The Errant Abbot



We can’t even hang on to our memories, and yet we have the audacity to think that our ego selves have inherent identity. Changing, changing, changing.

When Something Is, Something Is: Taking Responsibility for Our Liberation

This morning I received a message with the following image and question: “Teacher, please tell me…is this correct understanding?” 


Regardless of what you believe, the universe is always demonstrating. How you choose to divide the eternally real is up to you, that is our unwavering, always present, attained and cultivated liberation.

Do you choose to affirm difficulty in your life, or do you choose to affirm reality with the seeming ease that the universe births all phenomena? The great way is beyond these mere dichotomies of good and bad, difficulty and ease, like and dislike, want and don’t want. Simply, when you’re hungry, eat! When you’re tired, sleep. When someone needs help, only help them. Moment after moment, what is this? And, this being the case, how can I help?

We’re always grasping for anything that can justify our patterns of thinking, for something outside of ourselves to which we can pass the responsibility for our experience, all while paying lip service to wanting freedom and wanting liberation, without the responsibility that comes with claiming that ever-present freedom and liberation.

To paraphrase the Buddha Shakyamuni in the first of the Twin Verses of the Dhamapada- all things are created by (and sustained by) mind, and mind alone- that includes our transcendence and our suffering, our happiness, elation, fulfillment and joy alongside our sadness, despair, craving and anger. The realization of liberation is congruent with the realization of our responsibility for its stewardship.


Pinging to Pong: Overcoming the Spiritual Rush

When it comes to the study of Buddhism, it’s important to not have a goal or eventuality too firmly in mind- goals tend to foster an environment of deadlines, competition and rush. Though we have something of a curriculum of fundamentals to study initially, this will exhaust itself quicker than you think. Though there may be scores of kong’an to engage, these will render themselves clear quicker than you think. And, though there may be libraries of commentaries and books written on the practice of Dharma, they all merge together in one taste, not requiring another comment from a teacher, and, eventually you’re left with the practice of simply being Buddha. What will you do then?

It’s best to invest your time in the cultivation of kalyana-mitra (spiritual friendship), rather than trying to rush through your studies. Relish your time with your teachers and dharma siblings, getting to know them, building avenues and pathways with which to both support and be supported by your dharma family, as the lotus of your life blossoms into being.

Remember life happens almost entirely between the pong paddles, slow down and enjoy it, rather than trying so earnestly to catch your next “ping”, “pong” or “ah ha”- every time you do, the ball is just going to bounce back across the board. Breath, relax, center and smile!


Giving Away Our Spiritual Practice

Probably my favorite part of daily morning liturgy is when we dedicate the merit of our spiritual practice to all beings. For many, getting up in the early morning to chant and meditate is rough business, even getting to weekly group practice is difficult for many, and so it seems easy to begin to feel some pride for just doing it, to feel an accumulation of some-thing…and, as soon as that arises we recite some verse in tune with the sentiment “I wish that all this merit be extended to everyone, that we, together with all beings, may gain the Buddha’s way”- a subtle reminder that this really isn’t about us, and with a nod toward our interdependence, the suggestion that as soon as we can stop thinking that it is, we can actually realize the direction of practice, that is losing the I the excludes everyone else, and finding the we that includes the me. Peace my friends!


A 9/11 Reflection

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the 9/11 memorial monuments in NY, NY with my family. Truly a sobering reminder of both the capacity for human atrocity and too, transcendence. May this day serve as a call to continued and deepening, ever more honest reflection on how our words and actions affirm atrocity or transcendence. We all have the power to enact significant change in the world, for better or worse- just as the “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” so too do our words and actions, no matter how seemingly small and insignificant steer the course of our lives, and that of our world.


Perfect and Complete Unfolding

Could have, should have, and would have are not Zen expressions- time and time again our practice is just returning to this moment as-it-is, embracing the perfect and complete unfolding that reality is always offering. For there is no reality but this reality, no moment but this moment, and really we have no choice- realizing that, is where we begin to unshackle our lives and realize a true sense of liberation.

