Sunday, January 31, 2010

What About Scripture?

One thing that has caught my attention about Western Buddhism is that there doesn't seem to be much emphasis on learning scripture, outside of passages like the Heart Sutra. However I could definitely be wrong in this statement, because I have only experienced Western Buddhism through groups based at universities.

But based on my experience, there at least seems to be less emphasis on scripture than in Christian tradition. And if this is really true and I am not mistaken, there is nothing positive or negative about this. I just have always been intrigued by the Buddhist 'back to basics' approach, which always seems to bring readers and laypeople back to the Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, and Five Moral Precepts. And very directly so.

This thought/opinion is supported by the following quote from BodhiDharma:
"Even if you can explain thousands of sutras and shastras, unless you see your own nature yours is the teaching of a mortal, not a Buddha. The true Way is sublime. It can't be expressed in language."

Personally, I would like to learn more about scripture in the future, but also feel that I already have a lot to learn about basic Buddhism for the time being.

May all beings be happy!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Dalai Lama: The Jury is Still Out

. . . As far as I'm concerned. I have heard HHDL speak once, and will be hearing him speak again later this spring. And I'm just as excited as I was before. I have read quite a few of HHDL's books, and think that they are excellent resources, because of 1) their strong message of compassion, and 2) even the most difficult concepts are beautifully explained.

But I do not consider him my 'spiritual leader'. In fact, during the first time I heard him speak I was alarmed that he called himself a 'Marxist'. I have listened to many people paint a rosy picture of communism, often saying things like, "Well, it sounds wonderful, but it just doesn't work in practice." I happen to believe they are only right in the latter part of the statement. Anyway, my point is that such a revelation might not be beneficial to someone who knows a lot about communism, or has experienced it first hand.

Far be it from me to assume what the DL thinks, but I often wonder if his comment was a way to demonstrate compassion in the face of what he and his followers experienced in Tibet.  Regardless, I am not one to follow blindly behind someone just because their name is preceded by "His Holiness", they wear robes, or they have written many books. To me, the Dalai Lama is a fellow human being- and a very learned, compassionate, and accomplished one at that. And I respect his advice and general message.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Anti-Sectarianism: Transferring BuddhaDharma to the West

In light of tensions between the Dalai Lama and Shugden practitioners, I thought I would write a post about Buddhist sectarianism. To be honest, the topic of religious sectarianism is of very little interest to me, as I feel it needlessly divisive and therefore of little benefit. As someone who just randomly stumbled upon Buddhism, I see the great value of its main message as a way of life that can help people better themselves, and that's what I want to focus on. But I did find this article about the challenges and guidelines of bringing the Dharma to the West both helpful and interesting.

Here is an excerpt:
"In the West, where so many different Buddhist traditions exist side by side, one needs to be constantly on one's guard against the danger of sectarianism. Such a divisive attitude is often the result of failing to understand or appreciate anything outside one's own tradition. Teachers from all schools would therefore benefit greatly from studying and gaining some practical experience of the teachings of other traditions. "

Here is another, regarding choosing an appropriate teacher:
"Students should be warned against the dangers of falling prey to charisma, charlatans, or exoticism."

Ironically, the meeting about 'transmission of Buddhadharma to Western lands' was based upon discussion with the Dalai Lama, the alleged actions of whom Shugden practitioners have taken issue with. However many other spiritual leaders also attended the summit, and no doubt contributed to the discussion. Honestly, for such an event it does not matter who attended, but the content of their discourse, the quality of their conclusions, and most importantly, how well they have implemented them.

Tension Between Buddhist Traditions

A few days ago I became aware of strong tensions between the Shugden tradition (website: Western Shugden Society) and none other than the Dalai Lama. I have read a little about the problems emphasized by the WSS, but at this point still do not know enough about the issue to have an opinion about it. A complicating factor is the immense popularity of the Dalai Lama, especially in the West, making any bad press quite unlikely to see the light of day. The WSS webpage makes some very serious allegations- I will keep my eyes open in the future to see what materializes. I thank a lady on twitter, K_Chogma (Debbs Kefford) for bringing this situation to light.

Don't Believe Me

One thing that impressed- and maybe even startled- me about Buddhism early on was that one should be skeptical of everything. Questioning and debate about spiritual topics is allowed, and even encouraged. I also often found this sentiment reflected in speaking to Venerable Sik Ji Xing, who in teaching us about 'daily practice' emphasized many times, 'Don't believe me. See for yourself.' I find this perspective highly refreshing, and believe it greatly encourages positive spiritual development.  

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Buddhist Costume?

As I said before, a lot of misconceptions about Buddhism stem from popular culture. Take this 'Buddhist Monk Spiritual Guy Costume'. Seems to me the description is slightly off, since the image depicts a guy trying to dress like a Hare Krishna. Looking elsewhere for this costume I saw that other outlets had listed it as 'Hare Krishna costume', but still! (origin of image from
Honestly, I don't know whether to laugh or be annoyed. Given how silly this is, I guess I should probably just shrug my shoulders and laugh!

