Monday, 25 February 2013

A Reading of the Bodhisattva Vow

Credit to "Psychedelic Buddha" search on Google Images

All beings, without number, I vow to liberate 

Endless blind passions I vow to uproot 

Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate 

The way of the Buddha I vow to attain
Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them. 

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them. 

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them. 

Buddha's way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.”

Greetings readers.
As always it is a pleasure to address you and make your acquaintances. Today’s post is going to be focused on “the greatest of all vows,” “the vow made for those who are ready,” “the very vow that the Buddha himself took,” etc etc.

Are you noticing that there is some importance to this vow? We may all have heard the vow and read various versions of it, but how much do we really think about it beyond its obvious peaceful message?

My first encounter with the vow was being told that it was something that “I should do” as a “Buddhist.” I took the vow at a Zen Center and began my Buddhist journey. Yet it has only been somewhat recently that I have begun thinking about the vow a lot more.

What does it really mean?

Is it as peace-loving-hippie-mumbo-jumbo that so many people are led to believe?

Is this a vow of passivity or a vow made by a person for action?
Is it both?

What does this vow mean to the Buddhist who takes the vow and then in doing so, promises to live for the sake of others. I don’t mean to go on and on about such weird questions (which I will address) but we, like people in all other traditions, forget about the intensity of what we talk about, claim, and vow to do.

Before I actually begin talking about the vow I invite you to take a few minutes and read the vow a few times and just think about it. My words are the way that I read it and the way I believe it can apply to everyone, Buddhist or not, but when an individual vows to end the suffering of the world, the understanding must first be on one’s own terms. We must internalize what we are vowing to do before we can move forward because, although helpful in most cases, rationalization of something like this can only get us so far.

Silence, Thought, and Voice

After having taken a few minutes to think about the vow myself, I return!

“All beings without number, I vow to liberate.”

First, the vow states that the being who takes this vow will not attain Nirvana until everyone else has attained it first. That statement combined with the rest of the vow logically concludes that we will be around for a very long time. I believe it is important to note that this is not a literal statement but a hyperbole emphasizing the gravity of such a vow. These sorts of exaggerations are all over the place in Zen Buddhism, some of which can begin to make sense after reading a few times, but most of which take practice….practice….practice.

So how can I, one person, who is still so fundamentally a part of everyone and everything else, able to liberate anything? And even more so, what does this liberation mean?

Liberation has been understood as an intensive awareness of the present moment.


We’ve heard that done to death but what does that mean, “present moment” and “intensive awareness?” It is true that awareness in the present moment is attentiveness to one’s breath as it continues on its own. Yet just like our breath, when we begin to pay attention to our surroundings, we are able to influence them on a much greater level and even have results.

When we are able to be aware—which includes study of what is taking place in the world, within our homes, within our minds and hearts, we can be liberated. But just like our breath, awareness instantly brings another aspect to it, which I believe is often lost in Buddhism, action. The entire vow is a call to action and liberation cannot exclude that aspect. When we begin to pay attention to our breath there is a dynamic that is instantly born—it influences us as we influence it. We can’t possibly control it because it needs to continue somewhat on its own and it can’t possibly control us entirely because we can, for just a few moments, stop it, change its pattern and then learn.

This is the same way with the world and one of the most basic Buddhist principles, interdependency. Vowing to liberate all beings becomes a teaching opportunity for all people, in their own way, on their own terms but for the awareness of the whole. We move to action because we notice that world is not always a “liberating place” but that injustice does exist.

Endless blind passions I vow to uproot.”

My personal Dharma teacher always used the metaphor of picking weeds out of the ground when using any imagery of “uprooting.” It is a physical as well as mental task of reaching into the ground, becoming dirty and then pulling out the plants that are harmful to one’s garden. With each tug we realize that we are, in fact, destroying the life of one thing (to which we will return) and also focusing on this one task with our minds clear from other things. This is similar to Thich Nhat Hanh’s “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.”