Sep 6

The first ceremony at our new temple, Chua Phap An!`

Sep 4

Liberation by Limitation

Renunciation, through seemingly outward limitation, gives rise to the manifestation of seemingly inward liberation, subtly unlocking a limitless storehouse of luster to the view (of things just as they are). ~sunyananda

Killing Your Dharma Darlings

When it comes to writing, “killing your darlings” is a profound practice mirror, an opportunity to practice a spirit of true non-attachment and honest introspection. The process may be as common as weeding out superfluous facts and yet we hesitate. In asking ourselves “why am I resisting deleting this?” we may discover that our motivation for resistance could be as simple as truly wishing to educate and inform readers, and yet may be as ominous as wanting to be perceived as particularly erudite and venerable. Particularly when it comes to dharma, it’s helpful to remember, nothing we practice, do, or produce is about us. 


A Dharma Talk on the Occasion of Ullambana 2014

This weekend we are observing and indeed celebrating the occasion of Vu Lan, a tradition founded upon recounting the happenings between Shakyamuni Buddha and one of his foremost disciples, Maudgalyayana in the Ullambana Sutra. As many of you already know and understand, Maudgalyayana had seemingly perceived that his mother had been reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts from karma accumulated through the withholding of generosity. And having just attained the six spiritual penetrations, Maudgalyayana wishing to repay the kindness of his parents for raising him, sought to find a way to help save his mother.

Maudgalyayana, however, quickly found that although his spiritual power, motivated with his sincere devotion to his parents, could move both heaven and earth, he alone was without sufficient strength to save his mother, and his efforts were in vain. Therefore he sought out the instruction of the Buddha who further noted that too, the spirits of heaven or earth, demons, those outside of the way, brahmans and even the four heavenly kings, were not of sufficient strength to save Maudalyayana’s mother. Rather, the Buddha taught, only the collective spiritual power of the assembled Sangha of the ten directions could attain liberation for her.

In alignment with the prayers, offerings and celebrations observed this weekend by our fourfold assembly of sangha, the Buddha taught that if these rites are sincerely observed then one’s present father and mother, parents of seven generations, as well as six kinds of close relatives, will escape from the three paths of sufferings. And at the time of their release, their clothing and food will spontaneously appear, and indeed even if one’s parents are still alive, they will have wealth and blessings for one hundred years.

So, here we are following in the footsteps of Maudgalyayana, celebrating filial piety through the practice of Buddha Sasana, together. Mahamaudalyayana is a very interesting personality, partially because he is really only mentioned in a couple of Mahayana scriptures, and yet is responsible for making the initial inquiry to the Buddha that forged the genesis of the Vu Lan tradition, one of our most important yearly observances.

Ullambana is almost exclusively a Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese Mahayana Buddhist tradition, outside of these traditions, the Ullambana Sutra itself has drawn criticism from other Buddhist communities (including Therevadan schools, which generally do not observe the rites) and contemporary practitioners alike. These criticisms primarily concern the Confucian leanings of the Sutra and its accompanying practices, which some feel are somewhat at odds with other Buddhist concepts. For instance, in the Zen (Thien) tradition, it is said that when Shakyamuni Buddha attained awakening he announced “When the morning star appeared, I awoke and all simultaneously awoke with me, even the rocks and the trees.”

I’ve always found this teaching, as a Zen Monk, particularly profound. The teaching offers, in its examination, that it was the Buddha’s mind, and his mind only making and keeping the world as un-awake. Therefore, when he attained to realization he understood that the world as it truly is, in it’s absolute essence is already awake- sunyata incarnate. Trees and rocks are, relatively speaking, unmoving in their nature- we think of them as being without mind, beyond sentience and yet this teaching boldly proclaims that even they were realized as awake, and thus without hindrance leading to dukkha.

When the wind blows, tree leaves bend and bow with it, when the ground moves, rocks move with it and both rocks and leaves settle into whatever position they find themselves in, with complete acceptance and without hesitation, doing what they can, with what they can, for as long as they can, according to their nature.

And here we are, observing traditions to help save our parents, and in doing so I can’t help but wonder if the same teaching attributed to the Buddha at his awakening, might apply?

Religion as a whole is undergoing a time of change in our contemporary world, profound change. In the west, a traditionally Judeo-Christian atmosphere, the Abrahamic religions seem to be fading and only destined to survive with substantial metamorphosis, rooted in the embrace of modern scientific understanding that many religious leaders are unwilling or unable to facilitate. However, also in the West, Buddhist traditions have taken firm root, which I believe is due in part to innate compatability of the Buddha Dharma with the scientific method.