Take your own ignorance seriously, but have a sense of humor about that originating from others.

Hmmm, deep. That is my zen for the day.

Mindful Eating: A Great Article

Another journey I would like to embark on is mindful eating. Or, perhaps I should say reembark. I have bought books on the topic, and have made small changes by turning off the TV when I eat, eating smaller portions, and being more conscious of when I'm full (well most of the time, anyway). But I have a long way to go, and I feel that having mindful meals will be better for my peace of mind, my health, and even my waistline. I have also realized that mindful eating is also like mindfulness itself; accompanied by mindful cooking and mindful grocery shopping, it does not stand alone.

This article has a clever title, "Buddhists say you aren't what you eat, but how" which I think really sums it up. What is interesting is that in helping people eat mindfully, Buddhist principles of mindfulness present multiple options; i.e. followed with a secular, cognitive therapy approach rather for than spiritual practice, yet the latter can be involved if desired.

What's more is that the practice of mindful eating, and mindfulness in general, is by no means restricted to Buddhism. In the performance of the Eucharist, mindfulness is a fundamental component. Here is a really neat article on the Eucharist; from which I obtained the following quote:  
"When a priest performs the Eucharistic rite, his role is to bring life to the community. The miracle happens not because he says the words correctly, but because we eat and drink in mindfulness. Holy Communion is a strong bell of mindfulness. We drink and eat all the time, but we usually ingest only our ideas, projects, worries, and anxiety. We do not really eat our bread or drink our beverage. If we allow ourselves to touch our bread deeply, we become reborn, because our bread is life itself. Eating it deeply, we touch the sun, the clouds, the earth, and everything in the cosmos. We touch life, and we touch the Kingdom of God"
I hope this post has been helpful in at least a simple way as an introduction (or continued education) about mindfulness and mindful eating. In the near future I hope to purchase Jan Chozen Bays' book, Mindful Eating, and continue reading Susan Albers' books and articles. So in the words of Albers' book title, Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful!!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Beautiful Words from Thich Nhat Hanh

In trying to find more information about impermanence, I came across this beautiful excerpt written by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I have often found that he has the wonderful ability to put into words what most of us cannot. Click here to see a list of books by Thich Nhat Hanh. Here is the link to his spiritual meditation practice center, Plum Village.  

Now, read in peace:
If we are not empty, we become a block of matter.
We cannot breathe, we cannot think.
To be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and to breathe out.
We cannot be alive if we are not empty.
Emptiness is impermanence, it is change.
We should not complain about impermanence,
because without impermanence, nothing is possible. 

Through your love for each other, through learning the art of making one person happy,
you learn to express your love for the whole of humanity and all beings.
Please help us develop the curriculum for the Institute for the Happiness of One Person.
Don't wait until we open the school.
You can begin practicing right away.

If you touch one thing with deep awareness, you touch everything.

"At the moment of waking up,
before getting out of bed,
get in touch with your breath,
feel the various sensations in your body,
note any thoughts and feeling that maybe present,
let mindfulness touch this moment,
Can you feel your breath?
Can you perceive the dawning of each in breath?
Can you enjoy the feeling of the breath freely
entering your body in this moment?
“Breathe in I smile,
breathe out I calm my body,
dwelling in the present moment,
it is a wonderful moment.”

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile,
but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.
If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything. When a child presents himself to you with his smile, if you are not really there - thinking about the future or the past, or preoccupied with other problems - then the child is not really there for you. The technique of being alive is to go back to yourself in order for the child to appear like a marvelous reality. Then you can see him smile and you can embrace him in your arms.

Meditation is not to escape from society,
but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on.
Once there is seeing, there must be acting.
With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.
People deal too much with the negative, with what is wrong.
Why not try and see positive things,
to just touch those things and make them bloom?
Reconciliation is to understand both sides;
to go to one side and describe the suffering being endured by the other side,
and then go to the other side and describe the suffering being endured by the first side.

May all beings be happy!

Vanity = Insanity!

Well, not literally. But I have struggled with the notion of vanity versus spiritual development. As a person in society, and especially as a woman, you are judged on your appearance. And probably more frequently, you judge yourself. There are so many messages out there, billboards dripping with images of delicious food, svelte models and actors in magazines, advertisements for local fitness clubs; a mix of the healthy, unhealthy- and unattainable. And my personal favorite- women's magazines full of articles with healthy lifestyle tips and information; interspersed with seductive (and often detrimental) 'get thin quick' product ads.

On top of that, there are also many messages about what to wear, where to eat, hang out, and shop . . . even how to think. I would like to think I am not influenced much by hype and trends, but these messages can cumulatively become very powerful as they appeal to your ego and sense of self.

