoidance, our solution to avoid this trap is mindfulness. To be aware of desire arising, to see it, to know it is there and what it is. Yes, I desire that pie. But I pause before I order it. Am I hungry? Do I desire that pie, or do I desire the feeling I once had of how good a pie was? Will that pie really taste that good? Will my body suffer from my choice? When I decided to eat better, was that a good choice, and has anything changes? How many times have I said ‘I’ll start my diet tomorrow’, and if I remember saying it once, then why am I not on it today? Because that is the trap. That is the part that takes away our choice and instead desire rules us. We know we are ethical and well-intentioned people; making decisions that are counter to this to fulfill a desire is the trap we seek to avoid. Cultivating right mindfulness in our day to day life through meditation and reflection allows us the freedom to avoid this trap.
Many of us have things we are passionate about, and many of those issues are very important, either to us personally or too many people. Passion can drive action and responsibility and positive results.
But a problem may arise when you judge someone else based on what you are passionate about.
I see that many people equate that which they are passionate about as Right and True. Once you take the stance of being Right, anyone who feels differently must, therefore, be Wrong. So even if they agree with your stance, it
isn’t enough that they believe in it or act on it. They must have the same level of passion or, barring that, express that your passion level is Right and work to correct themselves. Else, they are Wrong and worthy of negative judgment.
For example, (insert a variety of words here) Equality. Many people I know are passionate about it. They teach about it, talk about it, Facebook about it, don’t shop or support some business over it, etc. They can tell you why it is a hugely important deal and suggest to me that if I really cared about compassion, I would be equally vocal about it.
Other people are equally passionate about ecology. They teach about it, talk about it, Facebook about it, don’t shop or support some business over it, etc. They can tell you why it is a hugely important deal and suggest to me that if I really cared about compassion, I would be equally vocal about it.
And there are many things, all equally huge important deals. Politics, leftover landmines, mercury poisoning, child labor, and another thousand, down to red dye number 5, which you might scoff at until you are the one that gets cancer…
But along with that passion, can we also practice equanimity? An understanding that our passion is just that, ours. And that the sum of another person is not seen through your eyes of passion?
when deeply practicing Prajna Paramita,
clearly saw ⊕ that all five aggregates are empty
and thus relieved all suffering.
emptiness does not differ from form
emptiness itself form;
sensations, perceptions, formations, and consciousness
are also like this.
Shariputra, all dharmas are marked by emptiness,
they neither arise nor cease,
are neither defiled nor pure,
neither increase nor decrease.
no sensation, no perception, no formation, no consciousness;
no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind,
no sight, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,
no object of mind, no realm of sight, no realm of mind consciousness.
There is neither ignorance nor extinction of ignorance,
neither old age and death, nor extinction of old age and death,
no suffering, no cause, no cessation,
no path, no knowledge, and no attainment.
With nothing to attain a bodhisattva relies on prajna paramita; ⊕
and thus the mind is without hindrance,
without hindrance there is no fear;
far beyond all inverted views, one realizes nirvana.
All Buddhas of past present and future
rely on Prajna Paramita, ⊕
and thereby attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment.
Therefore know the prajna paramita
as the great miraculous mantra,
the great bright mantra,
the supreme mantra,
the incomparable mantra which removes all suffering and is
Therefore we proclaim the prajna paramita mantra,
the mantra that says, [Gate Gate + Paragate Parasamgate + Bodhi Svaha. X3]
(INO – May the merit of this penetrate into each thing in all places, so that we and every
sentient being together, can realize the Buddha’s way.)
All Buddhas throughout space and time, all Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas, wisdom beyond
wisdom, maha prajna paramita!
Tuyết Sơn Thiền Tự 雪山禅寺 Mount Adams Zen Buddhist Temple