Friday, August 6, 2010


An Introduction

The Bodhisattva Precepts are skillful means to guide us in our engagement with the world. Our everyday life is a great, multifaceted koan that we resolve at every moment and yet never completely resolve. The Precepts transcend ordinary reality and are beyond both action and non-action. The Precepts point to our essential nature.

Living in this world, we sometimes experience a split or gap between “Me” and “Other” or “Inner” and “Outer.” Seen in that light, the Precepts act as a reminder of our Oneness with all creation, a marker of our interrelatedness with all Beings, and a signpost to our place as a jewel in the Net of Indra.

To me, the most important and overriding principle behind the Precepts is the principle of Oneness, which unites all ten Precepts into a single whole, taking as its base life itself. Seeing with the eyes of others, feeling with others’ hands, and experiencing the lack of the gap between “Me” and “Other” brings me to inquire how it is possible to lie, cheat or steal.

We are all swimming in the river of life; we are one with life; we cannot drown. This Oneness is the buoyancy that keeps us afloat.

Going down with a swirl
Coming up with a whirl

Monday, August 2, 2010


All harmful karma ever committed by me since of old

On account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance,

Born of my body, mouth and thought,

Now I atone for it all.

“The Three Defilements”---Greed, Anger and Ignorance---are the badly-lit subbasement of the mind in Buddhist psychology. They are what Shakyamuni was referring to when he posited the Four Noble Truths, which, in sum, tell us that, "Life isn't what we want it to be; because it isn't, we're unhappy; when we decide it doesn't have to be, we become happy; and to help us make that decision, we should get plenty of sleep and eat a good breakfast every day."

The Buddhist term for a Defilement is “Kilesa” in Pali or “Klesha” in Sanskrit, and can be translated also as “affliction” or “poison” or even “fire.” These Kilesas have two manifestations: In one sense, they underlie our entire ingrained dualistic view of the universe; in the other sense, they trouble us personally and cause us to act in ways not in keeping with the Precepts.

Depending on the Buddhist sect, there are three, nine, ten, or as many as 108 Kilesas. Theravadan Buddhist temples usually have 108 steps, each step representing a Kilesa and a Precept. No matter how many Kilesas a particular Sangha recognizes, Greed, Anger and Ignorance always top the list. Others, like Conceit and Torpor and Wrong Views can be characterized as expressions of Greed, Anger and Ignorance, so let’s just stick with the Big Three that cause all our sufferings and prevent us from feeling tranquil.

We all know Greed: That wonderful little voice inside us that says, “Gimme dat t’ing!” But whatever “t’ing” it is, we will lose it, it may break, it loses its attractiveness, and in the end, we find we don’t really own it, right down to our own mind and body. So we cling. We cling to the senses, we cling to ideas, we cling to habits and rituals. Anything we cling to at a given time may be outmoded or not work for us. Ultimately, everything we cling to fails to function.

And we all know Anger: “I don’t wanna!”, "I don’t want to go to work today!"; "I don’t like Joe Dokes, as a matter of fact, I HATE Joe Dokes"; "What kind of lousy lunch is this?"

Dogen Zenji points out that our koan arises naturally in daily life. If we observe our Greed and our Anger we always find our koan. The answer to our koan cuts through our Ignorance.

Both Greed and Anger come from the importance of the “I” in our lives, from the Ego’s desire to protect itself---“To protect my idea of myself”---whether by girding myself ‘round with possessions for a sense of permanence or exiling those things from my life that threaten or don’t support my idea of my own permanence.

Ignorance is not complicated to explain: It works through self-justification. Whether we act well or ill we can be deluded. Thinking that we’re justified in hating Joe Dokes, or thinking that if we can befriend Joe Dokes we can turn things around are both ignorant, deluded thoughts. Baso’s answer, “I’m sitting zazen in order to become a Buddha” earned him a whack because his thinking was deluded. The outcomes we anticipate are delusions.

Bodhidharma said “No merit” to Emperor Wu in regard to all his works. Essentially, Ignorance and its handmaiden Delusion both come down to the underlying motives for our actions.

When we realize the emptiness of all five conditions we are freed of pain.

Just sit.


A Reflection by Konrei

In its simplest form, “Not using intoxicants,” the Fifth Precept would seem to enjoin the use of substances such as drugs and alcohol, and there is that side to it. But lest we fall into the very ignorance we are trying to overcome through a rote and mechanical application of the Precept, we need to look deeper.

A mind that sees clearly is not just a mind that abstains from drink and drugs. As a matter of fact, it could be said that the fixation of the Prohibitionists and the Drug Warriors caused its own delusions, and certainly led to greater evils like corruption and increased crime throughout society. That which is absolutely forbidden is desired all the more, and most of us, being human, will find a way to acquire what we can’t have, even if it is something we don’t truly want to have.

And it is true that, judiciously, intoxicants may bring conviviality and added enjoyment to life: “Good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used,” as Shakespeare said.

Ah, but there’s the rub (and the heart of the matter); for our friendly Fifth Precept is all about cultivating a mind that sees clearly. And no one has ever convinced me that the woman he met while wearing his beer goggles has been the love of his life.

There are myriad other intoxicants. Whether a good meal is good depends on mindfulness in eating it. Simply gorging oneself, even in the finest restaurant, leads to indolence and stagnation. One cannot live lightly with a bellyful of bricks, however good they tasted going down.