As I looked up Buddhist thoughts on vanity, I came across an interesting story from the time of the Buddha. This is the story of Khema, a beautiful woman who became enlightened upon witnessing the impermanence of beauty. (The link to Khema is interesting also because there are several detailed mythological accounts of female disciples of Buddha). 

So my best answer? Vanity is a futile pursuit in the face of impermanence. But do take care of yourself, feel free to maintain a self image appropriate to your lifestyle, and be healthy!! As Venerable Sik Ji Xing says, "If you are happy, you are healthy, If you are healthy, you are beautiful!"

May all beings be happy!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Body and Mind, Intertwined

Buddhism has such a strong emphasis on the mind, we don't need to worry about the condition of our bodies, right? Wrong. One thing I find so neat about Buddhism is the great attention that is paid to overall health. This first impacted me when I first heard the Master Venerable Sik Ji Xing speak at Purdue University. When someone asked him about daily practice, he beamed, and went into a long explanation of things we could do every day to improve our health. He even did several demonstrations; how to drink, how to sleep, clapping exercises, breathing techniques, which he invited all of us to participate in. However, when he finished, some people were puzzled. 'But Master, how does what you show us relate to daily life?' He smiled and told us that if you aren't healthy, it is very difficult to practice well. One of the keys to a healthy, beneficial practice is having a healthy, happy body. So go ahead, exercise, eat well, get enough sleep, and stay hydrated! Instead of feeling pressured by images of skinny models and buff bodybuilders, use this advice, and the quote below to motivate you. Just be sure you travel the Middle Way!

May all beings be happy!

"To keep the body in good health is a duty... otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear." Buddha

Patience: Not just a virtue

When we look deeply, we know that having patience is not only a virtue in itself, but the key to developing other virtues- and to reaching our goals.

Yesterday I had a really stressful, just generally bad day. When I came home, I immediately sat myself in front of my altar and meditated. I chanted the mantra, "Om Mani Padme Hum" for a few minutes, then focused on my breathing. But my focus soon shifted to my emotions; how sad I had felt earlier, and how stressed. As I thought of this I remembered all the things that were good in my life, and all the people who had helped me. Without warning a huge sense of gratefulness welled up inside of me, and tears began to flow down my cheeks. I had so much to be thankful for, and decided to try and help myself better evaluate future situations before I get so upset. I focused on my breathing for a few minutes more.

My meditation session had helped me realize that the key to dealing with difficult situations was patience. Patience with the situation, patience with the people around me, and most of all, patience with myself. I immediately looked up several articles on the subject, and found this great one from wikiHow.

I especially liked tip #6, which was as follows:
"Think about your happiest memories. Chances are, they were instances when your patience paid off, like when you worked steadily towards a goal that wasn't immediately gratifying, or took a little extra time to spend leisurely with a loved one. Would you have those memories if you had been impatient? Probably not."

That really puts it in perspective, doesn't it? In this modern, tweeting, texting, download, order and pick up, society, we are used to instant gratification. And I'll be the first to admit how much I appreciate things like email, Wikipedia, and Google, but we have to remember that those are all tools we use to help take care of the 'marginal' items more efficiently. The things that are really worthwhile take time, as they should.

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits also has great thoughts on patience.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mindfulness: Gathas to the Rescue!!

The word gatha comes from Sanskrit, meaning speech, verse or song. In Buddhism, gatha is sometimes used to refer to a verse from the sutras (scripture). However, here we refer to gathas as mini poems of mindulness; ones you can say to yourself as you are going about your day. I own a book of gathas by Barbara Ann Kipfer titled, "201 Little Buddhist Reminders: Gathas for Your Daily Life."

Here is one beautiful gatha I really like, called 'a flower':

 "Earth and sky joined to create this flower. 
Its beauty is a gift. 
When I see this flower, I look deeply into the present moment and smile."

Nice, huh? The book is full of such gathas, and is a wonderful way to reconnect with the present moment.

Looking for more? Here is a nice little article about gathas from a group in Canada called True Peace Toronto.

May all beings be happy- and mindful! 

Words from Ven. Ji Xing: Anger

When I last saw the Venerable Ji Xing speak (in 2009), he uttered a well-known quotation that caught my attention. It is simple; "Don't let someone you hate 'rent a room' for free in your mind!" When you let that occur, someone can 'remote control you' from wherever they happen to be.

The Venerable also told an interesting story about a blustery person who came to visit him to seek advice, who quickly became angry with the questions he asked. To this the Venerable replied, "A child in primary school knows how to be happy . . . ". At this, the person visiting him became even angrier, until they finally understood that simply being happier was so much simpler.