In the Kalama Sutra, Buddha Shakyamuni expressed to the assembled Kalama people:

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions simply because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with experience as conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live to it.”

As a Westerner myself, born and raised in this increasingly secular and scientifically minded society, I too find myself questioning the adherence to traditions that seemingly contradict current scientific observation and experience, and, as a Buddhist monk, I’ve been profoundly and positively impacted by the actual practice and experience of the Buddha Dharma, as have countless others- and that experience, Prajna Paramita, is exactly what the Buddha was stressing to the Kalamas.

Current scholarship dates the Ullambana Sutra to the 6th Century in China, and thus we know academically beyond the shadow of almost any doubt, that the Buddha Shakyamuni, Bon Su Thich Ca Mau Ni Phat, likely never spoke these words to Maudgalyayana, and even if the encounter had historically taken place, many younger generations, raised in this modern world have trouble accepting sentiments concerning literal other worlds and hell realms, which in a sense, I believe has contributed to the decline of the Buddha Dharma in many countries of the East (for instance, China is set to become the world’s most Christian nation within the next 15 years). And still, my experience tells me that there is much to be gained from observing our practices and rites, such as Ullambana. The question become, how do we maintain and present these traditions a meaningful observances to the next generation, without relying on unobservable claims and superstitions.

Buddha Shakyamuni taught, as recorded in the first lines of the Dhammapada, that “all things are created by mind, and sustained by mind alone”, thus we may understand that the great Zen Masters of China who originally penned the Ullambana Sutra were transmitting a very powerful teaching with the creation of Maudgalyayana’s dialogue with the Buddha, even in a completely modern context…if we view the teaching story as allegory, parable showing us that Maudgalyayana’s mind was making and keeping his mother in the realm of hungry ghosts.

As Bồ-đề-đạt-ma was introducing Zen to China he wrote that Zen is “a special transmission outside the scriptures, not founded upon words and letters; rather it points directly to the nature of mind, and lets one see into one’s own true nature and thus attain Buddhahood.” Therefore, when I accept disciples, the first question I pose to them is “Do you control your mind, or does your mind control you?”

So often we find ourselves being lead by our minds, rather than leading our minds with the reigns of experiential insight and wisdom- that is the nature of samsara. We must understand that the mind is a fine tool, but a poor master.

We find ourselves in the shoes of Maudgalyayana, stuck in habitual patterns of discursive thinking, wherein we sacrifice our experience of the actual perfect nature of reality for our ideas, and projections atop reality. We fathom ourselves and others as unawake, we put ourselves and others in hellish realms of experience in this very moment through the lenses of deluded view, and when we begin to understand this, we can fervently practice to directly perceive our true nature…And this is where the Buddha’s purported words to Maudgalyayana become invaluable.

Buddha instructed Maudgalyayana to make offerings to the sangha, so that we may live with a spirit of altruism as all of the world’s great sages and saints have instructed and demonstrated, so as to realize the interconnectedness of all beings and things.

Buddha directed Maudgalyayana to gather the collective power of the assembled sangha, so that we may immerse ourselves in a life of spiritual friendship (kalyana mitra) with fellow practitioners of the Dharma, so as to find support and to support others when we need a collective hand to free us from the sufferings we find ourselves in.

And throughout his 45 year teaching career, the Buddha taught that in all dharma doors, we much practice, practice, practice, whether we chant “Na-mo-A-Di-Da-Phat” or sit meditation and follow your breath, whether we examine Cong An’s with a master, or throw ourselves into countless prostrations, we must directly perceive the nature of mind and thus Wake up and save ourselves, realizing the entire world as awakening simultaneously, liberated and freed with all beings from the hells we create for ourselves and others.

For as the first Vietnamese Patriarch to the west, Most Venerable Dr. Thich Thien An wrote in his 1975 book “Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice”: “When we attain the actualization of the Supreme Way, we come to realize that all things are perfect just as they are”.

And then our entire lives become as Buddha activity, just being here talking with you, enjoying this wonderful spiritual friendship, awake, luminous and in profound gratitude and appreciation, lifetime after lifetime, moment after moment. Thank you.