Words

Thoughts of Thich Minh Tri

Death and Dying

Many people join a religion as a way to deal with death and dying. Now, Buddhism makes no bones about the importance of dealing with death. It is part of the first of the Four Noble Truths and said that the Buddha began his journey once he recognized that everyone dies (as well as has to deal with old age and sickness). The rest of the Four Noble Truths talk about how to deal with the reality of suffering, including the suffering of recognizing all things that are born must die.

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.

How To Meditate

Sit

You 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.

Breath

Rest 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.

Mind

Here 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.

Simplify

 
  • 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.
   
 
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Living Outside The Monastery

Living Outside The Monastery

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. 

Do you want to be a monk?

Do you want to be a monk?

Recently someone asked how long it will take me to go from being a novice (sramanera) to a full-fledged monk. In my order, there is no direct timeline.  Although some things that need to be accomplished have to be done a specific number of times or for a certain number of days, it doesn’t really add up to being able to say that “I’ll be a monk in three years” or such. What is needed is to accomplish is a variety of task. Memorize this, read that, attend these. I’ve started that list but have a ways to go. The question that goes along with ‘how long’ sometimes is ‘Why do you want to become a monk?’. The answer, surprising to some, is that I am not sure I do. On the other hand, I am also not sure I don’t. What I actually want to get from my monastic training – the reading, wearing of robes, a study of the dharma, etc. – is to simply be able to respond skillfully.

I am not strong or weak; I am whatever the situations require

To me, to respond skillfully means that when someone says I offended them, or I see a piece of trash next to a trashcan, or a stranger mentions that their father has passed away, or I am accused me of being insensitive, or a homeless man asks for a dollar, I want to respond in a way that reduces suffering and is aligned with having a purpose greater than myself. This can be accomplished by being attuned and intimate to whatever is happening at that moment. And that requires a release of judgment. In most situations, I am trapped in my own personal bias. My attachment to what my deluded mind has decided is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘tasty’ and ‘repulsive’. It is only when I can “gain liberation from my programmed way of responding” that I can be of use. Of use to an individual, a group, or to the world. As an example, if someone came to me and said “I am thinking about putting my dog down”, my mind might immediately pull up precepts about taking life, or the story of the monetary that routinely drowns puppies to keep the population under control, or the time my dog got cancer, or what my teacher says about caring for pets, or a million other things. Instead of “hearing” them, I am taking input and processing through a mind that is already filled with thoughts and stories and examination. Instead of being with the feeling of someone who might be going through a very challenging time and someone who is in pain over an action they feel forced to take. Someone who hasn’t asked for my advice or judgment. It may well be that perhaps they do seek advice. Or my thoughts. Or it may be what the need is just a witness to the pain. How will I know when I am stuck trying to make everyone’s reality conform with mine? I see Buddhism as a place to find a wealth of information on how to be a compassionate listener, a mindful friend, and to perhaps have some wisdom to share when it is called for. And to help me develop this intimate interaction with the world. When I see a homeless person or a friend yells at me for some slight, I don’t want to wonder ‘What should I do?’, I want to respond, to do. To do that which is aligned with my best nature. I see monastic teaching as a method to focus on that training. To remind myself that I am more than the selfish being I once was, to always keep in mind that the purpose of being alive for me is to serve. I’m not always sure what or who I should serve. But I have found, via my training, that when I am wearing my robes and am angry, I reflect hard on what that means. When I have certain lessons in the forefront of my mind, it is easy to recall ‘emptiness’ or ‘mudita (selfless joy)’. When I spend every morning reciting certain gathas and meditating, I am more likely to be fully engaged in the day. So, do I want to be an ordained monk in my order? Today…I don’t actually have an opinion one way or the other. At some point, I will have an opinion perhaps. But today, it isn’t important. It is even less empty than my opinion about political maneuvering or broccoli – I would rather neither was part of life. But others would miss them greatly. Who is wrong? Who is right? Who cares.
Sensual Desires

Sensual Desires

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.

Passionate

Passionate

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?

The Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva,
when deeply practicing Prajna Paramita,
clearly saw ⊕ that all five aggregates are empty
and thus relieved all suffering.
Shariputra, form does not differ from emptiness
emptiness does not differ from form
form itself is emptiness,
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.
Therefore, given emptiness there is no form
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 true not false.
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

Intimacy and My Buddhism

Intimacy and My Buddhism

So as a novice monk, there are no direct rules around sexuality. But that isn’t actually true. Because part of being a novice monk is being a dharma teacher. And the rules there are…

  • Do not commit adultery, including sexual congress with a corpse, animal, or object.
  • Do not act as a go-between, for the purpose of sex or marriage, for a man and woman.
  • Do not give the appearance of a wrongdoing by going with a woman to a concealed place, or an open place, where one might speak to a woman with wicked words about unlawful sexual intercourse.

This is the part I am navigating. Part of this is really easy, part of this is not applicable to me at all, but part of this I am violating. Specifically, the dictionary definition of adultery has nothing to do with regard to consent; it is specific about a wife and marriage.

So it isn’t a problem at all – and my teacher digs polyamory and tells me to think in the spirit, the intent. But it is there and my mind dwells on it.

I love intimacy and can enjoy sex. But I am not by nature a sex-driven male. I like connecting with someone special and sex is a great way to do it. But I can also just not sex. Not attached (this is more of my bio than buddha)

How I found my teacher and my tradition

How I found my teacher and my tradition

In the early 2000’s, dawn and I were presenting at an alternative sexuality conference (some of them focused on Leather – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leather_subculture). Master Z was one of the people we often saw at Leather event. I’ve seen him present a class or two and chatted with him a bit over the years. I knew he was a Buddhist as well but we never really talked about it. During this time I took refuge in a Tibetan form of Buddhism but it wasn’t really where my heart was. I later started the path of a novice monk in a secular order of Buddhism. This too did not work out for different reasons (all of them me, not the school) and I stepped back for a while. Time passes, and I run into Master Z, who is now Thay Z, wearing robes, and a monk. And still at an alternative conference. We talk and about six months later, we start talking. And six months later, I am wearing novice robes.
Anger is an energy

Anger is an energy

I have just had my first experience in expressing anger at someone while I was wearing robes.

On an aside, I will not be talking about specifics and deleting any comments that do.

It is an interesting experience to meditate; the old patterns of post argumentive thinking (between “if they say this when I next see them I will say that” or “I should have come back with…”) filled my mind. You know how deep you are lost when 20 minutes goes by that fast.

I did not find myself trapped in negative thinking, but instead self…critique. Better said, the thought of ‘you are a bad/fake/unworthy monk’ arouse and I saw it and changed it to ‘I am a novice monk. I am a human. A monk is simply a layperson with robes. I am doing my best and can do better’. I did not pick up with invisible whiffle ball bat and beat me up.

There are people who I lock in as me having a story about them and I treat them based on that story instead of being neutral. Everyone who rubs me the wrong way is because of my problematic perception, but because they are in some way bad. And some people do act unskillfully. from a place of being more important or unaware of how they impact others. These people are sometimes simply unaware, other times aware but due to some suffering, it causes them to act out. It does not mean one should tolerate all behavior. But it does mean I should respond in compassion regardless.

This is part of the path for me. To be Dan the event co-producer, presenter, co-director, the getter of shit done, and still be compassionate in making those things happen.