In short, be free of hatred and anger, as they part of the root of all suffering. In one final comment one the subject, he had everyone in the room do a simple exercise; "Look to your right, and pat the person next to you. Tell them, it is okay, you should not suffer anymore. Then look to your left, and do the same thing. Finally, take both your hands and pat yourself on your shoulders, 'It is okay, you should not suffer anymore'."

May all beings be happy!

The Roots of Suffering

According to Buddha, the root causes of our suffering are anger, attachment, and ignorance. I have also heard these things referred to as hatred, greed, and delusion, respectively. According to the Buddha, we are attached to everything around us in life, including possessions, people, places, concepts, feelings, and desires. Because nothing in life is permanent, we suffer when things change or are not exactly the way we would like them. As for anger, we know that all our actions have consequences. Do good, and it comes back. Do harm, and the same is true. Most of our actions that cause harm to others are because of our own anger. For ignorance, we remain in cyclic existence because we do not realize the inherent emptiness and impermanence of all things. After defining anger, attachment, and ignorance as the causes of suffering in the second of the Four Noble Truths, Buddha also advised in the Fourth Noble Truth that in order to end all suffering we must rid ourselves of these three poisons by following the Noble Eightfold Path

If you would like to learn more, click here for a webpage that is a great source of information.  

May all beings be happy!

Introducing: Venerable Sik Ji Xing

During my first year participating in the Purdue Buddhist Society, I had the great privilege of hearing a Dharma talk by Venerable Sik Ji Xing of Panang, Malaysia. Ven. Ji Xing is the current president of just completed his term as the president of BAUS, or Buddhist Association of the United States and also holds a senior position in the Pahang Buddhist Association in Malaysia. He spends half the year in Malaysia, and half traveling across the United States by way of Carmel, NY. As of 2009, I have heard him speak two times, and have benefited greatly from each talk. One thing that has struck me was his universal, human approach to things, especially on the subject of 'daily practice'. Each time someone in the audience has asked him about this, he has been very enthusiastic in his response, yet did not give an answer anyone expected. Instead of referring to daily rituals, meditation techniques, etc., the Venerable talked at length about how to maintain one's health! As he says, 'If you are healthy, you are beautiful, If you are happy, you are lovely". Ven. Ji Xing's way of teaching has greatly impacted me in his emphasis on the connection between a healthy body and a healthy mind. 

Given his inspirational outlook on life, I will no doubt be posting about Venerable Ji Xing in the future.

May all beings be happy!

Impermanence and Suffering

Impermanence. A simple yet sometimes scary word. As humans, we are experts at attaching to everything around us, be they material possessions, experiences, or people we love. In fact, we are so skilled at this behavior that we often don't realize the existence of our attachments. 

When Buddha spoke of suffering, he used the word dukkha, which I have mentioned before as having many possible meanings. For simplicity, I have heard to it referred to as things having an inherent 'unsatisfactoriness'. On the scale of suffering, dukkha could describe sensations ranging from slight discomfort to extreme misery.

One of the main reasons dukkha exists is that we have a problem with things being impermanent. We can see this by our inability to cope with change, and the fact that we often lament how nothing really stays the same. So what is wrong with that? Nothing, if we just acknowledge (and experience) that all things are impermanent. But something called attachment, also known as tanha, or 'selfish craving' gets in the way. When we are attached, it causes us to be emotionally, mentally, and physically affected when impermanence inevitably manifests itself, which ultimately makes us suffer.

There is an excellent analogy which really helps in understanding the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Imagine standing on a riverbank. The stream at the point you are standing is ever-changing in the eddies and flow of the water. Although it gives the impression of one unified flow, a myriad of factors determine that the river does not stay the same even one moment to the next.

So does this mean that nothing is real? It all seems so unstable.

If you think about it in simple terms, could the river exist if it was not constantly changing? No, it would just sit there and not be a river. The same thing with life. Life would not be what it is if we didn't breathe, our cells didn't divide, creatures weren't born and creatures didn't die. Our universe and everything in it is in a constant state of flux, and that is life. Stability can be reached by acknowledging this fact, and by practicing non-attachment. Click the link for more information about impermanence from Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh
"Decay is inherent in all component things," declared the Buddha and his followers accepted that existence was a flux, and a continuous becoming.
May all beings be happy!

Monday, January 18, 2010

A (Major!) Exercise in Mindfulness

An amazing exercise in mindfulness- and impermanence! This link is to a series of photos documenting the gradual construction and dismantling of a Tibetan-style mandala at the Ackland Museum in Chapel Hill, NC, 2001. Follow the link to see more images like the one below, which is also from the museum website.

Mindfulness: The key to practice

Mindfulness is a beautiful word. You know what it means just by looking at it. When you are mindful, your mind is focused on what you're doing. You are aware of where you are, what you're saying, how you're feeling, the food on your plate, the sounds in the air, the colors in the sky a sunset. When your mind is focused, you are focused. Why is this important? Because it brings you to the present moment, which is really the only moment that exists. The past is gone, and the future is not yet here. All we have is now.