The other irony in this phrase is “endless blind.” The common reading of this is that the passions that are ruling one’s life are “blind,” they have no purpose, no goal, and they have no substance to them. Where as this reading is not a bad one, it puts some pressure on the Buddhist to answer the following question:

“Are not Buddhists living for the moment? Isn’t the passion that is driving the Buddhist just as blind as the other passions that Buddhists fight against?”

This is a valid question and part of the answer lies within Buddhist practice. The question assumes that discerning these passions is as easy as pointing at them on a piece of paper. That’s just simply not the case. Each person is different and needs to pay attention to how passions (which are inescapable, thus being Endless) to which are blind and really create no difference.

A critique of Buddhism is that it does not offer sufficient reasons to act against injustice. This critique may hold true for some specific situations through out the world’s history and Buddhist reaction to it—however—recent decades has shown a new logic used by Buddhists all around the world (like Thich Nhat Hanh) to stand up against injustice, instead of just remaining on the meditation cushion.

The reason I bring that up is that both questions:

“Are not Buddhists living strictly for the moment?” and “Is there any really good case for Buddhists to act against injustice, according to their own sutras?”

is because I believe that this one statement “Endless blind passions, I vow to uproot” addresses both of them.

Not only are these questions asked in some ignorance, I believe, because the story of the Buddha himself is a story of fighting poverty, injustice, greed, and the status quo all in one. He left his caste to become a holy man, and then “after his Enlightenment” he opened the Sangha up for men and women. We can look back at the rules that the women had and how much harsher they were against the men but we must place this within its own time. There was certainly injustice in our own terms but really, instead of judging the past, can we not be thankful for the progress that we have made instead?  We can ask a question like this:

“What a beauty it is to see that justice was given in its own way to women back then and now be thankful for the progress that we have made?” This is not a question of passivity because our work is never done for we have not seen the Enlightenment of all sentient beings. We Buddhists see the beauty in our moment, now, but we see the work that needs to be done. There are a number of sorts of blindness in Buddhist thought and the one that I believe deals with this question is “the Blindness of Enlightenment.” This very old Dharma phrase is a teaching that focuses on the negative stillness that one can fall into when one is “Enlightened.” In fact, it means the opposite, that one is not Enlightened if such a belief is held. We constantly walk the middle way of Enlightenment and something else, never really knowing which one we are in but always knowing still that either side is just an arm’s length away.

The rest of the vow is a showing of how this amazing idea of uprooting the illusions that plague us can take place, and so we move on to the rest of the vow taken in all at once.

Dharma gates beyond measure I vow to penetrate 

The way of the Buddha I vow to attain
Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken with them. “

The teaching is so vast that I could never point at it directly but I vow to learn.
The way of the Enlightened One I vow to live
Life is numberless; I vow to awaken it within all things.

The Dharma now spans countless schools of thought, generations and now cultural divides. I have heard that American Buddhism is not “Buddhism” but only Eastern is. That is just simply not the case and we learn the Teaching (the Dharma) in our own contexts and our own vocabularies.

A Chinese Zen practitioner can look south and see the wisdom of Esoteric Buddhism who can also look south and see the wisdom of Theravada teaching. A Theravada Buddhist can look to another faith tradition and see teaching there. There is so much wisdom in the world that the Buddhist vows to access. To study the texts can get us so far but I believe that right action (a point on the Eight Fold Path) can help us penetrate the Teaching. A monk begs for food and then teaches. A student listens and then begins his/her own school of thought that also acts. We build homes for those who are in need of homes, both by teaching and by physical labor. The teaching can never be just written texts but also ethical experience.

With our realization that we are already Buddhas, each and every single one of us we vow to live the life as such. What are the Buddhas through the ages? One can look at a list of thousands of individuals who are the Bodhisattvas and see what they represent:

The list goes on

And on

And on.

