The Errant Abbot


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.


Accessing Wisdom

The purpose of Buddhist meditation is not to stop your thinking, rather it’s to see through your thinking (and indeed your mind as a whole) as transparent. In this way, our attachment to our ideas, opinions and conditions may be set aside, if only for a moment, so that we may be able to perceive the nature of reality beyond our projections. When we can quiet our own thoughts enough, the wisdom of the universe appears clearly in our experience in such a way that we may begin to observe clearly the strings of karma-vipaka (causality and effect-come-causality).

More than mere intellectual understanding, the wisdom appearing to an open and perceptive mind, is akin to touching a hot stove as a young child- it is completely immersive experience that guides our behavior into the future so that we may avoid creating suffering and its conditions. And yet, eventually this process goes beyond even this to the point that we may perceive not only our own experience, but too, the experience of others through direct and clear observation moment-by-moment. In this way, we further our experiential-insight into the wider scope of sentient existence, so that we may become as Bodhisattvas, armed with insight readily available, to help alleviate and console the suffering and cries of the world.

Peace my friends!


Fulfillment Together

Lusting after our own selfish desires, we’ll always be left with not enough- perpetually with more space to fill. If we align our lives in working to fulfill the needs of others, to quell their suffering, we’ll always have more than enough to do. When your need becomes as my need, your fulfillment is my fulfillment.


Unlocking a Life of Great Meaning and True Wealth

To quote Epictetus, “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” When we can transform our selfish “wants” into well wishing for all beings, cultivating Bodhicitta (the desire for all beings, together, to attain to awakening), naturally we begin to appreciate the world around us, exactly as it appears, as plentiful and indeed boundlessly enough. We then walk a little slower, breathe a little deeper, talk a little less, and -just be- a little more.

At the root of the the arising of Bodhicitta is awareness. That is, gradually giving our selves more moments to perceive rather than project the fabric of reality. True unadulterated perception, namely those moments wherein when we see through the musings of mind as transparent, births the direct experience of our innate interdependent nature, with all things. Seeing ourselves as interwoven, sharing our threads of existence to both support and be supported by, our needs are realized as your needs, and any traces of petty materialistic desire falls away. Then it becomes possible to realize a life where even our very waking and eating every day are for others. Small mind becomes big mind, no meaning becomes great meaning and our great questioning (What is this? What am I?) becomes great function (How can I help you?).


Musings on Monastic Culture and Dharma Realization

The practice of Dharma is universal and can be applied to and through any and all facet(s) of our lives. Monasticism is the practice of Dharma through the adoption of a specified culture of living. One does not need to practice monasticism to live a full life of Dharma, rather one practices monasticism because they find it contributes to the luster of their experience and expression of Dharma. It should not be construed that one needs to adhere to monastic culture to fully experience and express Dharma, nor should it be assumed that because one finds resistance to points of monastic culture that they couldn’t or shouldn’t struggle and grow through them as a member of the monastic sangha. 


Morning Musings of Non-Evangelism and Only Doing It

The Buddhist tradition doesn’t have a call to evangelism, indeed it’s rather advised against in most all versions of the precepts (I vow to never teach the dharma without first having been requested etc)- to paraphrase Master Linji “If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him…my path can never be your path.” Our tradition doesn’t assume to have any or all of the answers, for all or even anyone, indeed it may be said that the Buddhist (especially the Zen) tradition is a path of profound agnosticism, of unknowing with deeper and deeper questions. The Dharma is perhaps more experiential process than dogmatic ideology.

In a sense to practice Dharma is to give up one’s quest for concrete suppositions and begin one’s quest for full experience and presence with the ever unfolding fabric of reality just as it is, for what it is and when it is. And as we’re ever called to lives of and in service to all sentience through our insight into our interdependent nature, the task is to find a need and fill a need without expectation of reward or recognition let alone persuasion or conversion- only doing it.


Aug 9

Our Only Point of Faith

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, our only point of faith is that this very moment, exactly as it appears, is enough. All of our philosophy and practice is geared toward the cultivation of a more and more thorough, a more and more inclusive realization of that point. The realization that is thus herein cultivated transcends mere intellectual understanding, and therefore too saturates the very fiber of our being, so that it may act as a lens through which perception and cognition are passed, waiting even before their genesis.

Only when we may go anywhere without hindrance have we glimpsed the true essence of the Zen Buddhist transmission, that in its entirety merely serves to remind us that every moment is already liberated and free, and that it is only our own minds making us as prisoners, bound to an ever turning wheel unsatisfactory-ness- and still, liberation offers us a hand throughout every possible measure of time, each one capable of pulling us out of our delusion of helpless-ness.


Aug 4

Hindrance appears only as our mind’s resistance to reality.

- Sunyananda Dharma

Aug 4

Realizing the Me in the We

The expression of compassion and loving kindness, should not be motivated by any expectation or hope of reciprocity- we’re not building up merit points for the manifestation of any sort of eventuality. We give and love, not with hopes that we will be loved and given to in return, but with the motivation that all may together attain to awakening, thus the gift is in the giving. In the practice of Dharma we even seek to, immediately, give away anything that may possibly be called or construed as merit or merits stemming from our actions, remembering that the true I and the actual me is only realized in the we.