That is the importance of mindfulness, to be aware in the present moment.

But it is not always easy. Sometimes, the present moment is not something we want to partake in. When we are in the middle of an unpleasant task, or very difficult part of our lives, we feel the need to escape. We would rather watch TV, play a game, eat food in excess, or even consume alcohol or drugs. Likewise, when we experience something really pleasant, like a wonderful meal, a beautiful view, a happy time with a loved one, we don't want to let go.

First of all, there is nothing wrong with having emotions. All creatures have them, and as humans we have devised a myriad of ways to express how we feel. We should not cheat ourselves out of experiencing emotions. In addition to developing concentration and an acute awareness of our surroundings, living in the present moment through mindfulness is when we are truly alive.

Think about it. Wouldn't you rather be alive than just here? I always have to think about how many times I have spent a whole day multitasking, thinking I was getting so much done. I may have on paper, but I was doing without experiencing, which is really what life is all about.

In the near future try to be fully present in one of your daily tasks. You will feel a connectedness to yourself and the universe that deserves to be cultivated.
For more words from Master Thich Nhat Hanh on mindfulness, click here.

Rollercoaster Monks!

I don't know if this is real, but it sure brings a smile! From

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A funny false impression: Buddha was Chinese!

About a week ago my boyfriend and I were watching a really neat show on the Travel Channel about modern-day 'castles' in America. There was one in Montana called 'Running Water', with water from a 70deg hot spring running through the house and surrounding grounds. What a fascinating and beautiful home!! As the narrator was giving the tour, he pointed out a beautiful statue of Shakyamuni Buddha on the front porch,  'And guests are welcomed by a statue of an ancient Chinese deity . . .' This sent my boyfriend and I into peals of laughter, since the historical Buddha was definitely Indian!! I guess that is how false impressions of things are created!! I could not find the video, I did come across the full article about the American castles episode, which was even more wrong. The description of the statue on the porch reads as follows, "When guests enter Running Water, they are greeted by an ancient Chinese guard in front of a rough-hewn Montana pine door."

I was not offended, but just surprised about how such a well-known figure could be so easily mistaken!! :)

Waking early: A tentative schedule

Here is a loose schedule based on what I have decided works and doesn't:

5am: Get up (or at least hear alarm) :)
5:15am: Meditation, Yoga, get ready, pack breakfast (eat breakfast in the next hour)
6:30-7am: Arrive at work, begin the day
7-9:30, 11:30am: Work, then go to gym/class, tie up loose ends for the morning work
12 or 2pm: Lunch, depending on the day
2-3 more hours of work, go home, rest, then work on writing, reading, cooking, etc.
Bed early

The main disadvantage I can foresee about this schedule is I might just get cheated out of doing the stuff I most want to do! I just have to keep my resolve and not let mundane events interfere with my goals!

Waking early: What works and what doesn't

As for what works and what doesn't, I have to say that letting work get in the way is a big mistake. That time in the morning is 'me' time, which will help me improve myself and benefit others in my life. The problem is when coming to a pause while writing in my blog, I often check my email. More often than not, there is something urgent that needs to be attended to. I know, I could just not check my email, but that is not the full story. When I started grad school I was my adviser's first student, and it remained that way for about two years. Now there are at least three other people in the lab besides myself, with the same amount of equipment. If I wake at 5am and immediately get started in the things I want to do, such as yoga, meditation, reading, writing, and cooking, I will not get to work until 9:30am. Not bad, but by that time other people in the lab have arrived and want to start doing work. I don't want to get in anyone's way, nor do I want to delay my work until the afternoon. Also, if I arrive that late to work, I will not have time to work out at the gym.

Given that urgency and finite resources are major issues, the best solution for me is to wake up early, meditate, do yoga and promptly get to work, and finish my day early. Then I can come home and cook, read, blog- do what I want. It is a business before pleasure approach. I know the key is to be flexible, but I will post a tentative schedule to try and stick to on the weekdays.

My First Week: Cold Turkey

So last week was my first week of getting up at 5am. Or at least four days of setting the alarm at 5am, and two days of getting up at 5:40am. Before you judge, please remember that I am a sloth by nature, and that sleep is my drug, my escape, my comfort, my vice. So this is real progress for me, at least initially. I have read on other blogs that it is best to start out at the time you normally get up (and go to bed), then work your way back to your goal in 15 minute increments each night. But I imagine people that give that advice usually already have a pretty tight routine that extends into the weekend, either because they have little ones that wake them up in the early hours 7/365, early morning commitments on the weekend,  a demanding job, or all the the above!! Honestly, my schedule is too loosey-goosey for that. I could go to bed at 10pm on a weeknight, and 3am on a weekend. Naturally, this also makes when I get up pretty variable, and doing the 15 minute increment thing pretty near impossible. So although it would probably be gentler on my body to slowly progress to 5am, I'll have to just do it cold turkey.