The Buddha in this case can, of course, be Gautama Buddha but it does not have to be. The door is open for the practitioner to listen to oneself and see which of the Bodhisattvas impacts his/her own life the most and then begin to meditate, begin to act.

We return to the statement of the difficulty of this vow and the importance of it as well. Yet we do not wait here in the last statement of the vow but we grow just as we see those around us grow. We are constantly changing and with the change that is universally shared we continue on our paths of the rest of the vow by action, meditation, and the rest of the list of right actions, views, thoughts, etc.
This vow is central “non-negotiable” in that to separate action and spiritual growth would be an illusion. We, as Buddhists, cannot sit blindly as the world continues to be polluted by molten metal and even more dangerous than that, the melting of our own hearts. We simply do not have the time for that. We work as hard as we can to aid this world and that is the most simple of all Teachings, it is the most central of all Teachings and is “the most important vow one can take.”

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Our Appointment With Life

The thing about Sutras is that you have to read them to know what they are about. Also, if you tell someone you are reading a Sutra they will always assume first that it is the Kama Sutra.

Oh well.

Our Appointment of life is the translation of two well known Sutras that are central to the Buddhas teachings on living in the present moment: The Elder Sutra and The Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone.

Spoiler alert! Living alone is a metaphor for not living with the attachment to the past or the future. You can still deeply observe either way and have peace of mind. I will leave the rest of the commentary to Thich Nhat Hanh because that's the way I roll.

With a bow,

Friday, 22 February 2013

The Assertive Practicioner

The proposition here is that compassion can be a source of fearlessness to the extent that we do not get attached to our balance.

We can be assertive, while being compassionate. After all, what was at the heart of the Saffron Rebellion?

This post is more about aspects of interpersonal bridge building and not on the level of a human rights campaign. I have already posted on that. 

The Buddha's cause of death is still debated. Was it a mesenteric infarction or was it food poisoning? Was it because he accepted unskillfully prepared food? 
There is still a lesson here that my memory could not completely weave so well on its own today:
From the Buddhist perspective the only significance of the Buddha’s last meal is that it demonstrated once again his infinite capacity for compassion. When he realized that the end was near, he immediately thought that Cunda might be blamed for causing his death. To prevent this from happening he instructed Ānanda to return to Cunda’s village and tell him that to serve a Buddha his last meal was a most auspicious and blessed act. Thus, even being sick, exhausted and nearing death the Buddha’s only thought was for the welfare of others.

I had to reflect on this, as it applies to me. Don't take my word for it that it applies to you.

Here is the theorem:

Attachment to balance creates a struggle = not skilful peace of mind =no peace of mind.

We all, as practitioners, value a  lack of resentment. However, it can look passive aggressive if apologies are not responded to with humility, as if they are a cherished gift. Even if the resentment was as short lived as the ripple of a teardrop in the ocean or never even existed, the gift is at our feet.

An apology might just be a gift even if it is given while you are referenced in the third person or in another type of unskillful manner. An apology may be given to you in a backhanded manner, as if it is poison, or with an explanation for harmful behavior that is without any merit.

If we are truly at peace, then we will  not be preoccupied with its quality as if we are critiquing a diamond for our true love. If the apology is unskillfully prepared as a perfunctory meal or if is misrepresented as a feast it can be a jewel worth its own reflection.

Sometimes those distinctions of quality may not promote a healthy, assertive state of being. It can be an opportunity to establish interpersonal boundaries and mutual respect, or it can be squandered because we are too preoccupied with how blue the sky is, or how green the fields are.

After all,  being truly at peace may generate a sense of humility that is instinctual.

After all, compassion may arise in the projection and introspection, because projection and introspection are of the same nature.

Again, compassion can be a source of fearlessness to the extent that we do not get attached to our balance.

Again, don't take my word for it. Experience it for yourself!

Quotation Source:

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Dancer of Stillness

In the wilderness I came across a dancer, dancing the dance of stillness...

Her fingers pointed to the moon in the Western sky that I did not see. I didn’t ask why.

