I noticed the small Ganesh statue behind the counter as I was purchasing a six pack of Hard Orange Cream Ale. The statue was pink and enclosed in glass, as little statues of this kind… More
This is one of the oldest Buddhist teachings.
These are the seven things considered most important qualities in helping us on the path.
Buddhism is full of lists because lists are easy to remember. This is one of the most important lists and it’s emphasized in just about every Buddhist tradition. You’ll notice that some of these are related to one another, and that’s okay.
Mindfulness is an awareness to the reality of things. It is considered an antidote to delusion. It’s a clear and relaxed awareness of what’s going on around us. It involves being in the present moment instead of distracted remembering the past or thinking about the future.
Investigation involves investigating the Dharma for ourselves. The Buddha said, “Believe nothing no matter where you read it or who said it unless it agrees with your common sense and observation.” He was suggesting that we aren’t practicing the Dharma because he said so, but to see if it works for ourselves. The Buddha really wanted us to think.
Joy represents positive thinking. If you are excited about chanting a mantra or meditating, you are using the factor of joy. We aren’t practicing Buddhism because we think we are supposed to. We are practicing to transform ourselves, to transform our suffering and to bring some contentment to our lives. That is something to get excited about.
Tranquility refers to our ability to relax. This is important on the Buddhist path because if we have a lot of anxiety about the path, that can cause problems too. So, the cultivation of Tranquility represents our ability to manage our stress and anxiety. When we take a deep breath when we are upset or angry or nervous, we are engaging Tranquility.
Concentration is our ability to focus. When we count our breaths during meditation, that is Concentration. We are trying to keep our minds on our breathing. When we really strengthen our ability to concentrate, it gives us real insights into our lives. But, it is something we have to strengthen over time. Improving our concentration obviously helps us in a lot of other ways such as focusing on something we have to study for school or some new project at work.
Equanimity is probably the deepest one of the seven factors. It represents facing the difficulties of life without getting needlessly attached to them. When something bad happens and I get stressed out or angry about it, I am often making the situation a lot worse. If I face a problem with Equanimity, then I am not letting the problem be bigger than it is. We have a tendency in our lives to make things bigger than they are. Equanimity is our ability to resist that.
So, these are the Seven Factors of Awakening. My favorite is diligence. What’s yours?
There are three essentials of Zen practice.
These are considered some of the greatest and most important virtues.
They are great faith, great doubt, and great determination.
Great faith means having faith in our mind’s ability to recognize our Buddha Nature. This is clearly very different from what other religions usually mean when they suggest that we should have faith.
It is holding on to the belief that the Buddha nature is present within us.
Great doubt is like the scientific method. It means don’t believe in anything unless we can demonstrate the truth for ourselves. All of our beliefs should be examined and re-examined often. Beliefs should be accepted or rejected based on our judgment. Any ideas that are found to be unhelpful, should be rejected.
In Zen we do not follow our religious teachers and leaders blindly. We check every belief against our own knowledge and experience.
It’s about having a healthy amount of skepticism. It might seem like great doubt and great faith are at odds.
The truth is we need a healthy dose of skepticism to temper our faith in ourselves.
Great determination is a firm resolution to go forward in our practice. It’s about staying on the path and avoiding discouragement. It’s about cultivating patience and self-discipline.
Zen is not always easy and it’s important to remember that there are no shortcuts.
These are important virtues in life and we should cultivate them.
This is something we talk about in Buddhism sometimes. “This Precious Human Life.” We dwell in a vast ocean of suffering. The fires of greed, hatred, and delusion assail us throughout our lives. But when teachers talk about This Precious Human Life they’re saying that we are lucky to be here, that our presence in this world of suffering and delusion is a good thing, that we should be thankful.
It seems counterintuitive at first. One of the first things I ever wrote for the internet was an article about the Four Noble Truths. In that article I went on and on and on about the First Noble Truth, that Life is Suffering. I had evidence, examples, quotes, and charts. I really proved that Life is Suffering. But then when it came time to explain the way out of suffering I was spent. I had very little to say. I had difficulty putting any sense of positivity and hope in the Buddhist path and as a result my article was rejected and I was sort of insulted. I almost gave up writing.
(I did a rewrite and got it published almost a year later. I don’t have a copy of the rejected version, but here’s the one that got published: The Revolutionary Nature of the Four Noble Truths)
I had trouble because I wasn’t thinking in terms of This Precious Human Life. Yes, our lives are full of suffering and pain. But this human life is precious. We are lucky to be here because we have the Dharma. We are all fortunate to have been born into a time and place in which we can study and practice. People who are into teachings on rebirth will tell you that a human birth is very rare and it’s only in the human realm that enlightenment is possible. I’ll say something simpler than that and just say that we are lucky to be born in a time and place where Buddhist teachings are available and easy to find. Thousands of teachings are available to us now and for most of history they were not quite so accessible. We are lucky to live in this time. We are lucky that the path out of suffering is available.
Sometimes I wake up and I’m sad. My life hasn’t really gone the way I wanted it to and it’s not really going the way I want it to now. I suffer a lot and I think we all suffer. I can just be sad, sometimes that is what I do. I can also reflect on This Precious Human Life. That helps, knowing I’m lucky to be here now.
You should try it too.
I attend a local Rime (nonsectarian) Vajrayana Buddhist Temple and I love it. I go to as many events and retreats as I can and I volunteer for a few duties, including teaching classes. My community means a lot to me.
This means I’ve been on retreats with Vajrayana teachers multiple times (sometimes Theravada and Zen teachers visit too). I like Vajrayana teachers, I really do. I find the bowing and chanting and bells and drums to be interesting and entertaining.