Waking early to a crazy schedule

So, as I've recently said, I have declared waking very early in the morning as key to helping me reach my many goals. I would like to get up at 5am almost every day (that's right, sleeping in once a week will certainly not be taboo), because that is the only time I will be able to make time for writing, reading, yoga, meditation, cooking and exercise every day. So how will I manage? Actually, I am still trying to figure it out. Considering my life as a graduate student, my schedule is a double-edged sword. I can work whatever hours I want, which adds flexibility, but work can be thrust on me at any time, which can get in the way.

In light of this, here is my tentative schedule.

Buddha's Enlightenment and The Middle Way

In Buddhism, extremes are not encouraged. Before Buddha became Buddha, his name was Siddhartha Gautama (click here for a detailed list of important events in his life story). When Siddartha was out in the world, he eventually traveled with a group of five ascetics; wise men who had renounced worldly life, and wandered the countryside, meditating to seek enlightenment. In an effort to dispel the ego by mortifying the body, they lived an extreme life, wore only rags, and ate only roots, berries, leaves, and whatever little else the forest provided. Siddartha followed their ways, sometimes eating only one grain of rice a day while meditating. After six years he had the body of a skeleton. 

One day, when he was on the verge of death, Siddartha heard a man trying to teach a young boy how to play a lute. The man told the boy that if the strings of the lute were too loose, the instrument could not produce any sound. Likewise, if the strings were too taut, they would snap, again preventing any sound. At that moment, Siddartha realized that he was living the way of the taut string. He at once knew that what he was doing was not productive, and that his current approach was not the way to find the answers he sought. After that he fainted due to extreme weakness, and was only revived after a young boy herding goats gave him some fresh goat's milk. Upon waking Siddartha realized that if it were not for that nourishment, he would have died not having obtained the answers he sought.  

Slowly Siddartha got up from the ground and made his way to the river. He bathed and made himself a robe from cloth he found on the riverbank, clothing discarded from dead bodies to be cremated. A young girl offered Gautama some milk rice while he was sitting on the riverbank. He graciously thanked her and ate the rice, appreciative of its nourishment. He went to the village and again started begging for alms. When his fellow ascetics heard of this, they were deeply offended, and promptly abandoned him. Gautama spent a long time building his body to its original strength and health. One day when he had again become healthy, he sat under a Banyan tree and resolved that he would not move away from that spot until he attained enlightenment. After several weeks, he did, and became the first historical Buddha. Every concept we know as basic Buddhism was realized under the Banyan (Bodhi) tree.  

Of course it is also important to mention that as Prince Gautama, the Buddha originally came from a very wealthy, lavish, and sheltered background. He could have anything he wanted, and was kept from the sorrows of life; old age, disease, and death. After his enlightenment, Buddha found his ascetic companions, befriended them again, and gave his first sermon.

And the Blessed one thus addressed the five Bhikkhus [monks].

"There are two extremes, O Bhikkhus, which he who has given up the world, ought to avoid. What are these two extremes'? A life given to pleasures, devoted to pleasures and lusts: this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, ignoble, and profitless; and a life given to mortifications: this is painful, ignoble, and profitless. By avoiding these two extremes, O Bhikkhus, the Tathagata [a title of Buddha meaning perhaps "he who has arrived at the truth"] has gained the knowledge of the Middle Path which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom which conduces to calm, to knowledge, to the Sambodhi [total enlightenment], to Nirvana [state of release from samsara, the cycle of existence and rebirth].

Given that the course for Buddha's enlightenment was set by following the Middle Way, this concept is also fundamentally linked to the Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, Five Moral Precepts.

More about general story of Buddha recounted above can be found here.

May all beings be happy!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Five Moral Precepts

These make up the basic Buddhist code for moral behavior.

The Five Moral Precepts:
1. Refrain from killing or harming of any living being
2. Refrain from taking things that do not belong to you
3. Refrain from engaging in sexual misconduct
4. Refrain from using harmful, untrue, or slanderous speech
5. Refrain from using substances to alter and harm the mind and body.

These sound simple, but we should also remember that following these precepts require intention, mindfulness, and dedication in the thoughts and actions we engage in every day.

May all beings be happy!  

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dial the Dharma!

Ever hear of Dial a Prayer? Well, this is the Buddhist version!!! Dial-the-Dharma is a telephone service offered by Bright Dawn Institute for American Buddhism, a group based in California. The Bright Dawn website has also listed some interesting spiritual programs.