She spoke
When there is no space there is no time. I was born and made it mind. I found everything I could bear to see. All of that, reality.

She pointed to the moon in the Western sky that I did not see. I didn’t ask why.

She spoke
Can you feel the light landing on the trees both day and night as you breathe?

She pointed to the moon in the Western sky. I looked into her eyes and found the Earth.

She spoke
The mind that tries has Death and Rebirth

I saw my shadow in the darkness and I sang to admit
The sky is empty but profoundly lit! 

And she danced along to the song of my stillness.


About Breathing

The Dharma teachers and Zen masters always told me to focus on my breathing while meditating.
My yoga instructor has described the kind of breathing I do as jagged, but she wasn't singling me out. This was in a class of some pretty worn out folks.

So tonight I observed my breath as it came naturally and focused on what I was observing.
It was the difference between counting cars as they pass by and trying to drive them all at once.
Don't take my word for it.


Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Natural Practitioner

I remember in my misspent youth we would often recycle stories about how Buddhist monks were given LSD in lab experiments and that it had no effect on them because they were already "there". I often bring this memory into context when I encounter people at retreats or a Day of Mindfulness that are attracted to the supernatural aspects of Buddhist practices, such as meditation,  that are played up in popular culture's mythology.

There are indeed very kind crystal carrying, aura seeing, astral projectors who don't find what they are looking for from a meditation practice. I see them come in and out of meditation circles and then I never see them again.

I heave heard debates about karma and reincarnation, two supernatural components, where people have gone back and forth on whether or not karma and reincarnation are necessary aspects of Buddhism. After all, many of us, including myself, have set these supernatural aspects aside and have tried to find in Buddhism a sound moral philosophy that truly makes us look as hypocritical as the next practitioner from other religious traditions when we fail to abide by simple principles.

The supernatural debate in Buddhism seems to be engaged around a core theme: are the supernatural aspects didactic, or are they truly foundational to Buddhism? Some argue that without karma and reincarnation, the whole thing just isn't complete. Must I believe in karma and reincarnation to have a sound moral philosophy? The ideas of the self as an illusion and the impermanence of all things are good enough for some of us, even from a scientific perspective, to build upon a compelling argument for compassion, interconnectedness, and impermanence.

Was I aware today? Was I mindful when I was walking in one direction and looking behind me as I rounded a corner and almost ran into coworker who was clearly upset because I was inconsiderate?  No. I can not find remedies to these things in books and retreats. It does take practice.

I now believe that the idea of getting "there" from the days of my youth is simply the present moment with abundant awareness. Those moments are truly amazing. What is even more amazing is that with all of the worry and grief of the past and the future, I still dwell there instead of the amazing place and time of my true home, which is the present. For better or worse it is all I have. 

What say you?

Sean E Flanigan
Charlotte, NC

An Ordinary Being

Lately, I've been perusing some Buddhist books I have already read. Most interesting are the ones I read before I really understood anything about Buddhism in terms of how it relates to life practice. Currently, I'm looking at a little book called The Four Noble Truths by the Dalai Lama. 

I remember this being the first book that helped me understand the core practical tenets of Buddhism, in contrast to regional-cultural flavors of Buddhism or the theoretical-philosophical "World Religions 101" notion of what Buddhism is. It's compact, but thorough and it was way above me the first time I read it. 

Now I understand more, but how far have I really come? In his chapter "The Truth of Suffering", His Holiness illuminates three "realms of suffering". The closer to enlightenment one is, the more formless one becomes and one becomes an Arya being.

In his words, "Anyone who has gained direct intuitive realization of emptiness, or the ultimate nature of reality, is said to be an Arya according to Mahayana and anyone who had not gained that realization is called an ordinary being."

Ordinary, huh? I guess so. In spite my reading and my earnest attempt to apply a Buddhist mindset to my daily life I can't say that I have ever had "direct intuitive realization of emptiness." I get it at an intellectual level. I can see the logic of it, so to speak, but I haven't truly experienced it.