I have to admit the big focus on rebirth is something I don’t connect with at all. I am, by nature, skeptical of such things in a way that most of the people in my community are not. And that’s okay. That’s definitely on the list of reasons I give when people ask why I have trouble thinking of myself as a Vajrayana Buddhist. But that’s not what I’m writing about now.
I’m writing about visualization practices. I’m confessing that I don’t really do them.
A point comes where the teacher says something along the lines of: “Imagine a glowing ball of clear light directly in front of you.” or “Picture a Buddha sitting up here in front of you, looking upon you with eyes of compassion.”
These sound like lovely practices and they are. But I have trouble. And I wonder if I’m the only one. I sit there trying to picture clear light for 20 minutes. Sometimes I do for a little bit, but I always end up giving up and going to following the breath or zazen instead. And I often wonder, “Are the other 40 or so people in this room doing this without difficulty? Am I the only one?” and “When people say they connect with Vajrayana practice, is this what they mean?”
I have friends who are deeply involved in Vajrayana practice. They are engaged in dedicated study with a good teacher. They do visualization practices and I don’t think they struggle with them at all.
On a final note I want to say something about Trungpa. I almost consider Chogyam Trungpa as one of my teachers. I consider him a patriarch of American Buddhism. I’ve meditated in his stupa. I’ve studied his teachings a great deal. But there’s only so far I seem to be able to go with the training he set up.
Visualization meditations are a huge roadblock for me and at the higher levels of his teachings, that’s really not something you can get around.
There is an old story called the Kalama Sutra. It is one of the oldest sutras and one of my favorites.
It goes something like this: The Buddha was traveling the world spreading the Dharma, teaching people that wanted to listen. He came upon a group of people known as the Kalamas and started explaining the Dharma to them. Their response was unusual.
They said, “We have had numerous spiritual teachers come here. Every new teacher comes and tells us to ignore the teachings we have heard before and to follow their doctrine only. This has made us doubtful and uncertain. What makes your teaching different? Why should we follow your authority and not the authority of the other teachers that came before you?”
The Buddha’s reply was unique.
You didn’t need a religious teacher to come tell you that greed, hatred and delusion are bad. Your common sense agrees with that. You didn’t need a religious teacher to come and tell you that compassion and mindfulness are good. Your common sense agrees with that too.
I have only really come to teach skillful means, methods to deal with the suffering that pervades our lives. If my teachings are right, then the truth is within you already. Other teachings may be dogmatic and strict. Mine is not. I only teach suggestions for dealing with suffering.”
This is an important message in my opinion. I have a natural inclination to both be skeptical and to challenge authority. Unlike many other religious teachers, that is actually what the Buddha suggests to us. He had studied with several religious teachers in his time and he had decided that religion was not for him. He didn’t see the religions that he encountered as viable paths to spiritual truth or happiness. So, he created his own path.
In my opinion, he wasn’t trying to start a religion at all, he was just providing an example for us to follow, more of a way of life than a religion. His teachings weren’t given the label ‘religion’ until hundreds of years later.
On the Bodhisattva path we are striving to save all beings. We are trying to put all other thoughts aside and just work for the benefit of all.
But sometimes we forget to include ourselves.
We’re taught to not judge others, to avoid looking down on them, to recognize their experiences are different from ours.
To each their own. Harmony in a world of difference. These are good things. Judgments tear people apart in ways that few other things can. Avoiding judgment is good. Judgment represents aversion, one of the three poisons that the Buddha warned us about. If we can avoid judging other people that is wonderful.
But I think sometimes we forget to avoid judging ourselves.
I’m bad at managing money. I’m not very good looking. I’m broken. I’m not smart enough. I’m too selfish. I make only bad choices. I don’t have good abs. I’m not lovable. This or that person is better than me.
I’m not good enough.
These are my examples of self judgment. Most of us have these kinds of things sometimes. Maybe all of us do. Some of us have these kinds of thoughts a lot.
We don’t think of these kinds of thoughts as aggression, but they are. It’s not peaceful to think of ourselves in these ways.
So I’m here to tell you:
You are good enough.
Please don’t forget.
Student: “Master I am very discouraged. What should I do?”
Master: “Encourage others.”
How do we transform our lives to bring us closer to equanimity and contentment?
Sometimes it’s hard to be joyful. We can’t be happy all the time. Life is full of suffering. But, real joy comes from a sense of contentment, from accepting our lives as they are in each moment.
When bad things happen, we sometimes stick to them like glue. One bad thing can happen during our day and we can hold onto it all day, even for several days. It can continue to affect us for a long time after the situation is over.
How do we commit to a joy practice?
We should set a daily intention and remind ourselves to be open to it.
We can start with a daily affirmation: “May I be filled with joy today.”
And then we can extend it to: “May all beings be filled with joy today.”
We talk a lot about compassion in Buddhist practice, but we may sometimes forget that in a Buddhist context compassion applies to how we view ourselves and our suffering too.
It’s not about creating feelings that aren’t there. It’s about appreciating the little things in our lives that are good and becoming content. It’s about accepting things as they are instead of attaching too strongly to our wish for them to be different. It is so easy in life to focus on the negative.
Sympathetic joy also helps.
It’s a feeling of joy we can experience when something good happens to another person. We have to set our intentions to do this as well. We can tend to be full of jealousy sometimes and this doesn’t serve us. If we can be joyful about good things happening to others, that increases our joy a great deal.
We can also cultivate gratitude. Spend some time thinking about what you’re grateful for each day. So much of our sadness is simply from not appreciating what we have already.