The number to call for Dial-the-Dharma is (847) 642-4290. I have the number programmed into my phone. I use the service regularly, and often find the message interesting and helpful. Sometimes the tape they play is kind of scratchy and distorted, which is quaint, in a way :)

Update: When calling the center a few days back, there was a message stating the area code will soon change to 847 (or, as they put it, 'VIP' :). They have also become computerized, and so the messages are now thankfully much more clear.

Happy Dharma Dialing, May all beings be happy!

The Noble Eightfold Path

Following the analogy of the Four Noble Truths being like a good physician, the Noble Eightfold Path is what Buddha prescribed as medicine to end suffering in life. 

The Noble Eightfold Path:
1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration (Meditation)

In short, these mean 1) The understanding of the Four Noble Truths and the impermanence of all things 2) Wholesome thoughts that are not harmful to others or oneself 3) Proper and wholesome speech that does not allow slanderous, profane, or otherwise abusive language 4) Actions that benefit, not harm others (see the Five Moral Precepts for guidance) 5) Livelihood earned in an honest profession that does not bring suffering to others 6) To be helpful and beneficial in one's thoughts, actions, and words 7) Using mindfulness to remain fully aware of phenomena occurring in the mind and 8) To use meditation to cultivate concentration, help clear the mind of all corruption, suffering, and desire, and ultimately gain enlightenment. For a more detailed basic description, check out the Wikipedia page.

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May all beings be happy!

What's a sloth to do?

If I lived my life by the Seven Deadly Sins, I would say that I would be most guilty of Sloth (with Gluttony as a close second!). I love to sleep, and even though I am in my late 20's I still need (read: want) 8-10 hours a night. Plus, I am lazy and easily discouraged. I have made some progress over the past few years, but it has been a battle trying to take the initiative to go above and beyond the bare minimum. I would be fine with this situation, but I also have the disadvantage -and total contradiction- of being ambitious. (Did I mention I was a Gemini?) So it'll be interesting to see how this getting up early thing will work out!

Things I would like to do in my 'extra' time: 1) Practice yoga 2) Meditate 3) Write 4) Cook fresh food 5) Exercise and 6) Read.

My 2010 New Years Resolution

As we know many of us make looking good on the outside a priority come January 1st. However, over the past two years, I have tried something different. I have made resolutions based on improving myself as a person, from the inside out. Sure, it's natural to want to look good and feel healthy, but over the past few months I have been made restless by all the ideas going through my head. There are so many things I want to do, try, and master, but there never seems to be enough time. Some of these things are things I want to do every day, and I have found that these are what I feel are most important. Everyday I would like to 1) Practice yoga 2) Meditate 3) Write 4) Cook fresh food 5) Exercise and 6) Read. So how do I do all these things, without stretching myself too thin?

Three words: GET UP EARLIER!!!

As the Buddha said, "To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life; foolish people are idle, wise people are diligent." I also have been really encouraged by posts by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, who basically went from, well, not reaching his goals, to reaching and surpassing many of them. One of the main ways Leo did this was to get up (really) early, like at 4:30am. He used that time not only to run, but to work on his other goals as well. A key element of using this so called 'extra' time was to not use it to do 'work' per say, but to move towards personal goals. And I say that as small as 15 minutes (or 5 minutes!) a day may seem, it is still progress.

The Four Noble Truths: An analogy

I have heard the Four Noble Truths being compared to the virtues of a good physician. As a spiritual traveler, we can consider ourselves the patient. We know we would be disappointed if we were ill, and the doctor denied anything was wrong and prescribed nothing. Likewise, we would be upset if we went to the doctor and they told us that the situation was hopeless. The Four Noble Truths does several things, it recognizes 1) something is wrong, 2) makes a diagnosis, 3) makes a prognosis and 4) prescribes medicine to us, the 'patient'.

However, please keep in mind two distinct differences. Whereas the workings of viruses and bacteria are often beyond our direct control, we have the distinct ability as humans to direct our own spiritual development. You can make your ailments known to others, but the only one who can administer spiritual medicine is you. As the Buddha said, "Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others."

The second (and very important) difference is that although the word 'patient' is used, it does not imply that our minds are inherently 'sick' or 'muddied'. According to Buddhist thought, the mind is inherently pure; defilement is created by desire and by our previous karmic experiences. 

Was this post helpful to you? Please post any questions and insights in the comments.

May all beings be happy!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Four Noble Truths

The following are the Four Noble Truths, which the Buddha explained in his first teaching after his enlightenment. These are the fundamental tenets of Buddhism.

First Noble Truth: There is suffering
Second Noble Truth: Suffering is caused by desire
Third Noble Truth: Suffering can end completely
Fourth Noble Truth: The Noble Eightfold Path is the answer to suffering

What do they mean? In a simple sense, the meaning of the First Noble Truth is apparent. We see suffering everyday, in ourselves and others. The Second Noble Truth states that desire, selfish craving, and wishing things to be different from how they are is the cause of all suffering. The Third Noble Truth states that the constant state of suffering we experience can totally cease by way of observing the Fourth Noble Truth; following the Noble Eightfold Path

Possible misconceptions: I have heard the First Noble Truth stated as (to paraphrase) 'All the world and all of life is suffering'. This would lead the casual observer to think that Buddhism has a very pessimistic worldview.