In our culture we drug ourselves unmercifully with shoddy entertainment, and escapes into fantasy. The fantasies are endless---The I WANT is insatiable, and serves to stoke our sense of insecurity and inadequacy. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is a form of intoxication; even the Joneses are busy keeping up with the Joneses.

Our natural and unavoidable inability to fulfill our fantasies leads to the intoxicating experience of anger. Ah, anger, that state in which the ego triumphs, in which the fantasies feed on each other. The drama in my head is so much more interesting than the often boring and prosaic reality---“Why that So-And-So! He never showed up! He did this to me on purpose! Just wait! He’s got it coming!”---I then imagine the five forms of medieval torture to which my friend will be put, while meanwhile the poor schlub’s car’s broken down and his cellphone’s dead, and he needs my help.

Cultivating a mind that sees clearly means cultivating a mind that sees actively. A mind that sees actively counts its drinks, it weighs that second piece of birthday cake in the scales of my own well-being, it monitors its own escapes into fantasy and uses those moments to be creative, perhaps writing the next novel or redecorating the living room, and it determines whether the costs---emotional, financial and psychological---of my desires are worth the results.

Ignorance is both the cause and the effect of my not being in tune with the song the universe is singing.


Until I attain Enlightenment may I likewise attain the cutting-off of craving and clinging.
Whatever faults I have until I attain Enlightenment, may they quickly perish.
Wherever I am born, may there be an upright mind, mindfulness, wisdom, austerity and vigor.
May harmful influences not weaken my efforts.
The Buddha is the unexcelled protector.
The Dharma is the supreme protection.
The Sangha is my true refuge.
And Peerless is the “Silent Buddha.”
By the power of these Ones, may I rise above all ignorance.


Tweet Less, Kiss More

I was driving from Washington to New York one afternoon on Interstate 95 when a car came zooming up behind me, really flying. I could see in the rearview mirror that the driver was talking on her cellphone.

I was about to move to the center lane to get out of her way when she suddenly swerved into that lane herself to pass me on the right — still chatting away. She continued moving dangerously from one lane to another as she sped up the highway.

A few days later, I was talking to a guy who commutes every day between New York and New Jersey. He props up his laptop on the front seat so he can watch DVDs while he’s driving.

“I only do it in traffic,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”

Beyond the obvious safety issues, why does anyone want, or need, to be talking constantly on the phone or watching movies (or texting) while driving? I hate to sound so 20th century, but what’s wrong with just listening to the radio? The blessed wonders of technology are overwhelming us. We don’t control them; they control us.

We’ve got cellphones and BlackBerrys and Kindles and iPads, and we’re e-mailing and text-messaging and chatting and tweeting — I used to call it Twittering until I was corrected by high school kids who patiently explained to me, as if I were the village idiot, that the correct term is tweeting. Twittering, tweeting — whatever it is, it sounds like a nervous disorder.

This is all part of what I think is one of the weirder aspects of our culture: a heightened freneticism that seems to demand that we be doing, at a minimum, two or three things every single moment of every hour that we’re awake. Why is multitasking considered an admirable talent? We could just as easily think of it as a neurotic inability to concentrate for more than three seconds.

Why do we have to check our e-mail so many times a day, or keep our ears constantly attached, as if with Krazy Glue, to our cellphones? When you watch the news on cable television, there are often additional stories being scrolled across the bottom of the screen, stock market results blinking on the right of the screen, and promos for upcoming features on the left. These extras often block significant parts of the main item we’re supposed to be watching.

A friend of mine told me about an engagement party that she had attended. She said it was lovely: a delicious lunch and plenty of Champagne toasts. But all the guests had their cellphones on the luncheon tables and had text-messaged their way through the entire event.

Enough already with this hyperactive behavior, this techno-tyranny and nonstop freneticism. We need to slow down and take a deep breath.

I’m not opposed to the remarkable technological advances of the past several years. I don’t want to go back to typewriters and carbon paper and yellowing clips from the newspaper morgue. I just think that we should treat technology like any other tool. We should control it, bending it to our human purposes.

Let’s put down at least some of these gadgets and spend a little time just being ourselves. One of the essential problems of our society is that we have a tendency, amid all the craziness that surrounds us, to lose sight of what is truly human in ourselves, and that includes our own individual needs — those very special, mostly nonmaterial things that would fulfill us, give meaning to our lives, enlarge us, and enable us to more easily embrace those around us.

There’s a character in the August Wilson play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” who says everyone has a song inside of him or her, and that you lose sight of that song at your peril. If you get out of touch with your song, forget how to sing it, you’re bound to end up frustrated and dissatisfied.

As this character says, recalling a time when he was out of touch with his own song, “Something wasn’t making my heart smooth and easy.”

I don’t think we can stay in touch with our song by constantly Twittering or tweeting, or thumbing out messages on our BlackBerrys, or piling up virtual friends on Facebook.

We need to reduce the speed limits of our lives. We need to savor the trip. Leave the cellphone at home every once in awhile. Try kissing more and tweeting less. And stop talking so much.


Other people have something to say, too. And when they don’t, that glorious silence that you hear will have more to say to you than you ever imagined. That is when you will begin to hear your song. That’s when your best thoughts take hold, and you become really you.