And that makes me ordinary.

At first I was taken aback by the term. It seemed pejorative to me. Now that I've thought about it though. It seems kind of cozy. To be ordinary implies that a person has many people around them who are thinking about and going through the same thing. There is a solidarity in "ordinary" that peels away as a person achieves Arya.

I've suddenly got this image of all of us ordinary beings kind of scrabbling around, doing the work, having the vision. Then every so often one of us pops up like the bubbles in boiling water and poof. At that level, it's not really relevant whether you are the water or the resulting steam.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The World We Have (A Book Review)

A few years ago I moved to Chicago and began my practice with a new sangha , but with same root teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. I kept in touch with one of my old sangha buddies until about two years after I had moved. Every time we talked, she would tell me how depressed she was so during one of our last conversations I simply asked "What are you doing to help yourself?" I didn't hear from her a while and when we spoke again she was enraged that I had asked her that question. When I would not apologize for asking the question and began pontificating, I was told never to call her again a few days later.

The point of this story is that while I thought recognized her suffering, I did not acknowledge her suffering, nor did I truly recognize it. While I was trying to share some liberation from a similar experience, I was not skilful. I realized that I really had no business introducing a bold new vision to her about her well being as mine was in great need of improvement at the time as well.

I was unaware, uninformed, and my actions did not reflect a true compassionate nature. I realized all of this while reading this book by our root teacher and reflecting on this experience since I have since moved back from Chicago.

The message in this book is ancient: care for the environment, live in peace, interconnected with one another and find peace within yourself. However, the message still constitutes a bold vision for the modern world to a reader, such as myself, who sees a pattern in all forms of U.S. media and economic exploitation that reinforce to our peers, our children and our parents that these ideas are too naive, too simple, and just plain bad for our long term welfare. The ideas in this book may appear revolutionary and brand new because they strongly conflict with our near term desires and this desire is exploited by economic interests.

While Chomsky may have made enemies by showing us how the military industrial complex "manufactures consent" in democratic and free societies to go to war through fear and propaganda, the same principles apply to issues such as global warming, energy, biotechnology and so on. So yes, this book is pretty refreshing because it offers hope. 

Additionally, the author really connects with the reader by recognizing the reader's suffering and how it plays into our collective suffering and how our actions abusive against the earth are also forms of abusing our future children and their children and our ancestors both genetically and spiritually.

We are offered simple solutions in a skilful and compassionate way for engaging ourselves and finding a liberation of sorts, so that we can in turn engage others in what constitutes a skillful call to action in a compassionate and mindful way.

Pay the farmer, or pay the doctor. When there are no more farms, there will be no more doctors. We will be left with no one to pay and perhaps we will attend to other matters. Don't take my word for it. I have already admitted my lack of skill in communicating such matters, read the book for yourself and rely on your own experience.  

With Unskilful, But Genuine Love,
Sean E Flanigan
Charlotte, NC

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A Zen Poem with Commentary. Original Poem.

[  *    *   *         *  *;  ;  *  *   *      *    *  *   *   *.
    !   *   *.   *     *  *     *    *      *     ,
  •   *    *  *   *     .
   *,   *      *    *   *    *,   *  *    *      *  *   *   *    *  *  *   *   *.
  •   *    *   *:       ,        ,          *   *       .     *   *   *     

    *,   *   *   *   *, *   *  *     *       * *    *  *.
“       ,      *.  *          *.”] - Zen Poem


The poem is about the nature of difference and the paradox that there is no difference. It presents the Buddha as being able to see everything. The paradox, however in his case, is a layered process of realization. First one sees difference. Then one realizes that the difference is not there. There is no distinction for all the differences of realization happen to be part a single realization. But after the context is put into the words, the difference and the paradox that “one-ness” is a multiplicity. It can only be understood as an infinite amount of “ones.” The Buddha realized this and taught this.