Not necessarily. First of all, the word which is translated into the English word 'suffering' is 'dukkha', which has a complex definition and therefore many meanings. For simplicity, I always say that dukkha refers to the inherent 'unsatisfactoriness' of all things, and can represent suffering ranging from slight discomfort to extreme misery.

I hope this post has been helpful, kindly post your feedback in the comments.

May all beings be happy (and free from dukkha)!

Buddhist Impressions: My Own

So when I was 13 I was lucky enough to live in Malaysia for a year. Every day was interesting; the food, the landscape, the lovely people- It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

Many of the little experiences that made up my year in Malaysia were about religion and culture. I learned about Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. I learned about the holy month of Ramadan (and that the people didn't actually NOT EAT for a month *chuckles at own ignorance*), Deepavali (the Hindu festival of lights), Chinese New Year, and the Chinese moon cake festival. I also learned that Muslims don't (i.e. are prohibited) eat pork, Hindus don't eat beef, and that some Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarians. I learned other stuff, too, but you also have to keep in mind that, well, I was 13. Many of the conclusions I came to were nebulous at best, but they were good enough for me at the time. But what I learned kicked off a curiosity that could not be shaken.

One of the things I was curious about was our next door neighbors. They were Chinese Malaysians, and every morning an elderly lady would come outside with three incense sticks, and bow many times (in sets of three), towards the east. I didn't mean to stare, but this mystified me. (Now that I know a little more than back then, I can't help but wonder if she had been bowing to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.) I also remember all the earthy-smelling stores in Melaka that sold religious supplies- Buddha statues, joss sticks, altars, shrines. I don't know why, but I ended up buying a small Buddha statue and a huge bundle of joss sticks for 10RM (about $3). I guess that was an investment!

Finally, I had learned about Buddhism in 9th grade, and I vaguely remember having to memorize the 5 precepts. Interesting, I thought. But it would be a long time for me before Buddhism was no longer shrouded in mystery. I would probably attribute this fact to popular culture, lack of information resources (remember, I'm a child of the 80's, I didn't grow up with the internet) and by own lack of spiritual direction. But there you go, that's my story of personal impressions!

My Story

Before discussing the pieces of information I have collected about Buddhism, I thought it would be beneficial to relate how I came across this way of life.

To make a long story short, I was having a really rough time of it, and so I did what I always do- look for some cool books! I found the book 'Open Heart, Clear Mind', by Thubten Chodron, and read it cover to cover in one day. I couldn't believe what I had come across; an exact description of what I had believed all my life! But what I didn't know was that this was called Buddhism. From that day forward, I wanted to find out more.

And I was just amazed at how each book dovetailed with the next- there were few contradictions. Also the tone of almost every book was nonjudgmental - there was no 'you should' or 'you must', no threats, no guilt. Just beneficial and not beneficial. The Five Precepts. The Noble Eightfold Path. Compassion and Wisdom. Mindfulness and Impermanence. The root evils of Greed, Anger and Delusion.

The reason I found these revelations so refreshing was because of my previous discomfort with certain aspects of other religions. All of them have a good message, good moral basis, and help instruct people to lead a wholesome life. But it would really make me squirm to listen to how those outside any creed were pitied, admonished, even condemned. This feeling was present whether sitting in a house of worship or listening to others' offhand comments.

I grew up in a happy, open-minded, and relatively nonreligious home. I also have had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, who seemed to be getting along just fine in doing their own thing. So why separate ourselves? Why judge? Why not just lead a moral life, help others, and mind our own business?

So then, why not Buddhism?

Here is a link to "the book that started it all" on Amazon:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Purpose of By Chance Buddhism

Since there are all these amazing blogs out there for people interested in Buddhism and Buddhist principles, why add another? All I can say is my sense of purpose is based on a gut feeling about a definite gap between what Buddhism is and what it is perceived to be by those who have never been truly exposed to it.

So why do I feel compelled to fill that gap?

I felt that Buddhism has made such a positive impact on my life, I really want to share basic principles with others who are interested, but who also have had little or no prior exposure to Buddhist Philosophy. I in NO WAY claim to be an expert on the topic, and so please note that my posts relate directly to my personal experiences, and also what others have shared with me. However, I think that my discovery (and previous obliviousness) of Buddhism were fairly typical for a Western practitioner, and therefore feel that facilitating discussion of Buddhism from this perspective might be beneficial.

For some direction on where to begin, or to find posts that might interest you, please see the labels listed on the right. Thank you for visiting!

May all beings be happy!